What States Can Learn From the Success of Maine's Downeaster Train

As Amtrak gears up to plan expansion projects supported by new federal funding, states can take some advocacy lessons from Maine's popular Downeaster train.

December 20, 2021, 11:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Downeaster train in Maine

Bubblecuffer / Downeaster train

Jake Blumgart describes "one of the most successful state-backed services in America’s passenger rail system" and evaluates how similar efforts could succeed in other states. Maine's Downeaster, which opened in 2001 after a decades-long campaign by the advocacy group TrainRiders Northeast, saw consistent ridership growth before the pandemic—and "[e]ven with ridership still reduced, in October the Downeaster was back to 68 percent of its passenger load of that same month in 2019." 

The train has brought significant economic benefits and reduced congestion in communities that previously had little or no access to public transit. "The economic value of the Downeaster can be measured in 100,000 out-of-towners from 'down South' who arrive in the state without clogging the roadways, bringing an estimated $29 million in tourism revenue every year (pre-COVID-19)."

With Amtrak set to receive increased federal funding, advocates say states shouldn't assume they'll be part of expansion plans, but make an assertive case for their rail proposals. As Blumgart writes, "Maine may have been the first state to go to Amtrak with a proposed rail expansion — as opposed to a federal agency courting local lawmakers — but many others have done so since." Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, warns that launching new train services will be more challenging in today's "vituperative slash-and-burn atmosphere," but the Downeaster offers some useful lessons on how to push train projects forward.

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