Amtrak Downeaster: Successful train faces uncertain future

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

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.

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.

Busses, Arlinghaus argues, operate at a profit, use existing infrastructure, and can go anywhere they need to. "Passenger trains don't pay for themselves," he says, echoing a common criticism nationally. "They're an incredible waste of money."

Not so, says Patricia Quinn, head of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the Downeaster in conjunction with Amtrak. "All modes of transportation are subsidized – the roads we drive on, the airports we land at," she says. "A bus company doesn't have to maintain the cost of the road network. But we carry on our balance sheets the costs of maintaining not just our vehicles, but the infrastructure."

Who benefits

The Downeaster does appear to be a sound investment, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT). The train was responsible for $15 million in economic activity in Maine and New Hampshire in 2004, more than twice its public subsidy. The figure today is thought to be considerably higher due to ridership growth and the recent construction of multimillion-dollar condo developments adjacent to the Downeaster's stations in Saco and Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

"We've seen investments in rail have a very real economic multiplier effect," says Greg Nadeau, Maine's DOT deputy commissioner for policy. "But it also saves us money by helping us reduce congestion, delaying the time when we have to build a new bridge or add highway lanes."

By neglecting intercity rail, the US is shooting itself in the foot, agrees Vukan Vuhic, a professor of transportation systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. "Our investments in passenger rail are among the lowest in the world – including developing countries," he says. "We call highways investments – which they are – but with Amtrak they call it a subsidy."

The rest of the world

While Europe and Japan are adding high-speed trains to their well-developed rail networks, Professor Vuhic notes, Washington has treated Amtrak like an unwanted stepchild, keeping it on a "survival budget" and then taking it to task for the effects of underfunding.

Unlike most of the world, Vuhic points out, US passenger rail developed as a private enterprise, not a government one. In the robber-baron era of the late 19th century, Washington often found itself in an adversarial relationship with powerful railroad companies. While the government played a major role in creating and maintaining the interstate highway system and fostered the development in air transportation in a variety of ways, the railroads weren't seen as its responsibility – an attitude ingrained in national political culture.

"There is virtually no discussion of what kind of intercity rail this country needs," he says. "It's really an illogical situation."

Trains on shaky ground

The Downeaster's proponents are optimistic that Maine lawmakers will commit the necessary funds during the next legislative session – which begins in January – though the state's budget shortfall makes that far from certain.

"We'd be incredibly foolish if we didn't pursue this," says Senate President Beth Edmonds (D), whose party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor's mansion. "But this is a tough budget year, and everybody is trying to juggle limited funds as best they can."

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