Building passenger rail to Manchester won’t be too hard; paying for it will be

  • NH Department of Transportation

  • FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2011 file photo, the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train travels through Portland, Maine. Banners were being installed and track work continued Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, as the rail line is prepared to extend its route from Boston and Portland onward to Brunswick in November. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Monitor staff
Published: 11/18/2021 4:02:06 PM

The first public airing of a plan to extend MBTA passenger rail from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester made it clear that the biggest obstacle will be the same as it has always been: Money. Specifically, local money.

“The 20 percent match, that’s been the big big stumbling block,” said Patrick Herlihy, director of Aeronautics, Rail & Transit for the Department of Transportation, in response to a question at Wednesday evening’s information session.

Federal Transit Administration capital investment grants require local sources to cover 20% of the total cost. Under the current schedule, by the end of 2022 this project would have to present “a credible and realistic financial plan to show the feds how the non-federal portion of the project is going to get funded,” said Herlihy.

Bringing passenger rail up 30 miles of existing track – nine miles in Massachusetts and 21 in New Hampshire – would cost well over a quarter of a billion dollars. It would take up to three years to complete if federal money is approved, according to the session, indicating that service could not start before 2025 at the earliest.

The rail line would have to be upgraded to allow speeds of up to 80 mph – the current maximum is 35 mph – with construction of parallel tracks in a few locations to allow trains to pass each other and improvements made to bridges, especially one over the Merrimack River in Bedford.

But overall, the hearing indicated, the century-old line running along the Merrimack River is in pretty good shape.

“There’s a lot of good infrastructure out there,” said  Jonathan Bruneau, an engineer with Jacobs Engineering.

As it stands, the proposal has two stations in Nashua, one in Bedford alongside the bridge leading to Manchester airport, and one in south Manchester near the Fisher Cats baseball stadium. It also would have a layover station for trains in Manchester.

The two dozen people who asked questions in person and online Wednesday mostly wanted details about the process and the proposal, although one man said he thought the project would do more harm than good to New Hampshire.

Among the points that came out in response to questions is that the study is constrained by state legislation which authorized the Department of Transportation to do the analysis. As a result of the narrow scope of the study, the DOT is not looking at extending the line from Manchester to Concord, nor is it looking into whether Amtrak, rather than the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, would operate the service.

Other details that came up during the two-hour presentation:

■Pan Am Railways in 2010 sold “trackage rights” up to Concord to the MBTA, so its approval would not be needed. Pan Am is in negotiations to be bought by rail giant CSX, which has said it will honor Pan Am agreements, including the trackage rights.

■As currently envisioned, service would have 24 trains each weekday from Lowell to Manchester, eight fewer than run from Lowell down to North Station in Boston. No express service is planned because MBTA doesn’t run express trains, which bypass some stations in order to speed travel to more popular destinations.

■The trip would take 27 minutes between Manchester and the south Nashua station, and roughly 90 minutes between Manchester and North Station in Boston.

■Ridership projections for the year 2040 indicate 2,866 people would ride the New Hampshire portion each weekday, although if COVID-19 restrictions are still in place that number could fall to as low as 1,600. In 2018, the Massachusetts portion of the Lowell line carried an average of 5,750 people each weekday; the 2040 projection shows that number rising to as much as 7,360. Under that projection, the New Hampshire stations would handle 28% of the Lowell line’s total traffic.

■Each train would have, on average, 2 cars carrying 170 opassengers each. The expansion would use 5 separate trains, requiring the purchase of 12 new passenger cars but no new locomotives.

More information about the project can be found online at https://www.nh.gov/dot/projects/nashuamanchester40818/index.html.

Questions and comments can be emailed to nhcapitolcorridor@fhistudio.com.


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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