Brunswick train facility debate rolls on, despite 'reset'

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BRUNSWICK — Although the fate of a proposed Amtrak layover facility is in the state’s hands, the Town Council on Monday heard arguments in support of the project and suggested other ways to deal with train idling.

Council chambers were nearly full of members of the public for a presentation by Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

Quinn told councilors she wants to “hit the reset button” on the facts surrounding the proposed facility.

The proposed project has sparked much public debate, including an extensive public hearing before the state Department of Environmental Protection on its recent storm-water permit application.

Some of the facts Quinn hoped to “reset” have to do with uncertainty over the facility’s future operations. She said the layover facility would only be used for routine cleaning and turnaround service, and not for “heavy maintenance.”

She also said the public had been involved in the site selection for the process, and that “community involvement really made a difference.” She cited noise insulation, welded construction, and low-impact lighting as some changes that resulted from public input.

Quinn stressed that without any other “additional investment,” Amtrak would be able to increase the number of Downeaster trains it runs between Brunswick and Boston if the layover facility is constructed.

NNEPRA has negotiated 10 “slots” with Pan Am Railways, the track operator, for Downeaster trains. According to Quinn, two of those slots are currently being used as “deadhead runs.”

Right now, trains have to go back to Portland for overnight cleaning and service after their last run. That means they run empty from Brunswick at the end of the day, and then empty again the next morning.

The layover facility would allow that overnight servicing to happen in Brunswick, eliminating the two deadhead runs, she said.

Quinn said eliminating those two runs would allow the Downeaster to operate a third run between Brunswick and Boston in the middle of the day.

“It’s the same number of trains, but more revenue service,” she said.

Of great concern to councilors was the issue of idling on the tracks. Current trains idle in Brunswick between their afternoon and evening runs to stay in one slot, Quinn said.

Councilor Stephen Walker asked Quinn about suggestions the facility would actually increase idling and bring in outside train service besides the Downeaster. She denied that, saying that trains would only run for about 15 minutes before powering down in the indoor facility and for a similar time before leaving.

Quinn also said NNEPRA is committed to building a 480-volt head-end power station as an interim solution to the idling. She said the agency had not moved forward with the project earlier, because it had not expected construction of the layover facility to be delayed by the storm-water permit approval process.

Bids on the head-end power station are due April 30, she said.

There is also pressure to reduce idling at the state level.

In February, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, sponsored LD 439, “An Act To Prohibit Excessive Idling of Passenger Trains.” That bill is currently in the Transportation Committee.

Councilor Dan Harris expressed concern that the construction of the layover facility would bring more train lines to Brunswick, such as trains operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

But in a phone interview Tuesday, Quinn said MBTA maintenance at the layover facility is “absolutely, positively, unequivocally not going to happen. The MBTA is not going to service their trains in Brunswick Maine.”

Near the end of the discussion, Councilor John Perreault said he has proposed an agenda item for the May 4 council meeting to consider requesting NNEPRA to build a “wayside station” in Brunswick.

Perreault said according to people he had spoken with, trains could shut down above 45 degrees when plugged into an outdoor wayside station, and go into a “low idle” below 45 degrees.

“I’m asking the council to send a letter requesting NNEPRA to establish a wayside system,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, he said his motion is meant to help reduce the “idling situation” in Brunswick, which was a directive from the Transportation Committee.

On Tuesday, Quinn said she had had no independent conversations with Perreault, and was not quite sure what a wayside station would entail.

“I think what it means is 480-volt power and compressed air,” she said. She reiterated that NNEPRA is committed to supplying 480-volt power, and that the board is looking into compressed air, too.

“People try to give some silver bullet and it’s not that easy,” Quinn said.

She said the only way to get trains to shut down in Brunswick is the indoor facility. “When (a train) is inside a facility, you have mechanics, you have tools, other people around to monitor,” she said. “There’s resources in the building – out there, there’s no protection whatsoever.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.