The new route for passenger rail through the Pioneer Valley is exceeding expectations. That’s according to numbers from Amtrak.
The service shifted west in late December, taking away a stop in Amherst, and adding new ones in Northampton and Greenfield. State officials planned the move to speed up the trip and boost the number of riders. But it was also expected to help the local economy. So far, it’s hard to tell if that’s happened.
In Greenfield, the train stops next to a transit center built a few years ago. Inside is a waiting area. There’s no place to buy train tickets, you have to do that online. But there is a small coffee shop that opened last fall. Kelly Goodwin works there, and says the train hasn’t effected them much.
“Because their hours are different than ours, we close at 1:30, and their first southbound train stops shortly after 1, we don’t have the same activity as we could possibly have in the future, if they would have more runs,” Goodwin says.
Right now, there’s only one train in each direction every day. Though state and local officials have talked about the possibility of commuter rail.
The coffee shop is run by a rehab organization for adults with mental illness, so turning a profit isn’t its primary goal. Still, Goodwin thinks the train will eventually bring more business.
“We’re optimistic, I think we’ll do well. The train will do well, I think we’ll benefit from that,” she says. “It gives people freedom to go outside of Springfield if they don’t have a vehicle.”
I talked to two other workers at nearby restaurants – one a pizza place, the other a bit higher-end – neither would go on tape, but both told me the train hasn’t really had an effect on business.
The two new stops have been good for Amtrak’s business. In January, the first full month of the new route, the number of riders at the two new stations was up 84 percent over their equivalent station in Amherst last year. Amtrak hasn’t released the February numbers yet, so we don’t know whether that initial excitement continued.
Down the line in Northampton, the train stops next to the new Platform Sports Bar. Jeremiah Micka owns the bar, which opened last year inside what used to be the city’s Union Station. He says he didn’t factor the new train line into his business plan. Now that it’s started, he says there are positives and negatives.
“There’s the negative side of we’re now a local restroom. People who aren’t going to come and spend money are just kind of loitering, you’ve got a lot of traffic that just sits out there, especially during the pick up and drop off times,” Micka says.
Nonetheless, he says he’s glad to have the train close by. He also owns another bar called The Deck. It’s outdoors, and even closer to the new train station. It will open for the season around Memorial Day.
“Once we’re out on The Deck, it’s a hundred yards away, so you can buy a drink, pay for it, and if the train shows up early, or if it’s late, you know you’re not going to miss it, you’re so close,” Micka says. “So we’re really waiting for that to see what kind of impact it’ll really have on us.”
The bar is right next to the train tracks, but Micka says noise isn’t a concern.
“It’s pretty funny when the train comes by, it’s the little kid in all of us. Everyone just pauses, and it could be the last thirty seconds of a major game, but everybody’s looking out at the train, because it’s just exciting, it’s really cool,” Micka says.
After the 4 o’ clock northbound train pulls in, a few passengers get off. One of them, Mike Barkigan of New York City looks a little confused. He asks me where he can get a drink while he waits for his ride. I tell him about the Platform Bar, and ask what he thinks of Northampton’s new train stop.
“It just seems a little bland for a train station. I mean, there’s no one selling anything around here,” he says. I ask him what he would expect at a train station. “Definitely a lot more taxis, probably a place resembling a bodega of some sort to buy things people might want that aren’t accessible on some of the trains,” Barkigan says.
For now, there’s none of that here. Of course we’re talking about one train a day in each direction through the Pioneer Valley. No one should expect Grand Central Station.