A New York-based rail company has proposed a concept to test passenger train service to Rockland, possibly as soon as this summer, but there are many details to be worked out before it can come to fruition.
This is the latest in a series of recent proposals to restore passenger rail service to a part of the midcoast that has been without it since 2015. Previous attempts have all fallen through.
A representative from Finger Lakes Railway gave a conceptual presentation to the board of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority — which manages Amtrak’s Downeaster service in Maine — at its meeting Monday.
That was only preliminary, though. A formal proposal is still being fleshed out, and its ultimate fate hinges on agreements between multiple parties, including the rail authority, the Maine Department of Transportation and multiple railroad companies.
“I think we need to work together to try to figure out what the components are and how we could make it work. [Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority] has a role, Amtrak has a role, there’s a lot of parties that have a role,” rail authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn said. “This is something we have a great interest in and we intend to pursue and we’re in the information gathering stage at this point.”
Midcoast Rail Service, a subsidiary of Finger Lakes Railway, would conduct a two-year test of the passenger service, acting as a contractor with the rail authority. The company would provide year-round passenger train service north of where the Downeaster currently stops in Brunswick, according to Finger Lakes Railway co-founder and board member George Betke.
The service would offer one daily trip along the route from November to April. From May to October, a second daily trip would be offered Friday through Sunday. Proposed stops include Bath, Wiscassett, Newcastle and Rockland, according to Betke. A stop in Waldoboro could also be added.
A major difference between this idea and past proposals is the type of railcar being used. Instead of using full-size Amtrak trains to extend the Downeaster service north, as has been considered in previous plans, Betke said self-propelling cars will be used, which are smaller and offer more flexibility based on passenger demand.
Final costs for this test project are still being fleshed out, Betke said.
“We proposed this as a test. The discussion on Monday was of a possible two year test with real equipment, real people, real communities to see what the reaction is,” Betke said.
Betke said the hope is that the service could be up and running by May 1, if all of the pieces fall together. But he said that there are still a lot of details to be worked out.
Quinn said she does not have enough information at this point to know if launching by this summer is a realistic timeframe.
“I guess it is possible if everything falls into place,” Quinn said. “It really doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to make projections at this point in time.”
Following Monday’s presentation, Finger Lakes Railway must now submit a formal proposal to Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation with more specific financial and operational details, which could happen as early as February.
Quinn said one of the first steps for the rail authority in considering the proposal is inspecting the railcars Finger Lakes Railway has proposed to use, as well as identifying operating parameters and procedures that would need to take place for the service to come to fruition.
“There’s a lot of due diligence to be done,” Quinn said.
Finger Lakes will also need to finalize an agreement to take over the state lease currently held by Canadian Pacific Railway to operate on the 57-miles of track between Brunswick and Rockland.
Although Finger Lakes has been working to take over the lease for this stretch of railway since about 2019, past discussions have focused on freight services. The parties were nearing a final agreement last year, but a major user of the freight service along the line suspended rail shipments, so other potential uses of the line were sought. That’s when the railway company decided to move forward with pursuing passenger rail service.
Nate Moulton, director of freight and passenger services for the Department of Transportation, said he feels the parties will be able to reach a final agreement on the lease reassignment.
“We think we’re pretty close,” Moulton said. “Until it’s signed, it’s like when you buy a house — it’s never sold until it closes. But we feel pretty good. We feel like we could finalize it pretty easily.”
There would also need to be an agreement reached with Pan Am Railways, which owns the connecting tracks in Brunswick.
“There are a lot of details to be worked out … because we’re dealing with an incredible number of organizations here,” Betke said.
The railroad tracks themselves between Brunswick and Rockland underwent an inspection in 2019, which did not uncover any potential problems for passenger rail service, according to Betke and Moulton. The inspection was done by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Moulton said another assessment may need to be done before passenger rail service returns to the tracks.
“I don’t think it’s likely there’s any major hurdles, it’s more of going back out there and assessing and then them proposing speeds they could run and confirming with [Federal Railroad Administration] and others that they can run those speeds,” Moulton said.
Passenger rail service was last offered in Rockland in 2015, when the Maine Eastern Railroad discontinued the seasonal excursion service it began offering in 2003.
Between 2017 and 2019, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority announced several plans for the Amtrak Downeaster to extend service along the Brunswick-Rockland line. However, those plans never came to fruition because safety assessments of the route and contracts could not be flushed out in time.
Despite past plans falling through, folks in the Rockland area are still excited about the prospect of passenger rail service returning to the city, according to Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Peaco said the service would not only provide visitors with a new way to get to Rockland, but would also benefit residents who would be able to connect with the Amtrak network from Rockland.
“I think it’s exciting. We’ve kind of been on hold for a couple of years with COVID going on, so I think to see a new player come to the table with new ideas and new energy and ideas around it, I’m very optimistic that we will get something done,” Peaco said.