ROCKLAND, Maine — Maine Eastern Railroad is likely to reduce its seasonal passenger runs between Brunswick and Rockland starting this summer.
The reduction is a change from the optimism expressed three years ago that the planned expansion of the Downeaster passenger line to Brunswick would offer opportunities for increased service to Rockland and possibly regular commuter service.
But, according to Maine Eastern’s Vice President and Director of Passenger Service Gordon Page, the Downeaster schedule is not one that allows for adequate connections to Rockland.
As a result, Maine Eastern is likely to reduce its two round-trip seasonal passenger train trips from Rockland to Brunswick to one.
“We had high hopes and enthusiasm but we didn’t know the Downeaster schedule,” Page said Monday.
This will be the 10th year that Maine Eastern has provided seasonal summer passenger runs between Brunswick and Rockland. In the first several years, there was growth on the line each year but the number of passengers using it has stayed flat for the past three years, Page said.
He said the train that leaves Rockland in the mornings has often been empty and the last train arriving in Rockland from Brunswick also had few passengers. The great bulk of passengers originated from Brunswick and arrived on the morning train in Rockland to visit the city.
Of the approximately 15,000 people who ride the Maine Eastern from June through the third week of October, only 15 percent board initially in Rockland, he said.
Page said he was not criticizing the Downeaster since it has to run its schedule to meet the needs of its passengers and connections in Boston.
In January 2010, Page said the announcement of the Downeaster coming to Brunswick was very good news for the people of Rockland and the midcoast. He said Maine Eastern Railroad already had a verbal agreement with Amtrak and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to serve as a connecting passenger service to Amtrak in Brunswick.
But the schedule in place for the Downeaster does not lend to that connection, he said Monday.
The Downeaster leaves Brunswick at 7:05 a.m. for its morning trip to Boston. Page said for Maine Eastern to have passengers connect up with that train, people would either have to stay overnight in Brunswick or a train would have to leave Rockland at 4:30 a.m. He said that was not practical.
The Downeaster returns to Brunswick at 12:30 p.m. Maine Eastern’s morning train leaves Brunswick for Rockland at 10 a.m.
Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders Northeast, said the original plan called for $30 million in improvements to the rail system to allow for more round trips between Brunswick and Portland that would have allowed Maine Eastern to connect up to the Downeaster without passengers having to wait for a long period.
The upgrades would have included work to the tracks to allow trains to pass and a Y-connection in Yarmouth to have trains either go toward Brunswick or toward Lewiston-Auburn, Davis said.
Davis said federal grant money was used on other projects and the Maine work fell short of qualifying for it. He said, however, he is hopeful
the project will qualify for federal grants in the future that will fund the work and extend passenger service to Rockland through a connector line like Maine Eastern.
Maine Eastern remains largely a freight carrier, Page said. The largest customer is the Dragon Products cement plant in Thomaston. Another customer is Dicaperl Corporation in Thomaston, which processes raw perlite ore, mined from New Mexico. The perlite is used to produce filter aid that is used by FMC in Rockland, which manufactures the food stabilizer carrageenan. Maine Eastern also moves some steel for Bath Iron Works.
Maine Eastern’s lease with the Maine Department of Transportation for the Rockland to Brunswick line expires in 2013 but Page said Maine Eastern already has discussed with MDOT exercising a five-year renewal option.
Seasonal excursion passenger service between Rockland and Brunswick began in July 2004, stopping that first year adjacent to Sandy Beach in Rockland where a temporary platform was erected. In 2005, passengers were dropped off outside the train station on Union Street. In 2006, the station building was renovated and a restaurant was added.
Regular passenger train service ended in Rockland in 1959.