Patricia Quinn of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority shepherded the effort to bring passenger rail north to Portland and, now, to Brunswick. (Photos by C. Parrish)
Patricia Quinn of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority shepherded the effort to bring passenger rail north to Portland and, now, to Brunswick. (Photos by C. Parrish)
After 25 years of planning and persistence, the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train rolled past people snapping photos and waving at train crossings and into the Brunswick station for the first time on Thursday, November 1.

A crowd threw confetti, waved flags and bobbed balloons in the air at the station as dancers poured out of the train, hip-hopping across the platform.

The whistlestop train tour celebrating the new passenger rail service to Freeport and Brunswick started off early in the morning at North Station in Boston, stopping at all the Amtrak Downeaster stations along the way, In Freeport and Brunswick, the VIPs onboard came out to address the celebratory crowds.

"This is not the train from Boston, its not the train to Portland, it's the train to Maine," David Bernhardt, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, told the crowd at Freeport.

The Amtrak Downeaster passenger train currently makes five round-trips daily between Portland and Boston. Two of those round-trips will go north to Brunswick, with a station stop in Freeport along the way.

The line between Portland and Brunswick has been used for slower-moving freight trains for decades, but the tracks were unsuitable for passenger service, which moves at faster speeds and has additional safety requirements.

The Downeaster service expansion, which started in 2010, required rebuilding 30 miles of track, installing 33,000 railroad ties, rebuilding 36 crossings and building two stations and platforms.

Amtrak doesn't own the track. Pan Am Railways owns about 90 percent of it, and the company agreed to do the construction work for the expansion, which was funded primarily with $38.3 million in federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The goal was to complete the project on-time and on-budget, according to Pan Am President David Fink.

"And we have, both for the service up to Portland and, now, to Brunswick," said Fink, who was onboard the inaugural run from Boston north.

Pan Am just squeaked it in, he said, with some final details finished in the early morning hours of November 1.

Maine trains primarily haul freight, not people

Pan Am was forced into an arranged marriage with Amtrak two decades ago when the federally funded passenger rail service told Fink that it planned to run on Pan Am's privately owned tracks, like it or not.

Fink said it was a very rocky start, but that affection has grown in the past two decades.

"Patricia Quinn is the main reason that happened," said Fink. Quinn, who is the executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), shepherded the process of getting passenger rail to Maine over the past 12 years.

"Patricia came in with the attitude that she was a guest in our home," said Fink.

It was an approach that allowed a dialogue to begin and a relationship to bloom between Pan Am, NNEPRA and Amtrak. Pan Am's concern was that providing passenger service could compromise their freight service, which is the bulk of their business.

"We were very concerned that it not be detrimental to freight," he said. It wasn't. "We were able to add capacity for freight."

Most of Pan Am's business is moving pulp and paper products from northern and western Maine out to the world. Fink said Pan Am has increased its freight business even in a down economy, adding assets, staff, and more trains and capturing a fair bit of the tractor-trailer traffic that used to haul pulp and paper products on the roads.

Passenger rail, particularly Amtrak, has drawn fire from some conservatives for not being self-sufficient; it runs partially on revenue earned through fares and is partially funded through federal tax dollars. Advocates of passenger rail say the train subsidy is no different than the highway subsidy for roads and bridges; it is an investment in transportation infrastructure. Opponents say it should be a private business, period.

Pan Am, which is a private business, no longer sees a problem with running subsidized passenger rail on its tracks. Fink says Pan Am is now fully behind passenger rail when it meshes with their other goals.

"We can now all sit in a room and figure it out," said Fink.

Political support on the Left and Right

Governor John Baldacci helped foster the development of passenger rail, as did Senator Olympia Snowe, who has been instrumental in bringing attention and, ultimately, federal funds to the effort and continues to do so. Governor Angus King, prior to Baldacci, pushed for passenger service at the state level.

At its foundation, the effort to restore passenger rail to the state of Maine hinged on one man: Wayne Davis of TrainRiders/Northeast, a volunteer organization.

