Locomotives and boxcars in January at the Pan Am Railways yard at 55 College Ave. in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

If passenger rail service were to return to central Maine, it would probably not be because of Amtrak’s 2035 vision plan.

Amtrak released its plan in late March after President Joe Biden unveiled his nationwide plan for investing in infrastructure — roads and bridges, communication networks, sewerage, water and electrical systems and other structures and facilities needed for society to function.

Part of Amtrak’s plan includes expanding Downeaster service to Rockland, the only addition in Maine. Experts’ opinions vary on what this means for central Maine.

“Maine’s not going to get very much out of this at all under the current circumstance,” said Richard Rudolph, chairman of the Rail Users’ Network and director of Maine Rail Group, a nonprofit working to enhance rail service in the state and beyond. “At best, you’ll get weekend service to Rockland. That’s all.”

Amtrak’s 2035 Vision Plan

Amtrak’s Downeaster route began regular runs in 2001 between Portland and Boston, and expanded northward to Brunswick in 2012. Today, the Downeaster makes Maine stops in Brunswick, Freeport, Portland, Old Orchard, Saco and Wells, and multiple stops in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The final destination is Boston’s North Station.

An Amtrak spokesperson wrote in an email the company met with stakeholders across the country and used their input in formulating the plan. Amtrak hopes Congress will provide the $80 billion designated for rail in Biden’s American Jobs Plan as part of the long-range effort.

Amtrak officials did not respond to multiple requests for Maine-specific information.

“The map represents our vision for growing rail service and connecting new city pairs across America to rise to the urgent challenges of our time by providing new and improved train service for 20 million more riders,” the spokesperson wrote. “With a growing and diverse population, a global climate crisis and longer traffic jams, America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable, and equitable train service.”

The Portland-based New England Passenger Rail Authority, or NNERPA, operates the Downeaster. Created by the Maine State Legislature in 1995 in response to a public initiative by TrainRiders Northeast, NNERPA continues to provide public transportation service and explore expansions.

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn cautioned Amtrak’s plan is a vision that needs federal funding. Quinn said believes it is good news for the state, but warned not everything on the plan is definite.

“The timing is good and we applaud that vision,” Quinn said, “but what’s on or what’s not on that map is not necessarily indicative of what will happen moving forward. You really need to look at what they’ve laid out as a list of potentials, and it’s not a complete list.”

Quinn noted the Downeaster’s Brunswick expansion was always part of the plan, and there have not been substantial talks by the NNERPA to expand to central Maine.

“I know there’s interest, and we’re happy there’s interest in passenger rail,” Quinn said. “These are legacy investments, and we’re working with the Maine Department of Transportation to see what their vision is for a rail network within the state.”

Nathan Moulton, director of the MDOT’s Office of Freight and Passenger Services, emphasized in an email that Amtrak’s plan was not made with the state or NNERPA’s approval. He said the MDOT is working on a plan for a siding project at the Wells station, exploring a possible relocation of the Portland station and adding a new passenger platform in Falmouth. No plans in central Maine, at least for now.

“Right now, in regard to passenger rail in Maine,” Moulton wrote, “we are continuing to work with NNEPRA to keep the current system viable in the pandemic and watching to see how ridership comes back as we emerge from the pandemic.”

But George O’Keefe, a rail policy advocate and economic development director in Rumford, said he believes Amtrak’s plan is a positive development. The extended service to Rockland signals an opportunity for increased growth, he said.

O’Keefe wrote in an email it could be possible to add passenger rail service between Portland, Lewiston and Waterville, with a stop in Belgrade, on Route 27. There could also be a potential stop in Winthrop, giving Augusta residents two potential nearby stops.

“This option would ensure deserving communities receive service and also provide a vision for future service to Central and Western Maine that is lacking in any potential plans to run service via Gardiner and Hallowell,” O’Keefe wrote.

“Improved service is positive for Maine generally and will help rebuild a travel mode that is very compatible with the geography and demography of our cities and towns.”

The railroad tracks that run from Brunswick through Augusta, Waterville and up to Bangor are owned by Massachusetts-based Pan Am Railways. The tracks are in the process of being sold to CSX Corp., a massive freight rail system whose tracks cross nearly every state east of the Mississippi River.

Part of Maine Central Railroad’s freight and passenger rail service before its sale in 1983, the soon-to-be CSX Corp. tracks include the Waterville Yard. CSX is a Class I railroad, meaning it is one of the nation’s eight largest railroads, including Amtrak.

Maine Central’s passenger service ended in 1960. It remains unclear how the acquisition impacts central Maine businesses, as expert opinions differ.

In terms of passenger rail, Rudolph and his groups are pushing for an extension of the Downeaster through Augusta and Waterville. Bangor, Waterville and Augusta have passed resolutions asking the state to conduct a feasibility study.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, and seven legislative co-sponsors introduced legislation to provide $300,000 from the state’s multimodal fund to pay for such a study. The next step would be a feasibility analysis. Rudolph said he sees passenger rail service in central Maine as having potential to boost the region’s economy.

Passenger rail service in central Maine may not be coming in the near future through Amtrak, but it is not to be ruled out.

“The feasibility study is the first step to restoring service in Bangor, Waterville and Augusta,” Rudolph said. “Our goal is to get (the study) done within the next year.”

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