February 4, 2013

Expansion of passenger trains in Maine takes slow track

Taking the Downeaster beyond Brunswick hinges on crucial projects and powers of persuasion.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK - At half past noon, Amtrak Downeaster Train 681 pulls into the platform here in Brunswick right on schedule. It discharges its passengers and starts back in the direction of Portland and Boston.

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Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger rail operations, Maine Eastern Railroad:

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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These overgrown railroad tracks are in Bowdoinham. Plans to expand passenger service to Augusta are on hold.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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A few hundred yards down the line, however, the empty train pulls onto a siding and draws to a halt. There it waits, its diesel engine idling against the winter cold, for the next five and a half hours.

It's a scene repeated daily in Brunswick's rail yard. The popular service -- which continues to exceed ridership expectations -- sits out much of the day because of traffic conflicts on the line back to Portland, which is owned and used by the PanAm freight railroad. Instead of making three immediate return trips a day to Boston, the Downeaster has two widely spaced departures, plus a late-evening run to reposition the train back in Portland.

The Downeaster's expansion to Freeport and Brunswick Nov. 1 -- a project decades in the making -- has been celebrated by public officials, local businesspeople, and travelers, and fueled excitement that passenger rail might soon return to Augusta, Gardiner, Auburn and other cities.

Ironically, passenger rail service north and east of Brunswick is likely to shrink rather than expand in the months and years ahead because of missing pieces of infrastructure on the Downeaster's current lines. Until those improvements can be built, allowing the Downeaster to run faster and more frequently between Boston and Brunswick, plans to run connecting commuter trains to Augusta are on hold, and a seasonal service to Bath, Wiscasset and Rockland may be scaled back. Meanwhile, future expansions to Auburn and Montreal may have to take a back seat to making improvements on other parts of the line.

"We weren't prepared for the limited connection opportunities available with Downeaster's schedule," says Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger rail operations for the Maine Eastern Railroad, which owns the lease on the state-owned tracks connecting Brunswick with Rockland and Augusta. The current schedule makes it impossible to get his Rockland passengers onto a morning or midday train to Boston, and his company is considering reducing its seasonal service between Brunswick and Rockland from two round-trips to one.

"It's unfortunate that when the Downeaster has expanded service to Brunswick, we're considering having to reduce service," says Page, whose company's lease on the tracks in question runs out at the end of the year. "The Augusta issue is on the back burner."

TO ROCKLAND OR AUGUSTA?

The problem boils down to three missing pieces of infrastructure:

$9 million worth of passing tracks in Yarmouth to avoid conflicts with the freight trains that run on the route;

a $12 million "Y" track in Portland that would allow trains to turn directly onto the Brunswick line, saving 10 minutes spent driving to a junction in the opposite direction;

and a heated $11 million layover building in Brunswick's rail yard where trains could be cleaned, maintained and sheltered overnight.

"It's not what we asked for," says Wayne Davis, chairman of Train Riders/Northeast, the advocacy group that has championed the cause of passenger rail in Maine since 1989. "We'll suffer through what we've got for the winter, but we don't see what we have as success" for the Brunswick extension, which also serves Freeport.

The Portland-based Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the quasi-state agency that runs the Downeaster, applied for a $25 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant last year that would have allowed the projects to go forward, but they were beaten by rival expansion projects elsewhere in the country. For practical purposes, the federal government is the only foreseeable source of major funding, so the project must wait for another federal grant opportunity to surface.

(Continued on page 2)

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