Monday, December 15, 2014

Take the B-Train; and someday soon, the A-Train?

A loyal reader recently told us about this breaking news item:

We’re filing it under shorts; fried.

And we’re here to tell you that if you thought there was no such thing as a Kool-Aid train,  you would be wrong.  We admit to being a bit surprised ourselves, but it looks like our friends to the north broke the code some time ago.  But our story here is about the A-Train, not the K-Train, though one could advance a theory that the K-Train is the progenitor of them all.

We find ourselves a bit breathless from all the hot buttons this story presses on our master control panel. so we’re simply going to give you the ‘highlights,’ and comment briefly after we do.  Emphasis is ours.


Augusta council inclined to back rail service study

A rail enthusiast says trains could bring money and development, as well as passengers, to the state capital.

AUGUSTA — With rail advocates saying Augusta is well-positioned for an eventual return of passenger train service, city councilors say they plan to approve a proposal to look into the idea.

Richard Rudolph, a director of the nonprofit rail advocacy organization Maine Rail Group, told city councilors Thursday that trains bringing passengers to and from Augusta could bring money and development to the city. That’s especially true of the area surrounding the city-owned former Statler mill on the city’s east side, which Rudolph suggested could become the station at the end of the line and a regional transportation hub.

Randolph told councilors that wherever rail lines go, transit-oriented development follows.

“So I suspect if in fact train service went over the bridge to east Augusta, onto the property the city owns, that would be a huge economic generator. And I think there is enough land over there you could certainly have a railroad station along with whatever else would be put in.”


The resolution would not obligate the city to take action, or even apply for grant funding. But it would provide an official show of support for the return of passenger rail to the city, which is something Rudolph said is needed for the process to move forward.

The council resolution will suggest that a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant be sought to fund detailed planning.

Rudolph said he believes the proposal has a good chance of winning funding in part because it is multimodal, meaning it would involve several forms and uses of transportation serving the region.


A consultant hired to examine potential uses for the Kennebec Lockes site concluded that it could be redeveloped as a mixed use commercial, residential and retail site, with a passenger train station included.  (A consultant hired by who, with whose money, we think it’s fair to ask!)

Rudolph said the city could have a small train stop downtown and have the former Statler site be home to a larger station serving the region, meaning trains would run through downtown and cross the river on a trestle.


The approximately 34 miles of inactive track between Augusta and Brunswick is owned by the state. Amtrak’s Downeaster line to Boston ends in Brunswick. The run, which previously stopped in Portland, was extended in 2012.

Rudolph said passenger rail came probably generated $50 million to $60 million in economic development in Brunswick, including a new hotel.

However, it has also generated complaints from some Brunswick residents concerned about a proposal to build a train layover facility where trains would be kept overnight. Neighbors fear that noise from idling trains might bother them.


Yessir, yessir three bowls full, though Kool-Aid traditionally comes in pitchers and glasses.  Perhaps bobbing for dollars in a tub of Kool-Aid would be a more appropriate image.

                       Bobbing for Dollars.png

Did you drink fully of the standard phraseology of contemporary big government spending with no factual basis or due diligence?  If not, let us help you drink from that grail:

Rail enthusiasts, rail advocates (see TrainRiders Northeeast); otherwise known as elite minorities looking to revive past glories, regardless of economic and physical realities.

Regional transportation hub (see Brunswick Downtown Association); grandiose but unsupported visions aimed at increasing the infusion of OPM.

Transit oriented development follows (see, Brunswick, Town of); note especially that ‘development’ preceded arrival of the transit, aided measurably by a variety of tax breaks and other incentives granted to favored ‘parties.’

Huge economic generator (hollow claims, which no one in officialdom is willing to validate); see Brunswick; ask about Portland.


Grant funding (as long as we’re out of funds, and printing more currency to deal with it, why shouldn’t we get our share?)

TIGER Grants (of which NNEPRA has lost the last three application cycles; proposals typically exceed ‘available’ funds by nearly ten to one)

Consultants (most of whom claim direct access to free money from external sources; see Grants, TIGER; see Howard; Scott)


Or, you could just summarize things by seeing Entitlement Syndrome; civic variety.

