BOSTON (SHNS) – Federal and state officials agreed Tuesday that Springfield can play an important role in the revitalization of passenger rail service in America, and Gov. Charlie Baker pledged to use his remaining time in office to put the long-discussed East-West Rail expansion project in position to benefit from the new federal infrastructure law.
“When I was growing up in Springfield, Springfield was often described as the east-west, north-south corridor of America. And based upon the tutorial that we received today from the CEO of Amtrak, Steve Gardner, I can tell you that we’re well on our way to making this a national intersection again,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said Tuesday at Springfield’s Union Station.
Baker, Neal, Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner and MassDOT officials got to Union Station in Springfield by train Tuesday afternoon. They rode a “theater car” on the 449 Lake Shore Limited — the only regular direct rail link between the state’s largest and third-largest cities — to get a better look at some of the issues at play in discussions around expanding regular passenger train service from Boston to Springfield and Pittsfield.
The train departed Boston’s South Station at 12:50 p.m., and made stops at Back Bay, Framingham and Worcester before pulling into Springfield’s Union Station at 3:27 p.m. — six minutes late, according to Amtrak. While Baker, Neal and the others held a press conference, the train they rode in on was on its way west to Pittsfield and then Albany, New York. In its second capital city of the day, the Amtrak train will join with another that originated in New York City and make its way by about 10 a.m. Wednesday to Chicago.
Between Boston and Springfield on Tuesday, Baker said the group discussed “what it would take to do the work that would be required to get it to the point where it can really deliver the two-hour ride that we’ve talked about for the past several years.”
But Baker will not be in office when much of that work takes place, and he said Tuesday that he looks forward to “going real hard on this over the course of the next few months” to ensure that the project is in line to tap into resources that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak have available through the new federal infrastructure law. The state can compete for federal grant funding under that law as well, which Baker said will be another focus.
“While my time here is short, I can promise you that over the course of the next few months, we will continue to build on the work that’s been done over the past several years to position this as one of the major opportunities that we will have here in the commonwealth and throughout the Northeast to do something very special with Amtrak to take full advantage of the bipartisan infrastructure law and the resources that it makes available,” Baker said.
He added, “What I would really like to do with our team is make sure that by the time we get to the end of this year, we have teed up and either written and submitted a number of the applications that would be most pertinent to a lot of the track work and some of the other work that needs to be done between here and Boston. And in addition to that, tee up whatever … other sorts of things we should be putting into the pipeline to ensure that we get what I would describe as Massachusetts’ sfair share with respect to the resources that are available.”
And because of the work that state officials, the Congressional delegation and others have done in recent years, Baker said he thinks funding applications and requests from Massachusetts will be “a lot more complete and with a lot more detail, and a much deeper and better understanding of what Amtrak wants to accomplish, what FRA wants to accomplish and what we want to accomplish” than other states seeking the same money.
“So our goal is going to be to make sure that this momentum, which we’ve all worked hard on, just continues to run straight through the end of the calendar year and into whoever the next administration is, and I think we have the information and a lot of the detail we need to do that,” he said.
Gardner, the CEO of Amtrak, appeared enthusiastic about the East-West Rail project Tuesday and Baker praised him for coming into the talks with “an enormous amount of what I would describe as high-level information and painstaking detail.” Gardner said America needs “to rediscover the power of passenger rail to make our nation mobile and sustainable for the future,” and said Springfield could be a significant part of that.
“Little-known fact: United States has the largest rail network of any nation in the world at 50,000 more route miles than China, the second-largest network in the world. We don’t use much of it for moving people, we use it mostly for moving goods, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, Amtrak’s network today is smaller than it was in 1971 when we were formed, but we’ve added 130 million people to this nation,” he said. “We need to start moving more of those folks by trains. We need to do it in places like Springfield.”
Baker and Neal were together in Springfield in April to announce a breakthrough on efforts to offer passenger train service linking Springfield and Pittsfield with the eastern part of the state. At the time, Neal said the agreement would hinge on the Legislature using an infrastructure bond bill to create a new rail authority.
Lawmakers didn’t jump at the idea, and the $11.3 billion bill (H 5151) that Baker recently signed instead creates a commission to study and take public comments on “public entities now in existence or that may be created by statute with the ability to design, permit, construct, operate and maintain” passenger rail expansion to Springfield and beyond. It also included $275 million that will go toward development of East-West Rail.
Neal said Tuesday that his conversations with House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka “went fine” and that “they believe that there are things that can be accomplished before [the rail authority] has to go into effect.”
Baker said he thinks that “what the Legislature agreed to do works.”
Baker’s office did not disclose how the governor was getting back to Boston or his home in Swampscott on Tuesday. There was one eastbound train between Springfield and Boston scheduled Tuesday, a 6:04 p.m. departure that had been delayed Tuesday to 6:50 p.m. It would arrive back at South Station at 8:53 p.m., Amtrak said.
The train trip to Springfield was Baker’s second time riding the rails in as many days. On Monday afternoon, Baker tweeted that he had taken a commuter rail train on the Haverhill Line as the T faced its first workday commute with the entire Orange Line and a portion of the Green Line shut down for major maintenance work.
“Glad to report it was an on-time commute,” the governor said.
Baker has made the MBTA a focus of his two terms in office, but has seldom used the public transportation system himself. In 2018, he said he views it as his job to make sure T riders “can have a reliable and predictable trip,” but said using the T didn’t work for him or his schedule because, “the governor is not a point-to-point person.”