'What Are the Future Plans for the Peabody Square Railway Lines?'
The downtown rails are rarely used, but still serve a purpose to local industry.
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Once bustling with freight cars carrying supplies to the many tanneries and factories along the North River and beyond, a stretch of railway tracks that run through Peabody Square have been largely void of activity as the area‘s business landscape has evolved. But even with downtown revitalization at the forefront of the city’s plans, it appears the tracks will remain as is -- a reminder of times past in the Leather City.
Anyone who frequents the square on Friday afternoons can attest that a portion of the railway lines are still occasionally active, as Pan Am railways does pass through with freight deliveries to Eastman Gelatine (now owned by Rousselot) about once every two weeks, although some times more frequently.
A flagman clad in neon vest climbs down from the locomotive to first get drivers' attention. The slow moving trains then carefully crawl through traffic -- there are no proper railroad crossing signals -- and continue past the North River into Salem.
Once branch lines that connected industrial communities north of Boston, such as Salem, Lowell, Peabody and Reading, but today the tracks are rarely maintained and in some areas barely passable. Of the lines that run through the square, only the north-south branch line that runs up Washington Street and through the square into Salem is in use. The tracks split at Central Street and head toward Danvers as well, but those lines are no longer active.
According to city officials, the tracks are owned by the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority and Pan Am has freight rights, so regardless of the status of the tracks, it is up to those two entities to decide what will happen to the lines in the future.
The city's lack of control on that issue is no more evident than in the preliminary plans to redesign Peabody Square. The city can move the Civil War Monument next to the tracks, but the tracks themselves will remain, detracting from the aesthetic and safety upgrades planned. The flood mitigation project will also have to work around the tracks.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt said after a recent presentation on the square project to the City Council that he would rather just tear up the tracks if he could.
"It's unsightly now," he said, noting the tracks are rarely used and create traffic problems when they are.
Rumors have abounded that Eastman Gelatine would be shuttered following Kodak’s sale of the facility to Rousselot early this year, which would have promptly ended the Pan Am freight deliveries to the Washington Street factory, but the facility appears safe for now and the deliveries continue.
Ideas have also been proposed and debated in recent years about expanding the MBTA’s Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line to include Peabody and Danvers, which would require an overhaul of those tracks and the addition of an MBTA station in or around the square.
As much as city planners would like to see the direct route to Boston come through the city’s new downtown, the project is largely unrealistic, as many of the other connecting lines have been leased to local communities for walking and biking trail uses, and existing lines would require a massive overhaul and repair for daily commuter use. Not to mention the financial struggles the MBTA faces now.
As long as the factory at 227 Washington St. remains in business, train enthusiasts and historians eager to keep the railway alive still have a chance. Beyond that, though, it appears this may be the end of the line for the old freight tracks, destined to be home to bicycles and hikers before it will ever host another locomotive.