We’re reminded of two other specifics.  First, Dale McCormick, former ED of the Maine State Housing Authority, former state treasurer, and bona-fide big government groupie and true believer, especially when it comes to grants and other forms of free money, is a member of the Augusta City Council.  They deserve her, and you can take that any way you wish.

We have half a mind (watch it, smarty pants) to fire off a communiqué to the Augusta City Council, but we only have time to bang our head on so many walls.  Still, we might decide to have a little fun with this.


Then there was a recent opinion item published in the Topsham Town Cryer, in which a so-called transit expert opined about the wonders of rail travel, as if we never had passenger rail service before in this country.  His thoughts were embraced by Saint Wayne Davis of TRNE, who happens to live in the same town.

We won’t bore you with a detailed assessment here.  Suffice it to say that anyone who lives in Topsham and works in Boston is not one you should listen to on almost anything, but especially in matters of transit.

Said individual appears to have graduated from the “Downtown Association” School of glowing and unsubstantiated platitudes.  He also seems not to grasp the not-so-subtle differences between freight and passenger rail, and how their business models differ in ever so significant ways. 

Best we can surmise, he’s making a living in that quasi-governmental cloud of promotional schemers that get local agencies all atwitter with the possibilities of making their little corner of the world an economic whirlwind. 

Professionals, consultants, whatever.  A few finely tuned PowerPoint charts here, lots of buzzwords there, and next thing you know, the dollars start flowing, and nothing in the way of a return is required to earn them.  Think terms like ‘reinvention,’ ‘youthful packs of bright, ambitious change makers,’ and soon the vapors take the place of common sense.  Before you know it, you’re convinced that Maine is just a train or two away from becoming the New York metropolitan area.

Want proof?  Just look how our own Portland has been transformed in the twelve years or so since the Downeaster has been servicing the city.  Why it’s almost unrecognizable, don’t you think?

We rest our case.  And our invoice is on its way.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“Maine Leads?” Not always in the best ways, Pilgrim.


Maine’s state motto is ‘Dirigo,’ which we’re told, means “Maine Leads.”  Shirley most of the time we choose to take this in the best possible sense.  But the word ‘leads’ in and of itself is neither negative or positive.  It’s quite possible to lead in embarrassing ways, such as leading in property tax levies, which is not an honor to be sought or bragged about, at least in our humble view.

Friends of ours with great curiosity recently came upon a ‘consent decree’ that relates to diesel engine idling and operating in the nearby great state of Massachusetts, which is one of the states that our very own Downeaster operates in.  The material below, taken from a US EPA web site, summarizes the decree. 

Emphasis is ours, and we use it to highlight the reference to a federally enforceable state regulation, which seems to be the crux of the decree.  Apparently Maine has no such regulation, and at least in this case, “Massachusetts Leads.”

We can’t help but wonder why NNEPRA and other concerned authorities, all of whom tout the great benefits of the Downeaster in getting filthy polluting autos off our byways and highways, haven’t pressed for such a regulation.  Or taken it upon themselves to voluntarily behave as if we did have one, without being told to do so.

This seems like a perfect opportunity for someone in state government to grab the bull by the tail and face the situation, as we often say.  Anyone who successfully does so will earn a “Maine Catches Up” award from Other Side.  And earn the undying gratitude of many in the process.

For the nonce, we wonder whether NNEPRA could have exposure in this matter on the basis of federal guidelines and regulations alone, and whether relevant Environmental Assessments and other efforts in the past somehow ignored these factors.  Only The Shadow knows, wherever he is.


MBTA to Spend Millions to Reduce Commuter Train Emissions in Clean Air Act Settlement

Release Date: 08/04/2010
Contact Information: EPA, David Deegan, (617) 918-1017 DOJ, (202) 514-2007

Joint News Release
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New England Regional Office
Department of Justice

(Boston, Mass. – Aug. 4, 2010) – In response to a federal enforcement action for excessive train engine idling, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company (MBCR) will spend more than $2 million to reduce diesel locomotive emissions throughout the MBTA’s commuter rail system, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today.

