Railcars for fuel oil and other products sit on tracks just off the Mapleton Road in Presque Isle on April 14. Aroostook County's Maine Northern Railways will receive $12.9 million in federal funds for upgrades. Credit: Paula Brewer / Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County’s railroad network will use nearly $13 million in federal money to make trains faster and safer, and more inviting for industries to ship by rail.

The Maine Department of Transportation will receive $12.9 million to spend on railroad infrastructure improvements in northern Maine through the 2022 Federal Appropriations Act. The money is among more than $200 million that will fund projects across the state.

Train shipments comprise just a fraction of the total freight coming in and going out of Maine — about 4 percent, according to the department. The largest amount by far, 86 percent, is shipped via truck. But by shoring up tracks and increasing the speed trains can travel on them, businesses and the DOT are convinced rail can become a bigger contender in freight movement.

Shipping by train got a boost this winter when Aroostook potato growers used railroad cars for the first time in 40 years to send potatoes to out-of-state processors. In the face of safety restrictions and trucking bottlenecks induced by COVID-19, trains have delivered needed food, energy and medical supplies around the nation, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Aroostook County is served by Maine Northern Railway, which includes 258 miles of track in the United States and Canada. In Maine it operates from Van Buren to Millinocket to Brownville Junction, connecting with other rail companies beyond the state. The federal money will fund improvements to Maine Northern’s infrastructure.

That’s great news for County shippers, like Jay LaJoie of LaJoie Growers LLC in Van Buren. The company shipped 21 million pounds of potatoes — 134 rail cars full — to markets in Washington state and Idaho this winter, and will consider using trains more in the future.

“Transit time on rail is an important factor. The rail business in Maine has been growing for a number of years now, and the transit times would really improve that and allow for more growth,” LaJoie said Friday.

Over the past year, the company has handled close to 200 rail cars full of not only potatoes, but cargo like paper, raw material for paper and other agricultural products like lime.

Maine Northern has daily service in Van Buren due to an international rail bridge connecting to St. Leonard, New Brunswick. The railroad and LaJoie Growers have developed a good working relationship that seems to be continuing to grow, LaJoie said.

“We hope the improvements lead to more competitive rail options for freight shippers and receivers in The County. As businesses and freight transportation needs grow, a competitive rail option is important,” said Nate Moulton, director of the MDOT’s Office of Freight and Passenger Services.

Railroads are vital to moving products to market and supporting jobs in northern Maine, said Jim Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving Ltd. Maine Northern is owned by Irving subsidiary NBM Railways, which also owns NB Southern and Eastern Maine railways.

Upgrades to railroad ties and steel rails are some of the infrastructure improvements the Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Northern Railways will complete in the near future. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

“Whether we are helping farmers, manufacturers or the forest products industry, Maine Northern Railway has a long history of connecting businesses to markets across the state and beyond. This [funding] will help increase the speed, capacity and safety of our railway and help us to serve more businesses,” Irving said.  

Maine Northern will upgrade its Presque Isle and Houlton subdivisions, along with track between Scopan and Millinocket, according to Anne McInerney, vice president of communications for J.D. Irving. The work will boost speed, transitioning all sections of the railway from class 1, which has a maximum speed of 10 mph, to class 2, enabling speeds of 25 mph throughout the line, McInerney said.

The improvements will include updates to ties, some upgrades of worn rail sections, replacement of switches and additions of ballast and surfacing, said the DOT’s Moulton.

“Some of the focus of this project is improving the branch lines as businesses expand and shipper traffic grows, including companies like LP on the Houlton subdivision and Dead River [and] Huber on the Presque Isle subdivision,” he said.

The railroad funding was requested by both of Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, and is the largest monetary amount granted among the 120 Maine projects that will benefit from the appropriations act signed into law March 15. Collins is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Though the timetable is yet to be finalized, work will likely begin late this year or early in 2023. Shipping times and waiting for material to arrive will also affect the schedule, and crews will work with the railway company to decide where to start first, Moulton said.

Railroad tracks split from a junction on Chapman Street in Presque Isle. Aroostook’s Maine Northern Railways will benefit from $12.9 million in federal upgrade funds. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

There has been a general increase in freight movement via all modes, including rail, Moulton said. The 2017 Maine Integrated Freight Strategy report shows rail goods were 4 percent of Maine’s total at $2.3 billion in 2015, the most recent year for which figures have been recorded. That year, about 97 million tons of cargo moved over Maine’s transportation system, valued at $96 billion, according to the report.

Though most people think of freight as paper or lumber from mills or agricultural products moving out of state, those numbers include UPS, FedEx and U.S. Postal Service deliveries as well, along with trucks moving on private roads, Moulton said.

The department crafts a new freight strategy report every five years, so the document will be updated later this year or early in 2023.

Passenger rail in Aroostook is not in the equation at this time, because any investment is focused on freight lines, Moulton said. But giving railroad a boost makes good business sense.

“Railroads are most competitive at moving traditional freight, heavy products, moving long distances,” he said. “This is part of our goal to grow a reliable rail system in the state and Aroostook County.”