With rising petroleum costs causing seismic upheaval for Maine’s transportation industries, an old solution is re-gaining momentum: taking the train. For freight and passenger service, rail is viewed as an efficient, smart alternative.

It’s taken a long time to get here, enough for a whole generation of Mainers to forget about the faraway rumble of a locomotive chugging down the track and to lose respect for the awesome power that tons of steel have at speed.

The train era has passed into memory. Its rebirth means re-educating a public that views train service as novelty, rather than necessity. This mean hard lessons are ahead.

Injuries suffered by two teenage girls in Lebanon while sunbathing on a train track were horrific. Yet there have been worse: two people, including an 11-year-old boy, died from a 2006 train strike in Warren.

When such incidents occur, train safety advocates convey a common-sense refrain: for safety’s sake, please stay off the tracks. It’s a message often repeated, but often unheeded, even though the consequences are disastrous.

This cannot occur just because of sheer recklessness; people don’t linger in the center of busy highways, or stroll down airport tarmacs. There are cultural factors at play: we’ve steadily departed from considering trains for primary transportation. We travel primarily in our automobiles and on airplanes.

(Especially in Maine; about 80 percent of commuters here drive alone, according to transportation statistics.)

Trains take longer than planes, and do not run on the passenger’s schedule. But as gasoline tops $4 per gallon, and airlines start to charge for checked baggage, any shortcomings of rail melt away.

By necessity and practicality, Maine must return to embracing the efficiencies of rail.

The state has put its weight behind trains. Gov. Baldacci, on May 21, signed legislation to approve $30 million in federal financing to rehabilitate track between Portland and Brunswick, a line considered crucial for Maine rail, to extend the popular Amtrak Downeaster service northward.

Popular excursion service already operates along rehabilitated lines between Brunswick and Rockland, and a test-run from the coast to Augusta was done this year, with thought of extending rail to the capital as early as 2010.

MaineBiz reported recently that the Maine Department of Transportation is studying work along 29 miles of track between Portland and Auburn for re-instatement of passenger service.

Each project is worthy, wise and most important, necessary.

This state, and nation, cannot achieve energy independence without embracing diversification of transportation. Train travel is heading in the right direction.

But while for many, train service signals nostalgia, for others, they are innovation. Innate respect for trains, their power and danger is just not widespread, because for years, tracks either went silent or were used so infrequently as to understate the traffic.

Part of making Maine, again, a state of trains, will be changing this perception, and fast.

Trains are coming.

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