Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pros & Cons of Portsmouth NH Rail Line Revival

(SOURCE:  Seacoast Online)

The prospect of a resurgence of freight shipped by rail may be a positive development on multiple fronts, however, residents who live along the local rail system and motorists in general are right to express their concerns.

Use of the rail line from Newington through Portsmouth, Greenland and Stratham to the Rockingham Junction on the Newfields-Newmarket town line has been largely dormant for as long as most residents can remember. However, the line was never abandoned and the day was likely to come that its use would rise again. Beyond the shipping of freight — and it is the plan of Sea-3 in Newington to ship propane via the Newington-Portsmouth branch that produced concerns — it remains the hope of many that passenger service could also resume.

Increased freight shipping via railroads can get many tractor-trailers and other commercial shipping vehicles off local and state roads and interstates and decrease the reliance on standard fuels. The operation of trains would also potentially have a regional and national economic impact.

Furthermore, increased rail freight could lead to substantial upgrades of the tracks, which would improve the chances of restoring passenger service that must operate at speeds in excess of the 10 mph currently allowed on the Newington-Portsmouth branch.

With all that said, the many residents whose homes are near the rail lines need to have their concerns addressed. Because of federal regulations, local communities have no legal say over what is shipped on rail lines. However, that doesn't mean the rail company, Pan Am Railways, the Federal Railroad Administration, Sea-3 and its parent company, Trammo, can't address resident concerns in a fair and open manner.

This is particularly true when it comes to shipping a fuel such as propane, or others for that matter.
There are many concerns about the condition and safety of the current tracks that roll through downtown Portsmouth, pass through rural areas of Greenland and cross over Great Bay. The first attempt to assess the condition of the tracks proved difficult. The FRA was not forthcoming with information on the condition of the tracks last week. It provided only a fact sheet on federal track safety standards, and said the latest track inspection report would be made available only through a Freedom of Information Act request, which Seacoast Media Group filed.

The issue extends beyond the current condition of the tracks. According to Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of Pan Am Railways, the tracks of the Newington-Portsmouth branch currently limit train speed to 10 mph. Ensuring the safety of the tracks to allow for the shipping of propane is step one, but learning more about any potential improvements that would allow faster speeds must be discussed.

The area is not used to seeing trains on the tracks, and the few that do use them crawl along. More trains, traveling faster through areas not used to seeing them, is one reason to bring all parties to the table to discuss how rail commerce can be safely permitted.

All crossings must be thoroughly inspected to ensure there is proper sight distance and signage and, wherever necessary, to feature lighted signals and stopping arms. Any other protective measures, such as fencing in residential areas, should also be considered.

Federal regulations protect the right of interstate commerce along the rail system, and that is a good thing as rail for freight and passenger service, is a vital link; a promising alternative to highways. But that doesn't mean local residents' concerns should be pushed aside. There is promise here. The ability to revive rail service lies in the hands of the business that owns the lines, the businesses that will use them and the federal agency that regulates them. It is necessary that a balanced approach is taken to the revival of the rails.

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