For the second summer in a row, plans to extend the Amtrak Downeaster’s service north of Brunswick through Rockland for a limited seasonal schedule have fallen through.
Officials from the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which is responsible for managing Maine’s contract with Amtrak, pitched the Downeaster extension pilot program in the fall of 2017. The program would extend passenger rail service to Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland on weekends during the summer.
The news means further delay for a project aimed at bringing more tourism money into the midcoast. The program was slated to begin last summer for a limited three-weekend run, but that was canceled, because Amtrak was unable to conduct safety assessments of the Brunswick-Rockland line in time.
Strides have been made on the safety assessments, but NNEPRA’s Executive Director Patricia Quin said they were not able to flesh out a contract for the use of the line this year.
“It’s definitely not going to happen this summer,” Quinn said. “It’s a matter of getting the right people together to work out the necessary agreements to be able to operate the service.”
The Maine Department of Transportation owns the 58 miles of track between Brunswick and Rockland. However, the Central Maine and Quebec Railway has a lease with the DOT to carry freight on the Brunswick-Rockland line.
In order to operate the extended Downeaster service ― called the Coastal Connection ― Amtrak would need to contract with the Central Maine and Quebec Railway to use the line, Quinn said.
Since NNEPRA had to wait until the DOT, under a new administration, gave the OK to pursue the pilot program this year, Quinn said there was not enough time to finalize a contract and to hire crews.
When the program was originally pitched to the communities where stops would be added, NNEPRA officials said it would help boost tourism in the midcoast area. Passenger rail service to Rockland hasn’t taken place since 2015, when the Maine Eastern Railroad stopped offering its excursion service.
The possibility of passenger rail service returning to the midcoast was a boon for the four communities and the program gathered wide support.
Gordon Page, executive director of Rockland Main Street, Inc., testified to NNEPRA’s board of directors in support of the program. Last year, when the limited three weekend service fell through, Page said he was disappointed, but added that the region can get on without the service until it is fleshed out and done well.
“Any community like Rockland is bound to benefit from 100 to 150 people getting dropped off in the middle of the day to roam the downtown district for three or four hours. We would have welcomed those passengers,” Page said. “[The extension] is an extensive proposition. It has to be done well not fast.”
Quinn said NNEPRA officials will continue to pursue the pilot program, though she did not provide a time estimate for when it could come to fruition.
“We’re disappointed as well. We were really hopeful,” Quinn said. “But we’re going to keep at it.”