FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — There’s no telling what kind of place Fort Fairfield would be today if not for the railroad lines that for more than a century have connected the small northern Maine town to the rest of the world.
Even today, in spite of the fact that the rails serving Fort Fairfield hardly ever are used, they constitute a lifeline if not for now then for the future, said Town Manager Dan Foster.
“Losing that rail line would completely cut us off from the rest of the world,” said Foster. “The decline of the railroads has adversely impacted a lot of small communities like ours. But we’ve always been survivors. We’re fairly positive and upbeat about our future.”
In years past, the town had trains running from two directions. The Canadian Pacific rail once brought goods to and from the east, but now those rails and ties have been pulled up and the former commercial thoroughfare is a recreational trail. And then in the 1990s, the now-defunct Bangor and Aroostook railroad abandoned the 8.6 miles of rails that run to Easton, where they join the former Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line and its connections to the rest of the world.
“The Bangor and Aroostook said they were going to sell the rails and ties for salvage,” said Foster. “From the Town Council’s perspective, that was unacceptable. If we were going to ever have any kind of development from an industrial perspective, we could not do it without rail.”
Faced with the demise of one of its prime economic development assets, the town did something unusual: it won a $250,000 grant to purchase the rails, but that turned out to be the easy part. The hard and expensive part, maintaining the rail infrastructure, has been pushing railroads out of business in Maine for decades.
“It was a major risk for the community to take on that kind of project,” said Foster. “We essentially bought something that couldn’t be used because of the condition it was in.”
Engineers estimated that fixing up the tracks would cost up to $1.5 million so the town again looked for and found grant funding, including more than $600,000 from a state-run program called the Industrial Rail Access Program, or IRAP.
IRAP is the state’s tool to help businesses and municipalities maintain rail access. Since the first round in 2000, the state has invested $11.9 million in a total of 29 projects, with most grant winners investing at least 50 percent of the total project cost. Nathan Moulton, the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail program director, said IRAP is another example in a long history of public investments in the state’s rail system.
“Our goal is to manage the rail corridors in Maine to maintain them for future rail potential,” said Moulton. “We don’t receive any money from the federal government to operate rail.”
Matching grants aren’t the only vehicle the state uses to keep trains running. There have been numerous other large-scale investments — such as the recent purchase of 233 miles of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic lines in northern Maine. The challenge now becomes maintaining them and finding a railroad company that can continue to run trains while turning a profit.
The state selected five railroad companies from a list of several dozen that had been monitoring the process of choosing a rail operator to run the recently purchased tracks. The five companies are Pan Am/Springfield Terminal, Eastern Maine Railway, Rail America, Patriot Rail and a firm called the Miles Group. Moulton said that list will be culled to two or three companies that will submit detailed bids for the contract. A winner will be chosen in April. The new operator must take over by mid-June, which is when Montreal, Maine & Atlantic will pull out.
As far as badly needed upgrades to the new state-owned line, all eyes are on Congress and its struggles to pass a new federal budget. A $10.5 million federal investment through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program was endangered earlier this month when it — along with $600 million in other projects — was stripped from a House budget bill.
Since then, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told members of Maine’s congressional delegation that the money will flow to Maine regardless of what happens with the budget.
Other large-scale state investments in rail have included major upgrades of the Northern Maine Junction outside Bangor and Danville Junction in Auburn. Both projects were aimed at the long-existing problem in Maine of outdated rail switch yards.
On a larger scale, the state is also near the end of a years-long process that will result in a document called a State Rail Plan, which is scheduled to be completed this month. The plan, required by the Federal Railroad Administration, will serve as both a status report of Maine’s rail system and a blueprint for how to maintain the system in the coming years.
“We’ve never done a rail plan like this,” said Moulton. “It will help us better focus our limited resources on the system’s weaknesses.”