Despite some complaints, Downeaster meets Freeport, Brunswick expectations

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FREEPORT — Although ridership on Amtrak’s new Downeaster service has been unexpectedly higher in Brunswick than in Freeport, business owners in both communities generally say the new service is meeting their expectations.

“We love it,” said Chris Cummings, manager of Mexicali Blues on Bow Street. “It’s a great option for people who live in the Boston-metro area to come shop in Freeport.”

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority conservatively estimated an average of 100 passengers a day would ride the train north of Portland starting Nov. 1, for a total of about 30,000 more passengers per year.

Although the official numbers are not available yet and the holiday season gives ridership numbers a spike, Freeport train station manager Sande Updegraph said she estimates as many as 180 passengers are riding to the train to Freeport and Brunswick every day.

Updegraph has been tracking the number of passengers on most of the trains, except for the last train of the day and two repositioning runs. She said the November total was 1,625 passengers in Freeport, or about 54 going in and out on an average day.

“We’re seeing a positive impact, particularly on the restaurants and the businesses around Freeport Village Station,” she said.

The number of incoming passengers, however, is smaller than Freeport expected, Updegraph said.

“Arrivals and departures in Brunswick are about double what’s happening in Freeport, which is a little surprising to me,” she said. “But now that I look at it, it makes some sense, because Brunswick is drawing from all the outlying northern communities who want to ride all the way to Boston.”

Debra King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, said the train has exceeded Brunswick businesses’ expectations and that northern riders are making a significant economic impact.

“Talking to businesses right around the track, they’re doing extremely well and they relate a lot of that to the Downeaster coming in,” King said. “Anecdotally, they’re having a better year than last year.”

Although the early numbers could drop after the holidays, King said she expects the service to remain steady.

“I think there was an assumption of a honeymoon period, but these folks are regulars now,” she said.

What’s really made an impact, said Janet Dutson, executive director of Freeport USA, is the collaboration with the Downeaster, which helps promote Freeport and Brunswick businesses in Boston.

Train hosts hand out maps and coupons to riders, and the conductor makes an announcement letting passengers know more coupons are available if they go to the visitor center, Dutson said.

In the future, she said, Freeport USA may try to create partnerships with other businesses along the train’s route.

The timing of one of the train’s stop in Freeport, just after noon, is working out well for nearby restaurants. But other businesses, outside of close walking distance to the Depot Street station, are hoping to see some form of mass transportation soon to bring the riders to them.

“We’re hearing it, we’re just not seeing it,” said John Soule, manager of Gritty McDuff’s Brewpub & Restaurant on U.S. Route 1, south of Freeport village. “Until we get some kind of way to get them down here, we’re really not seeing any kind of impact.”

Businesses outside the village are hoping new transportation opportunities, like a shuttle that the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn started operating last month, will bring train riders to them.

“The main purpose is to provide shuttle service for guests arriving on the train,” said Josh Cushing, manager at the Hilton Garden Inn, noting the two hotels have the same owners and share the van. “Right now, it’s strictly village runs. It could move further, but right now this is where we’re starting.”

Updegraph said once the holiday season ends, ridership will likely drop, although there are plans to try to keep attracting visitors.

“January and February are really going to tell us how popular this is,” she said, noting that early January numbers should still be strong for post-holiday sales and returns. “Probably in the second or third week it’ll slow down a bit. But, we’ve got a couple small conventions that will bring some overnight activity and we have a couple of groups coming in February.”

Updegraph said of the few complaints she has heard, most are centered around the same issue: “Why aren’t there more trains?”

For now, the train makes two round trips a day, with a third planned after a Brunswick layover facility is available.

The train service has seen dramatic growth since its inception in 2001. Ridership increased by more than 15 percent in 2008 after additional stops were added, to about 530,000 passengers last year, making it the fastest-growing service for Amtrak in the nation, according to the regional rail authority.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.