March 18. 2014 10:02PM

Control of 18-mile stretch of track could affect commuter rail's return to NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

Peter Leishman, owner of the Milford-Bennington Railroad, sounds the horn as his train nears a road crossing in this 2000 photo. (UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — In a turn of events that could affect efforts to restore commuter rail service in the southern tier, state Rep. Peter Leishman is back in the running for a contract to operate 18 miles of state-owned railroad track from Milford to Bennington.

Last May, DOT Commissioner Christopher Clement recommended Leishman's arch-rival, Pan Am Railways, for the contract. But the Executive Council in a 3-2 vote decided it did not want to do business with Pan Am, formerly known as Guilford Rail System, even though Pan Am's cooperation is seen as essential to any restoration of commuter railroad service in the state.

At the time, Clement said Leishman's bid to the DOT was rejected because it was incomplete and missing essential information.

After the Executive Council rejected Clement's choice of Pan Am, the contract was put out to bid again. This time Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat, was selected to negotiate with the department.

In a Feb. 20 letter to Leishman, DOT Deputy Commissioner Michael Pillsbury writes that the department has completed its review of bids to operate the Hillsboro Branch Railroad Line, and that Leishman's firm, the Milford-Bennington Railroad, was "selected to proceed with negotiations toward an operating agreement."

"They've already sent an email to me, giving me some outlines of what they'd like to see," said Leishman. "They've already put a draft agreement together for us to accept."

Negotiations between Leishman and the DOT get underway as he pursues a complaint against the DOT commissioner for conduct in the last round of bidding. In a letter to Senior Assistant Attorney General Ann Rice, Leishman accused Clement of misrepresenting his first bid before the Executive Council.

"I have some real concerns with the commissioner's comments back in May when he said my application failed to contain information about how to get in touch with me, who the stockholders were, and other information that was clearly in my response to the RFP," said Leishman.

"My concern is that any official, whether they be a legislator, commissioner, or whatever, has to make accurate representations before any government body, and at the time I don't believe he (Clement) did that," he said. "I don't know if that's because he was given inaccurate information or not."

Leishman has received a letter from the Attorney General's Office stating that Clement will not be available to discuss the last RFP process while the current one is underway.

If Leishman survives the latest round and gets a contract approved by the Executive Council, it will resolve uncertainty over rights to the track that has persisted since Leishman's last contract expired in 2009.

Control of the short stretch of track has been a contentious issue ever since Guilford abandoned the line decades ago.

Leishman's company has operated the state-owned track for the past 20 years, mostly servicing a single customer, Granite State Concrete, in transporting crushed stone from a Wilton quarry to the company's processing plant in Bennington.

Pan Am Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said Pan Am did not submit a bid this time around, but endorsed a bid by the New Hampshire Central Railroad, which operates primarily in the North Country and is based in North Stratford.

Pan Am had previously demanded through its attorneys that the state conduct a bidding process to operate the line as a condition of its cooperation in commuter rail planning.

"We believe that there was definitely a bidding process," said Scarano. "We can't really comment on this one, because we didn't participate in it. However, we have been working with the NHDOT regarding passenger service throughout the state and will continue to do so."