Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“Piloting” the train idea, and jump starting the transit run

There is much joy in Brunswick these days as $35 million in taxpayer money has been made available to upgrade the train tracks between Portland and Maine Street Station.  Work has already begun.

If I understand things correctly, the plan is to have an Amtrak train run between Portland and Brunswick twice a day, with a stop in Freeport.

Before that can happen, the $35 million will be sunk in the upgrade effort.  Then trains will have to be found and put in condition to be dedicated to the run, and crews will have to be hired to operate and maintain them.  The tracks will have to be maintained, inspected regularly, and plowed when necessary.  And presumably the crossing gates and lights will have to be maintained and inspected on a much more rigorous schedule then they are now.

This is all with no real way of knowing how much ridership the train will generate.

It’s a foregone conclusion the train will not be self supporting for its recurring operation, let alone recoup the non-recurring investment.  I’m not sure there’s an Amtrak run anywhere that can support itself.

I don’t know what kind of exposure the state has in this effort; there must be some, because bond issues have addressed rail transport, haven’t they?  And our local Senator, Stan Gerzofsky, has promoted “investment,” I hear.

While it’s a bit late for such an experiment, wouldn’t it have made sense to “pilot” the idea of twice daily “public mass transit” runs between Portland and Brunswick?  Wouldn’t this be a way to judge public demand and support for such services?

If this is such a good idea, a bus departing the Portland train station headed for Brunswick, with a stop in Freeport, and then returning, with two round trips per day, would provide a relatively low cost and immediate way to judge demand for this transit alternative.

No up front investment to speak of would be required; buses and drivers could be easily acquired; the transit times should be in the same ballpark as the train; and the fares could be far lower than the train will charge.  Or at the worst, for sake of realism, the same.

This could be up and running in a matter of weeks, providing a viable option for the fall tourist season and the holiday shopping period.  If this bus option couldn’t generate enough interest to make a go of it, what makes us think a train, likely at far greater expense and higher fares, will ‘fare’ better?

For that matter, why hasn’t some private concern established this exact route to up their profits?  I suppose the question answers itself.

The “romance of the rails” is one thing, but to think that alone will generate and sustain a critical mass of ridership for a 25 mile commuter run is a real stretch of the imagination.  Have you watched one of the Maine Eastern summer trains pass through town and counted heads in the windows?

But then that’s why we have government here to help us, I suppose.  And taxpayers in servitude to finance the help.

PS: while it might seem too late to try, it could still provide early benefits to Brunswick and Freeport economies if the demand is really there.  And if it isn’t, the losses could be cut before and if the train were to become an expensive failure and embarrassment.


  1. For those who have not seen my economic study I repeat. The cost to borrow the $38 million is $4.4 million per year at 2.91%. The cost of the 200 jobs promised at $27 per plus benefits is $14 million per year. If you factor a day for these workers is two round trips from Boston to Brunswick, the cost of the round trip from Brunswick to Portland is 1/5 or $2.8 million. The total cost of labor and capital is $7.2 million.

    I can show the cost to lease a compact car to compmmute from Brunswick to Portland 5 days a week 50 weeks per year including fuel and parking is $32 per day. Concord Trailways charges $20 for a round trip. If the train were to charge the same fare it would require over 1200 people, or about 8% of the population of Brunswick to commute to Portland every day of the week for a year.

  2. The amount of federal money, $38 million (borrowed at 2.91% for 10 years)requires an annual repayment of $4.4 million. The proportion of the cost of the claimed 200 new employees making $27 per hour plus benefits that can be attributed to the Brunswick to Portland extension of the railroad is $2.8 million per year. That is $7.2 million just for labor and capital cost.

    The present train from Brunswick to Rockland has 112 coach seats. To fill this train both ways twice a day and recover just the labor and capital would require a fare of $134 for a round trip.

    You can lease a car, pay for fuel and parking and commute to Portland for $32 per day. You can take a bus and end up in nearly the same place as the train for $20 round trip. If the train charged the same fare as the bus it would require over 1200 people, or 8% of the population of Brunswick to make a round trip every weekday for a year to cover the capital and labor cost.

    I hope this clears up why the private sector no longer provides rail transportation.