February 26, 2010

Upgrades get go-ahead for train service to Brunswick get go-ahead

TOM BELL

— By

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Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, speaks at a news conference Thursday about the $35 million grant to extend Amtrak service from Portland to Brunswick. “This is Day One of a whole new era,” she said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, says: “We are ready to go.”

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Staff Writer

Crews will begin upgrades to extend passenger train service from Portland to Brunswick as soon as the new rails and ties are delivered and weather permits, according to Pan Am Railways, which owns the railroad and will do the work.

''We are ready to go,'' said David Fink, the railroad's president.

The Obama administration on Thursday announced it will award the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority $35 million in federal stimulus funds to expand Amtrak's Boston-to-Portland passenger rail service north to Brunswick. The improvements are part of an $8 billion plan to develop a nationwide system of high-speed intercity passenger rail services.

The $35 million is enough to complete the expansion for Amtrak's Downeaster service, including laying welded rail and improving 36 grade crossings along the 30-mile route between Portland and Brunswick.

Because so many railway projects will be under way at the same time, there is uncertainty about how soon the supplies can be delivered, Fink said.

He said it will take two construction seasons to finish the project, and service could begin in early 2012. Crews will begin installing new rails in Brunswick and work toward Portland, he said.

The crews will install welded rails to replace the brittle rails that have been in place since the 1930s. The new rails require less maintenance and provide a smoother ride, said Wayne Davis of Trainriders/Northeast.

Twenty-one years ago, Davis' group of volunteers gathered nearly 90,000 signatures to pressure the Legislature to initiate passenger service from Boston to Brunswick. On Thursday, Davis said he was receiving congratulatory e-mails and phone calls from around the country.

Before the Downeaster began service in 2001, rail supporters and the owners of the railroad often clashed. Rail officials claimed the upgraded rail line was not safe enough and refused to allow the Amtrak trains to run. Rail advocates urged the state to take the company's rail line by eminent domain.

At a press conference Thursday at Brunswick's new train station, Fink and Davis shook hands.

''We need to get that stuff here,'' Fink said, referring to the new rail equipment.

''If you need help, give me a call,'' Davis replied. ''I am pretty good with a shovel.'' Fink laughed.

The press conference, which was attended by several Brunswick officials, Bowdoin College officials and business owners, had a festive atmosphere.

The town has had an especially tough year because of the recession and the phase-out of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, said Mike Lyne, project manager for JHR Development, which is building a mixed-use complex next to the railroad tracks.

The Downeaster will provide an economic boost, he said, but it will also help the town create a new identity.

''This is a chance for Brunswick to establish its brand,'' he said. ''It will be a fun, funky alternative heading north from Portland.''

Bowdoin College President Barry Mills said the train service will connect the campus to Boston, making the college less geographically isolated and more attractive to students and their families, and to college employees.

The federal grant includes money for a platform in Freeport. The station will be situated near the area of Bow Street and Depot Road, said Myra Hopkins, executive director of the Freeport Merchants Association. The town's Train Committee will meet Feb. 10 to discuss the station.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail authority, said there will be three round trips daily between Brunswick and Portland, and two round-trips daily between Brunswick and Boston. There are no plans to change the five daily round-trips between Portland and Boston.

Quinn said the trip from Brunswick to Portland should take about 50 minutes, although it's unclear now how fast the train will be permitted to travel.

A one-way ticket from Brunswick to Boston would cost $29 -- Portland to Boston now costs $24. A one-way ticket between Portland and Brunswick would cost $6 or $7, Quinn said.

The train is intended for travelers rather than commuters.

The tentative schedule calls for the first southbound train to depart Brunswick at 7 a.m. and arrive in Boston at 10:30 a.m. The second train would depart Brunswick at 1 p.m. and arrive in Boston at 4:30 p.m.

From Boston, the first northbound train would depart at 9 a.m. and arrive in Brunswick at 12:30 p.m. The second train would depart Boston at 5:40 p.m. and arrive in Brunswick at 9:10 p.m.

For Portland and Brunswick, the earliest train would depart Portland at 6 a.m. and arrive in Brunswick at 6:50 a.m. The latest train would depart Brunswick at 9:30 p.m. and arrive in Portland at 10:20 p.m.

The rail authority had sought $52 million for track improvements between Portland and Plaistow, N.H., as part of an effort to boost the speed of the Downeaster, but that application was not granted. Quinn said the rail authority will apply again for other grants.

At a public meeting last month in Lewiston about the state's long-range rail plan, many people from Lewiston and Auburn were angry at state officials for not applying for federal money to establish passenger rail service between Portland and Auburn.

Quinn said the authority had always planned to extend the service to Brunswick first. Because of years of planning, she said, the project met ''shovel ready'' requirements of the stimulus grant.

She said the project will also upgrade rails from Portland to Yarmouth Junction, an important step for extending service to Auburn.

When the Brunswick extension is complete, she said, officials will start spending money and energy on the next step, which is to examine establishing train service between Portland and Auburn.

''This is not the end of anything,'' she said of the Brunswick extension. ''This is Day One of a whole new era.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@presherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, speaks at a news conference Thursday about the $35 million grant to extend Amtrak service from Portland to Brunswick. “This is Day One of a whole new era,” she said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, says: “We are ready to go.”

 


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