October 22, 2012

Topsham man driving force of Downeaster train expansion

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

When the first Amtrak train rolls into Freeport and Brunswick on Nov. 1, it will be packed with state and federal politicians and the top brass from Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration.

click image to enlarge

Wayne Davis stands in front of the Amtrak Downeaster at the Portland Transportation Center this month.

Staff photo by John Patriquin

Also on board will be the man who helped make it happen: Wayne Davis, a dapper, 77-year-old retired banker from Topsham.

More than two decades ago, Davis led the grass-roots campaign to revive passenger rail service in Maine. He remains its greatest political asset today.

Davis has the skills and connections of a high-powered lobbyist, although he earns no salary.

His power stems from the same rights enjoyed by all Maine citizens -- to organize people, gather signatures for referendums, speak up at public hearings and persuade or prod officials in Maine and Washington, D.C.

His legacy is the Downeaster, one of the most successful routes in Amtrak's national system. The service between Boston and Portland was established in 2001, and its extension to Brunswick next month will fulfill an ambitious plan that Davis and his supporters mapped out from the start.

"He was very well prepared, well informed, and he had a vision," said George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator from Maine, who worked with Davis to secure federal funding for the project. "It's fair to say that the Downeaster would never have happened without Wayne Davis."

Davis's involvement in rail issues began in the mid-1980s, when he was head of the Maine chapter of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America and often flew to Washington for board meetings. A blown tire during a landing in Washington scared him so much that he refused to fly again. So he began riding trains to Washington.

On a trip to Washington in 1988, he was so disgusted with the dirty conditions in a sleeping car that he fired off an angry letter to the man listed on the timetable, William Graham Claytor Jr., president of Amtrak.

At the end of the letter, Davis wrote, "P.S., What do I have to do to extend the service to Portland, Maine, so I don't have to drive to Boston?"

Claytor wrote him a letter of apology and suggested that Davis conduct a public opinion survey in Maine to find out how much support there would be for train service.

Davis obliged. He recruited other train supporters, and in 1989 created a nonprofit advocacy group, TrainRiders/North-east, which today has 900 dues-paying members.

Davis and four other board members borrowed $10,000 and set out to gather signatures for a petition asking the Legislature to pass a law directing the Department of Transportation to bring passenger rail service to Maine. They gathered nearly 90,000 signatures, mostly at the Maine Mall and the Bangor Mall.

Rather than send the measure to voters, the Legislature enacted it in 1991. It was the first time that a citizen-initiated bill became law in Maine without first going to the ballot.

That year, Davis went to Augusta every day for the last three months of the legislative session to lobby lawmakers. At the time, there were many skeptics, said Dana Connors, who was the state's transportation commissioner.

"He was very persistent. He would never let go, never give up," Connors said.

Davis succeeded because he was a coalition builder who saw train service as an economic development tool that would work in conjunction with other modes of transportation, rather than taking a nostalgic view of a rail line's glory days, said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association.

In 1995, when the state created a passenger rail authority to manage the service, officials predicted that trains would begin running the next year. But the startup date was delayed repeatedly because of disputes between the rail authority and the company that owned the 78 miles of track between Portland and Plaistow, N.H., over train speeds and track standards.

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