Brian Beeler II is the manager of passenger services for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, aka, the Downeaster. This means he hears the laments (and praise) from regular passengers. About 30 percent of the Downeaster’s customers use monthly passes to commute, mostly to Boston.

Just after the news that ridership on the train is down, due to delays in much-needed work on the tracks – rough winter for everyone – we called Beeler up to talk about commuting via rail and how a guy with a degree in landscape horticulture from the University of Maine ended up riding the rails.

BACKGROUND CHECK: Beeler started working for the Downeaster in 2010. Before that he’d spent a dozen years at the Salmon Falls Nursery in Berwick. He’d worked his way up to general manager, but in 2009 he decided he needed a change. The seasonality of the work was tough; landscapers don’t exactly get a summer vacation. He’d almost completed an MBA at University of New Hampshire, had his first child and had recently lost his father. “Life hands you a few things and you just say, ‘It is time to try something different.’ ”

CASTING A NET: Landscaping had given him an understanding of the customer and “what you need to give great service.” The opportunity at the Downeaster, which started running in Maine in 2000, had the bonus of sentimental appeal: Beeler’s father was a teacher who spent his summers in the late ’70s and early ’80s as an engineer on the Wolfeboro Railroad, a train for tourists that ran on a short scenic stretch of track in New Hampshire. Then there was the model train in the basement. “My dad certainly had the train bug,” Beeler said. The Wolfeboro ran on a steam engine, and Beeler remembers well the sound and fury of it. “It always seemed like it was alive,” he said. “It always scared me to death.”

His father died before Beeler landed the job with the rail authority, but “he would have been ecstatic.” But they did ride the Downeaster together, to see the Red Sox, when Beeler was still a civilian.

CONDUCTING COMPLAINTS: Beeler is one of just six full-time employees working with the Downeaster, so his role is broad. But “my primary role is once the customer has purchased their ticket, from that point until they get off the train is my responsibility,” he said. That means fielding complaints about everything from weak coffee to the schedule. Despite many delays of late, it’s not all grumbling. “I receive my fair share of complaints and compliments,” Beeler said.


STATION AGENT: He also works as a liaison to the communities the train stops in and works with the rail authority’s large team of volunteers, who man the 12 stations on the line, often working four-hour shifts or longer. The Wells station, for instance, had over 2,400 hours of volunteer service last year. Some of the volunteers are train lovers, and some are seniors who are doing it to stay active. “They have a soothing effect on people,” Beeler said. “It is hard to yell at someone who looks like your grandmother.”

FULL SERVICE: Part of his duties involve riding the train (no conductor’s hat, just a polo with the Downeaster logo on it) to talk directly to passengers, or to keep an eye out for the school groups that regularly take the train on field trips.

The commuters on the 5:20 a.m. train tend to be pretty familiar with him. Conversations run along the lines of “Why don’t you have this kind of wine or beer in the cafe?” Sometimes he can help, and with other requests he has to say, “Hey, you’re right, this would be great, but we can’t do that,” he said. “We have a lot of things on the back end that people don’t understand.”

ABOUT THOSE DELAYS: They’ll wrap up soon, Beeler promises, likely by the middle of June. He notes that construction work is going on all over the state, but it’s much easier to divert automobiles when there’s work being done on a highway or bridge than it is to divert a train. “We don’t have another track to go on,” he said. “We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he added. “We are going to get back up on our feet real quick.”

TRAVEL TIPS: While nearly a third of the Downeaster’s ridership is made up of commuters (including some University of New Hampshire professors who commute from Portland to Durham), many ride the train as tourists. “You can drive to Boston faster and cheaper,” Beeler said.

Of course, it’s not exactly environmentally conscious, especially with just one person in the car. And then you’ll have to park in Boston. Not fun. “And you can take a bus that is going to get there quicker. But there is still a mystique about the train.”


Also: “a soothing, relaxing arrival into Boston, not the white knuckle experience of traffic. The train is an experience that you can make part of your day. That is how we really look at it.”

BEYOND BOSTON: You’d be surprised about the number of other good destinations on the Downeaster’s line, Beeler said. “If you have kids, Dover has got a really great kids’ museum, right downtown, and great places to eat.” Then there is Haverhill; a downtown revitalization project has yielded “tremendous” results, he said.

OPTIMUM TRAIN SEASON: What is Beeler’s favorite time of the year to ride the train? “With my previous career in landscape, I certainly appreciate the fall,” he said. “Our train travels through some extremely pretty areas.”

It’s not too bad to take the train in a blizzard either, he said. “Something that you couldn’t have driven to Boston through? That is certainly a good day.”

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW? Given Beeler’s background in landscape design, it seems fair to ask about his garden. Beeler grows enough tomatoes to make sauce all winter (he still has two bags from last year in the freezer) and a lot of Christmas trees (between 2,500 and 2,750). But it’s a work in progress, he said. “Like the auto mechanic who is always working on his car.”


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