Southern Rail Commission Executive Committee rides two of the Northeast Corridor's most effective rail routes to learn from their successes

John Spain, left, John Robert Smith, Dick Hall, Knox Ross, Joe McHugh, an Amtrak employee, Greg White, a second Amtrak employee and Bill Hollister pose outside an Amtrak train during the trip. John Spain, Knox Ross and Greg White are members of the Southern Rail Commission’s executive committee, Dick Hall is the Mississippi Central District Transportation Commissioner, and Joe McHugh and Bill Hollister are with Amtrak.

John Spain, left, John Robert Smith, Dick Hall, Knox Ross, Joe McHugh, an Amtrak employee, Greg White, a second Amtrak employee and Bill Hollister pose outside an Amtrak train during the trip. John Spain, Knox Ross and Greg White are members of the Southern Rail Commission’s executive committee, Dick Hall is the Mississippi Central District Transportation Commissioner, and Joe McHugh and Bill Hollister are with Amtrak.

By: Knox Ross, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission

The Executive Committee of the Southern Rail Commission, along with John Robert Smith of Transportation for America and Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, met in Boston on May 24 with Bill Hollister and Joe McHugh of Amtrak to ride and inspect the route of the Downeaster service from North Station, Boston, to Portland, Maine.  This trip was coordinated by Amtrak and Transportation for America to assist the Southern Rail Commission in better understanding the implementation and operation of multi state supported passenger rail services.

This service is provided as a partnership between Amtrak and the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine and is operated by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), headed by Patricia Quinn.

The Downeaster is a service with 5 round trips daily between Boston and Portland, with 2 round trips daily between Portland and Brunswick, Maine, with plans in place to expand this service to 5 days per week, as well.  It serves 143 miles with 11 full time stations, one seasonal station, and 3 sets of equipment.

The stations for the most part are manned with local volunteers, with the exception of the Portland terminal and North Station, Boston.  Each city is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of its station.  Portland has a cooperative agreement with a bus provider.  Most of the stations are well kept, and have a city or chamber representative on site to welcome passengers to the city and assist them with any issues they may have.  This appeared to be an important part of the success of the service, with the local communities, and the University of New Hampshire, with a stop on its campus, recognizing the benefit and opportunity of rail service in their communities.

The service itself began in 2001, and has seen steady increases in traffic.  From 262,000 in FY 2004 to 537,000 in FY 14.  Amtrak serves as the operations manager of the service, and negotiates the operating agreements with the host railroads, while NNEPRA serves as the business manager.  This allows NNEPRA to focus on passenger services instead of railroad operations, which appears to greatly enhance the effectiveness of the service.

The State of Maine is the principal funding source of the service, with New Hampshire providing some capital investment at the outset and Massachusetts providing station facilities at no cost via the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA).  The beginning of the Downeaster is unique in that Congress directed Amtrak to provide surplus equipment to start the service at no cost, and authorized the State of Maine to utilize Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds to offset operating deficits, something that few other states have the authorization to do.  Maine further allocated a Multimodal Account to the operation of the Downeaster funded by taxes on aviation fuel, railroad fuel, and car rentals to make up any further match requirements and provide for some capital funding.  Thus, no general fund amounts are used in the operation, which protects it from the vagaries of the legislative process.  The train is also the beneficiary of a recently established Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in Portland, which is allowing fewer CMAQ funds to be required.

The NNEPRA has taken a unique approach in the operation of the train, in that they are the only Amtrak train to provide independently contracted food service.  This allows them to charge less for on board food and drink, while maintaining a similar net cost structure to traditional Amtrak services.  It also allows them to have a more regional flavor in their offerings, with many cross marketing opportunities for locally sourced items.

The NNEPRA board is appointed by the State of Maine, since they are the primary funder of the service.  The management of the train reports to this board.  The online communities meet bi-monthly to discuss opportunities and operation of their stations.  They also contribute ideas for marketing efforts, such as discounted tickets for college students, multi-ride passes, senior citizen passes, cancer patient passes, and children’s groups.  Amtrak has indicated that they would be open to similar proposals on our routes.  Marketing and promotion is driven by NNEPRA staff with heavy input from the online communities.

The capital investment has been heavily federal in nature, $146 million to date.  They have utilized ARRA, FRA, and CMAQ funds as well as a state bond fund. 

The service also benefits from an active advocacy group, Trainriders Northeast, headed by Wayne Davis.  Mr. Davis, together with his volunteer board provides political advocacy and volunteers to staff stations and provide guides on trains to help market local attractions.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Local Buy-in. The Local communities understand the benefit of train service and provide resources to support it.  Local chambers and development organizations are staffing the stations and making sure they are a good representation of their community.  They work closely with each other and NNERPA to make sure the service is successful.  We saw the direct result of this at Dover, NH on the campus of the University of New Hampshire and at Saco, Maine with a great deal of transit oriented development.
  2. Dedicated Management. There is no substitute for having someone “minding the store”.  Patricia Quinn is a tireless advocate and has a hospitality management background, which is crucial to communicate the understanding that they are not running a railroad, they are providing a passenger service. 
  3. Non-Budget Funding. Having dedicated sources of funding both federal and state give the service more permanency and insulate it from the political process, allowing the management to concentrate their efforts on growing the service.
  4. Maine wanted it and is willing to pay for it. Maine is providing the bulk of the funding and did not wait on other states to join in.  They felt it was important enough to their economy to support and not be as concerned about who is paying for what.
  5. Organized local support. Having an organization like Trainriders Northeast has been critical in both the establishment and maintenance of the service.  Providing both political and volunteer support.