Under a consent decree lodged in federal court, MBTA and MBCR will spend over $1 million on anti-idling equipment at all end-of-line stations and maintenance facilities, and will spend another $1 million on ultra-clean diesel fuel for all trains in the commuter rail system for two years.

These emission-reducing measures are the result of a federal enforcement action brought by the Justice Department on behalf of EPA in response to MBTA’s and MBCR’s excessive locomotive idling at the Widett Circle layover facility in South Boston and the Greenbush line station in Scituate, Mass. Neighboring residents have complained of excessive train idling at both locations.
To settle the enforcement action, MBTA and MBCR will:

- Install or upgrade electric plug-in stations as anti-idling equipment to supply all commuter locomotives with electric auxiliary power to prevent excess idling during train layovers;
- Switch to cleaner burning, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for all trains on the MBTA’s commuter rail lines for a two year period at an estimated cost of $1 million;
- Install new, less polluting auxiliary engines on fourteen commuter locomotives by no later than December 2012; and
- Pay a $225,000 fine.

The anti-idling measures, clean diesel fuel switch, and new auxiliary engines required by the federal settlement will have significant clean air benefits. For example, a reduction in commuter locomotive idling by even one hour per day per locomotive, together with the fuel switch and new engines, could result in yearly carbon dioxide emission reductions of an estimated 800 tons, nitrogen oxides reductions of nearly 170 tons, carbon monoxide reductions of about 80 tons, particulate reductions of 23 tons, and sulfur dioxide reductions of 1-2 tons.

MBTA owns 80 commuter locomotives used on 13 commuter rail routes in Eastern Massachusetts. Since 2003, MBCR has managed and operated the commuter train system for the MBTA. The system includes 14 layover facilities where the locomotives and passenger cars are parked and serviced between runs. Electric plug-in stations at these facilities supply the trains with electric power for lights and ventilation. If a plug-in is not available, a train on layover idles its auxiliary diesel engine to supply any needed electric power.

Under today’s settlement, which must be approved by the court, commuter train layovers will only be allowed at locations where there are sufficient electric plug-in stations for all trains.

The Massachusetts locomotive idling regulation, a federally-enforceable state regulation, prohibits all unnecessary diesel locomotive idling for more than 30 minutes. According to a 2008 notice of violation issued by EPA, MBTA and MBCR committed 33 violations of this regulation at Widett Circle and Greenbush in three months. At Widett, the average idling time during the violations was just under four hours (234 minutes).

“This precedent-setting, multi-million dollar settlement for train idling is appropriate in light of the defendants’ conduct,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The settlement will provide immediate and lasting environmental benefits to the residents of Eastern Massachusetts, particularly those in environmental justice communities.”

“It is imperative that anti-idling laws are followed, given the proximity of these layover facilities to densely-populated communities and environmental justice neighborhoods,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office. “Diesel pollution can be very harmful, especially to sensitive populations such as the young, elderly and people who suffer from asthma.”

Diesel emissions contribute to a number of serious air pollution problems such as smog, acid rain and increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Diesel exhaust contains fine particles that can cause lung damage and aggravate respiratory conditions, such as asthma and bronchitis. Based upon human and laboratory studies, there is also considerable evidence that diesel exhaust is a likely carcinogen.

Since 2002, EPA has brought more than a dozen federal enforcement cases to stop diesel engine idling violations in Mass., Conn. and R.I. Most of the cases have involved diesel truck and bus idling, including a judicial settlement announced in July 2010 against National Car Rental for shuttle bus idling at two airports. Only Massachusetts and Rhode Island have federally-enforceable locomotive idling regulations, and today’s action marks the first time EPA and DOJ have sued a railroad for excessive idling violations.

