Monday, March 16, 2015

Betke on Brunswick Benefit Bubble to Downeaster….(or not)


Readers may recall that last summer, we ran a guest column from George Betke, a transportation professional who lives up the coast in Maine.

You can find it here, with a few other related items:

Turns out that this past Friday, March 13th, Mr. Betke had a commentary run in the local paper.  We’re posting it here for your edification.  And for TRNE’s, the BDA’s, AAB’s, etc.  Truth and enlightenment seekers all, we’re sure.

‘Downeaster’ environmental controversy obscures larger issue


I comment as a railroad professional on the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s proposal to construct a 52,000- square-foot maintenance and layover facility in Brunswick. I have no knowledge of groundwater science, but am concerned about wasteful expenditure of public funds that fails to reflect sound long-term transportation planning.

Amtrak “Downeaster” service was extended to Brunswick in November 2012 on a “build it and they will come” premise. The inescapable conclusion from experience to date is that the train’s ridership at Brunswick and Freeport has been largely diverted from Portland, with negligible net gain.

Over the past three fiscal years ending last June, reported traffic declined at every original Maine station: 9 percent at Wells; 4.6 percent at Saco- Biddeford; 3.3 percent at Old Orchard Beach; and 16.9 percent at Portland. Overall state growth of 1.2 percent was entirely due to the addition of Freeport-Brunswick service, but comparative monthly averages for fiscal 2013-14 reveal startling declines of 34.4 percent at Freeport and 26.4 percent at Brunswick. (Brunswick traffic in calendar 2014 was 9.4 percent below the preceding full year.)

The inconvenient truths are that (1) the “Downeaster’s” nominal growth in Maine stems solely from the Brunswick extension, but largely at the expense of Portland, (2) the novelty effect of that addition seems to have run its course, and (3) the tri-state route’s overall gain is attributable to passengers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for whom Maine foots the bill. Since greater outreach would further dilute ridership and revenue per mile operated, Amtrak service beyond Brunswick inevitably would increase that subsidy need disproportionately.

Brunswick is not an appealing terminal location because of its awkward highway access and limited parking. Why should it be expected to become an important gathering point for train riders when it never has supported more than a rudimentary bus schedule? Rail service north of Portland should terminate where extensive park-and-ride capacity is available, not in downtown Brunswick.

Amtrak’s Brunswick presence has set a financial trap identical to that in Vermont, where nearly empty trains of locomotivehauled passenger cars run to and from St. Albans, just as they someday might to Lewiston- Auburn, Augusta and Bangor. Brunswick should not be the end of the line for the type of intercity equipment used by Amtrak. Just as smaller aircraft serve less populated markets, so are more appropriate railcars available for light-density intrastate routes like Brunswick and beyond.

Rail services radiating from metropolitan areas start with a morning trip to the city and conclude with an evening return. The end of the line is the logical place for trains to be cleaned, fueled and restocked, all of which can be performed overnight but not necessarily under cover. The only defensible reason for an outsized structure in Brunswick must be an intended use for more than routine layover purposes- heavy maintenance of equipment types used throughout the Amtrak network.

Simplistic claims that trains are more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient than motor vehicles are demonstrable only in mass markets. A “Downeaster” locomotive burns nearly four gallons of diesel per mile versus less than one-twentieth of a gallon for modern gasoline-powered automobiles. ( The train consumes over 25 gallons an hour when merely idling.) Similarly, the carbon particulates it emits are equivalent to many more automobiles than average riders on trains north of Portland. The train actually is an environmental detriment unless it is reasonably well patronized.

The proposed maintenance facility represents empire-building extravagance at its worst. Public transportation at Brunswick can most effectively be provided by a more flexible bus route or more economical, less polluting self-propelled rail vehicles that do not require such an extensive layover facility, wherever the future end of the line may prove to be. Local controversy over the proposed structure is an expensive distraction from a more fundamental issue of transportation policy.


George C. Betke Jr. is president of Transport Economics Inc. in Newcastle.

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