Posted by Erik Jorgensen

On Friday, we had an update on passenger rail in Maine from Patricia Quinn, the executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority. She was joined by her colleague Jennifer Crosby, and together they told the story of the rail-based success story that is the Downeaster. 

The Downeaster has steadily become more central as an element of the region’s transportation infrastructure. Ticket revenues have been outpacing cost increases, and this last summer marked the first time that income has exceeded a million dollars for a single month. 75,000 visitors to Maine have arrived here by train in the past year, enjoying the recently refurbished cars.

Trains always require subsidy in order to be feasible, and the Downeaster is currently recovering 52% of its $23 million annual costs in fares. This puts the train among the most economically competitive passenger lines in the Amtrak system, where it also garners some of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any route. Most of the operational funds come from the Federal government. 

The Downeaster has been shown to have a positive economic effect on both ends of the line, from Thompson’s Point concerts to the Boston Garden, where the last northbound departure of the day is often pushed back to accommodate a late game, making the train a viable option for Maine-based sports fans. In addition, the line is making efforts to promote travel within the state. A new “Discover Maine Ticket” is available that provides 10 trips between any Maine stations for just nineteen dollars. There are also more people taking advantage of the train in commuting to Portland from southern Maine. 

Our speakers remarked on several innovations that have come online recently, including a new layover facility in Brunswick and siding improvements near Yarmouth. Both of these have opened the door for a better schedule and more runs to service the towns north of Portland. The train is aiming to reach Rockland at some point, but that remains in the future.

Another possibility in the future is a mini-link to Westbrook, featuring light rail cars that could run from “Becky’s Diner to the Kohl’s plaza in Westbrook in 10 minutes”.  Such a spur could feed the Amtrak station at Thompson’s point, while also easing congestion on one of the most crowded corridors in the state. 

At the end of a lively series of questions from the audience, our own Jerry Angier made a pitch for the volunteers who serve as “train hosts,” helping with onboard customer service between Portland and Boston.


(Photo L-R: Linda Varrell, Patricia Quinn, Jennifer Crosby and President John Curran.)