A pilot program that will extend seasonal passenger rail service on Amtrak’s Downeaster north from Brunswick to Rockland won approval Monday for three weekends this summer.
The board of the rail authority tasked with managing the state’s contract with Amtrak’s Downeaster service voted Monday to go forward with a shortened version of a pilot program that was proposed last fall, according to Brian Hobart, a member of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) board of directors.
Monday’s vote gave the OK to move forward with planning for the pilot program, which includes running tests on the rail line between Brunswick and Rockland, as well as training Amtrak staff.
The seasonal extension would add stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland on a limited weekend schedule. While the program, the Downeaster Coastal Connection, was originally slated to run for 10 weeks this summer, the board voted to allow the pilot program to run only for three weekends in August due to limited funding, Hobart said.
On Monday, the NNEPRA board received a letter from Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt saying that MDOT would not approve the use of additional state or federal funds for NNEPRA to extend its rail service during the current fiscal year or the 2019 fiscal year, which begins in July 2018.
“I would respectfully advise NNEPRA staff and interested municipalities along the Rockland Branch line to explore alternative funding sources that would not add to the state’s current commitment,” Bernhardt wrote.
With the two of the three identified August weekends being festival weekends, Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail authority, expressed confidence that ridership fees would fund this year’s pilot program.
The board approved train runs to Rockland during the weekends of the Maine Lobster Festival and the Maine Home, Boats and Harbor Show ― both of which are held in Rockland.
The next round of approval will have to come from the MaineDOT, which approves NNEPRA’s budget and owns the rail line between Brunswick and Rockland. Quinn did not know exactly when the plan will go before MaineDOT for consideration
“I think they hope to get it kind of nailed down as soon as possible,” Quinn said. “We need a level of certainty to move forward.”
NNEPRA has billed the pilot program as a way for the authority to build on existing infrastructure and bring tourists from Boston north to midcoast Maine during the summer.
The tentative schedule for the pilot program 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.
The extension would use existing rail infrastructure up the coast that used to host passenger rail service, though now primarily caters to freight trains.
State transportation officials are evaluating the condition of rail bridges across the state, and an evaluation of the bridges on the Rockland branch has not yet been completed, according to the letter from Bernhardt. Early indications show that speeds on certain bridges on the Rockland branch may be limited for passenger rail service, the letter states.
Bernhardt anticipates the evaluation of the Rockland branch will be completed this spring.
Quinn said that the bridge conditions requiring slow speeds has already been worked into the tentative extension schedule.
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