Downeaster celebrates new platforms, setting stage for expansion
After 12 years of planning, the Amtrak Downeaster came one step closer to servicing Freeport and Brunswick on May 14 when officials and train advocates celebrated the opening of new passenger platforms in both towns. Regular train service to the towns is expected to launch this fall.
The train now makes five round-trips daily between Portland and Boston, carrying more than 500,000 passengers a year. With the additional stops at Freeport and Brunswick, that number is expected to increase by 36,500 within a year of service, said Rob Kulat, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Initially, there will be three round-trips daily between Portland and Brunswick, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) that manages the Downeaster. Trips will be added in the future if necessary. The Downeaster has carried more than 4 million riders since it started providing passenger service between Portland and Boston in 2001. The train makes stops in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo joined in the celebration. So did Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and a host of local business leaders. Szabo told the crowd the expansion project is on time and on budget, financed by a $38.3 million federal economic recovery grant from 2010 being used to upgrade 28 miles of rail line for passenger service.
The anticipation of expanded service has already attracted millions of dollars in economic development near Freeport and Brunswick, said Bernhardt. The restoration of passenger service, which ended in 1959, is expected to promote business, increase tourism, save energy and reduce traffic on Maine highways and local roads. “Freeport is now ready for the arrival of the Downeaster this fall,” said Ed Bonney, chairman of the Freeport Train Committee, which has been working to bring Amtrak service to town for 12 years. In a press release, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed the accomplishment: “Brunswick and Freeport are great examples of how rail investment can provide jobs, greater economic development and greater mobility.”
According to the NNEPRA, the work along the Downeaster corridor is creating business orders and sustaining and creating jobs at 53 companies in 20 states. To prepare tracks for trains, workers must now finish replacing 22,000 railroad ties along tracks owned primarily by Pan Am Railways, Quinn said. They must also complete upgrades on the last six of 30 highway crossings and fine-tune the overall railroad signal system. The Downeaster project will improve 36 highway-rail grade crossings, upgrade numerous wayside signals, install signals on the Brunswick Branch and make many other right-of-way improvements.
The rail authority is seeking a federal transportation grant and bids from contractors for a layover and maintenance facility in Brunswick expected to cost at least $5 million, according to Quinn. The state has provided additional funding to help cover project costs, including the construction of the Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant passenger platforms in Freeport and Brunswick.