One of Pittsfield young leaders explains how the city is getting ready for rail

In this episode of Train Time, we spoke to Ricardo Morales, the Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities for the City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Like many US cities, Pittsfield has faced challenges in recent decades, especially after the departure of GE Plastics, which left a toxic legacy in the Housatonic River. But Pittsfield has been inventive, benefiting from its location at the center of Berkshire County, between Williamstown to the north and Lenox and Great Barrington to the south. Even more important is its location on the train line between Chicago and Boston, and as the destination for the planned Berkshire Flyer and Berkshire (Housatonic) Line passenger services. Morales is involved in transportation planning and explains the rise he’s seen in car service availability and plans for bike-share in the city, part of Pittsfield’s commitment to be an effective  transit point for north-south and east-west passenger rail. We wrapped up with some of his research into the streetcar system that used to exist across the region; you’ll find some of the pictures he’s collected below.

See below for an edited transcript of the interview.

Ricardo Morales served as the City Engineer before being appointed as the Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities for the City of Pittsfield. Prior to working for the city, he worked in project management for Consigli Construction Company. Morales serves as a representing member for Pittsfield on the Berkshire Metropolitan Planning Organization and Transportation Advisory Committee, and has represented the city, along with Mayor Linda Tyer, on train-related initiatives like the Berkshire Flyer and the Massachusetts East-West Rail study.


Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we have added an introduction and done some editing.

Mon, 4/26/21 3:11PM • 22:01

Karen Christensen, Ricardo Morales

Karen Christensen 01:31
Ricardo, it’s a pleasure to have you here on Train Time with us. Welcome.

Ricardo Morales 01:36
Hi, Karen. Thanks for having me.

Karen Christensen 01:38
I don’t know how long it was after you came to the Berkshires that we first met in Great Barrington. Had you had you been here long at that time?

Ricardo Morales 01:47
I’ve been in the Berkshires since 2011. And the last, the first time I was introduced to the train campaign in Great Barrington was early 2018.

Karen Christensen 02:00
Yes, that seems about right. And today, we’re focusing on Pittsfield, where you’re working now. Can you for listeners who don’t know, the city of Pittsfield, can you just kind of give us a paint a little picture?

Ricardo Morales 02:18
Of course. Well, I would start like any resident in Pittsfield would say: Pittsfield is the heart of the Berkshires, Berkshire County, the westernmost county in Massachusetts, and we are a city of approximately 44,000 residents, and with long history and ties with the with the region, paper mills and then later GE and the plastics industry, some cultural and arts industry has developed around the region. Pittsfield has not been shy of that. So nowadays is a very, very community and taking pride in the arts and culture and other minor industries.

Karen Christensen 03:21
Yes, it is one of the cities of the Northeast that that had, you know, a major industrial employer. This is one of the you know, there are many cities like this that have tremendous potential. And as one of my colleagues said, Great bones, we’re talking about Pittsfield, am I that’s true, and he said in a beautiful place, but certainly has struggled economically. Especially since GE Plastics left. So there are a variety of things that that have been done to, to restore vibrancy and just start some new activities and, and business activities there as well as cultural activities. And connectivity, I think comes up quite a lot, connectivity of different kinds. But obviously, today we’re focusing on what rail can do passenger rail can do for a city like Pittsfield? Have you seen? Have you seen the film The last train to Pittsfield?

Ricardo Morales 04:40
I did see that some, some time ago. Quite, quite interesting. It just paints a picture of what could be it that’s the first question that comes to mind. What can this region and Pittsfield Can, can strive for and, and meet if we all work together towards a common goal of creating more access across the region, between different you know, larger cities, and connect and create that level of access that we that essentially the drives the economic benefits that are induced by that type of connection.

Karen Christensen 05:36
When you describe Pittsfield to people you know, you can talk about its size. I’m thinking when I visualize it, one of the things that, you know, listeners might could easily imagine, especially in older movies, you see this, you know, a rather stapling, not at Nana Main Street, like a small town Main Street, but a big Broad Street with rather substantial buildings on either side. And, you know, and in days past those, those streets would been packed with people on you know, certain nights I’ve met a woman who said, Thursday nights always took the train to Pittsfield from late He was that was late shopping night.

Ricardo Morales 06:23
That’s quite interesting that you mentioned Thursday nights, as that was one of the vestiges of the GE era lives on the third Thursdays. As I’ve come to learn, not through lived experience here, I wasn’t born here, but rather through reading articles, old articles and learning from people that lived through that, that Thursday nights was the pay day. So, you would get paid, and the street would be filled with activity. As people would have the money to spend on retail and other things.

