The northbound Amtrak Downeaster on its way to Brunswick in 2016. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

BRUNSWICK — Amtrak’s Downeaster service is increasing in popularity, according to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and in 2019, broke ridership records; a surge partly attributed to increased use in Brunswick and Freeport. 

Last year, the Downeaster saw a record-breaking 574,404 passengers, a 7.8% increase from 2018, with August accounting for almost 61,000 of those passengers. It was the first time the Downeaster surpassed 60,000 riders in one month, according to Marketing Director Natalie Bogart. 

In November 2018, the organization added three round-trip services starting in Brunswick and Freeport, with two during the week and one on the weekends. The changes were projected to increase annual ridership by about 12,000. 

In 2018, 37,692 riders traveled to or from Brunswick. Last year, that number jumped 56%, with more than 58,000 people starting or stopping their travels in town. 

The jump in Freeport was even higher, with 12,962 passengers in 2018 and 22,939 a year later — a 77% increase. 

“These results are particularly impressive,” Chairman John Melrose said in a press release. “We are committed to the continued growth of the Downeaster service and are working hard in 2020 to improve/expand transportation alternatives to further enhance mobility to our citizens and support economic growth for Maine businesses.” 

The rail authority is still pushing forward with plans to extend service to Rockland via the Coastal Connection, a proposed seasonal weekend pilot program that has been delayed multiple times. 

The approximately two-hour trip would run from Brunswick to Rockland with stops in Bath, Wiscasset and Newcastle. 

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority manages Maine’s contract with Amtrak, but the Maine Department of Transportation owns the 58-mile track between Brunswick and Rockland, and leases with the Central Maine and Quebec Railway to carry freight on the line, rail authority Director Patricia Quinn told The Times Record in an earlier interview. 

The pilot, designed to help weigh interest in making the extension permanent, was originally slated for 2018 but was pushed back due to scheduling issues for the necessary safety assessments. 

In August, The Times Record reported that the rail authority hoped to complete testing by Memorial Day this year, but Bogart said Friday that at this point they do not have a target date for the Coastal Connection. 

“The sale of the Central Maine and Quebec Railroad, which is MaineDOT’s operator on the Rockland branch, has delayed progress on the coastal pilot, but is still being pursued,” she said in an email. In November, Canadian Pacific Railway announced it intended to by Central Maine and Quebec Railway in an estimated $130 million deal involving 481 miles of rail lines in Maine and Quebec. 

Once up and running, the Coastal Connection will have an estimated operating cost of $200,000, generating about $120,000 in revenue and serving approximately 7,000 riders, according to original estimates. 

Passenger service has not operated on the Brunswick-Rockland line since the Maine Eastern Railroad ceased operations in 2015, the rail authority said previously. 

When the Downeaster extended from Portland to Brunswick in 2012, ridership north of Portland exceeded expectations by almost 50%, according to a 2012 fiscal year report from the rail authority. 

Wayne Davis, chairman of Trainriders Northeast, told The Times Record in August that expects an extension to Rockland would produce similar results. 

“I suspect it won’t take people long to discover the train line should run all summer. … I think there’s a market for that and it will be a very good thing for local economies,” he said. “A trip up Route 1 to Rockland isn’t fun. The traffic is just ridiculous, but trains are part of the solution.” 


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