BRUNSWICK, Maine — New figures released last week by Amtrak show the Downeaster train from Boston to Portland and Brunswick is busier than ever, prompting officials to contemplate eventually increasing the number of trips.
Ridership on the Downeaster is up 3 percent from last year, and up a “staggering” 123 percent since the service started in 2005, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority,which operates the service for Amtrak. The number of people using the train for tourism increased 30 percent in the past year alone, Quinn said, and the amount of people arriving in Brunswick on the mid-afternoon train and leaving in the early evening for Boston has increased up to 20 percent during the week and 60 percent on the weekends.
“People are not only riding the train, but coming here, going to local businesses, staying overnight, buying things in restaurants and stores and contributing to the local economy. [It] is extremely exciting for us,” she said.
The increase in ridership has NNEPRA thinking big thoughts about the future, including the possibility of increasing the number of roundtrips between Brunswick and Boston to five per day, with an additional train running from Portland to Boston. That would be good news for local business owners, who say they see more customers when the trains are running.
Each day the Downeaster rolls into Brunswick Station, Scarlet Begonias owner Doug Lavallee can count on “a handful” of customers to step off the train and visit his nearby restaurant.
“We get people getting off the train, people buying food to go; we see conductors and engineers,” Lavallee said. “It’s been a really positive effect for the whole area.”
Dominic Petrillo, whose Freeport restaurant, Petrillo’s, sits about 100 yards from the train platform, said a busy train can bring in “quite a few” customers, and others stop while waiting to board the return trip.
Sande Updegraph, executive director of the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce, said Thursdays that restaurateurs and retailers, particularly along Main Street and at Freeport Village Station, are seeing “quite a bit of traffic” from the train.
But more riders don’t guarantee more trips. Quinn said NNEPRA will complete a long-term “service development plan” to outline future work. At the top of that list is building a controversial train layover facility in Brunswick.
Currently the Downeaster chugs into Brunswick from Portland twice a day. The first train in and the last train out “dead end” because trains cannot currently overnight in Brunswick.
The proposed $12 million facility, which has received full funding from the federal government, would provide a place for trains to idle during the day and spend the night in Brunswick, Quinn said, eliminating the need for a return trip to Portland late at night, only to return first thing the next morning. Officials say it would also reduce noise, emissions and fuel consumption.
The project has encountered fierce opposition, however, from neighbors who say it would reduce quality of life and negatively affect air, water and other environmental conditions.
Dan Sullivan, chairman of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, told The Forecaster in July that the facility would “change the nature of the residences and the neighborhoods nearby. The air quality will drop dramatically through our neighborhood. The noise is off the scale.”
Following a public hearing in late September on NNEPRA’s draft environmental assessment, the Federal Rail Authority is determining if extra analysis of the project’s potential impact is needed, The Forecaster reported.
Quinn said Thursday that once the layover facility is completed, NNEPRA could increase the number of round-trips from two to three each day between Boston and Brunswick.
Other plans include track work in the Yarmouth area and improvements that could shave 10 to 15 minutes off the Brunswick-Boston trip. NNEPRA is also working with officials from Pan Am Railways — which owns the tracks — and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority — which operates North Station in Boston — to develop plans for other improvements that would increase the number of trips between Portland and Boston.
Quinn said NNEPRA also hopes a feeder service to and from Lewiston/Auburn is part of the plan.