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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Talks of state rail continue

The future of commuter rail in the state has grown cloudy, since the owners of the rail lines through Nashua discontinued talks about the project.

The dilemma has rail advocates trying to figure out a way to get commuter trains rolling into New Hampshire despite the opposition of Pan Am railways.

There may be no simple way to do that if the state plans to run the trains. There could be a more complicated solution, though, feasible under certain conditions. In the meantime, state officials are already adjusting their strategy to try and achieve short- and long-term goals.

The immediate mission is to explore bringing a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter train from Lowell, Mass., right to the state line in Nashua, according to state officials and rail advocates.

“If Pan Am doesn’t want to cooperate, we can pursue a short-term solution,” said Peter Burling, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. “I think that train may be coming back to Nashua after all.”

A commuter train ran from Boston to Concord as a demonstration project for a few years during the 1970s until the federal money ran out.

The Nashua segment scenario would not require the OK of Pan Am Railways, which owns the track right-of-way north of the border. The state would have to negotiate and pay the MBTA to run a commuter train to the state line and likely build a short spur ending at the Pheasant Lane Mall property.

Transportation Commissioner George Campbell and the N.H. Rail Transit Authority have begun work on those more complex, time-consuming and much more expensive fronts required for a high-speed, Boston-to-Concord project that would lack Pan Am’s willing consent.

Under this proposal, Amtrak, the nation’s largest commuter rail operator, would run the high-speed line. Federal regulatory boards and the courts have ruled that Amtrak has a unique right of access over freight lines.

Amtrak’s access to the lines is not absolute.

“The freight rail operator can’t just say no. They have to give Amtrak an estimate on what it should be paid for that access, and ultimately that’s up to the Surface Transportation Board to decide,” said Kit Morgan, the state’s rail administrator.

The state has opened discussions with Amtrak about becoming a commuter rail operator in New Hampshire and gotten a polite response.

The Nashua rail company’s refusal to negotiate with the state on the so-called Capital Corridor prompted Campbell in September to cancel a planned application for $300 million from an Obama administration pool of stimulus money.

The grant requirements explicitly state any existing rail operator must be on board for an application to be viable.

The state is still seeking a $3 million planning grant for this project.

Federal law prevents any state government from operating a commuter train without the consent of any freight rail company that owns the rails.

The case went up to the Supreme Court, which ruled state powers of eminent domain could not be used to take property over the objection of freight railroad operators.

“The court’s ruling is pretty emphatic,” said Rob Culliford, executive vice president and legal counsel for Pan Am Systems. “The rail operator has to be in agreement for a taking to occur.”

The state and Pan Am had been in private talks toward negotiating state access for a Boston-to-Concord line for nearly two years. They broke off in late June after state transportation officials refused to put out to bid the operation of a short-track freight line operated by state Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough.

During a recent interview, Pam Am Executive David Fink said he could not understand why the state, during this severe economic downturn, would want to press forward with an expensive, high-speed rail line to Concord.

“It just doesn’t make any sense for the state to be doing this right now. I thought the state had all kinds of budget problems,” Fink said. “Where are they going to get the millions in subsidy to run a commuter train?”

Fink said running a commuter train to the Massachusetts border with Nashua makes more sense.

“Then you are at least testing whether there’s a market for this at a relatively inexpensive cost if it doesn’t pan out,” Fink said.

Leishman and Fink have been fighting over the freight railroad for two decades, but Leishman is similarly skeptical about a full-blown, high-speed project.

“It seems to me that before New Hampshire settles on the mode for moving people, it needs to really understand the costs and value of each opportunity,” Leishman wrote in an opinion piece on commuter rail last spring.

Leishman has been of the opinion that if the state spends hundreds of millions to upgrade the rails for high-speed trains, it should own it.

“I believe that any improvements made to the railroad corridor with public money should become property of the state,” Leishman said.

As for Amtrak, the commuter-rail provider runs the Downeaster commuter train from Portland, Maine, through New Hampshire down to Boston over Pan Am tracks.

“Initially, I was against that project, but it’s proven to be a very efficient operation,” Fink said. “I’d be happy to talk with Amtrak.”

In the meantime, Morgan, the state’s rail administrator, said the short-term link to Nashua would still cost roughly $80 million and could take years for the state to develop.

The sources of federal financing for such a short rail spur are less generous than for those states and communities able to win the vigorous, high-speed rail competition for federal stimulus money.

“This kind of project doesn’t qualify for stimulus money, and you still would need to make a large financial commitment in trains and equipment to make it happen,” Morgan said.

The state has to come up with at least a 20 percent match to these projects. An option for some of that match would be to use some of the so-called SEMAC grants the state receives for projects that improve air quality.

“The state has some flexibility with the clean air dollars,” Morgan said.

Even a commuter rail spur to Nashua could take seven to eight years to complete, he added.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or