By Erin Place
PARIS—Members of the Androscoggin-Oxford-Coos Counties (AOCC) Passenger Rail Coalition were recently told their goal of bringing passenger rail service from Portland to Montreal and commuter service in Western Maine to Portland via Lewiston/Auburn is at minimum six to eight years down the track.
Patricia Quinn—the executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Downeaster rail service between Brunswick and Boston—gave a presentation and fielded questions at the coalition’s Oct. 23 meeting at Community Concepts in South Paris. She used a metaphor to explain that railroads are modeled after trees with a strong trunk or core, which supports the supporting branches, which, in turn, carries the limbs.
This means that a number of priority projects need to be completed before the AOCC Passenger Rail Coalition can embark on its journey to Western Maine and beyond to Montreal, she said. This includes Phase 1 projects of the Brunswick Layover, Royal Siding in Yarmouth and Portland Wye. A Phase 2 project includes a route from Portland to Plaistow. Combined, these projects would improve trip frequency, ridership and revenue, along with adding service to Freeport and Brunswick, improve efficiency and reliability of service, along with schedule flexibility, reduce travel time, eliminate dead head service (trains running with no passengers) and outdoor idling, and set the stage for future development.
“It’s wonderful the amount of enthusiasm there is for passenger rail service in the state of Maine,” Quinn said, encouraging members of the coalition to support the rail authority’s projects so hopefully the authority can support the coalition’s project. “We’re extremely fortunate here to have the rail services that we have with the population.”
She advised coalition members to create a more focused vision, figuring out where they want to take people and what they want to study, noting studies—including ones on environmental impact—are time consuming and expensive. This includes gathering market data and travel patterns.
“You need more than a good guess, you need to think about those things,” Quinn said.
She also suggested figuring out the routes for the preliminary coalition project, working with Portland, beginning preliminary negotiations with the railroad to determine what infrastructure pieces need to be in place, keeping enthusiasm for the project and passenger rail service going, and establishing a sustainable funding mechanism.
In an email to the Advertiser, Zakk Maher, of the AOCC Passenger Rail Coalition, explained the group’s mission is to help support or develop sustainable passengers rail service throughout the region. He said to make railroads a cost effective mode of transportation again, the coalition and individual municipalities need to “rethink the current rural development paradigm and begin to transition away from cost intensive road maintenance and reconstruction projects.”
Maher pointed to the benefits of rail transport in urban areas and manufacturing hubs since businesses can attract more qualified employees because it’s more cost effect for individuals to commute by rail instead of car.
“This, in turn, has the added benefit of boosting our rural real estate market, allowing more people to work in Auburn/Portland who may not necessarily wish to, or be able to afford living there,” he wrote, adding there’s a handful of local and private transportation companies staying on the edge of the conservation for the time being. “With the addition of more rural commuter stops up this line, we are expecting more entrepreneurial opportunities for local people.”
Maher said the coalition is working on programs that would provide guidance and potential funding for home-grown business development the group believes will come with train stations in the area.
The coalition’s Rail Rally, originally slated for September, was postponed until early April 2015. There were few reasons the date was rescheduled, including lower than expected registration, a number of state groups having their own annual meetings during September and concern about the cost of the event since a grant to hold the 2011 event wasn’t awarded this time around. To be most effective, the coalition thought it would be best to hold it during the upcoming legislative session after the elections.
For updates, visit the AOCC Passenger Rail Coalition’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AOCCRailCoalition.