Ditch the car and enjoy the views on a trip to the Berkshires

Ditch the car and enjoy the views on a trip to the Berkshires

Evan Gottesman and his fiancee, Gabrielle Kleyner, met up with friends in the Berkshires one 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, theatergoers and music lovers 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 couple quickly ordered tickets and jumped on it at The 3.15pm train sold out from Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan on 8 July.

Without realizing it, they had embarked on the Flyer’s maiden voyage, a milestone of at least four years and the result of countless emails, meetings and phone calls between Amtrak and state lawmakers and transportation officials, who have been eager for more direct rail. lines between New York and Massachusetts.

When Mr. Gottesman and Ms. When Kleyner arrived in Pittsfield that evening, they saw dozens of people on the platform, cheering wildly and snapping pictures. State and city officials held a triumphant press conference. Someone popped a bottle of champagne.

“It was the nicest welcome I’ve ever gotten off an Amtrak train,” Mr. Gottesman, 27, said.

For the first time in 50 years, a passenger train from New York had arrived in Pittsfield, a town of more than 40,000 people that is often overlooked by tourists who go to better-known parts of the county such as Tanglewood in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

More than 60 people arrived that night on the Berkshire Flyer, which runs only once on Friday and returns Sunday afternoon. The number of passengers was modest, but it still encouraged business owners and state officials closely watching the pilot program, which will run through Labor Day.

Also encouraging: the number of sold-out trains. After the first trip, trains to Pittsfield continued to fill up regularly, and while seats to the north are still available in August, trains back to New York have been completely sold out through Labor Day weekend, according to Amtrak.

“It’s in its infancy,” 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 deal.”

The flyer is one of many new services and restored rail lines that Amtrak has announced in recent months.

On July 29, the Ethan Allen Express, a rail line from New York to Rutland, Vt., will be extended 66 miles northwest to the city of Burlington as part of a new new program.

In Virginia, Amtrak has added more daily trips from Roanoke and Norfolk to Washington.

International routes shut down due to the pandemic are humming 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, NC, a $10 million bus depot opened in June to take passengers about 84 miles north to an Amtrak station in Wilson.

The project, which Jacksonville officials have been planning since 2010, was funded by the Federal Transit Administration, said Anthony Prinz, the city’s director of transportation services.

Similar projects will be funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last year, particularly in states and communities that have already begun planning, said Roger Harris, the president of Amtrak.

“It really starts with local interest,” Mr. Harris said. “That’s why it’s important for communities to get in the game and say, ‘Yes, please, we want to be on this.'”

Amtrak has created an expansive map that lays out a vision for how it could bring dozens more routes to more than 160 cities and towns across the country.

The new law, which sets aside $66 billion for rail, comes at a time when travelers are looking for ways to save on fuel costs and get around the country more sustainably.

The funding also comes as Amtrak continues to recover from a decline in ridership caused by the pandemic. The rail service recorded nearly 16 million trips between October 2021 and June 2022, compared with about 24 million during the same time period in 2019, according to Amtrak.

Nearly 20 percent, or $12 billion, of total rail funding is set aside for service outside the Northeast, giving cities and towns that want to be part of the proposed expansion a big boost, according to Amtrak officials.

North Carolina already has plans in place.

The goal over the next decade is to work with Virginia to build a new 110-mile, one-hour rail route, drawing millions of people off congested highways, said Jason Orthner, rail division director of North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

“It’s definitely a different picture of life from the train than looking at it through the windshield of a multi-lane highway,” Mr. Orthner said.

The Berkshire Flyer needed no new infrastructure, just an Amtrak train to roll from Albany to Pittsfield (usually about an hour’s ride) and an agreement with CSX, the freight operator that owns the rail lines.

Those tracks from New York to Pittsfield have existed since the 1850s, when passenger and freight trains were operated by private companies, said Jay Green, a former Amtrak official who is now the city administrator of Adams, Mass.

But as cars and planes took over as the country’s preferred means of transport, trains became less profitable.

Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger rail system, was created in 1971.

“That was the end of passenger traffic to Pittsfield, along with many other cities across the country,” Mr. Green said.

The sight of people spilling onto the Pittsfield platform on July 8, many of them in their 20s and 30s, prompted Adam G. Hinds, a state senator from Pittsfield, to envision the Flyer becoming a year-round service.

One of those young people, Kareem Wedderburn, a regional planning student at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and self-described transit nerdhad taken an early morning train from Springfield, Massachusetts, to New York on Friday morning to ensure he would be on the first Berkshire Flyer train.

“I wanted to be part of the story,” said Mr. Wedderburn, 20, adding that he marveled at the scenery along the way: the Hudson River, the rolling hills, the sprawling homes.

“It’s really as beautiful as I expected,” he said, recalling other passengers opening chilled bottles of white wine in the business-class car while others read or worked on their computers.

Some were staring out the window at the drivers walking along the highway.

“People said, ‘Look at all the traffic you can avoid now,'” Mr Wedderburn said.

John Riley, the manager of the Mission, a restaurant and bar in Pittsfield, said a steady flow of tourists would be a boon to the town’s eclectic mix of antique shops, coffee shops and restaurants.

“The biggest thing the flyer can do, not just for us but for anybody, is more foot traffic and more people to downtown North Street,” said Riley, 29. “I want to see more younger people, more people using the bike path. “

Mrs. Tuller, 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 worthwhile,” she said.

The Flyer could encourage New Yorkers who can work remotely to move to western Massachusetts, said Eric Lesser, a state senator who represents nearby Hampden and Hampshire counties.

Its success could also bolster plans for a train between Boston and Pittsfield known as the East-West line, which would stop along other post-industrial, walkable towns in western Massachusetts that were once passenger rail stops and are hungry for tourist dollars.

“They are ripe for a renaissance,” Mr. Lesser said. – There is enormous potential.

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