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Amtrak Downeaster: Successful train faces uncertain future

Funding problems may close New England's popular passenger rail in 2009.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 2007


With a short honk of its horn, the Amtrak Downeaster train pulls away from the platform, passing between snow-covered sidings on its way to Boston, eastern New England's economic engine, 100 miles to the south.

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It will make seven stops during the 2-1/2-hour trip, picking up sightseers in southern Maine, commuters in seacoast New Hampshire, and dozens of students at the University of New Hampshire before rolling into North Station, a trip it makes five times a day.

By almost every measure, the service is a resounding success. Ridership and revenue have each grown by 20 percent this fiscal year, some of the highest rates in the nation. Customer-satisfaction rates are regularly the highest in the Amtrak system, where the Downeaster is seen as a model for expanding rail service elsewhere in the country. Proposed extensions of service farther up the Maine coast have the backing of state lawmakers and Maine Gov. John Baldacci.

Yet the popular train still loses money – and may stop running altogether within two years, when a federal grant expires.

"Pretty soon it's going to be 2009 and the money isn't going to be there to keep the train running," says Wayne Davis, of TrainRiders/Northeast in Portland, which advocates rail service. "It needs permanent funding."

The Downeaster's plight reflects the challenges to efforts to expand intercity passenger rail in the United States. Even in a favorable political climate rail operations face an uphill battle to secure scarce resources and to convince decisionmakers that they are a wise use of taxpayers' money.

"We live in an environment where some people think the maximum public benefit is always to have minimum taxation," says John Spychalski, a transportation expert at Pennsylvania State University. "Among elected officials, there's enormous ignorance about the benefits of railroad transport and of the situations where it's less costly in the longer run to develop a rail system than not to do so."

'Trains don't pay for themselves'

Like most passenger-rail routes worldwide, the Downeaster doesn't operate at a profit. At present, passenger revenue accounts for $6 million of its $13.5 million annual operating budget. Much of the remainder has been covered by a $6 million grant from the federal transportation department, which will expire in 2009. Maine contributes $1.5 million.

As a practical matter, the only way the Downeaster can keep running is if Maine lawmakers increase the state's annual contribution from $1.5 million to nearly $8 million. Further federal support is unavailable, and New Hampshire and Massachusetts don't contribute to the train's operation, even though a third of its riders travel entirely within or between those states.

And that's as it should be, according to Charles Arlinghaus of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, N.H., which opposes proposals to link Concord, Manchester, Nashua, and Boston by commuter and intercity rail to reduce worsening traffic congestion along the I-93 corridor. "In states where there are limited transportation dollars, why should we spend millions of dollars on a luxury used by a small number of people?" he asks.