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Date: Monday, April 03, 2006
Tourist Train Deal on Track Print E-mail
Written by Tom Walsh   
Thursday, January 26, 2006

MDOT OKs Contract 

ELLSWORTH — Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) Commissioner David Cole says he’s impressed by the “passion” behind a plan to operate an excursion railroad for tourists between Ellsworth and Green Lake in Dedham.

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The Downeast Rail Heritage Trust plans to begin restoration on 29 miles of state-owned Calais Branch railbed between Brewer and Washington Junction as soon as this spring.
Last week, the Bar Harbor-based Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust signed a 15-year lease on a 29-mile stretch of state-owned rail line between Brewer and Washington Junction.

Cole said MDOT’s lease agreement with the nonprofit group “gives them the opportunity to succeed.”

Trust President Thomas J. Testa of Bar Harbor said the group now is raising money to upgrade the railbed to support passenger excursion rail service on its proposed Downeast Scenic Railroad.

“Signing this lease was truly the key step we needed to move forward,” Testa said. “Immediately, we’ll be working on finalizing our rail rehabilitation workplan for the spring and summer and on building awareness of the trust and its credibility through membership outreach.”

MDOT acquired the 127-mile railroad corridor linking Brewer and Calais in 1987 from the Guilford Transportation Co., which stopped offering freight service on its Calais Branch in 1985. Last year, Gov. John E. Baldacci and MDOT endorsed a plan for an 87-mile rail-to-trail conversion from Ellsworth east to Ayers Junction.

“The Calais Branch is an asset owned by the people of Maine, a nonperforming asset at this point,” Cole said. “We want to preserve the corridor long-term, but we also want to see regional use so that communities can benefit from it.

“We’ve had considerable discussions on rail-to-trail options on the line.  Given Tom Testa’s passion and his group’s preliminary plans, the idea of this railroad as an attraction to the area had a lot of appeal.

“This lease is giving their business plan a chance to work. If it doesn’t succeed, it won’t be due to lack of effort.”

The 24-mile, round-trip excursions to Green Lake would originate at a 12,000-square-foot depot and rail museum to be built in Ellsworth at a yet to be determined location. In Ellsworth, the tracks run parallel to Route 1A and High Street before turning east toward Washington Junction.

The depot and rail museum is expected to cost $1 million. Testa said the Trust is now looking at a number of possible construction sites along the rail line.

“We’re looking at multiple options,” Testa said. “In dealing with real estate, there are always a number of variables involved.”

The lease requires the Trust to operate its excursions at least 60 days a year, beginning no later than 2009.

“Our plans are to operate from Memorial Day to the weekend after Columbus Day,” Testa said. “Getting started in 2008 is realistic, but it could be 2007 if everything comes together perfectly over the next year.”

Sightseeing and dinner train excursions between Ellsworth and Green Lake require only 12 miles of the railbed being leased. Additional track is needed to bring engines and rail cars to Ellsworth from Brewer and to create access to a rolling stock maintenance and storage facility to be built at Washington Junction.

Track maintenance as rent

The lease does not require the Trust to make rental payments to MDOT during the first five years of the agreement. That waiver was made in consideration of the estimated $2.5 million the Trust expects to spend to rehabilitate the railbed to a condition required to safely operate its tourist train.

“This is a nonprofit that will be plowing money back into the line,” Cole said. “The economic activity this will generate will be good for the community and will provide one more quality opportunity for visitors.

“Our first and foremost goal with this corridor is to preserve it long-term for the day when we need it for restoration of modern rail service. We can put it to use in the meantime.”

After the first five years, the Trust will satisfy its rental requirement by investing at least $10,000 annually in track-related materials needed to preserve the rail line. In years when gross revenues from excursions exceed $1 million, the Trust would increase its annual $10,000 investment in track maintenance materials by at least 2 percent of revenues above the million-dollar threshold.

Business plan projections developed for the railroad predict annual revenues exceeding $1 million by the second year of operation. Over the first five years, revenue is expected to total $6.3 million.

The lease includes provisions that would allow for two five-year extensions after the original term expires on Dec. 31, 2020.

The lease also stipulates that MDOT will work with the Trust in restoring public highway railbed crossings where rails are now obstructed by paving, dirt and other fill. The Trust is required to restore to working order all protective signals, signs and other equipment at highway crossings.

The lease won’t preclude development of a shared-use recreational trail along the 66-foot width of the railbed. The lease requires the Trust to work with MDOT in developing a recreational trail along track within Ellsworth and Hancock. A trail constructed at MDOT expense would not require a protective fence if located at least 15 feet from the nearest rail.

“We’re quite amenable to a rail-with-trail sharing of the railbed between Ellsworth and Washington Junction,” said Sally Jacobs of Orono, the co-chairman of the Sunrise Trail Coalition. That group has been working since 1988 to create an 87-mile multi-use recreational trail between Ellsworth and Ayers Junction along the Calais Branch rail corridor.

“We’re looking at it in a very cooperative light,” Jacobs said. “We’re hoping the two things will work well together. We’ve even discussed with Tom Testa putting a rack for bikes on the train. That would get people across the Union River and allow them to go up to Green Lake, where they could ride around and either take the train back or ride back to Ellsworth.”

$6 Million Fundraising Goal

Crystal Pace, executive director of the Downeast Scenic Railroad, said the Trust is finalizing a fund-raising strategy to seek donations from businesses and individuals to provide $300,000 of initial funding.

“We’re going to be approaching people in the next few weeks for the seed money we’ll need to begin rehabbing the track between Brewer and Green Lake,” Pace said. “We’re hoping over the summer we’ll be working with volunteers to provide minimal rehabilitation of track needed to move equipment to Green Lake. The rest of the rehabilitation of the line — the portion that will carry passengers — we will have to contract out.”

Overall, the Trust plans to raise $6 million in donations and grants for the project, Pace said.

Information: downeastscenicrail.org.

Staff Photo by Catherine McKinney


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