New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association
Downeaster a hit with its passengers
- They say rail service makes commute easy
Before the Downeaster started passenger train service between Portland, Maine, and Boston, David Cooper of Exeter drove to Newburyport, Mass., each morning and got on a bus or train there. Now, he takes a three-minute walk from his house to the platform and rides the hour into Boston.
He's been using the Downeaster since Dec. 16, 2001, the day after the train's inaugural trip. Since then, the group of regulars he sits with each day in the cafécar has grown as overall ridership has skyrocketed.
In 2005, 293,653 people boarded the train, an 18 percent increase over ridership the previous year. Many of the people who came on board during the second half of the year looking for relief from high gas prices have traded in their car-centered commutes for good, said Patricia Douglas, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the group established by the Maine Legislature to run the Downeaster.
Douglas said the number of people coming in and out of the stations in New Hampshire is particularly high. Between October and December, the route between Durham and Boston increased in ridership by 54.9 percent over that period in 2004. New Hampshire residents make up about one-third of all riders.
"When service first started, it was more of a novelty," Douglas said. "Now, we've finally kind of matured, and we've really assumed the role of being a transportation provider."
The train itself is run by Amtrak, but the service is paid for by the rail authority, using federal money from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program and matching money from the state of Maine. The train runs four round-trips a day, taking about two hours and 15 minutes each way, and there are hopes for a fifth. It stops in Dover, Durham and Exeter.
Passengers interviewed on a southbound morning train last week said the Downeaster saves them time, money and headaches.
Bill Lord, a journalism professor at Boston University who gets on the train at the station in Wells, Maine, four days a week, said the train is "like a phoenix rising out of its ashes."
The reincarnation of rail service in northern New England has saved him about $20,000 a year. Lord, who lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, had been keeping a part-time apartment in Boston. Now he saves the rent money, pays $76 for a student/faculty six-trip pass and gets to go home each night.
"You get to live the Maine lifestyle while making the Boston dollars," he said.
Not all the Downeaster's passengers are commuters. The trains, particularly on the weekends, are heavy with University of New Hampshire students. Senior Erica Bertolotto was riding the train into Boston to do some paperwork with the Italian consulate this week. She said she's gotten stuck in North Station on Sunday nights because the trains heading home were full. Now she reserves a seat ahead of time.
During summer vacations, kids pile on the northbound trains with boogie boards and plastic pails in hand, said the café car manager Sue Maxell. The stop at Old Orchard Beach is just a few steps from the sand.
The regular passengers aren't surprised at the success of the Downeaster, which is ranked Amtrak's No. 1 line in the nation for customer service. They are surprised that New Hampshire leaders aren't working harder to increase the service and bring it to other parts of the state as New Hampshire grows and highways become more congested.
The state last year made its first investment in the Downeaster since the service started, when the Executive Council approved $1.6 million from a federal fund to be used to improve tracks in Dover. The only other money the state has given to the project was to pay for construction of the platforms and stations, which cost $3 million, said Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
The state recently backed out of negotiations with Vermont and Massachusetts to create a high-speed line through the center of the state. And although state leaders support efforts to bring a commuter line to Nashua, the state hasn't put any money into the project.
Gilman said he has been frustrated by the lack of progress.
"The state has been hugely remiss in its duty, frankly, to support rail in the state," he said.
Anita Ramsay of Newmarket, who works in a stem cell research department at Massachusetts General Hospital, feels the same way. She said she loves the Downeaster, but it's not enough. Ramsay wants service to more locations and more frequent trains that fit her schedule. The best the train can do now is get her to Boston just after 9 a.m. and home by about 8 p.m.
Ramsay said nurses at the hospital don't have the kind of flexibility that she has and wouldn't be able to take the train in.
"It shouldn't be that way," she said. "I think it's everybody's right to have public transportation."
Cooper said commuters in other parts of the state should push harder for rail service.
"Are people still going to drive to Boston when it takes four hours?" he said.
(Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 309, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)