To celebrate, hundreds of local residents and officials gathered on August 1, 2010, at the Maine Street Station in Brunswick. The excitement and magic that trains inspire was palpable.
“The fastest performing Amtrak train is the Portland-Boston line. Forget shovel-ready, this is spike-ready,” said Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole, as Engine 516 sat idling on the tracks behind the dignitaries.
Engine 516 was delivering 50 sticks of steel rail for the expansion. Each stick is 1,650 feet long and weighs more than 63,000 pounds. The train stretched nearly a third of a mile down the tracks, its cargo weighing more than 3.2 million pounds. Beginning August 16th, crews will begin ripping up the old tracks and replacing them with the new rails.
Because Maine officials had already completed engineering studies and understood the steps necessary for a solid application, Maine’s Downeaster expansion is the first such project in the nation to begin construction.
“Amtrak’s Downeaster service has been the model of success,” said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration. “We advanced this application to fast-track status because of Maine’s readiness. You’re putting the rails in the ground. The Obama administration is proud to work with a state government that is as committed to rail as we are. Maine sets the example for the other states.”
Last January, the FRA announced that the 30-mile renovation project had won a $35 million grant made available in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The State will provide another $3 million to complete the project.
“Not only is it good for the economy and the environment, it’s bringing back the romance of trains. Tourists on cruise ships that dock in Portland will have access to the Midcoast with its wonderful shopping, and charming cities, by taking the train,” said Congresswomen Chellie Pingree.
The expansion is projected to employ more than 200 Maine workers for the next two years. The average railroad worker earns $27 an hour. In all, they will replace 28 miles of tracks between Portland and Brunswick.
A recent Yankee magazine reader poll declared Freeport as New England’s favorite shopping town. Portland has become the most livable city, according to Outdoor magazine. Freeport and Brunswick have new developments, with train platforms, offices, and shops. Developers have prepared the way, anticipating tourists and businesses for when the Downeaster hits town.
“Expanded service benefits our economy directly. And it’s a part of our energy solution, as it takes more cars and trucks off our roads, reducing congestion and keeping the environment in this beautiful area clean,” said Governor John Baldacci. “It will further encourage development in this region and stimulate jobs and investments. The partnerships from the grass roots on up made this day possible.”
As a congressman, Baldacci sat on the Transportation Committee where he promoted rail service for Maine. He was involved with bringing Amtrak’s Downeaster service to Portland, which has carried more than three million passengers since 2001.
The State’s transportation plan includes expanding more rail service for freight and passenger service. The overall three-port strategy calls for railroad lines to connect east-west to Searsport, Eastport, and Portland, cutting down on trucks and accessing markets across America more economically and efficiently. As gas prices went up in the past, more shippers looked to rail; that trend continues.
After the line to Brunswick is complete, work will begin to upgrade the railroad lines to Lewiston.
“The two biggest costs for businesses are transportation and energy. The more rail service we have, the better our businesses do. With this milestone, we’re going to go on to Rockland, to Augusta, and to Lewiston-Auburn and western Maine,” said Baldacci. “This is a great day for the state of Maine.”
Following remarks, the governor and Szabo led the group in unison, announcing, “Engine 516 OK to go ahead!”
And Engine 516 headed south toward Freeport. Then railroad construction crews fascinated the attendees as they demonstrated how old rail ties are removed and replaced with new ones. A crew of 25 men can replace 800 railroad ties in a single day.
“This is a long-time dream, coming true,” said Wayne Davis of TrainRiders/Northeast. Passenger rail pulled out of Brunswick in 1949, except for Maine Eastern Railroad which provides freight and specialized passenger excursion services to Rockland. For the past 23 years, Davis has advocated for the return of passenger rail.
David Fink, president of Pan Am Railways, which owns the railroad said, “I can keep 50 workers employed because of this expansion. In two week I would have had to lay them off.”
Fink also prefers to use Maine workers and materials whenever possible. “The crushed stone will come from our quarry in Embden,” said Fink. “Employing up to 15 people there.”
The upgrade will allow the Downeaster to travel up to 79 mph.
“This is an awesome train to launch an awesome project,” said Martin Eisenstein, chairman of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the administrative arm of the Downeaster. “It took the vision of the governor, the work of his administration, the Legislature, dedicated citizens, and the congressional delegation to get it done. So far the Downeaster is having our best year ever, with more than 474,000 riders and $6.7 million in revenues, to date. All along the line, local economies have benefited; we hope that will be the case here.”
Patricia Quinn, executive director of NEPRA, says the expansion will boost ridership by another 36,000 passengers each year.
“This is just the beginning,” said Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx. “Brunswick’s economy is already seeing new opportunities from this project.”