Downeaster change keeps nonprofits on board, if not in charge

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PORTLAND — Nonprofit groups that rely on renting cars on specially scheduled Amtrak Downeaster passenger trains will have to adjust their plans after the rail service’s governing board changed its practice.

Events such as the Candy Cane Train organized by Tri-County Literacy and the Sparkle Express, hosted by FreeportUSA, must now incorporate their fundraisers into the Downeaster’s regular schedule. 

Nonprofits often rely on money raised through ticket sales for a themed-event to boost their operating revenue. Ticket sales for an event help cover Amtrak’s charge for the train rental. 

For its 2016 Candy Cane Train, the route took parents, children, volunteer readers and Santa Claus on a 75-minute round trip from Brunswick to Portland. 

The board of directors of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority confirmed the policy change at its Monday meeting.

“Staff is going to work out a plan for holiday-themed trains on regularly scheduled Downeaster runs. Nonprofit organizations may be able to develop events in coordination with those trains,” NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said.

NNEPRA board Chairman Martin Eisenstein described the policy change as “a win-win situation.”

Amtrak’s first mission to its commuting public will be followed while simultaneously allowing themed events to take place on an already scheduled train. Before, special train schedules accommodated events by taking trains out of commuter service for the length of the event.

And, NNEPRA staff spent time ensuring the fundraiser trip went well and needs were accommodated, adding to the workload.

Tri-County Literacy Executive Director Deb Nowak said the group she leads “will meet with NNEPRA later this month to discuss a possible holiday train event for 2017. I expect it will take some time to figure out the details and make a decision.”

Lisa D. Connell can be reached at 781-3663, ext. 183 or Follow Lisa on Twitter: @connell_ld.

The Amtrak Downeaster departs for Boston from its most northern point, Brunswick.