December 12 ,  2008  






Sunrise Trail grooms corridor for future rail use

by Lora Whelan             

This time next year, Washington County residents will be able to enjoy the full range of outdoor activities that the Downeast Sunrise Trail will lend itself to on the old Calais Branch railway corridor. While visitors and residents will enjoy the benefits of the trail, the Maine Department of Transportation's objective of the project, summed up in a portion of their draft of the management plan for the Calais branch corridor, clearly states that the "number one priority is to preserve and protect the corridor for future rail use. The proposed interim trail is intended to provide an asset to the communities in the interim, until rail returns."

The rails-to-trail project has not been without its share of controversy, particularly for supporters of the port at Eastport. The decline of the railway in Washington County was slow and painful, with the last train running on the Calais Branch rail line in 1985. The Eastport spur was closed in 1978, and the track removed in 1980. Much of the right-of-way has been sold off, creating the need for a new route to the port if rail should ever return to the region.

John Picher, director of engineering and realty with the Maine Department of Conservation and project manager for the Downeast Sunrise Trail, notes, "The Eastport corridor is no longer intact C that's a real problem. To not have an intact corridor was not very far-sighted." Eastport Port Director Chris Gardner says, "People forget that the Port of Eastport and the railway have never existed together in Washington County; the rail was gone before the port was built." Skip Rogers, manager of Federal Marine Terminals, sums up the feeling of many about the lack of foresight when it came to the removal and selling off of the Eastport railway spur. "We're going to have to be smart about transportation in the future." He adds, "Eastport is just about the only port without a rail connection in the country."

Tor Bordevik, former operations manager of Star Shipping and now with Maritime Cargo Consultants of Saint John, states, "Indeed a rail would be very beneficial as a sales pitch for the port, but it's difficult to determine right off if it would make sense, given the costs to the State of Maine. If you take out those costs, certainly rail would benefit the port. But would the investment of a spur be justified by additional cargo?" Bordevik suggests that while shipping lines are not much interested in going beyond the dock with their planning, port and terminal operators could create packaged freight options involving a combination of ship, truck and rail for transporting cargo to and from the port.

Gardner and Rogers are hopeful about the possibility of bringing an intermodal facility to the Calais area, which would allow for short-distance trucking for transportation between the port and the intermodal facility's rail connection. Rogers anticipates that the primary market for the intermodal facility would be "project cargo" or big lots of heavy machinery such as pulp dryers that need to be moved inland. He explains that this type of cargo is lower volume, high value, and would not necessitate a high volume of truck traffic. The other potential use would be for break-bulk cargo, or pieces of things that go into a ship rather than into containers or into the ship as poured bulk. "What probably would not be utilized is bulk cargo such as gravel, peat moss or salt." This would not work, Rogers explains, because of the high volume and low value combined with the cost of around-the-clock trucking.

"We lack connectivity to the world," Gardner says. As county commissioner, he wears two hats when it comes to the rails-to-trail project. While he believes that rail is important to the future economic development of the county, he also believes that the county should embrace the trail project "while we try to grow the northern [intermodal] connection. We should take two parallel tracks C get behind the trail and its benefits, but not give up on the future of rail." He believes that through the potential of the intermodal facility, the future of rail could come.

According to Nate Moulton, Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) rail director, the future development of rail in Washington County was very much a part of the rails-to-trail contract work. "Should the day ever come that we would have businesses or economic viability for rail, then the Calais branch corridor would be in good condition to put in place a good railroad with good service." Moulton explains that the feasibility of rehabilitation, reconstructing or converting the Calais branch was vetted by a lengthy process before the 2006 decision to convert the rails to a trail. "It's very important that the rail be serviceable to the rail user. If there's any question of reliability, this is an issue that compromises their business. They'll find another way to ship." Moulton adds, "We're a lot better off with a new rail bed [if rail ever returns]. The rail right-of-way was in such poor shape. This project puts that right-of-way in good shape if rail should ever be put back in."

Assessing options

Eastern Maine Railroad Development Commission and Sunrise County Economic Council several years ago had commissioned studies to assess the future of the Calais Branch Railroad and transload terminal facilities. Two reports were created by Stafford Business Advisors, "The Stafford Report" in 2000 and 2002 and the "Economic Potential for the Revival of the Calais Branch Railroad" in 1998. While each report recommended that the rail be rehabilitated, the economic viability of the railroad was dependent upon a number of variables, including an incremental rehabilitation of the different sections of the 126-mile corridor, developing a new rail spur from Route 1 to Eastport at an approximate cost of $20 million, creating a larger transload terminal in Cherryfield, and utilizing a specialized rail operator such as the former Guildford rail operator.

