Interest renews in rail proposal through North Country

Plan to include overnight passenger train service between Montreal and Boston with stops in Berlin, Gorham and Durham

A Montreal-based nonprofit has revived its plan to provide overnight passenger train service between Montreal and Boston with stops in Berlin, Gorham and Durham.

The proposed route would run from Montreal with stops in seven Canadian communities, including Sherbrooke and Coaticook.

After crossing the border, it would travel on the track owned by Genesee & Wyoming Railroad from the Canadian border to Auburn, Maine. It would continue to Portland and Old Orchard Beach before crossing back into New Hampshire and then into Boston.

Night Train Foundation officials met with local and regional officials earlier this month about adding a stop in North Stratford, using the former Grand Truck Railroad station there.

Francois Rebello, a former Canadian politician who is working with the foundation, said the stop in Stratford is the result of interest in accommodating the Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch.

Ericka Canales, executive director of Coos Economic Development Corp., said while the drop-off time, estimated to be between 11 p.m. and midnight, might not be the most ideal, the Balsams and others could run a shuttle to get passengers to their establishments.

Canales, who attended the Stratford meeting, said passenger train service allows people who don’t want to drive to get to the North County and allows local people to travel places without driving as well. She said passenger rail service can only help tourism and economic development efforts in North Stratford and the North Country.

The Night Train Foundation first broached the idea of using freight rail lines to run daily passenger trains between Montreal and Boston a decade ago, and at that time met with Gorham and Berlin officials, who were supportive.

Berlin City Councilor Peter Higbee said he was working at Tri-County Community Action Program back in 2013 when Rebello stopped to look at the restored train station the agency uses as its headquarters.

He said TCCAP and Rebello discussed using the building as a stop for the passenger service.

Upgrades required

The proposal languished when it was determined the Canadian tracks needed extensive and expensive repairs to allow faster speeds than that for freight traffic. But last September a meeting on the proposal was held in Coaticook, Quebec, attracted about 60 officials from both sides of the border and garnered lots of media attention. Rebello said the renewed interest is the result of some funding being available.

Rebello said to make the plan a reality would require agreements with four different freight companies that own the tracks they want to use. He said freight cars are heavier than passenger cars, so the tracks can handle the lighter passenger cars. Rebello stressed the proposal does not need high-speed trains, since the idea is for passengers to enjoy dinner and a drink and then go to sleep and wake up in the morning at their destination.

Upgrades would be required to increase speed levels, mainly on the Canadian side where trains are restricted to 25 miles an hour. In addition to the Montreal-to-Boston night train, the Night Train Foundation proposal calls for five daily round trips between Montreal and Sherbrooke.

Rebello said Genesee & Wyoming, which owns almost 53 miles of track in New Hampshire, seems open to discussing the proposal. He is hoping proponents of the plan will talk to their local, state and federal officials to build support for the proposal.

Higbee, who attended the September meeting in Coaticook, said another major issue the parties have to work out is liability and insurance coverage for the night passenger train.

Rebello said he anticipates the night passenger train would have a dining car and five or six sleeper cars that the nonprofit would purchase and refurbish. The 14-hour train ride would depart Montreal about 6 p.m., arriving in Boston about 9 a.m. the next day. In American currency, the estimated fee would be about $160, excluding food and drink. Rebello hopes to see train service begin by 2026.

Passenger rail service in the mid to late 1800s opened the Androscoggin Valley to tourism and fueled the region’s initial growth. Rebello said passenger service does not have to be just part of the region’s past but can once again be part of its future.

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