Front Page arrow Editorial arrow All Aboard the Downeast Scenic Railroad
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Date: Monday, August 28, 2006
All Aboard the Downeast Scenic Railroad Print E-mail
Written by Christopher G. Hall   
Thursday, August 24, 2006

With gasoline prices above $3 a gallon, a baby boom generation starting to retire and Americans looking for ways to spend vacations without cars, passenger rail is undergoing a renaissance in America. The foresight of Mainers who fought for years to bring the Amtrak Downeaster to Portland is now clear, with ridership at record levels and growing fast.

Meanwhile in eastern and northern Maine, the decline of our natural resource industries is linked, in part, to the decline of our freight railroad network. To take one example, it costs more to ship frozen french fries from Aroostook County to Connecticut by train than it costs to rail them from Washington state to Connecticut. Maine’s forest products, peat, construction and agricultural products are at a competitive disadvantage: forced to ship by truck, while competing regions can use low-cost, environmentally-friendly freight rail.

The mothballed Calais Branch Line winds along 126 miles of terrain between Brewer, Ellsworth, Machias and Calais, with breathtaking views and scenery that is some of the most beautiful Maine has to offer.  It was bought by the state of Maine in 1988 after a public referendum, with the commitment to preserve the corridor for future rail use. The Washington County part of this corridor will soon be converted to a recreational trail for ATV riders, but the portion from Ellsworth to Brewer, connecting to Maine’s freight rail system, is at last being rehabilitated for rail excursion service. 

The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the railroad history of Downeast Maine, will utilize part of the line as a self-sustaining excursion railroad — to be called the Downeast Scenic Railroad — beginning in 2008. Tourist excursions will maintain the line in place against the day when rail freight and inter-city passenger trains return — which may be sooner rather than later as oil prices approach $100 a barrel.

The seasonal operation plans three 24-mile round trips daily between Ellsworth and Green Lake from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Plans also call for an Ellsworth-based historic railroad museum/ depot. Since 1987, more than 25 scenic railroad operations have been established in New England, but the Downeast Scenic Railroad will be the only operating preserved railroad in eastern Maine — a region whose development was shaped by the railroads in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

With increasing constrictions being placed on state and federal budgets, there is a growing trend toward the development of creative public-private partnerships where governments, nonprofits and citizens are coming together to improve our state’s economy and the quality of life of its citizens. The Downeast Scenic Railroad follows the model of similar, successful rail preservation efforts around the country, such as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in New York and the Conway Scenic Railroad in New Hampshire.

A 2002 study of Maine tourism trends cites historic sites and museums as key factors in choosing Maine as a travel destination. Along with arts and cultural activities in Maine that were once available only in larger cities, the Downeast Scenic Railroad has the potential to become a major magnet for tourism in the Downeast-Acadia region.

An economic impact study by Stone Consulting and Design Inc., premier consultants to the railroad industry, predicts that the railroad has the potential for an annual sustained ridership of over 72,000. This level of activity will contribute more than $5 million a year to the local economy beyond revenue generated by ticket sales and will assist in creating over 200 full-time jobs in the area.

This project promises to be a major new attraction for the entire Hancock County region. Not only does it preserve a great historic asset, but it gives today’s generation a chance to see firsthand how the Downeast region of Maine prospered because of the railroad. The rehabilitation of this treasured asset is more than a preservation effort; it is a salute to those who so long ago saw promise in connecting our country by rail. The Downeast Scenic Railroad is a tribute to Maine’s railroad history of the past. It is also a first step toward the revival of modern passenger and freight service for the region’s future economic health.

Chris Hall is an economic impact consultant and former Maine senator.

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