The Amtrak Downeaster is a vital component to Maine’s Transportation System. There have been year over year increases in ridership since its inception. As the Downeaster nears completion of track work to Brunswick, ME a vital connection to car-free travel opportunities will only be enhanced, with passengers being able to connect to the Maine Eastern Railway in Brunswick, with seasonal excursion service to Rockland, ME.
As a former computer network geek, it is shown that the value of a computer network increases with the number of connections that can be made. The simple office networks of the early 1990’s allowed limited transactions between other office computers. Fast forward to now, computers can connect to data and information across the globe. No longer are businesses, students, and researchers limited to local resources. Transportation networks operate in the same way. As the network ads more resources, it becomes more valuable and useful. I am sure that there is an upper limit to connectivity for both types of networks, where diminishing returns begins to outweigh expansion. Our inefficient and fiscally unsustainable automobile network is a prime example.
This leads me to the purpose of our discussion. The graph below is a summary of Downeaster ridership between 2002 and 2011, showing an increase in ridership year over year, with a couple blips. As are all transportation networks across the world, there is always a degree of subsidy involved and the Downeaster is no exception. The State of Maine and the Federal Government kick in approximately $7.5M/year in operating subsidy. When we divide the ridership by this cost figure, we see that the subsidy per trip is actually going down considerably from a 2004 high of over $30/trip to a present day subsidy of less than $15/trip.
It will be interesting to see what happens after Brunswick becomes the new Northern Terminus of the Downeaster and connections between the Maine Eastern Railway are established. I would expect to see ridership on both lines go up considerably as the network becomes more functional to people seeking opportunities for car-free travel to experience all that Maine has to offer.
It was predicted that Maine and New Hampshire’s Concord Trailways would experience a hit to their ridership due to the Downeaster. They provide bus service between Boston’s South Station and Logan Airport with points north in both New Hampshire and Maine. In some ways, they offer a competing service with the Downeaster between Portland and Boston, but ridership figures show that in 2003 they had 216,000 riders and that ridership grew to over 400,000 in 2006. More recent figures are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that ridership continues to surge on the route.
While there may be other factors involved, I believe that what has happened is the transportation network increased its size and utility, and has added value to the system as a whole. People from Bangor can now reach Portland, and either continue to Boston on comfortable coach, or switch to an equally valuable service to meet their transportation needs.
People are clamoring for more options beyond the automobile. Gas in Maine hovers around $3.65 as of this writing, and we have vast distances to travel between our urban areas, both large and small. Increasing the size of the car-free network will only help keep Maine connected to the rest of the Northeast region and the important economic opportunity it represents.