By Amanda Drane
Plans for more passenger rail service to Paradise City and a full-length platform are chugging along, officials say, and new ridership statistics show Northampton is playing a pivotal role.
The numbers say the city is the third busiest stop along Amtrak’s Vermonter line, which runs from Washington D.C., up through Massachusetts to St. Albans, Vermont. And according to National Association of Railroad Passengers statistics, trips between Northampton and New York City generate more riders and revenue than any other trip along the line.
“Officials predicted rail service would be popular in Northampton, but interest is so far exceeding all expectations,” said Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “Ridership is extraordinarily strong, even in the face of the reality it’s only one train a day in each direction.”
NARP statistics show Northampton’s platform saw 17,197 passengers last year, far more than the 10,220 projected in a 2009 study commissioned by the PVPC.
Brennan said the strong showing helps justify the push for more service — two more morning trips, and two more in the afternoon — which the state conditionally agreed to pilot in fall 2019.
“These kind of ridership numbers bolster the case to do this sooner rather than later,” he said.
Plans for service to Boston, officials said, are farther out as the east-west tracks remain in poor condition. Brennan said he’s working to get that work into the Massachusetts State Rail Plan, due in draft in the fall.
Brennan said state transportation officials agreed to increase north-south service under the condition it be a two-year pilot program whose future depended on retained ridership. The second condition, he said, is that the PVPC and Franklin Regional Council of Governments must figure out a way to fund the roughly $3 million a year in operational costs for the additional service. He said it’s possible the program is eligible for federal grants targeting congestion mitigation and air quality improvement, which he said the organizations are pursuing.
He said they’re working to get that program in place by 2019.
“With enhanced service you get a much higher level of ridership, and therefore a much higher level of return on investment,” he said.