A member of the TrainRiders Northeast looks at the Downeaster reflecting on the 24 years it took to make the dream come true. Photo by Ramona du Houx.
An excited and enthusiastic crowd cheered, hollered, and applauded when Amtrak’s Downeaster arrived at the town’s new station November 1, 2012, marking the beginning of the first passenger rail service north of Portland since 1960. When the train pulled into the station the Brunswick High School marching band played and a dance team from Boston disembarked and performed. Wide-eyed children with huge smiles were energized by the event and fascinated by the train.
“It looks like we made it,” said, Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, addressing the crowd of more than 600 people, quoting one of her favorite Barry Manilow songs.
Quinn said unprecedented cooperation at the state, local and federal levels and amongst businesses and individuals made the Downeaster expansion possible.
“We were here a couple of years ago with a big pile of dirt, a pile of rails and a lot of promises,” said Quinn. “The partnerships we’ve built got us here today.”
Former Governor John Baldacci who was in Brunswick at the time Quinn spoke about has been fighting for the Downeaster as a Congressman and then as Governor. He was instrumental in working with Pan Am Railroad President David Fink, who owns the railroad and upgraded the tracks.
“I’m proud of all the work everyone has done. It’s a great team effort across the isles, across all levels of government and business. Everyone all working together was key,” said Baldacci who joined the celebrations at the Brunswick train station. “It’s wonderful to see and I’m excited for Brunswick. It’s a great example of what can be done.”
The ceremonial train was filled with state and federal politicians, as well as town officials, business owners, employees of Pan Am Railways, and members of TrainRiders Northeast, the organization run by Wayne Davis, a retired banker who led the grass-roots campaign to revive passenger rail service in Maine.
In 1989 Davis and his supporters gathered 90,000 signatures for a petition asking the state to restore passenger rail service. Everyone who spoke at the event thanked Davis for his efforts, none of which he was every paid for.
“I just followed his marching orders,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Davis. Snowe was introduced to “the train man” by Sen. George Mitchel. She worked with Davis, throughout the years, promoting the Downeaster to Congress. Snowe estimated that within 20 years, the train could create 800 jobs and lead to $325 million in construction contracts. “This is an investment in the future of Brunswick and the future of Maine,” she said.
Congresswoman Chelliee Pingree noted that it took a truly bipartisan effort from Maine’s Congressional delegation and three governors from different parties, over the years, to secure funding at the federal and state level for the service.
“There are places very near to us that are still struggling with the complete destruction of their infrastructure,” said Pingree referring to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation. “While our hearts are with them today we celebrate what can be. This is something that so many of us have said they never thought they would see happen. Working together it has and over $38 million in federal stimulus dollars helped make it happen.”
The funds were used to overhaul 30 miles of track and rehabilitate 36 crossings from Portland to Brunswick which Pan Am Railways accomplished. The state also invested a half-million dollars to install train station platforms in Brunswick and Freeport.
“We had no injuries, were on time, on budget and the train is here,” said Pan Am CEO Fink. “We’re expanding our fright services in Waterville and look forward to future work in Maine.”
The Downeaster expansion fulfills the original vision for the passenger rail service, which launched between Portland and Boston on Dec. 15, 2001. Ridership has grown by 45 percent since then. Now more than 528,000 use the service, yearly. According to Quinn ridership is expected to grow by an additional 36,000 passengers in its first year with the expanded service. For many that translates into economic development for the communities the train stops in.
“Everywhere that they have opened a new train station the opportunity for economic development has followed,” said John Richardson, former Department of Economic and Community Development. “Today is a shared success story.”
The owner of the renown bistro Scarlet Begonias Doug Lavallee believes in the positive economic impact of the train so much he moved his restaurant down the street to the Maine Street Train Station.
“If marketed correctly the train not only is there for the whole region but Brunswick specifically because you can hop on a train in Boston and come up to Brunswick and within walking distance is a hotel and Inn, restaurants, theaters and museums,” said Lavallee, “It’s going to be great for Brunswick.”
President Barack Obama, who has been pushing for increased rail service throughout America has referred to the Downeaster as, “a model for the nation.” Throughout America’s history when big infrastructure improvements occur communities along those highways, river ways, or train routes have benefited.
“We are not an accident here. It takes leadership at every level to make this happen. And there isn’t a better picture of that leadership than there is at this station here today,” said Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner who went on to say that the region is poised to add to Amtrak. “We are on a real sustained trend of continued growth in investments in America’s passenger infrastructure.”
That was music to Davis’s ears because now that service to Brunswick is secured he wants to focus on getting the train to the Lewiston-Auburn area, Augusta and Bangor. Davis was thrilled that the Downeaster has already become more than he ever imagined.
“For the ill, and handicapped this train has opened a new door. I never thought about that twenty-four years ago. I just wanted a train, with good food and services, to ride to Boston on— to make life more civilized,” said Davis.
Now about three to four hundred passengers ride every month to Boston from Maine to get medical treatment at specialized facilities and training hospitals.
The first week Davis road the train he asked a couple why they were riding. The wife told him that they had to travel to Boston to get medical treatment for her husband. Before the train she would have to drive back to Maine through Boston traffic. The wife became so worried about the drive she began to develop ulcers. The train was a lifesaver. Another woman gave Davis a tremendous hug in gratitude when she discovered who he was. This young couple had been through a traumatic car crash and her husband was paralyzed from the waist down. With the Downwaster he could negotiate his wheel chair by himself through the train and felt he’d regained part of his life that was lost.
“And then there are the seeing eye dogs that are being trained on the Downeaster. Where else on the planet do these things happen? —only on the Downeaster,” he said.
Downeaster ridership increased by more than 15 percent in 2008 after additional stops and more trips were added to the schedule. It is the fastest-growing service for Amtrak in the nation, according to the regional rail authority. Davis believes a lot of that has to do with the great service the train provides, saying that the atmosphere on board reflects the hospitality of Maine.
“Angus [former Governor King] told me, ‘the moment it leaves Portland it turns in to a long skinny Maine town,” said Davis.
Former Governor King is also looking to the future and said, “Of course I would continue funding in the Senate for projects like this because it is economic and infrastructure development that supports jobs and makes Maine and even better place.”
For now Quinn wishes to finalize work on the Boston to Brunswick route.
“We still need to find a suitable place in Brunswick to park the trains, so the work is ongoing,” she said.
Weekday northbound service to Brunswick leaves Boston at 9:05 a.m. and 5 p.m., arriving at 12:30 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. Southbound service to Boston leaves Freeport at 7:20 a.m. and 6:10 p.m., and leaves Brunswick at 7:05 a.m. and 5:55 p.m., with arrival times of 10:30 a.m. and 9:20 p.m.
An early morning service to Freeport and Brunswick from Portland leaves at 6 a.m. with a 6:30 a.m. flag stop in Freeport and a 6:45 a.m. arrival in Brunswick. Night service to Portland leaves Brunswick at 8:30 p.m., with a Freeport flag stop at 8:45 p.m. and an arrival in Portland at 9:20 p.m.
The last Freeport and Brunswick trains on weekends are 40 minutes later than their weekday counterparts. The Downeaster schedule is also online.