Mass. Insider: We Desperately Need West-East Rail

Mass. Insider Columnist Shane Dillon ’26 reviews the statewide struggle for a high-speed rail line running from the east to the west in Massachusetts.

In my previous articles, I have mentioned gubernatorial hopeful Maura Healey’s commitment to delivering West-East rail if she becomes governor. With this week’s column, I hope to dive into the operations and the development of the rail project and how it benefits the state and Amherst students.

West-East (or East-West if you are from Eastern Massachusetts) rail would be a high-speed rail system starting in Boston, terminating in Pittsfield, and running much faster than the average train. Residents pressured Governor Charlie Baker to start taking the idea seriously at the end of his first term after he vetoed a 2016 study by state Sen. Eric Lesser that arguably could have had the rail complete or almost complete by now. In 2018, the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation formed an advisory committee to explore the rail line’s cost, benefits, and locations. They released their final report in January of 2021.

One of the many reasons that Gov. Baker has hesitated to support the construction of a West-East rail line is the project’s cost. According to the Dept. of Transportation’s report, the project would come with a price tag of between $2.4 and $4.6 billion — certainly a staggering amount. However, the necessity of the service easily justifies this level of spending.

Boston and its suburbs are workforce hubs in Massachusetts and New England. We need an alternative to driving a car, especially for those who can’t or don’t drive. The report found that anywhere between 900 and 1,500 passengers would utilize the rail system every weekday. If the cost to ride the rail were to be kept cheap, like taking a public bus, it would attract even more passengers who may not want to waste gas money. Western Massachusetts is also a part of the knowledge corridor — a system of colleges and universities that house tens of thousands of students who may want to travel to tourist spots in Eastern Massachusetts. It is also fun to ride a train!

West-East rail would not only be a fancy, fast-moving train. It would be a way to allow residents from all over the state to expand their career options, visit family that they may not have the means to otherwise, and explore the beauty of Massachusetts. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to Boston in 30 minutes rather than spending nearly two hours stuck in traffic? And it is crucial to note that the rail would run through Palmer, Massachusetts, which Amherst students can reach via PVTA in about 25 minutes. From there, students would be able to travel the rest of the state at a fair cost as well as contributing to environmental sustainability by taking a train.

I believe that West-East rail would bring the Commonwealth together socially and economically. Western Massachusetts is usually left out of the conversation. Usually, political leaders do not have to worry about our support because a majority of the state’s population lives east of highway 495 — a major highway that loops from the start of Cape Cod to the top of the state's border with New Hampshire.

In a recent MassLive article supporting the rail system, the authors ask readers to “compare the economic paths of Springfield and Worcester in the past 20 years. What is a major difference between these cities? Passenger rail and proximity to Boston. Reasonably frequent, 90-minute trips have no doubt contributed to the revitalization of Downtown Worcester. Springfield deserves what Worcester already has. Reasonably frequent service and a travel time well under two hours.” A high-speed rail connecting all ends of our state may sew that division and our leaders now have to have us at the table.

Maura Healey has been to Western Massachusetts many times to promote the rail system. When our leaders come together to support a cause that benefits everyone, their constituents generally respond similarly. Not to mention that residents of the eastern part of the Commonwealth are moving west at higher rates than ever before. Western Massachusetts is becoming a critical part of the state, and our leaders are recognizing that. I believe there will be a day where technological and industrial redevelopment will bring Western Massachusetts back to life, and the West-East rail is just the beginning.

However, there is still a lot to be said about the price tag. West-East rail will cost Massachusetts more than the U.S. Dept. of Transportation will allocate to the state for the beginning developments of the rail based on the final page of the report. The Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation has been working closely with our congressional delegation to find alternative ways to fund the project. Western Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal may play a key role in securing those funds, as he is in charge of one of the most influential financial committees in Congress. According to a recent MassLive article, “Funding from the $1 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will be available starting in mid-2022. The law, which Neal championed in his role as chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, includes $66 billion for Amtrak nationwide and $2.5 billion for public transit in Massachusetts.”

Also, while in Springfield, Healey repeated her plan to place an executive in charge of the West-East rail development. The study has concluded, and if Maura Healey takes the governor’s office, West-East rail may become a reality.

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