Amtrak’s Downeaster carried nearly 50 percent more passengers between Portland and Brunswick than rail officials expected in the first year of the service.
From the start of the service on Nov. 1, 2012, through Oct. 31, 2013, about 52,000 people rode the train between Brunswick and Portland, according to unofficial numbers, said Patricia Quinn, director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
That’s well above officials’ projection of 36,000 but consistent with the Downeaster’s steady growth in ridership since it started running between Portland and Boston 12 years ago.
The numbers for the new line show that north of Portland, two-thirds of the passengers boarded in Brunswick and the rest got on the train in Freeport.
Overall, ridership on the Downeaster has increased 123 percent since 2005. The fiscal year that ended June 30 showed an increase of about 5 percent over the previous year, with a total of about 550,000 riders – almost 1,500 daily.
About 20 percent commute from Portland to Boston. The rest are leisure travelers, business travelers and students.
Quinn said most of the riders are Mainers going to Boston, not Massachusetts residents visiting Maine.
David and Tina Walter of Portland and their sons, Chase and Cole, traveled from Maine to Boston on Wednesday. The Walters, who had never ridden the Downeaster, left Portland round 2:30 p.m. and were scheduled to arrive in Boston about 5 p.m. – 2½ hours before the Boston Celtics game for which they had tickets.
“We don’t travel (to Boston) often,” Tina Walter said. “But (the train) goes right into North Station, which is below the TD Garden. It just made sense.”
The Brunswick-Portland line, at least anecdotally, appears to be drawing more tourists than commuters, Quinn said.
One exception is Bryant Witham, who moved to Brunswick because he could ride the Downeaster to work in Portland. The self-employed plumber was among the first to ride the train when service was extended to Brunswick a year ago, and he’s still riding it nearly every day.
“It’s perfect for me,” he said Wednesday. “It saves on wear and tear on my vehicle and it saves money.”
The only downside, Witham said, is the schedule. The morning train leaves Brunswick at 7:05, which is perfect for him, but the return train doesn’t leave Portland until 7:35 p.m. That doesn’t fit into most 9-to-5 work schedules, so Witham sees few other regular riders.
Although commuters like Witham aren’t typical on the Brunswick-Portland line, “we’re drawing from a new customer base along the midcoast,” said Quinn, whose agency operates the Downeaster.
Quinn said it’s too early to tell whether the numbers will be sustained.
For years, there was interest in extending Downeaster service north to Brunswick. But there was never money available to improve the tracks until 2010, when Maine and several other states received federal stimulus dollars for rail improvements. That $38 million went directly into making the track between Portland and Brunswick suitable for passenger trains.
Freeport has seen more people in its restaurants and stores since the Downeaster began making stops in town, said Sande Updegraph, director of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce.
“The train north reaches Freeport at 12:30, so the first question people have is ‘Where can I eat?’ ” she said.
Updegraph said some businesses, such as Petrillo’s Restaurant near Freeport’s train station, made improvements in anticipation of the line’s extension and have had more business.
The Downeaster makes five round trips daily between Boston and Portland, with two of those runs extending to Brunswick. Those two trains start and end in Brunswick each day, stopping in Freeport. Quinn said the long-term goal is to increase the frequency of runs to Brunswick.
A $12 million layover facility planned for Brunswick would allow Amtrak to add a daily round trip. But many Brunswick residents are fighting the layover facility because its proposed location has raised concerns about noise and air pollution.
George Betke of Damariscotta, who has worked in the rail industry for years and followed the Downeaster closely, said he doesn’t know whether such heavy Brunswick-Portland ridership can be sustained in the long term.
“There is usually a novelty effect at the beginning, and you don’t know what kind of promotions might have enticed riders,” he said. “I think there is some evidence to indicate it’s welcome, but you have to raise the question of whether it’s cost-effective” for Amtrak.
Passenger rail service has always been subsidized and the Downeaster is no exception. The current annual budget for the line is $16.7 million, Quinn said, an increase of about $1.7 million over the previous year to accommodate the extension to Brunswick.
About 55 percent, $9.2 million, of the Downeaster’s revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions. The rest is subsidized – 80 percent from the federal government and 20 percent from the Maine Department of Transportation’s multi-modal tax.
Betke said the success of the Brunswick-to-Portland line will go a long way toward making the case for expansion elsewhere.
There has been interest in extending service from Brunswick to Augusta, and perhaps from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn.
But Quinn said it would be unrealistic to expect big changes to the Downeaster in the foreseeable future. It took 12 years of planning before the Downeaster itself got rolling, and another 11 years to extend the line to Freeport and Brunswick.
“We’re trying to take a step approach to meet the needs of the traveling public,” Quinn said. “But there are logistical challenges. There are capital costs and operating costs to consider. So you really need a critical mass to support (expansion).”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: