Railroad proponents are pushing back on a proposal to remove existing train tracks near Laconia to make way for a long-planned rail trail extension.
Stewards of Laconia's nine-mile WOW trail, named for nearby water bodies, hope to someday extend the paved bike and pedestrian path over nearby rail corridors and other existing trails so that it would seamlessly connect Franklin and Weirs Beach.
Those tracks stretch all the way to Lincoln, via Plymouth. In Concord, they intersect with Pan-Am rail service that connects with points south, including Boston.
This week, Laconia’s city council tabled a resolution in support of seeking state and federal permission to extend the trail by tearing out some stretches of those rails.
A study done for the WOW trails says it would cost far less to remove the tracks before extending the trail, instead of running it alongside the tracks.
But supporters of the railroad say that’s shortsighted. Peter Griffin, president of the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association, says more state investment in upgrades could make those tracks a tourist destination.
“That’s the main line that would connect Boston and the White Mountains,” Griffin says. “The reason why it’s underutilized is there hasn’t been an initiative to really restore the rail.”
Griffin says the state has had many opportunities to invest in this kind of rail infrastructure over the years.
In the early 2000s, the state and its neighbors studied the potential for high-speed rail service from Boston to Montreal, via Nashua, Manchester, Concord and Lebanon with some service on those rails in Laconia.
Griffin and other advocates also cite the success of the Amtrak Downeaster, which connects Boston and Maine by way of Dover, Durham and Exeter.
He says tourists in Boston, especially those from other countries, expect to use rail and public transit to visit Northern New England. He says transporting them by rail would reduce vehicle traffic, help commuters, and boost local economies in the North Country.
"New Hampshire has no tourist connection at all by anything other than by driving,” he says.
The state considered rail as an alternative to expanding I-93 between Salem and Manchester, but concluded that it wouldn’t do enough to cut traffic on the highway.
“However, NHDOT is not precluding the addition of rail in the future or providing other means of public transportation,” the state says on its website for the I-93 project.
Griffin says that newly expanded interstate could reach capacity again within 15 years.
Transportation – especially from passenger vehicles – is the largest source of carbon emission in New Hampshire. But Griffin says upgraded rails could support more electrified trains, further reducing fossil fuel use.
New Hampshire has 443 miles of active rail lines and owns about half of those, according to the DOT. Many are not classified, in their current condition, for high-speed use.
“The State also owns approximately 330 miles of abandoned railroad corridors, purchased to preserve them for future transportation use,” the state says on its rail program website. Most of those corridors are managed by the Bureau of Trails.
Laconia plans to further study the idea of investing in or removing the New England Southern Railroad tracks, and may take the issue up again in future.