Trains from Boston to Berkshires: Are They Worth $25 Billion?

Introduction

Trains are probably the most comfortable and best way to travel. The problem is speed. But some trains are faster than others. The fastest train in the world is the Maglev train with a top speed of 268 mph that travels between the Shanghai airport and Beijing. Consider what that would mean in the US: Boston to New York City – 58 minutes, Boston to Washington DC – 1 hour, 50 minutes. And more locally, Boston to the Berkshires – 10 minutes!

In what follows, more modest train options for the Boston – Berkshires trip will be considered.

Background

While not large, Massachusetts is a bifurcated state. The east is growing rapidly with housing shortages and massive traffic backups. Out west, The Berkshires are experiencing population declines as the fallout from the loss of manufacturing continues. One possible way to resolve at least some of these imbalances: a high speed east – west rail.

An ongoing study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT) laid out 6 alternative strategies for better train service east – west. One of these alternatives was a high speed Pittsfield – Boston train with stops in Worcester, Springfield, and Palmer. It estimated that it could be built for $25 billion. Projected travel times are indicated in Table 1. At an average speed of 60 MPH, the Pittsfield – Boston train time is about the same as what in now takes to drive to Boston. If that speed could be increased to 75 MPH, it would take only 1 hour 50 minutes.

Table 1. – Travel Times for East-West Trains

Source: MA DOT Study

So what justification could there be for this $25 billion investment? The MassDOT study makes the following estimates:

Table 2. – Passenger Boardings

Source: MA DOT Study

There are many ways to make projections. And as was pointed out recently in a regionally prepared planning report, more work on this matter is needed. In what follows, I offer an approach that starts by asking what are the economic and population dynamics of Massachusetts towns/counties/regions? And how might high speed trains from Boston to Pittsfield affect them?

Table 3 provides property values and population data for Massachusetts’ counties. Huge property value differences are apparent.

Table 3. – Property Values and Populations

Source: Mass Realty and UMASS Donahue Institute

And if you look at the immediate suburbs of Boston (Table 4), the property value differences with Berkshire towns (Table 5) are even more extreme.

Table 4. – Property Values: Towns Neighboring Boston

Source: Mass Realty

Table 5. – Property Values, The Berkshires

Source: Mass Realty

In these circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that high speed trains from the west into downtown Boston would draw a significant number from Boston and neighboring town resident workers to the west. In addition, such a line would attract a significant number if riders for trips along the line.

The question is how many and what is a reasonable estimation methodology. Aside from incidental traffic, there are three sources of potentially significant ridership:

  • Existing residents from eastern cities and towns
  • New state residents and
  • Tourists.

a. Projected Growth From MA Residents

In Table 6, it is assumed that 10% of the existing eastern residents take advantage of the new trains and move west. It is assumed they pay a very low $50 for a train round trip (RT). This would generate more than $26 billion over a decade, or more than the $25 billion estimated project cost.

Table 6. – Train Revenues from Existing Residents Who Move West

Source: UMASS Donahue Institute

b. Population Growth

Table 7 provides the same data for the projected population increase projected to occur in the next decade. These should provide an additional $6.2 billion in train revenues over the next decade.

Table 7. – Train Revenues from New MA Residents Who Move West

Source: UMASS Donahue Institute

c. Tourist Growth

Somewhat surprisingly, it is difficult to get reliable data on state tourists who might use high-speed trains to the Berkshires.

Here is what we know from the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism:

There were 29.1 million domestic and international visitors to Massachusetts who stayed overnight in paid accommodations). Total tourist spending in the State was $24.2 billion and in Berkshire County $530 million.

Assuming the expenditure share (2.1%) is an adequate proxy for tourist numbers, it suggests The Berkshires get 611,000 tourists annually. In Table 8, it is assumed that a high speed train would increase that share to 10% leading to rail revenues of $1.1 billion over the next decade.

Table 8. – Rail Revenue Projections From New Tourists

Source: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Conclusions

Making projections for the next decade on traffic patterns is not easy. And there are several ways to do them. In the above, I started from expected population changes. The conclusion is that a high speed east – west train would pay for itself in less than a decade.

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of archive.org):
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