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Bolstered Rail Service Could Be Around Bend

Listen to Valley News reporter Maggie Cassidy discuss this story with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb on the Jan. 24 broadcast of Morning Edition at this link.

White River Junction — Rail enthusiasts and regional planners turned out to a hearing Wednesday night to advocate for more frequent stops along two passenger rail routes to connect Boston with Montreal and southern Connecticut, while several attendees with Claremont ties urged for that city to be included in the loop.

Transportation officials from Vermont and Massachusetts were at the Hotel Coolidge hosting the first public meeting on a Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative study, which will examine the feasibility of improved intercity rail service along the two lines, which both connect in Springfield, Mass.

“Frequency is the key,” Carl Fowler, president of Rail Travel Adventures and a member of the Vermont Rail Council, said in an interview following the two-hour hearing. “That’s what they’ve got to address.”

On top of advocating for greater frequency, many of the nearly 40 people in attendance urged officials and consultants to consider regional connectivity as they advance the study and develop a firm list of goals. In addition to being able to easily move along the two corridors, attendees said, they also want the train schedules to work in a way that allows them to pick up connecting trains that travel further south or head west.

Others, though, were feeling left out of the mix altogether.

Although the initiative is designed to improve passenger service to Quebec and four New England states — Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire — there are currently no New Hampshire stations included as potential stops. The omission of Claremont, in particular, led to questions from several people in the crowd, including N.H. Rep. Ray Gagnon, D-Claremont, who asked why Claremont officials weren’t being consulted about the potential need for a stop there.

“We’re out of the loop,” he said.

New Hampshire Rail Authority member Jonathan Edwards, of Hanover, said it would be “a mistake to not give Claremont the fullest consideration possible,” noting that Springfield, Vt., and Windsor would also be served by that station. A representative from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation also advocated for the Claremont stop.

The two nearest stops north and south of White River Junction included on the list are Montpelier and Brattleboro, Vt.

Ron O’Blenis, senior rail project manager with HDR Engineering who led the presentation, responded that the list of potential participating stations was the result of a “preliminary screening” of stations that would bring in a high volume of passengers without having to stop the train too frequently that it slows down service.

He said a stop in Claremont is not off the table and will be researched further as the study progresses.

“Lots of times it’s local groups and initiatives to make it happen that can dictate that,” he said in an interview afterward.

Some questioned why the Boston to White River Junction leg had to go through Springfield, Mass., which one person compared to keeping the two s ides of a triangle and “cutting out the hypotenuse.” Sixty miles of track between Concord and White River Junction was removed years ago, and New Hampshire put the brakes on a proposal in 2003 that would have possibly had it reinstated.

The study is being funded by federal funds matched by Vermont and Massachusetts. It builds upon projects already completed or in the works thanks to funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, including upgrades to 220 miles of New England Central Railroad completed last spring.

Similar upgrades are underway in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Several attendees noted afterward that they had expected to see a more substantive study and are looking forward to September, when another round of hearings will take place and, as Fowler said, “hopefully there will be more meat on the proposal.”

Christopher Parker, executive director with the Vermont Rail Action Network, an advocacy group for rail services in Vermont, said it seemed like people were ready for more substantive discussions beyond an easy consensus that greater frequency is better and, instead, take a hard look at train schedules and other details.

Still, he said, he was glad that things were moving forward.

“For us, this is super,” he said. “This is what we want to see happen.”

Written comments about this phase of the study will be accepted through the end of February, O’Blenis said. More information is available at http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Planning/Main/CurrentStudies/NorthernNewEnglandRailStudy.aspx or by calling Scott Bascom, planning coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, at 802-828-5748.

A follow-up meeting will be held at 7 p.m. tonight in Springfield, Mass., at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission office at 60 Congress St.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.