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Updated: October 28, 2019 Focus on Transportation & Infrastructure

Two-year freight rail upgrade gets underway

rail yard Photo / Maureen Milliken The Pan Am rail yard in Waterville, the northern end of a 75-mile freight rail update project from Waterville to North Yarmouth, a partnership between Pan Am and the state Department of Transportation.

Planning is underway for the upgrade to 75 miles of railroad track that will make Maine more competitive economically, state officials say.

The state Department of Transportation and Pan Am Railroad are sharing the $35 million cost of upgrades between the Pan Am rail yard in Waterville and North Yarmouth, with $17.5 million of the state’s cost paid for by a federal grant.

Construction on the upgrades, a plan first drawn up in 2018, will begin later in the fall and is expected to be completed in 2021. It will include work on 47 public and 42 private crossings in the dozen towns and cities the tracks pass through in Kennebec, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties.

The state says the upgrades are necessary to make Maine a bigger player in the national economy.

“While Maine enjoys the benefits of the local connections and the dedication of numerous short line railroads, it is one of only three states in the U.S. that does not have a Class I railroad, a critical void in the transportation system of the region,” the MDOT says in its report on the project. “Without the national reach of a major system and the resulting revenues that can be enjoyed by shipping commodities long distances across the same rail network, it has proven difficult for Maine’s railroads to make the kinds of investments required to keep rail lines competitive.”

The project “will afford the railroads more traffic and revenues, allowing for further and continuous investment for their properties,” the state says.

Boosting safety, economy

The work is also necessary because of safety reasons, state and Pan Am officials say.

The project will replace parts that, in some places, are more than 50 years old, including replacing 37 miles of rail, upgrading 25 switches, at-grade rail crossings, extending and upgrading a siding in New Gloucester, replacing signal systems, and replacing bridge deck timbers on eight rail bridges.

Map / Courtesy Pan Am Railway
The Pan Am rail line that runs from Waterville south through Oakland, Belgrade, Lewiston and New Gloucester, ending at Royal Junction in North Yarmouth is slated for a major upgrade.

The $17.5 million grant was awarded to the state through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration’s fiscal year 2018 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program.

At the time the award was made, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, said that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called her personally with the news that funding had been approved.

“In my travels throughout Maine, I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects of investing in our railroads to improve safety and boost our economy,” Collins said. “Enhancing the rail connection between manufacturers and the forest products industry and their markets can create a competitive advantage for Maine, helping to create jobs in rural parts of our state.”

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