Downeaster Coastal Connection

NNEPRA Project

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) is exploring the possibility of operating seasonal weekend Downeaster service to mid-coast Maine, to include the communities of Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland.  Passenger service has not operated on this line since the Maine Eastern Railroad ceased operations in 2016.

The Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) owns the rail line between Brunswick and Rockland (Rockland Branch) and has contracted with the Central Maine and Quebec Railroad (CMQ) to be the line operator.  The CMQ only operates freight service, but is able to contract with other operators, such as Amtrak, to operate passenger service. 

Because the Downeaster currently terminates/originates three of its five round trips in Brunswick, and houses train sets in Brunswick overnight, the potential exists for Amtrak to operate weekend seasonal Coastal service using the existing equipment pool and crews used to operate the Downeaster service. 

In January, NNEPRA proposed operating the “Downeaster Coastal Connection” for 10-weekends, beginning on June 30, 2018 through September 3, 2018.  The estimated operating cost of the service was $200,000.  The service is expected to transport approximately 7,000 riders and generate approximately $120,000 in revenue.  The remaining operating costs were expected to be covered with the surplus funding from NNEPRA’s FY2018 budget. 

The NNEPRA Board of Directors, at its meeting on February 26, acknowledged the significant public support for the pilot program for passenger rail service to Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle, and Rockland this summer.    Very recent changes in Amtrak’s national policy concerning operating trains in “dark” territory, however, now require an additional level of review before Amtrak is able to commit to operating the service.   This is expected to delay the start of the proposed “Coastal Connection” service by approximately one month. 

Additionally the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) provided a letter reiterating it would not approve any State or federal funding to support the passenger operations on the Rockland Branch.  The letter further stated that the MaineDOT is conducting an assessment of bridges on the Rockland Branch, which may limit the speed of passenger trains.   Given these considerations, the Board voted to propose an alternative to MaineDOT which is to operate a three-weekend pilot in August.  The objective is to focus on what is anticipated to be the highest ridership demand period and recover operating costs through the farebox.  This pilot, although brief, will provide an opportunity to evaluate demand for the Coastal Connection service and further explore what, if any, future investments which may be needed or wanted to optimize the service.   

On March 26, Amtrak provided notification to NNEPRA that they are unable to complete the risk assessment of the Rockland Branch in time for passenger rail service in 2018.  Amtrak is committed to working with NNEPRA to put together a program for calendar year 2019.  NNEPRA plans to convene a meeting of all stakeholders in late April or early May to begin planning for next year.  

Additional information will be provided when it is available.

 

Public meetings to discuss the project and receive public input were held:

January 22, 2018              Newcastle Board of Selectman, 7:00pm

January 24, 2018              Rockland, Council Chambers, 5:30pm

January 29, 2018              NNEPRA Board of Directors Meeting, 1:00pm, USM, Portland 

January 30, 2018              Wiscasset Board of Selectman, 6:00pm

February 14, 2018             Bath, Council Chambers, 6:00pm

February 26, 2018             NNEPRA Board of Directors Meeting, 1:00pm, USM, Portland