Maine firm’s Portland-Montreal passenger rail plan includes Berlin

The goal is to connect the new rail service with Amtrak’s Downeaster

A retired transportation coordinator for low-budget Hollywood productions says he will be able to raise over $40 million to start passenger rail service from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, with a stop in Berlin, N.H.

“We’ve accomplished more in three months than most rail companies have accomplished in three years,” said David Schwanke, president of Golden Eagle Railway Corp., a newly formed company based in Maine.

Schwanke said he is currently in negotiations with Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange with more than $875 million in revenues last year and over $5 billion in assets, which owns the St. Lawrence and Atlantic line that would be used for he rail service.

The intention is to connect the new rail service with Amtrak’s Downeaster, which runs from Boston to Portland. The east-west line would cross into the Granite State near Bethel, Maine, stop in Berlin, and perhaps Groveton and North Stratford, and then, after cutting a corner of Vermont, head into Canada and connect with the Canadian National Line in Quebec.

The rail cars will be higher-end than Amtrak and without what Schwanke called the “Amtrak mentality.”

Schwanke said he has raised private capital before in an attempt to start up a rail line in Los Angeles. That plan failed because of objections by a city councilor who insisted the line have a stop in his district, Schwanke.

Aside from that, his transportation experience comes mainly from Hollywood, where he worked his way up from a driver for actor Michael Landon, star of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven” to logistics manager and line producer for several low-budget productions.

His biography on the website IMDb lists him as transportation coordinator for such films as “Just One of the Girls” and “Tomcat Dangerous Desires” in the 1990s.

Schwanke moved to Maine in 2006 and unsuccessfully ran in 2012 as a Democratic candidate for state senator in District 26, which represents about 20 communities in Somerset County.

Schwanke said his plan was to raise $25 million to $30 million for the first year in operation, and then another $20 million the next year and “somewhat less after that,” with plans to make a profit in the third year, “if only for a penny.”

The funds, he said, would be raised privately, though he did not disclose how.

“We’ll be doing this without burdening the taxpayers,” he said. “That just slows things down.”

In April – after five year of debate – New Hampshire approved $3.7 million of federal funding just to study bringing a passenger rail line from Boston up to Concord. It’s estimated that it would cost about $300 million to actually do it.

There are some who had hoped that that line would someday extend up through Burlington to Montreal, but not in the near future.

So when Schwanke proposed a line that would run from Portland to Montreal for a lot less was greeted with skepticism.

“The first thing they say is, ‘You are kidding,’ but when after they sit down and talk to us, they know we are not kidding,” he said.

The projects are different, he emphasized, since the line The St Lawrence and Atlantic line currently runs about two to four freight trains daily so it wouldn’t cost that much to add on passenger rail.

The big unknown is how much Genesee will charge for the use of the line and for insurance. Golden Eagle submitted a proposal and is waiting for a reply, Schwanke said. But he added that Genesee has been very open to the idea, since passenger rail might attract federal infrastructure funding, which could help the company’s freight business.

A message left with the Genesee’s Auburn, Maine, office was not been returned by deadline.

Gorham resident and rail enthusiast Don Provencher also thought the project had an excellent chance, particularly since Golden Eagle wasn’t dealing with Pan Am, which controls much of the Nashua line.

“They are sometimes hard to deal with,” said Provencher.

Provencher said he has been “beating the drums for a long time” about bringing passenger rail to the St. Lawrence and Atlantic line, arguing that passenger rail service wouldn’t just be a revival of the glory days of the Grand Trunk Railroad.

The rail would not only help bring in tourists from Canada and skiers from Boston, but would also transport those from the North Country to the new casino in Oxford, Maine. With promotional packages and marketing, “this could be really something,” Provencher said.

There is a lot of “aggressive” support from communities in Maine, as well as during a recent meeting in Berlin.

“People are more than ready,” he said. “It would be a fabulous thing for us to climb on board.”

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