As train station manager in Freeport, Nelson Soule served as the ticketing agent, telegraph operator and freight handler before rail service ended there in 1960, with trucks taking over the delivery of locally produced shoes and shipments of L.L. Bean’s mail and goods.
Now 91, Soule will be aboard Amtrak’s Downeaster on Thursday as the Boston-to-Portland service expands northward to Freeport and Brunswick for the first time in more than 50 years.
“I think it’s great,” Soule said Wednesday, reflecting on the record ridership for the Downeaster. “You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
In addition to Soule, the first 250 riders will include Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, Amtrak Vice President Joe McHugh and the transportation commissioners in Maine and New Hampshire, among others. Regular service to Freeport and Brunswick begins Friday.
The expansion to Freeport, home to L.L. Bean’s flagship store and outlet shopping, and to Brunswick, home of Bowdoin College and Brunswick Landing, fulfills the original vision for the passenger rail service, which launched between Portland and Boston on Dec. 15, 2001.
The Downeaster is coming off a record year with 528,292 passengers, and ridership is expected to grow by an additional 36,000 passengers with the expanded service.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said the service will open up new tourism opportunities as well as transportation options for Bowdoin students and faculty and for businesses at Brunswick Landing, the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
The Downeaster has been serving eight communities between Boston and Portland: Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells in Maine; Dover, Durham and Exeter in New Hampshire; and Haverhill and Woburn in Massachusetts.
The expansion was made possible through $38.3 million in federal stimulus dollars, which was used to overhaul 30 miles of track and rehabilitate 36 crossings between Portland and Brunswick. The state also spent a half-million dollars to install train platforms in Freeport and Brunswick.
As for Soule, he isn’t especially nostalgic about rail travel.
He came from a family of telegraph operators and got into the rail business after he left the Navy, working as station manager in Freeport and watching as trucks ate into rail service, which was eventually discontinued. All told, he put in 38 years in the railroad business.
He said he’s ridden on the Downeaster once and was impressed. “They’re doing a good business, I’ll say that. Their business is increasing every year,” he said.
During most of his career, coal-fired locomotives pulled the passenger cars and freight cars. These days, the Downeaster uses diesel-electric locomotives.
If he ever pines for the old days, he can always visit his old train station. After it closed, it was removed in pieces and reassembled in Boothbay, where it serves as a train museum.