ROCKLAND, Maine ― The news that Amtrak is looking to extend passenger rail service to Rockland was met with cautious optimism Thursday. The extension could bring an economic boon for the city, but similar plans have fallen through in the past.
Amtrak on Wednesday announced its vision for a nationwide expansion of service by 2035, which would be buoyed by President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The expansion plan did not include specifics about the type of passenger rail service for each new route it is exploring, but it did indicate that Amtrak would be interested in extending Maine’s Downeaster line north from Brunswick to Rockland. Passenger rail service hasn’t been available along this route for more than five years.
Excitement has been generated in the city in recent years by other plans to extend the Downeaster to Rockland for summer weekend service. While those plans have fallen through, folks are hopeful that this most recent sign of interest from Amtrak will finally bring rail service back to the city.
“For me personally, I feel like it would be really important and something that would be great for the community,” Rockland Main Street Inc. Executive Director David Gogel said. “Cautious optimism would be the right phrasing.”
Through the Downeaster line, which is managed by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Amtrak currently offers service in Wells, Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Freeport and Brunswick.
While the extension to Rockland was included in a map released with Amtrak’s plan, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn said no official expansion plans have been set in stone.
“What Amtrak put forward is a visionary inventory of what’s possible in the country. They can’t in and of themselves just establish service,” Quinn said. “It’s a conversation starter, and I think that’s an important piece.”
Passenger rail service was last offered in Rockland in 2015, when the Maine Eastern Railroad discontinued the seasonal service it began offering in 2003. Between 2017 and 2019, Amtrak announced it would offer seasonal service along the Brunswick-Rockland line on several occasions. However, those plans never came to fruition because safety assessments of the route and contracts could not be flushed out.
Given the boost that Rockland-area tourism would get from people being able to travel to the city by train, the possibility of service returning is an attractive one, according to Gordon Page, who previously served as the vice president for the Maine Eastern Railroad and the executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc.
But Page said he’d be surprised if Amtrak followed through with the plan, given that a contract of use would need to be flushed out with the freight train line that currently operates on the route and infrastructure investments likely be necessary.
“It no doubt would be an economic driver for the midcoast,” Page said. “But there are a lot of challenges there.”
Others find this latest sign of interest from Amtrak more promising than previous ones. Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis said he feels that Biden’s infrastructure plan playing a role in Amtrak’s expansion plan might make it more likely to happen.
Under Biden’s infrastructure plan, Amtrak would receive $80 billion with which the rail service said it could create more than 30 new routes and connect 160 more communities, and expand or improve rail service for nearly 20 million people.
“Maybe the environment is right now in a way that it wasn’t two or three years ago,” Davis said.
Tourism aside, Davis and Gogel said rail service would be a huge benefit for the existing community when it comes to traveling south to other communities along the Downeaster line. However, it is unclear the level of service that Rockland will receive in terms of whether there will be daily trains, or just seasonal service.
“I think it’s a great way for families to travel our state and experience these different communities,” Gogel said. “Based on our goal for the community, a consistent schedule is what I would love to see.”
One of the main concerns that have been brought up in recent years regarding rail service in Rockland is that the railroad runs close to residential neighborhoods. Some people have worried that setup could result in trains idling behind homes. However, Davis feels these are problems that could be mitigated with careful planning.
“I think that anything that makes travel to and from the midcoast ― especially without a car ― convenient is a good thing, economically, environmentally and culturally,” Davis said. “This is still a little ways out, but I’m thrilled about the possibility.”