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UPDATE: Downeaster service to Freeport, Brunswick begins Nov. 1

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UPDATE: Downeaster service to Freeport, Brunswick begins Nov. 1

FREEPORT — Amtrak's Downeaster will start service Nov. 1 from Portland to Brunswick, with a stop in Freeport, according to a Wednesday announcement by regional rail officials.

The schedule will have daily trains running from Freeport to Brunswick starting at 6:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, according to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority. Tickets will be available Oct. 1.

The train will make two round trips between Brunswick and Boston, and an additional round trip between Brunswick and Portland, each day. Currently, it makes five daily round trips from Boston's North Station to Portland.

The $38 million expansion of the railway is the first rail service expansion to be completed in the nation using federal stimulus funds, NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said this week.

Although work to prepare the tracks for November is on schedule, a few projects remain, including turnouts and signals, Quinn said.

The Freeport Town Council also has work to do ahead of the service start-up, and has scheduled a public hearing for 8 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the town office on Main Street, where it may consider annexing land from a private owner using eminent domain.

This will allow the town to take the property regardless of if the land owner wants to give it up. The town would be required to offer money for the property, which can be appealed by the land owner, although the decision to take the land cannot be appealed.

If the town ever decides to build a larger station in the future, the land would be the "ideal spot" for expansion and long-term parking, which the town currently lacks, Town Manager Dale Olmstead said. Eminent domain would only be used for the easement next to the parking lot.

The town has been in negotiations with the land owner for several months over a section of a parking lot off Depot Street next to the train station, but has not been able to reach an agreement, Olmstead said.

"We started out miles apart. We're getting closer, but we're not there yet," he said. "I hope by the time we have the public hearing on the taking, the two parties will have come to an agreement on the acquisition of the parking lot and (we) do not have to use eminent domain."

The price appraisal by the town was close to the assessed value, but substantially lower than the asking price, Olmstead said.

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.

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.

Ridership on the train has seen tremendous growth since its introduction in December 2001, increasing by more than 15 percent in 2008 after additional stops were added, to about 530,000 passengers last year, making it the fastest-growing service for Amtrak in the nation, according to Quinn. 

She said ridership appears to be on pace for another record year, although scheduled maintenance in Massachusetts could suppress the numbers.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.