When I told my boss I was taking the train to Maine for the weekend two ago, he reacted by surprise. “There’s a train to Maine?”
Since the largest city in the state is just over 62,000 people, it’s a fair question. Much of the state is extremely rural and the total population reaches only 1.3 million.
Despite this, the state’s Amtrak service is booming in popularity. The Downeaster service, which provides service between Portland, Maine and Boston via several stops in southern Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts carried record 441,769 riders in FY2008, a 28% increase over the previous year.
The route was launched in 2001, a joint partnership between Amtrak and a special rail authority established by the Maine state government. (13 other states also contract with Amtrak for rail service) Thanks to this arrangement, Amtrak operated the train and the rail authority oversees marketing and management of the line. Initially the route was plagued with delays as the train shares the track with freight trains. Improvements in recent years have cut the average trip time to around 2.5 hours, just over what a similar trip take driving, although recent on-time performance of around 70% clearly needs improvement. The route has its own website, marketing plan, and Downeaster trains now have free Wi-Fi service for passengers.
Why is the service a success? Although a rural state, a significant portion of Maine’s population is clustered in southern Maine near Downeaster stops. The state shares close economic ties with Boston, meaning many commuters — a recent performance report says they make up one-third of the passengers. Furthermore, the two end stations are closely tied to public transit — bus routes in Portland and The T subway and commuter rail system in Boston. Most of all, the service enjoys clear support by riders and political leaders alike who have worked hard to build new stations, keep ticket prices low, promote the service, and trouble-shoot schedule problems. One rider even set up a blog to track news relating to the train.
The success of the rail line has inspired one of the communities along the route, Saco, to build a train station adjacent a collection of vacant factory buildings, where a long-planned redevelopment will put apartments, offices, and stores. The project, featured in a hopeful promotional video, won final approval from municipal officials last year. Although the train station is not yet complete, a large wind turbine installed by the city to power the building is already operating.
The Amtrak system is often discussed as a whole, whose fortunes rise or sink according to macroscopic forces such as the funding whims of Congress and the price of gas. While true to some extent, the Downeaster reminds us the success of Amtrak routes also depends on state-specific service contracts and funds, intermodal transportation planning, stations quality, and the combined efforts of Amtrak staff, riders, and local political leaders. Although the Downeaster faces major obstacles, including long-term funding sources and aging infrastructure, its success thus far has been no accident.