It has been half a century coming, but for the first time since passenger service ended on the old Maine Central Railroad, folks can once again sidle up to the ticket counter at the newly restored Rockland train station and buy passage on a vintage railcar for a gently rolling ride to Brunswick.
This fall you can experience Maine foliage on an expedition like no other, gliding past backyards and city intersections, farmers' fields and deep forests, coastal coves and tidal inlets, all the while gazing out the window of a finely restored 1940s passenger train.No gas pumps. No bottlenecks. No overflowing parking lots. This ride is relaxation all the way, providing more than two hours of the finest fall colors Maine has to offer.
The Maine Eastern Railroad runs round-trip between Rockland and Brunswick twice a day with stops in Wiscasset and Bath, and it is possible to catch or disembark from the train at any of these four locations. Tickets are available by reservation or after boarding and are available for short legs or the whole journey. Round-trip tickets are even good for extended stays, giving riders greater flexibility.
But most of all this trip is fun. The very sight of the pine-green and white locomotive, with a gold stripe running along its side, is enough to make mothers hold their babies up to windows, for old men to put their hands on their hips and stare, for drivers to lean out their car doors and wave as the train rushes by.
"There's just something about trains," explains Ernie Vannah, a Waldoboro insurance agent and captain of the fire department who is a part-time conductor on the Maine Eastern. "It's the sheer size and magnitude of them, these massive pieces of equipment coming down the tracks. And it's a really pretty ride. I'd do it every day of my life."
Vannah not only works on the train, he also helped rebuild the track it runs on, dropping loads of crushed stone beneath the rails. And he's old enough to remember the last passenger cars chugging through Winslow Mills, the little town where he grew up, when he was still young enough to ride a tricycle around the freight house.
"It was like losing an old friend," says Vannah of when the trains stopped coming.
Three years ago, when the state selected Morristown & Erie, Maine Eastern's parent company, to run freight along the tracks, Vannah was among the first to be hired on. "I just had to be part of it," he says.
And he's not alone. The Maine Eastern began offering passenger service at the request of Governor Baldacci during last year's Lobster Festival in Rockland. The paint wasn't even dry, literally, when the train began operating. The ride proved so popular that seats for the four-day event sold out two weeks after hitting the market. Some riders liked it so much, they took the trip two or three times.
With so much demand, Morristown & Erie decided to continue operating into the fall last year. But there were problems. Tickets were sold through Amtrak, but many people didn't know where to buy them. The train's Web site was inadvertently shut down, and phone lines didn't work. Still, the train kept rolling on its run between Rockland and Brunswick well into the fall.
You can get there from here
Although it is not currently possible to connect from the Downeaster in Portland to the Maine Eastern Railroad in Brunswick by train, there are several possibilities for those wishing to make the connection. But whichever mode of travel you chose to make the connection, be prepared to stay for at least one overnight in each direction due to the differing schedules of the trains.
(800-639-3317), with a depot at the Portland Transportation Center, offers bus service between the Portland station and Brunswick several times a day. But be prepared to hire a taxi or walk half an hour from where the bus drops you off on Brunswick's Pleasant Street to where you catch the train. Tickets cost $17 round-trip.
VIP Tour & Bus Co.
(207-772-4457), on Fox Street in Portland, also has specialty coaches available and will transport riders directly from the Portland train station to the station in Brunswick by reservation. The charter bus service will also help you plan your trip. The price for transportation between the two stations depends on the size of the group.
A third option to make the connection between the two stations is Mid-Coast Limo (207-236-2424), which offers daily taxi service for smaller groups.
And what a run this is, with oversized captain's chairs, chrome and mahogany detailing, a first-class option that includes complimentary shrimp platters and beverages, and a fully-equipped dining car. Not only can you enjoy a lobster roll or a glass of wine, you can rotate the seats to make a set of four, stroll up and down the aisles, or lean out an open window between the cars for a rushing blast of air and a long look up the tracks.
The ride is smooth and quiet, thanks to $20 million worth of renovations that created a continuously welded rail of steel, rather than the standard thirty-nine-foot sections of track that are normally butted together and create that chunk-ta-chunk-ta-chunk-ta-chunk sound. The only sound here is the occasional hoot of the whistle as you pass through a town or the eager exclamation of a rider who has just spotted something along the tracks.
