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.

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,, and will run banner ads on The Boston Globe’s website, 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.

Ticket sales and food purchases fund 54 percent of the Downeaster’s $15 million annual operating budget. State and federal dollars pay the rest, with the federal government paying 80 percent of the subsidy.

The state subsidy, about $1.5 million a year, comes from a portion of the tax on rental cars.

Ridership on the Downeaster has increased steadily since 2001. Ridership from July through September of this year was up 9.2 percent from the same period last year.

There were 57,853 one-way trips in August, the most in any month of the Downeaster’s 11-year history. The second-busiest month was July.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he supports reducing subsidies to Amtrak. If that happened, Maine taxpayers would likely pay a larger share of the cost, Quinn said.

The regular fare for a one-way trip between Brunswick and Boston will be $29. The fare from Freeport to Boston will be $27.

When the service is able to offer three round-trips daily, Quinn said, a train will leave Brunswick in the afternoon and return late at night, allowing Mainers to attend evening events in Boston and get back home.

In the summer, the Maine Eastern Railroad operates a train between Brunswick and Rockland. The Downeaster’s schedule will be coordinated with that train, Quinn said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be reached at 791-6369 or at

[email protected]

Facebook comments