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

BRUNSWICK — Amtrak’s Downeaster trains are back up and running following a two-month service shut down, and ridership numbers, while far below normal, are trending upward, according to rail authority director Patricia Quinn.

Last month, officials announced the Downeaster would resume partial service, offering one round trip from Brunswick to Boston on weekdays, starting June 15. 

The first week, there were 250 riders. The second week, 375. Last week, there were 543 passengers. 

But coming off of a banner year, with the service reporting 61,000 passengers last August alone, the numbers, though “better than we expected” represent “a whole different ball game” in a post-coronavirus world, Quinn said.

Last year, on the Friday before the Fourth of July, there were 2,400 riders on the Downeaster. On the same day this year, there were 134. 

“Ridership is … not robust,” Quinn said, adding that she is hopeful the Downeaster will be able to add additional trips sometime in the next few weeks. The train usually makes five round trips per day and an increase of up to four round trips has been proposed.  

Safety remains the primary concern, Quinn said, and the rail authority recently put protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of passengers and crews, including increased cleaning and disinfecting; the requirement of face coverings for passengers and crew; and limiting seating to not more than half capacity.

The Downeaster suspended service April 13 and did not restart until two months later. Quinn estimated the service likely lost at least $1 million per month during that time. 

The struggles are mirrored across the country. 

CNN reported last month that during the pandemic, Amtrak ridership dipped as low as 5% of usual and is now at about 30%.

“We forecast a slow recovery and expect systemwide ridership in FY21 to be half of what it was in 2019,” spokesperson Kimberly Woods told the media outlet.

Amtrak announced in May that it would lay off at least 20% of its workers by October. 

Despite this, Quinn said she’s not concerned about the financial viability of the Downeaster. 

Funding from the CARES (Coronavirus  Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act provided a boost to help keep them going and without the trains running, many expenses were cut back. Plus, the increasing ridership is a promising sign that there is still demand for the service. 

Still, “it’s going to be a long time before we get back to the ridership we had before,” she said, and the Downeaster may need to make some changes in the process. 

“For the next year, I think we’re going to have an opportunity to recover, and then we’ll reevaluate,” she said. “It’s going to be a matter of what the market looks like and what changes we need to make to respond to the new travel needs of the public.” 

Wayne Davis, Chairman TrainRiders Northeast, said he isn’t sure where rail service is headed, but he hopes that ultimately, the pandemic will turn the train into America’s “vehicle of choice.” 

Trains have ample space for social distancing and plenty of fresh air, unlike planes and buses, he said. If people can stay healthy, Davis thinks rail service can too. 

The Coastal Connection

One unintended consequence of the pandemic is the further delay of plans to extend service all the way to Rockland via the Coastal Connection, a proposed seasonal weekend pilot program which has already been delayed multiple times

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

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

Once up and running though, 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. 

“The Rockland service is not anything that we’re spending much time on right at this minute,” Quinn said, adding that officials might revisit the issue toward the end of the year. 

It hasn’t been taken off the table, she said, but it’s hard to know what Maine’s tourism industry will look like next year or if there will still be demand for the line. 

“The future is very unknown right now,” she said, and both the rail authority and Amtrak are bracing for a “tough year or two.”

“We’re trying to be cautious and thoughtful about every next step that we take,” she added. 

“We are going to stay active and stay aware” so they can be there “when the world gets moving again.” 

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