BRUNSWICK

Freighted with VIPs and loaded with expectations, Amtrak’s Downeaster pulled into Brunswick on Nov. 1 — five hours after leaving Boston and approximately 24 years after a group of railroad buffs started their bid to restore passenger rail service to northern New England.

It was a long wait, but all involved said they were excited to see the two-year, $38 million railway expansion come to fruition.

The advent of passenger rail service in Brunswick and Freeport was voted by Times Record readers and editors the No. 1 Mid-coast news story of 2012.

Passengers on the Nov. 1 ceremonial ride included U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who both gave short speeches in Freeport before boarding once again for Brunswick. Joining the party in Freeport were former Govs. John Baldacci and Angus King, the Brunswick independent who would become the next U.S. senator from Maine five days later.

THE CROWD cheers as the Amtrak Downeaster filled with dignitaries arrives in Brunswick on Nov. 1. The next day, Brunswick-area residents Steven and Joanna Bradley, at right, and dozens of others board the train for its first day of regular service.

THE CROWD cheers as the Amtrak Downeaster filled with dignitaries arrives in Brunswick on Nov. 1. The next day, Brunswick-area residents Steven and Joanna Bradley, at right, and dozens of others board the train for its first day of regular service.

“Not only is the train practical and green — so green — but it’s also fun and a great tourism draw,” said Roxanne Eflin, senior program director of National Trust Main Street Center, which coordinates programs such as Main Street Bath, Main Street Brunswick and Main Street Freeport. “These communities are ready and vibrant and have a lot to offer train riders.”

The group that pushed the project along the tracks was TrainRiders/Northeast. Pingree called Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders/ Northeast, the “father of the Downeaster.”

“Back in 1988, he had a bad travel experience,” Pingree said Nov. 1. “While most of us go home and complain, Wayne took his complaint to a whole new level.”

With carefully timed stops at each station, riders and onlookers were regaled with music and confetti cannons. Speeds reached 79 mph from Boston as the Downeaster crested through Scarborough Marsh then slowed for a 12- minute stop in Portland before heading to Freeport. The train rolled past grazing cattle, which shared their pastures with locals snapping pictures of the historic run.

Not everyone was happy about the arrival.

Residents of Brunswick called the train’s diesel fumes an “environmental mess” while noise complaints from trackside residents in Freeport forced the Town Council to consider adopting “quiet zones” there.

Funded with $38.3 million in federal stimulus, expanding the service required improvements to more than 30 miles of rail and rehabilitation of 36 crossings.

Initially, two of the five daily round trips between Portland and Boston will travel to Brunswick, adding about 36,000 passengers each year. The rail service has promised to add more trains to its daily Brunswick service.

Ridership during the first month eclipsed expectations by almost double.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said the train carried 5,135 Brunswick passengers in November. Daily ridership from Brunswick Station averaged 177 people, almost double the agency’s initial projection of 100.

That cheered Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown, who had been speaking with local shop owners about the economic effects of the Downeaster.

“Anecdotally, they say it’s like the month of July all over again in November,” Brown said.


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