The Haverhill Line (formerly named the Haverhill/Reading Line) is a branch of the MBTA Commuter Rail system, running north from downtown Boston, Massachusetts through the cities and towns of Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Reading, Wilmington, Andover, North Andover, Lawrence, and Haverhill.
Until 1959, the Boston and Maine Railroad operated commuter service along its Western Route from Haverhill and Reading to Boston. In 1959 the section from Reading to Wilmington Junction became freight-only, and Haverhill commuter trains as well as intercity service from New Hampshire and Maine were rerouted over the Wildcat Branch and the lower Lowell Line. Salem Street stop on the Wildcat Branch opened to replace North Wilmington on the mainline. The MBTA was formed in August 1964 to consolidate and fund Boston's transit system. In December 1964 the MBTA signed a contract to subsidize B&M commuter service within the MBTA funding district. On January 4, the B&M discontinued most interstate service, with a single round trip to Dover, NH the only such service remaining on the Western Route. On January 18, the B&M cut back commuter service to the MBTA-subsidized area; the Dover trip was the only service beyond Wilmington, through in-district Reading local service continued. The Wakefield Junction stop on the Reading Line was discontinued at this time.
On June 30, 1967, the B&M ended all interstate service. The Dover trip was cut back to Haverhill, funded by the towns of Haverhill, North Andover, Lawrence, and Andover. The Salem Street stop was discontinued at this time.
In September 1973, the MBTA purchased the Western Route between Somerville and Wilmington Junction, with the intent to replace all Reading Line service with the Haymarket North Extension of the rapid transit Orange Line. However, local opposition to the extension - largely in Melrose, where rapid transit conversion would have required the elimination of grade crossings, possibly blocking important east-west local roads - and funding issues meant that the Orange Line only reached Oak Grove. A single track was retained for Reading Line service to Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading. Pearl Street station in Malden closed on December 27, 1975 concurrent with the opening of the Orange Line's Malden Center station; a commuter platform at Malden Center - the first high-level platform on the commuter system - opened on May 1, 1977 but closed again in September 1979.
The towns along the single Haverhill trip dropped funding one by one. Service to North Andover ended in November 1974, and to Shawsheen, Andover, and Ballardvale in November 1975 after Andover withdrew. The round trip, by then stopping just at Lawrence, Bradford and Haverhill, was ended in June 1976. The MBTA bought all B&M commuter equipment and lines on December 27, 1976, including the Western Route from Wilmington Junction to the New Hampshire border.
Despite the passenger cutbacks, the upper Western Route remained in use by freight. During the 1979 energy crisis, the MBTA restored service to much of the outer northside lines, including trains to Fitchburg and for a time Gardner on the Fitchburg Line, and short-lived service to Concord via the Lowell Line. Weekday service was restored to Haverhill via Reading with funding from the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority on December 17, 1979. Station stops resumed at North Wilmington, Ballardvale, Andover, Shawsheen, Lawrence, Bradford, and Haverhill but not North Andover. Weekend service to Haverhill began on April 27, 1980, but Shawsheen station was closed.
On January 20, 1984, a fire destroyed the wooden trestles approaching the Charles River Bridge. Haverhill/Reading Line trains ran to the normally-unused platform at Oak Grove for transfer to the Orange Line during the disruption. Oak Grove was discontinued as a regular stop when North Station and the drawbridges reopened on April 20, 1985, but the platform at Malden Center was permanently reopened for transfer purposes.
On December 14, 2001, Amtrak's Downeaster service began operating from Boston to Portland, Maine. The Downeaster runs via the lower Lowell Line and the Wildcat Branch then the Western Route, with a stop at Haverhill. Around this time, some rush-hour Haverhill trains began using the Wildcat Branch to avoid interference from Reading local trains. On December 5, 2005, the new McGovern Transportation Center replaced the old Lawrence station.
