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High hopes ride Greenbush rails

But some seats empty on controversial line's first day

It took nearly 25 years and $512 million to put Jay Silva in a plum-colored vinyl seat yesterday, with a laptop computer and a 40-minute train ride from Hingham to Boston ahead of him.

"I'm delighted," said Silva, a 50-year-old commuter from Scituate who works for an electricity company. "I've been waiting all those two decades to get here."

Silva was among hundreds who helped inaugurate the first full day of Greenbush train service yesterday. The train carries passengers from Scituate to South Station and back, Boston's first new commuter rail line to open in a decade.

Excitement among commuters, train groupies, and nostalgia buffs has been building since the first of several ceremonial rides down the tracks five months ago. But that enthusiasm did not translate into crowded trains yesterday: Only 893 people took the five morning rush hour trains into Boston, far below the estimated 4,300 daily commuters expected to use the new service within its first three to five years.

Yesterday's launch brought an end to a lengthy and often contentious design and construction period, marked by community protest, costly logistical delays, fights over whistles and tunnels, prolonged legal battles, noise-proof wall construction initiatives, and general ill will that lasted more than two decades. Many homeowners who live near the tracks continue to object to the noise.

After days of festivities, yesterday was the first time that commuters rode the train, which makes a dozen round-trips daily and takes just under an hour for a full one-way trip. Commuters shared the train with children on their first train ride, people who were simply curious, and old-time South Shore residents who remembered the original Greenbush train, which traveled the same route before shutting down in 1959.

The Greenbush train brings commuter service to the last section of Greater Boston that lacked a rail line. In recent months, property sales in towns along the line have risen despite a general lag in the real estate market.

Four of the first five trains leaving Greenbush station arrived in South Station on time yesterday. The fifth train rumbled in nine minutes late. Statistics on trips later in the day were not available, said Scott Farmelant, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which runs the service for the MBTA.

Farmelant said the company was pleased with the first day's ridership, adding that it takes time for people to change commuting habits.

Despite his upbeat assessment, the next few months will be closely watched by a state that has gone into heavy debt building large transportation projects and has an appetite for several more.

As the trains passed through Scituate, Cohasset, Braintree, Weymouth, and Hingham, engineers blew their horns, a warning to trick-or-treaters and residents unaccustomed to the new trains. But those horns will go silent today. Town leaders previously petitioned to make their communities horn-free zones, meeting opposition from local public safety officials, the most recent controversy to dog the train line.

Not surprisingly, the silver and purple coaches attracted many more Greenbush supporters than detractors on the first day of service.

Larry Wolfe, 59, a bass player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said he has ridden high-speed rail in France and Japan, but added, "This is just as exciting, because I grew up here."

Rose Anne Concannon, 67, of Marshfield, was on her way to a doctor appointment. She thought the $6.75 one-way retail fare was steep, but was pleased to pay half price as a senior citizen. And it is still a fraction of parking costs in downtown Boston, she pointed out.

"If you've ever been stuck on the Southeast Expressway in the morning, you know [the train ticket is] going to be worth it," she said, before opening her paperback novel and taking a few peeks at the auburn foliage, green golf courses, and marsh out her window.

Andreas Klein, a 42-year-old doctor, has been commuting on the Plymouth line, but wanted to test whether the Greenbush station in Scituate was more convenient to his home in Duxbury. That's been a running debate among fellow commuters in his neighborhood.

"We've all been wondering whether it would be easier," he said, before pecking away on his laptop.

Then there were commuters who had never taken the train to work before and were contemplating a change in lifestyle. Jim Kelleher, 46, figured he "would give it a shot."

The real-estate investor from Scituate often needs to have a car in town, but believes he will depend on the train on snowy days, when traffic on Interstate 93 can back up for hours.

Was the Greenbush line worth all the effort?

"I'll let you know after I ride it a few times," Kelleher said. "Yeah, off the road a few days. It's certainly nice to have an option."

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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