SOUTH PARIS — Hopefully, Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho’s oversight of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s re-application for clearance to proceed with its proposed 650-foot-long barn at Brunswick is not a collusive effort to ensure the latter receives the $12.7 million in federal pork barrel funds being sought to erect an unneeded castle.

As a recognized authority on the history of the Grand Trunk Railway New England Lines for the past 50-plus years, I have followed with considerable interest the hype about the importance of a barn to house three complete Downeaster trainsets at Brunswick, ever since word of it first appeared in the media.

That this structure is vital to increasing ridership and adding more trains to the schedule is hogwash.

Any passenger department head knows it is steadily increasing ridership that puts more trains on the rails. And now that the novelty of service to Brunswick has worn off, the 120 people or so who trackside observers initially noted riding each train have dwindled to an average of 35 or fewer per run – so let’s not use Boston-to-Portland figures to assert that ridership is strong and growing.

No efficiently managed railroad ever expended hundreds of thousands, let alone millions of dollars in revenue earnings or subsidy monies erecting barns to house complete train consists during layovers at turn-around terminals.

Locomotives go to the enginehouse for servicing and coaches to the yard for cleaning and inspection. Note the keyword: “yard,” as in Mother Nature’s outdoors.

Today’s Downeasters use diesel-electric motive power, which can be shut down between runs, saving fuel and curbing pollution. In climes where sub-freezing temperatures constitute part of the year, railroads equip engine blocks with internal heater elements, plugging into outside electrical sources, same as truckers and automobile owners without garages. This would cost a tiny fraction of the $600,000 NNEPRA claims it expends on the yearly deadheading of empty trains four times daily to Portland and back.

So why – with expenditures of that magnitude and ridership figures of 35 aboard each trip – is NNEPRA’s management still running 500-seat trainsets between the two points, instead of using that $600,000 to acquire a second-hand, self-propelled diesel railcar that seats 70, and withdrawing the request for $12.7 million in taxpayer funds?

Ms. Aho of the DEP should reject the re-application on the basis that such a structure has a greater impact on the environment than does a simple outdoors siding for parking and servicing a layover trainset. Even a layman understands these facts:

A roadway parallel to the outermost rail of such a siding enables trucks from a contracted septic waste firm to move along each car pumping out waste and flushing its holding tanks.

 Trackpans beneath the parked power unit catch any contaminants for removal by contracted oil waste services.

 Topping off the unit’s fuel tanks is accomplished by contract with a local fuel dealer.

Noise? Surely the occasional sound of a car inspector’s hammer checking for defective wheels is no more disturbing than a neighbor’s lawnmower or snowblower.

Open ground, even a ballasted siding, absorbs rainfall and melting snow without great degrees of flooding, and doesn’t interfere with birds and animals foraging for sustenance. But that’s not the case with a 60,000-square-foot paved lot sitting atop an aquifer and a structure with 24,050 square feet of roofing that causes rainfall to flood the area and overwhelm storm drainage systems.

Only the last arriving train of the day will be laying over for the night, so there is no need for a barn to house three layover trains simultaneously, even though Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, has stated that it is crucial for handling Lewiston and Rockland trainsets when service is extended to those locations.

Whoa, there: If it’s costing $600,000 yearly to deadhead empty trains to Portland and back, it’s also going to cost that amount deadheading empty trains from Lewiston to Brunswick via Royal Junction and back.

As to a letter by Ms. Quinn, written in response to an August Sun Journal op-ed, citing the “net cost” of the Downeaster’s cafe cars: No one’s ever starved to death on a short-haul, 140-mile, three-hour trip. I’ve been privy to a few board meetings in my time, and any divisional passenger head proudly congratulating their chief of dining car services for “operating … with a net cost of only $160,000 last year” would quickly be scrubbing pots and pans for the cook on an extra gang far north of North Bay.

Sorry, Ms. Quinn, but your concept is no way to run a railroad – not even a basement model layout.

— Special to the Press Herald