Maine Train in Danger
As the United States continues to face a decline in the housing market, Maine's railway systems, which have traditionally transported lumber, plywood, logs, wood chips and other home construction supplies throughout the nation, have also taken a hit. The situation has become so dire that the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which owns about 774 miles of track from Montreal to Maine, announced this month that they plan to close at least 233 miles of track in northern Maine. Unless another private company or the state government takes over ownership of the rail line, train service could be shut down as early as June.
"The company [MMA] doesn't want to abandon the tracks, but it also can't continue losing millions of dollars a year on them," Bob Grindrod, president and CEO of MMA, said in a press release. Last year alone the company lost between $4 and $5 million. Grindrod attributes their decline to a struggling national housing market. "In one sentence, we have too much track and too little revenue," he noted.
The railway line, which serves the towns of Houlton, Presque Isle, Caribou and Fort Kent in Aroostook and Penobscot counties, was constructed in 1891 by the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Company. At the very beginning of the railroad's existence the primary export was potatoes, which were shipped to the south. MMA's leadership started in 2003, when the company decided to add the northern Maine track to their existing lines. Presently, the trains tend to export lumber and paper products, while importing chemicals, fertilizer, propane and cooking oil for a french fry factory.
After more than a century of business the railway line has become significantly less active than in previous years. Nonetheless, MMA still has a couple of dozen clients, including the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, which has a wood products plant based in New Limerick. Naturally, MMA's customers are apprehensive about the possibility of permanent closures on the train line that they have relied on for years.
"For the last 100 years there's been no better way to ship large volumes of product long distances than by rail," Travis Turner, one of Louisiana-Pacific's plant managers, said in a press release. "Trucks can carry smaller loads and are faster and make sense for short trips, but for moving large quantities of product you really need rail." Without the train, Louisiana-Pacific's operational costs will increase, making the company less competitive and threatening their own financial well-being.
Shutting down the railroad would also be bad for local Maine communities, Denis Berube, a representative from the Northern Maine Development Commission, says. "Without the rail up here, you're not going to see a rebound," he said. Berube predicts that if MMA's clients undergo financial difficulties, it could lead to up to 750 lost jobs. This is particularly harmful to a region that already faces considerable unemployment and one of the highest poverty rates in the state. Berube fears that even when the housing market does recover, it will be too late for Maine businesses.
The state government has considered buying and maintaining the track themselves. "We have been working closely with the Maine DOT [Department of Transportation] since the possibility of abandonment [of the tracks] was first discussed," Grindrod explained. "We are seeking an alternative solution and consider abandonment the last resort in a process that offers several options short of abandonment."
Representative Charles "Ken" Theriault (D-Madawaska) has been leading the legislative battle to protect the train line. "I feel this would put our region in a real bind if we did not have rail service to deliver goods," he said in a press release. "We need to maintain that service here. I would really like to be in touch with the governor and others involved and get everyone on board to discuss options."
However, the future isn't looking so bright. Maine did apply for a $23 million federal stimulus grant to restore and to upgrade the railroad, but their request was denied. The state could use bond money to buy out the company, but legislators already have a tight budget. Maine currently operates over 80 miles of railroad tracks.
MMA has formally filed a "Notice of Intent" with the Maine Surface Transportation Board to abandon the northern railway. The company will continue operating trains elsewhere in the state and to Montreal. While most agree that closing the railroad is not an ideal solution, no one seems to have the budget to cover the train's operational costs. If the government or a private company does not bail out MMA, the trains will likely stop service early this summer.