HAVERHILL — MBTA leaders say the problem is simple.
Local rail commuters will have delays as long as there are stretches of the Haverhill-to-Boston line with single tracks, which means only one train can pass at a time.
Facing repeated commuter complaints, MBTA officials said they hope to get $20 million in federal stimulus money to double up single tracks in various locations along the line. The longest stretch is six miles between the Reading and Ballardvale stops.
"If we double-tracked that, it would be a big benefit," said Richard Davey, general manager for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, which operates and maintains commuter rail service for the MBTA.
Yesterday, Davey met with The Eagle-Tribune Editorial Board to explain what his organization is doing and how it plans to improve on-time performance, particular for the Haverhill line, which links the Merrimack Valley with Boston.
"For Haverhill, double tracking is key," Davey said. "The Haverhill line is where we have the most single line (track)."
If the stimulus money becomes available, Davey said his company could add six miles of track, ties, signals and upgrade signals at crossings between the Reading and Ballardvale stations as early as this summer.
But rather than wait to improve local train service, he said his company has been making changes that in the last month alone have resulted in better on-time performance. Those range from upgrading signalling equipment to working more closely with other railroad companies that share the same tracks.
The Haverhill line has been performing poorly this winter, drawing complaints from riders suffering delays of a half-hour or more on some days. Train breakdowns and other equipment malfunctions have forced the MBTA to sometimes take commuters off trains and bus them to their destinations.
Last month MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas promised that service would improve and called for the necessary changes.
Davey said that in the last 60 days, his company has focused on the Haverhill line.
"Raising speed restrictions on the Shawsheen River bridges and the Merrimack River Bridge (Haverhill) helped the schedule improve over the last few weeks," he said.
Problems with electronic signaling equipment caused by road salt at a railroad crossing in Andover that caused a number of delays were addressed. Additional signal staff were added at key locations along the line as well, Davey said.
To improve safety and reliability, one set of tracks on the Merrimack River Bridge was replaced last year and the second set of tracks will be replaced this spring, Davey said. The work will begin next month and take six weeks to complete, he said.
While the first set of tracks was being replaced last fall, Davey said local commuters were bused from the Haverhill and Bradford stations to the Lawrence station. He said his company hopes to avoid having to bus commuters this time.
"We'll do whatever has the least impact on passengers," he said.
Davey said he expects additional on-time performance improvements through better coordination of the use of the rail lines by the MBTA and other railroad companies, including Guilford Rail, which Davey said is responsible for at least half of the dispatching on the Haverhill line.
"We have a new acting chief mechanical officer who is looking at ways of doing things better, and a new HVAC manager who will focus on air conditioning reliability," Davey added.
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