Latest push to revive passenger rail to Rockland faces uncertain future

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A New York-based rail company has come up with a concept to test passenger train service to Rockland, possibly as early as this summer, but there are still many details to iron out before it materializes.

It is the latest in a string of recent proposals to restore passenger rail service to a part of the mid-coast that has been without it since 2015. Previous attempts have all failed.

A Finger Lakes Railway representative made a concept presentation to the board of directors of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority – which operates Amtrak’s Downeaster service in Maine – at its meeting on Monday.

It was only preliminary, however. A formal proposal is still being worked on, and its ultimate fate depends on agreements between several parties, including the railroad authority, the Maine Department of Transportation and several railroad companies.

“I think we need to work together to try to figure out what the components are and how we could make it work. [Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority] has a role, Amtrak has a role, there are a lot of parties that have a role,” said Patricia Quinn, chief executive of the rail authority. “It is something that we are very interested in and we intend to pursue and we are in the information gathering stage at this stage.

Midcoast Rail Service, a subsidiary of Finger Lakes Railway, would conduct a two-year test of passenger service, acting as a contractor to the rail authority. The company would provide year-round passenger train service north of where the Downeaster currently stops in Brunswick, according to Finger Lakes Railway co-founder and board member George Betke.

The service would offer daily travel along the route from November to April. From May to October, a second daily trip would be offered from Friday to Sunday. Proposed stops include Bath, Wiscassett, Newcastle and Rockland, according to Betke. A stop at Waldoboro could also be added.

A major difference between this idea and earlier proposals is the type of wagon used. Instead of using full-size Amtrak trains to extend Downeaster service north, as had been envisioned in previous plans, Betke said self-propelled cars will be used, which are smaller and offer more flexibility depending passenger demand.

Final costs for this test project are still being worked out, Betke said.

“We offered this as a test. Monday’s discussion was about a possible two-year test with real equipment, real people, real communities to see what the reaction is,” Betke said.

Betke said the hope is the service can be up and running by May 1, if all the pieces fall together. But he said there were still a lot of loose ends to iron out.

Quinn said she doesn’t have enough information at this point to know if launching by this summer is a realistic time frame.

“I guess it’s possible if everything falls into place,” Quinn said. “It really doesn’t seem to make much sense to project at this point.”

Following Monday’s submission, Finger Lakes Railway must now submit a formal proposal to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation with more specific financial and operational details, which could happen as early as February.

Quinn said one of the first steps for the railway authority in reviewing the proposal is to inspect the railcars Finger Lakes Railway has proposed to use, as well as identify operating parameters and procedures. that would need to take place for the service to materialize.

“There’s a lot of due diligence to be done,” Quinn said.

Finger Lakes will also need to finalize an agreement to take over the state lease currently held by Canadian Pacific Railway to operate the 57 miles of rail line between Brunswick and Rockland.

Although Finger Lakes has been working to take over the lease of this section of railroad since around 2019, past discussions have focused on freight services. The parties were close to reaching a final agreement last year, but a major user of freight service along the line suspended rail shipments, so other potential uses of the line were sought . It was then that the railroad company decided to move forward with the continuation of passenger rail service.

Nate Moulton, director of freight and passenger services at the Department for Transport, said he believed the parties would be able to reach a final agreement on the reassignment of the lease.

“We think we’re pretty close,” Moulton said. “Until it’s signed, it’s like when you buy a house — it’s never sold until it’s closed. But we feel pretty good. We think we could finalize it quite easily.

There would also need to be an agreement with Pan Am Railways, which owns the connecting tracks at Brunswick.

“There are a lot of loose ends…because we’re dealing with an incredible number of organizations here,” Betke said.

The rail lines themselves between Brunswick and Rockland were inspected in 2019, which found no potential issues for passenger rail service, according to Betke and Moulton. The inspection was carried out by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Moulton said another assessment may need to be done before passenger rail service returns to the tracks.

“I don’t think it’s likely there will be any major hurdles, it’s more about getting back out there and assessing and then coming up with some speeds they could run and confirming with [Federal Railroad Administration] and others that they can run those speeds,” Moulton said.

Passenger rail service was last offered in Rockland in 2015, when the Maine Eastern Railroad discontinued seasonal excursion service that it began offering in 2003.

Between 2017 and 2019, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority announced several plans for the Amtrak Downeaster to expand service along the Brunswick-Rockland line. However, these plans never materialized as route and contract safety assessments could not be completed in time.

Despite earlier plans failing, Rockland-area residents are still excited about the prospect of passenger rail service returning to the city, according to Tom Peaco, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Peaco said the service would not only provide visitors with a new way to get to Rockland, but would also benefit residents who could connect to the Amtrak network from Rockland.

“I think it’s exciting. We’ve kind of been on hold for a few years with COVID going on, so I think seeing a new player come to the table with new ideas and new energy and ideas around him, I’m very optimistic that we’ll get something thing done,” Peaco said.

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