Bus, train service thrive side-by-side in Maine


PORTLAND (AP) – When rail advocates were lobbying for an Amtrak train from Portland to Boston a decade ago, skeptics asked if bus service would kill the train, or if trains would kill the bus.

Now, 4 years after the Downeaster Amtrak train began service, demand for both the train and Concord Trailways buses is surging. So many people are using the trains and buses that the parking lot at the Portland Transportation Center is filled to its 750-vehicle capacity on most days.

Ridership on Concord Trailways in Maine is expected to reach 400,000 passengers this year, a 54 percent increase since 2003. Train ridership rose to more than 293,000 passengers last year, up from 248,000 in 2004.

Not long ago, critics warned that motorists would resist giving up the freedom of the open highway for the fixed schedules of public transportation.

Harry Blunt, who owns Concord Trailways, said he has seen a cultural shift. Public transportation between Boston and Portland, he said, has become acceptable to the public.

“It’s become a common practice,” he said. “Between us and the train, there are 600,000 people who are using public transportation. That wasn’t there a decade ago.”

When Concord Trailways first came to Portland in 1992, it had four trips a day to Boston. Now it has 21 trips a day, nine that go to Logan Airport and 12 to South Station.

Bus terminals traditionally have been gritty, urban hangouts in downtown locations, serving people who don’t have cars.

Blunt’s business plan is to attract middle-class suburban residents who own cars. Instead of putting the Portland station downtown, he wanted it near the highway with lots of parking.

The Portland terminal – which Concord Trailways shares with Amtrak – is clean, well-lit and safe, like a small airport terminal. Bus riders get pretzels, bottled water and headsets for listening to music or the movies that play on video monitors.

Blunt tells his employees that the business and stations must pass a “mother-daughter test.”

“Are you comfortable,” he asks his workers, “having your mother or your daughter use that service or use the facilities?”

A decade ago, few would have predicted that both train and bus service would prosper, said Charles Colgan, a University of Southern Maine economist who has studied transportation issues. But the region has experienced enough growth to support both modes of transportation, he said.

“Nobody would have predicted that the bus and rail would both survive and thrive,” he said.

The bus service also has benefited from rising gasoline prices, Blunt said. In terms of passenger-miles-traveled, buses are far more efficient than cars and even the train, he said.

Higher fuel prices don’t have a major impact on operating costs, but they cause more people to take the bus, he said.

The round-trip fare from Portland to Boston is $32.75 or $29 for a same-day return. The parking fee at the Portland Transportation Center is $3 a day.