Wiscasset selectmen

‘Jump start’ of passenger rail to Wiscasset, Rockland

Thu, 08/03/2023 - 8:45am

    Passenger rail is returning to Wiscasset with weekend trips planned soon, a Damariscotta man told Wiscasset selectmen Aug. 1. The “Coastliner” Brunswick-Rockland rail line is an “informed experiment,” George Betke said. Betke is a founder and vice president of Midcoast Railservice, which he said leased the line from Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) a year ago. 

    Since then, the trips have carried freight, like recent predecessors’ trains did. “The next step ... is to bring back the passenger train,” Betke said. “Not in the sense that you may have envisioned from the past, but to try to turn ... a huge public investment of funds in the rehabilitation of this line about 20 years ago, into a more valuable public asset.”

    Betke has lived in Damariscotta next to the Rockland Branch rail line for 30 years. “And as a person with a background in finance and railroad creation and management, it has always bothered me to see such a good physical property with so little running on it.” Maine Eastern Railroad’s passenger service on the branch ended in 2015 after the state went with Central Maine and Quebec Railway for the next lease, according to Wiscasset Newspaper files.

    A MaineDOT spokesman, Damian Veilleux, explained in email responses to questions Aug. 2, Canadian Pacific (CP) then operated the line, “as they inherited the lease for rail operations when they purchased the Central Maine and Quebec Railway.  The lease ran through 2025 and CP was not interested in operating the Rockland Branch long-term. MaineDOT worked with CP to assign the lease and operating agreement to a new qualified (operator) better suited to the line and Midcoast (Railservice) had approached CP about operating the line and assignment of the remainder of the current lease through 2025. This assignment was agreed to by MaineDOT.”

    Betke said instead of starting with a feasibility study that tends to yield a “gigantic” stack of paper with predictions seldom accurate, Midcoast Railservice is “going to get a better answer by trying something in real life.”  The diesel, self-propelled train would have its first public passenger runs Aug. 4-6 at the Lobster Festival, making four short trips a day, about an hour and 10 minutes, along the Thomaston waterfront and to South Pond in Warren  “to try to expose as much of the interested public as attends the event to what we have to offer to all the communities on the line.”

    Due to insurance requirements and other reasons, the line has to start as excursion operator, Betke said. “It would be nice to be able to sell a ticket anywhere here to go to Boston, Washington or wherever,” but for now, the line will likely start offering Friday, Saturday and Sunday, tentatively a daily round trip from Rockland to Brunswick – morning departure, afternoon return – and at midday a shorter round trip to either Wiscasset or, “if the schedule permits and if Newcastle cleans up its station area,” perhaps Newcastle, then back to Brunswick, Betke said.

    Betke told selectmen MaineDOT has been very cooperative, helping the company “develop some information ... as to what the future of this route should look like.”

    Betke said, given summer is half over, “We are trying to make a jump start” to make the public aware and see what the interest is. The train was displayed at Heritage Days in Bath, where he said rain shut down the carnival rides at times, “but I was tremendously encouraged by the number of people who braved the rain to walk down to where we were (and) come through the train, kick the tires so to speak, ask questions and get an idea of what we have in mind ...”

    Betke and Simmons will find a date for selectmen and anyone else to check out the train in Wiscasset, possibly at the wastewater treatment plant or the harbor master’s office. Betke told Wiscasset Newspaper later, wherever the Wiscasset stop for excursions ends up being, “We would have a high-level boarding platform ...” that would permit hamdicap access. 

    Betke mentioned that en route to that night’s meeting, he was in traffic backed up at both bridges. “There is no congestion on the rail line ...,” he said.

    “A true selling point,” Selectman Terry Heller said laughing. She had invited Betke to speak. Heller explained in a phone interview later, “I just love the romance of trains, and ... the fact that it is an excellent alternative to driving ...” She is especially excited about the idea of someday taking the train from here to Boston. 

    In the meeting and a phone interview later, Betke said the trains the company has control of were last used in commuter service in Texas in 2017 and, for that use, got new engines, new interiors, new air conditioning, “new just about everything of a mechanical nature. So I think anyone who comes to kick the tires is going to be pleasantly surprised by what you see. The reaction so far has been extremely positive.”

    Betke said he is not good at watching TV or playing cards, so he is thrilled to have this project to throw himself into. In 1995, he formed Finger Lakes Railway in Upstate New York. He said he owns that through a railway company he founded in Oklahoma; Finger Lakes Railway is a parent company to Midcoast Railservice. 

    Asked about the trains being self-propelled, Betke explained, “You don’t have a locomotive. It looks like a passenger car, it just ... has its own engines underneath it so that it can be run without being pulled by a locomotive.” He hoped the Brunswick-Rockland trips, including the Wiscasset stop, would start by the end of this month. When a schedule and prices are set, they will go on coastlinerexcursions.com

    After this summer, Betke said the experiment will run along with the lease to 2025, in phases, to learn, among other things, how frequent runs should be and if service should be be seasonal or year-round. “There are a whole host of questions to be tested and answered.”

    Asked what MaineDOT’s hopes and goals are for Midcoast Railservice’s Coastliner passenger service, Veilleux told Wiscasset Newspaper: “The current excursion service is something Midcoast is doing on their own. Longer term, MaineDOT and NNEPRA (Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority) hope to work with Midcoast to set up a two-year pilot of a scheduled passenger service on the line to gauge public demand and potential ridership of this type of service. The details and the feasibility of that type of service are still being discussed amongst the parties.”

    Also Aug. 1, the board approved sewer rate hikes aired last month; named Bruce Engert temporary code enforcement officer following Bruce Mullins’ resignation last month; named Marty Fox to the budget committee and Carla Dickstein and Steve Graffam to the comprehensive plan committee; accepted with regret Anna Ridle’s and Corey Bachman’s resignations from the ordinance review committee; and nodded a liquor license for Jodie’s Cafe and Bakery on Water Street, where Sarah’s Cafe was. Resident and Big Barn Coffee owner Dan Sortwell supported it. He said owner Jodie Roquemore has sponsored community events, supports local businesses including his, is responsible and professional and “in her new location she would be an asset to the town of Wiscasset.”