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Ditching the Car and Enjoying the View on a Trip to the Berkshires

Evan Gottesman and his fiancée, Gabrielle Kleyner, were meeting friends in the Berkshires one weekend in early July. The couple, who live in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, were trying to figure out how they would get to the rural region of western Massachusetts, which annually draws thousands of hikers, theater lovers and music aficionados with its mountains, lakes and myriad cultural centers.

A friend told them about the Berkshire Flyer, a new Amtrak train between New York City and Pittsfield. The couple quickly booked tickets and jumped on the 3:15 p.m. sold-out train from the Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan on July 8.

Without realizing it, they had stepped onto the Flyer’s maiden voyage, a milestone at least four years in the making and the result of countless emails, meetings and phone calls between Amtrak and state legislators and transportation officials, who have been eager for more direct rail lines between New York and Massachusetts.

When Gottesman and Kleyner arrived in Pittsfield that evening, they saw dozens of people on the platform cheering wildly and snapping pictures. State and city officials held a triumphant news conference. Someone popped a bottle of Champagne.

“It was the nicest welcome I’d ever gotten stepping off an Amtrak train,” Gottesman, 27, said.

For the first time in 50 years, a passenger train from New York had arrived in Pittsfield, a city of more than 40,000 people that is often overlooked by tourists going to better-known parts of the county like Tanglewood in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

More than 60 people arrived that evening on the Berkshire Flyer, which runs only once on Friday and returns Sunday afternoon. The number of passengers was modest but still encouraged business owners and state officials who are closely watching the pilot program, which will run through Labor Day.

Also encouraging: the number of sold-out trains. After the inaugural journey, trains to Pittsfield continued to fill up regularly, and while northern-bound seats remain available in August, trains back to New York have a limited number of tickets, with some sold out through Labor Day weekend, according to Amtrak. Travelers should check back to see if seats have opened up since there may be cancellations.

“It’s in the beginning stages,” said Lindsey Tuller, 42, a co-owner of the Berkshire General Store in Pittsfield, about two blocks from the train station. “But I think it could be a big deal.”

It ‘starts with local interest’

The Flyer is one of many new services and restored rail lines that Amtrak has announced in recent months.

On Friday, the Ethan Allen Express, a rail line from New York to Rutland, Vermont, was extended 66 miles northwest to Burlington as part of another new program.

In Virginia, Amtrak has added more daily rides from Roanoke and Norfolk to Washington.

International routes that were shut down because of the pandemic are humming again, including the Maple Leaf train between New York and Toronto and the Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver, which resumes in September.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, a $10 million bus depot opened in June to take passengers about 84 miles north to an Amtrak station in Wilson.

The project, which Jacksonville officials have been planning since 2010, was funded by the Federal Transit Administration, said Anthony Prinz, the city’s transportation services director.

Similar projects are to be funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, particularly in states and communities that have begun planning, said Roger Harris, the president of Amtrak.

“It really starts with local interest,” Harris said. “That’s why it’s important for local communities to get on their game and say, ‘Yes, please, we want to get in on this.’”

Amtrak has created an expansive map that lays out a vision for how it could bring dozens more routes to more than 160 cities and towns across the country.

The new law, which sets aside $66 billion for rail, comes at a time when travelers are looking for ways to save on fuel costs and get around the country more sustainably.

The funding also comes as Amtrak continues to recover from a decline in ridership caused by the pandemic. The rail service recorded nearly 16 million rides between October 2021 and June 2022, compared with about 24 million during the same time period in 2019, according to Amtrak.

Nearly 20%, or $12 billion, of the total rail funding is set aside for service outside the Northeast, giving cities and towns that want to be part of the proposed expansion a big boost, according to Amtrak officials.

North Carolina already has plans in place.

Its goal over the next decade is to work with Virginia to build a 110-mile, one-hour train route and draw millions of people away from congested highways, said Jason Orthner, the rail division director in North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

“It’s definitely a different picture of life from the train than it is looking at it through the windshield on a multilane freeway,” Orthner said.--NYT

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