ME: For Downeaster Train, a Month of Troubles

July 29--This July will be the Downeaster's worst month since Amtrak launched passenger train service in Maine 13 years ago.

Eight trains will be canceled this week, bringing the total number of July cancellations to 51. The service's on-time performance -- usually more than 80 percent -- is now running around 15 percent.

In addition, two pedestrians have been killed this month in separate train collisions in North Berwick and South Portland.

"All of these things have created a bad aura," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the service. "It's been a real struggle."

On the bright side, the authority reported record ticket revenues of $8.6 million in fiscal year 2014, a 6.2 percent increase over 2013's $8.1 million, despite persistent service delays this summer due to track maintenance.

Addressing the authority's board of directors on Monday at a meeting in Portland, Quinn said that Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks between Brunswick and the Massachusetts border, has been replacing 2,000 rail ties. The ties were damaged due to age and the repeated freeze-thaw cycles that occurred during this year's extended winter.

"The railroad was not left in good shape after the winter," she said.

Because the ties are scattered along the route, replacing them is time consuming, she said. Amtrak must cancel some midday trains to give the crews time to work safely, she said.

There were 1,500 fewer one-way trips in June, a decline of more than 3 percent year-over-year. So far this July, ridership is down 4,600 trips, according to Brian Beeler II, the authority's manager of passenger services.

Still, for those trains that were operating, ridership was healthy and outpaced the previous year, he said.

Beeler said he expects the number of delays and cancellations will diminish after this week. However, more disruptions could occur this fall when Pan Am Railways is scheduled to replace another 28,000 ties. The work will be concentrated in a few areas, so it is expected to proceed more quickly and there should be fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer, he said.

Despite the poor performance in June, the authority closed its fiscal year on June 30 with strong annual numbers. Passengers rode the train for 536,524 trips, a 4.6 percent increases from the previous year.

Four trains will be canceled on Wednesday and again on Thursday this week. The canceled trains are two northbound trains, 681 (departs Boston at 9:05 a.m., arriving in Brunswick at 12:25 p.m.) and 683 (departing Boston at 11:35 a.m., arriving in Portland at 2:05 p.m.), and two southbound trains, 684 and 686 (departing Portland at 12:45 p.m. and 2:35 p.m. respectively, arriving in Boston at 3:15 p.m. and 5:05 p.m.).

Copyright 2014 - Portland Press Herald, Maine

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