Cover Story: Rail revival
Two excursion rail operations and a new study show promise for economic development and a revival of freight
By Douglas Rooks
Excursion rail service may not be the first thing you think about when you think of a state's transportation system. Still, in Maine, several new ventures have brought new verve to the tourism industry while reopening passenger lines that had seen only freight for decades. Just recently, MaineDOT has contracted for excursion trains from Ellsworth and the legislature has authorized a new study of rail service in southern Maine. Meanwhile, the growing success of summer and fall trains on the restored Rockland Branch has brought new hope to operators around New England.
"Rail is expensive to restore and maintain," observes Ron Roy, director of MaineDOT's Office of Passenger Transportation. “But there’s no doubt that it attracts a lot of interest.” Some of that interest comes from community leaders who see rail as an opportunity for economic development. Tom Testa has been a driving force in a group of Bar Harbor area business leaders that is bringing rail back to that region. The branch line, built as an alternative to the then all-powerful Maine Central, is a late 19th century creation that runs south from Brewer to Ellsworth where it turns east. Its route explores some of the most scenic coastline in the U.S. before reaching Machias and Calais and covers more than 120 miles in all.
Even today, the rail line is the only direct connection between Washington County’s two largest municipalities.It was acquired by the state through a voter approved bond issue in 1986, after the line was abandoned. Testa owns a restaurant in Bar Harbor, and when the region’s business owners were discussing the area’s future, the status of the Calais Branch often came up. “The trains hadn’t run in almost two decades when we started,” Testa said. “But it’s just such an obvious addition to the area, both in terms of a new attraction for visitors and as a spur to economic development.”
A study by a Pennsylvania consulting firm provided good news about the condition of the track – better than expected, with the rail in generally good shape. "The main thing we need to do is replace ties, several thousand of them," Testa said. And the prospective economic impact looks even better – a potential annual addition of $5 million to the local economy and 200 direct and indirect jobs. Encouraged by the study, organizers formed the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust – “We couldn’t think of a shorter name,” Testa says, in jest. Once the service is operating, it will be known by the more manageable title of Downeast Scenic Railroad. Testa said the group needs $500,000 to restore the first four miles of track north from Ellsworth. The group hopes to get work trains going next summer.
That will add some visual excitement to the volunteer work crews that have been working on the line regularly for several years. If all goes well, the railroad itself will be open for business in the summer of 2009.
That also is the deadline MaineDOT agreed to in its contract with the rail group. “We wanted to give them a fair shot at getting trains running again, without necessarily tying up the track for years and years in case someone else wants to give it a try,” Roy said.
Testa is confident, based on fundraising to date and the public interest the project has generated, that the deadline will be met. The Downeast group meets monthly and has had several special fundraising events, including an all-day cookout and work day this August at Washington Junction.
Finding what works
Before proceeding, the group took a careful look at which excursion rail projects have failed and which have succeeded. In New Hampshire, the almost venerable Conway Scenic Railroad has been chugging through the White Mountains for more than 30 years.
Unlike the Downeast group, which has been organized as a non-profit, the Conway railroad has always been a for-profit business. “You don’t make a lot of money,” Ron Roy observed, “but if you offer a good ride and keep pecking away at maintenance, it can work.” Testa said the group was perhaps most interested in the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which started much the same way as the Downeast group envisions its Calais Branch will run. “They thought they’d carry 13,000 passengers the first year, and they had 55,000,” he said. The line was so successful that New York Department of Transportation later asked the operators to extend service out of the Adironacks as a congestion relief project. “They still call it excursion rail, but it really works as a commuter line,” Testa said.
Another project of interest was the Black Hills Central Railroad, an excursion service in South Dakota that has been successful operating in the gateway to a national park – the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. What’s similar to both the Adirondacks and Black Hills in the Ellsworth area is the huge stream of people – an estimated 2.2 to 2.5 million entering Acadia National Park annually, plus several million more who visit other areas of the island and surrounding region. Those visitor numbers make it more likely the Downeast group will succeed, in contrast to the Belfast & Moosehead Railroad, which now offers only limited excursions and has discontinued its historic connection to the Belfast waterfront.
“We know this can work,” Testa said. “It’s a matter of getting all the pieces in place.” He takes encouragement from inquiries that have come in to the Downeast Trust office already. “We’ve had more than 50 people trying to make reservations for rail service that doesn’t yet exist,” he said.
