November 1, 2012

Ceremonial ride to mark Downeaster's Maine expansion

On board will be a former train station manager and many officials. On Friday, service to Freeport starts.

The Associated Press

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.

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Nelson Soule, 91, poses next to the Amtrak Downeaster train Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 at the station in Portland, Maine. 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. (AP Photo/Joel Page)

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In this Aug. 3, 2010, file photo, people wait as the Amtrak Vermonter arrives in Montpelier, Vt. Amtrak has set new ridership records. The national high-speed rail operator says its trains carried more than 31 million passengers in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That marks the highest annual ridership total since Amtrak started operations in 1971. Records were set on Ethan Allen ridership between New York and Rutland, Vt., up 10 percent to more than 54,000 and the Vermonter from Washington to St. Albans, Vt., had 5.5 percent more passengers at 82,000.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

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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.


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