A runner heads south in 2019 along the Kennebec River Rail Trail in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

While many residents and officials in the communities along an unused rail corridor from Brunswick to Augusta have said they would like to see trains return, a vast majority of the dozens of people who spoke at a recent public hearing believe it would be so costly it could never happen.

So they want the state to pull up the railroad tracks and replace them with a 10-foot-wide trail to provide what many believe would bring significant recreational and economic benefits to the communities through which the tracks now pass.

An advisory council formed by the state in November 2022 has until the end of August to make a recommendation for how the 34-mile stretch of state-owned rail corridor, known as the Lower Road, should be used. The recommendation would need the approval of the commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation and then the state Legislature.

The Brunswick-to-Augusta corridor encompasses the existing Kennebec River Rail Trail that links Augusta and Gardiner.

Options include doing nothing other than continuing to minimally maintain the corridor in case trains come back, converting the corridor into an “interim” recreational trail by removing the train tracks with an understanding new rail would be put down if trains returned, adding a trail alongside the existing tracks and restoring freight or passenger rail service.

The clear favorite option among the dozens of people who weighed in on the topic Thursday during an online public hearing held by the Lower Road Rail Use Advisory Council was converting the rail line into a so-called interim trail.


Many said they would love to see trains come back, with a trail running alongside the tracks, but cited the staggering costs of restoring rail service as making that unlikely anytime soon — or ever.

Removing the tracks and adding a trail, while still costly, would be vastly cheaper. Proponents say making space for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and, potentially, snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicle riding would bring a range of benefits to the communities along the route, their residents and businesses.

“I love the Kennebec River Rail Trail, and think it’s going to take us to another level to have Bath, Topsham and Brunswick connected to us,” if the trail were extended, said Alan Claude, a graphic artist who owns a gallery and two buildings in downtown Gardiner. “Events will happen (on the trail), and it’s going to bring up so much more economic prosperity. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring vibrancy to the area, and it really needs it.

“I like trains, too, but we’ve got to make this trail happen. Let’s be logical, and if by some miracle we need to dig up the dirt and put a rail back there, that’s great. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. So let’s put a trail in as soon as possible.”

Removing the railroad tracks from Gardiner to Brunswick and adding a trail would cost $34.3 million for a stone dust or gravel surface or $43 million if paved, according to Phil Goff, a consultant providing analysis of the various options to the council.

Building a trail next to the tracks that would be left in place is more expensive because the corridor would have to be wider and built up to accommodate the new trail. That is estimated to cost $146.3 million for stone dust or gravel or $151.8 million if paved.


The estimated cost to restore rail service, Goff said, would be $55 million for freight trains, which would be limited to 10 mph, and $363 million for passenger trains, which could travel up to 60 mph.

Advocates for returning rail service to the corridor said removing the tracks would be a shortsighted move that would make it extremely unlikely trains would ever return. They said that would be foolhardy, especially considering the concerns of climate change.

“If you rip up these tracks, they will be gone forever,” said Joe Leonard, a city councilor in Bangor. “We don’t have to rip up the tracks. We absolutely can work with the bike folks and say, ‘Yes, we can make this work.’

“We have to wake up and realize we cannot rely on cars. I’m a bike advocate, a trail advocate, but don’t rip up rail tracks and replace them with uses that don’t work for long-distance travel.”

A 2023 study cited in the council’s draft report evaluated transportation options between Portland and Bangor. It included the Lower Road segment of rail line as part of a potential route to extend passenger rail service from the Portland area to Bangor.

The study estimated a new or improved transit service could offer between 56,000 and 80,000 trips per year, compared to Interstate 95 and Interstate 295, which now serve a combined 3.7 million to 8.9 million vehicles per year.


State transportation officials have concluded that due to the projected low ridership on passenger trains and the substantial costs to bring them back, the greenhouse gas reductions from increased public transportation from rail would be relatively small.

Officials have said such reductions could be better addressed through enhanced use of buses.

Richard Rudolph, chairman of Rail Users Network and a board member with Maine Rail Group Inc., or MRG Inc., said the propensity study the state had done included only riders from Portland and none who had boarded trains along the way. He said a better way to determine the potential for returning passenger rail would be a full feasibility study. He said other areas of the country where rail was restored have seen an enormous economic impact.

MRG Inc. of Augusta is an independent, all-volunteer nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of railroads’ contributions to the Maine and New England economies and their roles in moving passengers and freight.

Trail advocates said converting the rail corridor to trails would have a huge economic impact, while costing much less than restoring rail use.

Scott Moucka of Augusta said he plans travel out of state to use recreational trails, cycling tourism is growing rapidly across the country and Maine, by making use of the corridor and others like it, could become one of the nation’s best destinations for such tourism.

The corridor has been eyed for the Merrymeeting Trail, which was proposed to be built as a recreational trail alongside the tracks.

John Raymond, president of ATV Maine, said such recreational vehicles bring $1.4 billion in economic activity a year to Maine, and adding the corridor as another place where such vehicles could be used would add to that.

Raymond also said ATV riders could bring a funding source through registration fees, while some riders could also offer expertise in trail maintenance.

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