$108M will boost east-west rail route

A northbound Amtrak train crosses North Hillside Road in Deerfield in July 2022.

A northbound Amtrak train crosses North Hillside Road in Deerfield in July 2022. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 09-25-2023 3:55 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Massachusetts will receive $108 million in federal funds to support improvements to east-west passenger train travel between Springfield, Worcester and Boston, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and Gov. Maura Healey announced last Friday.

The money comes from a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

According to the governor’s office, the funding will provide for two additional daily trips on Amtrak’s Inland Route, which stretches from Boston to New Haven, Connecticut, with stops in Worcester, Palmer and the Connecticut capital of Hartford. The grant also provides funding for improvements in infrastructure and operational efficiency, with the hope of reducing travel times.

“From day one, we said our administration was going to compete for an unprecedented level of federal funding opportunities, and I’m proud to say we are delivering on that promise,” Healey in a statement. “We thank the Biden-Harris administration for their continued historic investments in infrastructure and are grateful for the strong partnership of our federal delegation in promoting public transit.”

The state first applied for the grant under the Baker administration in 2022. The total amount of money available through the grant program was $1.4 billion, with up to $150 million for projects that “support the development of new intercity passenger rail service routes,” according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

According to the governor’s office, $108 million represents 80% of the total cost of the project, with $18 million coming from the state Department of Transportation and $9 million being contributed by Amtrak.

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More than 65% of the project’s funds will go toward construction of a new rail track between Springfield and Worcester, which will enable additional daily trips, according to the application submitted by MassDOT for the grant.

Currently, approximately 10 freight trains and two daily Lake Shore Limited Amtrak trains (one in each direction) share a single track on 44 of the 54 miles of rail line between Worcester and Springfield. The project will add a second passing track on about 23 miles of the route, allowing more trains to use the corridor.

The project will also upgrade tracks and signals to allow passenger trains to run at speeds up to 80 mph.

“The improvements along this segment are foundational for the additional growth in passenger and freight rail within the New England region over the longer term,” MassDOT’s application states.

The application also states the project will help meet the state’s climate and sustainability goals by giving passengers a more fuel-efficient mode of travel and more services for an inland route that would not be subject to coastal erosion, unlike Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route (NEC) connecting Boston to New Haven along the shoreline of southern New England.

“If the NEC Shore Line route was shut down without the Inland Route having the capacity to absorb traffic, the NEC spine would be severed, and the rail connection between Boston and New York would be lost,” the application states.

The project is expected to take five years to complete, with preliminary designs due by the end of 2024 and most of the construction to take place in 2028, according to the application.

On Friday, Neal said in a statement that better connectivity between Springfield and Worcester would allow for greater economic and job opportunities for residents in the region.

“The facts are simple: Improving and expanding passenger rail service will have a tremendous impact on regional economies throughout Massachusetts,” Neal said. “That is why we will continue to invest in a project whose framework has the potential to serve as a model for expanding passenger rail service across the country.”

The application went further into the economic benefits of the program, noting high poverty rates in both Springfield and Hartford and the potential for cities along the route to become further connected.

“The corridor is an essential part of the larger New England regional rail system that will tie together the region’s educational and medical institutions and link them to the larger Boston and New York economies,” the application states. “This will allow the corridor cities of Framingham, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford and New Haven to compete as parts of a larger region.”

The announcement also comes as the state is looking to fund a new train station in Palmer and make track improvements in Pittsfield. Healey had originally included $12 million in the state’s fiscal budget for the two projects, but the money was not included in the Legislature’s final budget. However, MassDOT ended up adding the funding to its own capital plan.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.