AMTK: Downeaster Ridership Low But Steady

Maine Downeaster Ridership Recovers Enough to Increase Train Count. Passengers Applaud Sanitary and Distance-Compliant Coaches; Crews Practicing New Protocols.

28.July, Boston MA – Amtrak’s Boston to Maine Downeaster service has resumed marketing programs to encourage ridership on the safe and social distance-compliant trains to Vacationland. Ridership has increased to approximately 200 passengers per day, doubling since the phased resumption of service in June.

Service resumed on 15.June after a total shutdown initiates 13.April. Service reopened with two trains per day (one in each direction), compared the ten daily trains before the shutdown. Daily ridership quickly rose to approximately 100 passengers, and stabilized at that level, according to Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). In general, daily numbers vary considerably, with weekends stronger.

passenger train at Freeport station

“We were encouraged, because we started off with what we considered a soft launch. We hadn’t done any marketing or social media,” Quinn said. “The [resumption-phase] ridership is the people who sought us out.”

When service expanded July 20th to eight trains per day, daily ridership approximately doubled. Normally, frequency attracts riders; apparently this remains true with CoVid. Presumably numbers will increase further as word spreads through TV spots and social media marketing.

Average daily ridership in July 2019 was 1,700 to 1,800 a day, which means patronage is 12% of normal times. Quinn says Downeaster ridership equates with other state-supported Amtrak trains.

The on-board experience: Masks and clean trains

Quinn says that Amtrak is providing the best possible public transportation experience. “The equipment is sparkling clean, sanitized nightly. Crew are wearing masks. People can spread out.”

Amtrak has capped reservations at 50% of capacity, is allowing a flexible policy of changing or canceling reservations and is promoting that coach HVAC systems refresh air 44 times an hour, about double an indoor building environment.

When service resumed in June there was no onboard food service, that returned July 20th. Seating in the cafe car is closed; the attendant provides takeout service and makes several trips through the coaches taking orders.

“Crews are in good spirits and glad to be back to work,” according to Quinn. “They feel comfortable with the protections they have been given.”

Passengers are also required to wear masks and Amtrak has made it clear they can throw scofflaws off the train. Quinn reports no issues with rider compliance. “We’ve had lots of positive comments from people that they feel safe,” Quinn says. “We [have] had no negative comments.”

Who is riding?

“I think [passengers are] mostly people traveling to visit family,” said Quinn. “A few people that maybe have homes and come back. Every day we have a handful of disabled riders. Very few children.”

Interestingly, Quinn adds, “Some of the information we have would suggest that we have a lot of first time riders.”

The biggest challenge for the Downeaster is the loss of Boston commuter traffic from New Hampshire and Haverhill MA. Quinn says “we would typically have 500-600 passholders per day. Now we have 12.” Nationally, 42% of the US workforce have been working from home during the pandemic, and 33% are not working at all, according the Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom.

Many predict masses of former on-site workers will continue working from home, even after the pandemic is over. NNEPRA polls of pre-pandemic Downeaster riders verify this expectation, says Quinn.

The train sustains Maine

Maine tourist locations are ghost towns, according to a recent New York Times article. New Center Maine reports hotels are predicting a 90% loss of summer vacation business. Tourism normally account for one in six Maine jobs.

Maine’s quarantine rules for visiting or receiving visitors from Massachusetts remain in effect. Residents of Massachusetts are still required to either have a confirmed negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of visiting Maine, or commit to a 14-day quarantine upon entering Maine according to the Portland Press Herald. Maine residents who visit Massachusetts or most other states are required to either quarantine for 14 days or receive a negative test upon returning to Maine.

{Conversation with Patricia Quinn}