People like to talk about trains. Many old-timers recall the days when “I could take the train to (fill in the blank)” and various other places in Maine. Unfortunately, not nearly enough of them did so, or often enough to sustain a meaningful ridership base. Consequently, Maine Central and Grand Trunk passenger service ended in 1960, now 57 years ago.

Times have changed a bit, and it is not hard to understand why the last 297-mile Montreal-Portland train, departing at 7:50 a.m. and arriving at 6:10 p.m., would have little appeal today, when there is not even a direct flight between those cities.

Nonetheless, nostalgia has now been augmented by a new breed of rail advocates energized by real-estate interests, armed with problematic environmental claims, abetted by professional consulting visionaries and dismissive of associated cost considerations. A case in point is the study commissioned by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to justify extension of Amtrak’s Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick, resulting in a $70-million commitment with little directly attributable benefit after nearly five years of operation.

In April 2008, another newspaper had headlined “Report finds Downeaster generates billions.” Despite ample subsequent evidence to the contrary, such hyperbole remains in vogue, most recently led by state Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, sponsor of a 2015 bill (LD 323) promoting repetition of the Brunswick mistake in Lewiston-Auburn. It received predictable support from the Maine Rail Transit Coalition and Sierra Club Maine, both citing platitudes about socio-economic benefits without mentioning associated taxpayer obligations, estimated at $138 millon in a 2013 engineering study, before ongoing subsidy.

This proposed “Golden goose” has the look of a turkey, another example of addiction to “other people’s money.” The seductive appeal of “transit-oriented development” is a myth without the essential element of transit, specifically mass transit. Rail patronage at Brunswick is embarrassingly sparse, exceeding a busload on fewer than a dozen regularly scheduled trips in 2016. Development generally means repurposing former railroad-related properties dating from the pre-automobile steam age, driven less by train ridership than by environmental remediation and property-tax incentives.

Considering the cost of rehabilitating, maintaining and operating a dedicated right-of-way and specialized equipment, Lewiston-Auburn (like Brunswick) has insufficient mass to justify more than a motor coach. Moreover, the bus can offer superior service frequency, greater routing flexibility, and more stopping points than the train, and do so without public assistance for construction or operation. The cart (bus) clearly should go before the horse (train).

The question of Lewiston-Auburn’s need for public transportation should be answered soon — and without spending $250,000 for another study — by public response to inauguration of motor coach service at Auburn’s new transportation center on June 22. If demand can’t support frequent bus scheduling using existing public roadways, there’s no reason to consider a train. Concord Coach is intelligently preempting the inter-city passenger market at L-A.

George Betke is president of Transport Economics Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.

Comments are not available on this story.