It was an all-too-typical experience of contemporary travel. Returning from a trip to the Midwest, our flight came into LaGuardia on time, but that was the end of our good luck.

Those who fly internationally often comment on the dismal state of New York’s airports, which contrast depressingly with the sleek new terminals through Europe and Asia. LaGuardia is so outdated it even lacks walkways between terminals. What we didn’t know is that LaGuardia shuts down for the night, so when our flight back to Maine was delayed, then cancelled, we were stuck.

The next available flight to Portland wasn’t due until 7 the next evening – 24 hours after its scheduled departure. There wasn’t even a rental car available, not that we relished the prospect of all-night driving.

Fortunately, we checked the Amtrak schedule and, lo and behold, there was a train to Boston leaving in the middle of the night. It connects to the first Downeaster back to Portland in the morning. The trains departed and arrived on schedule, almost to the minute. And so, three taxi rides later, we picked up our car at the airport and headed home.

What struck me about the experience was how, in a few decades, our expectations about air and train travel have been so thoroughly upended. Back then, the airlines still had a veneer of luxury, and airports were the sleekest examples of modern design and efficiency.

That was before deregulation and the airlines’ frustrating inability to balance fares and service led to the dramatic deterioration in quality of the whole experience of air travel.

Passenger trains, it was assumed, had long since been left in the dust of history, outmoded by our romance with the automobile and with the jetliner, for more distant locations.

This scheme ignored a few realities, however. Highways became incredibly congested. And while flying from New York to Los Angeles makes sense, the overuse of airplanes for 300- and 400-mile trips has made airports as congested as interstate highways.

It’s hard to believe that millions of Americans make two-hour commutes by car, each way, at average speeds of 10-15 miles per hour, but they do.

That’s the context in which we should view the extension of the Downeaster trains to Brunswick, a modest $35 million project funded by federal stimulus funds. Construction begins this month and should be finished sometime in 2012.

Trains faced a skeptical audience among Mainers when Sen. George Mitchell obtained funding for the Downeaster way back in 1994. It took until 2001 to get the trains running, and the extension to Freeport and Brunwswick – discussed for years – took an economic emergency to bring about.

No matter. The return of passenger trains is now well established. Combined with dramatically improved bus service as far north as Bangor, Maine is now a place people can get around without driving, an almost incalculable advantage as we begin the age of energy scarcity and increasing constraints on sprawl.

Soon, it will be possible to get on a train at North Station in Boston, and a few hours later be touring the Rockland waterfront. The Maine Eastern Railroad, which has been running successful excursion trains from Brunswick through Bath and Wiscasset to Rockland, has been waiting for the chance to restore year-round service.

The typical tourist (and visitor) 30 years ago was a family with kids. Today, it’s more likely to be a retired or older couple or individual, none of whom especially wants to fight traffic while heading out on vacation or on business. The soaring popularity of cruise ships should give us a hint as to the potential market for train travel, too.

Not that just any train will do. The Downeaster has become a staple for business travelers, students and airline refugees because it does run on time. It’s roomy, clean, and food is available anytime you want. There were many who said no one would ride the train; instead it has exceeded expectations.

And in a time of fiscal scarcity, trains are a bargain. There’s a much higher return on investment than on road construction, so it makes sense to continue the balanced approach represented by the bond issue approved in June that should save freight service in northern Maine, and get things started on an extension of passenger service to Lewiston-Auburn.

The mystery isn’t why passenger trains have now returned to Maine. It’s why they left in the first place.


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