Rail expert: With finesse, passenger line from NYC to Berkshires can be restored

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Nothing is easy.

Least of all restoring passenger service to the Berkshires from New York City on century-old rail owned by a freight company.

But it's all about how you get the money, a railroad expert says.

"The list is long where there was no money," said Vinay Mudholkar, an international transportation consultant. "There will be no railroad if you don't push hard."

It's also about using finesse and tenacity in dealing with "bureaucrats" and rail companies, he said.

"You have to have that fire in you — don't say you don't have the money," he told some naysayers in a small audience at St. James Place, where The Train Campaign had arranged for a presentation by Mudholkar.

In his more than 40 years in rail management, he has put together many rail deals, including an enormous one in Saudi Arabia. He said the Saudis weren't so easy at first, but he used his convincing nature to bring them around.

"They have a lot of money but are very frugal," he said.

Mudholkar also said he has worked on rail projects that were so successful because freight and passenger rail shared corridors, increasing benefits and profit for everyone.

The Train Campaign's founder, Great Barrington resident Karen Christensen, is nothing if not fiery. Christensen has not let up on her quest to restore the Housatonic Line from Grand Central Terminal to Pittsfield, with stops in Connecticut and Berkshire County.

In 1972, the line ended passenger service that made stops in Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox on its way to Pittsfield.

The line is now freight-only, and mostly owned by Connecticut-based Housatonic Railroad Co. But in 2015, Massachusetts bought 37 miles of track from Pittsfield to Canaan, Conn., with an eye on the rail company's 2010 plan to restore passenger service.

But support for the project has wavered, as doubts crept in about Connecticut's ability to invest in track upgrades, given the state's fiscal problems.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission estimated $200 million as the cost of such an upgrade of track between Pittsfield and Danbury, Conn., The Eagle reported in 2013.

Christensen is making her latest push as rail from New York and Boston to Berkshire County is seen as a hot-ticket economic development solution to uplift a sagging rural economy.

The Berkshire Flyer, a seasonal weekend line, is higher up on the state's priority list in its 2018 draft rail plan, and the state Department of Transportation said recently it was open to starting a pilot for that service as early as next year. It promises a seasonal, weekend service from Penn Station to Pittsfield via Albany on Amtrak. A separate proposal, touted by state lawmakers, would improve passenger rail from Boston to Pittsfield, also on Amtrak.

Despite accusations over the years of pie-in-the-sky thinking, Christensen has persisted, and now, in Mudholkar, has an expert ally who also said the Houstonic Line can happen by telling state officials and rail companies that such a plan would save track that is more than 90 years old, to the benefit of everyone.

"Railroad is a big motivator for development," he said.

He also said there are cost savings when upgrading an existing freight line, since new rail ties and other equipment can be brought in by those freight cars. Also, he said that, in this case, high-speed rail is unnecessary, and the train could start small, adding on cars as needed.

He recommends telling government officials to "act quickly" to not let the existing rail fall apart.

And he speaks from experience: "You have to sell your soul to the state," he joked.

Most important, he said, is to massage the relationship between the freight and passenger companies.

"Don't create animosity."

That morning, he and Christensen had visited "the freight guys" at Housatonic Railroad.

"They showed a good willingness," Mudholkar said.

But two audience members said talk is cheap.

"This is all wonderful, but there's no chance in hell we're going to get a dime," said Stephen Cohen of Egremont.

"Push hard," Mudholkar said. "Have a five-year plan."

"But how do you fund it?" Cohen demanded. "You've seen what Congress has done to Amtrak."

This brought on a long, woeful response from Mudholkar about the decline of Amtrak, and a shocking statistic about priorities: Americans spend $1.9 billion per year on Amtrak, and $2 billion for Halloween candy and costumes, he said.

Mudholkar repeatedly said that getting money for rail is never a cinch.

"You've got to have that spirit," he said. "It's easy to say, 'We can't do anything.'"

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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