More information:
The consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court, will be subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. Once it is published in the Federal Register, a copy of the consent decree and instructions on how to comment will be available on the Justice Department Web site at (
Fact Sheet on MBTA Settlement:

Diesel exhaust and anti-idling guidelines (


The above materials are found here:!OpenDocument&Highlight=2,national,car,rental

See also, which contains these words:


  • Diesel exhaust contains fine particles which can aggravate asthma and cause lung damage as well as premature death. Diesel Engines last a long time (20-30 years).
  • EPA has classified diesel particulate matter as a likely human carcinogen.
  • All six New England states have childhood asthma rates above 10 percent.

What is EPA Doing?

To reduce diesel pollution and help ensure that New Englanders have cleaner air, EPA has set stringent emission standards for new diesel engines and diesel fuel. These national standards reduce diesel pollution from new diesel engines by 90 percent. To reduce diesel pollution from existing diesel engines, EPA is implementing voluntary local and regional initiatives. In addition, EPA is encouraging schools, businesses, institutions and communities to develop anti-idling policies.

Since 2002, more than 10,000 engines operating in New England have been or are being retrofitted with pollution control technology.

We’re not subject matter experts, but we recall hearing over the last few years that the engines pulling the much beloved Downeasters are not retrofitted with pollution control technology as referred to here.  That would mean NNEPRA is “voluntarily” not implementing the cleaner air initiative.  But we’ll look to involved officials to correct us if we’re wrong.

Having spent a number of hours within hundreds of feet of idling Downeasters, if they have been retrofitted, the technology, in a word, sucks.

We hear so often that Maine is all about ‘pristine environments,’ so we ask ‘where’s the beef?’  Or for those readers so inclined, ‘where’s the kale?’

On the other side of the ball, there are known ailments caused by breathing too deeply and too purely, as certain local residents remind us from time to time.


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Saturday, December 13, 2014

An Ostrich Op-Ed, challenging Brunswick “leadership”


As we told you before, we’re into the holiday season break.  So take this offering plain and simple; the Ostrich ran it a day ago (Friday, 12 December).


Afraid of Downeaster Truth?


The Amtrak Downeaster has been operating between Portland and Boston for more than 10 years; the extension between Portland and Brunswick has been in operation for two years.

The service to Brunswick has received glowing praise for its “great benefit” to our local economy. While no objective data can be found to support that claim, Brunswick taxpayers directly subsidize the service to the tune of $100,000 a year, or $2,000 a week. Community leaders are bursting with glee at plans to increase service to Brunswick from two round trips a day to five.

Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the state agency that operates the Downeaster, was created by Maine State Law in 1995 during the King administration.

The law mandated creation of the agency, directed that it establish passenger rail service and obtain the funds to do so by whatever means it could find. The law did not call for assessment beforehand of public transportation needs; nor analysis of alternatives for meeting any credible needs; nor the creation of a viable, sustainable economic model for implementing and operating this service.

It simply directed that passenger rail service be established, without benefit of due diligence. As such, NNEPRA and the Downeaster are a perfect example of government decreeing a solution, and then sending it off in search of a problem that may or may not exist.

Brunswick is home to Bowdoin College, a respected, highly selective institution with an Economics department. They are committed to service learning and engagement with the community. Brunswick is proud of its relationship with the college, which among other things, resulted in the McLellan building becoming our town hall.

The absence of objective economic benefit data for the Downeaster provides an opportunity for a win-win town-gown collaborative effort. College economics students could evaluate the local economy, and Brunswick could gain economic insights to substantiate future decisions about Downeaster related policy and spending.

Accordingly, I proposed a collaborative ‘town-gown’ economic study of local Downeaster consequences. I drafted a ‘framework’ for the study, even suggesting tailored parameters that might apply.

Points to consider in such an effort include these: l Many local businesses offer no attraction to visitors, and would seldom if ever benefit from their travel here on the Downeaster. I doubt anyone comes to town on the train to do banking, get their hair done, their shirts laundered, their eyes tested, or their health tended to at a walk-in clinic.