"Did you see that fallen-down barn and the lilies that escaped from someone's garden?"
"Look, a beaver dam!"
Or, as the train passes over one of a number of rivers and inlets with nothing but water on either side, "It feels like we're riding on a boat!"
Not only is the Maine Eastern Railroad a terrific way to see the foliage, it's a trip back in time.
"I never dreamed there was so much woodland, so many vernal pools and inlets," says Nancy Gray, of Yarmouth, who owns Freeport's Harraseeket Inn and rode the rails for the first time this summer. Gray was thrilled with the view from the train. "You go through a swamp — can you imagine what it took to build a railroad through a swamp? — and then through a wall of granite that is higher than the train. It is just remarkable."
Riders spot moose, fox, deer, and an occasional osprey nest through the windows as the train sweeps along at speeds of up to forty-five miles per hour. But on this ride, speed is clearly not the goal. The classic story is of a little old lady who was riding the train last year.
"She went up to a conductor and asked, 'Please tell whoever is driving this train to drive it a little slower!' " says Sherry Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Maine Eastern.
You won't see any golden arches or red roofs along this trail. But you'll see scenery you never would from a car. As one passenger puts it, "This is Maine the way it is supposed to be, only from a different angle."
Although for much of its journey the train runs on a track parallel to Route 1, the majority of the journey is spent out of sight of the highway. Leaving Rockland you'll pass by Penobscot Bay, alongside Damariscotta Lake , over the Sheepscot, Kennebec, and New Meadows rivers, and discover the many ponds and wetlands along the way. With the plethora of oak, maple, and birch, the woodland stretches are all the more brilliant during the fall.
And you'll see the working side of Maine, too — boatyards and stone quarries, cow fields and mud flats — and all the while sitting in cars so comfortable it's hard to tell the difference between economy and first class. Three cars on a recent set — the Elm, the Ash, and the Magnolia — were all purchased at auction from the Acadian, a luxury railroad that ran through Maine three years ago, with ticket prices costing thousands of dollars.
Here you'll enjoy all the luxury at a fraction of the cost. Each car has a galley kitchen and double bathroom, and facilities are handicapped accessible. There are even plans to bring up a utility car to transport luggage and equipment, such as bicycles. Hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, soda, coffee, and alcohol are available in the dining car, which has tables and chairs for four. Cards and cribbage are also on hand.
But undeniably the best entertainment on this new train service is passing by outside.
"Instead of worrying about traffic and driving, you can see the countryside and relax," says Janet Bauder, of Yarmouth, who recently made the trip from Brunswick to Rockland with her husband.
"I wouldn't miss it," Ken Bauder adds.
Unfortunately, riders who want to make their way through the whole Maine coast from Rockland to Kittery entirely by rail are going to have to wait. Although the Downeaster, Amtrak's passenger train from Boston to Portland, runs up the southern coast several times a day, there is no rail connection between Portland and Brunswick. The problem lies in the roughly twenty-two miles of track between the two terminals and the $60 million needed to repair them. So, while the state continues to negotiate with the trains and Guilford, the private company that owns that length of track, riders will have to creatively bridge the gap until a resolution is made (see "You Can Get There From Here").
Until then, the Maine Eastern aims to do its part to keep folks riding the rails. "We want to make it work, and we want to make it work well," explains Gordon Fuller, Maine Eastern's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Judging by the sound of laughter and the looks of wonder as the train returns to Brunswick at the end of the day, this operation is well on its way.
The Maine Eastern Railroad operates train platforms at the gravel parking lot on Cedar Street in Brunswick, at the old Bath train depot on Commercial Street in Bath, beside the public dock on Water Street in Wiscasset, and on Pleasant Street in Rockland. The standard round-trip fare is $30 for adults, $27 for seniors, $15 for children, and free for kids under five. Trains run Thursday through Sunday and departure times change daily; call 866-637-2457 or visit www.maineeasternrailroad.com
for a schedule and directions. Tickets available at the station or onboard.