A Maine entrepreneur is proposing to revive a defunct rail line for freight and passenger service between Portland and the White Mountains region of New Hampshire, with plans to extend the line eventually to Vermont and Montreal.
The driving force behind the project is David Schwanke, president of Golden Eagle Rail Corp., a startup company.
Schwanke, 61, who lives in Norridgewock, moved to Maine a decade ago after a career handling logistics in the motion picture industry. He said he is waiting for the snow to melt so experts can examine the old Mountain Division line, which runs from the Portland Transportation Center to the New Hampshire border in Fryeburg.
Schwanke said he would spend $7 million to $10 million to replace railroad ties on the line to bring it up to the standards for many short-line railroads.
He said the study is a necessary step before he can meet with the Maine Department of Transportation, which owns the 45-mile section from Westbrook to Fryeburg.
“We’re making sure our ducks are in a row before we jump into a deep pond and find it deeper than we think it is,” Schwanke said.
The section between the Sappi mill in Westbrook and the New Hampshire border was abandoned by Guilford Transportation Industries in 1983 and purchased by the state in 1994.
Although the rail line provides the shortest route from Portland to points west of Chicago, steep grades crossing the Appalachian Mountains in New Hampshire added to its costs. Guilford, which now operates as Pan Am Railways, concluded it would be cheaper to send its westbound trains through Massachusetts.
Built in the late 1800s, the line once shuttled tourists to grand Victorian hotels, including the Bay of Naples Inn in Naples, the Crawford House in Crawford Notch, N.H., and the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, N.H. The last passenger train ran in 1959.
Today, a section of the line in New Hampshire is used by the Conway Scenic Railroad.
Schwanke said he would expand his railroad in stages, starting with a freight service that would connect businesses in Maine with the Portland waterfront and the national rail system through Pan Am Railway, which operates a railway that extends to the Sappi mill in Westbrook. He said there are 15 companies in Maine that could potentially use the freight service.
In the second phase, the line would extend to New Hampshire and bring passengers to the White Mountains. Schwanke said there would be ski trains in the winter and excursion trains in the summer and autumn.
Eventually, the line would extend to St. Johnsbury, Vt., where it would link up with railroads in Vermont and Quebec that now have trains running to Montreal.
Upgrading the entire line would cost about $30 million, Schwanke said. He said the freight service would be local, and that he doesn’t intend to run freight between Montreal and Portland.
Reviving the Mountain Division line has been a goal of local officials, who say it could move such commodities as gravel, propane and wood pellets. It also could bring tourists to the Saco River Valley and the White Mountains, they said.
The biggest challenge would be creating agreements with so many different entities, said Deborah Murphy, who formerly handled passenger rail for the Vermont Rail System and is now working as a consultant for the project. Murphy said the deal-making skills that Schwanke mastered in Hollywood should prove useful.
Providing both freight and passenger service makes sense because it raises more revenue, Murphy said, adding that there is strong demand in Quebec for rail service to U.S. cities.
Schwanke said he also will seek corporate sponsors for the passenger service, an idea that is new to the railroad industry.
Schwanke outlined his idea March 19 in Standish to members of the Route 113 Corridor Committee, an economic development group in the region.
One attendee, Don Marson, said that Schwanke is an articulate public speaker but that his plans for reviving the line are unrealistic.
There appear to be too many obstacles to overcome, and it would cost too much money to upgrade the rail line in Maine, said Marson, who retired last year as vice president and general manager of the Maine Eastern Railroad, which operates freight trains and summer excursion trains between Brunswick and Rockland.
“I hate like hell to say it, but I don’t think it’s going to be real until I see the money,” he said.
Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh, editor of Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, a trade magazine, said he doubts there are enough potential freight customers on the line to make it viable.
“I think we should be very skeptical,” he said.
Nate Moulton, director of the state’s industrial rail access program for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the state is always open to redeveloping its abandoned rail lines.
“That’s what we bought them for,” he said.
When he meets with Schwanke later this spring, Moulton said, he wants to see a “real business plan” that shows the railroad can safely provide service to customers and make enough money to survive. He noted that a 2006 state study concluded that there wasn’t enough freight traffic to sustain such an operation.
Although the state at times will make capital investments in a state-owned rail line, Moulton said, it won’t subsidize freight railroads.
“We expect them to make a living,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:[email protected]