With family ties to southern Maine, Bobbie Jane Desforges often made the trip as a child from her native Montreal to Old Orchard Beach, long a popular seaside destination for Quebecers.
On Thursday, the 34-year-old industrial artist was back on the beach for the first time in a decade. Her sister drove because she does not, making a nascent proposal for a modern-era train captivating to her.
“If I had the option to come here by train, I would probably come here every summer,” she said.
The idea is back after years on the shelf. Backers envision a leisurely 13-hour ride costing around $160 with dining, live entertainment and sleeping cabins leaving Montreal at 6 p.m. and arriving in Boston at 7 a.m. There would be several stops on both sides of the border, with the major ones in Maine including Bethel, Auburn, Portland and Old Orchard Beach.
A major part of the pitch is the romanticized golden era of train travel and the shared history between Maine and Quebec. Many obstacles still lie in front of the idea that is at least four years away, including cost, finalizing agreements with others on the tracks and an uncertain rail future in Maine ahead of the 2022 elections.
All of that, plus the slowdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, make this a good time to reconsider the idea and build alliances on it, said state Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who attended a Thursday meeting of more than 60 political, business and other leaders in southern Quebec.
He was involved in conversations on the topic nearly a decade ago through a friendship with Francois Rebello, a former politician and rail enthusiast who has championed the new rail link alongside Francois Pepin, a retired transit advocate who runs a train foundation.
“From an economic feasibility standpoint and given also the traditional tourism attraction of Maine beaches to people from Quebec, I thought this actually has a promise of actually being able to work in terms of ridership,” Bennett said.
Canadian travel is a major part of Maine’s economy, accounting for nearly one-fifth of tourism spending in 2019. Trains from Montreal helped make it that way. In 1853, the Boston and Maine Railroad first connected Montreal with Old Orchard Beach, one of its closest seaside areas.
Service ended on the B&M in 1965 as rail declined in the face of competition from trucks and buses. Except for a segment of the Amtrak Downeaster, which runs from Brunswick to Boston, few passenger trains have traveled the full route since then.
One short-lived service started in 2002 had seasonal routes stretching from Quebec to New Brunswick to Boston and New York, serving continental food in stylish 1940s and 1950s cars. A three-day foliage trip documented by a New York Post travel writer from Montreal to Greenville and Saint John, New Brunswick, cost $1,499 with hotels and meals included.
While the American leg of the new proposal is focused on tourism, it also aims to connect Montreal and Sherbrooke, a city of 167,000 close to the U.S. border, on a route that a study said could draw 2,000 riders per day, double the amount going to Boston.
The big hurdle is on the 100-mile Montreal-Sherbrooke leg, where Pepin said $100 million (in Canadian dollars) would be needed to take tracks from maximum speeds of 25 mph to 60 mph to allow for a two-hour trip. Five trains could leave Montreal per day. The last train would go to Boston at a price he called a bargain when considering hotel costs.
“Of course, there’s a bar,” Pepin said. “You can sleep, but the main thing is that you wouldn’t be stuck in traffic jams near Boston on Interstate 93 or near Montreal on [Autoroute] 10.”
There is much to settle on the Maine side. Large railways — Genesee & Wyoming Inc. and CSX Transportation — own the proposed route here. They are generally in the freight business. Pepin said recent changes in rail ownership make the project likelier to happen now, but neither Maine operator responded to a request for comment.
Maine also has its own rail expansion proposals. In 2021, Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature authorized studies of passenger rail to Bangor and a commuter line from Portland to Auburn. The Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a group of business leaders, laid out a proposal for the latter route last month, relying in part on a state-owned line north of Portland.
That is the coalition’s top priority, although it supports the Montreal-Boston plan, said Tony Donovan, a commercial real estate broker and the coalition’s executive director. While the Rebello-Pepin plan does not contemplate using the state-owned line, Donovan said switching to it would help both projects.
“Yes, we support the hotel train, but more than that, we support investment in state of Maine-owned railroad infrastructure for the purpose of running passenger rail for a variety of reasons — the No. 1 reason being the climate,” he said.
No political commitments are in hand here. Mills is monitoring the Montreal-Boston train and expects proponents to engage with her transportation department, said Lindsay Crete, the Democratic governor’s spokesperson. Her 2022 opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, indicated skepticism through a spokesperson, saying the last time the Republican discussed the idea with the Quebec premier, “the economics were questionable.”
Bennett, a LePage ally, is more bullish, but he said it is worth martialing consensus here and studying other options for maximizing existing rail infrastructure.
“If it had a champion in the Blaine House, it would make a real difference,” he said of the Montreal-Boston route. “Right now. I don’t think there is that.”
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.