Due to the Reading line being single-tracked along the Orange Line corridor in the 1970s, and most double track removed north of Wilmington after the 1976 discontinuation, the Haverhill Line has the most single track on the MBTA system. In early 2009, the MBTA began planning the addition of double track between Reading and Ballardvale that summer. Those plans fell through, but later that year the MBTA was awarded $51.5 million of stimulus funding for a variety of projects, including $10.2 million for the addition of double track from one mile north of Ballardvale to Andover Street in Lawrence, as well as $7.2 million for signal upgrades. The double tracking will increase capacity on the section of the line shared with freight service, increasing reliability and allowing for possible travel time decreases for the Downeaster. The second track will not be extended through Ballardvale station due to limited space for a second platform, but Andover station is to receive a second platform and possibly additional parking following the removal of a town vehicle yard. Work started in April 2010; a groundbreaking was held in May 2010 with completion then estimated for February 2012. Due to funding issues and construction delays, the work was not finished in 2012 and will likely last into 2016 or beyond. By late 2013, a 1,300 feet (400 m) stone wall at Andover station had been replaced, along with a century-old culvert, as part of drainage improvements. Construction of the track and crossovers is partially complete; the signal system is largely finished.
In 2011, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority won a $20.8 million federal grant to add additional double track from Wilmington Junction to just south of Ballardvale station. This second section of double track is largely for use by Downeaster trains but may benefit MBTA trains using the Wildcat Branch as well. The $26.0 million project (including a $5.2 million match from the MBTA) includes 14,100 feet of new double main, rebuilt interlockings at Wilmington Junction and Lowell Junction, a maintenance-of-way siding at Wilmington Junction, preparing three grade crossings on the Wildcat Branch for future double tracking, and replacing 5 miles of old track between Lawrence and Bradford. Work began in 2012 and will last for several years.
Merrimack River Bridge
Several bridges on the line are in poor condition, including the twelve-span, 1042-foot-long bridge over the Merrimack River between Bradford and Haverhill. The main river spans were built in 1919 on the 1839 pillars of a previous bridge, while the northern approach over Washington Street dates from 1928. In 2008 the MBTA performed $3 million of repair work on the bridge, including replacing bridge timbers and installing walkways for continued maintenance work. However, traffic on the bridge is still under heavy speed restrictions, with one freight train at 5 mph or two passenger trains at 15 mph allowed.
In 2010, the state applied for $110.8 million in federal funding to replace the bridge, but the request was denied in May 2011. In December 2011, the state received $10 million in TIGER stimulus funds to aid in rehabilitation of the bridge, then to cost $43 million. Passenger train speeds will be increased to 40-60 mph, while freight speeds will be increased to 30 mph and maximum car loading increased to the 286,000 pound standard. The contract for the superstructure and land piers went to bid in December 2013 for completion in 2016, while the river piers rehabilitation is still under preliminary design. This $24 million first phase of the project, which will now total $100 million, began in April 2014. Some off-peak train will be substituted with buses during the repairs, and service will be suspended on six weekends between September 2014 and November 2016, but MBTA and Downeaster service to Haverhill will otherwise continue as normal.
Shawsheen River Bridges
Repairs are under way on two smaller arch bridges over the Shawsheen River in Andover, both dating to the line's opening in 1839. The historic bridges are no longer able to support modern train loads; instead, fill is being removed from the arch and modern flat steel bridges placed inside them. The steel bridges will carry the train loads so that the stone arches need merely support their own weight. The $10.9 million project began in September 2012, with substantial completion scheduled for September 2013 and full completion a year later.
In 2008, Massachusetts entered negotiations to buy property in Plaistow, New Hampshire for a layover yard (to replace the undersized Bradford layover) and a new station. Funding was available, and Plaistow was potentially interested, but wanted to better understand the potential drawbacks of being the location of the layover station.
By August 2010, both states said that they were close to reaching a deal that would allow trains to operate over the proposed expansion.
Plaistow residents voted down one extension possibility in 2012, but the extension remains on the table. In August 2013, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation began another study of layover and station sites. A number of station and layover site options were presented in May 2014, and three final options were released in September 2014: a station and layover just past NH-125, a station there with the layover moved just south of the state line, and a station and layover near NH-121A. However, the Plaistow Board of Selectmen voted for the "no build" option to not extend commuter rail to the town in April 2015.
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