BRUNSWICK — The coronavirus pandemic has stopped the Downeaster passenger rail service’s record growth in its tracks, although Amtrak’s northern line is still chugging along.  

According to the railroad company’s 2020 annual report, released Monday, the Downeaster saw a 51 percent drop in ridership this year, with 269,454 riders compared to 2019’s record-setting 549,493.  

With four out of five daily trips from Brunswick to Boston back up and running following a two-month shut down in the spring and only up to 50% capacity on a train at a time,  Downeaster officials are reporting only about 400 travelers per day — just about a quarter of projected totals. 

The Downeaster train waits at the platform in Freeport in this file photo. File / Elizabeth Clemente

That being said, with constantly changing travel restrictions and growing coronavirus case numbers to contend with, 400 daily riders is “a good base,” said Patricia Quinn, director of the Northern New England  Passenger Rail Authority, the agency that manages the Downeaster. 

“It’s been up and down, and is off from where it would normally be,” Quinn said, but steadily increasing July through October numbers are promising. 

According to Quinn, there were 4,028 passengers in July and 8,099 in August. In September there were 8,538 riders and in October there were 10,383, capping the fiscal year thus far at 31,048 riders. About 3,900 of those were in Brunswick. 

In comparison, the previous year there were 55,168 riders in July, 60,944 in August, 47,817 in September and 50,363 riders in October.

Ordinarily, this week would be a bustling one, as people travel to see families for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

But this year there hasn’t been any noticeable uptick, nor are they expecting one, Quinn said. 

This is also a traditionally busy week for Brunswick’s Visitor’s Center, with Bowdoin College students piling on trains and buses to go home for the holidays and Brunswick students from other colleges returning home. However, again, there has not been a noticeable change, said Tom Barter, membership and events coordinator for the Brunswick Downtown Association and de facto Visitor’s Center coordinator. 

The visitor’s center reopened in mid-September with limited hours. The 15 to 18 volunteers usually manning the station have been asked to stay home, Barter said, as most are in the high-risk category and foot traffic is “very, very low” as it is. Instead, three staff members rotate shifts. 

On average, only about 10 to 15 people stop into the center, he said, and some of those are just going in to use the restroom. 

Barter has seen the number of visitors steadily climbing at the “transportation” hub as Downeaster ridership increases, though it also services the Metro BREEZ, Brunswick Explorer and Concord Coach Lines. 

This is the first year since it opened in 2012 that there has not been an increase, one of the only years where the map on the wall has not featured a pin representing a visitor in each state. 

That said, Barter said they “plan on staying open as long as the trains and the buses are going,” though they will likely close if Brunswick closes the town office again. 

Beyond Brunswick 

According to Amtrak’s annual report, the Downeaster’s troubles are reflected across the company as a whole. 

Business remains at about 25 percent of pre-COVID levels — a number expected to rise to just 37% by the end of the fiscal year.

The company provided 16.8 million customer trips, a year-over-year decrease of 15.2 million passengers. 

Funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act has continued to help keep the trains moving, but according to Bill Flynn, Amtrak president and CEO, operating revenue is down nearly 32% and “without additional funding for 2021, we will be forced to further reduce service, defer critical capital projects and take more job reductions.” 

For now, they’ll have to wait, hopeful that more funding will come in so that, as Quinn said, when people are ready to travel again, Amtrak and the Downeaster will be there. 

Another unintended consequence of the pandemic is the indefinite delay of plans to extend service to Rockland via the Coastal Connection, a proposed seasonal weekend pilot program that has already been delayed multiple times. 

“We, for this year, have said let’s set that aside for right now,” Quinn said. “There are so many necessary things we have to focus on, it’s not something we thought was wise to pursue at this time. … We’re waiting to see what happens 

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, the Coastal Connection would 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. 

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