BRUNSWICK — Railroad crews Monday began work on the $38 million extension of Amtrak’s Downeaster passenger train service to Brunswick.

They delivered more than 3 million pounds of steel and began laying it alongside the existing 80-year-old railroad tracks. Later this month, crews will begin ripping up the old tracks and replacing them with the new rails.

In all, they will replace 28 miles of tracks between Portland and Brunswick.

Gov. John Baldacci was joined Monday by officials from the Federal Railroad Administration, Pan Am Railways and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority for the formal kickoff of the project at the Maine Street Station in Brunswick.

Baldacci said the expanded service will benefit the state’s economy by attracting more tourists. He noted the Downeaster will provide a connection to the Maine Eastern Railroad, which operates an excursion train between Brunswick and Rockland.

When the service begins in the fall of 2012, Amtrak will offer two round trips a day between Boston and Brunswick.

Funding for the project comes from $8 billion in Recovery Act grant money for developing a nationwide system of high-speed intercity passenger rail service. Federal money is covering $35 million of the $38 million cost, with the rest coming from the state.

Because Maine officials understood the application process so well and had already completed engineering studies, the Downeaster expansion is the first project in the nation to begin construction, said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

“Maine had its act together,” he said.

The project is among the largest non-road projects in the state in the past 30 years, said Martin Eisenstein, chairman of the board of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

The arrival of the train is a significant accomplishment that required the vision of Baldacci and the steady support of the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation, he said.

The train Monday delivered 50 “sticks” of rail. Each stick is 1,650 feet long and weighs more than 63,000 pounds. The rail was manufactured in Columbia City, Ind.

David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, which owns the railroad and is overseeing the work, said the project will allow him to keep 50 workers employed. The workers are now finishing a project on another part of the railroad in Maine. Without the Downeaster expansion, he said, he would be laying off the workers in two weeks.

Next year, after the new rails are in place, workers will install new ties and track ballast. The crushed stone will come from a quarry located in the Somerset County town of Embden, employing 10 to 15 people for the project, Fink said.

Pan Am Railways on Monday demonstrated how one man operating modern machinery can lift the rails, remove the ties and replace them. A crew of 25 men can replace 800 railroad ties in a single day, Fink said.

“John Henry would weep,” said Sande Updegraph, a Freeport official who watched the demonstration. She was referring to the American folk tale of the railroad worker who raced against a steam-powered drill and won.

The train brought nearly eight miles of rail, enough to lay new tracks from Brunswick to just north of Freeport village. The train will return in two weeks to bring more rail. Updegraph said the town of Freeport and its merchants will hold some kind of celebration when the train returns. No date has been set.

In Brunswick on Monday, Union Street, Standwood Street and Church Road were closed to traffic between 8 a.m. and noon because the train was blocking the intersections. Updegraph said the work in Freeport village will take place in the early morning and on a weekday to reduce traffic congestion.

On Monday, Fink and other railroad executives and invited guests traveled from Brunswick to Freeport in the railroad’s vintage business car, which was manufactured in 1916 and renovated in the 1950s.

Much of the route was heavily wooded.

“The view is more relaxing than from the window of your auto,” said one of the passengers, Wayne Davis of TrainRiders/Northeast, a citizens group that began circulating petitions for passenger rail service in 1989.

The business car traveled a little over 10 mph. The upgrade will allow the Downeaster to travel up to 79 mph.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]