Crews Monday will begin replacing 28 miles of rails between Portland and Brunswick, the first phase of a two-year construction project that will allow Amtrak to extend its Downeaster service to Brunswick.

A 32-car rail train will arrive with 50 rails, each one 1,650 feet long and weighing 63,250 pounds.

The arrival of the rail is a big deal for Brunswick because it’s evidence that something that has been discussed in the abstract for years is really going to happen, said David Markovchick, director of economic and community development for the town of Brunswick.

“That sends a huge message to the community — the steel has arrived, the train will follow,” he said. “People can go out and stub their toes on it.”

Crews will begin work in Brunswick and head south. The $38 million project is expected to be completed by the fall of 2012. Federal stimulus money is paying for $35 million, and the state is paying for the rest.

The train is carrying enough rails for one-quarter of the route. It will take two or three days for crews to lay down the rails next to the existing track. On Aug. 16, rail gangs will start replacing brittle rails that have been in place since the 1930s with the new welded rails. Crews will later add gravel and install new ties.

The project will allow the Downeaster, which now runs between Boston and Portland, to extend its service to Freeport and Brunswick in the fall of 2012.

While there are five daily round trips between Boston and Portland, there will be only two daily round trips between Boston and Brunswick.

Yet there are expectations in both Freeport and Brunswick that the train will be heavily used by tourists and locals and spur economic development and other transit opportunities in the region, such as bus service.

There has not been regular passenger rail service linking Brunswick, Freeport and Portland since the Maine Central Railroad ended its service on April 4, 1959.

People have been talking for years about bringing trains back. Volunteers 21 years ago gathered nearly 90,000 signatures to pressure the Legislature to initiate passenger service from Boston to Brunswick.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said that passenger rail is an important part of the state’s history and culture.

“It’s coming back in the right moment in time where it will benefit our communities and economies,” she said. “It will be a big shot in the arm for Brunswick and everybody along the rail line.”

Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, Gov. John Baldacci, Pingree and Pan Am Railways President David Fink will attend a “kick off” event at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Maine Street Station in Brunswick.

As a demonstration, work crews will lay the first rails and install five ties. In addition, Fink will give invited guests a train ride to Freeport in his private rail car.

The funding is part of $8 billion in Recovery Act grant money for developing a nationwide system of high-speed intercity passenger rail service. Because the engineering was completed, the Downeaster expansion project is among the first funded projects to begin construction, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the service.

The authority projects that the number of passengers, now about 1,300 a day, will increase by 10 percent when the extension to Brunswick is complete, with tourists making up most of the increase. The projection does not include ridership between Portland and Freeport and Brunswick.

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

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