Sunday, December 8, 2013
By Tom Bell firstname.lastname@example.org
Business owners in downtown Freeport and Brunswick are awaiting the start next month of the Downeaster, the area's first regularly scheduled passenger rail service since the Maine Central Railroad ended its Portland-to-Rockland run in 1959.
This photo shows Brandon Hussey, director of sales and marketing at the Inn at Brunswick Station in Freeport, at the Maine Street Station on Monday, Oct. 8, 2012. The Downeaster will begin making stops in Brunswick in November.
The Northern New England Rail Authority is running this billboard at North Station in Boston and in the city's subway system.
Although the Downeaster is expected to generate more customers for businesses, nobody really knows just what the impact will be.
"It's just a big guess," said Rodney "Chip" Gray, who owns the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and serves on the board of the Freeport Economic Development Corp. "You can get about any estimate you like if you ask around."
The service will begin on Nov. 1. The schedule calls for two round-trips a day, and Amtrak plans to offer three once it builds a train layover facility in Brunswick.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority estimates that 100 passengers a day, on average, will ride the train north of Portland. The estimate is conservative because the authority has been unable to find forecast models that can accurately assess the demand, said Patricia Quinn, the authority's executive director.
The authority is spending $100,000 to advertise the new service. It has installed 75 small billboards in Boston's North Station and throughout the city's subway system.
The back-lit billboards say "Experience more Maine," and the various images include a couple cross-country skiing, a couple sitting at a fireplace at the Inn at Brunswick Station and people shopping at L.L. Bean in Freeport.
The authority has developed a new website, www.traintomaine.com, and will run banner ads on The Boston Globe's website, Boston.com. It will also run ads on public access television in Maine to encourage Mainers to ride the train to Boston.
Since the Downeaster's Portland-to-Boston service began in December 2001, it hasn't been the Maine tourist magnet supporters expected it to be. For the vast majority of its passengers, the Downeaster is a way to get to Beantown, not to Vacationland.
The extension of the service from Portland to Brunswick should change that, Quinn said.
Freeport and Brunswick are expected to draw more out-of-staters because both have stations that are in walkable downtowns, Quinn said. Freeport is considered the biggest draw because 3.5 million people visit it every year.
More train passengers from Massachusetts will enable the service to "balance the flow," she said. Right now, the southbound 8 a.m. train leaves Portland packed with passengers, but the train returns from Boston two-thirds empty.
Monica Kissane, who owns the White Cedar Inn bed and breakfast on Main Street in Freeport, said the train will bring tourists who don't have cars or don't enjoy driving.
She has already booked three guests from Massachusetts who have bought train tickets. She said she will pay for a taxi to pick them up at the station and bring them to her bed and breakfast.
She said the train might boost business in the winter when bad weather makes driving unpredictable and stressful.
In Brunswick, where many businesses have been hit hard by the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, the Downeaster is seen as kick-starting the region's revival, said Brandon Hussey, director of sales and marketing for the Inn at Brunswick Station.
The new hotel, which has 52 rooms, a tavern and a 1,900-square-foot ballroom, was built in anticipation of the new train service.
"We can't wait for it," he said, even with no way to predict how many people will ride the train. "There is not really anything factual until it gets here."
The investment has been substantial. The Federal Railroad Administration spent $38 million to install new welded rails and upgrade road crossings along the 30-mile route between Portland and Brunswick, and the state spent a half-million dollars to install train platforms in Freeport and Brunswick.
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