A year ago, there was no such connection possible. The train offered a three-hour stay in Rockland, timed to connect with tour buses that could offer early-morning or late-afternoon shopping in Freeport after the train excursion. That worked well for Rockland businesses. The current schedule does not.
The vintage 1950s-style train no longer will facilitate day trips to Rockland, which has business owners there concerned about a dropoff in business.The new schedule does not encourage day trips. It might help Rockland develop overnight tourist business.
However, business leaders in other parts of the midcoast hope the link with Amtrak will lure more tourists there. The move is popular in Wiscasset, where a new train station was established this summer along the Sheepscot River behind Red's Eats, and in the twin villages of Newcastle and Damariscotta, which for the first time are hosting a train station.
In Rockland, the change has upset some merchants and restaurant owners because the city is no longer the centerpiece of the railroad's business model.
Since the service began July 4, downtown merchants haven't seen many customers from the train, said Kelly Woods, co-owner of the Trackside Station, a restaurant in Rockland.As late as 1955, the railroad focus was on weekend traffic. Commencing late in June and running until Labor Day, the Bar Harbor offered Friday sleeping cars leaving Philadelphia at 5 pm and Penn Station at 7.30 pm, due Brunswick at 6.07 am and Rockland at 8 am. The Sunday only returns left Rockland at 6.20 pm and Brunswick at 8.15 pm, setting down at Penn Station at 6.30 am and Philadelphia at 8.36 am. The East Wind still maintained a semblance of connecting train and bus services for day passengers from as far south as Grand Central Terminal, and an intrepid traveler destined farther south could probably make some kind of connection at New Haven. Boston passengers had a choice of a daily except Sunday coach on the noon Flying Yankee or a Friday only coach on the late afternoon Pine Tree; the return daily except Sunday left Rockland at 7.25 am, attached to the inward Pine Tree. The coach that arrived late on Friday probably went back toward Boston on a Sunday-only train that connected with nothing.
"We haven't got the usual business of the train we should," she said.
It used to bring as many as 200 tourists to Rockland in the middle of the day, and that's no longer happening, said Gordon Page, who until a year ago worked as an executive of the railroad and now heads Rockland Main Street Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the downtown.
"The feedback I'm getting from downtown business groups is they are disappointed," Page said.
Without Rockland serving as a draw for tourists, the excursion train won't be successful, said Don Marson, who retired a year ago as vice president and general manager of the railroad. He said he doubts the connection with the Downeaster will make up for the excursion business lost because of the change of schedule.
"Who wants to take a train ride for two hours to Rockland and then turn around and come right back?" Marson said.
Still, the new schedule has an upside, some say. The connection with the Downeaster makes it easier for people to travel to the region without using their cars, said Frank Isganitis, a Rockland City Council member and owner of the LimeRock Inn, a Victorian bed-and-breakfast. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, is promoting package deals that include accommodations at the LimeRock and some other local inns.
"Rather than have people come as a day excursion, they can spend a night or stay a week," Isganitis said. "The long-term impact is going to be more positive."
Staci Coomer, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, said potential customers she met at the Boston Globe Travel Show last February were excited to learn they could travel to the midcoast by train.
"It was a big selling point to say that was an option," she said.
While the new schedule presents a downside for Rockland, the region as a whole will benefit because of the connection with the Downeaster, said Misty Parker, the town planner in Wiscasset. She noted that there is a new trolley service that meets passengers at the train station shared by Newcastle and Damariscotta and brings them to Boothbay Harbor.
Today's Boston passengers can connect from the 9.05 am departure, and return on the 5.50 pm departure.
For two weekends, those of the North Atlantic Blues Festival and the Maine Lobster Festival, Maine Eastern added a 9 am departure from Brunswick with an 8 pm departure from Rockland, returning to Brunswick at 10 pm. Patrons intent on attending either of those events with an Amtrak connection could overnight at Brunswick or at Rockland.
Back in May, I made plans to attend the Maine Lobster Festival, in part because the Amtrak Exhibit Train has listed that destination as one of its stops. Because of some other events going on in the Northeast, I opted to drive to Brunswick and catch a Maine Eastern train there.
I'd originally booked passage on the special event trains. Here's former Union Pacific Geep with its Amtrak number 764, on a damp morning in Brunswick.
Now that the two-foot gauge railroad is history, a two-foot gauge boxcar can be part of the tourist facilities at Wiscasset. Plenty of picnic tables to work on the lobster offered dockside.
The Knox and Lincoln Railroad's charter with Wiscasset gave it the exclusive right to operate trains in Wiscasset. The two-foot gauge Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington thus built all its facilities outside Wiscasset ... in the river.
The Exhibition Train cancelled its visit to Rockland. (I'm not sure why. Other cities on the May schedule are still on the schedule.) But this is the Maine Lobster Festival, and the sun came out. (Umbrella at hand just in case.)
With the inner man satisfied, the festival and downtown shopping opportunities taken, and no exhibition train, I rearranged my ticketing to return on the Downeaster connecting train.
The diesels are a pair of rebuilt FL-9s, both bearing their Amtrak numbers. The regular service train includes a lounge car.
Nice relaxing ride back to Brunswick, sun is out, at Brunswick the Amtrak train is waiting to occupy the one floor-level platform once the Mid-Coast Limited discharges passengers and ties up.
Downtown Brunswick was still busy at train time, but not so crowded that I couldn't get dinner at Joshua's Tavern.
Now, about that roomette on the Rockland section of the Bar Harbor ...