Most of us probably don’t think about freight trains until we’re stuck in traffic, waiting for one to chug through a railroad crossing as we fidget with our playlists and wish we had flying automobiles, like the Jetsons.

Get ready for more fidgeting.

Will Hall

Freight trains are making a comeback in Maine – and counting on the state’s rail system to keep pace. Already, the processions of locomotives, box cars, tank cars, reefers, gondolas, hoppers and other rolling stock have grown more frequent and longer. A lot longer.

Before the pandemic, 1,000 or so trains typically entered the state from Canada each year, averaging around 50 cars long, according to federal data. Last year, 1,557 trains crossed the border into Maine, and the average length stretched to more than 85 cars. That’s a mile-long train.

Border crossings are just a convenient example; railroads usually keep information about train length confidential. But next time you’re at a crossing, see for yourself – more freight traffic is plying Maine’s 1,100 miles of track.

In 2019, those freight cars carried 4.5 million tons of cargo, down from a high of 7.5 million tons in 2005 but still a lot. Most of the cargo is paper, pulp and forest products, but there are also chemicals, food, automobiles, farm goods and more, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. The 2019 tonnage was worth $4.4 billion and supported countless parts of the state and its economy.


In 2019, however, none of the seven major North American railroads operated in Maine. Today, two of seven – Canadian Pacific and CSX – run here. And those big railroads like to drive big trains. In some parts of the U.S., they extend 3 miles long. Increasingly, the trains are made up of heavier cars that weigh 286,000 or even 315,000 pounds.

There’s currently no federal or state law limiting the length of freight trains.


More trains can be a good thing for Maine businesses. Freight rail is more fuel-efficient than trucks for hauling certain types of loads, and creates far less greenhouse gas. The new railroads in Maine are streamlining connections and making it easier to carry goods across the state and across the country. The Canadian shipping port of Saint John, New Brunswick, is expanding and sending more freight through Maine to points west and south.

But Maine’s tracks and rail system aren’t yet ready for an influx of freight. The federal government, MDOT, Canadian Pacific and CSX have been pouring tens of millions of dollars into overdue improvements. And still, more work remains.

Many of the tracks right now aren’t capable of carrying 286,000-pound railcars. There are ties to be replaced, sidings to be added, lights and safety equipment to be installed at crossings. Without upgrades like these, some of Maine’s tracks now force trains to creep along at 10 mph. That’s a slow pace for a fast-moving economy.


In December, MDOT made recommendations for fixing Maine’s freight rail system in a 92-page document, the first update of the department’s Maine State Rail Plan since 2014. The plan predicts the tonnage and value of train cargo in the state will more than double by 2050, and outlines the fixes Maine needs in order keep moving that freight. According to MDOT, the upgrades will take $153 million in short-term capital and another $64 million for improvements by 2042.


Maine’s new rail plan also calls for a host of other improvements, including changes to keep passenger service on the Amtrak Downeaster running smoothly. There’s a clear takeaway to this plan: Maine can’t afford to rely on obsolete infrastructure when the rest of the continent is moving at high speed.

Fixing our freight rail system is going to take money we haven’t coughed up yet, time that’s running short, and a commitment that’s as sizable as the big trains trekking through Maine. Will we find these commodities? Think about what can happen without them.

Ten years ago, in the early morning of July 6, 2013, an unattended freight train bound for Maine that day became a runaway cruise missile – plowing into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, not far from the Jackman border crossing. A giant fireball incinerated much of the village center, destroyed dozens of buildings and over 100 businesses, and killed 47 people. While investigations later found human error was the primary cause of the derailment, track condition and locomotive maintenance were cited as contributing factors.

In the years since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the community has slowly, painfully rebuilt. The Canadian government and Canadian Pacific – which now owns the connecting tracks in Maine – have pledged to build a new rail bypass that would take freight trains around the downtown rather than through it. The aim is to avoid future accidents, and to avoid even the traumatic reminder of a train in the middle of Lac-Mégantic.

But a decade after the tragedy, because of the funding squabbles, local politics and red tape that surround this and many such rail projects, the bypass has not even broken ground. The long freight trains continue to rumble through Lac-Mégantic each day.

Will Hall is the business editor of the Portland Press Herald. You can reach the Business Desk at

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