Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Maine Loves Its Train. Can Other States Follow in Its Tracks?

The state knew something special had to happen if it wanted to revive intercity passenger rail service. A coalition of political and private support created the highly successful Downeaster.

The Downeaster train coming into a station in Maine
The Downeaster rolls into a station in Maine. The popular rail line has been a ridership and economic development success for the state and the New England region.
Every Friday evening, Wayne Davis strolls up to open the Amtrak station in Brunswick, Maine, and prepares for the arrival of his train.

This small town is home to Bowdoin College and is the terminus of the Downeaster line, one of the most successful state-backed services in America’s passenger rail system. Before the new station opened in 2012, a train hadn’t reached Brunswick since the 1950s when the Boston and Maine Railroad spiraled towards bankruptcy.

“As the last train left, the smoke was still hanging in the air and they tore the building down,” sighs Davis, who serves as a volunteer to prepare the welcome center after 4:30 on weekends — the full-time employees clock out by then in this sleepy corner of the world.

Mid-century transportation planners thought trains would never be back, and Davis has spent the last 30 years proving them wrong. He began his campaign in the late 1980s, forming a dues-paying advocacy group called TrainRiders Northeast. Enabling legislation was secured in 1991 and the first train rolled out of Boston’s North Station heading to Portland in 2001. Since then, it more than doubled its ridership before the pandemic hit.

“In 2020, leading up to COVID, we were breaking ridership and revenue records almost every month,” says Patricia Quinn, executive director of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees operation of the Downeaster.

In August 2019, the Downeaster enjoyed its best month ever with 60,944 passengers. Quinn thought the service would break 600,000 annual riders in fiscal year 2020, before the pandemic began suppressing travel. Even with ridership still reduced, in October the Downeaster was back to 68 percent of its passenger load of that same month in 2019.

“It’s very difficult for anybody to dump on the train because it’s so successful,” says Davis, when asked if the Downeaster has any enemies in the state Capitol.

The Downeaster remains popular in Augusta, but a lot has changed since Davis and his allies first secured bipartisan state and federal support for resurrecting passenger rail in this corner of New England. Maine may have been the first state to go to Amtrak with a proposed rail expansion — as opposed to a federal agency courting local lawmakers — but many others have done so since.

Virginia is pumping billions of dollars into its rail system to help fight the notorious Washington, D.C.-area traffic, while Oregon, North Carolina, Illinois and a handful of others have committed resources to state-led efforts. Even more could follow in their wake, as Amtrak is set to receive its largest federal allocation since the 1980s through the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure act.

This could be a moment of great opportunity for rail boosters. But as partisan politics grows increasingly rancorous, entangling previously anodyne topics like transportation policy, how much can the Downeaster tell us about successful rail advocacy at the state level today? What Maine did was novel 20 years ago, but today’s state-led proposals are the minimum entry requirement to secure funds from Amtrak’s new pot of funds.

“There’s a presumption that, oh, Amtrak is going to get all this money so even if I don’t do anything my community is going to benefit,” says Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “Maybe not. If it’s not in Amtrak’s expansion plans and you as a state don’t go forward and say, ‘hey, I want this,’ you’re probably out of the mix.”

A Convincing Argument and Then a Train

Pottering around the Brunswick station, Davis is an elderly Jimmy Stewart-type, a figure from a perhaps imagined era of bipartisan comity and common sense. He cuts a courtly figure in a blue suit, adorned with a small lapel pin that simply reads “Civility.”

On this autumn evening, Davis takes upon himself the duty of writing down the names and license plate numbers of passengers who want to park at the Brunswick station’s lot before weekend trips to Boston. The parking ticket kiosk is broken, so the doyen of train travel in Maine is taking notes longhand, which he will deliver to the local police to ensure the riders don’t get tickets.

“I’d like to take my car and run that damn thing right into the ground,” Davis jokes, safely filing the notes away for later delivery to the Brunswick Police Department.

