COATICOOK, Quebec — A long-delayed proposal to connect Montreal to Boston via an overnight sleeper train appears to be back on track as proponents of the service, along with elected officials from Quebec, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont gathered Thursday in rural Quebec to throw their collective political weight behind it.
“This is a brilliant time for us to reconvene and make this vision a reality,” said state Senator Richard Bennett of Maine, a Republican from Oxford. “The expansion of passenger rail is of great interest throughout Maine, across both political parties.”
The Montreal-based nonprofit Fondation Trains De Nuit commissioned studies to determine the feasibility of the route more than five years ago, but despite interest from some New England states, the project stalled because of the condition of tracks in Quebec. The study found that those tracks would need about $100 million in updates and repairs to accommodate the necessary speed to make a passenger train work.
François Pepin, president of Fondation Trains De Nuit, said private companies that would benefit from the train have expressed a willingness to chip in for improvements. Additionally, the foundation would apply for grants from the Canadian government. The three companies that own the tracks are also increasingly interested in making improvements. As gas prices rise, shipping by train becomes more appealing than trucks.
That means the Montreal-to-Boston service will not start anytime soon. Pepin said the best-case scenario is that the route could be launched in 2025 or 2026 if everything goes smoothly. In addition to track repairs, deals need to be hatched to work with freight companies that own much of the tracks, and towns would need to agree to a late-night train rolling through their communities. In fact, a train has yet to be purchased, but planners are anticipating an overnight train with a capacity of 120 passengers in sleeper cars and an additional 70 in coach seating.
The route would be on existing freight tracks owned by multiple rail companies. Discussions with railways are at a preliminary stage, Pepin said. Despite all of that, the sleeper train has become a popular topic of conversation in Quebec. (Even a border crossing guard expressed excitement about the possibility.) It’s hard not to be drawn to the concept: A train with a club car, a dining car, and sleeper cars is the stuff of Agatha Christie novels and recalls the glamorous age of train travel.
During its presentation, Fondation Trains De Nuit played up the old Hollywood glamour of train travel, showing stock footage of well-heeled diners and even onboard entertainment. The organization positioned the train as a moving hotel, with one-way tickets starting at around $200 Canadian ($150 American under the current exchange rate). That’s far less expensive than the average fare for a nonstop flight to Montreal.
“You can easily imagine what it would be like to depart Montreal, have your meal on the train, go to the bar car and have a drink, watch some entertainment, and then go to sleep,” said François Rebello, a former Québec politician and rail enthusiast who has been working with Fondation Trains De Nuit to get the project in motion. “You wake up in the morning, and you’re at your destination.”
The train would have stops throughout Quebec before reaching stations in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Although the train’s final destination is Boston, Old Orchard Beach in Maine, would probably be a popular end-point for many vacationers from Quebec. According to the Maine Office of Tourism, Canadian visitors spent almost $1.2 billion in Maine in 2019. So many Canadian families flock to Old Orchard Beach that it is affectionately called “the French Canadian Riviera.”
State Representative Lori K. Gramlich of Maine, who represents Old Orchard Beach, told the crowd that families have been coming to the seaside resort town for years, but in recent years numbers have dipped.
“Increasingly, young people are not driving as much as they used to,” she said. “I believe this initiative will help encourage young families to come and enjoy our beautiful beaches. This is something that’s important to our economy.”
Notably absent from the Coaticook meeting were elected officials from Massachusetts. According to Rebello, when the idea of the Montreal-Boston route was first floated years ago, Massachusetts leaders were on board. It was other states that had mixed reactions. Now that it appears Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are backing the project, Fondation Trains De Nuit will head to Massachusetts next to test the waters once again.
“Based on what we heard last time, I think the demand and the desire is there,” Rebello said. “I think getting Massachusetts behind us will be one of the easier parts of this project.”