Heading east from Ellsworth, the Calais Branch tracks to and beyond Machias are due to be removed soon to create the Downeast Sunrise trail, running 80 miles between Ellsworth and Pembroke, making it the longest recreational trail in the Northeast. The conversion from rail to trail did not sit well with rail interests, who continue to articulate their concerns in local papers about the folly of removing tracks that might be useful again someday.
Testa stays out of that discussion entirely, and says his group has plenty of work just to gettrains running as far as Green Lake and possibly – someday – to Brewer. Roy is quite clear about the agreement the state signed with trail advocates for the Ellsworth-to-Pembroke section. “The priority use for rail is still there, when it’s feasible,” he said. In the meantime, trail development is the best way to maintain the corridor that has been deteriorating, he said.
“It keeps bridges intact and makes sure there aren’t encroachments on the right of way.” Testa said the trail and the excursion rail line are in many ways natural partners. He wants to find an Ellsworth location that can serve as a visitor center for both, while helping put Ellsworth on the map as a tourism destination in its own right, rather than just a place to shop on the way to Mount Desert Island.
Rolling from Rockland
Down the coast in Rockland, the trains have been rolling for four years now, and the third full summer season is by far the best to date, said Gordon Page, vice president of the Maine Eastern Railroad. The line now operates daily excursions from Brunswick to Rockland and will continue service into the fall. Last year, the line carried 14,000 passengers on as many as three daily roundtrips. The operation is on track to meet its goal of a 25 percent increase, meaning some 17,500 riders on the fully restored Rockland Branch. The trains to the Rockland Lobster Festival, that launched the service in 2004, have been packed, with an 11 percent ridership increase over the previous year.
However, Maine Eastern is not a nonprofit, nor is it interested solely in carrying visitors. Rather, the excursions are in effect a holding operation for what the railroad hopes will be much greater passenger volumes in the future, to complement a thriving freight operation that has impressed even a veteran observer like Ron Roy. “It’s worked really well for them. Their service is excellent and it shows,” he said.
Maine Eastern is a subsidiary of Morristown & Erie Railway of New Jersey, an old operator that has carved out a niche during the contemporary era of revitalization by carrying both passengers and freight. Morristown & Erie’s business equation also has included a good dose of rail romance. They began using vintage 1940s and ’50s diesels and coaches for its New Jersey runs, a formula that has proven to be a hit in Maine. The firm’s success has not come without a lot of effort. Maine Eastern has been doing a lot of marketing, not only in television and print advertising, particularly in Down East magazine and the major dailies, but in creating tie-ins to events and other modes of transportation that often prove crucial in whether train service is successful or not.
“There are three major festivals in Rockland, and each has its own demographic, its own distinct audience,” Gordon Page said. “It gives us an excellent opportunity to reach people who never knew there was a train to ride.” The service is now well-established enough for Page to talk with charter tour bus operators, who brings thousands of tourists from around New England to Maine, with numbers peaking in summer and again during foliage season. “The tour operators are always looking for something new,” he said. “Their people don’t want to come to town just to shop. They also like something different to do.”
Short and sweet
Maine Eastern has continued and expanded its package deals with restaurants in Rockland, Brunswick, and its other two stops – Bath and Wiscasset – and put together similar deals with tour boat operators as well. As a result, the passenger operation should break even this year and perhaps earn a small profit next year – a rapid growth curve, by rail standards. Visitors generally don’t want to spend a whole day on the train – a two-to-three hour ride is generally enough, Page said. That’s a point Tom Testa makes too, in suggesting that the 10-mile run from Ellsworth to Green Lake should be ideal for excursion operations. The train-and-boat combination works, as does the train-and-dinner (though Maine Eastern has also upgraded its parlor car service for those who want to eat en route.)
Another horizon for inter-tourism connectivity was mentioned by Ron Roy. “The cruise ships that are calling at just about every big pier in Maine are a great target,” he said. The same people who enjoy ocean cruises are likely to be rail fans, as well.
A welcome new feature of this year’s Maine Eastern run is the restored 1942 train station in Bath that replaces a cursory platform stop under the old Carlton Bridge. Renovated with lots of local assistance, the new station is a real asset for the train service, Page said, not least because it now houses a retail store and the Chamber of Commerce information center. A cafeteria-style restaurant is also planned for the station. “People looking for information about the area or something to eat can see that the train is right there as well,” he said, adding that this kind of local support is just what the railroad needs to thrive long-term.
