PAR: Ups And Downs On The Mattawamkeag Line

The Revitalization 0f the Maine Economy has a lot to do with the Extensive Upgrades to the State's Freight Rail Network. The Mattawamkeag Branch at PAR's Northern Tip is an Anomaly.

Pan-Am’s Mattawamkeag branch, running northeast along the Penobscot River from Bangor 60 miles to Mattawamkeag has been largely dormant since April 2019, though it remains in service for occasional moves. PAR local service continues to operate as far as Old Town, where ND Paper recently purchased and revitalized the historic paper mill. Occasional trains operate to Mattawamkeag.

Principal non-petroleum commodities on the route have traditionally been wallboard, newsprint, paper, wood pulp, liquid asphalt, carbon dioxide, lumber and propane {Pan-Am clipper MON.2017}.The track is rated Class 1, even following installation of 37,000 ties in 2016. Rail remains 85 lb. stick rail, limiting car capacity to 263K, and limiting the line’s appeal to expanding global activity at Ports St. John and Halifax.

Waterville – Mattawamkeag ME

The Mattawamkeag branch “cuts a corner” between Maritimes ports and New England, but can’t operate as efficiently as CMQ’s Brownsville Junction route. Perhaps new customers on the line will inspire track upgrades to the same standards as PAR’s other Maine through-lines. {OpenRailwaysMap, annotated by ANRP}.

Infrequent Use Past Old Town

Advantageous interchange with Irving’s NBMR in Mattawamkeag has always been the line’s main attraction, but since late 2014, most PAR through-traffic has been re-routed via CMQ Brownsville Junction, re-connecting with Pan-Am at Northern Maine Junction, west of Bangor. The Brownsville preference stems from CMQ’s assumption of the defunct MMA’s operations and assets.

Some regular NMBR St. John-origin traffic resumed on the Mattawamkeag following the 2016 tie-installation upgrade. At one time, CN experimented with intermodal service from Halifax to Ayer via the Mattawamkeag. Prior to the Lac Megantic accident, Pan-Am used the route to move Bakkan crude shipments to Irving’s St.John refinary.

New traffic is developing

A large shuttered paper mill along the line in Lincoln, Maine has recently been picked as the site for the new LignaTerra cross-laminated building materials factory. Madden Timberlands operates a large log lot in Enfield close to the tracks. In Costigan (Milford), Northlands Bark Mulch and American Timber Management share an uncoupled siding. Further toward Bangor, a siding has been recently reconnected to the former Pleasant River stud mill (that property is shown by google maps as Prentiss & Carlisle, a forest management firm.

But rail fans report that even the majority of timber, rail tie, and chip shipments in and out of Pan-Am’s own Perma-Treat crosstie treating plant in Mattawamkeag have been moving via Brownsville Junction. Perhaps the reason for PAR to route its own traffic an extra 30 miles via Brownsville, is that CMQ’s tracks are in Class 3 condition. Another consideration may be that, by adding the limited Mattawamkeag traffic to CMQ’s scheduled trains, PAR can discontinue its own regular service, and further reduce track maintenance. Clearly, if Pan-Am prefers to move its own cargo via Brownsville instead of over its own, shorter line, CMQ must be able to provide service below PAR’s own cost on the Mattawamkeag.

Awaiting fate

The Mattawamkeag’s fate is inevitably tied to the prospective sale of CMQ. Irving/NBMR is a likely suitor, with the potential for a direct permanent interchange at Northern Maine Junction. If the CMQ goes to a PAR competitor, then it could be worth reviving the Mattawamkeag Line to provide a service or rate advantage for St. John and Halifax traffic, particularly as shale region petro-product takeaway, and New England energy source markets remain uncertain.

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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.