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MassDOT Grants Palmer Its Wish; Planning for New Rail Station Has Begun…

Palmer Train

Soon! Maybe? (created via Google maps and clipart)

A little over two years after the tide began turning in favor of East-West rail, Palmer is on track for progress of its own. On Wednesday, Meredith Slesinger, the rail and transit administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, announced the agency was moving forward on a rail station in Palmer. A consultant began work in December on outreach and design.

Officials and advocates welcomed the development, which has become a significant subplot amid broader East-West rail effort. Governor Maura Healey had included funding in her budget for the Palmer planning. Although Healey’s initial inclusion of funds was a surprise, advocates worried when the legislature removed the money. The governor, however, quickly turned to another pot of money, the capital plan, which appears to be funding the consultant’s work.

“This contract will include public outreach, site selection, identification of station amenities and access, conceptual design, and environmental scoping,” Slesinger told MassDOT’s board of directors. It should take about a year and a half, she explained.

Slesinger’s presentation was a sliver of the longer board meeting. However, the confirmation that a stop in Palmer was leaving (entering?) the station rippled quickly across the commonwealth. On Wednesday evening, Ludlow Senator Jake Oliveira, who represents Palmer, sent out a press release feting the news. He thanked the Healey administration for its commitment to the community and East-West rail.

“The promise of this railway network is immense, with the potential to catalyze economic growth, promote regional development, and bolster social cohesion,” he said. “I’m thrilled to see MassDOT take the next step in this generational project, and I’m glad they realized what we’ve known for some time. Palmer is the ideal location as a gateway to Western Mass.”

Citizens for a Palmer Rail Stop (CPRS) shared the updates with members, including developments on East-West rail, with members Thursday.

“All of this is great news, especially the upcoming Palmer station planning and conceptual design work,” Ben Hood wrote to CPRS members. However, he also looked ahead to the next steps.

“All of us, advocates and town officials and business people and citizens, will need to engage with MassDOT’s consultants to ensure that site selection and station planning achieves our goals of maximizing transit-oriented development in Depot Village,” he continued.

Despite early opposition during the last administration and a process more glacial than an MBTA slow zone, East-West rail has made progress. MassDOT now calls it “Compass Rail,” a reference to the many directions trains can travel from Springfield Union Station. The agency has secured smaller design grants for track work in Springfield. The big kahuna was a $108 million federal grant for work that would allow service between Boston and Springfield.

Although her comments were brief and speed can be relative with infrastructure projects, Slesinger assured things were moving. Both Amtrak and CSX, the owner of the track west of Worcester, have been coordinating next steps for work between Boston and Springfield. After Charlie Baker’s epiphany, CSX’s helpfulness has been among the most welcome developments after years of playing the villain.

“The relationship has come a long way over the past few years,” Slesinger said.

Amtrak Palmer

“Come back!” “Now they’re planning to!” (via wikipedia)

In theory, Palmer is not the only community eyeing a station between Worcester and Albany, Compass Rail’s notional western terminus. Both Chester and Westfield have ruminated about additional stations.

However, neither’s plans have evolved or had as vocal support as Palmer has had. Moreover, more service west of Springfield into New York is further in the future than service to Boston. Palmer sits right along the route. Trains to Vermont once paused in Paul. However, Amtrak did not serve passengers there and ultimately redirected northerly service to the Connecticut River line. The former station, now a restaurant, straddles the old Boston & Albany. Tracks to the north and south cross at a multipoint juncture.

No more than a handful of trains will run between Boston and Springfield for some time. Therefore, the depth of service that Palmer will one day enjoy is pure speculation. Advocates favor a spot in the center of town (Depot Square) and hope to see it spur transit-oriented development.

However, one challenge the consultant will have to resolve is how ambitious the station will be. Palmer sits on a junction with a rail line that used to carry the Vermonter through Amherst to the north. To the south is track that goes through Eastern Connecticut near the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs.

One major question will be how much to future-proof the station should such service one day be on the menu.