BRUNSWICK — Passenger rail officials are testing tracks from Brunswick to Rockland for a possible extension of Downeaster service from Boston.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, last week said the operation is in its early stages, and whether the proposal can move forward is contingent upon the condition of the tracks.
Service from Boston now ends in Brunswick. If the Rockland extension comes to fruition, Quinn said NNEPRA hopes to begin service by next Memorial Day and have it run through Columbus Day.
The Maine Department of Transportation owns the Rockland station; passenger rail service between Brunswick and Rockland was suspended in 2015 after the state ended its contract with Maine Eastern Railroad. For the past two years, Central Maine & Quebec Railway has been operating freight service on the line.
“This is truly just a preliminary evaluation,” Quinn said. “We’ve determined that based on our equipment rotation we would be able to extend a couple trips up there, but it has to go through a lot of other levels.”
Among other things, Quinn said, NNEPRA must evaluate the Rockland train station for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We’re also waiting for cost proposals from Amtrak, so once we put all of those things together, hopefully we’ll have a fairly decent service plan,” she said. “Then we can kind of go out into the communities a little more publicly after the first of the year and say, this is what we think we can do.”
She said a key factor is determining if the trip can be made in two hours, since the initiative is based on existing train service and not adding new trips. If test runs with find the schedule is not feasible, Quinn said, extending the route to Rockland likely would not happen.
“If we can make it work without being a heavy lift in terms of cost, then we’ll do it,” she said.
The extension would add another element to train-related discussions in Brunswick, where the debate over noise and impacts from Amtrak’s train layover facility in the Bouchard Drive-Stanwood Street neighborhood has been raging since before it opened last year. Quinn was present last week at a Town Council workshop on the issue.
If the Rockland extension is approved, Quinn said the Friday evening train from Boston, which now arrives in Brunswick at 8:30 p.m. to be stored at the layover facility, would not reach Rockland until 10:30 p.m. The train would then return to Brunswick at approximately 12:30 a.m. to be stored overnight.
“So yes, it would come back a little later,” she said.
She added the rest of the trips would occur in the daytime, including train 694, which departs Brunswick at 11:30 a.m., but would need to come out of the layover facility at 7:30 a.m. on the extended route.
Quinn said if the tracks between Brunswick and Rockland are usable, Brunswick will be among the towns, along with Rockland, Newcastle, Wiscasset and Bath, where the rail authority will hold public meetings to get feedback, possibly as soon as January.
“I think we’d go to all of the communities that are going to be impacted,” she said. “Brunswick is actually not going to be impacted all that much because trains are basically going to operate on the same schedule, so it’s no more or less trains through the area.”
Quinn said the rail authority sees value in the route because of the high level of summer traffic between Boston and Maine, and the train’s ability to boost the local economy.
“I mean, obviously we would want to take advantage of summer season as much as we could to try and really support the economy and the tourism community up the coast,” she said, “because they found rail travel in the past to be a benefit and a positive to them.”
Train tracks outside the Amtrak layover facility in Brunswick, which opened last November. Downeaster service that now ends in Brunswick could be extended to Rockland.