January 11, 2007

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Manchester Publisher's Note: Rail: Look ahead, not back
By†Jody Reese

Passenger rail in Manchester is a good idea, but so far itís not being sold properly.

Itís a tough sell in any case. Reestablishing passenger rail service to Boston will be a long and expensive proposition, and the way weíve built out the Manchester area is more suitable for the automobile.

Supporters argue that passenger rail is not about commuting to Boston today, but about economic development tomorrow, and that Manchester must have good access to Boston in order to prosper in the 21st centuryís knowledge economy.

Part of this is basic economics: development follows the transportation network, as anyone looking at the interstate highway system can see.

In Manchester, rail supporters also believe weíll attract tomorrowís entrepreneurs and capital to the extent we can closely link ourselves with Boston, the regionís world-class center of finance, education and culture.

Thatís fine, but weíre already fortunate to have in place a booming airport and good interstate highway connections and bus service that currently serve this function. What can rail add?

The other day, my business partner Jeff Rapsis brought in a Boston & Maine railroad timetable from 1925 as evidence of the service that Manchester once enjoyed.

He wrote a piece about this for the edition of Hippo that circulates in Nashua, itself once a rail hub.

I looked through it, and itís surprising the kind of service the Queen City had just a few generations ago in the pre-auto age.

Letís see ó going to Boston? You could pick from 10 trains each day, the first at 5:43 a.m. and the last at 9:21 p.m. The fastest took an hour and 36 minutes. There were five other trains on a difference route through Lawrence, Mass., which took about two hours to get to North Station. (And you didnít have to pay for parking.)

Manchester was also the hub of several branch lines that radiated out from the city. Going to Portsmouth? Two trains a day. Going to Milford? One train a day, through Bedford and Amherst. Service was run even to places such as Weare, New Boston and Henniker.

Long-distance trains stopped at Manchester, too. Headed for the Big Apple? Every day except Saturdays, you could board a sleeping car in Manch at 8:50 p.m. and arrive in New York at 7:36 a.m. What would be more civilized?

Montreal? Four trains a day. Quebec City? One train a day, direct.

Itís amazing to think we once had this level of service in Manchester. As in Nashua, it made our city what it is today, and it actually made money, too.

Though the old timetable provides some new perspective, I still think passenger rail isnít about nostalgia. Itís about economic development. The challenge for supporters is to convince the public of its importance not with regard to the past, but with regard to the future.