Restoring passenger train service from Grand Central Terminal to the Berkshires would offer northwestern Connecticut a potential economic bonanza, according to the railroad company that's trying to build support for the idea.
Skeptics dismiss the proposal as overly expensive, unfeasible and an indulgence in nostalgia, but it has gained traction in the past couple years.
Last month, the proposal made a huge leap forward when Massachusetts committed $35 million to modernizing tracks in that state. And this winter, the supporters will step up their lobbying of Connecticut legislators for money to improve more than 50 miles of track along the western edge of the state, from Danbury to Pittsfield, Mass.
Their chief pitch is that the so-called Berkshire Line could become a success similar to the new Amtrak Downeaster that runs between Boston and Brunswick, Maine.
"Running a train from Point A to Point B doesn't necessarily mean you'll get any economic growth from your investment unless you have the critical ingredient — a way to attract people from one area with money to come to another area to spend it. We have that," said Colin Pease, vice president of special projects for the Housatonic Railroad Co.
The Berkshires have long been a weekend getaway destination for affluent New Yorkers. That section of Massachusetts — along with northwestern Connecticut towns such as Cornwall and Salisbury — also provides a large base of second homes for New York-based executives and artists.
Pease contends that Connecticut and Massachusetts could build that market by extending passenger train service from Danbury to Pittsfield, a route now used only by Housatonic's slow-moving freight trains. From Danbury, passengers would link to the Metro-North lines in Southeast, N.Y. (Brewster), or Norwalk.
"This is the most important economic tool available for revitalizing the Northwest Corner and the Berkshires," Pease said.
The Train Campaign, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group promoting the project, has stressed that the populations of towns in the Berkshires are shrinking while the average age is climbing. It argues that attracting New Yorkers in their 20s, 30s and 40s will bring in new money and, in the long run, some new homebuyers.
"You begin to change the demographics of the region by bringing in a younger audience who ultimately may want to invest and live in the region," Pease said.
The theory is that towns along the route would use tax incentives, zoning and other measures to encourage commercial development around the stations, ranging from restaurants and bed and breakfasts for visitors to apartments or condos for residents who'd use the train to commute to Fairfield County.
The Train Campaign identifies several potential markets for Berkshire service, ranging from commuters to vacationing New Yorkers to students in private schools who head to and from Manhattan on weekends.
The Housatonic Railroad Co. has said market studies determined that the trains would be a big draw with the right amenities to maximize ridership: Wi-Fi, storage room for bikes and skis, comfortable seating, immaculate bathrooms and possibly onboard food service.
Restoring The Rails
Running passenger service on the route isn't as simple as buying coaches and printing schedules. The last passenger trains ran on the 88 miles of track between Pittsfield and Danbury in the early 1970s, and freight trains are now limited to 25 mph on most of the route because the rails are nearly a century old.
Tens of thousands of ties would need to be replaced, and sections of track bed would have to be improved.
The Housatonic leases about 50 miles of the tracks in Connecticut from the state Department of Transportation and serves a variety of industrial clients in both states. Rebuilding to federal standards for 59 mph passenger trains would cost up to $200 million for modern welded track, new ties, fresh ballast, drainage work, new sidings and signals, the railroad estimates.
That also might be enough to upgrade the Housatonic's much shorter east-west freight line between Danbury and Southeast, N.Y., hooking up with Metro-North. The Housatonic's second choice is to transfer New York-bound passengers to Metro-North at the Danbury station, where they would head south to Norwalk and connect to the New Haven line.
But the railroad says it could shave 15 to 20 minutes off the trip time by sending passengers west to the Southeast station on Metro-North's Harlem line.
The railroad envisions stations in Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington and Stockbridge in Massachusetts, one at the Canaan (Conn.)/Sheffield (Mass.) line, and Connecticut stations in Cornwall Bridge, Kent, New Milford and near the Brookfield/Danbury line.
Connecticut's DOT is already investing heavily in Metro-North's New Haven line and in the proposed New Haven-to-Springfield commuter line, and doesn't list the Berkshire line on its short-term list of projects.
"Passenger rail service north of Danbury would be great, but it is not currently a high priority and there is no funding in place to bring the Housatonic line up to the standards that would be required for passenger service," a DOT spokesman said.
But he acknowledged that the state's TransformCT process could change the list of priorities quickly, adding, "We are always looking for new ways to promote and develop mass transit."
State Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Wethersfield, who co-chairs the powerful Transportation Committee, is more enthusiastic about the Housatonic initiative.
"It would be a good idea. We all know nothing is free — that's part of transportation," Guerrera said. "This is something we should look into with all seriousness."
The Housatonic is pitching the idea of a public-private partnership to come up with some of the necessary construction money, and says that with the right financing mechanisms in place the service could operate without ongoing government subsidies. The General Assembly has a long list of overdue transit initiatives and transportation maintenance jobs already, though, and many legislators are likely to insist on specifics — and possibly guarantees — before taking on anything new.
A group of northwestern Connecticut residents has already begun working to win over opponents. They're hosting a presentation by the Train Campaign on Aug. 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Wandering Moose Café in West Cornwall, where Nat Kams of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission will talk about Massachusetts' recent investment.
Pease said a critical factor should be the chance for economic growth.
"Along the Downeaster route there's been new investment: The mill conversion in Saco, the housing and hotel construction in Old Orchard Beach, the station conversion in Brunswick," he said.
"We know there are a million visits a year from New York City to the Berkshires, and 99 percent are by car," Pease said. "The average age of those visitors is in the mid-50s. Our demographics are closer to the 30s. I was brought up in the car generation, but my children are in their 30s — that generation has a totally different focus on transit."