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Downeaster chugs forward with 31 percent gain in ridership

PORTLAND, Maine --Amtrak's Downeaster finished its fiscal year with the biggest jump in ridership since the start of the Portland-to-Boston service, and that was before numbers spiked because of recent problems plaguing Boston's Big Dig.

The Downeaster wrapped up the fiscal year that ended last month with 329,265 passengers -- an increase of 31 percent over the previous year. Revenues grew to $4.35 million, surpassing the $3.3 million during the previous fiscal year.

The passenger growth was the biggest on a percentage basis anywhere in the Amtrak system during the period, spokeswoman Tracy Connell said.

High gas prices probably had something to do with the strong passenger numbers, along with growing familiarity with the Downeaster service, said Patricia Douglas, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

In recent days, traffic congestion caused by Boston's Big Dig problems have sent the train's ridership even higher, Douglas said.

In Boston, the I-90 tunnel has been shut down to passenger traffic since 12 tons of ceiling tiles fell from a connecting tunnel, crushing a motorist on July 10. And the eastbound side of the Ted Williams Tunnel is open only to buses and emergency vehicles.

Detours have caused major traffic tieups.

An Amtrak ticketing agent noted that a number of passengers boarding in Portland have remarked on the Big Dig mess. "People are commenting, 'I'm not going near that mess with my car. We're going to take the train," Douglas said.

On Friday, Californian Joanie Hoffman was one of those who chose to take the Downeaster after hearing about the Big Dig problems.

Hoffman considered but rejected renting a car to travel to Boston after she and her son spent a week in Maine. Then she considered taking a bus, but she saw media reports that buses were slowed to a crawl, as well.

"It's hard enough to drive in Boston. But with something like that, it would be impossible," said Hoffman, of Citrus Heights, Calif.

Douglas said ridership spiked since the problems arose.

The average daily ridership grew to 1,012 between July 10, the day of the Big Dig ceiling collapse, and July 14, compared to 688 in the same period last year, according to preliminary figures. Between July 15-20, average daily ridership was 1,031, compared to 841 a year ago. Before the Big Dig incident, ridership was actually down from July 1-9.

The Downeaster started its record tear before the Big Dig problems, though. Ridership records have been set every months since September, Douglas said.

The closest any other Amtrak train came to the Downeaster in terms of percentage growth was North Carolina's Piedmont between Raleigh and Charlotte, which saw a 22 percent gain in ridership for the 12 months ending June 30, Connell said.

Systemwide, Amtrak has had seen three years of record growth, but overall increase in ridership has been in the single digits, she said.

The Downeaster went into operation on Dec. 15, 2001, with four daily trips in each direction between Portland and Boston's North Station. The Downeaster hopes to add a fifth roundtrip during the coming year, Douglas said.

Stops include Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells in Maine; Dover, Durham and Exeter in New Hampshire; and Haverhill and Woburn in Massachusetts.

Wayne Davis, who launched TrainRiders Northeast to study the feasbility of Boston to Portland passenger rail service in the late 1980s, said the passenger numbers may susprise some folks. But he said he knew all along that the train would be a success.

"After 18 years, it's hard almost not to say, 'I told you so, I told you so, I told you so,'" Davis said.

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