Rails-to-trails idea hits Seacoast

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Greenway may grow as railroad is abandoned locally

By Aaron Davis

Hampton Union, October 18, 2011

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON — The 10-mile segment of railroad known as the Hampton Branch rail line, which travels through Hampton, North Hampton, Rye, Greenland and Portsmouth, is scheduled to be abandoned by Boston and Maine Corp., a subsidiary of Portsmouth-based Pan Am Systems, a move that could lead to the expansion of the Seacoast position of a rails-to-trails program that spans the Eastern Seaboard.

The five corridor communities look to urge the state to acquire the property if it comes up for sale to preserve it for future transportation needs.

The rail line runs from the junction with the Portsmouth branch near Borthwick Avenue down to the center of Hampton and terminates immediately south of Foss Manufacturing in Hampton. The remaining 4.5-mile segment extends to the border of Massachusetts and was abandoned in 1997 and then acquired by the state in 1998.

"The state historically has a significant role in acquiring the rights to abandoned rail lines," said Cliff Sinnott, the Rockingham Planning Commission's executive director.

Boston and Maine Corp. has determined there is no reasonable alternative to abandoning the railroad. Passenger service stopped on this particular line in 1965, and freight traffic was rerouted two years ago, when Foss Manufacturing moved all of its freight to trucks.

The portion of rail line that runs from the border of Massachusetts goes through the center of Seabrook, between Walmart and the library, through the Hampton Falls marsh and ends just north of Route 101. This segment was acquired by the state in 1998 and is now being actively pursued to be included in the Seacoast Greenway, a proposed 17-mile section within the developing East Coast Greenway. The greenway is a rail-to-trails program, which seeks to create a 3,000-mile trail system winding from North Maine to Key West, linking all the major cities of the Eastern Seaboard. More than 25 percent of it is already complete. The 4.9 mile section of the rail line from Newburyport, Mass. to the New Hampshire border in Salisbury is already being developed for the greenway.

Acquisition of the 10-mile Hampton branch would bring the full Seabrook-Portsmouth corridor into public control.

While the use of the transportation was not voted on, the five communities agree that the right-of-way should be preserved for future use, whether for recreational, future rail or easement. The Rockingham Planning Commission has drafted a letter for each of the communities to send to Gov. John Lynch to urge him to acquire the branch from Pan Am.

Funding is set aside for state railroad acquisitions and currently has approximately $700,000 in it, which is not enough to purchase the entire 10 miles. The RPC also highlighted the Transportation Enhancement Program, but with this program among others being reduced by 70 percent, the acquisition is far from certain.

It was brought up that the five communities could jointly purchase the rail way from Pan Am, in case the state did not. However, the price tag was set at over $100,000 per mile, and it was felt that the cost along with the liabilities was too dear for the municipalities.

The Hampton branch line is originally part of the Eastern Railroad, one of the earliest railroads in New Hampshire. Construction began on it in 1839 and when completed in 1840 is connected New Hampshire's largest city, Portsmouth, with Boston, Newburyport and Portland, Maine. B&M Railroad slowly acquired a majority of rail lines in the area and was eventually acquired itself by J.P. Morgan's New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in 1910. However, Morgan was unable to retain the rail due to anti-trust laws that regarded it as a monopoly.

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