  • Claims by local businesses of meaningful patronage from train-riders must be balanced by the fact that no-one can measure the offsetting opportunities lost when area residents take their patronage out of town. There is, surely, a suction effect carrying dollars south, but identifying the specifics is uncomfortable, if not impolitic.
  • Someone coming to town on the train does not mean they come to town because of the train. Diversion from one travel mode to another yields no economic benefit.
  • Lack of specificity in ridership reporting is troubling. Virtually every rider is on a round-trip, some originating here, and some originating at points south. One traveler shows up as two in ridership figures.
  • Downeaster effect on Concord Coach ridership is unknown. This service began long before Amtrak came to town. The bus service is far more economical, flexible, convenient, versatile, and environmentally friendly than the train.

My hope was to make the proposal a formal agenda item for council consideration and a vote. I spoke with four councilors about the possibility of sponsoring a motion so it could come before the council and the public. None signed on to do so. One spoke with a Bowdoin faculty member, who suggested grants would be necessary, it could not get underway before next summer, etc. This typifies bureaucratic inclinations to turn simple questions into grand pursuits, creating a ‘too hard’ perception.

Hence, the proposal is a ‘dead letter,’ and I can’t hep but wonder why. Are those I spoke to unwilling to face what could be disappointing realities? Has too much personal and taxpayer capital been invested in the groundwork for Maine Street Station and the Downeaster service? Are they fearful of offending various town leaders, of both the official and unofficial sort? Are they worried that developing a factual basis for future policy and funding could cause NNEPRA to discontinue service here? Is there a council Svengali who nixed the idea?

More to the point, is official Brunswick afraid of the truth? Or that such a study could not be conducted objectively? If so, what a sad story that tells about elected leadership, and what a pall it casts upon other discussions of governance that come before this body. Not to mention the perceived academic integrity of Bowdoin.

In closing, as someone said recently, lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and this situation may be as simple as that.

Pem Schaeffer is a retired Defense Industry Business Development Leader. He blogs at


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Sunday, December 7, 2014

“Blog Interrupted,” and a Betke bon-bon.


OK; let’s be honest with each other.  We’ve been AWOL for….well….it looks like two weeks.

Now it’s your turn to be honest.  We’re guessing you barely noticed, and even if you did, you really didn’t much care, or were at least grateful for the break from our usual inanities.  Thanks for being frank with us.  If not chance or shirley.

The truth is the holiday season, and this year, the early foul weather, have taken their usual toll on our priorities.  For the first time in several years, we had the whole clan here for Thanksgiving.  Only to be surprised by an 11” snow before hand, when we hadn’t yet converted our yard tractor to snow blower configuration!   Just a week before, we’d made our last mulching pass over accumulated fallen leaves.

We’re still out of sync with the chores of the seasonal transition, but we won’t bore you further.  Suffice it to say that from here on out through the end of the year, our ‘reporting’ level will be severely diminished because of life getting in the way.  And we’re glad it does.  We hope it does the same for you.

Moving on, we want you to read and absorb a column of a few weeks ago by George Betke, a transportation professional and guest columnist here on Other Side a few months back.  It appeared in the BDN, and we’re posting it here because we presume George would give us his permission to do so.

Amtrak’s Brunswick boosters should focus on cutting losses, not grandiose schemes

By George C. Betke Jr., Special to the BDN

Posted Nov. 18, 2014, at 1:26 p.m.


George Danby | BDN

No Maine politician was in full campaign mode this fall more than the longtime head of TrainRiders/Northeast, the advocacy group for Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which continues to extol the presumed virtues of extended Amtrak rail service beyond Boston and Portland. Its sole standard of success appears to be Downeaster ridership, which has been “gradually increasing over the years” but not lately, either for all trains or those serving the Brunswick extension, now ending its second year of operation.

Just as politicians obfuscate facts and create distractions, so does this organization of enthusiasts enamored with the notion that a widespread rail renaissance is worthy of massive public investment and ongoing subsidies. Its vision, acute so long as federal funding and compliant public officials are available, is nonetheless backward looking to an era predating the interstate highway system and modern airline network. States pay a heavy premium to extend passenger rail service to sparsely populated outlying areas.

TrainRiders’ true colors were revealed at its recent annual banquet in mid-October.

“It all depends on money, but there will be grants available,” its chairman declared while promoting a new, “seamless” route to New York. “After the election, there will be all kinds of new little surprises,” he said referring to the role of politics in such matters.

