For over half a century residents of Northwest Connecticut and the Berkshires have yearned for the return of passenger service from New York City to Pittsfield. It was a convenience the area enjoyed for more than 130 years until 1971 when passenger service was discontinued on the Berkshire Line.
Now seasonal passenger service is coming back, albeit not along the route that tristate residents envisioned.
Amtrak, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) has announced a pilot seasonal passenger rail service that will operate this year and next. Known as the Berkshire Flyer, the service starts July 8th and will operate on weekends through the summer months with a similar schedule next year.
The Berkshire Flyer will include a Friday afternoon departure at 3:16 PM from New York City’s Penn Station and will proceed to Pittsfield MA via Albany NY. It will arrive at Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center, 1 Columbus Ave in Pittsfield at 7:12PM.
The train will make the same station stops along the way as the typical Amtrak Empire Service train does on Fridays, which include Yonkers NY, Croton-Harmon NY, Poughkeepsie NY, Rhinecliff NY, Hudson NY, and Albany-Rensselaer Station.
The Sunday return trip, making all the same station stops, departs Pittsfield at 3 PM and arrives in New York at 7:05 PM.
Efforts to evaluate passenger rail service between the Berkshires and New York have been ongoing since 2018, during which time pilot service has operated and conversations about the service have involved Berkshire County groups, municipal officials and elected leaders. The Berkshire Flyer’s success will be further evaluated over the next two seasons to further understand its feasibility and demand before continuing the service, deciding on its schedule if it is to continue and identifying specific infrastructure improvements or service changes that may be necessary.
Passengers on the Berkshire Flyer will enjoy the same amenities available on other Amtrack trains, including free wi-fi, use of phones and electronic devices, the ability to bring small pets, spacious seats and generous baggage allowances.
An agreement with CSX to utilize its tracks allowed Amtrak, MassDOT and NYSDOT to prepare for the start-up this year. “We are pleased to work together with our partner agencies to run passenger train service between Pittsfield and New York City on weekends during the busiest tourist times this summer,” said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
“Western Massachusetts and the Berkshire Region offer a whole host of cultural and recreational opportunities during the summer and we hope this pilot service will encourage even more visitors to this part of our state.”
Those who have navigated by car through the busy tourist villages and destinations in the Berkshires will well understand the attraction of a three-hour trip via train, an environmentally friendly alternative option for reaching one’s main destination.
It is a goal that Massachusetts committed to in 2014 after a 2010 survey showed that about one in four of residents who currently travel between New York and the Berkshires was highly interested in the proposed train line with the strongest demand focused on the summer.
Interest first focused on the Housatonic/Berkshire line which runs from Danbury to Pittsfield. In 2014, Massachusetts passed a transportation bond bill that included funds for the Berkshire Line. It purchased 37 miles of track in the state from Housatonic Rail Road Company for $13 million and the legislature allotted $35 million to replace 30 miles of rail and replace old ties on all 37 miles.
Work has been progressing on the tracks for several years, preparing them for the higher-speed trains required for passenger service. The route is currently used by the Housatonic Rail Road to haul freight. This winter Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation reported that final repairs were being made on five new bridge decks and that approximately 80 percent of Phase I of the continuous welded rail had been laid. The remaining 20 percent was to be completed by late spring. Preparations are underway for Phase II and III.
The stumbling block in bring rail service to Pittsfield through western Connecticut and the Berkshires is Connecticut. Hartford has shown little interest in spending millions of dollars in the region, focusing its infrastructure funds on the more heavily used corridor between New Haven and Springfield MA.
Still proponents have not given up the idea arguing that the Berkshire Housatonic Line would be a link in a much more extensive passenger rail network that would revitalize the region and meet the needs of a greener, more connected transportation service. They envision not just seasonal tourist trains but daily round trips, originating and terminating in Grand Central, that would transport travelers to Pittsfield in just under four hours.
Visionaries, they see such things as dual-mode battery electric options, high acceleration rail cars instead of locomotive-hauled trains and reuse of historic stations such as Canaan’s Union Depot, in itself a tourist attraction. They argue the restoration of passenger service would revitalize the economy of the region.
Tickets are available for purchase on Amtrak.com, the Amtrak app, Amtrak ticket desks, kiosks and through 1-800-USA-RAIL.