A Canadian Pacific engine crosses a railroad bridge over Rt. 2 in Hermon. Canadian Pacific is one of two major rail freight companies, the other being CSX, that have acquired rail lines in Maine in the past two years to get better access to the increasing amount of cargo coming into the port in Saint John, New Brunswick. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

At the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick, 70 miles east of the Maine border, there’s been a flurry of change recently, and it’s been aggressively expanded to handle more vessels looking to deliver shipments to the East Coast. Meanwhile, the port is also pursuing upgrades to the province’s rail network to better distribute the cargo to points west and south.

As major cargo ports in North America struggle with a backlog of ships waiting to unload, more freight trains are passing through Maine, brightening the economic prospects of far-flung Maine towns along the rail route. But it’s not without challenge — for some Maine towns the trains are also bringing complications.

In Vanceboro, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has decided to cut back on the hours that vehicles can drive across the St. Croix River, which separates the two countries, so it can shift personnel to handle the increase in rail traffic. In Jackman, about 150 miles west along the tracks, cars and trucks face long waits as the trains stop traffic on Route 201, and the blast of the trains’ horns — a safety requirement when it crosses the road — sometimes wakes people in the middle of the night.

But for Ken Stannix, the mayor of McAdam, the increase in rail traffic through his town into the U.S. represents a much-needed economic boost for rural towns in northern Maine and southwest New Brunswick.

Stannix said hundreds of millions of Canadian dollars have been spent on recent improvements to the port in Saint John, and tens of millions more in Canadian currency is being spent to improve the rail line from Saint John through McAdam, which is just five miles east of Vanceboro. He said two trains, each of them nearly two miles long, leave McAdam and cross the border at Vanceboro every day, but that number is expected to increase to 12 in the next three years — a jump of 500 percent.

“They don’t spend that money to have a couple of freight trains roll through Vanceboro,” Stannix said of the New Brunswick rail improvements. “The growth prospects are huge. New Brunswick and Maine stand to gain from this growth.”

Improving east-west transportation corridors through Maine has long been a goal of economic development officials who see Maine’s long looping border with Canada as an asset. Maine borders the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the east, giving the state the shortest route between the maritime provinces and the rest of Canada.  Roughly 20 million people live in the heavily populated corridor just across Maine’s western border, between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario.

The Canadian corridor also serves as a gateway for railroads transporting goods to Midwest cities such as Detroit and Chicago.

The United States is also investing in rail in Maine. Nate Moulton, Maine Department of Transportation’s director of freight and passenger rail services, said $35 million in public and private funding has been used in the past two years to improve freight capabilities on Maine rail lines north of Bangor and between Hermon and Searsport.

“There’s no question there is increased freight rail traffic in Maine, and it will continue,” Moulton said. “We’ve got some really good rail operators now. They need material, they need fuel, they need crews. It helps give us a robust rail infrastructure in Maine.”

In addition to bringing new jobs to part of the state that has lost many in recent decades through the decline of paper mills and other manufacturing businesses, the expansion of freight rail service in Maine has the potential to attract other businesses that want to take advantage of the growing transportation route, Moulton said.

“It’s good jobs for Maine,” he said of the impact of increasing rail traffic. “There are a lot of good things happening.”

State Rep. Richard Evans, whose district includes Brownville, stands with Canadian Pacific supervisor Craig Kuhn during a visit to the company’s rail yard at Brownville Junction in August 2021. Large railroad companies Canadian Pacific and CSX are planning or pursuing multi-million dollar improvements to portions of Maine’s rail line network as increased ocean cargo shipments to Saint John, New Brunswick, are bringing more freight trains through Maine. Credit: Contributed photo

The most recently arrived rail operators in Maine are Canadian Pacific and CSX, which have acquired local rail lines in Maine to tap into the large volumes of freight coming across the border.

After pulling out of Maine in 1995, Canadian Pacific returned two years ago when it acquired Central Maine and Quebec Railway, extending its reach from the West Coast and Midwest to Brownville, Hermon and Searsport. Through an agreement with Canadian firm NBM Railways — which owns tracks that extend east from Brownville through Mattawamkeag and Vanceboro to Saint John — Canadian Pacific has direct access to the New Brunswick cargo port.

Earlier this summer, Florida-based CSX acquired Pan Am Railways, extending its reach from Illinois and Florida through New England to Bangor and Mattawamkeag. Prior to the purchase, Pan Am had applied for a federal grant to help cover half of the estimated $42 million cost of rebuilding its line between Waterville and Mattawamkeag, a distance of about 110 miles, which will allow the line to carry heavier and longer trains from Saint John, according to online trade publication Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports.

In addition, CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration are splitting the bill on $35 million worth of improvements on its line between Yarmouth and Waterville. The company has not yet started upgrading the line from Waterville through Bangor to Mattawamkeag, but a CSX spokeswoman said that work is expected to begin next year.

Since 2020 Canadian Pacific has spent $90 million upgrading rail lines in Maine and Quebec, and its service through Maine to Saint John has significantly increased, said Andy Cummings, a company spokesman. Because of the heavier freight traffic across Maine, the company worked with U.S. border officials to open a new container inspection station in Jackman earlier this year.

Cummings said the railroad also transports Maine forest products to customers out of state and has been looking for other ways to grow its rail service in Maine. It also has jobs to fill in Brownville.

“Overall business [in Maine and Quebec] has grown more substantially than we anticipated when we acquired the line,” Cummings said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about where and why $35 million has been spent to upgrade Maine’s freight capabilities. 

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....