Pulling out the stops
As Amtrak’s Downeaster completes its Freeport-Brunswick expansion, supporters eye future connections
When more than 200 dignitaries and guests boarded the Downeaster headed to Freeport and Brunswick, Maine, on November 1, they were completing the final leg of a journey begun in the late 1980s. The two new station stops represent the latest chapter in the service’s history that began when Maine rail advocates led by Wayne Davis and TrainRiders/Northeast organized to re-introduce passenger rail to the state after a hiatus of more than 50 years.
The inaugural run of the train from Boston to Brunswick boasted a virtual who’s who in Maine transportation and politics. There were two former Maine governors, John Baldacci and Angus King (who since has been elected as Maine’s newest U.S. Senator), U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Maine Commissioner of Transportation David Bernhardt, former MaineDOT Commissioners Dana Connors and David Cole and numerous other state and local officials and community leaders, as well as Nathan Soule, who worked for Maine Central Railway for 32 years and was station master in Freeport when the last train stopped running on the line in 1964.
U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe was glad to be on board the train, and it was her strategic support of the service as part of the state’s Congressional delegation, that has helped the Downeaster win key funding battles over the past several years.
“It’s exciting,” said Snowe, who most recently was instrumental in restoring $6 million in federal operating subsidies for the train that had been dropped during budget negotiations for the most recent federal transportation reauthorization earlier this year.
Snowe, for her part, focused on the economic benefit that is expected to come with train service: “I think it’s a phenomenal expansion that’s going to provide tremendous benefits to the communities of Freeport and Brunswick, not to mention the state. So I see it as a tremendous economic boon to the area.”
She noted that over the next 20 years, the train is expected to help create 800 jobs and lead to $325 million in construction contracts in the Freeport/Brunswick region, which has been suffering since the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in May 2011.
The Forecaster reported that Portland businesses have benefited – at least anecdotally – since the Downeaster began service between Boston and Portland in late 2001. Godfrey Wood, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber, said the consensus is passenger train travel has boosted local businesses, although it has hard to measure what that impact has been.
Sande Updegraph, Freeport station manager and former executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., agreed and said it was too soon to know what the impact will be on the economy in her community. “We haven’t established any metric that can demonstrate success. All of the businesses are kind of waiting to see what traffic actually comes.”
The inaugural run to Brunswick was just one small episode in a much longer story that began almost as soon as it was announced in 2009 there would be grants for high-speed rail projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That was when the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) staff and board began an aggressive campaign to earn one of those grants. (NNEPRA was established by the Maine Legislature in 1995 to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine and is responsible for the operation of the service.) “We were literally the very first high speed rail project to sign a contract. Ask anyone at the Federal Railroad Administration, but we practically bulldozed our way in the door,” said NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn. Quinn made about a half a dozen trips to Washington to make a case for federal investment in the Downeaster, and NNEPRA invited FRA officials to Maine to view the track and review their plans. “We did everything to show them we could do what we said we were going to do.”
That dogged determination has been the hallmark of the expansion, as NNEPRA and its partners worked through the project over the past three years, making sure it stayed within budget and was completed on schedule. VHB was the engineering contractor on the project. Pan Am Railway crews performed the track upgrades and several MBTA members were subcontractors, including Pike Industries and E.J. Prescott.
“I am enormously proud of what we have done. Everyone has risen to the occasion – the staff, the volunteers, the NNEPRA Board, the contractors. . . everyone,” said Quinn. “There have been a lot of oars in the water rowing in the same direction.”
Even before the expansion, the Downeaster service had become something of a poster child for the resurgence of passenger rail across the country. It has had a great run of success since it first launched service between Portland and Boston in 2001. In fact, the Downeaster just completed a record year with 528,292 passengers, and ridership is expected to grow by an additional 36,000 passengers annually with the expanded round-trip service that will run three times daily between Portland, Freeport and Brunswick – about 100 passengers a day, according to Quinn.
