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BROOKS, Maine — For the last three summers, the rattle and chug of a slow locomotive has been heard with more frequency along the tracks of the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad in Waldo County.
The Brooks Preservation Society, a mostly volunteer group composed of retired railroad workers and train enthusiasts, has been working to have more excursion rides along the 30 miles of tracks that stretch between Belfast and Burnham. Now, the federal government has noticed their success and is removing the exempt status on all 22 railroad crossings on the line on May 18.
Removing the exempt status means that the five or so crossings with flashing safety lights will be activated when the train comes through. It also means that certain vehicles, such as fuel trucks, will always have to stop at the other crossings, too. Until now, the trains have stopped at crossings and a flagger has exited in order to stop traffic until the train passes safely by.
While the train enthusiasts say that safety will improve as a result of the change, not everyone in Waldo County is as pleased.
“I don’t think they have the authority to take the exemptions down,” said Duke Simoneau of Brooks, who is an outspoken opponent of the Brooks Preservation Society. “They don’t have any more right to use that right-of-way than any other citizen of the state of Maine.”
Joe Feero, founder and executive director of the Brooks Preservation Society, said that as the organization grows and increases the frequency of the trains, safety remains a primary concern.
“It’s not just a group of trainiacs, as I’ve heard us referred to, who go out and do anything we want,” he said. “Together, we make sure the passengers, the public and the volunteers are safe.”
The rail corridor is among the 550 miles of tracks in the state that are owned by the Maine Department of Transportation, but this particular line has been leased for several years to the Brooks Preservation Society. The group does not pay the state to be able to operate its two locomotives, vintage 1926 passenger car and open observation car on the tracks, but in exchange maintains the rail corridors, according to Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail program.
He said that removing the exempt status was not up to the Brooks Preservation Society or his department, but instead was a directive of the Federal Railroad Administration. Trains have the right-of-way over traffic, he said.
“For regular operations, even on an excursion basis, you cannot stop and flag,” Moulton said. “It’s federal law. I assume they’re doing it under a safety compliance thing.”
He said that several people have contacted the state, concerned that tax dollars are being spent to upgrade the signals, but that’s not the case. The Brooks Preservation Society has been paying for the signal upgrades.
Moulton also said that because the state still owns the rail corridors, and has the specialized equipment to do maintenance, a two-man crew from the department spends some time each year doing larger projects, such as improving culverts. Each year, he has a $150,000 budget that comes directly from railroad excise taxes that the department uses to maintain all the miles of tracks owned by the state.
“At the end of the day, it’s the state’s asset,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s in a state of good repair.”
For train naysayers like Simoneau, that might not be the best way the state can spend its time and money. He said that he would like to see Maine convert the railbed into a trail corridor, like the Down East Sunrise Trail in eastern Maine.
Recreational trail users might be more likely to be an economic boon to the area than train riders, Simoneau believes.
“The first thing that happens when people go into these towns — they’re going to drop cash,” he said.
But Moulton said that when the state purchased the miles of rail corridor, a primary reason was because lawmakers figured that it was important to preserve it for future rail or other transportation uses.
“To go out and build these things and re-create them — it’s huge,” he said. “The current use is rail, and that’s how we’re maintaining it. Not everybody agrees with that, but to maintain the corridor for any type of use costs money.”
For now, the Waldo County railway will continue to be used primarily on summer weekends, carrying train enthusiasts, tourists or families for a few miles through woods and along the river.
Last season, the trains carried 2,500 people. Most passengers rode the weekend train from the Head of the Tide in Belfast to the Waldo depot, but some charter trains run farther, according to Feero. The Brooks Preservation Society also runs the train from Thorndike to Unity during the three days of the Common Ground Fair in September.
He said that removing the exemption is simply a matter of common sense — and safety.
“Some may view it as an inconvenience,” he said. “But when suddenly you have a locomotive bearing down on you … it’s all about public safety.”