Karen Christensen 07:08
I see and, and so do you do something on Thursdays now? Is that what you were?

Ricardo Morales 07:14
In the summer month, we conduct the third Thursday’s were close, we close the main downtown corridor, North Street. And it’s open to only foot traffic and you know, bicycles, scooters, people walking. And there’s all sorts of activities. We have vendors, food vendors, we have street markets. And you know, music and dance companies come here. Other employers come to promote themselves and the work they do.

Karen Christensen 07:53
I actually think we did some years back there was someone in Pittsfield, who hosted a table for the Train Campaign there. So I did go up and take a look. She was actually as I recall, she was running it. That was nice. I hope we’ll be able to do it again, that would be great. Well, Pittsfield is has come into a number of rail proposals and initiatives of late. And what I, the reason I really wanted to talk to you is because that makes Pittsfield particularly important. It would be a hub, a connecting point for a number of different services. The East-West, the big, I think of it as the big project, the big East-West project that would go from Boston, to Springfield and to Pittsfield, and, we hope, on to Albany. And then, of course, the Housatonic, the Berkshire Line, coming up from New York. And then there’s the Berkshire Flyer weekend project as well. I mean, that would if we could see all those things happening. Pittsfield would be the center central point for all for that, you know, part of part of what is a regional rail system? Tell us how would that transform Pittsfield? What benefits would it bring to the city?

Ricardo Morales 09:31
Of course, the main thing we’re after with all of this, and we do recognize that Pittsfield is poised to great success with these projects that will bring access and enhance access to the region is the concept of the newest economy, the newest economic benefits. And what we want to see there is, by having this level of access, we are going to tap into things that we currently do not or cannot anticipate, based on the level of transportation we have in the region. Simply because it’s nonexistent at the moment. So the industry around it does not exist, the economic benefits can be studied and translate and translated from different regions to our own. And making Pittsfield the hub for the Berkshires is definitely you know, it’s definitely up front. For many reasons, we have the transportation, we are central in the Berkshires and we have the transportation capacity to provide the level of service that is expected as at the end of line for destination.

Karen Christensen 11:05
Because Pittsfield is really it’s a small city, but it’s a city and the rest of the Berkshires has, you know is quite different. Actually we should explain because it you This was I didn’t grow up here. And it took me a while to grasp the position Pittsfield, essentially that the county is a long, narrow, tall and narrow, and Pittsfield right in the middle. And then at the northern end up towards Vermont, is Williamstown, which is well known because of Williams College. And then down in the south, there’s some very well-known venues. Pittsfield really is, is the hub of the county, but it could be a hub of a different sort a lot, much larger region, with, with train service, I can so easily imagine, you know, lots of, you know, if we have, you know, really frequent trains, daily trains, from different directions, imagine how, how vibrant this city could be in, of course, as you know, lots and lots of small, smaller towns and villages around Pittsfield. That that that does mean the there’s a challenge that’s called the last mile, and I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of talk about that. What do you see? How do you see improvements in the local transportation coming about to support these, you know, travelers coming in from places farther afield?

Ricardo Morales 12:47
Karen, that’s a great question, the I’ll start answering that by pointing out what we have seen. naturally occurring in the last three years, we have noticed the increase, sharp increase in rideshare, in Pittsfield, and certain other communities in Berkshire County, to the tune of, you know, when in the last three years, three years ago, we were seeing 5000 rides, rides per year, and consistently growing from there in three years, we have now reached the 45,000 rides per year. So it’s a very drastic increase. And it’s one that makes us think about the vast potential that rideshare has for serving a sector of that last mile concept.

Karen Christensen 13:52
Is it ,is it more than one company?

Ricardo Morales 13:56
Yes. It’s that it’s really, at the moment, being driven by two companies.

Karen Christensen 14:05
And I’m assuming that Uber and Lyft, but I don’t know, because

Ricardo Morales 14:10
that is what we see. And at the moment, because the reports do not include that information. It is mostly an anecdotal evidence that I see those two companies are the ones that you see out there. Then that leads me to, you know, what else can we do and, and tying it back to the Berkshire flyer, which is a program that we are piloting, hopefully next summer in 2022, with working with Amtrak and CSX to use a frequent weekend connection to Albany, and then through Albany, all the way down to New York City. With that program, we’re working on ways to maximize that last mile and provide reliable access to other sections of the county, other areas of the county, once you arrive at Pittsfield, and that’s something the city of Pittsfield is working hard to provide, as a partner in the in the collaborative that that is, you know, building up the Berkshire flyer program.

