copyright the Chronicle, October 9, 2013
by Paul Lefebvre
ISLAND POND — For two private developers who would like to start a nighttime rail passenger service between Montreal and Portland, slow is beautiful.
The working name for the project is train-hotel, and in a special meeting here Tuesday with Brighton Selectmen, Francois Rebello of Montreal and Richard Bennett of Biddeford, Maine, laid out a business proposal that would warm the heart of nearly everyone in a town that the railroad put on the map.
Essentially, the pair want to put evening passenger trains on three different routes, all linking Montreal to New York. Initially, the trains would run for three months, starting in the summer.
The idea is to implement the project without a major and expensive upgrade of the existing tracks, an improvement that would be federally required for a high-speed train like Amtrak.
Passengers would board early at night in Montreal and either sleep or play while the train carried them to their destination by morning at a speed of 25 to 30 miles per hour.
“We want to use the slowness of the tracks,” said Mr. Rebello, who is characterized in the team’s proposal as a “well-known entrepreneur and politician from Montreal.”
Except for die-hard train enthusiasts, the project’s proposed schedule may not be very appealing to passengers in places like Island Pond or Gorham, New Hampshire.
To catch the early evening train out of Boston for Montreal, for example, a would-be passenger in Island Pond would have to be at the station by 3:30 in the morning, according to Mr. Rebello. A return trip would get him or her home around midnight.
Mr. Bennett characterized the proposal as an idea whose time has come. He said there is an existing business connection between Montreal and Boston, and that Canadians enjoy spending vacations on the Maine coast.
“We are not creating a demand,” said Mr. Bennett, who is a former Maine state senator with an extensive background in the business world.
The proposal also hopes to trade on the historical connections that exist between the railroad and small towns in Quebec as well as New England.
Brighton Administrative Assistant Joel Cope noted that Island Pond had the “first international railroad in the country.”
But despite historical connections, Mr. Bennett noted that trains in the United States are not part of “the cultural landscape” that exists in Canada and Europe. For their project to take hold in New England and become successful, he said the evening train ride had to offer services — like a bar and dining car — that would make the experience special and memorable.
It finally fell to the chairman of the Brighton board, Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, to ask the question that had been hanging in the air ever since the meeting began.
“So,” she said, “what else are you looking for from us?”
To get the trains running will cost roughly $1.5-million, according to Mr. Rebello.
And while he does not want to link the project to government funding, he said developers are looking for small investors, willing to put up $100,000, to help them raise the capital.
The team is also talking to railroad companies to acquire access to the tracks. And that may require a political rather than a historical connection.
Present at the meeting was state Senator John Rodgers of Glover. He said he would pass news about the project on to Governor Peter Shumlin, who is expected to be aboard a special train this month from Montpelier to White River.
The developers also hope the selectmen will find them investors. Ms. Gervais-Lamoureux said the board would like to help, but would first want to see a business plan.
Mr. Rebello said the idea behind the venture was to start small with financial support from small investors who are supportive of returning rail passenger service.
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