To Rockland by Rail and Beyond
By Greg Rössel
Passing Bowdoinham. Photograph by George Melvin / Maine Eastern Railroad.Right on time, Maine Eastern Railroad engineer Terry Maschino eased open the throttle of General Motors locomotive #489 and the train pulled out of Rockland station on its way to Augusta via Brunswick, (the “Lower Road”) and back -- a passenger trip that has not been made in many years.
This particular pre-season run was sponsored by the Maine Rail Group, the 470 Railroad Club, and Maine Eastern Railroad. While the tour would offer a ride over some little-seen track, more importantly, the trip was a celebration of recent passage of legislation that calls for the extension by year 2010 of the Amtrak Downeaster route from Portland to Brunswick, with continuing service all the way to Rockland (and eventually to Augusta) via Maine Eastern -- an event, which even only a few years ago, would not have seemed possible. Maine Eastern Railroad operates a year-round freight line and seasonal passenger excursion train from May through October on the 57-mile-long Rockland Branch of the old Maine Central Railroad. The train is outfitted with fully restored vintage coaches and locomotives. With regular service between Rockland and Brunswick, (the train also picks up passengers in Bath and Wiscasset), the line offers passengers a view of the terrain, waters, and villages of the Midcoast region that harkens back to an earlier Maine, when the state was less dominated by the automobile.
Crossing a stream near Hallowell. Photograph byFast forward to 2008 -- As our train passed over the Androscoggin River on its way to Augusta, Gordon Page, Vice President and Director of Passenger Operations for Maine Eastern reflected on the growth of the Rockland Branch since the rails on the line were upgraded in 2003 by the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT). Maine Eastern began offering passenger service shortly after its entry into the market as a freight operation. “Railroads are back -- some call it the renaissance of rail,” said Page enthusiastically. “Rapidly rising gasoline prices have resulted in new calls for mass transit, and commuter rail services all over the country are experiencing an influx of new riders. With the upgrade of the 28-mile-long track to Portland, Amtrak Downeaster passenger service is projected to arrive in Brunswick in 2010 with 2 to 3 round trips daily. Maine Eastern is set to provide continuing service to Rockland with an “across-the-platform” transfer from one railroad to the other. Later, as the rail on the “Lower Road” is upgraded, service will be offered to Augusta.” The company is projecting a third year of double-digit increases in passenger counts. As diesel costs approach $5 per gallon, Page is equally bullish on the line’s freight business. “Because of the lower cost per ton mile, short-line railroads like Maine Eastern will find themselves in a better position with shippers,” he noted. There seem to be an abundance of statistics on the business of moving steel wheels over steel rails that support this optimistic outlook. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Amtrak's passenger trains are 18 percent more efficient per passenger mile than commercial airline flights. Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn noted that “one double track railroad can move as much as 14 lanes of highway” and suggested that passenger rail is an economic engine that attracts business, employees, and tourists to Maine. Meanwhile, on the cargo side of things, the numbers from the Association of American Railroads note that (on average) that railroads are three or more times more fuel efficient than trucks – as they can move a ton of freight 423 miles for each gallon of fuel they consume. All things considered, the cost advantage of rail vs. over-the-road trucking (especially for bulk commodities) starts to look even better North to Augusta – and back – As the train rolled northward it soon became evident that this was an unusual event for residents along the route as they photographed the train and showed their waving children an example of what used to a common sight just a half century earlier. Progress was slower here as the track has not yet been upgraded to the continuous welded track of the Rockland branch. From the Androscoggin, the track was once again rural, following the Cathance River and Merrymeeting Bay into Bowdoinham. As we came into Richmond, the riders started to get a better view of the expanse of the Kennebec River and Swan Island. North of Richmond, the track closely hugged the west shore of the Kennebec through Gardner, past the historic homes and businesses of Hallowell, all the way into the outskirts of Augusta. After Augusta, the train returned to Hallowell, where the Maine Rail Group had their annual meeting at the City Hall. Then, retracing the route with a new rail crew on board, we retreated south down the river, back across the Carlton Bridge and west into the lengthening shadows of the setting sun, which made for great wildlife spotting on the marshes. As the train rolled into Rockland in the twilight hours, some dozing passengers awoke and others wound up conversations, swapped addresses, and gathered belongings. One could imagine this scene in 1920 with happy summer coastal rusticators finishing this leg of their escape from the steamy south lands -- free from care and their cranky automobile. Soon, nearly 90 years later, they will be able to do it again. As Gordon Page would say, “Always expect a train!” Maine Eastern Railroad www.maineeasternrailroad.com 866-ME-RAILS 207-596-6725 Amtrak Downeaster www.thedowneaster.com tickets, reservations 1 800 USA RAIL http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak Other Railroads: Downeast Scenic Railroad--Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust PO Box 950 Bar Harbor, Maine 04609 1-866-449-RAIL (7245) www.downeastscenicrail.org/maineshorehistory.htm Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum 97 Cross Road/P.O. Box 242 Alna, Maine 04535 www.wwfry.org The Seashore Trolley Museum 195 Log Cabin Road Kennebunkport, ME 04046 (207) 967-2712 www.trolleymuseum.org Boothbay Railway Village 586 Wiscasset Road Boothbay, ME 04537 207 633-4727 www.railwayvillage.org Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad SR&RL, P.O. Box B, Phillips, ME 04966 http://www.srrl-rr.org Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum 58 Fore St. Portland Maine 04101 207- 828-0814 http://www.mngrr.org/indexa.php
George Melvin / Maine Eastern Railroad.
George Melvin / Maine Eastern Railroad.