November 2, 2012

Last leg of long journey for Downeaster

Stops in Freeport and Brunswick finally fulfill Maine’s original vision for passenger rail service, which started with a Portland-Boston run in 2001.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — A crowd of nearly 600 people whooped, hollered and applauded when Amtrak's Downeaster arrived at the town's new station Thursday afternoon, marking the beginning of the first passenger rail service north of Portland since 1960.

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The Amtrak Downeaster sits at Freeport Station, awaiting departure for Brunswick Station on its inaugural run Thursday from Boston to Brunswick and all stops between. Passenger rail service last extended north of Portland in 1960.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Over 50 years after seeing the end of rail service to Freeport and Brunswick, Nelson Soule joins the celebration as it begins again.

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Addressing the crowd, Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, quoted Barry Manilow as the train arrived: "It looks like we made it."

The crowd cheered.

The ceremonial train, which earlier had been greeted by about 400 people in Freeport, was filled with state and federal politicians, as well as town officials, business owners and employees of Pan Am Railways, which owns the railroad and upgraded the tracks.

Passengers included Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, independent U.S. Senate candidate and former Gov. Angus King, Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner, Pan Am Railroad President David Fink and Wayne Davis, a retired banker who led the grass-roots campaign to revive passenger rail service in Maine.

On her arrival, Snowe praised Davis and his supporters, who in 1989 gathered nearly 90,000 signatures for a petition asking the state to restore passenger rail service.

"I just follow his marching orders," said Snowe, who first met Davis when she was in the U.S. House. "I said, 'Wayne, I'll get the money. You get me the passengers.'"

Speaking in Freeport, Pingree noted that both Republicans and Democrats in the Maine delegation over the years have worked together to secure funding for the service. She also praised King, former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

"Once in a while, the parties can work together," she said.

Baldacci was on hand as the train arrived in Brunswick. Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt represented LePage.

The expansion to Freeport, home of L.L. Bean's flagship store and outlet shopping, and to Brunswick, home of Bowdoin College, 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 in its first year with the expanded service.

The expansion was made possible by $38.3 million in federal stimulus dollars, which was used to overhaul 30 miles of track and rehabilitate 36 crossings from Portland to Brunswick. The state also spent a half-million dollars to install train platforms in Brunswick and Freeport.

Amtrak will offer two-round trips each day from Brunswick and Freeport to Boston and there's a chance for a third round trip if the rail authority can win federal funding to build an enclosed layover facility for the train in Brunswick.

In Freeport, business owners believe the new train will boost efforts to promote the town as a destination for daily shopping trips and overnight visits, said Ed Bonney, a long-time leader in the town's business community.

"This is a great day for Freeport," he told the crowd.

For the town's teenagers who don't have access to automobiles, the train means the freedom to travel to Boston without their parents, said Katie O'Neil, 15, who plays the flute for the Freeport High School band, which played football pep songs as the train rolled into town.

In Brunswick, Ralph and Earline Judd came from Lisbon Falls to greet the train. Ralph, who is 86, travels frequently to Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment for a disease of the esophagus. He'll now be able to take the train from Brunswick.

"I'm 86 and I'm getting tired of driving at night," he said. "This is going to be a lot better."

But not everyone was so pleased to see the train arrive Thursday.

Bob Morrison said he felt a sense of dread when he heard the train rumble by his home on Bouchard Drive in Brunswick.

The train will be parked on a siding next to his neighborhood, with its engine running, from around 12:40 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. every day.

He said the engine is so noisy that some neighbors say it makes their dishes rattle.

"Everyone is happy as a clam," he said of the crowd celebrating at the station. But in this neighborhood, he said, the noise and smell is "putting people here on edge." 

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

tbell@mainetoday.com

 

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