Return of the Iron Horses
As passenger rail expands in Maine, what should travelers expect to happen?
- By: Colin Woodard
Illustration by Camden Design Group/Anneli Skaar
After several decades as an extinct species of transport, passenger rail has been making a serious comeback in Maine. Boston to Portland service was restored at the end of 2001 in the form of the Amtrak Downeaster, which has since become one of the most highly-rated trains in the country. This summer, workers began to rehabilitate long neglected tracks from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick, allowing Amtrak to reach the midcoast in 2012.
Another company, Maine Eastern Railroad, will provide connecting service to Bath, Wiscasset, and Rockland. Augusta and Lewiston could expect passenger trains to start humming down their long deserted sidings not long thereafter.
The iron horse, it seems, is back, and just in time to skirt travelers around the summer traffic jams at the Wiscasset bridge and York toll booths and the parking lots in downtown Freeport or at the Rockland ferry terminal. If things go as planned, commuters on the Portland to Augusta and Portland to Lewiston corridors might be able to leave their automobiles at home a few years hence.
“I think it’s great to be moving passenger rail deeper into the state of Maine and reduce some of the pressure on the roads,” says state Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett (D-Gorham). “The more it gets expanded and used the less likely it is that there will be a threat to passenger rail over time.”
The latest breakthrough — the securing of federal funds to resurrect the old Maine Central Lower Road to Brunswick — is the result of quixotic foresight. Back in 2000 — before the Downeaster had started running — local rail advocate Wayne Davis got wind of the fact that the U.S Department of Transportation was taking applications for the designation of future high-speed rail corridors. Mr. Davis helped the Maine DOT prepare an application, faxing it in just minutes before the deadline.
“A couple of months later, we got the call that we had got it — we were one of the country’s eleven high-speed corridor designees,” says Davis, chairman of TrainRiders/Northeast, the group that’s championed the rebirth of passenger rail in Maine since 1989. “But people just laughed because there was no funding for high speed and no indication that it would ever be funded! Surprise, surprise.”
Surprise indeed. High-speed rail was not a priority of George W. Bush’s administration, but Barack Obama’s election brought a change in policy, including stimulus funds for track upgrades on designated corridors. Maine, on account of its application a decade ago, was shovel-ready, and was able to secure $35 million to upgrade the line to Brunswick in January. Workers broke ground August 2, the first in the nation to do so under the program.
The upgrades will increase travel speeds to seventy-nine miles per hour on the twenty-eight-mile line, which was first built in 1849. But there’s more to the extension than meets the eye. The project effectively gets the line halfway from Portland to Augusta (via the Lower Road) and a third of the way to Lewiston (by having connected to the famous Grand Trunk line at Yarmouth Junction). At Brunswick, it links up with the spur line to Bath, Wiscasset, and Rockland, which the state rescued and rehabilitated to a fifty-nine miles per hour standard in the 1990s and on which Maine Eastern Railroad is prepared to start scheduled connecting service the very moment Amtrak gets there.
“When the Downeaster arrives we’ll connect to Rockland for spring, summer, and early fall foliage season,” says Gordon Page, Sr., vice president of Maine Eastern Railroad, a freight railroad that currently runs summer excursion trains and is owned by New Jersey’s Morristown & Erie Railway. “Year-round is a nice thought, but the reality of people traveling in mid-winter is rather remote.”
Less remote, however, is connecting service to Augusta, thirty-three miles farther up the Lower Road, which runs through Topsham, Richmond, Dresden, and Hallowell. Page, whose company has operating rights on that line, says he expects to start running Augusta trains in 2014 if the Downeaster reaches Brunswick in 2012. “We’d run at least one round-trip and select a variety of stops between Brunswick and Augusta,” he says. “We’ve also talked about a commuter service to the State House or close to it.”
