WESTBROOK – Old railroad tracks are causing headaches – not to mention tire damage – for both Westbrook drivers and city officials, and solutions are not easy to come by.

The tracks, which intersect with roads in nine areas of Westbrook, are in rough condition in many locations, and city officials feel their hands are tied when it comes to making repairs. But problems with maintenance are only the beginning of the issues with the rails, as Westbrook works with the rail owners to resolve conflicts about the condition and future of the tracks.

“We’ve fixed sections of it, but we try to avoid spending local tax dollars on that. Sometimes it can’t be avoided,” said Eric Dudley, city engineer.

Dudley said the city does not own the tracks, and is therefore not responsible for the maintenance of the crossings. He said when the city makes calls for maintenance to the Department of Transportation and Pan Am Railways, the rail line owners, those issues haven’t been fixed.

Nate Moulton, rail director for the state, said he is unaware of any calls for maintenance being made by Westbrook officials. He said generally, on active lines, it is the responsibility of the train owners to fix the rail problems, and on inactive lines, the Department of Transportation works with the municipalities or state, depending on who owns the road, to fix the problems.

Moulton said the only active line he was aware of runs from Portland to Sappi Fine Paper.

Dudley said the city has spent money to fix the rail crossings near the public safety building, on Cottage Street and by the Stockhouse restaurant after residents called to complain that their tires had been slashed from the rails.

“We have complaints, and public services has complaints, as well. One of the issues we have is the lack of maintenance,” Dudley said.

Another complaint is the city’s difficulty in dealing with the Department of Transportation. Dudley said the city isn’t kept informed on active rail lines and future rail projects that run through Westbrook.

For example, Dudley said he’s been working with engineers on replacing a water main in the Cumberland Street area, but the state said that the work would interrupt an active rail line. Since the state owns the piece of track, it so far has not given permission for the work.

Dudley said he does not believe that particular line is active because when he’s gone to look at the rails, he’s seen trees growing up through the tracks and lobster traps stored on the rail bed, which are too close to the tracks if a railroad engine was coming through the area.

“You see trees growing up through the train tracks. You see a couple of hundred lobster traps stored out there,” Dudley said.

Tom Eldridge, the public services director, has also had discussions with Pan Am about the Brown Street overpass because it’s crumbling. So far, the company has not repaired the overpass.

No one from Pan Am returned calls by the American Journal’s deadline.

For a time it seemed the rails were on their way out.

Nearly a decade ago, the city removed a section of tracks by the public safety building. Around the same time, in 1994, the state bought the 50-mile line, the Mountain Division line, from Portland to Fryeburg, from Guilford Transportation, now Pan Am Railway, with the goal to use the area as a multipurpose trail system.

The state originally removed some of the Mountain Division tracks, according to Dudley, but nearly two years after the tracks were removed, the Department of Transportation held a public meeting to inform area residents they were putting tracks back to make the Mountain Division line active again.

Dudley said when Westbrook residents heard the new line was going in, many residents attended the public meeting to object.

But the $4 million federally funded rehab project, advocated by former state Sen. Bill Diamond, was completed in 2011 to fix the portion of the rail line between Westbrook and Windham. Before that rehab project was completed, much of the Mountain Division line was lying on an eroded rail bed, paved over or with no track at all.

The line stopped in Windham because the bridge that crosses over Mallison Falls Road, adjacent to the Maine Correctional Center, needed to be repaired. Now, there are signs in Windham warning drivers the bridge will be undergoing construction soon, which could indicate there is a desire to expand the track further toward Fryeburg.

“That bridge has been, I think, awarded to a contractor and will be fixed,” Moulton said. “It will be extended based on need and right now that hasn’t been established. It’s inactive right now. We don’t have customers enough to justify the line. We come in and put lines in good repair and solicit a rail operator but there needs to be enough business out there to solicit for an operator and there isn’t right now.”

The rehabbed Mountain Division line is inactive and has been used as part of the Sebago to the Sea trail for hikers and snowmobiling clubs since the state bought the line in 1994. That long-term relationship is up in the air as the state contemplates its next move with the line, leading many in Westbrook to ask why the rail line work was done.

“It was definitely a jobs-creation effort. Many businesses along the line were actively supporting opening of the line,” said Diamond Tuesday.

But, now there seems to be no demand for the rail line. According to Dudley, Sappi still uses the railroad, but no other businesses are considering the rail line.

No one at Sappi returned calls by the American Journal by deadline Wednesday.

The industrial development on Saunders Way, owned by J.B. Brown, is next to the active portion of the railroad in Westbrook, but no businesses other than Sappi have indicated an interest in using the line to move freight.

For 50 years, the railroad has mostly been inactive and dense residential development built up near the rail line, so it would be hard for some residents to imagine an active freight line running in their back yards.

Railroads came to the area in 1848, ending the practice of moving freight on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal. The first line started in Portland and rain west to Gorham before connecting with the Boston & Maine line in Berwick. In 1865, the rail line changed its name to the Portland & Rochester line. At the same time, the Portland and Ogdensburg line was being built, which ran through Westbrook from Portland on its way to Ogdensburg, Vt.

In its heyday during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the railways in Westbrook saw several freight trains each day bringing cotton, grain and groceries and taking cotton products from Dana Mills, silk from Haskell Mill and lumber. For a short time in the early 1900s, there was a passenger train that operated from Portland to New York with a stop in Westbrook.

The rails had problems with management, funding and safety from the beginning including a flood in 1896 that destroyed the Brown Street bridge rail line and head-on collisions in 1900.

Automobiles and heavy trucks were ultimately the downfall of the rail system and service beyond Westbrook was discontinued in the early 1900s. But the vestiges continue to present obstacles, such as during the reconfiguration of Wayside Drive (now known as William Clarke Drive) in 2001, when the new road was laid over the tracks.

Rail cars from the early 1900s cut across Main Street in Westbrook on the way to drop off goods produced by the mills in the city.


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