Ticket and food sales account for more than half of the Downeaster’s $15 million annual operating budget. The federal government contributes $6 million. The state pays the rest – about $1.5 million a year derived from a portion of the sales tax on rental cars.
The Maine-based service is different from typical Amtrak operations, because it was established with the operational control centered on the local level. This model of local control has been credited with winning the service exceptionally high marks for customer service. NNEPRA’s staff and seven-member board develop operating strategies, marketing programs and coordinate community relations and food service operations.
For FY 2011-12, the Downeaster’s customer satisfaction index (CSI) was among the highest in the nation – 92 percent of passengers said they were “very satisfied” with their overall experience on the train.
To earn those high marks, NNEPRA has had to struggle to address several issues, including the quality of the food concessions on board the train as a way to improve the customer experience.
The biggest issue has been running times, and NNEPRA has worked with Pan Am Railways to improve the track and increase train speeds to make the train more competitive with buses traveling in the same corridor. Still, on-time performance often comes down to factors that are outside of NNEPRA’s control. In 2011-12, the authority reported an 85 percent improvement in on-time performance over the previous year, noting that:
“Approximately 56 percent of the delay time was related to infrastructure issues and speed restrictions, primarily on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority portion of the line. Capacity constraints and the associated interference with other trains caused 24 percent of delays. Only 1 percent of delays were associated with mechanical or equipment failures.”
Within the first weeks of service, NNEPRA’s Quinn reported that service is currently exceeding its daily ridership projections, but cautions about drawing too many conclusions from the early ridership data. She said that while more than 100 passengers have been using the service daily, only time will tell if that ridership can be sustained after the initial novelty of the service wears off.
“It’s still so early and the sample is so small,” said Quinn. “One thing I can say is that ridership has been solid from both locations, Freeport and Brunswick.
There had been some concern whether Brunswick would be strong, but ridership at both locations is evolving nicely.”
Despite the Downeaster’s recent and past successes, skeptics remain. They say trains are novelties and warn against spending federal money on passenger rail. In the face of that skepticism, NNEPRA has had to work all the harder to prove itself.
“Our priority right now is to finish this project. I believe in taking a step and getting it right, then moving it on to the next,” said Quinn. She said the immediate needs include increasing the number of sidings and establishing a maintenance facility in Brunswick, so the line can build capacity and maintain its equipment. “That’s not to say we’re not thinking long-term,” said Quinn, adding that NNEPRA also is working on developing a 20-year service plan.
From the beginning, the Downeaster has had the enthusiastic support of TrainRiders/Northeast, a volunteer organization established in 1989 to advocate for passenger rail in Maine. The group’s leader, Wayne Davis, who was instrumental in opening up discussions with Amtrak in the 1980s, continues to be a tireless supporter of passenger rail in Maine, as do the organization’s 900 pro-rail members.
Over the years, Davis and his members have pressured elected officials to keep the train service front and center in Augusta and Washington. Members even have a regular presence on the Downeaster trains, serving as goodwill ambassadors, giving directions, passing out maps and brochures and selling tickets to Boston’s subway system.
“TrainRiders plays a vital role,” said Quinn. “It’s very important having a group advocating for funding.”
Davis has said that his organization would like to see the Downeaster continue to expand its connections – inside and outside of Maine. There has been talk of extending service to the state capitol. Last August, MaineDOT completed a study that looked at a train that would connect Portland to Lewiston-Auburn and Montreal. There also is talk of service linking Portland and New York City by way of Worcester rather than Boston.
Wherever the Downeaster is headed, rail appears to have a growing national constituency that perceives trains as a worthwhile alternative in a transportation system faced with aging drivers, congested roadways and rising fuel costs. And for now, the national trends seem to bear that view out.
“We’ve had some 31.2 million passengers hit the rails this past year, up 3.5 percent during 2011. Ticket revenues, meanwhile, jumped 6.8 percent, to a record $2.02 billion,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman recently told the International Business Times. “People are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers across the country, because there is an undeniable demand to travel by rail.”