Southern corridor key to Maine’s rail viability

15 years ago
Staff photo/Kathy McCarty

    MOVING PRODUCTS by rail from one point to another in New England is dependent on properly maintained systems. A meeting Dec. 15 in Presque Isle provided state and local officials and business leaders an opportunity to continue discussing ways to enhance the state’s rail service — both passenger and freight. Using graphics like this map depicting rail corridors in the Northeast, Dennis Coffey, manager, HNTB Corp., an infrastructure consulting firm, explained the importance of maintaining a rail corridor from Maine to the rest of New England, in order to provide access to markets for goods produced throughout the state, including products from Aroostook County.



By Kathy McCarty
Staff Writer

    PRESQUE ISLE — Getting to any southern destination from Aroostook County via rail requires properly maintained rail lines in southern Maine, according to officials who spoke at a Dec. 15 presentation at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on the future of Maine’s rail service. Maine, Maritime and Atlantic’s announcement earlier this year that it was considering discontinuing rail service from Millinocket to the St. John Valley, due to poor economic conditions, has officials scrambling to come up with a solution that will ensure service continues throughout the state.
    Taking part in the presentation were: Nathan Moulton, project manager, Maine Department of Transportation; Carol Morris, Morris Communications; and Dennis Coffey, manager, HNTB Corp., an infrastructure consulting firm.
    Morris opened the meeting, welcoming those in attendance.
    “We’re here to provide a snapshot of the state of rail service in Maine,” said Morris, noting the goal was to “gain input,” with recommendations going to state officials for what improvements need to be made to rail service in Maine over the next five to 15 years.
    Moulton reviewed what had taken place since the last rail meeting in Presque Isle. Discussions continue on which rail corridors best serve the needs of the state.
    “Talks continue on the critical corridors in the state and the methodology” used in determining which route best serves Maine businesses and citizens, said Moulton.
    Moulton said meetings throughout the state in recent weeks have been held in an effort to “spur public input.”
    Morris said their was a “commonality in the state.”
    “All wanted rail service, passenger service and they all said they needed it more than anyone in the state,” Morris said, adding much of the feedback focused on how economic investment and development potential depended on access to dependable rail service.
    Morris stressed the importance of having a reliable rail system throughout the New England region, not just within the state.
    “Without connections, Maine would be isolated,” she said. “The business community needs more freight on rail lines to make economic development feasible.”
    Coffey said talks were “getting down to the nitty gritty.”
    Key findings included input from shippers on what goals they’d like to see achieved, said Coffey.
    “The goal is to find help or find a way to provide the state with the tools to address (rail) needs that lead to finding a solution,” said Coffey.
    A number of trends, according to Coffey, were defined based on information garnered at recent statewide meetings.
    “Trends included a decline in freight tonnage, changing markets along north-south routes that are affected by multiple rail carriers, east-west is primarily through traffic and trucking dominates the region, offering timely, affordable delivery,” said Coffey.
    He said current rail service is “highly capital intensive.”
    “It’s tough for the rail industry to make quick improvements and to maintain the system,” Coffey said.
    Traffic density is important to rail systems, noted Coffey.
    “Maine’s is largely to the south but is very light (compared to the rest of New England),” he said. “Maine was 48th in the nation for car loads in 2007.”
    The economic downturn between 2007-09 only exacerbated the problem, said Coffey, noting the pulp and paper industry was still the dominant user of rail in Maine, but a declining market has taken its toll.
    “Regional connectivity is imperative,” said Coffey. “Northeast regional connectivity and Maritime traffic are very important” to a viable rail service.
    Coffey said an economic team is trying to determine what’s moving by truck and ways to get it on rail. Passenger rail is growing in popularity in the state, he said, with Amtrak’s Downeaster having the best growth record in the Amtrak System, but “what’s needed is stable, predictable funding” to keep the system operational and to promote growth.
    With growth in mind, Coffey said officials are looking at a “critical corridor approach.”
    “It’s a five-year plan but we’re looking at long-term, 20 years or more. The corridor would provide concentrated services and serve as a multiple connection gateway,” said Coffey.
    Coffey said the “strategic vision focused on freight rail service.”
    “The real purpose of running trains is to move goods. Passenger rail’s objective is to improve safety and security. Both involve enhancing the quality of service,” said Coffey.
    Coffey said focusing improvement efforts in southern Maine was necessary to better serve the entire state. Without an adequate rail system in southern Maine, he said improvements to the system in northern Maine would be pointless.
    “You have to be able to move things from point A to point B. If you can’t do that efficiently and economically, then it doesn’t matter how good rail lines are in Aroostook,” said Coffey.
    “We could have a gold-plated railroad in the state, but if New Hampshire’s line isn’t maintained, it diminishes the value of Maine’s service,” added Moulton.
    Coffey and Moulton went on to discuss the matter with audience members, indicating talks will continue and solutions will be sought to resolve the issues affecting Maine’s rail service, including the possibility of obtaining grants to fund improvements.


ImageStaff photo/Kathy McCarty
    DENNIS COFFEY, manager, HNTB Corp., an infrastructure consulting firm, was one of several officials on hand for a meeting at the University of Maine at Presque Isle Dec. 15 discussing the State Rail Plan with business and municipal leaders from across Aroostook County. Discussion focused on the importance of maintaining the rail corridor between Maine and the rest of New England.