ROCKLAND, Maine — The rail line that ships freight to key businesses in the Midcoast and provides passenger excursion trips during the summer wants to continue operating the line well past its current contract with the state.
And the Maine Department of Transportation has slowed its effort to put the operation of the Brunswick to Rockland line out to competitive proposals.
In June, the state said it planned to solicit proposals in the fall from railroad companies to see if there was interest in operating the 56-mile long line.
Maine Eastern Railroad has run the line since 2003. Its contract with the state was set to expire in October 2013 but the company and state reached an agreement to have Maine Eastern continue its operations through December 2014. That would have given the state time to put together a proposal and then review any submissions.
But Nate Moulton, the director of rail programs for the state transportation department, said Friday that no decision has yet been made on whether to seek proposals. He said it remains a topic of discussion by the state.
The transportation official said the state, which owns the line, could grant another year extension to Maine Eastern.
He said a committee is being formed consisting of representatives from areas that have rail lines along with state government officials to determine priorities for passenger rail growth in Maine. Moulton pointed out that there has been interest expressed in extension of passenger service in many areas of the state including the Auburn area, Bangor area, and the midcoast.
The Rockland line has experienced a significant drop in freight and passenger traffic during the past few years and the company cut back on its passenger excursion service last summer.
Maine Eastern wants to continue operating the line, said Rudy Garbely, a marketing associate for the rail company.
“We are definitely interested in operating the line as long as possible. We see a lot of potential,” Garbely said.
The contract between Maine Eastern and the state requires the company to carry freight, although it had encouraged them to also operate passenger service. Maine Eastern is responsible for maintaining the lines.
The line has been operating for freight traffic since May 1990, five years after Maine Central Railroad abandoned the spur. The state spent $30 million in the early 1990s to upgrade the line to be able to handle passenger trains, which resumed running on the Rockland line in 2004.
Passenger service during the past 10 years has been limited largely to summer excursion trips. The amount of traffic peaked at nearly 19,000 people in 2008, according to prior statements by Maine Eastern.
Rail advocates had expressed hope that the extension of Amtrak commuter rail service from Portland to Brunswick last year could eventually be extended to Rockland.
Maine Eastern was running two trips a day between Brunswick and Rockland until this year. In April it announced that it would reduce the trips to once a day between the two Midcoast Maine cities.
The 2014 schedule for Maine Eastern’s Mid-Coast Limited excursions starts Friday, July 4. The line will run every Friday through Sunday through the Columbus Day weekend. There will be one round-trip run each day starting at 12:50 p.m. in Brunswick and arriving in Rockland at 2:50 p.m. The train will leave Rockland at 3:20 p.m. and arrive back in Brunswick at 5:20 p.m.
There were will also be trains during the Maine Lobster Festival which is held in Rockland from July 30 through Aug. 3.
The largest source of revenue for Maine Eastern has been its freight service and Dragon Products is by far its largest customer.
During the construction boom of 2005-2006, Dragon needed two barges at its Rockland waterfront facility to handle the daily shipments of cement from the plant that would then be shipped to southern New England. That traffic had fallen by half after the recession struck in 2008.
Ray DeGrass, the plant manager for Dragon, said back in June that the rail line is important both because shipping cement by rail is more economical than trucking it over the highways and because it avoids having thousands of trucks loaded with cement causing wear and tear on the highway.
The cement plant sends rail cars about five miles on the line from its Thomaston plant to its dock on Rockland’s South End waterfront, where a barge is then filled and product shipped to the Boston market. He said the barge makes about 40 trips to Boston each year, carrying a combined 160,000 tons of cement.
Dragon also uses the rail line to ship cement south and then north to Quebec.
Another customer of Maine Eastern is Dica Perl Minerals, formerly known as Chemrock, on Buttermilk Lane in Thomaston. Maine Eastern also does some business with Bath Iron Works.