The train is coming back to Brunswick. While this news is reason for optimism it’s tempered by the fact that the train will idle on the tracks downtown from 12;30 to 5:00 every afternoon.
After years of planning and much expense at both the federal, state, and local levels, the return of regular passenger rail service between Brunswick and Boston began again on November 1st, 2012. It had been more than fifty years since passenger trains reached Brunswick from the south. Train ridership has been growing steadily in the region and there’s plenty of information to suggest it will continue to grow.
According to press reports, and information available on the NNEPRA website, the Amtrak Downeaster, which has serviced the Portland to Boston run since 2001, will make two daily runs north to Brunswick. Two trains a day will leave Brunswick: one at about 7:00 AM, and the other around 6:00 PM. Travel time to Boston’s North Station, including other stops along the way, is about three hours and twenty-five minutes.
Arrival times in Brunswick for Northbound trains are 12:25 PM and 8:20 PM. A one-way ticket goes for $29.00. Various discounts are available for frequent riders: a six-pack of one way tickets for students, including those from Bowdoin, costs just $76, a monthly pass that will take you as far south as Saco costs $99, while the monthly pass to Boston is $299. Senior citizen discounts are available too. On Sundays two kids ride free with a paying adult. In addition, there are plenty of packages available for special events.
Brunswick’s financial and planning contributions to this project.
In the earliest stages of the Maine Street Station Development, the town’s planning board pushed for the inclusion of a “train station” within the Maine Street Station Development. JHR, the developer, had hoped to devote the entire building to retail space, a more lucrative option.
Later the town council agreed to rent back the train station/visitor center from JHR. We paid five years rent–$220,000–in advance. At the time, it was the only way to keep the Maine Street Station project alive. Keeping the project alive was necessary to getting the train service. The funds to rent back the train station came from the Brunswick Development Corporation (BDC).
In 2009, tremendous town effort was spent resuscitating a federal grant intended to reimburse the town for money spent on infrastructure improvements and environmental clean-up of the old train station site. Town staff and the council members spent hours with our local representative from the EDA (Economic Development Agency, a part of the US Dept of Commerce that administers various grants) and staffers from our Congressional delegation working to repackage a grant application for the Maine Street Station project. The original application had suggested that Maine Street Station was just a retail and hotel complex. To be successful the application had to include a transit component.
During 2009 the council met with Governor Baldacci to assure that the state would continue its funding for the Downeaster service between Boston and Portland, an obvious necessary first step to extending the service to Brunswick. This required the Governor and Maine DOT to commit to using funds from both the STAR (State Transit Air Rail, its funds are raised from car rental taxes) account and the CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, a federal source) accounts to fund the project. As it is, Maine operates under a temporary waiver of typical CMAQ rules that allows us to use CMAQ funds for operating expenses; usually these funds are available only for capital expenses.
All of these steps were crucial in obtaining the funding to upgrade the tracks from
Portland to Brunswick to accommodate passenger rail service. Many people do not recall that Brunswick was in competition with Lewiston/Auburn for the extension of the Downeaster service. Brunswick’s commitment and advance preparation was the decisive factor in the rail authority’s choice of Brunswick even though the population of Lewiston Auburn is much larger.
Finally, in addition to the visitor center and train station, the town is responsible for maintenance and utilities for the train platform itself. We’ve budgeted $50,000 a year for maintenance of the platform.
Federal support for the Downeaster, and for Amtrak in general.
Folks who have been following this project closely know that rail upgrades have been necessary wherever Amtrak adds new service to address speed, capacity, safe crossings and stations where riders can safely embark. A necessary precondition to extending the train to Brunswick was the upgrade of 30 miles of rail, rehabilitation of 36 crossings and construction of two station platforms between Brunswick and Portland. The track upgrades were funded by $38.3 million in federal money. The work took two years and was funded by the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act, known colloquially as the Obama Stimulus Package.
One very important fact to be aware of is who owns the tracks. The tracks, and land beneath them, are not owned by Amtrak, or by NNEPRA, the rail authority, or even by the governement. Instead they’re owned by Pan Am, a private rail carrier in the freight business. Pan Am was previously known here in Maine as Guilford, and before that Maine Central Rail Road.
It bears repeating that other federal money has been spent on this project as well. In addition to the 2009 EDA grant noted above the Maine Street Station project received substantial assistance through the Environmental Protection Agencies brownfield grants program which allowed for all the necessary environmental remediation (ironically mostly contaminants such as coal ash left from the site’s prior use as a rail facility).
