February 4, 2013

Expansion of passenger trains in Maine takes slow track

Taking the Downeaster beyond Brunswick hinges on crucial projects and powers of persuasion.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger rail operations, Maine Eastern Railroad:

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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These overgrown railroad tracks are in Bowdoinham. Plans to expand passenger service to Augusta are on hold.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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"It's difficult for me to give any kind of timeline on anything because the situation in the state and federal government at this time makes it questionable in terms of what the opportunities will be," says the authority's executive director, Patricia Quinn. "As with the expansion to Brunswick, we try to have the work ready so that when there is a grant we can pull the project off the shelf and immediately get it running."

Until such a time, the authority's board decided to run two Brunswick-to-Boston round-trips each day rather than no service at all. The long Brunswick layover -- rather than a quick turnaround -- was selected because it would allow Bostonians to make day trips to shop in Freeport, a major boon for the town's retailers. "With just one train set, they've managed to make the business community a little happier than they would have been," Davis says.

There's also been opposition to the construction of the $11 million Brunswick layover facility from residents of nearby neighborhoods, which Davis has found exasperating. "The site is a rail yard and it has been for 130 years," he says. "It's not like this is a new site or idea."

NORTH TO AUBURN AND MONTREAL?

Extending service in another direction -- from the Portland terminal near outer Congress Street to Lewiston-Auburn -- also can't go forward without the construction of the Y track in Portland and the sidings in Yarmouth, where the junctions to both lines to Lewiston-Auburn are located. The Portland terminal would also need to be expanded to allow more than one train to be in the station at a time.

Auburn has long been the next goal for the Downeaster, in part because the tracks have already been upgraded as far as Yarmouth, just 20 miles short of the proposed Auburn Intermodal Passenger Center, where shuttle buses to downtown Lewiston would depart. Another attraction is that it would get Amtrak that much closer to Montreal on the legendary Grand Trunk, the railway that made Portland into the winter port of Victorian-era Canada and helped introduce the Quebecois to the sands of Old Orchard Beach.

"You have 4 million people in Montreal and 4 million in Boston and the Portland-to-Bethel corridor in between them; that shouts opportunity," says Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte. "That's already a viable freight line, so any investment improvements would improve freight capacities into the state as well."

Both intercity rail expansions would require a lot of money, however, and a 2011 Maine Department of Transportation study suggests ridership would be limited.

Running three round-trips a day between Auburn and Portland on the Downeaster was estimated to require at least $107 million in upfront investments -- including a new train set -- and a $2.5 million annual operating subsidy. The study predicted 30,000 people would use it annually. Running the trains directly to Boston would more than double the cost while boosting ridership only to 45,800.

"Whereas it would be fun to have an intercity train that runs three times a day from Portland, that's not going to help," says LaBonte, who is most interested in connecting Lewiston-Auburn with commuter job opportunities in Portland. "In terms of where we can invest best for the dollar, I can help more people get access to jobs with a bus than with either an intercity or a commuter train."

COMMUTER TRAINS INSTEAD?

But Freeport Town Councilor Kristina Egan, former director of the South Coast Rail commuter project in Massachusetts, says commuter trains may provide a cost-effective alternative to buses moving commuters between Portland, Westbrook, South Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. Rather than using heavy passenger trains, the system might use self-propelled rail cars called Diesel Multiple Units that allow for more frequent and cost-effective service.

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