Davis, Snowe, Baldacci, King, and Representative Chellie Pingree were all on-board the first train to Brunswick.

"Thankfully, the mission of restoring passenger rail service in Maine fell into the hands of someone like Wayne Davis," said Senator Olympia Snowe in her address to the crowds at Freeport station. "He had a pioneering vision, he was doggedly determined, he was tenacious, he was passionate about bringing this project to reality," she said.
Cheapest Boston ticket: $24, one way

November 1, 2012, also happened to be the same day that tolls increased 50¢ to $1 at some exits on the Maine Turnpike.

Now that there is a choice, plenty of people in the crowds at Freeport and Brunswick said they would take it. Free parking, the cheapest ticket at $24 one-way (half price for seniors) from Brunswick to Boston, and the bonus of starting to enjoy their weekend to Boston the minute they stepped on the Downeaster seemed pretty attractive to some.

"It's such a pleasure," said Denise Carbonell of Wells, who has been taking the Downeaster to Boston regularly and came out to celebrate the expansion. She often rides with family and friends, who get to relax and visit on the way south. "We're going to see the Rockettes in December and do some shopping."

How about the other direction?

"I definitely would take the train to Rockland," she said.

The marketing director for the Brunswick Downtown Association, Terry Coughlin, was also interested in a link with Rockland.

"We want to start advertising up there, so people will come down here," she said.

Freeport has started marketing to get urbanites to come north, placing $65,000 in advertising in the Boston market in recent weeks. They are pushing the convenience of shopping and the proximity to hotels, according to the economic development group from Freeport.

Brunswick Town Councilor Benet Pols said the link would allow connections for education, too, citing the connection with the Boston Museum of Science, which has hosted school groups camping out in the museum overnight, with educational events on either end of the stay-over.

"There is definitely marketing potential," he said. "Next year is the 150th anniversary of Little Round Top and our native son, Joshua Chamberlain, for example. There are opportunities."

Next stop, Rockland?

Since the tracks between Brunswick and Rockland, which are owned by the State of Maine, already run passenger service, it seems an easy jump to link Rockland all the way to Boston, through Brunswick.

But coordination between the Amtrak Downeaster and the Maine Eastern Railroad is not a sure thing, according to Gordon Page, the manager of the Maine Eastern Railroad.

"It's not really a link," said Page. "They are two different things."

Maine Eastern Railroad runs the two passenger service trips a day between Brunswick and Rockland as a summer excursion service. The train runs Wednesday through Saturday during the summer. The 2012 price was $47 round-trip to Brunswick. It takes two hours one-way.

Page said linking up to the Amtrak Downeaster was not just a matter of extending the service north to Rockland, noting that the Maine Eastern Railroad passenger cars are historic and not compliant with Amtrak requirements for handicapped access, among other things.

"We're going to take a wait-and-see approach," said Page. Like Pan Am, the primary business of Maine Eastern Railroad is freight, not passenger service. Page said he wants to see if it is possible for the Downeaster to schedule an extra run during the day to Brunswick that could connect to the Rockland train.

"And we don't want to risk losing the excursion customers we already have coming to the area," he said.

Page said no additional marketing efforts are under way to promote Maine Eastern Railroad as a potential link to or from Rockland to the outside world and there is no local push to do so.

Bob Johnston of Trains magazine, who was onboard the inaugural run to Brunswick to cover the story for the Chicago-based national publication, said that made sense. He said success of the expansion from Portland to Brunswick probably depended on another full run once a day up to Brunswick, noting that the short commuter runs currently scheduled between Portland and Brunswick in the early morning and late evening were inefficient and just being done to move the trains into position for the next day because there was no layover facility.

The lack of a layover facility is the next target, according to Quinn.

"It's planned, but not funded," she said. "That's our next step."

Wayne Davis said the Rockland link was on his radar, too, but not a priority, leaving open the question whether popular support to get the train to Maine to come farther north to Rockland will expand into a local effort to make it happen.

The full Downeaster schedule to Freeport and Brunswick began operating November 2, 2012. Scheduling and tickets are available at AmtrakDowneaster.com