The Universal Notebook: Riding the rails
This morning at 6:20 a.m., just about the time the alarm would be going off, I flew past my own backyard at 65 mph. Now that Amtrak service has been extended from Portland to Brunswick, the Downeaster zooms past my garden shed six times a day, so I decided I’d take a ride just to see what’s going on.
I boarded train No. 679 in Portland at 6 a.m., one of only two or three passengers on what is essentially an early morning equipment move to get the Downeaster up to Brunswick to start its run to Boston. The combination of the overhead rush of air, the early hour, pre-dawn darkness and the unfamiliar perspective the train provides on familiar places confused me at first. I kept changing seats trying to figure out where we were and which way we were going.
We rolled through Rosemont, Deering Highlands, Woodfords Corner and Morrills Corner in Portland, and then picked up speed as we charged out into the suburban wilds of Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth, horn hooting at every road crossing. Fields, farms and forests alternated with frosty golf greens and dimly lit homes as we sped through the gray November morning.
When my own backyard flashed by, I remembered how, the first night we slept in our house in 1982, we thought an airplane was about to crash into it as a midnight freight train came down the tracks, its headlight scanning the treetops. Back then, we had about one slow train a day passing behind the house, then more like one a week until the trains became such a novelty that neighborhood kids would run to watch them pass.
As the freight trains disappeared, joggers, cross country skiers, snowmobilers and dog walkers took to the tracks and the rail bed. There is a chain link fence separating our yard from the railroad tracks, but the last two sections of fence out in the woods beyond our property have been trampled down over time as a path has been worn from the street to the tracks via the wooded lot beside our house.
The fist time I saw the Downeaster go by at 60 mph, I contacted the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to suggest that the railroad might want to repair the fence, perhaps extending it a bit to keep kids and animals off the tracks.
I guess I was being naive.
“Any and all fencing is the responsibility of the land owner,” NNEPRA wrote back. “There is no requirement for the railroad, in this case Pan Am owns the track, to install fencing. The railroad tracks are private property and it is trespassing to be on them or within 20 feet of the track.”
It was getting light as we passed through Freeport slowly, but without stopping. In Brunswick, a handful of passengers boarded, among them TrainRiders/Northeast Chairman Wayne Davis, the distinguished looking and nattily dressed gentleman who is more responsible than anyone for the restoration of passenger rail service to Maine. Davis was on his way to Boston to give a speech about the railroad. We sat together in the dining car from Brunswick to Portland, talking trains.
Davis started lobbying for the Downeaster back in 1989 and kept it up until the train came to Portland in 2001. Initial projections were that 178,000 passengers a year would ride the Boston-Maine line. Annual ridership is now more than 500,000.
“This train is a perfect example of bipartisan support,” Davis said, noting that Democrats, Republicans and independents had all pulled together to get passenger service restored.
The train crew seconded my motion when I proposed that the Downeaster really ought to run more frequent feeder shuttles between Portland and Brunswick. Rubbing his thumb and forefingers together in a universal gesture, Davis said it was a matter of money and equipment.
His own new vision is for a second passenger line out of Maine through Worcester and Providence to New York City – a five-hour single-ticket run to the Big Apple. People roll their eyes when he proposes such an ambitious endeavor, but then they rolled their eyes back in 1989, too.
Not only would Davis like to see a passenger train from Portland to New York, he’d like to see it go 110 mph.
“This car is rated for 135 mph,” he replied. “It could easily do 110.”
The current top speed of the Downeaster is 79 mph, which it only hits crossing the Scarborough Marsh. I like the idea of a fast train, but I’m not sure I want it going 110 mph, at least not in my backyard.