Over the course of the 45 minutes until the train arrives, he also helps passengers with the ticket machine, apologizes for not knowing how to access the Wi-Fi, and explains a quirk of federal law that allows travel between the Downeaster’s three northernmost stations to cost a mere $3.
The Downeaster at the Brunswick train station, terminus of the line. Plans call for extending rail service to Augusta, the state capital.
(Patricia Quinn)
Davis, a retired banker now in his late 80s, began his quest when he led the Maine branch of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. He had the time and resources to organize fellow rail enthusiasts, and the prestige to get meetings with the state’s top politicians. He fondly recalls policy conversations with Democrat Sen. George Mitchell, an early champion of the Downeaster, as well as independent governor-turned-senator Angus King, and Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

For Davis, it’s all about personal relationships and in-person, quiet, convincing argumentation.

“I just know if [the campaign to create the Downeaster] had happened with what we’ve been going through with the pandemic, we wouldn’t have a train today,” says Davis. “The only reason that happened was because we had one-on-one conversations. That made all the difference.”

It also helped that the coalition he put together included corporate leaders and business groups. It mattered that Davis himself belonged to that constituency, and that he had experience lobbying on Capitol Hill and in Augusta.

“Their case was not a romantic, dewy-eyed, ‘oh, I took trains when I was a kid and loved it,’” says Mathews. “Think about the difference it makes when the business community and the banks are meeting with officials and saying this will be good for the economy. That’s a very different conversation than one with hobbyists who have train layouts in their basement.”

A Boost for Tourism, Commuters, and the Local Economy

The economic value of the Downeaster can be measured in 100,000 out-of-towners from “down South” who arrive in the state without clogging the roadways, bringing an estimated $29 million in tourism revenue every year (pre-COVID-19).

On a more parochial level there’s the $6 million payroll and $5 million that goes to local vendors, who provide the service with products like fuel and Maine-specific treats like fire engine-colored Red Snapper hot dogs and a variety of local beers. (The Downeaster offers a distinct menu from the usual Amtrak fare.) In Portland, Downeaster boosters point to the $105 million Thompson’s Point real estate development next to the train station. It includes a wedding pavilion, a restaurant and a concert venue, none of which would exist without the rail line, they argue.

The effects of the train can be seen in Freeport, home to the legendary mail-order company L.L. Bean. The town of under 8,000 residents is a boutique shopping mecca, with an array of high-end brand name shops and funky little outlets clustered around the 24-hour outdoor clothing giant’s flagship store.

The Downeaster deposits visitors a block from the main street, an easy walk from the local hotel, all of the stores and the handful of eateries that sustain shoppers as they peruse this retail mecca. Trains pulling in from the south bring day trippers from Portland and Boston, while college students from Brunswick shoulder bulging bags of clothing back to their dorms.

“Until 2012, Freeport did not have public transportation options,” says Kelly Edwards, executive director of Visit Freeport. “We faced challenges with heavy traffic congestion, parking lots at max capacity, limited commuter options and our information staff struggled to assist people from Boston and New York City in finding their way here without involving taxis.”

The Downeaster and a new local bus service eased the pressure on parking and congestion in the small town, Edwards reports.

“As we like to tell attendees at travel trade shows, ‘your vacation starts the moment you board the Amtrak Downeaster,’” says Edwards. “They eliminate traffic headaches and provide access to Wi-Fi and delicious Maine treats like whoopie pies or craft beer.”

In Brunswick, even once-vocal critics have been converted. When word of the Downeaster’s northward expansion to Brunswick first reached pub owner TJ Siatras, he was not amused.

Siatras’ family has owned Joshua’s Restaurant & Tavern, in the middle of Brunswick’s main drag, for 57 years. As he saw it, the Downeaster would bring economic pain. The college town is essentially the hub of its own little metro area. People from the surrounding villages and countryside will drive in for dinner, a drink, or to check out the massive antique warehouse.

For Siatras, anything that pulled them past Brunswick, to points south, was a loss.

“I was one of the first people saying it would become a negative economic cash flow for this town,” says Siatras, on a break from a shift in the midst of Bowdoin parents’ weekend. “You’re making it easy for people to leave Brunswick and go to Portland and Boston. I always looked at it as more money in the community leaving than more money outside the community coming in.”

