Evan Gottesman and his fiancée, Gabrielle Kleyner, had a meeting with friends in the Berkshires for a weekend in early July. The couple, who live in Brooklyn, were trying to figure out how to get to the rural region of western Massachusetts, which annually attracts thousands of hikers, theater buffs, and music buffs with its mountains, lakes, and countless cultural centers.
A friend told them about the Berkshire Flyer, a new Amtrak train between New York City and Pittsfield. The pair quickly booked tickets and hopped on the sold-out 3:15 p.m. train from Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan on July 8.
Without realizing it, they’d stepped on the Flyer’s maiden voyage, a milestone at least four years in the making and the result of countless emails, meetings, and phone calls between Amtrak and state legislators and transportation officials eager to more direct lines between New York and Massachusetts.
When Mr. Gottesman and Mrs. Kleyner arrived in Pittsfield that evening, they saw dozens of people on the platform, cheering wildly and taking photos. State and city officials held a triumphant press conference. Someone popped a bottle of champagne.
“It was the nicest welcome I had ever received when I got off an Amtrak train,” said Mr. Gottesman, 27.
For the first time in 50 years, a New York passenger train had arrived in Pittsfield, a city of more than 40,000 that is often overlooked by tourists heading to better-known parts of the county, such as Tanglewood at Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
More than 60 people arrived that evening on the Berkshire Flyer, which runs just once on Friday and returns Sunday afternoon. Passenger numbers were modest, but it still encouraged business owners and state officials to closely monitor the pilot program, which will run through Labor Day.
Also encouraging: the number of sold-out trains. After the inaugural trip, trains to Pittsfield continued to fill up regularly, and while seats are still available north in August, trains back to New York are completely sold out over the Labor Day weekend, Amtrak said.
“It’s in the early stages,” said Lindsey Tuller, 42, co-owner of the Berkshire General Store in Pittsfield, about two blocks from the train station. “But I think it could be a big problem.”
It “starts with local interest”
The Flyer is one of several new services and restored rail lines that Amtrak has announced in recent months.
On July 29, the Ethan Allen Express, a railroad from New York to Rutland, Vt., extends 66 miles northwest to the city of Burlington as part of another new program.
In Virginia, Amtrak has added more daily rides from Roanoke and Norfolk to Washington.
International routes shut down due to the pandemic are buzzing again, including the Maple Leaf train between New York and Toronto and the Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver, which will resume in September.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, a $10 million bus depot opened in June to take passengers about 84 miles north to an Amtrak station in Wilson.
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The project, which has been planned by Jacksonville officials since 2010, was funded by the Federal Transit Administration, said Anthony Prinz, the city’s director of transportation services.
Similar projects would be funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed last year, especially in states and communities that have already begun planning, said Roger Harris, the president of Amtrak.
“It really starts with local interest,” said Mr Harris. “That’s why it’s important for local communities to play their game and say, ‘Yes, please, we want to get in on this.'”
Amtrak made an extensive map that outlines a vision for how it could bring dozens of additional routes to more than 160 cities and towns across the country.
The new law, which sets aside $66 billion for rail, comes at a moment when travelers are looking for ways to save on fuel costs and more sustainable travel across the country.
The funding also comes as Amtrak continues to recover from a decline in passenger numbers caused by the pandemic. The rail service recorded nearly 16 million rides between October 2021 and June 2022, compared to about 24 million over the same period in 2019, according to Amtrak.
Nearly 20 percent, or $12 billion, of total rail funding is earmarked for services outside the Northeast, giving cities and towns that want to be part of the proposed expansion a big boost, Amtrak officials said.
North Carolina already has plans.
The goal over the next decade is to partner with Virginia to build a new 110-mile, one-hour train route and move millions of people away from the congested highways, said Jason Orthner, the director of the Department of Transportation’s rail division in North America. carolina.
“It’s definitely a different view of life from the train than looking at it through the windshield on a multi-lane highway,” said Mr. Orthner.
“As beautiful as I expected”
The Berkshire Flyer needed no new infrastructure, just an Amtrak train that would run from Albany to Pittsfield (usually about an hour away) and an agreement with CSX, the freight operator that owns the railroads.
These tracks from New York to Pittsfield have been around since the 1880s, when passenger and freight trains were operated by private companies, said Jay Green, a former Amtrak official who is now the city manager in Adams, Massachusetts.
But as cars and planes became the country’s preferred mode of transportation, trains became less profitable.
Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger train system, was founded in 1971.
“That was the end of passenger traffic to Pittsfield, along with many other cities across the country,” said Mr Green.
The sight of people plunging onto the Pittsfield platform on July 8, many of them in their twenties and thirties, led Adam G. Hinds, a state senator from Pittsfield, to imagine that the Flyer would run all year round. would be by service.
One of those young people, Kareem Wedderburn, a zoning student at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and… self-described transit nerdhad taken an early train from Springfield, Massachusetts, to New York Friday morning to make sure he would be on the first Berkshire Flyer train.
“I wanted to be a part of history,” said 20-year-old Mr. Wedderburn, adding that he marveled at the scenery along the way: the Hudson River, the rolling hills, the sprawling homes.
“It’s really as nice as I expected,” he said, recalling other passengers opening chilled bottles of white wine in the business class car while others were reading or working on their computers.
Some stared out the window at the drivers crawling along the highway.
“People said, ‘Look at all that traffic you can avoid now,'” said Mr Wedderburn.
Potential for transformation
John Riley, the manager of Mission, a restaurant and bar in Pittsfield, said a steady stream of tourists would be a boon to the city’s eclectic mix of antique stores, coffee shops and restaurants.
“The greatest thing the Flyer can do, not just for us, but for everyone, is more foot traffic and more people to downtown North Street,” said Mr. Riley, 29. “I want to see more younger people, more people who use the bike path.”
Ms Tuller, the co-owner of the Berkshire General Store, said the train could help other parts of the local economy.
“I know people who have tried to be Uber drivers in the area, but there weren’t enough calls to make it worth it,” she said.
The Flyer may encourage New Yorkers who can work remotely to move to western Massachusetts, said Eric Lesser, a state senator representing neighboring Hampden and Hampshire counties.
Its success would also include plans for a train between Boston and Pittsfield, known as: the east-west linethat would stop past other post-industrial, walkable towns in western Massachusetts that were once passenger trains and hungry for tourist dollars.
“They’re ripe for a renaissance,” said Mr. Lesser. “There is enormous potential.”