December 23, 2012

Riders making a go of train's new stops

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT - Hannah Tyce, 18, of Augusta needed a big favor from her mother: pick up her boyfriend, who happened to be without a car in Boston. The solution?

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Wendelin Choiniere rides the Amtrak Downeaster on Wednesday with her daughter, Madison, 9 months, right, and son, Mason 2, sleeping on the seat to her left. They live in Brunswick and had made the trip to Exeter, N.H., for a pre-Christmas visit with Choiniere’s mother.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Amtrak's Downeaster, which could deliver the boyfriend to the new train station in Freeport.

"Without this train, this wasn't going to happen," said the mother, Jane Maguire-Tyce, who on Wednesday drove to Freeport to retrieve the boyfriend.

Also aboard the train, a middle-aged couple from Saugus, Mass., who came to Freeport to spend the day shopping, a 25-year-old New Hampshire woman with two young children visiting her parents in Brunswick, and a 67-year-old woman from Naples, Fla., visiting her children and grandchildren in Waterville.

When Amtrak extended the Downeaster to Freeport and Brunswick last month, nobody could predict how the public would use the service. It's been more than 50 years since these two towns have had passenger train service.

Now, after nearly two months of service, it's becoming a bit clearer how the train is going to be used, at least during this time of year.

The service is more popular than anticipated, and people are riding the train for many reasons.

While tourists from Massachusetts and New Hampshire are taking the train to Freeport, most of the passengers are Mainers who are boarding the train in Brunswick and traveling to Boston.

So far, total ridership has been beating the projections of the Northern New England Rail Authority, which manages the train service.

The rail authority expected that a 100 people a day would ride the train north of Portland. In November, the average daily ridership was 177. The average dropped slightly in December, to 175 per day, as of Dec. 18.

Another surprise: Brunswick is the busiest of the two new stops.

The rail authority expected that Freeport -- Maine's No. 1 tourist destination -- would be the busiest.

In November, 114 passengers on average got on or off the train each day in Brunswick, while 63 passengers got on or off the train in Freeport.

The pattern continued in December, although Freeport's numbers have increased slightly this month, and Brunswick's have dropped slightly.

Most of the passengers riding the train to Freeport are beginning their travels from the south, particularly from Boston, Woburn, Mass., and Dover, N.H., according to ridership statistics.

In contrast, most of the passengers getting on or off the train in Brunswick are Mainers who live in Brunswick or other parts of Maine to the north and east.

There are also a handful of people who use the train to commute daily between Portland and Freeport and Brunswick, even though the schedule is not designed for commuters.

The ridership statistics show the train is reaching a new market in Maine -- people who live in midcoast and central Maine and want to ride the train to Boston but don't want to drive to Portland to catch it, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail authority.

She said the train appears to have a variety of users, including out-of-state tourists, commuters, business travelers, seniors, Bowdoin College students and Maine residents who want to travel to Boston.

"It's really a mix of people, which is great for us," she said.

The most popular southbound trains are No. 682 and No. 692, which depart Brunswick at 7:05 a.m. and arrive in Boston at 10:30 a.m.

The most popular northbound trains are No. 681 and No. 691, which depart Boston at 9:05 a.m. and arrive in Brunswick at 12:30 p.m.

Weekends are busier than weekdays.

It's difficult to compare the new route, with just two round-trips a day, to the service between Portland and Boston, which began operating 11 years ago and offers five round-trips a day.

Ridership statistics show that only one station, Woburn, Mass., serves fewer passengers than the stations in Freeport and Brunswick.

However, taking into account that fewer trains travel to Freeport and Brunswick, the number of travelers arriving or departing on each train is typical of other stations on the Downeaster's route, except for Portland and Boston, Quinn said.

She said the ridership will likely decline after the holidays, but should pick up substantially during the summer tourist season.

Until then, it appears the train will be used mostly by Mainers, people like Gilman Nichols, 85, who on Wednesday rode the train from Brunswick to Boston for a business meeting.

Nichols, who has difficulty seeing at night, said he would rather take the train because it's safer than driving.

The trip to Boston by train takes three hours and 25 minutes. He said he figures that he can drive to Boston about a half-hour faster.

"I will give up that half-hour easily not to be behind the wheel," he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Downeaster conductor Chuck Moyer, left, helps passenger, Jean Townsend, who lives in Naples Fla., as she leaves the train in Freeport to visit her children for Christmas in Waterville.

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Kati Connelly of Brunswick, left, and Leah Petracca of Park City, Utah, who attend school in Boston, take the Downeaster on Wednesday to spend Christmas with Connelly’s family. At right is Jean Townsend of Naples, Fla.

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Jane Maguire-Tyce and Sylvain Gauliere, her daughter’s boyfriend who took the train from Boston, leave the Freeport Information Center on Wednesday.



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