After years of delays, the long-awaited Amtrak passenger train between Portland and Boston is expected to be rolling by the end of the year, making four round trips daily.
It’s been at least 35 years since the state had regular passenger rail service, although some Canadian passenger trains operated in northern Maine until the early 1990s.
Only time will tell if the new train succeeds in attracting the traveling public, said Portland City Manager Joe Gray. He expects a lot of initial interest. “Certainly a lot of hard work and time has been put into this. For us, it helps complete the transportation alternatives that are available to us.”
Gray said his son recently rode the Amtrak Acela express from Boston to New York, and price and timing were competitive with air travel.
Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter said there is renewed interest in rail because of the tragic events of Sept. 11. “An alternative to flying is popular at this point. Coupled with the bus service, I think we will have a well-coordinated intermodal service for people,” he said.
Carter, chairman of the Northern New England Rail Passenger Authority, said he believes restoring long-lost passenger trains to Maine will be successful because railroad stations will be terminals where buses, cars, vans,trolleys, taxi and limousine services can connect with one another. He said the rail authority - created by an act of the Legislature - has plans to extend passenger rail to Brunswick and on to Rockland, connecting with ferry service. Also, there are plans for passenger trains to Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta, Montreal.
“It’s all very doable. It will be done in stages,” said Carter, who recalled his town’s historic role in rail. The town had three stations: one in Wells proper, another at Wells Beach, a third was a private platform for the owner of the Boston & Maine Railroad, who lived in Wells. The new station for Wells will be built next spring, beside the Maine Turnpike, in a cooperative deal with the Maine Turnpike Authority. Meanwhile, a temporary platform and canopy will be erected in time for an inaugural train run for dignitaries. Carter said the local high school band will play, and cider and donuts will be served.
A temporary platform is also being built in Saco, he said.
Patricia Douglas, spokeswoman for the rail authority, said “We’re doing our best to get it up and running as soon as possible. We’re confident it will be successful.’ She acknowledged many deadlines for being operational have come and gone, but said this time it’s for real, and trains should be running soon .
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for trains,” she said. And with memories of the terrorist attack fresh in people’s minds, “it’s a time when an alternative is welcome for a lot of people.”
Amtrak is already operating trains between Portland and Boston to familiarize its crews with the run.
“I would say it’s about time, after 13 years,” said Wayne Davis, a former bank executive who founded Trainriders Northeast, a 1300-member rail advocacy group based in Portland. He acknowledged his group has been a catalyst in the struggle to revive rail service. Twelve years ago, rail buff and Portland lawyer Bruce Sleeper drafted the Rail Passenger Service Act, a law that ensures passenger trains will again roll through Maine.
Davis said the state has been announcing the return of Portland-Boston service ever since 1993. Efforts to bring back trains have faced numerous delays and seemingly endless frustration. Progress has been blocked, he said, by union issues, intransigent railroad management, even by government officials who apparently lacked a commitment to get the job done.
Guilford Transportation, which owns much of the track bed on the Portland-Boston run, delayed the planned passenger train 14 months by insisting it not exceed 60 mph. Trainriders and the state argued this would make it uncompetitive. The federal Surface Transportation Board ruled otherwise, and that hurdle was cleared. There were other obstacles over the years. Davis said Trainriders had to mount an exhausting political lobbying effort to convince the Legislature to create the rail authority; in the end, Trainriders got what it wanted.
“Of course,” Davis said, “None of this would have happened without a Commissioner and a Governor that support rail.” Commissioner John Melrose has said he believes in reviving and extending passenger as well as freight service on Maine track beds.
Gov. Angus King recently affirmed that there will be no further delays in the arrival of The Downeaster, an Amtrak train that will glide through the countryside at 80 mph on freshly-refurbished track, continuously welded so you won’t hear or feel the traditional clickety-clack.
Eighty miles per hour isn’t the 150 mph now offered on Amtrak’s AcelaExpress from Boston’s South Station to Union Station in Washington, D.C. But 80 mph is considerably faster than you can drive between Portland and Boston, legally anyway. Officials are studying the idea of a shuttle between Boston’s North Station, where the Downeaster will arrive, and South Station. Although a rail link was discussed as part of the massive “Big Dig” project in downtown Boston, that link is still on the drawing board.
According to Davis, a committee has been meeting for at least 8 years and still meets regularly. Meanwhile, Congress has earmarked $500,000 to enable AMTRAK and Massachusetts transportation officials to complete environmental impact studies. Both Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have spoken out on the importance of finishing the studies and continuing with construction of the rail link. North and South Station exist because they were originally served by rival railroads.
Even without the “link,” a shuttle service is planned to take rail passengers from North Station to South Station, as well as to Logan Airport.
Portland long ago tore down its landmark Union Station, but construction on a new station beside the Concord bus terminal is set to begin next week. Stations in Wells, New Hampshire and Massachusetts will be ready for service, Douglas said.
The fare for the 114-mile trip to Boston will be $21 one way, and $35 for round-trip on the same day. An $8 dollar premium entitles you to a more ample chair with footrest, a newspaper and free beverage. The train and will feature four refurbished 1970s-vintage cars that will carry 62 passengers. Besides telephone and computer hook-ups, passengers can drink and dine at a cafe car serving food, beer and wine, Douglas said. There will reportedly be space aboard the train to stow skis or bicycles. A diesel engine will pull the train one way, and push it the other, meaning there will be no need for switching or turning a locomotive.
Trainriders lobbied hard and successfully for a $10.5 million trestle at Back Cove that will make a more direct route from Portland to points north, east and west. When completed, that link will open access to Yarmouth junctions and potential passenger trains to Lewiston-Auburn, Bethel and Montreal; as well the coastal route to Freeport, Brunswick and Rockland. The trestle will lead the train to tracks paralleling the Interstate for a few miles, giving motorists a good view of alternative transportation.
Will people really take the train? Some already do, said state rail official Allan Bartlett, who took his family on a 28-hour train trip from Boston to Disney World in Florida. They traveled coach class, and “the kids loved it. For the four of us, it cost what it would have cost one of us to fly.”
But Mainers may be reluctant to get out from behind the wheel. “I don’t see a big shift all at once. I think it will be gradual. Maine people are really married to their individual automobile... I think Maine people are savvy enough and intelligent enough that they are going to be drawn to it over time,” Bartlett said.
When Davis announced he supported widening of the southern section of the Maine Turnpike to six lanes, he took some heat from his membership. But Davis said he only wants to see the road meet federal safety standards. “Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to relieve obesity,” he said.
“New England had an extensive rail system. It’s still about 95 per cent intact.” Davis hope his grandchildren will grow up with the knowledge that when you want to go someplace, taking the train is the way to go.
Douglas, of the Portland-based rail authority, said she is working on an expensive advertising campaign to attract both business people, tourists and families to take The Downeaster. “You run a good business, people will use it.”