PORTLAND, Maine — A Canadian company with a rail line in Maine has been chosen as the new operator for 233 miles of state-owned lines in northern Maine formerly owned by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the Maine Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.
A five-member selection committee unanimously chose Eastern Maine Railway from among five applicants to run what is now known as the Aroostook Lines. The track, which stretches from Millinocket to Madawaska, had been in danger of being abandoned before the state agreed to purchase it and find a company to operate it.
Eastern Maine Railway is the U.S. affiliate of NB Southern Railway, which is part of J.D. Irving Ltd. based in Saint John, New Brunswick. The company has tracks in Maine that run about 100 miles from Brownville Junction to Vanceboro, along the Canadian border.
The selection committee was impressed by EMR’s operating and business plans, said Denis Berube of the Northern Maine Development Commission in Caribou and a member of the committee.
“They really came across as being very dynamic in terms of chasing after the business, essentially wanting to satisfy the needs of the customers,” he said. “They were in tune with what’s going on in [Aroostook] County.”
The track in northern Penobscot and Aroostook counties was at risk after the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway filed notice with the federal Surface Transportation Board that it intended to abandon the track. The company said it was losing millions of dollars a year on the line.
But the line was saved when the state agreed to buy the track and track rights for $20.1 million. The federal government agreed to contribute $10.5 million for track upgrades.
When the state acquired the tracks, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway agreed to continue operating them until mid-June, if needed. MM&A still owns and operates another 541 miles of track running from Maine to Montreal, with a short side track into Vermont.
The track, which includes branch lines to Caribou, Presque Isle, Easton, Houlton and Limestone, is a vital economic asset in northern Maine, said Nate Moulton, the transportation department’s rail program director. For more than a century, rail cars have used the tracks to carry potatoes, paper, lumber and other products out of the region bound for markets across the U.S. and beyond.
“We feel this is the operator that gives us the best chance for success,” Moulton said.
A call to an Eastern Maine Railway spokeswoman was not immediately returned.