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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #84: Downeaster Train Station, Exeter

This is about the other Amtrak Joe

The story of how passenger rail service returned to the Boston to Portland line is a long one, and I won't share it all here. Let's just say that many people labored for many years to reconcile Amtrak with the private track owners and the municipalities along the restored route. I make no claims to any great role in that sprawling epic, but I may have the singular distinction of casting a vote to help authorize two of the stations in New Hampshire. Let me, as Inigo Montoya would say, it is too much. Let me sum up.

Historically, the Boston & Maine and Maine Central Railroad operated passenger rail service from Maine to Boston on the Pine Tree and Flying Yankee trains, though that service ceased in 1965. In the early 1990s, Maine led the way toward the restoration of service through a variety of right-of-way improvements funded by state and federal grants. Three New Hampshire towns mobilized with varying urgency to get their mothballed stations back up to the level required to qualify as a stop on the new route. I can't speak to Dover's experience, but I was involved in the other two. In Durham, then-Student Body President Ben Zipkin led the charge in 1993-94 to raise money to bring the UNH station, co-located with the Dairy Bar, into compliance. At one point there was a vote on the floor of the UNH Student Senate to authorize some funds from the student activity fee to help with the project. I was a freshman, and a senator from Hitchcock, and I voted in the affirmative.

Fast forward some six or seven years. Rail service had still not begun, though the enterprise was markedly further along. By this time I was serving as an elected member of the Board of Selectmen in Exeter, the third and southernmost of the three NH towns along the route. We voted to authorize funds to complete the restoration of our Lincoln Street station, and by 2001 the long-delayed return of passenger rail was set to recommence.

On December 15, 2001, the first train set out from Boston en route to Portland in more than thirty-five years. It stopped along the way, picking up dignitaries and local officials. At the Exeter stop, the first return of passenger rail to New Hampshire in decades, our Board was joined on the platform by Governor Shaheen, members of the Congressional delegation, and other bigwigs. Paul Scafidi was our chairman, and I'm pretty sure he spoke that day (only lowly vice-chairman, me) before we boarded the spanking-new Downeaster and headed northeast. We passed through Durham, the other station I had a very small hand in restoring, and Dover before proceeding through Maine with stops in Wells, Saco, and Old Orchard Beach, before finishing up in Portland.

It was an old-school shindig in Portland, with speeches and booze and a festive, non-partisan sense of achievement: a bearded, portly local NH Dem rubbed elbows with Republican US Senators from Maine without rancor. On the ride home, the dignitaries disembarked at each station, leaving the train lighter at each stop. As we rolled toward Exeter, I found the national chairman of Amtrak alone in one of the cars. I sat across the aisle from Mike Dukakis, and exchanged pleasant small talk. It occurs to me now, more than fifteen years after the fact, that he was then only thirteen years removed from being nominated for President. Time is a train unto itself, but there are no round trips. All we can do is lend a hand to rebuilding a station or two along the way, and hope we've helped keep the trains running for the next folks to come along.

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