November 24. 2013 10:10PM

Railway company proposing Montreal to Portland service through northern NH

Special to the Union Leader

The possibility of passenger rail from Montreal to Portland, Maine, is gaining momentum in the North Country. Two plans to use the rails are awaiting a nod from St. Lawrence and Atlantic.

The Golden Eagle Railway Corporation is proposing a commuter-type day train between Portland and Montreal. It would go from Portland to Montreal one day and back the next day. Its proposed route through New Hampshire would include the towns of Conway, Berlin, Gorham and Groveton.

David Schwanke, president of Golden Eagle, said there would be several stops. Eventually Golden Eagle would like to provide commuter service back and forth four times a day, perhaps more on the weekends.

He said if approved by St. Lawrence and Atlantic, the company would also be looking for a place for a restoration facility and corporate headquarters.

Part of their proposed route would be over New Hampshire-owned rail lines. The late Executive Councilor Ray Burton, a big supporter of passenger rail, was helping the company with that, Schwanke said.

The second proposal comes from Francois Rebella, a former representative on the National Assembly of Quebec, who has teamed up with former Maine State Senate President Richard Bennett. They are proposing a night train that would run between Montreal and Portland. That train would leave Montreal at dinnertime and would include dining cars, lounge cars, a coach and sleeper cars.

 It would arrive in Portland in time to connect with the Amtrak Downeaster to Boston.

The train would return to Portland that evening. Rebella met with Gorham selectmen a couple of weeks ago. He said he is hoping for a three-month pilot program next summer. Because the train would be going through New Hampshire in the middle of the night, it is not clear yet whether other stops would be made.

Proponents of both proposals have requested letters of support from local and state officials, as well as other groups. It is hoped these letters of support will help the railroads get money to upgrade the tracks.

“I would like to see both go,” Schwanke said of the two proposals. “There’s room for both and it would be wonderful for the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and for Montreal.”

Passenger rail was once the lifeblood of Gorham, which boasted several large hotels, including one in the middle of today’s Common — land that was then all owned by the railroad. The trains brought people north to enjoy the mountains and relax. Before automobiles, families often decamped for the summer in a hotel. The train would take the father back to the cities for work on Monday morning, and back to his family Friday nights.

The Androscoggin-Oxford-Coos County Corridor Committee, which met in Gorham last week, considers itself a supporter of a number of initiatives for passenger rail, but not of a particular proposal, according to Glenn Holmes, executive director of Western Maine Economic Development.

The AOCCC includes representation from 13 communities along the potential corridor for passenger rail. Western Maine Economic Development provides staffing and it has been funded by the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a passenger rail advocacy group that has acquired grants from the Sierra Club and the National Realtors Association.

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition supports passenger rail, but has not come out in favor of any particular proposal.