Project's more than pretty Rolling up Maine's coast nice and easy

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2005

BRUNSWICK, Maine -- ''Passenger service is back" proclaims Gordon Fuller, chief operating officer of the Maine Eastern Railroad, connecting Brunswick and Rockland, with stops in Bath and Wiscasset.

The Bullet Train it isn't: The 54-mile run takes two hours and 15 minutes.

''The train is capable of 110 miles per hour, but when we moved quickly on experimental runs, people said the scenery went by too fast," Fuller says. ''It's one of the prettiest rides in the United States."

Certainly, you see more meadows, rivers, and coves from this train than from Route 1, and chances are that on weekends, when the Maine Eastern offers at least two round trips, the train moves faster than the traffic.

As Maine residents and regular visitors know too well, Interstate 295 turns inland at Brunswick, shunting coastal-bound vehicles onto Route 1. The first backup comes in Brunswick as Route 1 hangs a left. Head straight ahead instead, up Pleasant Street. Follow signs into the Cedar Street parking lot and climb aboard the Maine Eastern. Thursdays and Fridays, the train leaves Brunswick at 4 p.m., arriving in Rockland at 6:15. Saturdays and Sundays, it departs at 10:15 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Settle into a vintage plush blue or purple seat in one of several air-controlled, 1940s and '50s stainless steel coaches or (weekends only) in the ''Alexander Hamilton," the glass-domed observation car. . In the dining car, spoon chowder or munch a lobster roll as the train swings along the Wiscasset waterfront and then across the wide Sheepscot River.

Stand between the cars, the better to catch the breeze. The two reconditioned 1950s diesel electric engines zip quietly along at 40 to 50 miles per hour, through woods and villages, around quiet coves, following the shoreline much of the way into Rockland.

The Maine Eastern's parent company is the New Jersey-based Morristown & Erie Railway. Primarily a freight line, the M&E also owns a number of vintage passenger coaches, chartering them to filmmakers and to groups that piggyback them onto Amtrak trains.

The M&E began hauling freight along this stretch of state-owned track in 2003. Last year, Maine Governor John Baldacci invited the company to ferry passengers from Brunswick to Rockland for the annual Maine Lobster Festival (Wednesday to Sunday this year). The festival is the biggest event of the summer along the Maine coast, and this year, the Maine Eastern is running seven round trips to meet the demand.

From its inception this ''Lobster Train," as it was initially known, was about more than easing traffic on just one busy weekend. It continued to run on weekends, without publicity, into foliage season. With a more passenger-friendly schedule and a better website featuring packages and fine-tuned links to its destinations, the Maine Eastern launched this season on the July 4 weekend.

''We see this as one more step in our overall strategy to reduce congestion throughout the south and mid-coast," says Ronald Roy, director of the Office of Passenger Transportation at the state Department of Transportation.

In recent years, Maine officials have invested $30 million to upgrade the track between Brunswick and Rockland. Plans call for the Maine Eastern to connect eventually with Amtrak's Downeaster between Portland and Boston.

Now, however, the 30-mile gap in passenger rail service north of Portland is real. The popular 9:45 a.m. Downeaster from Boston's North Station arrives at 12:15 p.m. at the Portland Transportation Center, but the next bus (Concord Trailways) to Brunswick doesn't leave until 2 p.m. That same bus leaves South Station in Boston at 12:01 p.m., making it more convenient to take the bus -- or even drive the 2 1/2 hours from Boston to Brunswick.

This scenario is changing, however, as word of the Maine Eastern spreads. Shuttle van service for the half hour ride from Portland to Brunswick is already available.

A lively college town (Bowdoin is here) with shops and restaurants, Brunswick is also home to the Maine State Music Theatre. It's a delightful, walk-around town that can absorb a couple of hours or days.

''We're already seeing a travel trend to Rockland on Thursday, returning Sunday," says Sherry Lewis, passenger marketing director for the Maine Eastern.

Rockland, more than any other Maine city, has reinvented itself over the last decade. Formerly the gritty, self-proclaimed ''lobster capital of the world," it's now known as the home of the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center with Maine-themed paintings and works by three generations of Wyeths. In recent years, storefronts along Main Street have filled with galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.

The city continues to evolve. There is a new Maine Lighthouse Museum and Gateway Visitor Center, with impressive lighthouse lamps, lifesaving artifacts, and displays on the state's 65 lighthouses. The Strand Theatre, closed for five years, has recently reopened, restored to its original 1920s Art Deco glory, this time with air conditioning and an upper-balcony wine bar, staging live performances and screening art films.

The Maine Eastern is viewed as a benchmark in Rockland's revival. This month, the train began running right to Union Station, built in the 1870s to serve passengers arriving from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and switching in Rockland to steamers bound for resorts along Penobscot Bay.

Union Station still houses offices, but it, too, is slated for restoration. While the high-speed ferry to points east may still be a dream, passengers arriving on the Maine Eastern can transfer to the frequent ferries serving the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven, as well as to a number of windjammers offering multi-day cruises down the bay.

In Bath, the Maine Eastern also stops at the city's former rail station where it is met by a trolley (on wheels) that stops at the Maine Maritime Museum, the area's prime attraction 1 1/2 miles away along the Kennebec River. The station itself, now shuttered but scheduled for restoration as a visitors center, is steps from Bath's mid-19th century Front Street, lined with specialty shops.

Wiscasset is the smallest community served by the Maine Eastern's regular schedule. It's also the destination for a Thursday and Friday ''lunch run" (departing Brunswick 11:45 a.m., arriving at 12:30 p.m., and departing at 1 p.m.). A picturesque cluster of 19th-century mansions and shops, it harbors a number of antiques shops and several good restaurants overlooking a wide stretch of the Sheepscot River.

''The Journey Is the Destination" is the Maine Eastern's slogan, and the experience itself is indeed worth a trip. The communities served are inviting, even more so minus the traffic hassle to reach them.

The train operates on its current schedule through Labor Day, then weekends through October.

Christina Tree is coauthor of ''Maine, An Explorer's Guide" (Countryman, 2005) with Nancy English.

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