NORTH ADAMS -- U.S. Reps. John W. Olver and Richard Neal received a first-hand look at the Hoosac Tunnel on Thursday as they rode the Patriot Corridor from Greenfield into the city with Pan Am Railways officials.
The congressmen were instrumental in securing $2 million in Federal Railroad Administration funds for a feasibility study that will be conducted by the state Department of Transportation, in partnership with Pan Am Railways and Norfolk South Railways that would raise the clearance of the Hoosac Tunnel by more than two feet.
"Today is a reminder of the importance rail transportation has played, not only in our history but [how it] will play in the future," said Neal, who represents the 2ndCongressional District and is currently running for Olver's 1st Congressional District seat. "Rail transportation, especially commercial rail, has made a comeback whether we're talking about the rail yards of Palmer or on the line from Ayer to North Adams. We're seeing an increase in Central and Western Massachusetts."
The preliminary engineering and design feasibility study, which will cost a total of $3 million, will also look at 18 additional sites along the 155-mile Patriot Corridor stretching from Mechanicville, N.Y., to Ayer, which either need to be removed or be raised. Norfolk South Railways, which shares ownership of the railway with Pan Am, has contributed the additional $1 million for the study.
"We need to increase the clearance of the tunnel by about 3 feet to allow the double-stacked freight to get into New England," Olver, D-Amherst, said. "The important thing now is that this tunnel and about 18 other places -- where there are crossings, bridges or smaller tunnels -- must be raised or lowered. Those other locations are minor compared to this tunnel, which is probably as costly as all those others put together."
He said moving double-stacked freight cars along the line is critical, especially because destinations in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are easier reached from the Patriot Corridor than competitive lines running along the southern part of the state.
Neal said a main focus of the study, which also includes raising the clearance of the city's "Little Tunnel" near Western Gateway Heritage State Park, will be to determine the best way to increase the clearance of the Hoosac Tunnel, as well as determine the cost of the entire project.
"One way is to scrape the top and raise the ceiling, while the competing argument is to lower the track," he said. "We hope when we get done with this study, we'll have a clearer picture."
Pan Am Railways President David Fink, who also made the trip, said he wanted the congressmen to see the issues the railways would be facing when the project got under way.
"To clear the Hoosac Tunnel, we need it to be at least 20 feet 6 inches high," he said. "Currently, it's 19 feet 6 inches high. We did raise the clearance of the tunnel about a decade ago through a combination of raising the roof and lowering the track. It allowed us to get tri-level automobile cars through, along with double-stack cars, which were one high and one low. That was OK then, but it's not OK now."
Olver said that when the study is completed, there will need to be financial commitments from the federal government, the state and the private railways to move the project forward.
In addition to stopping at Western Gateway Heritage State Park, Neal also toured C.H. McCann Technical School, Morrison Berkshire and met with students at Williams College.