Thursday, April 19, 2018

Something smells fishy, and we think it’s coming from NNEPRA

You may have seen news earlier this year about NNEPRA adding to the Downeaster passenger rail service with summer weekend runs up the coast from Brunswick to Rockland.  Here’s one example:

The service is a pilot project dubbed the “Coastal Connection,” and would only run on weekends as a slower excursion designed for tourists stopping in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle, and Rockland.

The plan, said NNERPA Executive Director Patricia Quinn, is to more fully utilize train sets already in use by the organization, minimizing the cost – about $200,000 – of the additional run.

A conservative estimate of potential ticket sales is around $100,000, Quinn added.

It didn’t take long before affected communities….Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle, and Rockland….were counting their chickens before they hatched, and looking for summer time infusions of free money from wild-spending tourists.

While the initial hype was that the new service would run ten weekends per year, it didn’t take long before plans were revised down to three weekends.

And then, before the chickens and free money hatched, the kibosh was put on the whole idea.  From


Quinn has said the extension of the Downeaster service would utilize existing rail and train infrastructure. While the Maine Department of Transportation owns the 58 miles of tracks between Brunswick and Rockland, the Central Maine and Quebec Railway lease the tracks for carrying freight……..Amtrak will come back later this year to conduct the risk assessment on the Brunswick-Rockland line, she said.

Let’s cut to the chase with some succinct points in response to the specifics of this situation:

1) Patricia Quinn, ED of NNEPRA, is an employee of the State of Maine entrusted with managing operation of the Downeaster, and any other passenger rail service she can go out and sell to anyone who will listen and help find the funds to pay for it.   She clearly proposed seasonal weekend service to the communities along the Rockland Branch, getting them all worked up and salivating over the new economic riches that would come their way this summer.  Doing so before seeing to it that everything was in place to make these promises come true is a clear indication of how she prioritizes marketing far higher than managing the operation of the NNEPRA/Downeaster enterprise on behalf of citizens/taxpayers of Maine.

“The public support was overwhelming. There’s a lot of energy,” said Quinn. “I think it just showed there’s really a strong desire for such a service.”……..“We’re hopeful we can get the resources and the support that we need going forward such that we can offer a good service in 2019.”

2) Selling this service to the affected towns isn’t hard; there are always downtown association and chamber types who will rave about the possibility of incoming dollars for which they are convinced will be paid for with OPM.  They NEVER consider the downside, like economic suction from their communities to points more exciting down south, like Boston.

3) Quinn commented that she believed she could pay for the losses involved in any such new service out of existing operating accounts.  This is preposterous and laughable considering that the current Downeaster operation runs at an operating loss in the range of $10 million per year.  Apparently she has adopted the Federal Government’s approach towards overspending, deficits, and federal debt.  This should come as no surprise, since Amtrak, the provider of Downeaster Train Sets and Crews has operated at a substantial loss since its inception.  We believe it was created to fill the gap left by private passenger rail services going belly-up because they were not viable and sustainable.


(Above extract is from a letter dated February 26, 2018 from the Commissioner of MDOT)

4) The State of Maine owns the Rockland Branch – the trackage upon which the summer excursion would operate.  Accordingly, NNEPRA did not have the bargaining options open to it that they do with Pan Am and the MBTA.  Quid-pro-quo arrangements with the State just aren’t an option.  We’re suspicious this is already a money-loser for the State, and hence their recent letter to NNEPRA and it’s Board stating they would not be providing any new funding to help initiate the Downeaster extension to Rockland.

5) We’re told by reliable sources that the Rockland Branch is in very good shape, and may be in better shape than much of the Downeaster route south of Brunswick.  Witness the plans for another major tie replacement this year, in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 ties total.  That should cause a major hit in service curtailments and on-time-performance.

6) NNEPRA’s proposal for this service claimed the 58 mile run would take two hours plus.  That’s an average of something under 30 miles an hour, which would make sense, since it would be a summertime excursion service, and sightseeing would be a substantial appeal, if not the only appeal.  This top speed requires far less in track bed quality than running at 70 miles an hour.  Furthermore, the Maine Eastern Railroad ran a nearly identical service between Brunswick and Rockland for several years, but gave it up because it was not economically viable.  But they are a private railroad, not a publicly operated one.  None-the-less, they didn’t seem to have any issues with track and bridge condition to operate their service.

7) Using the excuse that Amtrak is too backed up to get to route inspection in time to initiate the service this summer is a distraction of convenience.  The Rockland Branch gets very little use since the Maine Eastern service ended, and should not have deteriorated significantly since then.  As shown by the MDOT letter, the State is not willing to fund any remediation deemed necessary for the Downeaster runs.

Amtrak was unable to complete a risk assessment of the railroad from Brunswick to Rockland in time to launch the pilot program this summer, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

“One of the caveats of moving forward with the service this summer was that Amtrak would be able to complete what they are calling a risk assessment of the railroad line,” she said Tuesday. “We were notified yesterday that due to some of their other priorities and other deadlines that they have, they’re not going to be able to complete that this spring in timely enough fashion for us to be able to get crew qualified and operate services this summer.”

8) Lastly, using Amtrak as the scapegoat for not beginning the service this summer is too cute by half.  Amtrak is way off there in the distance in the seat of our Nation’s government.  They are big scary federal officials, not easily accessible to the ladies of AAB or any other zealots for passenger rail.  Invoking them as the cause is tantamount to saying “it’s not us, it’s them, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.


All in all, this situation comes down to another indication of NNEPRA’s lack of expertise in the real details of railroading, program management, and execution.  Not to mention Ms. Quinn’s penchant (and TRNE’s as well) for selling the sizzle before she has any ideal how to buy, cook, and serve a steak.

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