The extension of passenger train service from Portland to Montreal may once have been a train-lover's dream, but passenger rail has gained new advocates in recent years and many in Maine hope to take advantage of the momentum.

Amtrak has broken ridership records almost every month for the past two years, nationwide, and predicts 30 million passengers nationwide by the end of the year. With oil executives predicting over $5 a gallon in 2012, train travel continues to gain in appeal, and the economic benefits that go along with train lines have created a strong fan base in the business community.

Most of the 60 people at the power-packed Rally for Rails meeting in Bethel last Wednesday, September 14, were business leaders from Maine and New Hampshire, state legislators, staffers from the U.S. Congressional delegation and town and city officials.

The estimated cost of a passenger rail link from Portland through Lewiston-Auburn and up through Bethel and on to Montreal is over $1.5 billion, according to the Maine Department of Transportation; although no one is talking about building a line in one step, but in planned stages that would increase transportation options from Portland through Lewiston and farther north.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who was commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation when the idea of passenger train service from Boston to Portland was being proposed over 20 years ago, told the audience to not be discouraged about the lack of money.

"In the early 1990s people thought we were a bunch of loonies who were in love with trains," said Connors. "That has mostly been overcome," he said.

The rail corridor along the Downeaster passenger line from Boston to Portland has seen lively economic development, including retail sites and real estate sales, since the train started service 10 years ago. Downeaster ridership is now twice as high as predicted: over 500,000 riders will take the Downeaster this year. Some commute to and from Boston. Others use it for short daily commutes along the line.

"It is Amtrak's most successful line in the country," said Connors. "The Downeaster is Amtrak's sweetheart. When it comes to grants and other sources of competitive funding, we can build on that success."

"The reason we have a Boston to Portland line and will soon have a Portland to Brunswick line is because we were planning and we were prepared," said Connors. When federal economic stimulus money became available, the Portland-Brunswick link was already mapped out and ready to build. All that was needed was the funding. That line will be complete in 2012 and will not only link Brunswick south, but also link Brunswick to Rockland.

The Maine Eastern Railroad line from Brunswick to Rockland currently runs an excursion train, as well as freight, and the tracks and crossings were upgraded several years ago in anticipation of being ready to provide full-speed passenger service. All that has been missing is the link from Brunswick to Portland.

What seemed out of reach - a passenger rail link from Rockland to Boston, New York and beyond - is now just months away.

The same can happen in western Maine, said Connors.

"Just because there is no funding now, don't be discouraged from moving ahead with planning," said Connors.

The people who gathered at the Bethel rally did not need convincing; the mood was upbeat and pragmatic.

The economic multiplier benefits of extending train travel north and west along the corridor have already been well documented by the Maine Department of Transportation through independent studies, but the capital expense to upgrade the existing freight lines to carry passenger travel is considerable, and time lines can be long.

One of the objections that must be addressed by promoters of passenger rail is that trains do not pay for themselves through passenger ticket sales; operating expenses must be subsidized by state and federal governments.

Federal funding for the Downeaster is currently in jeopardy. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing budget proposal, if adopted by the U.S. House and Senate, will zero out federal funding for Amtrak in 15 states on October 1, 2011.

"It is very, very important that you contact the Maine delegation," said Representative Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, who was at the Bethel meeting.

"But they already support passenger rail," an audience member protested, noting that representatives from the offices of Senator Snowe, Senator Collins, Representative Michaud and Representative Pingree had been at the rally earlier in the day.

"They need to hear from you anyway," said Rotundo. "They need to know how big the support is for passenger rail."

"This is no different than the taxes needed to maintain roads and bridges," she said. "All transportation requires some form of subsidy. We've seen the return on investment in rail compared to the automobile on the Downeaster."

Road and bridge subsidies come in the form of gasoline taxes, property taxes and other forms of revenue.

The Lewiston-Auburn area was well represented at the rail rally: the Lewiston mayor, the city administrators, the chamber of commerce, the council of governments, and state representatives and senators from the area were in attendance.

The cities of Lewiston and Auburn play a pivotal role in the passenger rail plan. Existing freight lines, which form the basis of any upgrade to passenger rail service, converge in Auburn at the intermodal facility. The Auburn intermodal currently handles more freight into and out of the state than any other facility in Maine.

Northern New Hampshire also had representatives there from the Gorham area and from Senator Jeanne Shaheen's office.

By the end of the four-hour meeting, most of which was devoted to working sessions and laying out plans for the next steps to take, the group of 60 had set the groundwork for a public relations campaign that included talking to all the towns along the corridor in order to build a base of support, running a whistle-stop train along the existing freight rails to Montreal to promote the idea, and involving college students in researching the history of the railroad in Maine to raise public awareness and provide a historical vantage point for planners.

"There was a groundswell of support in the late 1980s that started with citizen action followed by political will," said Wayne Davis of the TrainRiders/Northeast Association. Davis was crucial in the development of the Boston-Portland Amtrak passenger rail service.

"We had to start in the street and that's what needs to happen now," he said. "All the communities along the route need to be asked, "How would you like to be connected to Bethel and Lewiston and Montreal?"