BRUNSWICK, Maine — Passenger train service that links Brunswick and Freeport with Boston and beyond commenced Thursday after decades of development and years of doubt from some who thought they would never see Amtrak north of Portland.
Restrictions on the Amtrak Downeaster’s speed, track maintenance concerns, the construction of stations and most of all, funding, all became challenges writ in the history books Thursday as the train and more than 200 local, state and federal officials rode the maiden voyage from Boston to Brunswick.
Fueled by millions of dollars in federal highway funding over the years, including $35 million in stimulus money from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the tracks have been upgraded and, in some cases, the train will travel as fast as 79 miles per hour.
Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner told a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Maine Street Station in downtown Brunswick that the region is poised to add to Amtrak ridership, which he said has grown by 45 percent since 2000.
“We are not an accident here,” said Gardner. “We are on a real sustained trend of continued growth in investments in America’s passenger infrastructure. I am very proud on behalf of Amtrak to welcome you to Amtrak’s system here in Brunswick.”
Martin Eisenstein, chairman of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, had lofty goals for the Downeaster service, which has run between Portland and Boston with several stops in between for more than a decade.
“When the train started in December 2001, the goal was 178,000 passengers [a year],” he said. “How many do you think we have now? It’s 528,000. How many do you think we’ll have in 10 years? Do I hear a million?,” he said, his words drowning in raucous applause.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, paid homage to the millions in other states who remain without critical transportation and utility infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“There are places very near to us that are still struggling with the complete destruction of their infrastructure,” said Pingree. “I think we need to thank our good fortune at the fact we are here today not to watch failing infrastructure but to be able to say we are here to see something very happy. This is something that so many of us have said they never thought they would see happen.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has long been a supporter of the Downeaster, including proposing an amendment to the 2012 Highway Bill earlier this year to restore $6 million in Downeaster funding that was proposed to be cut. She said the rail service will help fill some of the economic gap that was created in the region by the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station. She estimated that within 20 years, the train will create 800 jobs and lead to $325 million in construction contracts.
“What a boon it is to this area specifically,” said Snowe. “This opens up a new chapter and a new era for Brunswick. This is an investment in the future of Brunswick and the future of Maine.”
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said unprecedented cooperation between numerous people and organizations at the state, local and federal levels 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. “What’s gotten us to this point is the partnerships we’ve built.”
Among the hundreds of people who turned out for the Brunswick event, who included the Brunswick High School marching band and a dance team from Boston, were scores of young children who simply like trains. One of them was the son of Julia Grover of Topsham, who was carrying an American flag.
“I want to show the train my flag,” said the youngster.
“You want to wave your flag at the train?” said Grover. “I think that’s a great idea.”
Beginning immediately, Amtrak will offer weekday departures from Brunswick at 7:05 a.m., and 5:55 and 8:30 p.m., with a similar schedule on weekends. According to its reservation website, a one-way weekday adult ticket from Brunswick Station to North Station in Boston costs as little as $24.