The freight railroad that operates on the historic line between Portland and Montreal wants to stop running trains to Portland – and serving its last customer east of Auburn.
The maker of B&M Baked Beans, which relies on trains for deliveries of dried beans from the west, would have to find another way to bring supplies to its plant on Portland’s waterfront.
Meanwhile, some proponents of passenger rail say that removing freight from the line could make it easier to re-establish passenger service between Portland and Auburn.
St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad President Mario Brault said the railroad is losing money on the line between Auburn and Portland because it must maintain the tracks and crossings to serve just one customer.
“For us to maintain operation for this property is a money-losing venture, and nowadays we can’t afford to do this,” he said Friday from his office in Montreal.
On Nov. 7, the railroad filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board seeking permission to discontinue freight service on the 24-mile line between Portland’s East Deering neighborhood and the Auburn city line. Auburn would be the new terminus of the freight service.
A decision is expected before March.
Officials from Burnham & Morrill Co. did not return a phone message, and a spokesman for its parent company, B&G Foods Inc., said he did not know enough about the situation to comment on it.
Brault said he believes that B&M, which has been baking beans in Portland since the 1920s, will be able to have its dried beans trucked in. One possibility, he said, is for trains to haul the beans to Danville Junction in Auburn before trucks deliver them to B&M’s five-story, century-old factory on the shore of Casco Bay.
Trains are considered the least expensive way to move such heavy, low-value commodities long distances.
While the railroad is responsible for maintaining the tracks between Auburn and Portland, the state owns the right-of-way, which it bought for $6.8 million in two transactions, in 2006 and 2009.
The state will not oppose the railroad’s petition, said Nate Moulton, director of the industrial rail access program for the Maine Department of Transportation. “We believe the economic case they are making is legitimate,” he said.
Formerly the Grand Trunk Railway, the line between Portland and Montreal was once hugely important for Portland’s development.
When it was completed in 1853, it linked the city’s port with Montreal, 292 miles away, thus connecting Portland to western Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
Portland became the winter port for much of Canada. In 1916, when Portland’s trans-Atlantic trade peaked, grain elevators on the eastern waterfront loaded 37 million bushels of grain from western Canada onto steamships bound for Europe.
The line ran to India Street in downtown Portland until 1984, when a fire damaged a bridge over Back Cove. That made the B&M plant the end of the line.
Amtrak’s Downeaster serves Freeport and Brunswick on a different line, owned by Pan Am Railways, which also runs freight on a separate line that connects with the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad at Danville Junction.
Advocates for passenger rail service between Portland and Auburn view the St. Lawrence & Atlantic line as the best route.
Discontinuing freight service could help because it would cost less to establish passenger service on a line that didn’t also have to accommodate freight trains, said Tony Donovan, founder and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.
Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who chairs the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, said the tracks would have to be upgraded to support passenger trains, which run faster than freight trains.
“I don’t see this as being a step backwards,” he said.
Freight service is regulated by the federal government because railroads are monopolies. Discontinuing a freight service is known as “rail banking” because it allows a railroad to resume service if it can get more customers. If a railroad gets permission for discontinuation – which the St. Lawrence & Atlantic is seeking – the tracks are left in place.
Abandoning a line is more permanent, allowing the tracks to be removed.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad had three customers in East Deering and served them three times a week, according to Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, an industry trade publication.
By late 2006, the only customer left was the B&M Baked Beans plant.
Traffic to the factory has since declined, and the factory now receives less than one carload per month, according to the trade publication.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: