Friday, May 11, 2012

Old Orchard Beach ME Considers Year-Round Amtrak Stop

SOURCE: Sun Chronicle - Old Orchard Beach ME Considers Year-Round Amtrak Stop - By Kate Irish Collins Staff writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH - There’s a strong desire among business owners, town leaders and town staff to make Old Orchard Beach a year-round stop for the Downeaster train, which currently runs between Portland and Boston five times a day.

To reach that long-discussed goal, however, will take money, as well as figuring out a way to meet the requirements imposed by Amtrak, Pan Am Railways and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the train.

During a meeting last week the Town Council discussed whether it would be the best and easiest solution just to enclose the current platform, located on First Street, which is now open to the elements.

Jeffrey Hinderliter, the town planner, was also told to explore the option of having the Downeaster stop at only specific times of day instead of keeping a full-time, year-round schedule.

To have a year-round stop, the town, which owns and operates the train platform, must meet three basic requirements, he told the council.

It must provide access to Quik-Trak ticket machines from about 5 a.m. until about 9 p.m. every day; it must provide adequate parking; and it must find a way to keep the so-called exclusionary zone clear of snow and ice.

Hinderliter hopes to have the train stopping year-round in Old Orchard Beach by the fall. But, he said, stumbling blocks include the cost of meeting all the necessary requirements. Right now the town has about $25,000 left from the money it set aside to build the train platform more than a decade ago.

Despite these issues, Hinderliter said, in a previous interview, “I have confidence we will have a year-round stop by October. The Downeaster is a wonderful service and it would certainly be of great benefit to have the train stop here year-round.”

Last week he said “the primary benefit for the near future” would be the additional transportation options having a year-round train stop would provide. Going forward, Hinderliter said, it would also make it easier to promote the town as a year-round destination, instead of just a summer haven.

During last week’s council meeting he outlined the specific requirements for making Old Orchard Beach a year-round stop for the Downeaster.

In terms of the Quik-Trak ticket machines, Hinderliter said, the machines must be located in a climate controlled, protected location. Currently one ticketing machine is located at the Chamber of Commerce but that machine is removed during the winter months because the chamber is open only limited hours and the train doesn’t currently stop from November to mid-April.

This means, Hinderliter told the council, that the town would either need to retrofit an existing location or construct one that meets the requirements set out by Amtrak and the rail authority. He also said it would be important for this area to include some type of theft proofing.

In terms of parking, there must be a designated parking area for Amtrak customers, which must be cleared of ice and snow at all times.

In terms of keeping the exclusionary zone, where passengers step off and onto the train, free of snow and ice, Hinderliter said the town would need to develop a work and safety plan in coordination with Pan-Am, the rail authority and Amtrak.
This plan would include providing specialized training for all employees who would be conducting winter maintenance activities, along with providing protective equipment and written maintenance procedures.

Hinderliter told the council that the preferred option for getting rid of ice and snow would be one that other stations along the line use - a heating mat. Initial construction and materials costs would likely exceed $25,000, though. In addition, he said, there would be ongoing costs, particularly for electricity.

If the town used its own personnel for snow removal, there would be no requirement for “a significant up-front monetary investment,” Hinderliter said, but it would see an increase in its labor costs.

He also pointed out to the council that the Old Orchard Beach train stop consists of both an upper and lower platform and he’s unsure whether both must be kept clear of snow and ice.

He suggested one option for the council to consider would be using manual labor to remove ice and snow for a test period of two to three years to determine if a year-round station is needed and economically feasible.  

“Doing this will not require the initial upfront costs and would allow time for more thorough planning to address long-term needs,” Hinderliter said.

“As much as I am in favor of a year-round station, I believe the council must look at how realistic it is, including a cost-benefit comparison,” he added.

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