Maine Trails talked with one of TrainRiders/Northeast’s founders and executive director Wayne Davis about what has made the Amtrak Downeaster a success.
Maine Trails: When you first began your efforts to bring passenger rail to Maine, did you think it would take this long to get a train to Brunswick and Freeport?
Wayne Davis: That is the big question: Why did it take so long? Well, one answer is that for everything there are three states involved, so the work you do in Maine, you have to do in Massachusetts and in New Hampshire. It’s not just us, we are part of a national system. And, of course, funding is an issue.
Maine Trails: The Downeaster is one of the most successful routes in the Amtrak system. Why do you think that is?
Davis:Well, I think it was Condé Nast thatonce called the Downeaster “the most charming” train in the Amtrak system, and I think that is important. The Downeaster has really focused on what customers would like to see in terms of service. The conductors are nice, and people sing happy birthday to passengers and that makes a difference. Of course, I wish that we could say it was the fastest train or the most modern, but it’s not. But the train is unique. It is like one long, skinny Maine town, and that makes the ride enjoyable.
Maine Trails: Do you think the characteristics of the typical rider have changed over the past 10 years? How?
Davis: Initially, we had rail fans come from all over the world to ride the train and for them it was a novelty. And that changed in the middle of the rebuilding of the Maine Turnpike, and we began to get more commuters and that’s continued as the running times have been reduced. It used to take two hours and 45 minutes to Boston, but as that got down to two hours and 25 minutes, it began to make more sense for a lot of people.
And then there were the environmentally conscious people. Now, more and more, there are the young families with baby carriages and young professionals. The riders on the train are more frequent riders now, and they are choosing to ride it. For them, it’s not as much of a novelty, it’s much more natural to ride the train.
Maine Trails: How much do you think the price of gas has to do with the fact ridership that has more than doubled since the service began 10 years ago?
Davis: Ridership was up and people were choosing the train even before gas prices started going up. But yes, people are cutting back on using their autos and the miles they are driving, and more choose the train because gas is pricey.
Maine Trails: What about your “exploratory” discussions for a train from Portland to New York City by way of Worcester rather than Boston?
Davis: The mayor of Worcester contacted us in the early 1990s and said the city would like to see passenger service restored. And having a couple of trains a day connecting Portland, the second largest city in the Commonwealth, and New York would seem to bring a great benefit to our state. In my opinion a red-eye that could travel at higher speeds wouldn’t be pie-in-the-sky. It could be a winner and could thrive.
Maine Trails: Can you talk in general about the state of train travel in America? Do you think shifting attitudes about high-speed rail will slow efforts to improve and expand passenger rail across the country?
Davis: You know, it’s unfortunate, but it has been politicized. The minute the Obama administration made theannouncement that it was putting aside a bucket of money for high-speed rail, I said that the naysayers are going to hop on this and they did.
Before that, there was never a problem, and in fact, the Downeaster is one of the finest examples of bipartisanship. It began with George Mitchell, a Democrat, and Bill Cohen, a Republican, working together in the best interest of their state. I think how we’re going to see progress is in the success stories and showing people what rail can do. If we continue to make improvements in track speed, and we’re able to add more passing track, and we see a growth in business in Freeport and Brunswick from the train, we’ll continue to do well. The political process isn’t very nice, but it is very hard to argue with success. n
At a glance
About: Wayne Davis was a retired banker when he, Henry Ferne and Samuel Stokes founded TrainRiders/Northeast in 1989, a “volunteer organization dedicated to bring modern and efficient passenger rail service to Northern New England.”