AUGUSTA — Dreams of passenger train service through central Maine were derailed Wednesday after the House of Representatives voted against a bill to study the corridor containing the state’s five biggest metropolitan areas, citing the lack of potential riders along the route.

The bill would require the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to study the feasibility of operating passenger rail service along the former Maine Central line, now owned by CSX, which runs from Portland to Bangor, with opportunities for stops in Lewiston, Auburn and Waterville, as well as just west of Augusta.

It was supported by, among others, municipal officials, legislators and economic development groups from the cities along the rail line, who argued that passenger service would boost local economies and give residents more transportation options.

But that wasn’t enough to sway a majority in the House, where the legislation couldn’t overcome skepticism over the enormous cost associated with extending rail service northwest of Portland, and whether the population along the corridor could support it.

“We just don’t have enough people,” said Rep. James White, a Guilford Republican.

The bill now goes back to the Senate, which voted in favor of the bill last week. But without support in the House, its future this session is dim.


Rep. Dan Ankeles, D-Brunswick, said during floor debate Wednesday that even the most ardent fans of trains and public transportation should oppose the legislation.

Previous studies of rail service from Portland to Lewiston, as well as Portland to Bangor through Augusta, have shown that there aren’t enough potential riders along the route to make it financially feasible, Ankeles said. While the study would only cost the state $20,000, that’s money and energy that could be better spent finding public transit solutions that help the people of central Maine move around their communities, he said.

If the project was eventually approved, the federal government would pay, at an estimated cost of between $375 million and $902 million.

A crew works on a railroad crossing last year on Hampshire Street in Auburn. A bill under consideration in the Legislature would study using the line, which runs from Portland to Bangor through Lewiston, Auburn and Waterville, for passenger rail service. The bill faces an uphill battle after it failed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

However, as Ankeles and others pointed out, the state would still be required to make a significant match, and there would be ongoing costs as well.

What’s more, they argued, without a significant subsidy from the state, or even with one, ticket prices for service along the line would be too high for many residents, given the low number of passengers that could be expected to regularly use the service.

The effort to bring passenger rail service to central Maine also faces other hurdles. The project was not part of Amtrak’s 2035 vision plan released in 2021, and at a hearing last year on the bill, the Maine Department of Transportation testified against the study.


The communities along the corridor, the DOT argued, are well served by highways that allow passenger vehicles and buses to move efficiently between the state’s major metropolitan areas. From that perspective, the testimony said, it makes better sense to add more trips and routes to existing bus services, both in between and within those communities.


That point of view, proponents of the bill say, sells short the investment that typically occurs around new passenger rail stations, as restaurants, retail stores and other businesses look to capitalize on the potential customers the train could bring to the area.

Unlike bus stations, which are usually on the edge of cities, they said, train stations are typically downtown, giving those areas a new energy — and residents a new way to travel.

“Everywhere there is a rail service, there is economic development,” Sen. Ben Chipman, a Portland Democrat, said last week.

Legislators from Waterville and Lewiston said that communities throughout inland Maine, not just those along the southern coast, should get an opportunity at that kind of economic activity.


“It’s long past time that we start looking at what we can do for the folks in central, interior Maine,” said Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville.

A rail station in Waterville, Madigan said, would help the city and region capitalize on all the growth and investment that is already occurring.

“This would be a boom for us,” she said.

At the very least, the legislators argued, the entire route — Portland to Bangor, through Lewiston — should be looked at: it’s the only way to know for sure whether the region can support passenger rail.

“We deserve at least to have a study,” said Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston.

“We really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by passing this bill,” said Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville. “We really need to get on board.”

Despite the vote in the House, the effort to bring passenger rail service to interior Maine is far from dead, Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said Thursday. The measure gained bipartisan support from legislators throughout the state, he said, and Amtrak expansion is wildly popular among Maine residents.

Once more legislators see the opportunities that rail service can bring to communities throughout the state, Donovan said, it will get the support it needs.

“We’re not done yet,” he said.

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