Canadian group eyes revival of Grand Trunk Railroad from Montreal to Boston

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Aug. 30—There's a chance the old Grand Trunk Railroad line from the Twin Cities to Montreal might eventually reopen.

A group in Quebec is pushing for the creation of a new, overnight Boston to Montreal rail line that would include a stop in Auburn.

Radio Canada reported this week that advocates from Night Trains Foundation are pressing to begin passenger train service in Quebec between Montreal and Sherbrooke — but they don't plan to stop there.

The goal, the Montreal Gazette reported, is to have night service between Montreal and Boston, a trip that would take 14 hours and include stops in four Maine municipalities: Bethel, Auburn, Portland and Old Orchard Beach.

There would also be stops in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Whether anything will come of it remains to be seen, said Jonathan LaBonte, a former Auburn mayor who serves as the city's transportation systems manager.

LaBonte, who plans to attend a Thursday session on the project in Coaticook, Quebec, along with a few other Maine officials, said it "sounds like there is significant momentum" to move forward with the first phase of the project between Montreal and Sherbrooke, but he's not sure about the proposal as a whole.

"It's very much in the early stages," LaBonte said.

It is unclear how the project would mesh with another one in the works aiming to restore the unused Grand Trunk Railway line between Auburn and Portland for battery-powered light rail. There is also another line between the Twin Cities and Portland that is used for freight trains.

The president of the Night Trains Foundation, François Pépin, told La Tribune Numerique in Sherbrooke that working out agreements with the Canadian Pacific Railway and Genesee & Wyoming, which owns tracks in New England, is the next step.

"You have to understand that the main investment is in the railways, which need to be improved in order to make the speed of the passenger train faster and safer for everyone," Pépin told the Quebec paper. He said talks with the American firm are going well.

LaBonte said there are logistical issues that would need to be addressed. But there is a broad market that could be served by passenger rail in the region that includes Quebec, Boston and northern New England, he said.

With less freight traffic on the lines these days — a consequence of reduced pulp and paper production — the railroads may have more interest in pursuing the idea, LaBonte said.

There hasn't been any passenger rail service for Lewiston and Auburn for the past six decades. But there is growing interest in its revival as experts search for ways to combat the climate crisis and shift to more energy-efficient transportation.

The Gazette cited a 2017 market analysis by researchers in Toronto that determined "there would be a market of up to 1,000 riders daily between Sherbrooke and Boston."

The newspaper said advocates envision "an overnight train with a capacity of 120 passengers in sleeper cars and another 70 in coach seating."

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Grand Trunk station on Lincoln Street was the gateway for French-Canadian immigrants to move to Lewiston, usually to work in one of the many mill jobs.

The station in Lewiston was built in 1874 to connect a line with Auburn that gave rail access to Canada and beyond.

As planners in Canada work on the proposal to revive the old line, they are eyeing a first phase that would be entirely within Quebec, serving perhaps 2,000 people daily from Sherbrooke. They hope for a second phase to reach all the way to Boston, but there is no timetable for when that might happen.

The foundation pegs the cost of the first leg of its plan at $100 million. There is no estimate for the cost of upgrading the freight rail lines required to allow passenger service between Boston and Sherbrooke.

Planning for the old Grand Trunk Railroad between Portland and Montreal started in 1844 and proceeded quickly. By 1853, the entire line existed.