Maine’s Midcoast Railservice Drums Up Freight, Eyes Passenger Service Next

Midcoast Railservice’s Rockland to Brunswick freight crosses the causeway at Wiscasset, Maine, on November 4, 2022. Since taking over the branch in 2022, the short line has drummed up new traffic and hopes to resume passenger service next. Photo by Justin Franz. 

Maine’s Midcoast Railservice Drums Up Freight, Eyes Passenger Service Next

By Justin Franz

ROCKLAND, Maine — About six months after taking over Maine’s scenic Rockland Branch, Finger Lakes Railway President Mike Smith said the move is starting to pay dividends. In recent months, the newly-formed Midcoast Railservice has been able to drum up new freight business on the 56-mile state-owned branch between Brunswick and Rockland, and it is eyeing an expansion into passenger service next. 

The former Maine Central 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. Central Maine & Quebec began operating the branch in 2016. That lasted until 2020 when Class I Canadian Pacific acquired CMQ and became the operator. Finally, in 2022, CP handed the reins over to Midcoast, a subsidiary of the Finger Lakes Railway, which operates on 167 miles of former Conrail track in New York. 

Finger Lakes had been eyeing the Rockland Branch for over a year and had nearly taken over back in 2021, but then the largest customer on the branch, Dragon Products, announced it would no longer be shipping cement out of Rockland via barge. Since 1994, the cement plant had relied on the railroad to move cement from its facility at Thomaston to the wharf at Rockland. The five-mile rail shuttle was the biggest source of revenue on the branch. In late 2021 and early 2022, Finger Lakes reached out to Dragon and came up with an agreement to move more cement via an all-rail route. That was enough, Smith said, to make the Rockland Branch deal appealing again. 

Since then, the railroad has been running once or twice a week using a pair of B23-7s in the Finger Lakes’ New York Central-inspired paint scheme. Besides moving carloads of cement to the CSX Transportation (former Pan Am) interchange in Brunswick, Midcoast has also moved trainloads of petroleum coke to Thomason for Dragon. Smith said while Dragon usually gets its coke from overseas, it found the need to source some of it domestically late last year. Smith was hopeful that moves like that could continue in the future. 

The railroad is also trying to drum up new customers so that it doesn’t have to rely entirely on Dragon. Among them is American Steel & Aluminum, which recently opened up a new facility in West Bath. ASA does work for nearby Bath Iron Works and is taking in shipments of steel. The seafood industry is also emerging as a new customer for the railroad, with carloads of lobster bait (aka: fish heads) being waybilled to the yard in Rockland. Smith said a few refers of bait were shipped last year and he hopes that will start to increase in the spring. The railroad is also looking at shipping boxcars loaded with bagged salt to Rockland. 

“We’re looking for customers that can provide five, 10, 20 carloads. When you get that and add it all up, that can result in some significant volume,” Smith said of the railroad’s goals.

Finger Lakes Railway plans to send at least three Budd RDCs, including this one seen in Geneva, N.Y., in 2022, to the Rockland Branch. Photo by Otto M. Vondrak. 

Coming Soon: Passenger Service

But perhaps the biggest recent development for the Midcoast is a plan to restore passenger service for at least two years between Brunswick and Rockland. The State of Maine recently earmarked $3 million for a two-year test of daily passenger service on the route. Smith said the new train will operate in partnership with the Maine Department of Transportation, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and Amtrak, which operates the Downeaster to Brunswick. The Rockland Branch train will be called the Coastliner and will use Budd RDCs. Smith said Finger Lakes is currently installing new bathrooms in three RDCs this winter and the first one will be sent to Maine next month. 

If everything goes according to plan, the railroad will begin running three daily roundtrips between Brunswick and Rockland this summer. The trips will be scheduled to meet with the Downeaster from Boston and Portland, giving passengers an easy cross-platform transfer. 

While the Rockland Branch has hosted passenger trains in recent years — including excursions operated by Maine Coast and Maine Eastern — none of those ever coordinated with Amtrak. Smith and others have said they hope the Coastliner will offer an alternative to the always-busy U.S. Route 1. 

Presently, Midcoast has the contract to operate the Rockland Branch until 2025, but Smith is hopeful that will be renewed by the state. 

“We’re optimistic about the future,” he said. “We would not have gotten into this if we didn’t think we had a chance to drum up some new business on the line.”

This article was posted on: February 14, 2023