‘Last day of a great thing’

Midcoast passenger rail service ends
Sun, 10/25/2015 - 5:45pm

Gordon and Lynne Kontrath were recording the Patriots-Jets game Sunday afternoon to avoid missing the end, in case it came when Maine Eastern Railroad’s Brunswick-Rockland excursion was making its return, southbound pass near the couple’s Old Ferry Road, Wiscasset home.

The Kontraths were outside then, to witness the run and say goodbye to it, with a sign Lynne Kontrath made Sunday. They rode the train Saturday because it was the last weekend of the passenger rail service that’s been in place for the past decade.

When they took the Saturday ride, they asked if anything special was planned to mark the final run on Sunday. It was not, Lynne Kontrath said. “I knew I had to do something.” So she made the sign, written on black poster board with white paint she had been using to paint their home’s foundation.

The sign read: “GOODBYE MERR WE’LL MISS U.”

Train runs will remain part of the Midcoast landscape, but, for now at least, onlookers won’t see riders waving back. Maine Eastern Railroad had transported both passenger and freight. However, the state will be leasing the tracks in 2016 to Central Maine and Quebec Railway, the Wiscasset Newspaper’s online sister paper Penobscot Bay Pilot reported.

There are no current plans to keep passenger service going on the Rockland branch, Penobscot Bay Pilot reports in a Sept. 17, 2015 article at www.penbaypilot.com.

Tara Butler of Belfast heard about the end of the passenger service a couple weeks ago, while attending a Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association woodlot pruning workshop. “We happened to be walking right past the (train) bed and then the train went by.” She asked about it and was told the passenger rail service would be ending. “And so I said, ‘Oh, I’ll have to check this out.’”

Butler, 56, said her grandfather used to take her to watch trains when she was 3. “So this (ride) is in his honor,” Butler said in the rain before the train arrived Sunday morning for its northbound stop in Wiscasset.

Also taking the trip for the first time was Alan Yorker, president emeritus of the National Association of Railway Passengers. The Washington, D.C.-based organization keeps Congress aware that there are people who would like more passenger trains, Yorker said.

“Congress has not done a good job of improving our system, but they’re getting the message. The younger generation is demanding more,”  in terms of both commuter and long-distance rail runs, Yorker said.

“We’re starting to get more elected officials who believe in that,” he added. “Passenger rail service has a better future than it has had in the past 50 years, because the generation that thinks of it as a Dodo bird is moving out to pasture, and the younger generation is saying, ‘Why don’t we have what Europe has? Why don’t we have what Asia has?’”

That could help passenger rail prospects nationally as well as in Midcoast Maine, Yorker said before he and wife Janie Yorker of Georgia’s Atlanta area boarded the train in Wiscasset Sunday morning. He’d been wanting to ride it for years. The loss of the rail run is unfortunate, he said. “This is the last day of a great thing.”

For the train’s conductor, Waldoboro’s Ernie Vannah, the end of the run was ending the part-time job he’d held for the better part of a decade. His summers will be freer now, but he will miss interacting with the passengers, Vannah said during the train’s northbound stop in Wiscasset Sunday.

“And I’ll miss railroading. I have enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ll continue to work my real job,” as a bus mechanic, he said. “My play job’s ending.”

Ridership about tripled in the past month after news came out that the service was ending, Vannah said.

Repeat passenger Judy Normand of Litchfield was sorry to see the service end but hopeful it will return. Sunday’s ride, which for her ended in Wiscasset, was wonderful, she said. Sharing her umbrella was her companion on many past rides, grandson and fellow train buff Marquise Sweek, 10, of Topsham.

Asked about his experiences riding the train, Sweek said: “It’s fun. You see a lot of stuff.”

They always enjoyed the part of the trip crossing the Kennebec River by bridge from Bath to Woolwich, his grandmother said.

While Maine Eastern’s Brunswick-Rockland excursion runs have ended, Maine Eastern spokesman Harmony Llanto confirmed in an email response to the Wiscasset Newspaper’s questions that the Bath-Wiscasset Candy Cane Train will still be held this year, Dec. 12 and 13; and possibly also the Jingle Bell Express on Dec. 5 and 6.