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Officials say the Downeaster trains have had a 'phenomenal' year in 2023

A passenger disembarks the Amtrak Downeaster, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A passenger disembarks the Amtrak Downeaster, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Portland, Maine.

Downeaster passenger trains set some ridership records in 2023. It was the first time that has happened since the pandemic struck in 2020.

"We expected to rebound with ridership," says Executive Director Patricia Quinn, "but we didn't expect to break records with ridership."

Quinn says some ridership patterns have changed. Business travel returned slowly, but leisure travel was strong in 2023, as was the college student market.

Looking ahead, she says federal assistance from the infrastructure act will be a "game changer." One grant will largely pay to replace wood ties along the Downeaster route from Brunswick to the Massachusetts state line. She says future grants could help pay for a new Portland Station and other projects.

More enhancements to the service are in the works. Among them is the implementation of a new safety system called "positive train control." Quinn says it will have multiple benefits.

"Not only is it a safety enhancement; right now, because we don't have positive train control we're limited in terms of the amount of frequency that we can operate. And so, this will lift that cap," she says.

Quinn says she'd eventually like to see the Downeaster expand to 8 round trips a day from 5 now.

Work should resume this spring on a six-mile rail siding in Wells. That, and a second platform, will allow for the start of a daily commuter service between Wells station and Brunswick.

Quinn says also on her short list is a pilot project of runs between Brunswick and Rockland over a state-owned rail line.