NHARPC CORNER: The Ups and Downs of Passenger Rail in New Hampshire
Passenger rail is an endemic topic of conversation in transportation and planning circles and increasingly, is surfacing as a key economic development issue; especially in the aftermath of the state’s recent bid to lure Amazon’s highly sought after HQ2. In the political arena, the discourse has focused primarily on the proposed Capital Corridor initiative and recent efforts to include $4 million in federal and state matching funds in the state’s Ten-Year Transportation Improvement Plan. As with any issue of consequence, the public discourse includes a mix of fact, fiction and hyperbole. This article is intended to provide a board overview of the principal passenger rail alternatives that are currently under consideration as well as the often-overlooked passenger rail services that are available to Granite State residents today. The most significant of these existing services in terms of ridership and physical footprint in the state is the Downeaster.
The Downeaster is a passenger rail service operated by Amtrak under contract with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). NNEPRA is a public transportation authority created in 1995 by the State of Maine to facilitate passenger rail service between various points in Maine and the City of Boston. The service was formally launched on December 15, 2001. The Downeaster currently provides five-round trips per day along an approximately 145-mile corridor between Boston and Brunswick, ME with three stops in New Hampshire: Dover, Durham (at the University of New Hampshire) and Exeter. The service, which reaches speeds of up to 79 miles per hour, boasted 511,422 passenger trips in 2017 with some of the largest boardings occurring at the New Hampshire stops. The Downeaster has been notably entrepreneurial in its approach to maximize tourist draws on both ends of the line with special services such as providing dome cars for viewing fall foliage and flexing evening schedules to accommodate passengers attending Red Sox games in Boston. Innovative on-board accommodations include the ability to purchase MBTA Charlie Card passes on the train for a more seamless transfer to the Green or Orange line subways at North Station in Boston. Given its frequency of service, the Downeaster also functions as a commuter line. Operating funds are covered through a combination of federal subsidies and state matching funds, passenger fares and other miscellaneous revenue sources. Though New Hampshire benefits from Downeaster service, the State provides no operating subsidies for the Downeaster. The costs for each of the three New Hampshire stations are covered by their host communities.
The second passenger rail line currently serving New Hampshire residents is The Vermonter. The Vermonter is also operated by Amtrak, providing one round trip a day between St. Albans, Vermont and Washington, D.C. through New York City, with several key stops in between. The Vermonter has only one stop in New Hampshire at Claremont, but stations in White River Junction, Windsor, Bellows Falls and Brattleboro, VT also serve New Hampshire residents. The Vermonter carries close to 90,000 passengers per year over its approximately 600-mile course. Between 2010 and a 2012, 190 miles of track in Vermont and New Hampshire received a $70 million upgrade funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) to facilitate increased speeds along portions of the line of up to 79 miles per hour. Another ARRA funded improvement resulted in a relocation of a portion of the line in western Massachusetts. Completed in December of 2014, the $73 million Knowledge Corridor project shaved approximately 30 minutes of time off of the schedule and restored passenger rail service to the western Massachusetts cities of Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke for the first time in decades. This initiative was followed by an approximately $90 million rehabilitation of the historic Union Station in Springfield, MA, also a stop on the Vermonter line, and a $190 million upgrade of the line between New Haven, CT and Springfield MA which included double tracking approximately twenty-six miles of single-track to allow for more frequent trips through the corridor paralleling I-91.
New Hampshire Capital Corridor
Downeaster and Vermonter lines do provide passenger rail service for significant areas of the state, however, no passenger rail lines serve New Hampshire’s largest cities, Nashua, Manchester and Concord. Motivated by a desire to connect these cities as well as the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to Boston, an initiative known as the New Hampshire Capital Corridor began to gain momentum in the early 2000s. Though the form of the service conceived has varied, the Capital Corridor has generally been defined as an extension of the existing Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operated commuter line that currently terminates in Lowell, MA, to New Hampshire with stops in Nashua, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and downtown Manchester with an eventual extension to Concord. In addition to providing a transportation alternative for New Hampshire residents who currently commute to Boston, advocates for the project see the Capital Corridor as a means of attracting young talent to New Hampshire, providing increased access to jobs and stimulating economic development along the route. Opponents have focused largely on the initial cost as well as the potential for on-going demands on state resources to cover operating costs.
In 2007, the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA) was formed to oversee the development of rail transit in New Hampshire with a specific focus on advancing the Capital Corridor project. In 2014, NHDOT released the New Hampshire Capital Corridor Rail & Transit Analysis which was viewed as a key milestone in the process of developing the line. The study evaluated a range of rail and bus transit alternatives for the Corridor and concluded that a long-favored alternative providing two stations in Nashua, one in downtown Manchester and one at the Airport would offer “ the greatest economic benefit with moderate construction investment.” Capital costs were estimated at approximately $246 million with $10.8 million in annual operating costs. Capital and operating costs were assumed to come from federal, state and MBTA sources along with nongovernmental revenue sources such as passenger fares and parking fees. Ridership was estimated 3,120 per day or 668,000 weekday riders per year, a figure more than 30% higher than the Downeaster.
To advance the project to the next step, $4 million in funding (80% federal and 20% state) was sought to develop a more detailed service plan, financial plan and to complete engineering. The funding, however, has not been included in the state’s Ten-Year Plan and despite the passionate advocacy of its supporters, including business groups, the Capital Corridor project has not progressed since completion of the 2014 study. Earlier this year, House Bill 267 was passed which replaced the NRHTA with the newly formed New Hampshire Transportation Council (NHTC). The NHTC will have a broader purpose with a scope encompassing passenger rail as well as other alternative transportation modes.
Other Alternatives Explored
Another passenger rail alternative proposed in recent years was also planned as an extension of existing MBTA commuter rail service; in this case from Boston to Plaistow, NH via Haverhill, MA. The MBTA’s interest in the proposal was primarily stimulated by a desire to relocate an existing layover facility in Haverhill. In 2015, the NHDOT completed a study that evaluated alternatives for a new station and a layover facility together with potential environmental impacts, ridership and costs. The Plaistow initiative has also failed to advance, due in large part to local opposition.
With the failure of the Capital Corridor initiative to move forward, a more limited privately funded passenger rail alternative recently surfaced. The Boston Surface Railroad Company (BSRC), founded in 2012, has proposed offering a more limited service between Bedford, NH and Lowell, MA with one stop near downtown Nashua at an existing city-owned Park & Ride at Crown Street. The service would utilize an existing Pan Am rail line with minimal upgrades and operate with refurbished rather than new locomotives and passenger cars. Because of its reduced scope of service and its reliance on private funds, BSRC anticipates that the service could be in operation in as soon as four years. BSRC is also planning to operate passenger rail service between Worcester, MA and Providence, RI which it hopes to have operational as soon as 2019. The City of Nashua has entered into a memorandum of understanding with BSRC and has formed a local Rail Transit Committee to help advance the extension of passenger rail service to the Gate City.
Though the challenge of providing expanded passenger rail service to New Hampshire residents has seemed daunting at times, the state has benefited from significant improvements in access, frequency and speed for nearly 20 years. These improvements include an entirely new line of service with the advent of the Downeaster and significant upgrades to the Vermonter line. Despite these advances, New Hampshire’s largest cities are still striving for access to the larger New England passenger rail network. The extension of commuter rail from Boston up the Merrimack Valley, therefore, will undoubtedly continue to be a focal point of economic development and transportation planning, as well as debate, for years to come.
Jay Minkarah is Executive Director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission. Jay may be reached by phone at 603.424.2240 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.