Finger Lakes Takes Maine’s Rockland Branch

Midcoast Railservice took the state-owned Rockland Branch from Canadian Pacific on August 1. A CP local is seen at Wiscasset in 2021. Photo by Timothy Franz. 

Finger Lakes Takes Maine’s Rockland Branch

By Justin Franz 

ROCKLAND, Me. — The Finger Lakes Railway began operation of the state-owned Rockland Branch between Rockland and Brunswick, Me., on August 1. The former Maine Central branch had previously been operated by Canadian Pacific.

Finger Lakes dispatched B23-7 locomotive 2308 wearing the short line’s New York Central-inspired paint to Maine back in July a few days before operations began. The locomotive has a Finger Lakes logo on the nose but is lettered for Midcoast Railservice. 

The scenic 56-mile branch has had a parade of operators over the last three decades. In 1987, the state purchased the line from Guilford Rail System so that it would not be abandoned. From 1990 until 2000, the line was run by the Maine Coast Railroad, a spin-off of the Massachusetts Central. In the early 2000s, Safe Handling Inc., a Maine-based logistics company, operated the line for a few years before New Jersey’s Morristown & Erie won the contract and ran it as the Maine Eastern Railroad from 2005 until 2015. Maine Eastern ran freight and seasonal passenger services. Central Maine & Quebec began operating the branch in 2016. CP purchased CMQ and took over the lease in 2020. 

Finger Lakes almost took the line over in 2021 but pulled out of the deal after the branch’s biggest customer, Dragon Products, announced it would no longer be shipping cement out of Rockland via barge. Since 1994, the cement plant has relied on the railroad to move cement from its facility at Thomaston to the wharf at Rockland. The five-mile rail shuttle is the biggest source of revenue on the branch.

“To lose that business right off the bat would be very difficult,” Finger Lakes President Mike Smith told Railfan & Railroad at the time. “We’re not going to start a new operation at a loss. And how do you hire people and say, ‘hey, in a few months we might have to lay you off.’ That would be immoral.” 

But not long after that, Finger Lakes and Dragon began to have discussions about the future of rail service, specifically plans to start shipping more cement west from Thomaston to Brunswick and the CSX (former Pan Am) interchange. A year later, Smith said he was confident that there would be enough traffic on the branch for it to be worth the short line’s while. However, he’s hopeful to increase traffic on the line in the coming months and is already in talks with prospective customers. 

Presently, Midcoast Railservice is running about once a week to meet with a CSX local from Rigby Yard in South Portland. Midcoast bases its locomotive in Rockland and will make a roundtrip to Brunswick for a headlight-to-headlight meet with the Class I, Smith said. 

Midcoast has the contract to operate the line for three years. 

Smith is also interested in possibly establishing passenger service on the line. The last time passenger trains ran on the route was on the Maine Eastern, which ran seasonal excursions behind F40s and later FL9s between Rockland and Brunswick until 2015. Smith said Finger Lakes is refurbishing a Budd RDC and could send it to Maine later this year. He thinks an RDC would be a cost-effective way to offer excursions through the various Midcoast communities and might even offer an alternative to the always-congested U.S. Route 1. 

This article was posted on: August 18, 2022