Meanwhile, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) is studying how to get Amtrak to Lewiston-Auburn, probably via the Grand Trunk, which runs through New Gloucester. “Lewiston-Auburn is a priority for our board, and we’d be looking at that as the next expansion of the Downeaster service,” says Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA, the quasi-state agency that manages public passenger trains.
Getting to Lewiston would be a big deal, and not only because it’s the state’s second-largest city. It’s also the gateway to Montreal on the old Grand Trunk, the railway that made Portland the winter port for much of nineteenth-century Canada and introduced Quebecois to Old Orchard Beach. “If we just made some improvements, we could run a train to Montreal immediately,” says Davis, who notes that New Hampshire tore up the tracks and trestles on the competing line through Concord and Lebanon.
Another longer-term opportunity on Wayne’s radar screen: upgrading a thirteen-mile stretch of track in Massachusetts to allow trains to start running directly from Portland to New York City via Worcester. “Now that would get people’s attention,” he says.
But there are a few flies in the ointment. While the Downeaster has plenty of demand — an average of 1,300 passengers a day in the fiscal year that ended in June — it doesn’t have enough trains to be able to run more than two daily round-trips to Brunswick or the current five daily round-trips from Portland to Boston. A third train set would help, but it costs $6 to $8 million. Further rail upgrades would be needed to reduce travel times, which are still a bit long: from Portland it’ll still be 2:25 to Boston, 0:50 to Brunswick, and another 1:55 to Rockland on the Maine Eastern.
“If railroads really want to have a key role in Maine, they have to get a little more competitive, time-wise, with automobile traffic,” says state representative Edward Mazurek (D-Rockland), co-chair of the legislature’s railroad caucus. “It’s going to take time to get rail service really up to snuff so that people will be very comfortable using it.”
The most important upgrades are in northern Massachusetts, and they won’t be cheap. NNEPRA’s Quinn says some $100 million are needed to increase rail speed and capacity in suburban Boston to allow the Downester to add two more round-trips a day. “Between freight and [MBTA’s] commuter rail and our service, there’s some real congestion down there,” she notes.
Then there’s the long-standing obstacle: political resistance to passenger trains, which critics say are a waste of taxpayers money. “Airplanes pay for themselves, busses pay for themselves, and trains don’t,” says Charles Arlinghaus of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, who opposes public spending on passenger rail in New Hampshire. “The financial aspect is my entire concern. It’s not remotely cost effective.”
Trains do require public subsidies, and the Downeaster is no exception, drawing $8 million annually from the feds and $1.5 million from Maine’s car rental taxes. But supporters note that taxpayers provide massive indirect subsidies to airlines, bus companies, and motorists by building, maintaining, and expanding the highways, bridges, and airports they rely on. (This year alone, the city-owned Portland Jetport has received $11.3 million in federal stimulus funds for security, baggage handling, and apron improvements and a $2.5 million federal grant for a geothermal heating plant.) Railroads have to maintain their own infrastructure, they note, which makes the subsidy more obvious.
“If you were to use the same criteria for all modes of transportation, we should call all airports and most highways bankrupt and subsidized,” says Vukan R.Vuchic, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “We call highway spending an investment, which it is, but with Amtrak they call it a subsidy.”
Studies suggest the return on investment will be considerable. The train was responsible for $15 million in economic activity in Maine and New Hampshire in 2004, more than twice its public subsidy, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the Maine DOT. The figure today is thought to be considerably higher due to ridership growth and the ongoing construction of a $80 million mixed-use development near the Saco station and a $20 million condo project at the Old Orchard Beach one. A 2008 study predicted the expanded Downeaster will generate more than $70 million in additional Maine tax revenues every year by 2030. A pub, bistro, and shops have already opened at the new Brunswick station, even though the Downeaster won’t pull up to the platform for two more years.
“All of our station communities have been really capitalizing on the economic energy the Downeaster has brought in, and I know that’s going to happen in Freeport and Brunswick as well,” says Quinn. “It’s an excellent thing for Maine.”
- By: Colin Woodard