Maine Eastern Railroad

Riding rails from Boston to Midcoast Maine

Can passenger trains and shuttle service be a viable alternative for summertime travel?
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 8:30am

    There are better ways to spend the summer in Midcoast Maine than stuck in a Wiscasset traffic jam. There is no easy fix to the infamous Route 1 bottle neck, but big plans are coming down the line.

    Starting July 4, the Maine Eastern Railroad will be expanding  passenger service to usher more people into the Midcoast region from Amtrak's Downeaster station in Brunswick.

    Specifically, the Downeaster will stop in Brunswick regularly on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings to connect passengers to the MERR Mid-Coast Limited. In the past 10 years, the railroad service has brought passengers as far as Rockland, but now the service is slated to become more localized. 

    The Wiscasset Flyer will be the new train offering short 45-minute trips between Bath and Newcastle in an effort to boost tourism and economic development.

    “Anything that can offer people another way to get there that's easier and different could be a benefit to the region and obviously the economy through tourism traffic,” said Rudy Garblely, the marketing associate for the MERR.

    The MERR is owned by the Maine Department of Transportation and managed by Morristown & Erie Railway out of New Jersey. In 2012 over 5,000 passengers used the MERR, and they are anticipating an increase in ridership.

    Garblely said he knows all about the traffic problems in Wiscasset. In fact, when Garblely was trailing the train to shoot a promotional video for the MERR, he said the filming got canceled because a long line of cars on Route 1 prevented him from reaching the train.

    Garblely said and he has been working with Wiscasset town officials to make travel in the Midcoast less stressful and more efficient. The long term plans include coordinating ticket sales with Amtrak in Boston's North Station, and upgrading the Wiscasset waterfront with a new train station and parking area.

    “What the Maine Eastern Railroad thought was to make a real push to see if they can make passenger rail more viable on the coast,” said Lincoln County Planner Bob Faunce.

    In addition to MERR expanding passenger services, the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission has proposed adding a shuttle and trolley service so that travelers could get off the train in Wiscasset and be shuttled down to the Boothbay region, or to the neighboring villages.

    “By offering a convenient and cost-effective alternative to driving to the Boothbay peninsula, we believe that many more tourists will opt for a weekend or a week in your communities,” Faunce wrote in a letter addressed to boards of selectmen in the region.

    The estimated startup price to bring a shuttle service to the Boothbay region and the neighboring towns this summer would be $45,500, but Faunce is confident the MDOT will kick in at least 80 percent of the cost. It's just a matter getting the support from the area towns, he said.

    Not only will alternative transportation bring more visitors to the region, but the shuttle service will be also be open to residents wanting to travel out of town on a summer day when the traffic jams in Wiscasset are unavoidable, Faunce said.

    Annual traffic rates indicate that 18,780 vehicles pass through Wiscasset on a daily average, according to a 2012 traffic report conducted by MDOT. That number can easily be over 20,000 vehicles during the height of summer, Faunce said. And when big events such as the Rockland Blues Festival draw large crowds to the Midcoast, traffic is at it worst.

    So would the advent of alternative transportation alleviate the crippling traffic jams on Route 1? No one knows for sure, Faunce said, but if a viable connection can be established by rail and shuttle, there could be all kinds of possibilities for economic development.

    Boothbay Harbor has 1,250 motel rooms, the most concentrated amount of lodging in Lincoln County. In Boothbay, attractions like the Boothbay Railway Village, the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens could benefit greatly from an influx of tourists, Faunce said, especially since CMBG is already bringing about 100,000 visitors per year.

    “So people want to get there, but they have to drive,” Faunce said. “I love to drive, but trying to get through the Midcoast in the summer versus taking a shuttle and a train, nothing stops a train. It's pretty exciting.”

    If the Boothbay region and its neighbors support the cause, shuttle service could begin as early as July and run through October, pending approva from MDOT. So far nearly $4,000 of an estimated $9,100 has been collected to secure federal and state funding, Faunce said.

    Faunce will speak with the Boothbay Board of Selectmen on  January 22 at 7 p.m. at the Boothbay Town Office. Faunce will then speak with the Boothbay Harbor Board of Selectmen on January 27. 

    For more information on MERR train schedules and ticket prices, visit its website.