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Haverhill rail service to upgrade

Stimulus funds will add track, improve systems

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

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Commuter train riders between Haverhill and Boston will see their service enhanced as a result of $17.4 million in improvements the state plans to carry out with federal stimulus money.

The administration of Governor Deval Patrick recently announced it was committing the combined stimulus funds for two projects to upgrade the infrastructure of the Haverhill commuter rail line.

One is a $10.2 million project to add a second track to a 6-mile portion of the line that is single track, from Lawrence to Andover. The other is a $7.2 million project to improve train control systems along the line.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the Merrimack Valley,’’ said Robert J. Halpin, president of the Merrimack Valley Economic Council.

“The improved commuting time that will result from double tracking can make valley communities more attractive for the commuting workforce,’’ he said, noting that it supports ongoing efforts by Haverhill and Lawrence to promote development near their rail stations.

Halpin said by spurring more people to ride the trains, improved transit service could also ease traffic pressure on Interstate 93.

The state has been allotted $319 million overall in stimulus money for urban and regional transit projects.

The money for the Haverhill line project is part of $64.3 million in projects that the state recently identified for funding, according to Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Transportation.

“The Haverhill commuter rail line is a key commuter rail line that serves Boston and Haverhill,’’ he said. “With the recovery funds, we are going to make improvements to service and reliability that people have waited for for a long time.’’

The Haverhill line extends from North Station in Boston through Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Reading, Wilmington, Andover, Lawrence, North Andover, and Haverhill. In addition to commuter rail, the track system is used by Amtrak for its Downeaster service between Portland, Maine, and Boston, and by freight trains operated by Pan-Am Railways.

According to the state, the single-track system along the Haverhill line, coupled with an inadequate signal system, is a source of delays.

If a train becomes disabled along the single track, it can cause backups of other trains along the line.

With two tracks, trains can maneuver around the disabled train and maintain service near scheduled levels.

The double-tracking project would reduce the single-track miles on the line from 14 to 8. The project, expected to take two years once it gets underway, also involves installing new signaling equipment at Andover Street in Lawrence and Lowell Junction in Andover.

The second project calls for installing new track circuits, power circuits, and signaling equipment, and improvements to seven grade crossings.

The state says the project, expected to take three years, will enhance the reliability and safety of the system.

Halpin noted that double-tracking the Haverhill line was a key recommendation of a Merrimack Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization study looking at ways to reduce congestion and improve safety along the I-93 corridor stretching from the Andover-Wilmington line - where the highway drops from four to three lanes - to the New Hampshire line.

“It’s just tremendous we are able to move forward with the stimulus money’’ to carry out part of the double tracking, Halpin said.

He noted that progress is also being made toward the second recommendation of the study, which calls for expanding the three-lane section of I-93 to four lanes.

He said in an environmental impact study the state is performing on a planned I-93 interchange at Lowell Junction that the state has also agreed to study the impact of widening I-93 from the junction north to Interstate 495.

Anthony Komornick, transportation manager for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said that because of the limitations posed by the Haverhill line’s single-track system, “We as a region don’t get the level of commuter rail service that other communities receive.

“One of our priority goals is to have the bottleneck that exists on the Haverhill line alleviated by building that separate track,’’ he said, noting the contribution that could make to reducing highway traffic.

In addition to providing relief to commuters, Komornick said, the project could also bring improvements to railroad freight service in the region, which would provide a boost to businesses that make use of it.

William Pillsbury, Haverhill’s director of economic development and planning, said the award of stimulus money for the Haverhill line project is “tremendous news.’’

“The city has been staunchly behind the state’s efforts to expand the intermodal aspects of transportation,’’ he said, noting for example its work to attract downtown development close to the city’s train station. “So being able to enhance the capacity of the system that underlies transit-oriented development is fantastic for us.’’