I believe the ROW exists, considering there is active freight rail. just with amtrak serving Dover, C&J providing bus service to south station and logan from portsmouth, and NH not funding any rail projects ( the downeaster stops in nh received no funding from the state) a business case can't be made until we have a higher population here.
That's the Portsmouth Branch out of Newfields. Merges in with the Eastern Route at the freight yard, then splits in half at Sarah Long Bridge: Eastern Route goes over bridge and turns out into Navy Yard spur (new Sarah Long Bridge will also have rail), Newington Branch continues on the NH side to the gas tank farm at Bloody Point along US 4. That whole Sea-3 gas transload controversy that's raging in Portsmouth is about a humongous new freight on the Newington Branch. Pan Am's upgrading all track Newfields-Newington up-to-spec for hazmat loads and will be expanding to 6-day-a-week freight schedule out there when that facility opens.
Unfortunately, junction with the mainline at Newfields points the wrong direction for commuter rail. And schedule from Boston would be godawful long and scoop too little ridership between Plaistow and Newfields since it bails out before Durham and Dover. I would put chances very remote of it happening on the active rail.
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For what it's worth, Seacoast MPO did a study in '01 of restoring service on the Eastern Route out of Newburyport. Those towns have been aggressive about making sure the ROW gets preserved for future commuter rail use and that any trail on the recent abandonment Hampton-north portion they're still negotiating to buy from Pan Am gets designed from Day 1 to be compatible with rail-with-trail. Rail w/ trail shouldn't be hard since it's pretty wide and goes through a whole lot of forest between North Hampton and Portsmouth. Seacoast has got a sustained passenger rail advocacy that the rest of the state lacks. Unfortunately they're beholden to the same bipolar Legislature and Governor's Council, which can't even get its stories straight on Nashua/Manchester CR. So all that advocacy is still going to keep them waiting 30 years of worsening I-95 traffic before anybody lifts a finger. Wouldn't look for more than an updated study these next 10 years.
MPO study docs:
It's dated because the '98 Rowley-Newburyport extension was only a year old at the time data was collected, and a generation ago in terms of Eastern Route ridership and Seacoast population growth.
The big thing the extension would have going for it is a FAST
trip to Boston because the Newburyport/Portsmouth branch is arrow-straight past Ipswich, stations widely spaced, and trains able to hit long stretches of max track speed between stops. Study quoted 1:30 on an all-stops local with 70 MPH speeds on the Newburyport/Portsmouth branch and max number of NH intermediate stops. That's faster than the Worcester and Fitchburg Lines. Since actual max authorized speed north of North Beverly is 79 MPH the real schedule probably shrinks into the mid/low 1:20's. Enough to stay within tolerance even if the privately-developed Lynnport replacement for Riverworks got built, and the long-desired Salem State U. infill got built. Would go faster still if the T can do anything to fix the Chelsea slow zone that every Newburyport/Rockport schedule carries as painful deadweight. Being able to extend all Newburyport locals without having to initiate new mix/match semi-expresses keeps the equipment and ops costs relatively efficient; the only new trainsets needed are for re-balancing the same schedule for the longer running distance.
Ridership projections by Seacoast MPO were way lowballed. Like...so extremely lowballed I can't make sense of what the MPO was thinking. Even taking into account that it was a generation of growth ago, seems like their counting methodology may have had some flaws. A more thorough re-study in this growth era probably cranks those numbers up considerably.
- Newburyport Branch would need double-tracking between North Beverly and Newbury where the double-track picks back up to Newburyport station. Single + passing sidings fully adequate to handle all north of the current Newburyport stop.
- Rebuild the derelict Merrimack River swing bridge. Approach spans are OK enough to do thorough rehab and re-use, even after another 15 years of sitting there after the last study. Derelict swing span would need to be demolished and replaced by an easier-to-maintain lift or bascule. Being able to rehab the approaches blunts some of the worst of the costs, but this is still single most expensive line item.
- Replace trail bridge deck over Low St., Newburyport with a rail-weight deck. Replace removed low-clearance bridges in Salisbury over MA 110 and US 1.
- Secure buy-in from Newburyport and Salisbury. Newburyport hates the expressway-grade Route 1 scar through downtown more than it loves its trail, so a MassHighway barter for boulevarding that ugly-ass and dangerous roadway could mollify them if rail-with-trail or boulevard-with-relocated-trail were part of the process. Salisbury has so much open space their disconnected segment of trail can easily be moved around. ROW goes through the middle of nowhere 80% of the way through town.
- 1 intermediate stop at Newburyport waterfront near location of pre-1974 stop. I'm guessing Salisbury is a skip because Seabrook and Newburyport are close enough.
Bridges drive up the costs, but it's not horrific if they can keep contractor bloat from killing them. If NHDOT ever reaches go-for-it mode MassDOT probably agrees to it. Fed funding pot gets a lot bigger when such a project goes interstate, and MA would get a bigger share of that since this is primarily NHDOT-led.
- EIS'ing. Much lower cost from NH 101 to Portsmouth where last freight trains ran in 2011 vs. points south where it was gradually cut back between 1965-1980. Less of a generational gap in EPA regs to get up-to-spec to on the northern portion.
- Rebuild of track, grade crossings, couple bridges. Signal installation, yada yada. Most pre-existing bridges are structurally sound since freight service was so recent.
- Security fencing and monitoring around the nuke plant, per NRC regs.
- Layover yard at Portsmouth freight yard. Lots of space, Pan Am already transloads propane tankers there so passenger trains benign compared to NIMBY shrieking about "Hiroshima" freight cars.
- Potential rail w/trail relocations. Note: because of the nuke plant NH 101 to Portsmouth is the only trail candidate with legs. Salisbury hooks its trail onto the Amesbury Branch instead of going to the state line because US 1 overpass missing; no plans to change that. Seabrook left with only 1 isolated mile intra-town it can do anything with; too small for any funding sources outside of the town budget.
- Any NIMBY mitigation. Shouldn't be any because of nuke plant in Seabrook, forest in southern Portsmouth, and industrial/big box retail abutters in Hampton. Residential abutters few and far between.
Total capital costs in the study are implausibly low, even post-inflation. $250M split between the states seems more like it if NHDOT's cost control is better than the T's. For the mileage involved, that's right about what it should be. Value-wise it's a decent prospect for 20 years from now that given ongoing growth should crest in value to go/no-go decision by or slightly before 2030.
Alas...if it weren't for the zoo up in the state house in Concord and a whole generation's worth of transportation funding being pissed away add-a-lane'ing 93. . .