Special interest wish lists too often lead to bad public spending — politicians say “investment” — decisions. An airplane is faster, bus cheaper and both are more frequent. So why should the many underwrite a train for the few who would use it?

The comparable Vermonter route — St. Albans, Vermont, to New York in 9 hours, 26 minutes — covered only 43.7 percent of its direct operating expenses in 2012, according to Amtrak. TrainRiders seems oblivious to Amtrak’s dire need to right-size an overextended national passenger network that is increasingly dependent on subsidies for 29 routes from 18 participating states.

The opening paragraph on the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s website describes “a public transportation authority created in 1995 by the Maine State Legislature to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine.” The operation is acknowledged to require substantial federal and state support, but there is no mention of the expense side of the financial equation. In the minds of some, Amtrak simply should run more trains to accommodate whatever demand may exist at various times of day, regardless of the inescapable need for greater public subsidy. An inter-city passenger train is a string of costly vehicles that must be well patronized to minimize losses, for direct operating expenses vary negligibly with seat occupancy.

We’ve been conditioned to believe the Downeaster is a great thing for Maine and Brunswick, even though the primary benefit accrues to out-of-staters at Maine’s net expense. The Portland Press Herald reported in September that 63 percent of patrons boarding or leaving the four daily Brunswick trains during the fiscal year ended in June did so at stations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where the schedule is convenient for Boston commutation. “The popularity of the train in the southern end of the route makes it hard to fill the train in Brunswick,” the Press Herald reported, paraphrasing the authority’s executive director. “So a prospective customer who wants to board in Brunswick and travel to Boston may not be able to reserve a seat because all the available seats for that train are reserved by passengers who will board farther down the line.

The translation of that statement is, “absent more substantial and consistent demand at Maine stations, we must fill otherwise empty seats with regular down-line commuters and occasional travelers attracted by a variety of promotional discounts.” Without their revenue contributions, continued Downeaster service could not be assured. The low-fare Haverhill passholder ($6.64 each way for a 21-weekday month) can preempt an occasional Brunswick patron paying significantly more ($14.50 with a round-trip “value” ticket).

Adding midday Brunswick trains is an unlikely remedy for disappointing revenue production there, however, because out-of-state seat occupancy should be considerably lower outside of normal commutation hours. Either way, persistent claims that the Downeaster is overwhelmingly successful are suspect when it diverts far more traffic from highways in states other than its principal subsidizer.

When will we learn that small and/or seasonal markets cannot support grandiose schemes? Initiatives like the Nova Star international ferry, the Montreal hotel train and the Downeaster to New York are expensive transportation niceties, not necessities, viable only so long as politicians authorize speculative public outlays to establish, operate and maintain them.

No knowledgeable person expects light-density Amtrak service to be profitable, even without attributing capital charges. Maine taxpayers should, however, expect the authority to focus on minimizing losses rather than extravagant empire building to the Empire State.

George C. Betke Jr. is president of Transport Economics, Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.

Here’s the link to the item as it appeared in that paper:

Be sure to see the posted comments, which are highly revealing.  The thinking of those most supportive of passenger rail service is laid bare, so to speak.  Hardly any mention the difference between freight and passenger rail.  Virtually none mention that today’s buses are ultra clean, and far more environmentally friendly than a passenger train.  Especially one running with so few passengers.

As to comments about “all modes of transportation being subsidized,” suggesting that it’s perfectly fine to shovel millions per year (that we don’t actually have) into operating the Downeaster, we take exception.

As an example, we cite the Maine Turnpike.  We pass along this input from an authoritative source:

MTA (Maine Turnpike Authority) is paying its own way.  There has never been $1 of tax money of any kind spent on the Turnpike.  It is 100% funded by tolls and borrowings by investors (bonds.)  I have been on the board for three years and haven't seen the MTA's finances in better shape than now.

We defy anyone associated with the Downeaster (and Amtrak, for that matter) to even hint at such a thought. 


Not that devoted and thoughtful supporters won’t try.                

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