A long-sought East-West passenger solution may be another dramatic discovery fallen out of Norfolk Southern’s recent filing with the STB, which divulges CSX’s advanced interest in partnering with NS on the B&M/Patriot Corridor line.
Numerous advocates have publicly urged the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to impose itself in the Pan-Am sale, as an opportunity to secure transportation priorities identified by MassDOT and MBTA, and by nongovernmental entities. The grand “East-West Rail Link” vision of a high-speed passenger rail link connecting the state’s western districts with Boston, has long attracted a powerful coalition of legislators and leaders. Their interest focuses on the state’s two historical freight mainlines, the CSX-controlled Boston & Albany (B&A) through Springfield to Boston, and the PAS-owned Boston & Maine (B&M) route running west from Ayer to Athol, Greenfield and North Adams.
Another, other shoe falls?
At the 22.October public meeting on the East-West Rail Study, MassDOT project managers were asked if the state might take over the line from CSX. After some throat-clearing, DOT acknowledged that there have been discussions, and that “negotiations” were continuing. Another seemingly routine rhetorical question, about what state entity would operate an East-West passenger corridor, also received a surprisingly meaty response, with MassDOT Rail and Transit Administrator Astrid Glynn acknowledging that the Department should not be an operator, and making an oblique reference to the possibility of a new authority.
CSX moving on and up?
The B&A line’s owner, CSX, has appeared ambivalent toward sharing the B&A with a long-distance passenger route. CSX managers participate in the discussion, and afterwards impose daunting requirements such as 20-ft separation between main tracks, which would make the project too expensive. At the same time, the B&A has been an unannounced part of CSX’s divestiture plan initiated by Hunter Harrison. Interested parties have reportedly balked at the terms, which do not include the Worcester intermodal terminal. Recently, structural problems with CSX’s cross-Hudson Alfred H. Smith Bridge connecting the B&A to Selkirk Yard have added another level of ambiguity to CSX’s commitment to the line.
Selling the B&A to the state would make sense in many ways. CSX would cash a name-your-price check, and keep the Worcester intermodal operation, while disposing of the upkeep on the roller-coaster route and the need to fix the Smith Bridge. CSX trains from Worcester would reroute to the shorter, flatter B&M, and share maintenance and operating costs as a Conrail Shared Asset.
NS would gain a nominally more reliable and invested partner for the B&M, and together with CSX would have the combined desire and clout to get the Hoosac Tunnel clearance raised and bring the line back up to class 1 speeds. For the Commonwealth, a viable East-West passenger line would be a tremendous asset in spreading Boston’s success across the state, and would be a dramatic (dare we say, presidential? – Ed.) achievement for Governor Charlie Baker. Such a deal would follow in the footsteps of a similar deal CSX recently cut in Virginia for its Richmond mainline.