Ongoing funding issues.
Each year when the federal budget is put together Amtrak funding faces cuts or the possibility of cuts. To this point, we’ve had consistent support from our congressional delegation, but the future is uncertain.
Ongoing local challenges.
Layover facility in Brunswick.
One thing that is clear, especially now that the train arrives every morning at 6:40, the controversial layover facility in the Brunswick West Neighborhood is not—and never was—in any way necessary to bring the train to Brunswick. From it’s inception the proposed extension of service to Brunswick included just two round trips. Many people have confused the arrival of Amtrak service with a second issue, the placement of the Amtrak maintenance facility. The confusion stems from the rail authority’s public relations effort to link the two.
In April 2011 plans for a potential layover facility adjacent to the Bouchard and Hennesey Drive neighborhoods first began to appear in public after the zoning board of appeals granted a variance allowing for the 40,000 square foot structure; just 20,000 square feet was allowed by existing zoning regulations. It remains unclear how long NNEPRA had the plans, or for how long town officials knew of the proposed plan, but its first public airing was at the April 2011 zoning board of appeals meeting. Neighborhood concerns quickly coalesced and an organized opposition to the layover facility followed.
NNEPRA, the rail authority managing the Downeaster, painted the neighborhood as obstructing progress. NNEPRA implied that if the layover facility was built in Brunswick as many as five to seven round trips a day to Brunswick could occur.
This is simply false. NNEPRA and Amtrak do not own the railroad tracks themselves; the tracks are owned by Pan Am, a freight carrier. Use of Pan Am’s tracks is by permission and as he result of a contract between Pan Am and NNEPRA. Pan Am chooses to give priority for the use of its tracks to freight. Frankly, Pan Am does not want the passenger service to interfere with its moneymaker: freight. To this point Amtrak only has the use of the tracks during the two slots noted in the linked schedule.
Until, and if, a second set of tracks is built south of Freeport allowing for the passenger and freight trains to pass simultaneously, there will be no more than two passenger trains running to and from Brunswick. This would be true if the layover facility existed right now, or if it is never built at all. Until additional rails are built and Pan Am agrees to their use for passenger service there will be no more than two round trips.
NNEPRA has always known this; town officials, and anyone else seriously following the issue, have always known this. It spite of this NNEPRA, town staff and the Brunswick Downtown Association lobbied townsfolk to “support the train” each time the maintenance facility was up for discussion.
Currently, the plans for the layover facility seem to be on a back burner. NNEPRA grossly underestimated the costs of the facility and have had difficulty securing the financing necessary to move forward. NNEPRA has applied for funds to build the facility while simultaneously applying for the funds to build the necessary by-pass tracks south of Freeport. To this point each application has been rejected.
Given the tenuous nature of the operational funding, the yearly struggle to keep funding at just current levels for operation, the necessity of a special waiver for the use of CMAQ funds as operating expenses, and the uncertainty of any future federal funding for Amtrak, spending now capital improvements seems imprudent.
Eminent Domain in Freeport
According to news reports, Freeport had been considering annexing land from a private owner by using eminent domain to support its station expansion plans.
Eminent domain allows a municipality to take private property regardless of if the land owner wants to give it up. The town would be required to pay for the property, but the landowner can appeal only the price offered not the town’s decision to take the land. According to the Forecaster, Freeport believes the land in question would be the “ideal spot” for expansion and long-term parking, which the town currently lacks.
However, the Times Record reported in late September that the town and land owner reached an agreement on price; the land will purchased rather than taken.
Quiet zones along the track.
In addition to the land acquisition, Freeport, along with Cumberland and Falmouth, have also considered quiet zones for the train route, which would prevent trains from blowing their whistles when passing through the towns, according to reporting in the Forecaster.
All the towns have considered adding additional improvements at their crossings to prevent cars from driving onto the tracks while a train is passing. Those improvements will likely not happen until the spring construction season, according to the towns’ managers.
Freeport and Falmouth currently meet the federal requirements to have quiet zones; Cumberland does not.
Meanwhile, in Brunswick the train can be heard far and near the tracks. It’s plainly audible as far from downtown as the outer Meadowbrook and Parkview neighborhoods. Two quiet zone designations are in process for the intersections closest to the train station. By Christmas the intersections at Union and Stanwood Streets should be designated as quiet zones. The train will still be required to whistle at Church Road and every other road crossing as it enters and leaves town.