Advocates make push for Montreal-to-Boston passenger rail

Sep 10, 2022, 4:15 AM | Updated: 4:18 am
A St. Lawrence & Atlantic freight train travels Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A propo...

A St. Lawrence & Atlantic freight train travels Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. A proposed Boston-to-Montreal passenger train would travel through Maine on tracks north of Portland currently used only by freight trains. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Rail advocates are dusting off a proposal for passenger train service between Montreal and Boston, riding a renewed interest in train travel to bolster a concept that has been around for more than a decade.

“It’s not a hard sell at all. A lot of people want this,” said Francois Rebello, a former national assembly member in Quebec and a consultant on the project.

Hundreds of travelers would ride a privately operated, overnight train each day if obstacles can be overcome to make the service a reality in coming years, according to a ridership study.

It wouldn’t be a high-speed affair. Promoters envision a different experience — a relaxed ride with a meal and sleep before arriving bright-eyed at the destination. The 14-hour ride would travel through Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec.

The proposal comes against a backdrop of a rail revival, and more than $100 billion in railway infrastructure funding approved by Congress.

Maine State Sen. Richard Bennett, a Republican who lives in a district where the train would pass, said there’s much work to be done.

“I’m both excited and skeptical,” he said. “I certainly support the concept and I think it has a lot of promise. I think this can be done.”

A market study suggests about 4,000 people travel daily between Montreal and Boston, and about 1,000 of them would opt for rail service if it’s available, Rebello said. The service would be profitable with only 200 riders, he said.

But the proposal is in the early stages and the obstacles are many.

The track on the Canadian side of the border requires more than $100 million in upgrades and repairs. The track is in good shape through northern New England but the speed is limited to about 35 mph (56 kph) for a long stretch, and there’s little hope of securing additional funding to boost the speed.

Operators would have to negotiate agreements with several private owners of the rail — the Saint Lawrence and Atlantic, CSX and others — and there could be multiple crews required for the train. Then there’s the question of clearing customs with people coming and going at multiple train stops, and finding scarce equipment.

The idea for restoring Montreal-to-Boston passenger rail service for the first time since the 1960s has been bounced around for more than a decade, and several different rail routes have been floated over the years.

This time, the proposed route would follow Canadian Pacific Railway track from Montreal to Sherbrooke, Quebec, and then the St. Lawrence and Atlantic across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, where a CSX-owned rail passes through Old Orchard Beach, a popular Maine tourist destination for Canadians. The final stretch is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Carl Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council, is a rail advocate who likes the idea of expanded passenger rail service. But he said people have to be realistic about the proposal’s challenges.

“There are a lot of loose ends to be resolved,” he said.

Proponents have engaged with the Canadian Pacific Railway and the corporate parent of St. Lawrence and Atlantic, and the Canadian government already has considered investing in railway upgrades, Rebello said. Montreal real estate entrepreneur Nikolai Ray has signed on an investor.

About 60 rail advocates, legislators, tourism officials and others gathered recently in Coaticook, Quebec, to discuss the vision promoted by Montreal-based Fondation Trains De Nuit, or Night Train Foundation, and view a proposed map. Notably absent were state transportation officials from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

But the project won’t start anytime soon. The most optimistic view is that the project would need at least two years to become a reality, he said. However, it could take longer to secure funding and rail agreements.

A motorist could get from Boston to Montreal twice as fast but rail advocates say riders would get there in style. People could have dinner, be entertained and sleep in a comfortable bed, proponents say. They’d also be spared the cost of a hotel fee, since they’d be sleeping and showering on the train, supporters said.

The project holds appeal both for older riders who are nostalgic about trains and a younger generation that’s less enthralled with cars, Rebello said.

Rail enthusiast Sarah LeBaron von Baeyer, who lives outside Boston and doesn’t drive, said she “wholeheartedly” embraces mass transit that would allow her to visit family and friends in Canada several times a year.

“I love train travel. I lived in Japan for many years. It was absolutely the best way to get around,” she said.

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Associated Press writers Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this story.

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Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP

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Advocates make push for Montreal-to-Boston passenger rail