A Downeaster train set, as seen in Brunswick in 2016. A pilot program would have extended service north from its current Brunswick terminus to Rockland, with stops in several Midcoast communities, including Bath and Wiscasset. Those plans have been placed on hold for the second time. (Times Record File Photo)

BRUNSWICK — The Coastal Connection, a proposed seasonal weekend Downeaster service to the Midcoast, has been delayed yet again and won’t be ready for summer operation, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

The line would run two-hour weekend trips from Brunswick to Rockland with stops in Bath, Wiscasset and Newcastle. 

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority manages Maine’s contract with Amtrak, but the Maine Department of Transportation owns the 58-mile track between Brunswick and Rockland and leases with the Central Maine and Quebec Railway to carry freight on the line, Quinn said. Because of this, there are many moving pieces that need to be sorted out in order to start training crews to run the service.

“It’s taking longer than anticipated for the legal operating requirements side,” she said, adding that they will “continue the dialogue.”

The rail service most recently planned for a three-week run in summer 2018 during the Maine Lobster Festival and the Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors show in August, but that was canceled because they could not complete a safety assessment of the Brunswick-Rockland line in time, the Portland Press Herald reported at the time. Amtrak must make sure the track is able to handle the speeds of passenger trains.

The safety assessment is one of the pieces in play, according to Quinn, but is in progress.

There has been “very strong interest from the (Midcoast) community,” she said, as the line is partly intended to help boost tourism. Community members  “see the potential as much, if not more than we do,” Quinn said.

“The Midcoast is very popular in the summer and Route 1 gets very congested,” she added, so offering a train service seemed only logical.

“The railroad is there, it’s in good shape and we have the availability of the equipment on the weekends,” she said.

Passenger service has not operated on the Brunswick-Rockland line since the Maine Eastern Railroad shut down in 2015, according to the rail authority.

The original estimated operating cost was $200,000 and expected to transport approximately 7,000 riders, generating approximately $120,000 in revenue. The authority will have to take a second look at the cost after details are ironed out, but the service is “not a millions of dollars kind of thing,” Quinn said.  

In February 2018, David Bernhardt, then-commissioner of the Department of Transportation, said in a letter to the rail authority that the DOT would “not support financially the proposed service and will not approve use of additional state or federal funds for this purpose.”

The conclusion that the rail corridor was in good shape was lacking in some facts, the letter said, as “in the past two years the department has increased focus on the condition of railroad bridges across the state,” and had not yet completed an assessment on the Rockland branch. “Early indications are that work will need to be done to support ongoing freight-rail operations,” it said.  

Because of this, the board then proposed the three-weekend pilot in August of that year, according to the rail authority’s website, in order to “focus on what is anticipated to be the highest ridership demand period and recover operating costs through the fare box. This pilot, although brief, will provide an opportunity to evaluate demand for the Coastal Connection service and further explore what, if any, future investments which may be needed or wanted to optimize the service.”

Once the budget is completed, Quinn said they plan to reintroduce the conversation with Bruce Van Note, the new commissioner of the department of transportation, who she said has “expressed willingness to make use of the resource, but wants to make sure it is a fiscally responsible decision.”

Despite the setbacks and the list of items that still need to be accomplished, Quinn said she is “optimistic for next year.”

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