LINCOLN, Maine — A Poland Spring official says the region’s slow-moving freight train service may hurt its chances to host a $50 million bottling plant.
Due to wear and tear, track speeds are limited to about 10 mph on the Lincoln to Waterville track line owned by Pan-Am Railways, said Poland Spring Senior Natural Resource Manager Thomas Brennan.
That means that trains running from Lincoln to the Pan Am Railways facility the company uses in Waterville — 110 miles by road — would take nine hours to arrive.
“That’s not favorable,” Brennan said Wednesday. “Improved rail service could play a key role in where we go.”
Faster trains would allow Poland Spring to ship larger quantities of water to market faster, making the area more attractive for the plant, Brennan said.
The company, which already plans to build a tanker-loading station in Lincoln this summer, is working with town officials to see if it can help improve the tracks.
“The concept here is OK, let’s consider if our project moves forward. Let’s use it for a catalyst for making change in the region,” Brennan added. “Clearly there are other companies [in the area] that need [rail service]. If we get organized and have a focused approach, we can be a catalyst for bringing it in.”
A bottling plant would be an economic boon to the region. Lincoln’s paper mill went bankrupt in 2015, laying off 128 workers. The company is still scouting locations for the plant, and it could take four years to obtain permits. The plant would likely resemble Kingfield’s, which employs 100 people and bottles 175 million gallons a year — roughly the same amount of water the mill drew annually from Lincoln Water District.
Officials from Pan Am, the freight hauler that would handle plant shipments, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Pan Am has been hauling water from Poland Spring’s plant in Kingfield via Waterville for about a year. According to a Maine Department of Transportation federal grant application filed in 2015, the railway wanted $4 million to upgrade portions of its track from Hermon to Waterville to increase track speed from 10 mph to 25 mph in 2016. The company withdrew from the project and the work was never done, said Nate Moulton, director of the DOT Office of Freight and Business Services.
Brennan told Lincoln officials of the rail issue in a meeting about two weeks ago. They are working with Eastern Maine Development Corp., a non-profit economic development agency, to find grant funding and determine how many Penobscot County businesses could use improved rail service. Three have spoken up, said Michael Aube, EMDC’s president.
“We’re still working with the parties involved to see what it’s going to take. Right now we are looking for information,” Lincoln Town Manager John Sutherland said.
The Federal Railroad Administration rates track speeds in nine categories ranging from Class 1, 10 mph to 20 mph, to Class 9, 220 mph.
In a separate deal, Poland Spring hopes to sign a contract to buy water from the district within a few weeks, Brennan said. The company hopes to begin trucking water from Lincoln to its plants in Poland and Hollis within a year. The Planning Board voted 5-0 on Tuesday to approve a water district application to construct a water tanker loading station on Route 2 near the Enfield town line.
Several towns, including Chester, Fryeburg, Greenbush, Howland, Passadumkeag and Rumford, hope to host the plant. Company officials must weigh expansion costs, find a plant site and develop backup water sources before deciding whether to expand, Brennan said.