EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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April 7, 2008

Focus: Push to expand rail service gains steam

They're making tracks.

Since the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority formed a year ago, more progress has been made in extending rail service to the state than in the past 20 years combined, according to Vice Chairman Steve Williams.

"In the last two to three years, rapid run-up of gas prices and sort of no end in sight has really told the public and our decisionmakers that we need to be offering alternative forms of transportation," he said.

But to make it happen, Williams said, a long list of people need to be in agreement on a plan, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire state legislators, governors, affected municipalities, Congress, private railroads and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Williams said that is beginning to happen and once agreement is reached the issues of tracks and funding should resolve quickly.

The need for commuter rail service is ever increasing, as can be seen by examining the ridership numbers of the Haverhill to Boston line. On Oct. 18, 2007, the MBTA registered 5,144 riders — up from 4,984 just four months earlier. Of those riders, 543 rode inbound from Haverhill, 445 got on in Bradford, 667 took the train from Lawrence and another 614 in Andover.

Tony Komornick, transportation program manager for the Haverhill Regional Planning Commission, said when more parking spaces opened in Lawrence, there was a large spike in the number of riders at that stop. But the increase leveled right away, possibly because taking the train wasn't as convenient as people first thought, he said.

The planning commission has been lobbying to improve service in the Merrimack Valley for years by adding a piece of missing track from Andover to Reading, Komornick said. Right now, only one train can run at a time through that area, not enough for the commuter rail, the Downeaster and freight trains to share.

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