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The Trans-Commonwealth RR: “West-East” Rail Has a Director to Call Its Own…

The Trans-Commonwealth Railroad is a series on the challenges and efforts to connect the length of Massachusetts by rail.

Maura Healey

Turns out you could get from there in 2022 to here. (WMP&I)

Weeks after the Massachusetts Department of Transportation confirmed planning for a Palmer train station had begun, the department took another step to advance rail service west. On Thursday, MassDOT and Governor Maura Healey formally named Andy Koziol “West-East Rail Director.” His position falls within MassDOT’s Rail and Transit Division.

The appointment of staff with a specific mandate for East-West rail had been a campaign promise of Healey’s. She and the legislature got funding for the office in last year’s budget. Since then, the federal government approved a $108 million grant for rudimentary infrastructure work that will enable Amtrak to run additional trains. All good signs, but now it will fall to Koziol to implement everything.

“We have never been closer to making West-East Rail a reality, and I am pleased to see Andy take on this important role to continue building on our progress,” Healey said in a press release announcing the appointment.

“This rail connection will expand access to job and housing, spur economic development in our communities, and strengthen our state’s competitiveness,” the governor continued.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll and Transportation Secertary Monica Tibbits-Nutt hailed the progress on the project and Koziol’s qualifications.

“Andy’s competence, experience and passion for transportation are exactly what we need in this crucial moment for our state’s infrastructure,” Tibbits-Nutt said. Noting Koziol’s work so far for MassDOT thus far, she looked ahead to what he will bring as West-East Rail Director.

Andy Koziol

Andy Koziol: Now Western Mass’s most famous state bureaucrat? (via LinkedIn)

Koziol only began with MassDOT last June, working on rail and transit project generally. However, he had spent a dozen years with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. According to his LinkedIn page, he held roles in planning and policy. Much of his focus was transit, with a few years on highways. Before working for the Ocean State, he was with the Cape Cod Commission.

In her statement, Driscoll thanked the legislature and the Biden-Harris administration for their support of the project. The $108 million was a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements or CRISI grant, which the Federal Railroad Administration issues. That money, announced last September, will pay for work that will improve capacity along the line, especially west of Worcester. The commonwealth owns the line between Boston and the Woo. West of there, CSX owns the tracks. Amtrak withdrew opposition to an acquisition CSX sought in exchange for its cooperation on, among other things, rail service along the Boston & Albany route.

Though a modest step by itself technically, the appointment of a West-East Rail Director signals something bigger. Advocates underscore that it makes the commitment more tangible than ever.

“This announcement is a significant milestone,” Ben Heckscher, a co-founder of rail advocacy group Trains in the Valley, said. In a statement attached to MassDOT’s release, he continued, “The appointment of a dedicated director for MassDOT’s Compass Rail is a pivotal step forward in our journey towards realizing West-East Rail.”

Compass Rail is MassDOT’s umbrella project for rail service radiating out from Springfield.

Kimberly Robinson, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission said the move was long-awaited. Transportation infrastructure, like East-West rail, underpins effective planning, she added.

“Across our work in this region, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has a high-level view of good policy at the intersection of community needs, and the impacts that transformative investments like this can have,” she said, according to MassDOT’s release. “We appreciate the efforts taken by the Healey-Driscoll Administration and I’m grateful for their continued commitment to western Massachusetts.”

Lake Shore Limited South Station

East-West or West-East or whatever rail is rolling. But a long way until trains pull out of South Station. (WMP&I)

Koziol’s responsibilities will interface closely with Compass Rail, which now includes East-West rail. Western Mass rail service today largely has a north-south axis. Trains run south from Springfield to New Haven and beyond. Some go north to Greenfield and even Vermont. Only one train crosses east to west: Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Lake Shore Limited. Compass Rail envisions trains from Boston either terminating in Springfield or turn north, south or west for further destinations.

The $108 million CRISI grant is only one part of East-West rail right now. Separate from that funding, the project includes the Palmer station planning, track capacity work in Pittsfield, and continued station and track improvements at Springfield Union Station. The state capital fund is financing the first two and the last has separate federal funding.

Congressman Richard Neal praised the Healey’s administration work pursuing federal funding with his office and now naming Koziol.

This announcement is a testament to that commitment, and I applaud Governor Healey for taking decisive action that brings us one step closer to making West-East Rail a reality,” Neal said in a statement his office released. “With the $108 million CRISI grant that I announced with Governor Healey at Springfield Union Station in September, the Commonwealth is well positioned to capitalize on an opportunity that will not avail itself again.”

Neal said he looked forward to working with Koziol.

There will be plenty to do. In addition to coordinating what officials have already announced, making East-West rail viable, sustainable and integrated into the large New England passenger rail network will remain a daunting task.

The $108 million CRISI grant is technically for the so-called Inland Route. It is an alternative link between Boston, New Haven and points south via Amtrak’s Springfield Line. Once a more common linkage to points south including New York, CSX and its predecessors let the route deteriorate. The old Boston & Albany Railroad’s second track was pulled up in many locations (as was the Springfield Line).

New York State Capitol

Next stop, er, next step Albany? (via wikipedia)

Continuing service onward to Albany—which will be a more practical terminal than Pittsfield—is on the agenda, too. The FRA has added the Boston & Albany route to its Corridor ID program. This will entitle it to more federal funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, among other funding sources. Amtrak’s favorite passenger, Joe Biden, signed the IIJA in 2021

A decade has passed for the proposal to reach this point, dating back to now-former State Senator Eric Lesser first campaign. East-West rail was the central plank of his platform. Neal, a longtime advocate of rail service in the Valley himself, was also on board. Lesser squeezed a study out of then-Governor Charlie Baker, but his administration reamined a major impediment.

Until it wasn’t.

Koziol will report to Rail and Transit Administrator Meredith Slesinger. It was at a fairly low-key meeting in late 2021 that Slesinger, a former strategic planner at Amtrak, suggested winds had shifted on East-West rail. By the following April, Baker was a convert. In its last days, his administration forwarded the CRISI application to the feds.

Several unanswered questions still lie ahead, including how quickly the litany of studies and design work will take. Ironically, as the planet warms, the pace of transportation projects that would reduce carbon emissions has only become more glacial. This is to say nothing of other work east of Worcester that will need attention, too. As much work as it took to get here, the hardest may be yet to come.

That does not seem lost on Koziol himself.

“The importance of West-East Rail cannot be understated,” Koziol said in MassDOT’s release.  “I look forward to continuing to work with my dedicated colleagues at MassDOT, and other champions of the overall Compass Rail program, to deliver for the people of Massachusetts the connectivity they deserve.”