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Winter weather blamed for dismal Downeaster performance

Posted by Matthew P. LaFrenier on March 28, 2015 at 3:40 PM

Ridership on Amtrak’s Downeaster service fell sharply this winter as harsh weather caused numerous train cancellations and delays.

 

Ridership declined by 3 percent in January and 19 percent in February compared to the same period last year, according to the Northern New England Passenger Authority, which manages the service. It was the service’s worst performance over a two-month stretch since it began operating in December 2001, according the authority’s executive director, Patrica Quinn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delays, damaged infrastructure and drops in ridership were among the many problems the Downeaster faced in early 2015, but railroad officials hope warmer weather will contribute to a smoother operation.

Delays, damaged infrastructure and drops in ridership were among the many problems the Downeaster faced in early 2015, but railroad officials hope warmer weather will contribute to a smoother operation. 2015 Press Herald file photo/Whitney Hayward

 

Sixteen of 310 trains were canceled in January, and 36 of 280 trains were canceled in February. In addition, nearly every train in February was late, Quinn said.

 

In February, 4.7 percent of Downeaster trains were on time, according to Amtrak. Amtrak defines a train as on time if it reaches its final destination within 10 minutes of scheduled arrival. The service’s average for the last 12 months is 22.3 percent. That’s a huge decline from the on-time performance of 82 percent the Downeaster achieved in fiscal year 2013. Any number below 80 percent is considered substandard.

 

The service offers five daily round trips between Boston and Portland and two daily round trips between Boston and Brunswick. In February, 29,300 passengers rode the Downeaster – nearly 6,800 fewer than in February 2014.

 

Quinn said the service was affected by heavy snow and cold, particularly in Massachusetts, where the Downeaster runs on tracks owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

 

For example, blowing snow was blamed for a Feb. 12 incident in which a train with 25 passengers was stranded in North Berwick for more than five hours because snow clogged an engine’s traction motor.

 

The lower ridership has affected the service’s revenues. In February, revenues were $532,000, a decline of 12 percent from February of last year. Still, expenses have been lower than expected, so the service’s net revenues are ahead of budget for the fiscal year that ends on June 30, according to the rail authority.

 

Quinn said a proposed maintenance facility in Brunswick would make it easer for maintenance crews to work on the trains in winter. A public hearing on a critical permit needed to start construction on the project was held all day Wednesday in Brunswick.

 

Changing conditions

 

The harsh winter damaged railroad infrastructure, which will likely further exaggerate the delays typically experienced during the spring thaw, Quinn said.

 

The rail authority on March 30 will implement a new schedule designed to reduce the number of late trains by allowing for more time between trains.

 

“As we build up reliability again, people can start depending on the service,” she said.

 

The rail authority, the MBTA and Pan Am Railways, which owns the rail line in Maine and New Hampshire, have been making rail repairs over the past year, resulting in numerous delays. Only 8 percent of trains arrived on time in May, and only 19 percent of trains arrived on time in June. The Downeaster’s problems worsened in July, when 51 trains were canceled due to track repair projects.

 

Pan Am, which has been replacing thousands of rail ties, stopped that work this winter but will begin again on May. 4. Midday trains will be canceled on weekdays while crews are working, and delays of between 10 and 45 minutes are to expected on trains operating during that time, Quinn said.

 

She said the service will run more smoothly once the work is completed later this year.

 

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