Maine looks to add more passenger trains

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Limited track capacity at the Portland Transportation Center can delay trains that need to back in and out of the branch line to the station.
Dan Zukowski
PORTLAND, Maine – Steady population and economic growth along the southern coast of Maine is creating new opportunities for more passenger trains with more connections to more communities.

Currently, Maine has but one rail passenger service: the Downeaster, which makes five daily roundtrips between Boston and Brunswick. Inaugurated Dec. 15, 2001, initially running only as far north as Portland, the Amtrak-operated service carried 540,000 riders in fiscal year 2018.

Beyond the Downeaster’s route, Mainers must rely on driving or a regional bus network. “I think the time has come to look at alternative mass transit to help get people around,” says Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

The agency was formed in 1995 and is chartered to develop and manage passenger rail to and within the state of Maine. Funding comes from fare revenue, federal sources and the Maine Department of Transportation.

The Portland metropolitan area, home to 535,000, has grown 4.1% since 2010. Driven by tourism, financial services, education and health care, the region accounts for more than half the state’s economy. Its unemployment rate of 2.3% is among the lowest in the nation.

For several years, local rail advocates have been pining for train service to Lewiston-Auburn, two adjacent cities about 35 miles north of Portland. The agency released a passenger rail service plan in May, building on a study of travel patterns issued last year. The service plan identifies three potential routes, with projected costs to start and operate this potential new service.

Diesel multiple-unit equipment would service Lewiston-Auburn, connecting with the Downeaster either at Portland or Yarmouth. The latter option would require a new station and an added stop for the Downeaster, and is considered primarily a cost-saving step toward an eventual Portland connection.

One option is to use Pan Am Railways’ freight mainline to Lewiston, which currently carries six to eight freight trains a day. NNEPRA envisions double-tracking the line to handle up to 30 daily passenger trains.

Existing Class 2 trackage would need to be upgraded to Class 4 to allow 80 mph passenger operations and installation of positive train control would be required.

The state of Maine also owns 178 miles of inactive railroad rights-of-way, including trackage that parallels Pam Am for part of the route to Auburn, across the Androscoggin River from Lewiston. Although it hasn’t seen service since 2015 and was only maintained to Class 1 standards, that’s another option.

A third alternative would enter Portland by way of a now-abandoned right-of-way, requiring replacement of a burned-out, over-water wooden bridge and trestle. It would then follow the right-of-way currently used by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and terminate at the city’s cruise ship terminal. The only possible connection to the Downeaster would be at Yarmouth.

However, that route would impede on a popular park and walking trail in Portland that is a designated historic landscape district. That would likely lengthen the permitting process and arouse the ire of park users and local residents.

Capital costs range from $189-295 million to ready either of those alignments for high-frequency passenger service through to Portland, or $143-184 million to terminate at Yarmouth.

Whichever route is chosen, Quinn cautions, “Starting up a train and have it go back and forth between two arbitrary locations doesn’t necessarily mean that this is going to be an economic success.” Additional study is needed, she believes, to identify specific regional and social benefits.

But the primary issue that concerns Quinn is where the Downeaster or any future train service arrives in Portland.

Currently, that’s at the Portland Transportation Center, which is more than 20 years old. The combined rail-bus station is owned by Concord Coach Lines, with NNEPRA as a tenant. Situated on Thompson’s Point, it places passengers 10-15 minutes by car or city bus from downtown Portland.

Downeaster trains reach it by diverting off the Pan Am mainline onto the railroad’s Mountain Branch. To continue either to Brunswick or Boston, trains must make a reverse move to get back to the mainline. Quinn says that adds 15 minutes to overall trip time.

The agency considered putting in a wye, but the state and developers have other ideas for the land that would be needed. And moreover, the property is limited to a single rail platform and is maxed out for car parking and bus docks.

Ideally, the agency would want to see a new multimodal transit center along the main line so that a 15-minute delay could be reduced to a two-minute station stop. Quinn adds, “We want a double platform so that trains could meet in that location going northbound and southbound.”

Wayne Davis, chairman of Train Riders Northeast, agrees that it needs to be on the main line. He sees one option adjacent to a large hospital complex and another by Congress Street, just minutes from downtown.

The Maine Department of Transportation is studying possible sites. Their report is due to be released in September.

“The question of the Portland Transportation Center needs to be answered because if the station doesn’t move, and there is or isn’t a wye, that’s going to weigh heavily into what kind of service can even be supported into Lewiston-Auburn,” Quinn tells Trains News Wire.

She sees the Lewiston-Auburn operation as “more of a commuter-type connectivity” that would feed into the Downeaster for longer journeys. And it’s just a harbinger of how NNEPRA could evolve, taking a greater role in regional rail transit.

“I know we’ve only been looked at as the Downeaster because that’s all we had,” Quinn says, adding, “I think the potential could be there to build off the core service.”

The Authority has toyed with extending Downeaster service further up the coast to Rockland, a popular tourist destination along a scenic rail line owned by the state. Last served by the Maine Eastern Railroad, which ran seasonal weekend trains, it’s been freight-only since 2016.

“The thought process there is using our third set of equipment and just extending up to Rockland,” Quinn explains. It would be a Friday-through-Sunday, summertime service. She hopes it will be possible next year.

South of Portland, the agency is looking to extend a 2-mile passing siding at Wells to 8 miles, enabling running meets of freight and passenger trains. Along with that will be a second platform at the Wells station, which allows another possible service.

“We’re looking at the potential of using that third set of equipment on weekdays, running a train from Brunswick in the morning down to Wells and then doing an inbound commute into Portland and Freeport and Brunswick,” Quinn says.

“On the Downeaster, 86% of the people who ride it are traveling to or from Boston, but we do have latent capacity in between,” she explains.

And as the Portland region grows, the agency may provide more commuter-like services.

Quinn says she’s spoken to the Falmouth town council, where a shopping center with plentiful parking sits alongside the Downeaster’s route. “It’s about 11 minutes from there to that spot in Portland where we would maybe look for a station,” she says. “Would a commuter platform there make sense?”

On the other side of Portland, in Westbrook, a large, new mixed-use development is going in on a parcel of land bisected by the Mountain Branch. The developer asked NNEPRA to study the feasibility of establishing transit along the line.

“We call it the Westbrook-Portland shuttle, which would be a new service,” says Quinn. Using high-frequency, short-set DMU service, demand could reach 1,800 riders a day. It would both connect to the Downeaster and reach downtown Portland at an existing city-owned parking lot, adding to a growing network of future transit services.

Strong support for more rail transit in this booming area comes from labor, the Sierra Club, the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, commercial developers and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Countering national trends, the Portland region saw transit ridership increase 13.6% from 2013 to 2017.

The 2018 election gave Democrats control of the Maine state legislature and governor’s office, improving receptivity to rail transit. Quinn describes the new Commissioner of Transportation, Brian Van Note, as “extremely supportive and engaged.”

Portland is busily adding new hotels, office space, condominiums, and a new marina that accommodates super-yachts. Rail supporters feel the time has come to add more trains.

“We’re pretty excited about some of these ideas and visions,” Quinn says. “We're trying to capitalize on the success of the Downeaster and make that as successful as we can, and look at other opportunities where the application of passenger rail cannot only support the Downeaster service but help grow the economy.”
Northbound train No. 691 at Wells, which one day may get commuter service to Portland.
Dan Zukowski
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