ROCKLAND, Maine — A new operator is expected to take over the Rockland to Brunswick rail line at the end of the year, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
An executive with the company that has run the line for the past 12 years said he is extremely disappointed with the state’s decision to switch operators, saying it will likely mean an end to passenger service along that stretch of track.
Earlier this year, the Maine Department of Transportation solicited proposals to determine what interest there was in continuing freight transportation and perhaps expanding passenger service on that stretch of line.
After reviewing the only two bids submitted, the Maine Department of Transportation selected Central Maine & Quebec Railway to operate the line, according to department spokesman Ted Talbot. He said there was no state money available, however, to subsidize an expansion of passenger service.
The department is negotiating terms of the 10-year contract with the Hermon-based Central Maine & Quebec Railway, with the lease expected to take effect Jan. 1, 2016, Talbot said.
Central Maine will replace Maine Eastern Railroad, which has operated the line since 2003. The new operator will be responsible for maintaining the tracks just as the old operator had been required to do.
Nate Moulton, director of rail programs for the Department of Transportation, said Thursday that the four members of the selection committee were unanimous in the decision to go with Central Maine. He said terms of the proposals remain confidential until a contract is signed.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Chuck Jensen, the vice president and chief operating officer for Maine Eastern Railroad, said Thursday.
He said nine employees of Maine Eastern will lose their jobs because of the decision. Maine Eastern is a subsidiary of Morristown & Erie Railway from Morristown, New Jersey.
Jensen said he also was frustrated and puzzled that the state never once called Maine Eastern after proposals were submitted to ask questions about his company’s package. He also said that the state repeatedly said a main reason it was seeking proposals was to encourage expanded passenger service, yet Central Maine & Quebec is not offering passenger service. Jensen said Maine Eastern had laid out a proposal to offer year-round passenger service that would be able to connect with the Amtrak Downeaster in Brunswick.
He acknowledged that would have required a state subsidy but said the amount would have been based on what level of service was negotiated.
Moulton said the requests for proposals sent out by the state required an operator to be committed to working with a passenger operator and provide terms for hosting a passenger operation if the company did not submit a passenger proposal of its own. He said Central Maine met that condition.
Maine Eastern currently offers tourist excursion runs during the summer along the nearly 57-mile route. The bulk of its business, however, is carrying freight.
“We have given [Maine Eastern] the opportunity to continue their current excursion/charter operations or other passenger operations on the line. We have not offered to subsidize it,” Moulton said.
The largest source of revenue for Maine Eastern has been its freight service, and Dragon Products is by far its largest customer. 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.
Another customer of Maine Eastern is Dicaperl Minerals, formerly known as Chemrock, on Buttermilk Lane in Thomaston. Maine Eastern also does some business with Bath Iron Works.
The line has operated with freight traffic since May 1990, five years after Maine Central Railroad abandoned the spur. The state awarded a contract in November 2000 to Atlas Railroad Construction for $22.6 million to upgrade the tracks to handle passenger trains. That work was completed in 2002, and passenger trains resumed running on the Rockland line in 2004.
Central Maine has a lot of experience running short lines, Talbot said.
Email and telephone messages left Wednesday evening and Thursday morning for Central Maine & Quebec officials were not returned.
Central Maine & Quebec Railway was created in 2014, when Railroad Acquisition Holdings, the affiliate of New York-based investment firm Fortress Investment Group bought the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which was in bankruptcy.
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Bangor in August 2013, a month after one of its trains rolled driverless down a hill before derailing in the middle of the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and causing an explosion that killed 47 people.