ROCKLAND, Maine ― Amtrak’s passenger rail service might extend as far up the coast as Rockland during the next month, as rail authorities conduct a test program to see whether it’s viable.
Earlier this fall, the New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) announced that it was exploring plans to extend Downeaster passenger rail service from Brunswick to Rockland on a limited weekend schedule from May to September.
The authority’s goal is to launch the extended service in 2018. The weekend seasonal service would include stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland. Currently, the Downeaster service stops in Brunswick.
Because the pilot program is still in early planning stages, NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said all plans are tentative and further details will be released as they are available.
A fare scale for the extended service has not yet been released, but standard rates for a Boston-to-Brunswick Downeaster trip are $30 one-way and $60 for a round-trip.
The December test runs will help determine if the tentative service schedule is viable and if infrastructure along the route can accommodate an extension of Downeaster service.
Quinn did not disclose the tentative time schedule for the seasonal service. However, officials in cities where the extended service would reach have been told there is a tentative time schedule for departures and arrivals.
If the trial runs show that the pilot project is viable, the next step for NNEPRA would be holding community meetings in the communities where stops are proposed.
The pilot project was announced as one of NNEPRA’s goals for 2018. The proposal to extend service north from Brunswick comes after the rail authority reported that the Downeaster had exceeded ridership goals for its most recent fiscal year.
Maine Eastern Railroad previously ran passenger rail service from Brunswick to Rockland, however that service ceased in 2015 and has not been replaced.
NNEPRA has been in contact with the four municipalities that would be stops along the extended service to gauge their willingness to make any updates necessary at their respective train stations or platforms.
Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said city councilors were receptive to the idea of restoring passenger rail service to Rockland, even if on a limited excursion basis.
The service being explored would largely be geared toward weekend tourism and excursions. The trip from Boston to Brunswick on the Downeaster takes about three hours. While there is no time estimate provided by Amtrak for the Brunswick-to-Rockland route, that trip on the Maine Eastern Railroad’s service took between two and three hours ― meaning the total length of the trip from Boston to Rockland could be around six hours.
By bus, the trip from Boston to Rockland takes just over four hours.
Based on Rockland officials’ conversations with NNEPRA, Luttrell said the tentative plan is for the Rockland stop to be located at the end of Pleasant Street, where the former train station is located. Since that building, owned by the Department of Transportation, is currently occupied by Trackside Station restaurant, Luttrell said the stop in Rockland would likely be a platform next to the former station.
Luttrell said the state owns the area where the Rockland Downeaster stop would be, so it is not clear who would be responsible for any necessary upgrades.
In Bath, city officials are excited about the prospect of adding passenger rail to the list of ways folks can experience the coastal city.
“We’re ecstatic about the idea of passenger rail,” Acting Bath City Manager Peter Owen said.
Owen said Bath renovated its train station on Commercial Street about nine years ago with the intention of being able to receive passenger rail. But outside of a service that briefly ran from Bath to Rockland, Bath hasn’t had the chance to use its revamped station.
With the station in good shape, Owen said minor upgrades might be needed for a platform ramp.
While NNEPRA hopes to bring this pilot project to fruition for summer 2018, there are still many logistics to flesh out before the project is set in stone.
“We’re sort of on hold to hear from them for their plans for going ahead,” Owen said. “This is not a done deal. We are just in the planning stages.”
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