The pilot program Valley Flyer train service began last week bringing something like commuter service to the communities north of Springfield. I say “something like” commuter rail service because, perhaps as a pilot program should, it only expands two way travel options to a very small subset of potential users of the corridor north of the newly reopened Union Station.
In searching for news and opinion on the Valley Flyer I happened upon an incredibly nerdy but rather informative old fashioned message board devoted to the “Amtrak Northeast Corridor, Springfield Shuttle, Regional, and Greenfield Route”; over 100 pages of experts and rail enthusiasts opining on everything imaginable and quite a few perhaps unimaginable things. As often happens, having access to the back and forth of people who are highly focused on a particular topic helped at the very least to expand my awareness of my ignorance on topics like the interplay between freight and passenger service, equipment adaptability and storage, and crew accommodation.
Turns out you can’t just make more trains appear wherever, whenever and have them go any which way at any time! Who knew?
So with a nod to the realities of expanding service on a busy rail corridor I want to lay out what this new service facilitates, what it doesn’t, and what I would love to see it turn into if the rate of use of the new service appears to warrant it.
When CTRail began its New Haven to Hartford, then Springfield, service it became possible to get to New York City reliably on a daily basis in the morning. For people leaving from Union Station in Springfield that also meant that commuting to a job in Hartford or New Haven by rail became a legitimate possibility assuming that said employment was situated either near a handful of train stations or was connected, reasonably, by other transit. Given the number of employers in downtown Hartford and New Haven and the close economic ties which have been shown to exist along the I-91 corridor this wouldn’t be an altogether unusual circumstance.
I would add that, despite the existence of “Super-commuters”, I can’t imagine someone living in Western Massachusetts commuting every day of the week to a job in New York. For someone who travels to the city say once or twice a week, however, I imagine this service is highly useful.
What this service has never done is allowed people from Connecticut to get to jobs in Springfield before 10 a.m.. Obviously Springfield’s downtown doesn’t have the density of employment of Hartford, but Union Station does offer excellent service on the PVTA’s two primary axes of service to Mass Mutual, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, American International College, and Springfield Technical Community College to name just the most prominent institutions.
Unfortunately, this expansion of service not only does nothing to remediate that, it perpetuates it.
Using the Valley Flyer will give people in Greenfield the chance to go by rail round trip to NYC in a single day. It could also provide transportation to and from a morning meeting anywhere from Northampton south to New Haven provided you were done and ready to return by early afternoon. If, however, you wanted to commute daily anywhere along that same NoHo-NHvn stretch you wouldn’t be able to return until after 9 p.m.; hardly a reasonable option.
So, putting CTRail and the Valley Flyer together: you can commute from Springfield to points south on a daily basis; you can get to Springfield after 10 a.m. from Connecticut and return in the early evening; and you can get to New York City in the early morning from Greenfield, Northampton, and Holyoke and return that same evening. What you can’t do is commute into Springfield, Holyoke, or Northampton from any direction. From the south there is no morning service which extends north of Springfield and what service exists to Springfield arrives after the start of normal business hours. If you leave from anyplace north of Springfield then you cannot commute to Springfield or any points south because the only service after mid-afternoon doesn’t depart New Haven until almost 8 o’clock in the evening, departing even later then from any other location.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is subsidizing the Valley Flyer service, and the stated goal was to provide service for people north of Springfield to get to New York and back in a single day. This does that. Maintaining and expanding the service beyond the two year window the state has funded will require that ridership reach 24,000 trips a year. When you add up the number of trains each way given 4 trains on weekdays and 2 on weekends and holidays that means an average of around 20 passengers per train. That’s certainly not a ridiculously high bar, and while the populations they service might be very different, overall demand for this current service isn’t an unreasonable barometer to use when trying to get a sense of the other.
For me, the end goal of this process is a transformation of land use in the valley. If a convenient, reasonably priced, trustworthy fixed transit corridor becomes available then it is reasonable to assume that businesses, for the convenience of employees and customers, will want to locate along that corridor; there is no dearth of commercial, manufacturing, and retail space from Northampton to Springfield which is a reasonable distance from their respective train stations. If employment begins to aggregate along the corridor not only will demand, and therefore level of service increase, but demand for housing along the corridor will increase and a critical mass of all of the above will transform the region into an even more vibrant and resilient ecosystem.
I was reading an article about the concept of the mega-region. In it the author mused on the supposed Washington-Boston megaplex, but opined that the Hartford and Springfield links in that chain were dubious because they lacked institutions of higher learning. Sure, apart from the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Elms, Westfield State, Springfield College, American International College, Western New England College, the University of Hartford, Saint Joseph’s, Trinity College, Albertus Magnus, Wesleyan, and a few others there aren’t any colleges around here. It is true that unlike Harvard, Brown, and Yale they are not Ivy League and mostly are not within the walkable footprint of the city.
Making Springfield and Hartford more obviously connected to the institutions of higher learning in their corresponding, geographically very small, metropolitan areas could change facile assessments like this. Not all of the colleges and universities associated with Boston are walking distance to city hall, but they feel as though they all form part of a whole. In the Knowledge Corridor they don’t yet seem at all connected to their closest urban center.
As a final note, I saw on CityLab and at Planetizen articles on the expansion of bus service in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham is one of those cities and metros which is theoretically “bigger” than Springfield and so gets more attention. It has a population of 100,000 more people…spread out over literally 10x the area! I checked the numbers, the Birmingham-Jefferson County bus system has 1/3 the ridership of Springfield’s PVTA. In just over a year Springfield has seen the reopening of a spectacular intermodal transportation center with now two expansions of train service and a significant relocation of its local bus maintenance and operations headquarters, and the introduction of a (poorly designed and nearly unused) free downtown “Loop” service and…not a mention in any of the usual online sources.
Being wedged in between Boston and New York makes being taken seriously as an urban area very difficult. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam the Springfield to New Haven corridor taken together has a larger population than Denver but in half the area; I’d say that makes this place kind of urban. Massachusetts and Connecticut, together, are making some really intelligent relatively low cost experiments designed to expand transportation options in this area. It seems like the kind of thing that might spark interest in people who publish stuff on walkability in Asheville and Rail Trails in Grand Forks.