Enough already! Is railroad history at Brunswick about to repeat itself at Lewiston-Auburn? Both cities have joined Maine Department of Transportation in funding a $500,000 study of a potential passenger-service extension from Portland, as was done with Amtrak’s Downeaster route to Brunswick in November 2012. Legislative enablers evidently hope the hired consultants will find a way to tell passenger-rail romantics what they fervently want to hear — that a similar add-on to serve those twin communities is worthy of consideration.

Vocal advocates of passenger rail cite three-plus years of experience with Freeport and Brunswick as evidence of feasibility, but facts belie the glowing rhetoric and suggest a fool’s mission. That experiment exemplifies extravagance at public expense, succeeding only in committing large sums for capital improvements and requiring ongoing federal and state subsidy to benefit embarrassingly few patrons.

Almost anything is feasible at some cost.

The reality is that all three functions served by the current route — metropolitan commutation (Boston-Dover), inter-city service (Boston-Portland), and longer distance travel (Boston-Brunswick) — have been in decline since a reported peak in the fiscal year ended June 2012.

According to top 25 station-pair data provided by oversight agency Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, traffic within the commuting zone fell by 12.5 percent from 2012 through 2014 and inter-city Boston-Portland ridership by 22.3 percent. All Maine stations were essentially even, but only because of passengers added at Freeport-Brunswick, some of whom no doubt were diverted from Portland.

Data for fiscal 2015 are excluded because patronage was seriously affected by trip cancellations due to programmed track maintenance, but they remain consistent in one respect. The top 10 station pairs involved Boston origins or destinations, six of which were Maine points, and represented 80.8 percent of all trips. Portland accounted for one of the top 10, seven of the top 25 and 27.5 percent of all trips, but only 4.4 percent to or from stops other than Boston.

Legislatively charged with implementing rail passenger service in Maine, NNEPRA has been very successful in securing federal funds for capital improvements and operational support. It has been spectacularly unsuccessful with the Brunswick extension from a cost-benefit standpoint, however, so far committing more than $70 million of investment and additional annual subsidy for two daily round-trip trains rarely carrying more than a busload of passengers, even at bargain fares.

The private automobile is a tough competitor; it’s available on demand, not just two or three times daily, and can stop and go virtually anywhere.

In its best year, fiscal 2014, daily Downeaster ridership north of Portland averaged 20 at Freeport and 65 at Brunswick, or five and 16 per train, respectively. Demand is insufficient to warrant an extra 56-mile round trip for far less than a busload of passengers, especially when incremental ticket revenue is only $2.

NNEPRA’s proposed remedy is to schedule more trips when existing ridership can’t even justify running full-length trains at prime times for the Boston market. Moreover, newly instituted motor-coach services appear likely to erode rail market share on routes from Maine to Boston and New York.

Lewiston-Auburn consultants should be able to reach a meaningful conclusion well before pocketing $500,000. Rather than spending time defining construction and upgrading costs, they should first focus on the existence of viable market demand. What evidence is there that circumstances at L-A differ significantly from those at Brunswick? Which trips to and from Boston would serve L-A versus Brunswick? How could extra cost of equipment and crews to split trains at Portland possibly be justified?

The “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a train crowd” needs to come up with more than nostalgic pipe dreams for gullible legislators willing to gamble with public funds. One local political aspirant even talks foolishly about “high-speed rail,” as though L-A is comparable to the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington.

Get real, folks. Where excellent inter-city bus service is available and expanding, there’s no justification for less frequent, less flexible and less financially feasible rail competition at substantial taxpayer expense. Passenger rail is mass transportation, but Maine simply lacks sufficient mass.

This fanciful boondoggle should be at the top of the governor’s hit list for waste, fraud and abuse.

George Betke Jr. is president of Transport Economics Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.


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