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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"The most expensive piece of getting a rail line ready is having a right-of-way. We already have a right-of-way in and around Portland," Egan says. "DMUs are more reliable than buses, carry more people, and are more attractive and comfortable."

One enthusiast of these self-propelled rail cars is touting a proposal that would establish service between Portland and Lewiston with or without the Downeaster's improvements. Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition would take a different route into Portland, following the old Grand Trunk line from Yarmouth, which crosses the old trestle bridge beside Portland's B&M Baked Bean plant, and skirts the East End shore on the route currently used by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway. The service would terminate at its own station on the city's eastern waterfront, not far from where the old Grand Trunk Terminal stood until 1966, when it was demolished to make way for a parking lot.

"The next rail service in Maine will be between India Street in Portland and Auburn, followed quickly by connections to the communities of Oxford County," Donovan says. "And it will not only pay for itself, it will bring renewed prosperity to the communities along the corridor region."

Last month, Portland city councilors directed city staff to renew studying the feasibility of both bus and rail commuter links to Lewiston-Auburn. The three cities are expected to apply for funding from the Federal Transit Administration to pay for the study.

CANADIAN RAIL IN CRISIS

Getting Amtrak from Portland to Montreal is a much longer and more expensive prospect. The 2011 DOT study examined the feasibility of running two daily round-trips, with stops in Auburn, South Paris and Bethel; Berlin and North Stratford, N.H.; and Sherbrooke, St. Hyacinthe and St. Lambert, Quebec. Construction costs would range from $676 million to $899 million and would require an estimated annual subsidy of $16 million to $18 million based on expected annual ridership of 200,000.

It would also be competing with a shorter and less expensive route from Boston via Burlington, Vt. Amtrak already has service as far as the northern Vermont town of St. Albans, and ran trains on to Montreal as recently as 1995. The last passenger train from Portland to Montreal pulled out of town in 1967.

"The Vermont corridor is favored right now (by federal authorities) as far as connecting Boston," says Nate Moulton, director of the rail program at the Maine DOT. "The question is if we can drive more ridership from Montreal because of destinations in Maine like Sunday River, Old Orchard Beach and Portland."

There's likely to be little initial support from the Canadian side, according to Ontario-based passenger rail advocate Paul Langdon. "Passenger rail in Canada is at a crisis right now, and (Ottawa) just announced more cuts to the lines that are left," he says, noting that daily service was recently eliminated to the Maritime provinces and scaled back even in densely populated southern Ontario. "With the government of (Conservative Prime Minister) Stephen Harper it's kind of doom and gloom, but I don't think you should stop having a vision."

WORTH THE INVESTMENT?

The Canadian leader isn't the only one who thinks passenger rail isn't worth the cost. Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, N.H., has been fighting against a proposed Downeaster-like train service connecting New Hampshire's capital with Boston. "Trains have a very large capital investment cost that could be spent on something else -- fixing buildings or energy efficiency," he says. "Buses can cover their capital and operating costs and yet perform the same services as trains do."

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