As it nears 20 years in operation, the Downeaster passenger train service is weighing options to become a reliable means of regional transit, not just a rail connection from southern Maine to Boston.

But expanding service may require big changes – possible new stations in Portland and West Falmouth, a commuter-friendly schedule and new rail lines to Westbrook and Lewiston-Auburn.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the agency that runs the Downeaster, plans an open house Tuesday in Portland to introduce its ideas and get public feedback.

“What we really want to do is take some ideas out to folks who live and work in the Greater Portland region and ask: Does this make sense? Is it appealing to you?” said NNEPRA executive director Patricia Quinn.

Since it launched in 2001, Downeaster’s ridership has grown steadily. In 2012 it opened stations in Brunswick and Freeport and extra round-trips were added after a layover building was built in Brunswick and rail lines around Falmouth improved.

The train carried about 547,300 passengers in the fiscal year ending June, more than double what it carried when it started service. The service made $10.2 million in ticket revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June, the highest take since it started.

The service’s fiscal year 2019 financials are not complete, Quinn said, but last year state and local funding paid for about 37 percent of its $22.8 million operating budget.

“It is tremendously successful. We have been operating for 19 years and have really established ourselves well,” Quinn said. “It is time to diversify our market base and provide more benefit and value not just to people who are traveling from Brunswick to Boston, but within Maine as well.”

Ideas involve expensive, high-profile construction projects, such as a commuter rail between Lewiston-Auburn and Portland studied since 2015.

The second phase of a feasibility study for the Lewiston and Auburn project this past spring found high-frequency service might carry 600 to 800 riders a day by 2025. Construction could cost $189 million to $295 million, depending on the route. The group behind the plan still has to find funding and create an economic evaluation of the service.

Rail authorities have also proposed a rail connection from downtown Westbrook to Portland through a proposed multi-use development. A feasibility study in June estimated more than 2,000 passenger trips a day after Rock Row – a retail, office and housing center in Westbrook – is fully constructed. The Westbrook train could cost more than $100 million.

Relocation of the Downeaster’s Portland station could affect both concepts. The train shares space with the Concord Coach Lines passenger bus service at the Portland Transportation Center at Thompson’s Point, but it is running low on parking and passenger space.

Trains have to detour from the main rail line to get to the station, adding 15 minutes to every Brunswick-to-Boston trip, Quinn said. If the station moved to the main line, near  St. John Street, it might be more reliable and easier for commuters to get to downtown Portland. A station location study is due by the end of the year. Rail officials have suggested adding a stop in West Falmouth near Interstate 95 and a park-and-ride accessible from communities north and west of the town.

Plans to add a passenger platform in Wells means the agency could add a sixth morning run to Brunswick and adjust the schedule to serve Portland-area commuters, Quinn said. Her agency has applied for federal funding for that project.

“We’re trying not to change the core service, but use it as a baseline to diversify markets, add more value and more mobility,” Quinn said.

Boosting public transit options in Greater Portland is a priority in transportation discussions as the region grows rapidly and vehicle congestion gets worse. Expanding public transit was the top priority for respondents in a survey from the Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional planning group.

“As mobility on and off the Portland peninsula and large employment centers in the region becomes more difficult, people are seeking more ways to get to and from the places they want to go,” said Sarah Zografos, GPCOG’s transportation director.

“Traditionally, the Downeaster has been the train to Boston,” she added. “There is opportunity to at least take a look at their role in regional mobility around Greater Portland.”

The open house will be held Tuesday from 4:30  to 6:30 p.m. at Merrill Rehearsal Hall on Myrtle Street in Portland.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.