The Universal Notebook: The trouble with trains

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The Amtrak Downeaster passes behind my house every day. I’m glad that it does. Passenger rail service north of Portland is a good thing and it’s no bother at all. It only takes 15 seconds from the time you hear it coming until it’s gone and even the whistle blast for the Sligo Road crossing is tolerable. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even notice unless they fail to blow the horn at the crossing.

The trouble with the trains at the moment is that very few people ride them and their schedules and stops are not convenient for most of us. As such, the Downeaster service from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick remains more of a tourist attraction than public transportation.

The good folks at the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority tend to talk in terms of how much ridership has exceeded expectations, but they rarely talk hard numbers. Only about 52,000 people rode the Portland-Brunswick route last year. That’s less than 150 riders a day on six trips, five if we charitably do not count the early morning run up from Portland to Brunswick. Most of those Downeaster cars look pretty empty to me, but maybe that’s what 30 passengers per run looks like.

The Portland-Boston Downeaster service now has more than 500,000 riders a year. NNEPRA estimates that the train now brings about 100,000 tourists a year to Maine, not a negligible amount by any means, but not much when you consider that Maine gets close to 30 million visitors a year.

So, while it would be wonderful if we had a viable passenger rail system that would help take cars off the road, we don’t. Just compare the 52,000 passengers who rode the Downeaster between Portland and Brunswick in one year to the 54,000 cars a day that pass Freeport every day on Interstate 295 if you want a reality check on rail.

Back in 1980, Carolyn and I spent several months in England and we rode the trains everywhere. A couple of Britrail passes let us go wherever we wanted. We were living in Winchester while Carolyn was in a school there, and I would often just hop a train into London for the day. We took train excursions to Scotland and Wales and enjoyed the freedom provided by frequent, affordable rail service.

I am told even the British rail system isn’t as good as it once was, but when I think of what we want the Downeaster to become, I am thinking of trains that run every few hours up and down the coast from at least Bar Harbor to Kittery with stops in most major towns along the way. Unlikely, I know, but a worthy goal.

Perhaps because NNEPRA true believers support the worthy goal of viable passenger rail service, the rail authority officials sometimes seem, well, a wee bit arrogant. When the first trains began rolling by at 60 mph, I emailed NNEPRA to suggest that they might want to fix a section of chain link fence that separates the woods beside my neighborhood from the tracks. The tracks were so lightly used for the 30 years before the return of passenger service that people had gotten in the habit of walking and skiing along the rail bed, and about 30 feet of the fence had been trampled down.

The answer I got back was, “Any and all fencing is the responsibility of the land owner. There is no requirement for the railroad, in this case Pan Am owns the track, to install fencing. The railroad tracks are private property and it is trespassing to be on them or within 20 feet of the track.”

OK then. Just trying to help.

I detect the same haughty attitude in the way NNEPRA officials have been dealing with citizens of Brunswick who are opposed to a 60,000-square-foot layover barn being built next to a residential neighborhood. Common sense would dictate that you don’t build an industrial facility in a residential neighborhood. That train barn belongs in South Portland, or out on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station property, not along Bouchard Drive.

NNEPRA, though, seems determined to do just as it pleases. Maybe they figure the end (viable passenger rail) justifies the means (railroading a community), or maybe they just have one-track minds.

In any event, the only way passenger rail in Maine will ever get beyond being a frill is for the trains to go where Maine people want them, when they want them.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.