The Berkshire Flyer is gearing up to begin its run from NYC to Pittsfield
An Amtrak train at the Pittsfield station is on track to head west on those gleaming rails to New York City. Map of the proposed route from Pittsfield to Penn Station is at right.
Photo by Russ Patton
Have you ever dreamed of leaving New York on a sleek passenger train and arriving in the Berkshires just a few hours later? The green hills, peaceful towns, and cultural vitality of the Berkshires have long been irresistible draws to people from New York City. Our rural New England quaintness combined with cultural attractions such as Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, MASS MoCA, and Jacob’s Pillow are unmatched anywhere else in the Northeast. It would be so easy to get here for New Yorkers, especially for those without a car, if there was a convenient, weekend through-train service from one place to the other.
The broad-based Berkshire Flyer Working Group has been looking into this very possibility. Consisting of local, state, and Amtrak officials as well as business leaders, the group’s pilot project would tentatively begin in late-May 2019, pending funding and other anticipated approvals, and train service would run from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. State Senator Adam Hinds and State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, key members of the group, are working on securing state funding to purchase the service from Amtrak. The service would be routed up the Hudson Valley in New York State to the Albany-Rensselaer station, and then east to Pittsfield. The current roundtrip fare from New York to Pittsfield is approximately $120 on a quite roundabout route, but Flyer fares have not been established yet.
During the study, three routes were considered for the service, according to Eddie Sporn with Robin Road Consulting and a key member of the Berkshire Flyer group. One would follow the old Housatonic rail route, north through Litchfield County in Connecticut and enter the Berkshires near Sheffield. This route would benefit communities along the way, and the track in Massachusetts has been upgraded to handle Amtrak trains. “However,” Sporn notes, “the track in Connecticut has not been upgraded yet and has many, many grade crossings. This route might be good to use in the future after it has been upgraded, but it isn’t acceptable now.”
Sporn says the best option currently is Amtrak’s Empire corridor route running north through the Hudson Valley to the Albany-Rensselaer station, and then proceeding east through the Taconics to Pittsfield.
“All of the needed infrastructure is there, including upgraded tracks, and no environmental impact statements are needed,” he says. “There are also no capital funds involved with this route. We’re optimistic that whatever happens in Washington won’t affect it as the service would utilize only existing infrastructure.”
He also mentioned a possible future route that would break to the east in Castleton, New York, south of Albany, but said that a short connecting section of track would have to be built to accommodate that. It’s also possible that in the future, the village of Chatham, New York, could be served as well.
The Hudson Valley route of the train trip really piqued this writer’s interest, so on a sunny day I decided to try it out. I boarded Amtrak’s Empire service in Penn Station and settled into a very comfortable airline-style seat. Within minutes, the train began to smoothly pull out of the station. It soon emerged into the sunlight, and I had my first view of what would be a lovely scenic ride.
The George Washington Bridge glinted in the sunlight as it towered over the train, and the striking, long line of the Palisades on the far side of the Hudson stretched off to the north. The train was moving faster now as the Hudson widened at Haverstraw Bay. Soon I saw the impressive structure of the new Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the bay.
The scenery continued to unfold as the train went through the dramatic gap in the Hudson Highlands and past the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Then we passed the restored lighthouses at Esopus Meadows north of Poughkeepsie, Rondout (Kingston), Saugerties, and Hudson-Athens, with the Catskills rising sharply to the west. This was all accompanied by the cool sounds of the train’s horn at road crossings—two long blasts, a short one, and then another long one.
The train rolled along with its gently rocking motion and soon began to slow as it approached the Albany-Rensselaer station. This was and will be a lovely ride up from New York City along the Hudson. Just as my train made several stops along the way, the Flyer will be stopping at Yonkers, Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff, Hudson, and Albany-Rensselaer on its way to Pittsfield. There was no food or beverage service available on my ride, so I was quite glad that I had eaten before I left. However, the tentative plan for the Berkshire Flyer is to have WiFi and food service.
The Berkshire Flyer will then head east through the rolling horse-farm country of Columbia County in New York, go through the tunnel on the state line, and head into Pittsfield with a total travel time of about four hours. Once in Pittsfield, there will be last-mile transportation issues, but those are expected to be solved by buses, taxis, hotel shuttles, rental cars, and Uber and Lyft vehicles. Stay tuned!