N.H. commuter rail: a success in 1980

I read with great interest, and am most encouraged by, the reported efforts by the New Hampshire Passenger Rail Authority and the Southern New Hampshire Regional Commission to bring passenger trains back to central New Hampshire. 

Certainly the time for offering people the travel choice of trains has come. However, the news article published in your July 18-31 edition referenced that the last time passenger trains served southern New Hampshire was in 1967 (“N.H.-to-Boston commuter rail inches ever closer.”) This is not quite accurate. Starting in early 1980, and continuing for about 13 months (until the federal government terminated the grant), daily passenger service (two frequencies each day on weekdays, one on weekend days) operated from Concord, Manchester and Nashua to Boston via Lowell. At the time, I was chief railroad services officer for the MBTA, and a contract was in place with the then New Hampshire Transportation Authority for operation of these trains. 

Trains left Concord in the morning on weekdays, at the ungodly hours of 5:15 and 5:40 a.m., arrived in Boston for normal business trips, return at 5:00 and 5:40 p.m. to Concord. By April 1980, Merrimack was added as a stop.

The reason for this limited schedule was simple: the MBTA did not have any more rolling stock (locomotives and coaches), and New Hampshire did not have the funds to provide added rolling stock. 

On weekends, the one round-trip left Concord at a more civilized hour, allowing visitors and families to take the train and spend a day in Boston. This train was often “sold out” as it left Nashua, and for the first time in decades, the B&M was calling for an extra train to operate from Lowell to Boston, since the packed New Hampshire train would have to run express from Lowell to Boston.

By the end of 1980, the New Hampshire service was still growing, and the Merrimack and Nashua weekday markets were as large as most MBTA commuter rail stations in Massachusetts (about 125 boarding at Nashua, 30-40 at Merrimack), in spite of the early (and limited) departure times to Boston.

The New Hampshire service terminated abruptly at the end of January 1981, when the federal grant was canceled by incoming President Ronald Reagan and the state of New Hampshire declined to put any operating subsidy into supporting continuation of the service.

MBTA, at the request of the then mayor of Nashua, attempted to try to preserve at least one round-trip at day to Nashua, since the market was already there. The cost at that time was $5,000 per year. No funds could be procured, and the service died. 

Clearly, this very limited experimental service proved that the rail market in New Hampshire was indeed there to be tapped. Having a travel choice to go by rail is not only for residents of New Hampshire, although that would be its primary purpose, but such a travel option is very attractive for visitors and tourists to come to the Granite State without as many of the cars that crowd the state virtually every weekend, and certainly during peak weekday work-trip times. 

My message is that there WAS regularly scheduled passenger service to Nashua, Merrimack, Manchester and Concord as recently as 1981, and it was a well-used service, even with its limited one-directional schedule. The only reason the trains did not continue to exist was New Hampshire’s inability/unwillingness to provide any financial support for it once the federal grant was terminated. If those modest state/local dollars had been provided, central New Hampshire would likely have today a corridor service that would be at least as frequent service, and as much ridership, as the MBTA-Rhode Island service to Providence, and/or the Downeaster service to Maine.

Just think of what a corridor-type service could do for New Hampshire, with time-competitive, frequent, comfortable and driving-free train service. Bus services that connect from train stations to other places that people want to go to, but where maybe there are no tracks, have worked exceptionally well in California, and can also do the same in New England.

Passenger rail is a worthwhile investment for our nation, and certainly for New Hampshire. 

Eugene K. Skoropowski, a former New Hampshire resident, is managing director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority in Oakland, Calif.

Categories: Opinion