ANDOVER — Commuter rail passengers can expect fewer delays and faster trips to Boston once construction is complete on a new set of tracks over an 8-mile stretch of the MBTA line from Ballardvale to Lawrence.
Yesterday, federal and state officials gathered at a railroad crossing off Lupine Road in Andover to put shovels in the ground marking the start of the $17.4 million project, which is being paid for with federal stimulus money.
"These American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds will create jobs by improving our public transportation infrastructure and decreasing commute times for residents along the Haverhill line," said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell. "This is an excellent investment."
MBTA General Manager Richard Davey said contractors will build a second track parallel to the existing track so trains can pass each other without having to stop or take alternate routes on other spurs.
"This will limit the single track to about 8 miles," said Davey, noting that between Wilmington and Lawrence there are about 16 miles of single track. Reducing the single track by half will create "more reliability and flexibility for passengers," Davey said.
The second track will be laid between the Ballardvale and Lawrence stations and finished by 2011. The stretch from Ballardvale to Wilmington will remain single track, although plans are in the works to make that section a double track as well.
What happens now, Davey said, is that when two trains are heading toward each other on a single track, one has to turn off and wait while the other train goes by. If it was just the commuter rail using the system, that would be one thing. But the rail bed is used by freight trains as well as the Downeaster passenger trains run by Amtrak.
State Rep. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said he hopes the second set of tracks will lead to more trains being put into service between Haverhill and Boston.
"For years, I've heard people in Andover say they'd like to take the train but that if you have to work late, you just don't have any options," he said. Sometimes, people end up getting stuck in the city if they miss the few available trains from North Station.
Finegold lauded the project because it is being built simultaneous to talks about the Andover town yard, which is near the Andover train station. The town yard is where the Department of Public Works keeps its equipment, and for years, there have been efforts to have the yard moved.
Most recently, talks have centered around moving it to a warehouse on Dascomb Road. If those plans come to fruition, Finegold said, part of the town yard could be used for parking for the train station. He even mentioned the possibility of building a parking garage at the town yard site.
Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover, said she knows firsthand how poor train service can affect business.
Her office manager, Jan Burkholder, takes the train from Andover every day and recounts every delay and other problems she encounters along the way, which Tucker then relays to Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee.
"I've been working on this for 10 years," Tucker said. "This is really big."
Baddour said the lack of predictability in the train system is "very frustrating."
He predicted that the second set of rails will make a "huge difference in the quality of life" for commuters from the Merrimack Valley.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who also represents North Andover, said the new rail line will take cars off the roads, which will ease traffic and pollution.
Rep. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, said she remembered when that section of rail was a double track in the 1970s.
MBTA officials said while it was double-tracked in the 1970s, the track was converted to single track because there was less demand for commuter rail.