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Ground broken for rail trail on old Newtown Line

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While it’s been ever so slow in the making, officials from Bucks and Montgomery counties have finally broken ground on a portion of a recreational trail that seeks to eventually connect Newtown with Philadelphia.

The current portion under way will bring Philly’s Pennypack Trail up to Bristol Road, just west of Churchville Road in Upper Southampton. The southern tip of this portion of the trail will be County Line Road just east of New Road.

Two and a half miles in length, the trail will connect the Pennypack with the eastern portion of Tamamend Park. Spanning 5.4 miles from Rockledge to Byberry Road near Masons Mill Park, the Pennypack portion was completed in 2015 by Montgomery County officials.

Bucks County planners hope to eventually build the trail 8.5 miles all the way up to Newtown Borough. For years, Northampton Township stood in the way, even after Newtown, Middletown and Upper Southampton approved resolutions supporting the project.

The cost of this portion of the trail is $2.4 million, a price tag some would rather see spent on restoring rail service into the city.

The proposed multi-use recreational path is being built along a right-of-way regional transit agencies Reading Railroad and SEPTA once operated, the now defunct R8 Fox Chase/Newtown rail line.

“We are in favor of trails but never at the cost of a viable commuter line,” said Paul Iverson, of Langhorne.

Iverson was one of many who attended the Oct. 15 ceremonial groundbreaking held at the Historic Southampton Train Station, located along Second Street Pike, just south of Street Road.

“When I see $2.5 million spent on a two-and-a-half mile trail, knowing that in today’s railroad world, a million dollars a mile to rebuild rail is about the same as this trail, you have to wonder ‘is this a gross misappropriation of funding?’ Or is it being done to prevent the train from coming back?”

However Charles Martin, vice chairman of the Bucks County Commissioners, insisted the cost to return rail service to Newtown was too high. The R8 was a single-line railbed on which diesel cars operated. At one time, SEPTA considered electrifying the spur but the project never came to fruition. Service to Newtown was ended in 1983.

While SEPTA tested a diesel rail bus on the line in 1985, the transit agency decided it was too costly to continue. The Newtown line was one of the few that was saddled with grade crossings that were unprotected. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the line was the site of some of the worst accidents in SEPTA history and the transit agency decided it no longer wanted to bear its legal and financial burden.

“All the recent studies and costs just wouldn’t justify economically renewing the Newtown rail line, which many of us (had) hoped we were able to do,” commented Martin at the groundbreaking. “Once that was finally put to bed – except for a few – using it for community purposes as a rail to trail made eminent sense.”

“You could never get a right-of-way again to go through these neighborhoods and it’s going to be able to go beyond Southampton, all the way to Newtown again and then connect with Montgomery County, down into the city and down to the river.

“So it will be a wonderful thing for people to use.”

Design costs for the trail were funded by PennDOT’s Act 13 Marcellus Legacy Fund, Montgomery County and the William Penn Foundation. SEPTA is leasing the right-of-way for the project for $1 a year.

The construction of the trail will be funded by PennDOT’s Transportation Improvement Program. Construction will begin in earnest next spring with completion expected sometime next fall.

Montgomery County officials are also planning to extend a portion of the Pennypack Trail from Byberry Road to County Line Road. The timetable for construction of the extension is similar to that of the portion planned for Bucks County.

The process from planning to construction is time-consuming. Sources say a feasibility study can take nine months to a year to complete and even then, Northampton Supervisors would still have to ratify the project.

In December 2016, they rejected even the approval of a feasibility study by a 3-2 vote. Late last year, however, Northampton authorized the Bucks County Planning Commission to do a study identifying potential bike and walking trail connections throughout the entire township. Findings are expected at the end of this year.

If the trail ever makes its way to Newtown, it will proceed from Bristol Road northeast along Knowles Avenue through Churchville Park along Elm Avenue, cross Buck Road near Saint Leonard’s Road, and continue four-and-a-half miles through Northampton Township to the east of Village Shires.

From there, the path will cross the Neshaminy Creek into Middletown Township, just West of George School, which once boasted its own train station along the rail line. The right-of-way then passes beneath the Newtown Bypass in the vicinity of Freedom Drive, ending in the borough at Penn Street near South Lincoln Ave, where the Newtown Train Station stood from 1878 until 1967 when it was demolished.

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