Seasonal passenger rail service from Boston might be the latest way that tourists can get to Rockland, and residents of the coastal city are showing support for the plans, despite a proposed schedule geared more to the needs of tourists than Mainers.
The rail group that manages the state’s contract with the Amtrak Downeaster service floated plans this fall for the possible extension of the current line from Brunswick to Rockland on a limited schedule during summer.
The pilot program, the Downeaster Coastal Connection, would establish stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland. The extension would utilize existing rail infrastructure up the coast that used to host passenger rail service, though now primarily caters to freight trains.
With a final decision on whether the program will happen slated for March, the rail group ― the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) ― is holding presentations in each of the communities where the service would stop.
“We think this will really help put the midcoast on the map,” Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA, said to a packed room of Rockland area residents Wednesday night.
Quinn billed the pilot program as a possible “economic engine” for the midcoast, attracting riders not just from New England, but from the mid-Atlantic states and elsewhere in Amtrak’s national system.
She said the Coastal Connection would play well into NNEPRA’s push for train travel to Maine, especially benefiting the midcoast area where weekend traffic on Route 1 might deter motorists from making the trip.
“I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity for Rockland and Camden and the midcoast,” Tom Wilhite, of Camden said. “I think it’s really exciting and I hope it happens.”
The tentative schedule begins on Fridays, with a train departing Boston at 5 p.m., arriving in Rockland at 10:10 p.m., before departing Rockland at 10:20 p.m., and arriving back in Boston at 12:15 a.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, two trains would make the trip to Rockland, with the first leaving Brunswick at 7:50 a.m. arriving in Rockland at 9:45 a.m., before departing for Boston with a 3:30 p.m. arrival time. The second train would leave Boston at 9:45 a.m., arriving in Rockland at 3:10 p.m., then departing for Boston with a 9:30 p.m. arrival time.
While generally supportive of the pilot project, some residents pointed out that the schedule lacks flexibility for midcoast residents looking to go south.
“I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s a great opportunity for Rockland,” Doug Curtis, said. “But I don’t think the schedule, from our side going to Boston, is as friendly as it is for people coming from Boston.”
Residents floated the idea of a Thursday train. Quinn did not reject that possibility, but said the tentative schedule is simply “testing the waters” to see if there’s enough interest. While the goal would be to have the program run from May until September, if the project is approved, it likely wouldn’t begin until July.
Business owners at the meeting welcomed the prospect of tourists having a new way to get to the coastal city. While some residents aired concerns about potential noise and pollution from the trains, the economic pros it could bring seemed to outweigh the cons. Nearly every person in the room raised their hands when a Rockland resident called an informal show of support.
“I live right next to the tracks,” Betsy Rich said. “It doesn’t bother me to have the trains going and shooting their whistles off because it means people coming to Rockland. It means Rockland having freight moving through. It means jobs. It means people spending money in this town. We need this to work.”
Maine Eastern Railroad used to run excursions from Brunswick to Rockland, but those trains stopped in 2015.
Steve Grasso, a contracted travel package organizer for the Downeaster, said there is great potential for the midcoast to support passenger rail, so long as the local communities and business work together to make an arrangement work.
“You’ve got a great product up here,” Grasso said. “You’re going to reach gazilions of people.”
But similarly to how Rockland is handling the influx of cruise ships to its port, City Councilor Amelia Magjik warned that the city must carefully consider accepting the return of passenger rail service.
“It’s very clear that Rockland is in a place that is ripe for economic development,” she said.
“At the same time, in the long run what does it cost us to openly welcome every opportunity that comes to us?”
NNEPRA said test runs, initially slated for earlier this month, will likely happen in March. The towns the extended train service will be stopping in are responsible for the cost of any upgrades that are necessary at the existing stations.
The Rockland stop will be at the end of Pleasant Street. Since a restaurant is currently occupying the former station, City Manager Tom Luttrell said the Rockland stop will likely just be a platform.
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