PORTLAND, Maine — The prospect of regular passenger service on a state-owned route between Brunswick and Rockland, Maine, received a big boost last week when Maine’s Department of Transportation budgeted $3 million to advance a two-year pilot project utilizing 1950s-era Budd Rail Diesel Cars.
Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn tells Trains News Wire, “The equipment and the necessary operational and safety regulatory requirements are being assessed to determine a path forward.”
Plans to extend the reach of NNEPRA’s Boston-Brunswick Downeaster an additional 56 miles to Rockland have been contemplated since seasonal excursions on the branch ended in 2015. That’s the year that the state declined to renew the operating lease of Maine Eastern, the company that had operated summer-only round trips since 2004.
Although Amtrak ran a test train over the former Maine Central branch in 2019, an intriguing proposal emerged last year when Midcoast Railservice, a subsidiary of New York’s Finger Lakes Railway, suggested using RDC equipment as part of its operating rights takeover from Canadian Pacific [see “Company offers plan for Rockland-Brunswick, Maine, passenger service,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 27, 2022].
Proactively, Finger Lakes began making modifications to one of two RDCs it has leased for tourist service from Vermont-based AllEarth Renewals, which had acquired a fleet of 14 from Dallas’ Trinity Railway Express. Rest rooms had been removed by the Texas commuter operator, so the short line’s Geneva, N.Y., shop forces installed a replacement that is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards.
“We’re calling it a Coastliner,” Midcoast President Mike Smith tells News Wire, adding, “The Class 3 track between Brunswick and Rockland has been well-maintained by the state DOT; we’re planning on a running time of 1 hour, 50 minutes operating at a top speed of 55 mph.” In addition to restroom-equipped RDC No. 2003, Smith plans on making two other units available.
Logistics still must be hammered out between Midcoast, NNEPRA, the Federal Railroad Administration, and Amtrak; a launch by the summer 2023 is being targeted.
In a News Wire interview last August, Quinn said, “Everybody is onboard; we just have to figure out what the formula is. There’s a mobility opportunity to provide a year-round alternative to the automobile, that’s why we would like to see three round trips a day, seven days per week.” She points to the only alternative, two-lane U.S. Route 1, as congested in the summer tourist season and a challenge in winter.
Most passenger rail startups consume cash by beginning with a ridership study, but that isn’t happening here. As Midcoast’s Smith puts it, “We can just run the damn service and see if it works!”