Rail bed could become trail

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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Hopes are running high in Hanover for turning an abandoned rail bed in the town’s southwestern corner into a lush, 6-mile trail that would let people walk and pedal safely to two nearby communities.

Proposed by the town’s Open Space Committee, the plan would add precious collateral to a decade-old local greenway vision to link isolated tracts of town-owned land while forging connections with a similar rail-to-trail effort in neighboring Rockland that reaches all the way to Abington, officials said.

If the town signs a contract with the Nevada-based nonprofit Iron Horse Preservation Society, the new trail would come at no cost, said Hal Thomas, the committee cochairman. But first, selectmen must decide whether to approve the partnership.

The Nevada group of former railway contractors specializes in removing old steel rails, spikes, and wooden railroad ties — and then grading the rail bed for free — if it is allowed to sell and/or recycle those old materials.

Without that help, estimates for the design portion alone of such a venture, which must adhere to strict federal standards, usually run about $150,000 a mile, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Parts of the Hanover rail bed, unused for four decades, are owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR. Some of the land is privately owned, and portions cross wetlands and other fragile ecological sites, said Thomas.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority used to own Hanover’s section of the rail bed, but it was traded with the DCR in 2005 for land used to rebuild the Greenbush commuter rail line, Thomas said.

The MBTA has signed 99-year leases with other communities that host the unused tracks to allow them to create such trails.

Wendy Fox, DCR spokeswoman, said the agency has not worked with Iron Horse on a local trail project, “but it’s clearly a very interesting concept.’’

Hanover officials held a public hearing last week to give abutters and others a chance to hear more and provide input. The issue has already gone before the town’s Conservation Commission.

Thomas said the meeting generally went well. “There were a number of questions about the process, and not a lot of vocal opposition,’’ he said.

Some people have concerns that rail trails will pose a security risk, especially residents whose homes back up to the public pathways, said Rockland’s town administrator, Allan Chiocca, whose community is close to completing its trail with the Nevada company. “But crime as a result of rail trail access actually drops,’’ he said. “Because of higher usage, you have higher visibility. You won’t see anyone running there with a TV.’’

Hanover’s selectmen plan to accept further written comments before deciding whether to commit to a working relationship with Iron Horse. If they vote in January, work could conceivably begin in the spring, Thomas said.

Steve Rollins, Hanover town manager, said that time frame seems realistic.

Iron Horse was founded to preserve and rehabilitate railroad heritage. The firm largely hires veterans to do its work, according to its website.

Rockland’s trail runs from the town golf course across Route 139 and along Water Street. In Hanover, the trail would enter the town at the end of Circuit Street, run over Route 139 (Hanover Street), and end at Drinkwater River, at the old railroad bridge, Thomas said. “Iron Horse would also remove the rails at the bridge and replace them with decking and railings,’’ he said.

Joe Hattrup, Iron Horse chief executive officer and a former railroad contractor, said the firm once thrived by removing rails and ties for profit.

But without any site reclamation, “I didn’t like leaving the scar as a part of the process,’’ he said.