The evolution of the Androscoggin, Oxford & Coos Counties Corridor Committee dates to Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce discussions begun around 2007 in response to Maine Department of Transportation studies for expansion of passenger rail in Maine.
The MDOT was conducting a statewide Passenger Rail Plan study and a federally funded study of rail as alternative to traffic congestion on highways north of Portland, known as The Portland North Alternative Modes Project.
At first, the MDOT did not include participation of the communities from Auburn through the western mountain region of Oxford County. State planners at the time were focused on extending rail service along the coast to Brunswick and Rockland. Politicians, businesses and residents from Auburn to Bethel and west to Gorham, N.H., were very vocal that we wanted passenger rail and were not satisfied with state assurances that “we would be next”.
The Bethel Area Chamber initiated discussions with Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, and eventually created a transportation sub-committee of the Chamber on the topic. Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce Subcommittee for Transportation began meeting in 2007.
The invitation list was primarily Chamber members, AVCOG and the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a passenger rail advocacy group based in southern Maine. At first the major topic was the Bethel Station, developed as a stop for eventual passenger rail service between Maine and Montreal. The group did not have a clear agenda or direction beyond engaging in discussions about how a transportation system of rail, bus and other modes of transport could connect Bethel Station to area attractions, including the Sunday River Ski Resort. Within a few years a clear agenda emerged intended for the MDOT and the state’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to include the St. Lawrence & Atlantic rail route between Portland and Montreal for passenger rail service.
The Bethel Area Chamber applied for a foundation grant to pull together a strategy designed to bring to one location a diverse group of decision makers, along with a few key speakers for the purpose of motivating the group to action and advocacy for the return of passenger rail from Portland to Montreal. Funded by the Tillotson Foundation, the BAC Transportation committee hosted the Bethel Rail Rally on Sept. 14, 2011. Individuals and organizations from throughout the western mountain region of Maine and New Hampshire attended the one-day session held at the Bethel Inn in Bethel, Maine.
A series of recommendations and next steps evolved from the rally. One of the recommendations was to formalize the Corridor Committee with bylaws and appointed representatives. Since not every town will have a station, we needed to involve local municipal governments to promote collaboration. An important next step was to draft a resolution of support for each of the towns along the corridor.
Working with the staff of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and the Western Maine Economic Development Council, by the spring of 2013 each municipal government from Mechanic Falls to Bethel had passed a resolution of support. The City Councils of Portland, Lewiston and Auburn passed separate Resolutions in support of expanded passenger rail. In New Hampshire the towns of Gorham, Berlin and Groveton are considering a vote of support.
The Resolution states that;
• The above-referenced county municipalities will meet on a regular basis for the purpose of identifying, exploring, and implementing opportunities for regional collaboration in restoration of passenger rail for economic development; and
• That the report September 14, 2011 Rally for Rail and its recommendations for action, are hereby adopted as the scope of work for the Committee, with modifications and updates by the Committee as necessary; and
• Those Bylaws of the Oxford and Coos Counties Corridor Coalition will be adopted as the operating structure for the Committee.
The resolution is a clear statement of established local support. With the inclusion of the Androscoggin county town of Mechanic Falls, the BAC Transportation Committee evolved to a formal corridor committee with adopted by-laws and is called the Androscoggin-Oxford-Coos Counties Corridor Committee, encompassing the 13 towns signed on to the resolution. The AOCCC has met every month since March, rotating meetings to each of the towns. Meeting materials are sent to every elected local and state official in each of the towns. In general, the AOCCC is now the lead on the project to restore passenger rail to this region.
The AOCCC and its predecessors have found that its work to date is in support of a number of initiatives including proposed passenger rail service between Montreal and Boston on the SLR route. The Sept. 4 meeting is for the purpose of electing officers and to hear from various interests that are engaged in passenger rail proposals for this region. The AOCCC is representative of a regional population that now needs to decide if they want passenger rail service to their respective communities, and what type of investment might be appropriate.
Individuals from organizations representing the following passenger rail proposals have been invited to briefly share an overview of their project. A short review of projects from each follows.
• The Night Train between Montreal and Boston.
A businessman from the Canadian Province of Québec is conducting an assessment of operating a passenger rail service between Montreal and Boston, Mass., referred to as “the Night train” or “Hotel Train”. The concept is based on a service departing Montréal at dinnertime. The train will consist of a locomotive, multiple dining cars, lounge car(s), a coach and up to nine sleeper cars. The operation will be at night and, based on current track conditions, will travel at allowable speeds perhaps not to exceed that of freight train operations on the route. By traveling at night, passengers will not be impacted by the longer travel times as they dine, lounge and sleep on the way.
The train is expected to arrive at the Portland (Maine) Transportation Center in time for connection to the early morning Amtrak Downeaster service to Boston. Upon arrival in Boston travelers, be they for business or tourism will have a fresh morning start to their day. That evening the train will return north to Montreal, switching again from the Downeaster in Portland and arrival in Montreal the beginning of the next day.
The train is expected to make one stop in Bethel, Maine (Oxford County) and possibly one in Sherbrook, Canada (Quebec Province). Passengers coming from Montréal will be able to depart at Bethel and Portland as well as the Amtrak Downeaster stations along the route. Passengers from Maine will have opportunities to board at the Downeaster stops, and in Bethel for service to Montreal. Evaluations of the service proposal are underway. Plans are for an inaugural trip in June 2014.
• The Golden Eagle Railway
Golden Eagle Railway Corp.’s planned regional passenger rail service is gaining momentum. Presentations to members of this committee and town/city officials from Auburn, ME to Berlin, NH have brought a groundswell of political and popular support including written endorsements. A meeting with Portland officials on the introduction of Portland – Auburn/Lewiston commuter rail service was also encouraging for the future.
A revamped version of our planned re-introduction of the Montreal – Portland/Boston luxury service tentatively named L’Acadienne’ is well into the planning stage. The cars for this and the regional trains will be updated at our shops and other rail facilities. Negotiations for passenger rail operating rights are underway. Golden Eagle routes and stops are subject to negotiations and will be released once an agreement has been signed with the host railroads
• Maine-Owned St. Lawrence & Atlantic Portland to Auburn
Based on the MDOT Portland North Alternate Modes Project study (August 2011) the Maine Rail Transit Coalition issued a report in March 2013 that initiated a Legislative Resolution directing the MDOT to seek funding for final engineering and environmental work for the reconstruction of the Maine owned railway between Portland, Maine at the Ocean Gateway facility to as far as the Auburn Municipal Airport. The proposal adopts the MDOT study reports for operating modern Diesel Multiple Unit passenger rail cars on the rail line with eventual connections to Oxford and Coos counties.
In addition to the MDOT directed resolution, the legislature directed MDOT to initiate a study group to evaluate all rail lines in the state for their potential for expansion of passenger rail. Both the funding study and legislative rail plan are expected to be completed by the end of the current legislative session.
• Service Development Plan Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority
NNEPRA, Maine’s rail authority, funded a service development plan in 2011 for expansion of Amtrak service to this region and eventually Montreal.