Amtrak’s Downeaster service has rebounded from its dismal performance last year and plans to add more train trips to Freeport and Brunswick later this year before the fall foliage season begins. Also on the docket: a potential new stop in Kennebunk.
The Boston-to-Brunswick rail service was hammered in 2015 by service interruptions owing to construction delays, a relentless winter and other factors. Once the model for customer service on a regional rail line, the Downeaster ended the fiscal year with a 30 percent on-time percentage. By December – six months into the new fiscal year – the service had recovered. Eight-six percent of Downeaster trains arrived on time that month – more than 10 percentage points above the national average.
The Downeaster has been more dependable than the Acela Express, the premium high-speed Amtrak service between Boston and Washington, D.C. In the 12-month period ending in November, the on-time performance of the Acela Express was 71 percent, while the Downeaster’s was 85 percent.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, says she’s focused now on regaining the confidence of the traveling public.
“Last year was a difficult year for many reasons,” she said, “but going into 2016 we are very confident that operations are strong, trains are running reliably and customer satisfaction is high.”
Customer satisfaction took a nosedive last year.
In May, the Downeaster’s worst month, not a single train arrived on time. In June, fewer than 8 percent arrived on time. In addition, in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 13 percent of trains – 488 trains in all – never made it out of the station because their trips were canceled, mostly because of an ambitious tie replacement project that took months longer to complete than planned.
Moreover, plummeting gasoline prices in 2015 made public transit less financially attractive for travelers, a trend that is ongoing. To make matters worse, the rail authority last year encountered something it never faced before – organized opposition. The authority was engaged in a high-profile public feud with a neighborhood in Brunswick over the construction of a train layover facility.
Opponents criticized not just the project but the entire service and its management.
The rail authority won that battle, and the facility is now under construction.
Quinn said she will meet with Amtrak officials early next month to discuss when to add a round-trip service to Freeport and Brunswick, bringing the number of daily round trips from two to three.
She said she believes the new service can be in place in September, a high travel month because the state’s tourism season is still going strong and Bowdoin College students are starting the academic year. She said the additional service will make the Downeaster more attractive because it will give travelers more options.
Another change: Downeaster trains this summer could begin stopping in Kennebunk if the town is able to complete a temporary platform in time, Quinn said.
Trains would stop at the old Boston & Maine Railroad station on Depot Street, just south of downtown. The depot hasn’t been used as a train station since B&M stopped running trains between Boston and Portland on Jan. 3, 1965.
Quinn said there are no plans to raise daily fares. However, the authority’s board of directors will consider a proposal to raise the price of a monthly pass this spring for travelers departing from all stations, to $299. That’s the fare currently paid by travelers who use stations between Portland and Durham, New Hampshire. Travelers to the south of those stations currently pay $279.
In fiscal year 2015, which ended on June 30, the train service carried 438,000 passengers on one-way trips – down nearly 98,000 passengers from fiscal year 2014. The service ended fiscal 2015 with $7.65 million in revenues – down nearly $1 million from the previous year.