A federal agency has awarded $16.8 million for infrastructure improvements to the Amtrak Downeaster in Wells, North Berwick and Brunswick.

The money was granted to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Downeaster’s operator, by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.

The authority will use the funds to build a six-mile-long rail extension on the Pan Am Railway’s freight line in Wells. The extension will be added to an existing two-mile side rail.

In addition to the rail extension, funds will go toward building a new passenger platform and pedestrian bridge at the Wells Transportation Center. The improvements will add capacity to meet projected increases in passenger and freight demand, and should also reduce delays that arise when freight and passenger trains must pass each other on the tracks.

The federal funds will also allow the rail authority to add a sixth daily round trip between Brunswick and Wells, according to a news release issued Thursday by U.S. Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

“In recent years, the Downeaster has set new records for both ridership and ticket revenue. It is an economic engine for Maine, providing good jobs, supporting Maine vendors of goods and services, and strengthening our tourism industry,” Collins said in a statement.

“With this funding, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority will be able to make important improvements to this rail line in southern and midcoast Maine, increasing the corridor’s capacity and improving safety, efficiency, and reliability for the hundreds of thousands of passengers who use this service each year.”

The rail authority, which is based in Portland on West Commercial Street, was created in 1995 by the Maine Legislature to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine.

The Downeaster established a new ridership record in 2019, with a total of 574,404 passengers. That represents an increase of 7.8 percent from 2018, and breaks the previous ridership record of 546,056 set in 2017.

The Rail Authority said that August 2019 was the highest ridership month in the Downeaster’s history, with 60,944 people riding the train, the first time ridership surpassed 60,000 in a month.

“NNEPRA attributes the ridership surge to increased frequency to Freeport and Brunswick, improved reliability as well as more repeat riders,” the rail authority said in a news release last month. “When compared to Amtrak services throughout the country, passengers rank the Downeaster among the top services for friendliness, overall satisfaction, and quality of on-board food service.”

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