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Maine's Costly Downeaster Train Is Riding on High Expectations

Transportation: Amtrak from Portland to Boston was completed at great expense, but whether enough passengers get on board to make it viable remains uncertain.


PORTLAND, Maine — Getting Amtrak service between Portland and Boston took longer than construction of the transcontinental railroad and cost more than $50 million in public spending on new track and equipment. For many, seeing the trains roll will be the fulfillment of a dream.

Still, how many riders will climb aboard is anyone's guess.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority estimates that 320,000 passengers will ride the Downeaster in the first year. Supporters say that number is conservative, while New Hampshire officials say it could be just half that.

"It's all speculation," said Wayne Davis of TrainRiders/Northeast, whose 1988 letter to Amtrak's chief executive set in motion Maine's push to restore rail passenger service that was abandoned in 1965.

The Downeaster began service this month, with four round trips a day, providing a test of the public's willingness to set aside the automobile in favor of a new transportation option.

The projected 320,000 trips translates to $3.3 million a year in fares, well short of Amtrak's $5.3 million operating cost. The federal government will spend up to $2 million annually to subsidize the service for three years.

Rail officials hope strong ridership and revenues from sources ranging from souvenirs to on-board advertising will make up the difference without the need for further subsidies three years from now.

Davis is convinced ridership and revenues will exceed projections.

"We've said all along that if this train can do what it was designed to do--go 80 mph--and if the equipment is maintained, and the service is courteous, and the food is good and the price is reasonable, we should blow the doors off," he said.

The 114-mile line caps a much-delayed project that began in earnest in 1990 and took longer to complete than the transcontinental railroad, which was laid out and built within a decade.

The Amtrak trains, consisting of a diesel locomotive, three coach cars and a cafe car, will accommodate as many as 230 passengers and run on track owned by Guilford Rail Systems and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Top speed will initially be set at 60 mph but is expected to jump to 79 mph after test results confirm that the rail can accommodate the higher speed.

The trains must operate at the higher speeds to make people give up their cars, Davis said.

But New Hampshire officials are less confident that motorists will give up the convenience of driving. Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray said the 320,000-trip projection might be too high by half.

Her assessment is backed up by David Fink, Guilford's executive vice president. "We've always thought the ridership projections were impossibly overstated," Fink said.

Tickets to ride the trains between Portland and Boston's North Station will be $21 one way and $35 round trip, with discount 10-trip and commuter fares available. It's more expensive than going by bus but cheaper than flying.

The train boasts amenities as one of its selling points. Riders will be able to order wine and cheese, a shrimp cocktail or a portabello mushroom sandwich, read a newspaper or hook up a laptop computer. Plans are in the works to allow the trains to host business conferences.

When all stations are open, the 2 1/2-hour ride will include stops in Saco and Wells in Maine; Dover, Durham and Exeter in New Hampshire, and Haverhill, Mass. Trains will add a stop in Old Orchard Beach during the summer.

Commuters make up only 14% of the projected ridership and might account for most passengers on the first run that leaves Portland at 6:05 a.m. Business trips are expected to account for 21%, with the remaining 65% made up of riders headed to Boston for reasons as diverse as shopping or going to museums, hospitals or Fenway Park.

Roughly half the passengers would be from Maine, at least 25% from New Hampshire and the remainder would board the train at Haverhill, Mass.

Michael Murray, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, is working to ensure that the rail service is self-sufficient after the federal subsidies end. His agency is trying to generate supplemental revenues through corporate sponsorships, franchising, food service, on-board advertising and sales of souvenirs such as T-shirts, hats and whistles.

One business that stands to lose ridership when the trains start rolling is Concord Trailways, which runs 11 nonstop bus trips a day between Portland and Boston.

"We're faster, we run more frequently and we're a tad less expensive," said Harry Blunt, president of the New Hampshire-based carrier. The bus pulls into South Station, making it a better choice for travelers planning to link up with Amtrak's high-speed Acela to New York and Washington, he said.

The buses feature a movie but not the amenities offered by Amtrak. "It's bound to have some impact on us," Blunt said.

Rail supporters note that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made trains a more attractive alternative, as reflected in Amtrak's increased volume.

Michael Murray foresees a day when airlines will be the choice for trips of 500 miles or more but that travelers will give a harder look at trains when going 300 miles or less.

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