BARTLETT — David Schwanke, president of Golden Eagle Rail Corp. of Maine, confirmed Tuesday that his startup company has made a bid to the state of New Hampshire for leasing the Mountain Division railroad line from Portland through Crawford Notch for possible freight service.
He also said his company would like to run passenger service on the old Boston and Maine tracks from Conway to Dover and Boston.
"We are still a long way away from all that (starting up a rail service). We did put in a proposal when the state issued a request for proposals in August, but that's all I can say at this point," Schwanke said Tuesday.
The N.H. Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals in summer to lease the Mountain Division line from the Fryeburg, Maine, border up through Crawford Notch to Lunenberg, Vt., as well as the Conway branch south from the Conway Scenic Railroad's Conway terminus south to Ossipee to connect with the privately owned N.H. Northcoast (former Boston and Maine) line.
There had been speculation from some that the DOT was ready to forward the RFP to the governor and executive council, but it was not listed on the executive council's agenda for its Jan. 27 meeting.
Bill Boynton, public affairs spokesman for the state DOT, said Tuesday that state law forbids the department from issuing any information regarding a potential bidder before a proposal is put on the council's agenda.
Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney (R-Wakefield) of District 1 said Tuesday he thinks that Golden Eagle and the state are at best several months away from reaching an agreement regarding the proposed lease.
"When an RFP goes out, there are discussions that go back and forth between the state and an applicant, and I suspect that this is still a long way off — at least a couple of months," said Kenney. "There is a lot of renewed interest in rail, more than I have seen in 20 years, and things (in all areas of the state, especially southern New Hampshire) are moving along, but not at light speed."
Schwanke said he did not know if any other companies had participated in the RFP process. "We haven't gotten anything more out of the state on the process," he said.
The Sun also contacted Doug Pizzi, a spokesman for Massachusetts railroad owner Jon Delli Priscoli of Marlboro, Mass., about whether Delli Priscoli had made a bid to the state for those lines.
Delli Priscoli, operator of two industrial railroads and a tourist railroad in Massachusetts, had been in negotiations to purchase the Conway Scenic Railroad.
But his spokesman said he had not put in a bid for the Mountain Division RFP.
"I just spoke with Jon on the phone, and he says it's not us. We have absolutely no connection to it," Pizzi said Tuesday.
Conway Scenic owner Russ Seybold had no comment regarding the Mountain Division RFP story.
In addition, neither he nor Pizzi would comment on reports that the proposed sale of the CSRR to Delli Priscoli had fallen through.
Originally built by the Portland and Ogdensburg in the 1870s, and later run by the Maine Central and Guilford Transportation Industries, the Mountain Division last saw freight service in the early 1980s.
Guilford Transportation Industries later abandoned the line, after which the state obtained it. It granted a lease to Conway Scenic to operate excursion passenger service in 1994, with the first train ride through Crawford Notch from North Conway taking place in September 1995. The CSRR has since renewed its 10-year lease with the state twice.
Some residents say that were the state to grant the lease to Golden Eagle for freight, it would have to operate around the CSRR's summer and fall schedules.
There has been much concern over the impact that a revival of railroad freight operations would have on businesses and activities in proximity to the Mountain Division, such as local snowmobile trails, mountain biking, multiuse recreation trails and ski touring.
Concerns about the impact on residential neighborhoods also were raised by some this week.
Earl Sires, Conway town manager, said he had tried to obtain information regarding the RFPs from Shelley Winters, the state's administrator of the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Rail and Transit.
In a Nov. 13 email to Sires in response to his questions about the Mountain Division and Conway Branch proposal, Winters said the reason the RFP was issued was because over the past few years there had been several inquiries to the DOT about utilizing these state-owned railroad lines for additional railroad operations.
"The department chose to issue this RFP in order to allow private sector railroad operators to propose service that could enhance rail service in the state and utilize existing state-owned railroad corridors," Winters said. "Department staff have been contacted over the last 3-plus years by several railroad operators (either existing or proposed startups), executive councilors and state senators, who have all indicated that additional rail service is warranted and desired in the N.H. North Country and that exploring this would be in the best interest of the economic vitality of the North Country and the citizens of N.H.," Winters wrote Sires.
Addressing concerns as well as the overall question of how the state has handled the RFP process has been a priority for state Rep. Gene Chandler, who is also chair of the Bartlett board of selectmen.
He said rumors have circulated for months ever since the state issued the RFP.
"I am very concerned about this proposal," said Chandler, a former House Speaker. "I have expressed my concerns last month to the Department of Transportation about how they have not been very public about this — I have pushed to at least be able to see who responded to the RFP.
"They have told me they can't, that it's a competitive process, but I think the public deserves to know. I am still fighting that fight," said Chandler, noting he was aware there had only been one RFP submitted but did not know which company had submitted it.
Chandler said he would try and use legislative ways to change the way the RFP was handled and that he would speak before the governor and executive council when the lease does come before it.
Chandler said that while it is true that Bartlett was once a railroad town and that it is still served in summer and fall by the CSRR's tourist excursions, those trains run during the day.
Were a freight operation to lease the line, it would have to work it out with the CSRR to operate around their daylight hours of operation — which, Chandler says, means that the freight runs would have to take place at night in summer, a time that would probably not be well-received by townspeople.
He said in winter when the CSRR does not operate, a freight hauler could run day and night.
Again, that could impact daytime ski touring and snowmobiling operations, and could have noise issues for residents.
"Yes, Bartlett used to be a railroad town — but the operative word there is 'was,'" said Chandler.
Former selectman Doug Garland, whose family operates Bear Notch Ski Touring and Snowshoe Association, parts of which abut the tracks, said that while he shares those concerns, he believes arrangements could be made by his business, the state and the operator.
"I have heard the rumors about the freight," said Garland, "and I am surprised that this seems to be moving along and getting to this point. If it were true, it would impact my business and others, but I am sure we could ameliorate it somewhat. The railroad right of way is very important to us, and we do use a portion of it, but our end is mostly a few 90-degree rail crossings, so I think we could work with it."
Peter Gagne of Northern Extremes snowmobiling also expressed concerns over the proposal in an email, questioning the impact on the snowmobile corridor from the Maine border through Conway to Bartlett.
Chandler urged constituents to call Kenney regarding their concerns.
"I am especially disturbed by the lack of public input on this. There are a number of us in Bartlett who are concerned with it. I think people should contact our executive councilor, Joe Kenney, to let them know about their opposition to this," said Chandler.