Irving Transportation Services rolled out a new railway this week, with high hopes of putting the near-defunct freight route back on track.
On June 15, Maine Northern Railway was officially launched, running across 233 miles of track in northern Maine. It is the third railway company for Irving Transportation Services, which also runs NB Southern and Eastern Maine Railways.
The span of track runs north-south in Maine from Madawaska to Millinocket. Last year, under the ownership of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, it filed for abandonment and was bought by the state of Maine for $20.1 million.
Nate Moulton is director of the rail program with the department of transportation in Maine. Running through the “wood basket” of northern Maine, he said 25 businesses rely on the rail service to ship their goods, including industry heavyweights like McCain Foods, Columbia Forest Products and Irving Woodlands.
The director said the state took ownership of the railroad for companies who could “potentially lose their business if this rail service was not preserved.”
“It wasn’t about saving the railroad, it was an economic development decision,” Moulton said.
Despite the previous owners tabling “substantial” losses in the “four to five million dollar range,” Moulton said he’s confident the railway will be back in the black under the Irvings.
After a bidding process, the state decided to lease the rail line to the New Brunswick conglomerate. In exchange for leasing the track from the state, Maine Northern Railway must maintain the track, Moulton said.
Currently, the director said, the United States government has set aside a $10.5 million grant to update the track.
“They had the best plan to grow the operation and return it to profitability,” he said of the Irvings.
By providing a needed service, the railway will “allow our customers to enhance their own supply chain network to get their products to market,” Geoff Britt, communications officer with J.D. Irving Ltd.
With many clients working with forestry products, the freight industry was hard hit when the forestry sector fell apart. This doesn’t deter the new railway, Britt said. “Markets turn around.”
“We have the new technology to improve the rail assets and maintain the rail assets,” he said. Using GPS tracking systems, Britt said clients will not only have up-to-the-minute scheduling, but maintenance on the track will run smoothly.
With six locomotives under full steam, the new railway employs 30 people, Britt said. Future infrastructure investments are a promising sign to Britt, who said he hopes there will soon be more employees.
This brings the Irving rail fleet up to 20 locomotives. Currently, Maine Northern Railway sister lines, NB South and Eastern Maine employ 155 people among them.