Another key stop on the route is the station in Rockland. It was built in 1919 and has a fullservice, 60-seat restaurant, the Union Station Grille, as well as a railroad gift shop. That station reopened in 2006, and it attracts a steady stream of potential rail riders. “It’s all about business relationships,” said Page. “Whether the operation is for-profit or non-profit, partnering and packaging increases the possibility of success in rebuilding rail activity.”
Down the road (both figuratively and literally) is the former rail hub of Brunswick, vital both to the long-term future of Maine Eastern and to passenger train service in Maine generally. Making a viable connection to Portland, where the Downeaster has been newly upgraded, now making five roundtrips daily to Boston, would connect Maine Eastern trains with regular, reliable passenger service. It could also provide a link to Lewiston-Auburn, Maine’s second largest metro area, and even include access to the state’s capital via a separate branch line along the Kennebec River.
As Wayne Davis, dean of the state’s passenger rail fans at TrainRiders Northeast, puts it, “Once you get to Brunswick, you can go almost anywhere in Maine.”
“It could be a while before the Brunswick connection will happen – but maybe not as long as one might think,” Ron Roy said. At the moment, Brunswick is still debating – as it has been for several years – the Village Green project that’s projected to include a train station in the heart of downtown, opposite the Bowdoin College campus. The station would certainly be nice to have, Roy said, but to make things work, Maine will need significant federal funding and upgrades of both the Guilford-Pan Am tracks and, to go to Lewiston-Auburn, the Montreal & Atlantic line. MaineDOT prefers to do this in one comprehensive study, and it now has federal authority to study ridership and do preliminary engineering.
“If you look at our population alone, 1.3 million spread out over a vast area,” Roy said, “it’s not encouraging.” Once you factor in the huge jump in seasonal population along the coast, and Maine’s ringing success with the Downeaster, and the odds with the Federal Transit Administration could swing in Maine’s favor, he said.
If the ridership study and congestion in the Interstate 295 corridor – expected to increase even with the planned widening of the Maine Turnpike west of Portland – show that passenger trains can be successful, Maine could be working on the railroad again in three or four years. “There are a lot of ‘ifs,’ and a lot of competition,” Roy said. “We’re going up against Los Angeles and Boston and New York.” But it could happen, and more quickly than the initially lengthy process to get the Downeaster rolling.
There seems general agreement that having trains leads to more trains. “States where rail is visible make it a lot easier for new lines to succeed,” Roy said. Attracting reputable rail companies like the Morristown & Erie and nourishing the ambitions of dedicated amateurs like Tom Testa all seems to be part of a process that, slowly but surely, is bringing back a transportation asset that seemed all but lost 20 years ago.
“The corridors are still there. They have value, and that value can only increase with time as transportation demands continue to increase,” said Roy.
An $80,000 rail study, funded by a bill sponsored by Senator William Diamond (D-Windham) and passed by the legislature in June, will look at renewing service on the Mountain Division line that runs from Portland to Fryeburg and on to the New Hampshire line. At the other end of that line is the Conway Scenic Railroad operation; in between is an aweinspiring stretch of track through Crawford Notch of the White Mountains that could host more occasional excursions from the Conway end.
Roy said that the greatest initial value of the Mountain Division, if service proves feasible, would be for freight. “There’s a lot of tonnage that could move that way,” he said, as contrasted with the coastal section of the Calais Branch, where the largest existing potential customer, the Domtar mill in Baileyville, just shut down its paper machine to concentrate on pulp operations. Still, the Mountain Division “runs past the Jetport and into town. It does have possibilities for commuter rail,” Roy said.
In Ellsworth, Tom Testa is not exactly advocating an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, but he says that putting trains back on the tracks could have consequences that no one can now foresee. As fuel prices and commodity prices continue to climb, the energy-efficiency and clean air advantages of rail cannot be overlooked. Passenger trains are now rolling in Maine, carrying many thousands of riders every year. That fact alone makes the future more appealing both for seasoned operators and those who start with a dream. “We wouldn’t be trying this if we didn’t think it had a good chance of success,” said Testa.