Railroad Economics

Posted Feb. 03, 2010, at 6:57 p.m.

The continued northward march of passenger rail service is good news for Maine on many counts. Amtrak’s Downeaster is set to receive $35 million in federal job stimulus funding. The money means the rail service will be extended north from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick. Passengers will be able to board trains in those two coastal towns by the end of 2012, if construction deadlines are met.

The short-term benefit is that the project will create 200 jobs, according to Maine’s 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree. But the potential boost this link will bring to the state’s economy is far more exciting.

Few would disagree that Maine has regions that face disparate challenges and which are blessed with different advantages. York and Cumberland counties and the southern part of the midcoast region have flourished, relatively speaking, in recent years. Central and eastern Maine have not.

Good transportation links are widely understood as being important for businesses shipping products and receiving materials, but so, too, is passenger travel. The Downeaster Amtrak service has allowed some people to live in Maine and commute to work in southern New Hampshire and the Greater Boston region. As the link extends into the midcoast, more people can live in Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties and work in Portland and elsewhere in Southern Maine. Their paychecks will circulate close to home, thereby boosting the local economies.

The state’s top industry, tourism, also will benefit with passenger rail service to Freeport and Brunswick. Wayne Davis of the rail advocacy group Train Riders Northeast said a study projected a 25 percent increase in riders on the Downeaster once the connection to Freeport was made. It’s not hard to understand why, since L.L. Bean has been identified as one of the state’s top tourist draws.

What should follow the link from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick is even more promising. The Maine Eastern Railroad now operates on the line between Rockland and Brunswick, so once the Amtrak connection is made in Brunswick, passengers should be able to board a train in Knox County and travel south to Portland and Boston and beyond. And since Rockland has become a top tourist destination in recent years, the potential will exist to bring visitors to Maine without their cars.

The next big step, Mr. Davis said, is to link Brunswick with Augusta. The state owns the line, and the Maine Eastern has the contract to operate service on it. Next, passenger service could return to Waterville and Bangor. Raising the maximum speed to 80 mph from Bangor to Portland, and raising it to 110 mph from Portland to Boston would boost ridership even more.

Though these rail connections are heralded as new and exciting, they actually return Maine to the mid-1950s, when daily passenger service linked Bangor to Boston. It’s a step back that’s worth taking.

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