But Siatras admits he’s been pleasantly surprised. He frequently gets customers who roll into town on the Downeaster. As he talks, there are two outside, sipping drinks. More students now come to Bowdoin and don’t feel that they need to bring a car to get out of town for a night, the weekend, or vacation.

“I was definitely harder on it than it deserved, because we can show that it’s bringing people to town,” says Siatras. “We want money to come from away, get dropped with the least impact on our infrastructure, and then those people to go away afterwards. And that is what it’s accomplishing.”

Further south, on the Downeaster’s New Hampshire stops, commuters from Boston are a bigger presence. Before COVID-19, rush hour trains would be standing room only when they left or arrived at Boston’s North Station. But past Dover, the last stop in the Granite State, seating could be readily found again.

Even for Portland commuters heading to Boston, the Downeaster is an option. An express bus from the city’s transit center to Boston’s South Station is faster. But for some who work in Massachusetts, the rail service is sometimes more amenable.

“Having the option of the train creates an extra level of comfort that you can get back and forth easily,” says Jeff Levine, lecturer with MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “I go to Boston twice a week and often take the bus. But if the schedule works better, I’ll take the train. It’s a higher quality experience, it’s more scenic. It takes a little longer, but they work really well together.”

Why It’s Difficult to Replicate the Downeaster in Other States

Back in Brunswick, Wayne Davis is reflecting upon a “Citizen Planner of the Year” award he was given for his work on what would become the Downeaster — part of the “obscene display” of train-related paraphernalia he sports in his office.

“Oh, please, I don’t know anything about planning,” Davis laughs about the plaque. “I was selling a dream.”

In his time, Davis has worked with many of the most powerful people in Maine to secure that vision. When the liberal Democratic Sen. George Mitchell called him in the early 1990s to give advance notice of his retirement plans, Davis feared the project would be doomed.

“I almost had a heart attack,” Davis recalls. “He said, ‘Stop, stop, stop, it’s okay. I’ve spoken to Sen. Olympia Snowe, she’s going to take my place.’ This is before all the crazy stuff that you read about today. So, Olympia became our benefactor as a Republican.”

The Downeaster’s bipartisan support may be difficult to replicate in more hardline conservative corners of the U.S. Most states aren’t Maine, and how many still have moderate Republicans like Collins? GOP governors in states like Wisconsin and Indiana have mangled efforts to return passenger rail to their jurisdictions. Virginia’s successful rail experiment was unmentioned in incoming Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign and the gas tax increase he promised to kill provides funding for it.

“You can absolutely learn from the Downeaster in terms of how to get the new service launched,” says Mathews, of the Rail Passengers Association. “But it was born in a political climate in Maine straight out of the Saturday Evening Post, not the vituperative slash-and-burn atmosphere of today. That doesn’t mean it can’t work elsewhere. But it’s harder.”

The rail expansion in Virginia shares some features with the Downeaster’s political success. In both cases, coalitions that included business groups and influential corporate actors pressed the case for expanded rail transit. The core groups of advocates had a hard-nosed economic development argument that swayed politicians of both parties.

Advocates approached Amtrak with a proposal ready, requiring little planning or political resources from the agency, which did not have to shoulder the burden of pressuring the case in the state Legislature. It also helped that in both northern Virginia and southern New England, a major city with its own complex transit system anchored the region, along with a lot of small, older walkable towns that gave riders myriad destinations that didn’t require a car at the other end of a trip.

As ridership returns in the wake of the pandemic, there are myriad questions that loom before the Downeaster. Will commuters ever come back? Will schedules need to be tweaked to emphasize other riders? How will the new federal money affect plans to expand north to the harbor town of Rockland, to the Capitol in Augusta, or Davis’ dream of connecting Maine to New York City by rail? Will further conservative support be forthcoming in this new environment?

Davis is actively involved in lobbying for these coming fights, and Maine is still a friendlier political battlefield than Arizona or even Pennsylvania. Maybe by the time Davis is 90 he’ll see his dream grow that much bigger.

“I’m not worried about [polarization of transportation policy],” says Davis. “So far this has not been a Republican train or a Democratic train. It was Gov. — now Sen. — King who said, ’I’ll always be proud of this train, because it’s the people’s train.’”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
From Our Partners