Legislature considering return of passenger train service to Bangor

Bangor has not been served by passenger trains since 1961, but their return is attracting new interest and investment.

A bill introduced in the state Senate last week would provide $300,000 for a feasibility study and development of a plan to expand passenger rail service to Bangor along existing rail corridors. The extension would start in Brunswick, where Amtrak Downeaster service to Boston is currently dead end, and would pass through Augusta and Waterville.

The bill, sponsored by freshman Sen. Joseph Baldacci, D-District 9, and seven co-sponsors, went to the Legislative Joint Committee on Transportation. On Monday, Bangor City Council is expected to pass a resolution supporting the proposal.

Connecting the Portland Corridor by passenger rail to Augusta, Waterville and the Bangor metro area, Maine’s second-largest, would benefit much of the state, Baldacci told Mainebiz on Friday.

“It is important that the economy of the state is interconnected and that all regions of the state are interconnected,” he said.

He is optimistic that the feasibility study will receive bipartisan support in the Legislative Assembly, and that elected officials “will see that it makes a lot of sense” to voters beyond Bangor.

Yet the idea has been proposed, unsuccessfully, before – in 2001 and in 2017.

Reviving passenger rail service in Maine has long been popular, but plans have sometimes been derailed by financial and logistical obstacles.

The Downeaster set a ridership record in 2019, carrying 574,000 passengers before the pandemic slowed trains for much of the year. But it looked like the train would never leave the station when the service was first offered in the 1990s. Concerns about speed limits and necessary track upgrades delayed the start until 2001.

After 40 years without train service, Mainers has embraced the return. Amtrak and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority added routes and stops, and in 2012 extended Downeaster service to Brunswick. Since then there have been discussions of additional routes.

A 2019 study estimated the cost of launching a rail link between Portland and Westbrook at between $54 million and $74 million. The service in Lewiston was launched in 2015, when the legislature approved $500,000 for a feasibility study. NNEPRA also considered a pilot project to test the service in Rockland.

But the Downeaster “was never brought here just for southern Maine,” Baldacci said. “It’s time to extend passenger rail to the central part of the state.”

Jose P. Rogers