Karen Christensen 15:20
And that would that that’s a weekend thing, which of course, is great groundwork for you know, the other things ahead. The there is some possibility, and we will certainly are certainly hoping for it, that there will be more service from Boston very soon, because the both because senator Eric Lessor of Springfield has proposed as filed a bill that would call for amp that calls for Amtrak to start running additional trains out to Pittsfield in the next year on the existing line. without making any major upgrades. So that’s one possibility. But we also noticed that when Amtrak put out its visionary map a couple of weeks ago with the new stimulus bill, the infrastructure bill and in prospect that they included on that increased service from Boston West. As something that would happen again, even before the kind of major upgrade of service that we’re hoping to see to get, if not high speed, but certainly high performance trains coming out west, that that could also happen in the fairly near future.

Ricardo Morales 17:03
I am, I am aware of the bill presented by Senator Lester and happy to say to that it was co-sponsored by our own senator and Pittsfield, Adam Hines. And it’s reassuring to see the effort being placed by our representatives into making this a reality. And all that that’s going to do if nothing else, is show that there is a an economic benefit to having these types of connections made with places like Pittsfield. And I would be remiss if I forget to mention that in the subject of the last mile, one of the biggest things we’re working on in Pittsfield, that we can actually do and drive for better success is we’re right now in a feasibility study, to install and operate Ride Share facilities, which would essentially cover a shorter distance than rideshare would, but it would offer the means for accessing places around the county, at least around Pittsfield. Once you arrive in Pittsfield, by train, you can rent a bike

Karen Christensen 18:35
Yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s terrific. Because Pittsfield actually does seem like a pretty syllable city to me. So we see a lot of things going on. So you have that going on, we see the upgrades being done to the Berkshire line, right now, to bring it to passenger standard. But you know, you said in your email to me that you could tell us a little bit a little bit about the streetcars of Pittsfield of the past. And I think we, we have to, we have to get that in, because then that will, of course, was a last mile thing, maybe that’ll come back.

Ricardo Morales 19:09
Karen, that’s, that’s it’s something that I as a first visitor, and later, our resident, I was always passionate about, I’m always passionate about history. And I was doing some digging of my own in some old papers at the library and very interested in the streetcar and in what the street rail system, what it used to be, what it offered, and what this place would be, if it still had one, and also made me think about, well, for those that would not be aware of the history with this street rail. It’s essentially was an operation electrified from 1886 to 1932. So little close to 50 years, short lived, it was taken down abruptly, everywhere, it was connecting Southern Vermont, to Northern Connecticut, and into the East, all the way to Westfield. And it provided that sense of connection through rail, that could be long range, mid-range and local range. And makes me wonder had it lived another 20 years? In the process, it would, would have most likely coincided with the peak of G’s legacy in the area and the population boom of the 50s. And who knows it would have been it would have never become a thing of the past. But we see that in other communities. It still happened. So it’s just me wondering what if

Karen Christensen 21:04
and you have to wonder if you know people Are the technological developments, you know this with various kinds of smart app apps, you wonder whether maybe someone will come up with a way to, because it’s a sort of a lightweight, I mean, they’re an elector electrified to some very attractive features there. And it is wonderful to think of having a really extensive network of transport. So we’ll see, I think that’s, I think it’s worth keeping in mind. Only,

Ricardo Morales 21:47
I think it has, it has room to come back in, I would say smaller scale. And I know there’s support from different organizations from the RPC the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, to other members of the administration in the city, that would support something like this at a smaller scale. Even if it’s as a pilot to have some type of trolley system maybe that would move people around.

Karen Christensen 22:20
That would be really neat. Well, you have you and working with Mayor Tyer certainly seem to have a lot of irons in the fire and, and a lot some really interesting things in prospect for the city. So we’ll look forward to seeing what develops, and I will, I hope you can provide us with some photographs that we can put on the web page with this podcast. I’m sure that anyone who’s listened to this will immediately want it say well then what are those streetcars look like.

Ricardo Morales 22:52
Absolutely. All right.

Karen Christensen 22:53
That’d be terrific. Thanks so much for talking to us at Train Time today.