In her letter of March 26, Margaret Craven labeled me a naysayer, throwing cold water on proposals to bring back Portland-to-Lewiston passenger train service.

How wrong she is.

From a long, hands-on involvement with the former Grand Trunk Railway’s Portland to Montreal line and as a recognized authority on its history, I possess an infinite love of trains, especially passenger trains, and have many great memories of looking back from the engine cab monitoring a string of coaches transiting a curve.

I don’t disagree with proposing and maneuvering to bring them back to this area, and know full well it cannot be done without tax dollar subsidy.

Those opposed to using such money to do so have little or no realization that ridership revenue never met the costs of operating a passenger train, particularly on the short-haul runs of 400 miles or less. And, that from the earliest days, it was government subsidy (in the form of mail contracts) that enabled offering the traveler a faster way of getting there. Nor, that as automobile and airplanes siphoned away patronage, increasing the deficits in ticket sales, coupled with the government transferring those contracts to airlines and trucking firms during the 1950s and 1960s, led railroads to opt out of the passenger business rather than go bankrupt drawing from freight revenue accounts attempting to offset the losses.

What I do disagree with is the way those behind the current plan want to needlessly waste exorbitant amounts of taxpayer subsidy by going down the wrong road to move the trains via Yarmouth Junction, basically to make use of a 15.4-mile segment the state now owns, and which renders it a pork barrel project due to the fact that there is an active and available Portland to Lewiston route in place that runs nearly parallel to it. (I ask Ms. Craven to take note that dictionaries make no mention of pork barrel projects having to be attached to other pieces of legislation.)

I also question the soundness of putting an in-state local operation under the direction of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, based on its track record (pun not intended).

PanAm Railway moves numerous heavy freight trains daily on its trackage from Portland, testament that the line is capable of handling passenger trains. Therefore, it makes far more economical sense, if such a huge bond issue is to come forth, to enter an agreement utilizing that route via Royal Junction, and for the purchase of several self-propelled diesel railcars from railway equipment dealers to enable service to begin, preferably under the management of an independent operator such as that of the Maine Eastern Railway, all within a matter or months, rather than waiting four or five years from now for completion of rehabbing a little-used segment of track.

The RDCs, commonly called Buddliners, can be operated from either end of the unit, run individually or in multiple sets as needed and, considering the distance from Portland to Lewiston, much more cost-effective in the interim of establishing the patronage warranting replacement with standard trainsets.

There is a wrong way and a right way to go about restoring passenger service to this area. The wrong way is the direction the advocacy groups want to pursue. The right way is to use the $500,000 in LD 323 to lease an RDC and arrange with PanAm for a series of test runs over its route to determine scheduling times and patron interest. Then utilize LD 438 for commencing regular service with RDCs and get trains rolling.

While some people may ride just once to say they have ridden a passenger train, there is no denying that restoring such service to this area will boost the economy locally, as the majority of passengers are traveling to visit, shop, dine, attend events, even lodge, at a specific destination, thereby increasing the taxable earnings of those business establishments, of which the state stands to receive a portion of as sort of interest on the bond issue.

Strike now while the iron’s hot, they say; not years down the wrong road, and I didn’t even go to college.

John R. Davis is a recognized historian of the Grand Trunk Railway, which formerly owned the Portland to Montreal line.


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