Fed train rides Rockland branch through Wiscasset

New freight line takes over; passenger line idea ‘in limbo’
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 8:45am

Gordon and Lynne Kontrath always let Wiscasset Newspaper know when they see a new or unexpected sight along the rails that neighbor their Old Ferry Road, Wiscasset home. At 11:11 a.m. Wednesday, July 15, the couple saw a train Gordon Kontrath thought at first might have been Amtrak. They have seen Amtrak come through a couple of times, once when, it turned out, Amtrak’s president was a guest onboard at the invitation of then-operator Maine Eastern Railroad.

But in the train they saw July 15, Lynne Kontrath caught a glimpse of the engine that didn’t look like Amtrak’s. Wiscasset Newspaper asked Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) Executive Director Patricia Quinn. In a phone interview, Quinn said, to the best of her knowledge, it was not Amtrak, in part because the possible pilot program NNEPRA has explored for Midcoast passenger service has gained no recent ground.

“It’s kind of in limbo. It hasn’t been taken off the table, but it’s just not something that we’re pursuing right at this minute, just given everything else that’s going on” amid the pandemic, she explained. “All of our focus right now is on the core service, and so there’s no further movement on potential service to Rockland at this time.” 

When might there be movement? “I really don’t know. The future these days is harder to predict ...”

Quinn guessed the Wiscasset residents might have seen the new freight operator coming through. So Wiscasset Newspaper asked Maine Department of Transportation. Spokesman Paul Merrill solved the mystery.

There is a new freight operator, but that wasn’t it, according to Merrill. Via email, he relayed the response he got from MDOT’s freight office: “What their reader saw today was a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) test car, which is certifying and testing the condition and geometry of the track. The Central Maine and Quebec, which had been our operator, was sold to Canadian Pacific Railway, which has assumed the operations on the Rockland branch as part of the sale. The change was effective on June 4. The contract runs through 2025.”

Merrill said the test car’s trip was part of the FRA’s normal testing cycle. Rail lines are typically tested every three to five years, he said.

While the sight turned out not to be a glimpse of the possible return of passenger service, Quinn’s comments left room for Gordon Kontrath to keep hoping. The train lover said in a followup interview, he can envision local passenger rail for excursion and for commuting, such as light rail busses to Bath Iron Works. Plus, he said, he was happy to help initiate a story that was not about the coronavirus. “It’s news. It’s what’s going on, but it hasn’t stopped since March, so besides myself I think other people appreciate having something else to read.”