The river did us a real favor. As problematic as the so called “100 year flood” is going to be for north-south rail travel in the valley, the alignment of tracks from Springfield to Greenfield through Holyoke and Northampton makes for a short trip which connects the rider to 4 unique places. Taking the idea of regionalism and contemplating it more broadly it becomes clear that the keys to improved connectivity in the valley both internally and with Boston are Vermont and Montreal.
Vermont may have a smaller population than greater Springfield, but its two senators and north-south orientation comprise a relatively powerful united front for improving connectivity to Montreal: their true regional economic powerhouse. If Vermont wants to relieve its isolation, and it does, then improved Boston-Montreal links are the carrot for Canada’s eastern economic powerhouse to work with Vermont in doing so.
This makes Springfield the north-south to east-west inflection point for the Boston to Montreal rail link, and the weakness of the Palmer to Worcester section of track a potential focus for improvement not just for western Massachusetts (Who cares about us?) but for Montreal, Boston, and Vermont. Paying hundreds of millions for adding the second track and improving the existing track will seem much more cost effective if it’s placed in that context as well as the context of creating an alternative for the Boston to New York coastal route, which can make Worcester and greater Hartford allies as well.
So instead of the fight for improved Boston to Springfield rail service being an in state battle where Boston doesn’t care and the most important local dollars are dead set against the plan, you have a regional and even international coalition within which Peter Pan Bus Lines is an insignificant player. Boston and Montreal connect to New York and Toronto respectively, but both play second fiddle to their national economic centers. Montreal cares as much about Vermont as Boston does about Springfield, but I could see each coveting a cozier relationship with the other to feel less dependent on their giant in house rivals.
The impressions left by the first leg of the Greenfield to Springfield trip by rail are that the train really flies into Northampton, I couldn’t say for sure if we were going 75 or 85 mph, but it certainly seemed as though it was by far the fastest the train had gone since departing Essex Junction. Greenfield and Northampton both have their station, or in the case of Northampton, their platform, in close proximity to their city centers and I could foresee a day when more frequent service could foment a real boost to each through transit oriented development.
It is a beautiful trip as well, with lots in the way of agricultural and solar endeavors on display:
Between Northampton and Holyoke the train slows to a crawl, and the area around the platform is as empty and underutilized as any in the city. Keep in mind that Holyoke has, in my opinion, by far the best prospects in the region for thriving in the “whatever comes next” economy: water power, water transport, a huge supply of solid industrial buildings, proximity to farm land.
Pretty much everything but the confidence of anyone who matters. Look at this stunning building (right)only feet from the platform just begging to be redeveloped:
And this vacant Richardson train station on the wrong side of the tracks:
The train really picked up speed through Chicopee where we saw more waterways just begging to be utilized to their potential once again:
In scale, everything from Essex Junction, Vermont to Holyoke is more or less comparable, but Springfield, for good and for ill, is at a completely different level. The bridges, the highway interchanges, the density, and the rapidity of changes in typology were all revelatory. It was surprising to see how well maintained the North End appears from the train:
Without any outside information the overall impression would be that this place, more than any other on this journey, is making use of its older infrastructure and has its act together…whether that is in fact the case, we shall see.
This was Labor Day weekend and, while we were among a very few people getting off the train at the new Union Station, it seemed as though a hundred people were getting ready to board. The platforms are much less impressive than the station itself, though work continues on that part of the project. Downtown was not surprisingly, but saddeningly dead on a holiday afternoon, and the idea of scale once again leapt to mind. Holyoke could see its rail district, let’s call it, transformed by just a few small players and less than a handful of small developments. Springfield needs that and so much more to make the Union Station project and its environs an example of a successful TOD: Amazon wants a new HQ, we could play the lottery, or move the state capital. See, there are opportunities everywhere.