A Pan Am Railways locomotive and two Guilford Rail System locomotives are at the head of a train heading northbound along the Bangor waterfront on a February afternoon. Credit: Brian Swartz / BDN

Pan Am Railways, Maine’s largest rail operator, will merge with Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX Transportation, the fourth-largest rail transportation company in the U.S. — the latest in a long line of mergers and acquisitions for rail service in Maine and in the Bangor area.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board on Thursday announced that it had approved the merger, which was nearly two years in the making.

Pan Am owns rail lines and provides rail service on a freight rail network in New England that stretches as far north as Mattawamkeag and as far south as Springfield, Massachusetts, and west to Schenectady, New York. The new ownership will not affect the operations of Amtrak’s Downeaster service, which offers passenger service on private tracks from Brunswick to Boston.

The deal should improve Pan-Am’s rail network because CSX has more capital to invest in the tracks, and customers will benefit from being able to ship their goods across the region on a single railroad, the Associated Press reported. There may also be environmental benefits from the deal because CSX uses newer, more efficient locomotives.

In the Bangor region, it is another chapter in the history of railroads in the area, one that has seen many rail companies change hands, and has seen the demise of passenger rail service north of the Portland region.

The history of rail service in the Bangor area stretches back nearly 200 years to 1836, when the first rail service began, just six years after the first common carrier railroad opened in the U.S. in 1830. The Bangor, Old Town and Milford Railroad, also known as the Veazie railroad, was the first railroad in Maine, and ferried passengers and freight from Milford to Bangor between 1836 and 1869.

Clockwise, from top left: These photos from the late 1950s show several trains that operated on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad; Another 1950s photo of a train that operated on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad; This photo from the 1970s shows the old railroad roundhouse on Bangor’s waterfront, where railways stored their trains when not in use; This postcard illustrates the Basin Mills complex in Orono. The sawmills are in the right-hand portion of the photograph. The pulp and paper mill is in the center of the island situated around the smokestack. Margin Street and the Maine Central Railroad tracks are in he foreground. Credit: BDN Archive / Courtesy of Scott D. Peterson

Many more railroads operated out of Bangor in the ensuing decades, before two companies emerged as the main players in the latter half of the 19th century: Maine Central Railroad, and the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad.

Both rail companies operated for more than a century, connecting people and companies in eastern and northern Maine to the rest of New England and Atlantic Canada. Both companies operated several well-known passenger lines until around 1960. They included the Flying Yankee, which ran from Bangor to Boston; the Gull, which connected Bangor with Canadian cities including Saint John and Halifax; the Aroostook Flyer, which ran from Bangor to Van Buren, and the Bar Harbor Express, which traveled seasonally between Bar Harbor and Bangor. Bangor’s grand train station, Union Station, was torn down in 1961.

At its peak in the first half of the 20th century, rail service in the Bangor region employed hundreds of people, and the sprawling railyard and associated fuel storage facilities along the Penobscot River dominated Bangor’s waterfront for a century.

Throughout the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the area fell into disuse. A cleanup effort began in the late 1980s, and by the mid-2000s, the area had been turned into a park and marina. The later addition of Hollywood Casino in 2007 and the waterfront concert venue today known as the Maine Savings Amphitheater in 2010 further cemented the transformation away from industrial uses toward recreational ones.

Passenger service on all those lines had ended by the early 1960s, but freight service continued. In 1981, Maine Central Railroad was sold to Guilford Transportation. In 2006, Guilford changed its name to Pan Am, after purchasing Pan American World Airways in 1998.

In 2002, Bangor and Aroostook went bankrupt, and in 2003 was sold to Rail World, which incorporated its lines into its Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA). In July 2013, an MMA train carrying crude petroleum derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, and  the ensuing explosion destroyed much of the city’s downtown and killed 47 people. Following the disaster, the company filed for bankruptcy and was sold in 2014; its Maine lines are now owned by Canadian Pacific Railway.

After the merger of Pan Am and CSX is complete in June, CSX will operate the majority of rail lines in Maine. Other operators include New Brunswick Railway Company Limited, owned by J.B. Irving Limited, which operates lines from Vanceboro to Brownville Junction, and several in Aroostook County. Canadian Pacific operates freight lines in western and central Maine, and St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad operates a freight line between Portland and Montreal.

Though operators of what will soon be CSX’s Maine lines say they have no plans to make major changes to current operations, some towns are hoping for some, such as the decommissioning of the dormant rail line  stretching from Bucksport to Brewer. Town officials in Bucksport are exploring the possibility of repurposing that line, should it be decommissioned, into a recreational rail trail.

And in Bangor, some city and state officials hope to someday bring passenger rail service back to town. Legislation signed by Gov. Janet Mills last June calls for a feasibility study examining whether a new passenger line between Bangor and Portland would be worthwhile. Though the rail line is still a longshot, it would be the first passenger rail service north of Portland in more than 60 years.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.