Midcoast Railservice looks to forge on after equipment issue and Dragon Cement plant’s impending closure

Fri, 12/01/2023 - 7:15am

    Something did not feel as peppy, Midcoast Railservice Vice President and co-founder George Betke recalled an engineer saying after the last Coastliner passenger run in October, a Damariscotta Pumpkinfest excursion. Turned out, there was a problem with one of two engines on the reversible, self-propelled, low-emission car that had drawn riders’ praise from Wiscasset and elsewhere on the Rockland Branch this summer and fall.

    In a phone interview Thursday, Nov. 30, he said if not for that engine issue and a lack of replacement parts, the rail service would be adding the planned second car. Instead, both cars are being sold and Midcoast Railservice has been looking for its next move to continue passenger service.

    Betke explained, the Coastliner cars came from a fleet now destined for a railroad in Canada, as is the remaining parts supply. 

    “As we reviewed that situation, we came to the conclusion that the worse possible thing we could do would be to introduce a service that did not prove to be totally reliable, because people have to have confidence that you’re going to be able to meet your schedule. So we reluctantly decided, just within the last week, to let the cars go ... So the question remains, ‘What’s next?’” 

    He said Midcoast Railservice told Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) the Coastliner trips had built some good will and interest; and that Midcoast Railservice service, probably could, by January have “a couple of well-appointed, conventional coaches delivered to be hauled by a locomotive between Brunswick and Rockland. Well, that’s a step backward, in one sense, technologically.” And when NNEPRA contacted Amtrak, a proposal resulted that Maine Department of Transportation – which Midcoast Railservice has the rail operations lease with – may find too expensive, Betke said.

    He said NNEPRA has asked Amtrak for a cheaper proposal under which Midcoast Railservice, which leases the tracks from MaineDOT, would only be a host-carrier, doing dispatch, track inspections and incidental repairs including fallen trees, and Amtrak would be the operator, meaning, he said, the state would have less control than it has with Midcoast Railservice as operator; and Midcoast Railservice would still do freight.

    Wiscasset Town Manager Dennis Simmons’ regular report to selectmen ahead of the board’s Dec. 5 meeting mentions Midcoast Railservice’s passenger car’s parts problem. The report, released Thursday afternoon, Nov. 30, states, “Looks like (Midcoast Railservice) may be back to trying to entice Amtrak to extend its service along the corridor.”

    Betke said, based on what Simmons wrote, “I can say that Mr. Simmons is up to speed, and very perceptive.”

    Betke then shared a development that occurred about two hours before Wiscasset Newspaper called: Betke proposed to MaineDOT what he is calling “Plan C.”

    He said it involves “a more advanced technology that would be more appealing” from an environmental and noise standpoint, be reversible like the other cars were, “and probably could be customized and delivered by April or May ... which is what NNEPRA has targeted as a desirable startup date for something. The something is to be determined, and we’re trying to put on the table a concept that would be eminently appealable to any thinking traveler to or from Maine,” he added.

    He said MaineDOT will review the proposition and he hopes for some, at least preliminary, response the week of Dec. 4.

    Betke remained optimistic for the future of self-propelled rail cars, in and beyond Maine. “And we can be the proving ground for that.” As for Midcoast Railservice’s passenger service, he said, “This was already a work in progress,” before the engine issue. “I can’t predict to you an outcome, or a precise timing of the outcome ... I can only pledge that we’re doing our best to put all the options on the table and encourage the public, politicians and participating agencies to use a common sense approach to arrive at a conclusion.”

    And while the passenger service had its surprise equipment problem, the freight service, too, received “a big surprise,” Berke said of Dragon Cement’s announcement it would close its Thomaston plant. Dragon Cement was 90% of the freight traffic, Betke said. “We’re helping them get rid of their remaining inventory. They’re scrapping some obsolete rail cars. We’ll probably haul the scrap out. There may be other raw materials that they can reposition somewhere else by rail. But our freight business will dwindle to virtually nothing” probably by the end of January, he said. 

    “What this means is we have to figure out a way – well, one choice is to go out of business: Relinquish the lease (and) walk away from the whole thing ...” Midcoast Railservice had always aimed to help pull freight and people from Route One, onto rail, so this option would be “exactly the opposite of what we were trying to accomplish.”

    Besides working on passenger service possibilities, Midcoast Railservice is trying to line up other freight customers, Betke said. “We’ll keep trying,” on both fronts, he said.