Vermonter Service and the Vermont Department of Transportation

Amtrak in cooperation with Transportation for America arranged for our group to meet with Chris Cole, Deputy Secretary of the Vermont Department of Transportation (VDOT), and his staff to discuss their experience in funding the two Amtrak trains which serve Vermont, the Ethan Allen Express, and the Vermonter. 

Mr. Cole noted that Vermont has a long history of state involvement with railroads, beginning with the state purchase of the Rutland Railroad in 1964.  Railroads are seen as an integral part of the Vermont economy and enjoy wide public support.  Vermont sees these services as environmentally friendly and as a way to assist with keeping its highway infrastructure in better repair by reducing highway miles traveled.

The Vermonter runs from St. Albans near the Canadian border through Burlington and Montpelier to Brattleboro in the south continuing through Massachusetts and Connecticut before terminating in New York City.  The Ethan Allen serves Rutland in the middle of the state, with the majority of this service in New York State and terminating in Washington, DC.  Each train runs seven days a week with one stop in each direction. 

Annual ridership has grown from 87,000 passengers on both services in 2005 to 142,000 passengers in 2014, with the Vermonter growing from 50,000 to 90,000 passengers in this time period.

The state of Vermont pays for its share of the operating deficit out of general fund revenues.  In the most recent budget year, $7.8 million was budgeted for the service.  However, recent experience has shown that actual outlays are less given the increased ridership.  The cost is divided between the states on a train mile basis with an additional agreement with Amtrak for the use of the Northeast Corridor.   Amtrak negotiates the agreements with the host railroads, which allows for a comprehensive agreement for the route, however, this prevents the individual states from negotiating any concessions from the host railroads. Amtrak also provides all operational personnel and support for the operation. 

For marketing the services, the states participating provide $130,000 in marketing funding for the services, with $65,000 paid directly to Amtrak to support national marketing efforts and $75,000 to support direct marketing efforts.  Vermont also provides $50,000 in marketing for Vermont focused efforts.  Vermont also makes sure Vermont sourced products are served on the train.  All states involved have negotiated special fares with Amtrak, focusing on colleges and universities on the route, as well as intrastate travel. 

VDOT has utilized various federal programs to assist in capital improvements along the line, including ARRA, Tiger, and FHWA.  However, unlike the Maine service, Vermont is unable to utilize CMAQ funds for operations.  However, as most of the Vermont trackage is state owned, VDOT can utilize FEMA and other federal agencies for capital assistance, and have more control over the improvements made that benefit passenger rail service.

VDOT maintains an advisory council to advise the Secretary of Transportation and they meet quarterly to review the current status of the service and what can be done to improve it.  VDOT has recently budgeted for a full time manager of Amtrak services in the state, which it has not had previously.  This person will be responsible solely for these services and managing the state's investment.  Vermont also has an active rail advocacy group, the Vermont Rail Action Network, which serves as an effective political and grass roots support organization.  We had the opportunity to meet with Chris Parker, the Executive Director of the organization, on board the Vermonter.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Vermont has a long history of support for both freight and passenger rail, along with support for environmental protection. This allows the state to support the provision of passenger rail service without great annual public debate, and plan for future expansion of services, such as the Ethan Allen from Rutland to Burlington, without concern for fluctuations in financial support.
  2. Vermont recognizes the need for direct management of passenger services in the state. We noted that the "front door" appearance of stations and community involvement did not match what we observed in Maine.  VDOT recognizes this and has budgeted for this position which will be responsible for managing Vermont's passenger operations, marketing efforts, and community relations.  This position will also establish performance metrics and operations standards which will be monitored daily.
  3. Vermont does not have the power to negotiate with the host railroads under the current contract with Amtrak. VDOT noted that this prevented them from obtaining additional concessions or better arrangements from the host railroads.
  4. Section 209 of PRIIA, while requiring additional state support, has made it more difficult for states to enter into cooperative agreements with each other.  Each state is doing what is best for it, not necessarily what is best for the service as a whole.
  5. Limited ability to use CMAQ  and other funding sources for operations. Allowing this would free up resources for expanded service and needed station improvements.
  6. Similarity of needs and interest of Vermont and SRC states. Both states are primarily rural and face many of the same transportation issues. Great potential exists for us to form partnerships to improve transportation funding and operation in all of our states.
  7. Existence of an effective grass roots advocacy group. Vermont Rail Action Network actively supports both freight and passenger rail in Vermont and serves to bolster public support and usage. This was a common theme in Maine and Vermont.

Click here to read more about the trip on the Transportation for America blog.