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Briefings: One Stop Closer to Lesser’s Rail Agenda…

Lesser's rail plans pulling out of the station? (WMassP&I)

Lesser’s rail plans pulling out of the station? (WMassP&I)

The Massachusetts Senate unanimously adopted an amendment offered by Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser Thursday that would order the Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to study regular rail service between Boston and Springfield. While the Senate’s approval was unsurprising, it inches the commonwealth toward better connecting its capital and western regions.

Senators had added substantively similar language to their budget last year, but the House did not and the study was dropped when representatives and senators hammered out their differences in the budget conference committee. This year, the House approved its own plans to research the topic in the form of a study group of stakeholders.

The House’s inclusion of its own study language does not assure Beacon Hill will adopt the legislation. It could be shorn from the budget during the two chambers negotiations. However, both houses support for Lesser’s proposal ups its chances. It likely also fortifies it against a potential gubernatorial veto—although Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed openness to the study.

Moreover, the standalone version of Lesser’s bill is cosponsored by Republican Senators Ryan Fattman and Donald Humason. That bill received a favorable report from the legislature’s transportation panel.

Whether MassDOT or local stakeholders review the feasibility, the biggest obstacles to implementing service is how and how much it would cost. While touted as high-speed rail, such things are relative in the United States which has only one such train, Acela, that barely meets international “high-speed” standards and at that for only a portion of 457 mile route.

Yet, the short to medium-term goal is not to introduce Shinkansen (bullet trains) or French TGV’s between the City of Homes and Beantown. Rather, it is establishing services competitive with driving. That would better bind the commonwealth and facilitate more viable commuting and commerce between regions.

Indeed, the study “will also examine the resulting economic, social and cultural benefits to the Greater Springfield region and to the Commonwealth as a whole,” Lesser said in prepared remarks Thursday.

Currently, Amtrak’s only Boston-Springfield service, the Lake Shore Limited, takes more than two hours to lumber between the two cities. Because the service is actually part of a route to Chicago, trains from Springfield to Boston are bedeviled further by delays hundreds of miles away.

Still more work to do to build those connections. (cereated via wikipedia & Lesser campaign images)

Still more work to do to build those connections. (cereated via wikipedia & Lesser campaign images)

To provide better service, any study must mull the financing necessary to keep fares reasonable and allow trains to operate at faster speeds. Investments would necessarily include restoration of double-tracking between Springfield and Worcester and upgrading track along the whole route.

How to accommodate CSX, the freight railroad that owns the tracks west of Worcester—and is unlikely to give them up as they did between Framingham and Worcester—will also be a consideration.

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