Woonsocket on track for new train service

Woonsocket on track for new train service

Heritage Corridor moving to Whitinsville to make way for railway

WOONSOCKET – Plans for a new commuter railroad that will connect Woonsocket to Worcester in the north and Providence in the south are moving forward, with longtime tenants at One Depot Square in Woonsocket relocating to make room for Boston Surface Railway Company headquarters.

Blackstone Heritage Corridor Inc., an organization that has been located in the city since the 1990s, announced this week that it will be moving to the Linwood Mill in Whitinsville, Mass.

The news is the latest sign that a plan by railway Executive Director Vincent Bono is gaining momentum, as the group evacuates to make room for the company’s home, already listed as Woonsocket on its website.

Bono plans to run commuter trains between Worcester’s Union Station and Providence’s Station Building twice a day, with just one stop in Woonsocket along the way.

“We had been on the fence about adding Woonsocket at the start, however Mayor Baldelli-Hunt convinced us to re-examine the ridership potential here and make Woonsocket our headquarters. Since then her support and enthusiasm has been invaluable,” Bono told The Breeze this week.

In terms of construction at the historic depot, which was first built in 1882 to serve as a passenger stop for the Providence and Worcester Railroad, Bono said he will add a platform on the western side of the building for high level boarding.

In terms of tenants, he said, “We are exploring adding a coffee concession and a USPS authorized shipping kiosk with post office boxes for rent.”

The complete trip from Worcester to Providence is expected to take around 80 minutes as of the train’s first scheduled run in 2018, but will be shortened to 60 minutes after upgrades, according to Bono, who added that the company expects to release some good news about progress in mid July.

BSRC is reportedly exploring the feasibility of an earlier service start for the route from Woonsocket to Providence only.

Bono is leasing the downtown building from the state Department of Transportation, and will rent the tracks from P & W Lines, which currently owns and operates a freight service along the route.

“The last passenger train left Worcester Union Station for Providence in 1960. The next one is leaving very soon,” the company’s website explains.

Bono said he offered to let both the BHC and the National Park Service stay in the building.

“Our office needs are pretty modest,” he said. “The NPS hasn’t made a decision yet but they can stay as long as they like.”

Bono said he is also exploring subletting some of the unused office space to a single practitioner, and a chiropractor and an attorney have already made inquiries.

And for fans of the city’s favorite winter attraction, The Blackstone Valley Polar Express, the investor has some good news.

“We are 1,000 percent committed to making sure that the Polar Express experience only gets bigger, better, and more accessible each year and have been working closely with Bob Billington and his staff at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council to make sure everything goes smoothly for all their events in the upcoming years,” Bono said.

Last season, Bono said BSRC treated a 1st-grade class from the Woonsocket public school system to a Polar Express ride.

And in February, Bono went under contract to purchase a home on Harris Avenue.

“I think Woonsocket is a great city, obviously, and I am making a lot of new friends,” he said.

For employees at the Heritage Corridor, meanwhile, relocation provided opportunity, with a new office that lands in the geographic center of the area that organization serves.

“We were going to lose our space here, and when we realized we were going to have to find some other space, we started measuring,” said BHC Executive Director Charlene Perkins Cutler. “It makes it easier for everyone because we’re closer to everything.”

Established in 1986 by Congress as a means to preserve and interpret the nationally significant historic, cultural and natural resources of the Blackstone River Valley, the shortened “BHC” was originally known as the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.

The organization was first headquartered in Uxbridge, Mass., where it began managing operations in the Blackstone Corridor on behalf of the former federal commission. They moved to Woonsocket and established residence in the city’s historic downtown depot in the late 1990s.

Perkins Cutler was named executive director in 2014, the same year the organization became an official nonprofit.

It was also the year that President Obama signed the legislation establishing the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, as part of the national park system and extended BHC’s authorization through the end of Fiscal Year 2021.

The organization will serve as the Nation Park’s primary partner in the region.

“We thought it made sense if we were going to be a part of the new national park system, it would help to be at the geographic center of the corridor,” said Cutler Perkins. “We have space that’s available for them to use,” she said, adding that Whitinsville could be the group’s northern office. “They’re looking at a lot of different options and it makes sense for them to have a north office and a south office.”

BHC’s small staff of just a half dozen employees are now eagerly anticipating the move, scheduled for May 1.

“We had a great situation being here, but this project is going to help the local economy,” said Marketing Director Bonnie Combs.

The executive director said the move will come with no changes to BHC’s activities in the area.

“It’s just 11 miles up the road,” she said. “It just puts us in the middle, and I think that’s important.”

BHC’s new home is inside a rehabilitated former mill building alongside the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce. The staff will hold an open house at the building at 870 Linwood Ave. on Wednesday, June 15, from 4 to 7 p.m.