The Universal Notebook: Train of thoughts

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The first night we slept in our new home in Yarmouth 28 years ago, I woke in the middle of the night to a roar and a flash of light coming through the trees outside our bedroom window. For a startling moment, I thought an airplane was about to crash into our yard.

Turns out it was just a train coming down the tracks that run right behind the house. Funny, I hadn’t notice the tracks before that.

The first few years we lived here, at least one freight train a day passed behind the house. Neighborhood kids would rush into our yard to watch the rail cars pass. As the years passed, the trains became less and less frequent, down now to maybe one a week, if that. I guess all that may be about to change, though I have my doubts.

For those train buffs following the $35 million restoration of the railroad tracks from Brunswick to Portland, I can tell you that the new rails now end right out behind my house. They haven’t actually been laid yet, but the new rails are lying out there beside the old tracks waiting to be installed.

I’m all in favor of restoring passenger rail service, but I must admit that I have never ridden the Downeaster from Portland to Boston. Like most folks, I’m much too addicted to the freedom and flexibility of the family car. The train just isn’t convenient enough. For me to use it, it would have to go where I want to go when I want to go.

Back in 1980, when Carolyn and I were in England for several months while she finished college over there, we took trains everywhere. A Britrail pass was all you needed and you could go anywhere in England on a moment’s notice. We took trains all over England and to Scotland and Wales. When Carolyn had classes all day, I’d sometimes just hop a train to chase down some local ale 100 or 200 miles away and be back before supper.

I’m told the British rail system isn’t anywhere near as efficient or affordable as it once was, but back then you rarely had to wait more than hour for the next train. I wish I could just decide on a whim to take the train to Rockland, Camden, Belfast or Bar Harbor, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. I’m not even sure I’ll even take advantage of the train between Portland and Brunswick unless it will stop to pick me up in the back yard.

When my family moved back to Maine from a six-year exile in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, we took the old Budliner up to Portland. That was in 1960, the last year passenger trains came to Maine before the restoration of the Downeaster service in 2001. Union Station was razed in 1961 to make way for a shopping center.

I think I’ve only ridden trains twice since that time. Once I took Amtrak from Boston to Jacksonville, Fla. Big mistake. You leave the rail yards and industrial wastelands of the Northeast in the evening and wake up in the sleepy backwaters of Georgia without ever seeing anything of the country. And if you don’t have the foresight or wherewithal to purchase a sleeping compartment, you’ll have a stranger asleep on your shoulder from Richmond to Savannah.

My other epic train trip occurred when the family car died in Rochester, N.Y., in the dead of winter, and we all had to take the train back as far as Boston where, in the days before the Downeaster, we had to be picked up.

I’d like to think that we’re back on the right track now, slowly restoring passenger rail in town by town increments, but something tells me passenger trains in Maine are destined to remain a novelty rather than a viable means of public transportation.

Still, I’m kind of looking forward to waving to all those tourists chugging past my back yard once the new tracks are in and the Downeaster starts running up this way.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.