Amtrak’s Maine Downeaster exceeds expectations by almost 50 percent

By Morgan Rogers - November 20th, 2013 

Passengers riding the Downeaster have increased by 123 percent since 2005. Most of the passengers are tourists, business travelers, and students, but an estimated 20 percent are commuters from

DownEaster in Brunswick, Maine at the new train station. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Aboard The DownEaster from Portland to Boston. photo by Ramona du Houx

Amtrak’s Downeaster has exceeded rail officials’ expectations by almost 50 percent within its first year of service between Portland and Brunswick Maine.

Officials’ projected 36,000 when in fact 52,000 people road the train from Nov. 1, 2012 through Oct. 31, 2013 between Brunswick and Portland, according to unofficial numbers quoted by Patricia Quinn, director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

“We’re drawing from a new customer base along the midcoast,” said Quinn.

Freeport has seen an increase of traffic in their restaurants and stores since the Downeaster came to town, according to Sande Updegraph, director of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce.

Currently the Downeaster has five round trips daily between Boston and Portland, which includes two trips to Brunswick.

The long-term goal is to have more trips to Brunswick, according to Quinn.

To add more trips to Brunswick a layover facility must be built. There is a $12 million layover facility proposed for Brunswick, but it is battling controversy with some of the residents due to potential noise and air pollution.

There is also concern over whether ridership between Brunswick and Portland is sustainable long-term.

“There is usually a novelty effect at the beginning, and you don’t know what kind of promotions might have enticed riders,” said George Betke of Damariscotta, who worked in the rail industry for years, to the Portland Press Herald. “I think there is some evidence to indicate it’s welcome, but you have to raise the question of whether it’s cost-effective.”

The Downeaster, like other passenger rail services, is subsidized.

The annual budget is $16.7 million, an estimated $9.2 million is covered through revenue from ticket sales and concessions and the rest is subsidized by the federal government and the Maine Department of Transportation’s multi-modal tax.

In comparison, Maine’s highway system budget is $614 million and the Maine Turnpike’s budget is 37.5 million for 2013.

Interest has been expressed in connecting the line from Brunswick to Augusta, and from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn.

There are logistical challenges and capital costs to consider in regards to extending the line so there must be a lot of support behind the expansion, according to Quinn.

The Downeaster took 12 years of planning to get into operation and an additional 11 years to extend rail service to Freeport and Brunswick.