Our focus is bringing back passenger train service but at the Train Campaign we are interested in other forms of transport, too. And we welcome discussion and debate, so we’re sharing a debate about whether bus service could be a substitute for trains – or, as we believe, an essential adjunct to rail. Please join the conversation by commenting here!

Dear Karen and Nat,

Let me start by complimenting you on an extremely well-organized campaign that may actually succeed in bringing back the train.  As Karen already knows, however, although I support the development objectives that the proposed train service is meant to address, I believe that the proposal — if it became reality — would be a huge waste of public resources.

There is a much better way to achieve or exceed the same development objectives within a much shorter time frame and for a tiny fraction of the cost:  a bus-rail link.  The Metro-North Railroad runs a speedy, reliable, inexpensive service between Wassaic and Grand Central 13 times in each direction on weekdays and 9 times on weekends.  If four buses (or as many more as ridership warranted) were put in dedicated service on a direct north-south route from Williamstown to Wassaic, beginning with a bus that would deliver passengers to the 5:10 a.m. train and ending with a bus that would pick up passengers from the last train that arrives in Wassaic shortly after midnight, there would be no need for spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a less flexible system.

In addition to the cost savings, the bus-rail link would have important benefits to Berkshire County beyond the objectives meant to be achieved by the Train Campaign.  There has long been an imbalance between where the jobs are and where most workers live.  Most of the riders on the bus link wouldn’t be going to the train, but would instead be taking advantage of the frequent, reliable early-morning/late night service along the Route 7 backbone of the Berkshires to expand their viable employment radius, or to attend theatrical productions and concerts from one end of the county to the other.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this idea, which I doubt is novel, but which seems to me to be compelling.  In support of its feasibility, here’s a link to an article from yesterday’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/business/to-save-on-rail-lines-market-the-bus-line.html.

Thanks, Chip [Chip Elitzer, Great Barrington]

Chip –  Thanks for the thoughtful idea.  I am going to push back a bit – there is a lot of evidence that riders of any sort of mass transit resist having to use multiple modes to get back and forth.  They will walk, take the bus or drive to a station or stop, get on a conveyance, and get off at the other end (perhaps with an efficient transfer but on the same mode) and walk, ride or drive to their final destination.  However, they won’t drive (which due to our low population densities is generally required) to a parking lot to get on a bus, which then drives (a two hour trip from Williamstown to Wassaic w/o stops; a 1 hr., 20 min trip from Pittsfield w/o stops; a 50+ minute trip from Great Barrington w/o stopping in Sheffield); then get on Metro North for a 2 hr., 15 min train ride to Grand Central.

My guess would be that if someone is starting in Pittsfield on a relatively express bus that stops in two places between Pittsfield and Wassaic (and I think I am being conservative in the # of stops; it easily could be 1 or 2 more), each stop will be a minimum of five minutes so add ten minutes to the minimum.  That means, Pittsfield to NYC involves 4 modes and 3 hrs., 45 minutes.  They can drive directly down in about 2 hrs., 45 minutes.  The hour difference is somewhat hard to overcome regardless but given the cost and inconvenience of taking a car into the City, plus the ability to do something besides be behind the wheel for that extra hour, it probably can be overcome.  In addition, the bus ends up being caught in the same unpredictable traffic as driving your car in; however well-run trains in my experience tend to not run into the same level of unpredictability. The additional mode switch is a deal breaker from what I have read.  And while it may seem silly, as some of the things you attached make clear in the comments, there is a marketing and comfort problem with buses.  The “snob factor” is real for many people, plus try to load your bicycle or skis on a bus.

The other, perhaps secondary in the long-run but critical in the short-term, purpose of focusing on the rail is to get the 1920 track replaced to serve the critical freight users who employ over 800 people in quality jobs in southern Berkshire and northwest CT.  A fairly significant portion of the capital cost is simply to replace the obsolete rails and other infrastructure to allow continued freight use, without the too frequent derailments, which also allows the potential passenger use.

Nat [Nathaniel Karns, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission]

Again, please feel free to join the conversation by commenting here.