In the 2002 "Final Report of the Task Force on Rail Transportation," Domtar Industries was noted as indicating that "it would not use rail to transport to Perry if available. It would continue to truck to Eastport." Gardner, reflecting on the dilemma faced by those who had to make the decision about transportation and rail use, says, "No one has time to play make-believe with transportation. Which comes first the rail or the customers?"

Most of the reports state the difficulty of assessing actual potential and were cautious with recommendations. Safe Handling Inc. was noted in the task force report as stating, "Rail needs to be upgraded. If shippers have to load railcars light, to travel over tracks in Maine, their transportation costs increase. Making the best (most economical) use of both rail and truck is key." Class I rail, the type of which the old Calais branch was comprised, restricts speed to 10 miles per hour.

In a February 2000 memorandum recorded by Chris Hall of Stafford Associates about a meeting between Stafford and MDOT representatives, preliminary rehabilitation costs were revised and agreed upon between the two parties. Hall notes, "Given the apparent economies of the line, Stafford cannot recommend an investment C for initial freight operation of the line C beyond the level legally required.... The legislature should be warned that annual maintenance costs have to be funded in the same way that highway maintenance must be, and that in five years or so, payments from operators cannot be expected to cover the full cost of such maintenance." The mutually agreed upon figure for restoring the Calais Branch Railroad, not including a Route 1 to Eastport spur, to initial freight service (the 85 lb. Class I in place) was $18, 371,000 with an annual maintenance cost of $1.2 million.

Roadmap for the future

For many, the controversy that still echoes along the old rail corridor does not rest with the reports but rather in the decision to remove the rails rather than maintain them for future use. MDOT firmly believes that removing the old rail and creating a new bed that will allow for a major rail upgrade to modern standards was a much better roadmap for the future needs of Washington County than maintaining the old lines. The old line was comprised of 85 lb. rails, which while still used sometimes for short light-duty spurs, is considered substandard for most modern rail needs.

Given the length of the Calais branch, the 85 lb. rail, and the speed constraints necessary to maintain safety standards while using it, The Stafford Report raised the question as to whether a rail user could travel the course economically due to the need to change staff after a certain period of travel time. In the 2002 task force report, the figure for annual costs of maintaining the non-operating Calais branch was put at $252,000. The Calais branch, at 126 miles, was more than double the length of any other state-owned rail line at the time.

John Picher comments, "A lot of [the rail] was in terrible shape, especially on curves. A lot of the flanges had been totally bent down. It was put in place in the 1920s." Picher explains that rails are now manufactured to 100 or 120 lb. standards and use a different kind of steel that can be welded together. "Now at least [the bed] is not just being rebuilt, but being rebuilt to accept new ballast and rail and more importantly it will be maintained properly," Picher says.

He reports that the contractor is selling the old rail to two markets, to mining operations, and to a Pennsylvania mill that rerolls the steel into flat stock for guard rails. As for the old ties, Picher states, they have to be closely tracked because of the chemicals used in them as preservatives. Some of the ties, he says, were taken to the new landfill near Old Town where they are being used for lining. The rest are being bundled to sell for landscaping purposes.

The end of the trail

Mark Latti, MDOT public information officer, and Dan Stewart, MDOT transportation planner and bicycle and pedestrian program manager, remark on the bidding process that has resulted in a $2.7 million credit to the state. The winning firm, Vaughn Thibodeau & Sons Inc., used a process that the majority of other bidders used. The contract sum included a $6,600,000 credit to Thibodeau that would be incurred through their sale of rail salvage, equipment and ties. The contract debit of $3,899,996 was for the cost of construction: culverts, $997,651; bridges, $967,948; trail modifications, $1,584,803; parking, $149,592; mobilization, $200,000. Latti and Stewart note that the original contractual bid package allowed for "the basics" to be done on the corridor, but that since then many more culverts have washed out, and change orders have increased the scope of work. The credit has been or will be used to fund the additional work. They reiterate that any remaining funds of the credit will be used on the corridor.

Charlie Corliss, full-time manager of the rails-to-trail project, expects that "everything will be completed by December of 2009, if all goes as planned." That completion date is well ahead of the September 1, 2010, deadline contracted between the State of Maine and Vaughn Thibodeau & Sons. Corliss reports that 50 miles of rail have been removed, with 30 miles of trail close to completion for use, and five miles finished. "We're anticipating that a major portion of the trail will be used over the winter for snowmobiling." Four snowmobile clubs will maintain the trails during the season: Dennysville, Narraguagus, Ridge Riders and Downeast Trail Riders. "A lot of people have been out using the trail already," Corliss remarks. "They've been really enjoying it."


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