November 14, 2013

Downeaster expansion spurring ridership

The new Portland-Brunswick train service carried nearly 50% more riders than expected 
in its first year.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Conductor Brian Labreck greets passengers heading to Boston and stops in between as they board the Downeaster in Portland on Wednesday morning. Two of the five daily Portland-Boston trips extend to Brunswick.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Bryant Witham of Brunswick disembarks Wednesday from the Downeaster in Portland. Witham, a plumber, says he often takes the train to work in Portland because it’s fast, punctual and saves money.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

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:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Conductors Brad Ritter, left, and Brian Labreck assist passengers as they board the Downeaster in Portland for a trip south to Boston.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

  


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