Maine has chosen to resume some Amtrak Downeaster service from Boston. I talked with Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of Northern New England Rail Authority, which manages the service. There are lessons here about what we might expect of Amtrak service returning to Vermont.
Downeaster Ridership to Maine: Reduced but Solid
Amtrak’s Boston to Maine Downeaster service resumed June 15thafter a total shutdown. Ridership since has been solid but far reduced.
Initially only one train a day was run instead of the normal 5 each way. With one train, the Downeaster saw about 100 passengers a day (varying considerably depending on which day with weekends stronger).
“We’re encouraged because we started off with what we considered a soft launch. We haven’t done any marketing or social media,” Quinn said. “Those are the people who sought us out.”
When service expanded July 20thto four trains each way ridership jumped to 200 people a day. Normally, frequency attracts riders; apparently this remains true with CoVid.
Presumably numbers will increase as word spreads. TV spots and social media marketing resumed July 28th.
Who Is Riding?
“I think it is mostly people traveling to visit family,” thinks 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 says “Some of the information we have would suggest that we have a lot of first time riders.”
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.
The New York Times reports that Maine tourist locations are ghost towns. New Center Maine reports Maine hotels are predicting a 90% loss of summer vacation business. (Tourism normally account for 1 in 6 Maine jobs).
Most dramatic has been the loss of Boston commuter traffic from New Hampshire and Haverhill MA. Quinn says “we would typically have 500-600 passholders a day. Now we have 12.” During the pandemic, 42% of the US workforce have been working from home and 33% are not working at all according the Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom.
Many predict increased working from home after the pandemic is over. Quinn says their polls of regular riders say the same.
Average daily ridership in July 2019 was 1,700 to 1,800 a day, which means patronage overall is 12% of normal times, but discounting the pass commuters it is 18%.
The On-Board Experience: Masks & Clean Trains
“What Amtrak is providing and the Downeaster is providing is the best experience people could imagine,” Quinn says. “The equipment is sparkling clean, sanitized nightly. Crew are wearing masks. People can spread out.”
Passengers are also required to wear masks and Amtrak has made it clear they can throw scofflaws off the train. Quinn reports people have been complying with no issues.
“We’ve had lots of positive comments from people that they feel safe,” Quinn says. “We really had no negative comments.”
Amtrak has capped reservations at 50% of capacity, is allowing a flexible policy of changing or canceling reservations and is promoting that 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,” she says.
NNERPA is financially stable, according to Quinn, “thanks to the CARES act [also available too Vermont] helping us maintain status quo in terms of what we need to pay. We just started fiscal year 21. We have the resources we need to sustain just about anything that comes through 2021.”
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