Monday, February 4, 2013

The forecast for passenger rail in Maine

Union Station, Portland, 1954, courtesy of the always interesting Portland Maine History 1786-Present Facebook Page

The last passenger trains pulled out of Maine in the 1960s. Portland's grand terminals were torn down to make way for parking lots and, in the case of Union Station, a particularly soulless strip mall. Tracks were ripped out or paved over. Highways were the way of the future.

But since 2001, passenger rail has been making a comeback. In 2001, the Amtrak Downeaster debuted Boston to Portland service and in the years since has greatly exceeded ridership expectations and regularly been rated as the top service in the national system. This past November the run was extended to Freeport and Brunswick in Maine's midcoast. There was talk of continuing service to Augusta and Lewiston, and maybe even Montreal. Seasonal connecting service to Rockland was to beefed up. Direct Portland to New York City trains were on the drawing boards.

In today's Portland Press Herald cover story, I take a look at the near- and long-term prospects for extending passenger trains in Maine. Ironically, because of some missing infrastructure -- consisting entirely of elements torn up in the late 20th century -- the Downeaster's core service isn't operating as quickly and frequently as it really needs to, particularly on the Portland-Brunswick leg. Until it does, most connecting and continuing services will have to wait, while seasonal service to Rockland is actually expected to scale back.

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