ROCKLAND — Maine Eastern Railroad has revamped its summer schedule, and not everyone is happy about it.
The railroad’s Rockland-to-Brunswick excursion train is now connecting for the first time with Amtrak’s Downeaster in Brunswick, and the railroad has launched a second train using Wiscasset as its hub. The vintage 1950s-style train no longer will facilitate day trips to Rockland, which has business owners there concerned about a dropoff in business.
However, business leaders in other parts of the midcoast hope the link with Amtrak will lure more tourists there. The move is popular in Wiscasset, where a new train station was established this summer along the Sheepscot River behind Red’s Eats, and in the twin villages of Newcastle and Damariscotta, which for the first time are hosting a train station.
In Rockland, the change has upset some merchants and restaurant owners because the city is no longer the centerpiece of the railroad’s business model.
Since it began operating the tourist train a decade ago, Maine Eastern Railroad has been ferrying tourists between Brunswick and Rockland. The train would park in Rockland for three to four hours before making the 57-mile return trip to Brunswick.
But no more.
The train remains in Rockland only for about a half hour now. The short stop in Rockland was necessary so the train could meet up in Brunswick with the Downeaster train bound from Boston shortly before 1 p.m., and return to Brunswick to meet the southbound Downeaster, which departs at 5:55 p.m.
The Brunswick-to-Rockland service – which the company calls the Mid-Coast Limited – makes one round trip per day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
When the train arrives in Rockland, passengers are discouraged from getting off unless Rockland is their destination. Last Friday, for example, 48 passengers arrived, and none left the train.
Since the service began July 4, downtown merchants haven’t seen many customers from the train, said Kelly Woods, co-owner of the Trackside Station, a restaurant in Rockland.
“We haven’t got the usual business of the train we should,” she said.
It used to bring as many as 200 tourists to Rockland in the middle of the day, and that’s no longer happening, said Gordon Page, who until a year ago worked as an executive of the railroad and now heads Rockland Main Street Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the downtown.
“The feedback I’m getting from downtown business groups is they are disappointed,” Page said.
Without Rockland serving as a draw for tourists, the excursion train won’t be successful, said Don Marson, who retired a year ago as vice president and general manager of the railroad. He said he doubts the connection with the Downeaster will make up for the excursion business lost because of the change of schedule.
“Who wants to take a train ride for two hours to Rockland and then turn around and come right back?” Marson said.
Still, the new schedule has an upside, some say. The connection with the Downeaster makes it easier for people to travel to the region without using their cars, said Frank Isganitis, a Rockland City Council member and owner of the LimeRock Inn, a Victorian bed-and-breakfast. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, is promoting package deals that include accommodations at the LimeRock and some other local inns.
“Rather than have people come as a day excursion, they can spend a night or stay a week,” Isganitis said. “The long-term impact is going to be more positive.”
Staci Coomer, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, said potential customers she met at the Boston Globe Travel Show last February were excited to learn they could travel to the midcoast by train.
“It was a big selling point to say that was an option,” she said.
While the new schedule presents a downside for Rockland, the region as a whole will benefit because of the connection with the Downeaster, said Misty Parker, the town planner in Wiscasset. She noted that there is a new trolley service that meets passengers at the train station shared by Newcastle and Damariscotta and brings them to Boothbay Harbor.
The Maine Eastern Railroad is owned by Morristown & Erie Railway Inc., in Morristown, New Jersey. Founded 126 years ago, it is one of the oldest railroad companies in the United Sates. It operates freight service in New Jersey.
In Maine, the company operates a small line that it leases from the state. Its summer excursion trains are subsidized by its more lucrative freight businesses. Its biggest customer is New England’s sole cement manufacturer, Dragon Cement in Thomaston. The railroad transports cement to Rockland, where it is placed on barges bound for Boston and New York.
It also hauls plate steel to Bath Iron Works and perlite, a volcanic glass, to the Dicalite plant in Thomaston.
The railroad underwent a corporate shake-up a year ago. Charles Jensen, who was promoted to vice president and chief operating officer, said the company decided to revamp its excursion train service in Maine because the previous business model was not sustainable.
The railroad sold more than 14,000 one-way tickets in 2006, but just 10,000 last year, he said.
This year, the railroad is offering two train services. Besides the Mid-Coast Limited, it is launching the Wiscasset Flyer, which offers two 45-minute round-trip excursions every Saturday between Wiscasset and Newcastle-Damariscotta and between Wiscassett and Bath.
Jensen said the short excursion train and the connection with the Downeaster offer greater growth potential for both the railroad and the region’s tourism industry.
“We are trying to build a tourism business for all the communities up there,” he said.