NEWCASTLE — I am a railroad advocate — where it makes sense to be one. That’s not the case with the proposed restoration of the Mountain Division line between Westbrook and the New Hampshire border, as promoted in a March 5 editorial (“Rail project should take precedence over trail”).

The simplistic statement that “revival of a 5-mile section would get trucks off local roads and give manufacturers an opportunity to find a lower-cost way to get products to market” reveals misleading naivete about railroad operations and economics.

Truck traffic will be relieved only if those hypothetical manufacturers commit to extensive rail use for inbound and/or outbound shipments, and the railroad may be a lower-cost route to market only if its expensive infrastructure is subsidized like the truckers’ is.

Proponents’ “build it and they will come” theme is false prophecy, as there are no “long-term savings that would come from (this) East-West rail link.”

The Mountain Division has been out of service since 1984, when it was determined to be the least feasible of three rail routes from Maine to Canada and the west — because of steep grades, extensive curvature, high operating and maintenance expenses, and the lack of intermediate traffic.

A declining trend of New England industrial activity has caused the alternative cross-border lines to become seriously underutilized as well.

Railroads involve high fixed costs of infrastructure and equipment and therefore are dependent on volume and associated revenue.

Business envisioned from potential Mountain Division users so far has proved illusory. Low-value commodities such as gravel, logs, wood pellets and water will not bear long-distance transportation costs, and many receivers of these products cannot accept direct rail deliveries.

A 2007 consultant report for Maine Department of Transportation paints a discouraging picture to any transportation professional. The operation likely would require public support in some form, as does the Rockland Branch and so will the state-owned, 233-mile “Aroostook Lines” in northern Maine. Railroads can do many good things — ease road congestion, reduce pavement damage, cut fuel consumption, improve air quality and lower freight costs — but only if demand justifies efficient train lengths (volume) and the associated rates can be compensatory and competitive with the revenue generated by trucking.

It’s counter-productive to run a locomotive very far to deliver a couple of carloads of anything. Without hard evidence of sufficient commercial demand for freight service, there is no reason to spend scarce funds on the Mountain Division when an active parallel line a few miles away is available for transloading.

I side with the trail enthusiasts on this one. MDOT already has long-term control of the corridor; a coexisting trail can be put in place while the railroad remains idle without precluding future rail use; and the track could be made usable in one construction season if meaningful demand materializes.

Rail lines may “have to follow established rights of way if they are to be financially viable,” but an existing route with speculative customer commitment is an invitation to failure.

Viability depends on revenue-adequate traffic. Further public investment in the moribund Mountain Division based on faith is fiscally irresponsible.

– Special to the Press Herald