BRUNSWICK — Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service hasn’t started north of Portland, but the number of daily round trips to Brunswick has already been reduced.
The change was good news to some Brunswick residents. But the resulting train schedule could be bad news for businesses in Brunswick and Freeport that expected the Downeaster to deliver day-trippers and shoppers with money to spend.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said Nov. 4 that when the expanded service begins next fall, the Downeaster will only make two daily trips to Freeport and Brunswick. The train was expected to make at least three and eventually four or five a day.
The decrease is due to a delay in construction of a train maintenance facility in Brunswick.
The building would house the trains overnight for routine maintenance and cleaning. That would allow the Downeaster to end all of its runs in Brunswick, not in Portland, and increase the number of daily runs between the two stops.
Without the Brunswick facility, the train will have to travel between Brunswick and Portland twice a day without passengers.
In response to some Brunswick residents’ concerns about environmental and health impacts, NNERPA increased the size of the building from 40,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet – large enough to house all three train sets indoors.
But in a Nov. 3 letter to Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown, Quinn said increasing the building’s size to mitigate the impact of noise and vibration on nearby homes would push the project over budget.
She later said initial estimates put the cost of the expanded building at around $7.5 million. NNERPA had only budgeted about $5 million for the project.
Quinn said NNEPRA is hoping to secure the additional funding from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program. The bulk of the cost will still be funded by state bonds.
The reduction in daily round trips isn’t as problematic to Sandy Updegraph, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., as the timing of the trains that do run.
According to Quinn, a preliminary schedule has northbound trains passing through Freeport just before 12:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Trains heading south from Brunswick will stop in Freeport just after 7 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
This schedule would not allow a visitor from Boston to spend the day shopping in Freeport, Updegraph noted.
“The impact of having fewer, rather than more, round trips is certainly obvious in that there would be fewer people passing through, but the bigger impact is if NNERPA is able to get a (layover) facility in Brunswick … those additional trips would be later in the day, and so we could have people … come from the Boston area and spend the entire day in Freeport and go back that same day,” Updegraph said.
Wayne Davis, chairman of the rail-advocacy group TrainRiders/Northeast, called the prospect of beginning service to Brunswick with only two trips a day “frightening.”
“The frequency of service is one of the big selling points on any train service,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make two trips a day fit very many people’s personal schedules.”
Davis expressed concern that potential Downeaster passengers could be turned off by the infrequent schedule, and suggested the service could have started with four or even five daily trips to Boston.
He also expressed concern about the impact of decreased service on the Brunswick business community, especially new businesses at Brunswick Station that may have been expecting more than two daily round trips.
“Everybody is looking to traffic that would be generated by the five round trips,” he said. “It’s a great disappointment for us after all these years.”
Michael Lyne, on-site project manager for JHR Development, which built Brunswick Station and the Inn at Brunswick Station, said the company was never promised a set number of daily train runs. But he guessed that “all of the small businesses up and down Maine Street are looking forward to more bites of the apple vs. fewer. Any Amtrak train rolling into town is better than none, but if we can create more volume for small businesses here without adding cars, that should be the goal.”
But for many of the residents of the Bouchard Drive neighborhood in Brunswick, which borders the site of the future train maintenance facility, the delay in constructing the building was welcome news.
“We think it’s encouraging that they’re waiting,” said Anna Nelson, a Bouchard Drive resident and neighborhood representative to NNEPRA’s advisory group on the maintenance facility.
Nelson said she hopes the delay will prompt NNEPRA to consider putting the facility on land owned by local contractor Ted Crooker in East Brunswick, a site that many Bouchard Drive neighbors preferred, but NNERPA maintained was impractical.
“I think there’s still hope that they could choose the better site of the two,” she said.
But Quinn said that in spite of the delay, the chosen site, between Church Road and Stanwood Street, is the only one under consideration.
“The Crooker site is not an option,” she said in an email.
Quinn said the NNEPRA board is committed to finding the funding to make the project happen.
“Every passing day we realize the importance of the facility being there,” she said. “The longer the facility is not in Brunswick will only constrain the service for the entire corridor.”