Following Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement on March 5, the Downeaster passenger rail line will now be able to offer rides to residents of Massachusetts coming to Maine without state-mandated COVID-19 testing or quarantine requirements.

Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn said that the combination of travel restrictions and the lack of demand from work commuters, college students and recreational riders has shrunk ridership significantly.

Quinn said the Downeaster, which runs from Brunswick to Boston, with additional stops in southern Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, is currently transporting 15% of the riders they were prior to the pandemic, or roughly 300 passengers a day as opposed to the average 1600 passengers that typically ride this time of year.

“Now that things are coming back, and there’s demand coming back, we are hopeful and we expect that ridership is going to rebound and return,” Quinn said, noting that 85% of the Downeaster’s riders traditionally have been traveling to or from Boston.

Maine residents looking to travel to Boston, however, are still subject to Massachusetts state travel restrictions.

In January 2021, the Downeaster only had 4,447 passengers, almost 10 times less compared to the January 2020 number of 42,431.

Quinn said that while the increase will likely be gradual, she is optimistic that come summertime there will be “several times the ridership that we have right now.”

As part of the “Moving Maine Forward” plan, Mills announced that residents of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are now, like New Hampshire and Vermont, permitted to travel to Maine without having to quarantine or provide negative test results.

The plan also allows those who are fully vaccinated or have had COVID-19 in the last 90 days to travel restriction-free to Maine and aims to allow all states restriction-free travel by May 1, unless otherwise determined by the Maine Center for Disease Control.

For a period between April and June of 2020, the Downeaster temporarily suspended operations to meet Mills’ “Stay Safer at Home,” COVID-19 executive order.

Currently, the train offer fours round trips a day, instead of the five trips that were offered before the pandemic.

Quinn said that in May the Downeaster will likely have slight schedule change to better accommodate people that are going down for evening events in Boston. “We are considering the potential of adding back a fifth-round trip, but that will really be based on ridership,” Quinn said.

Before the pandemic, Downeaster officials were looking to expand service to Rockland, however “that has been put on pause” as a result of virus, Quinn said.

According to Brunswick Downtown Association Director Deborah King, the Brunswick Visitors Center continues to operate seven days a week, and while there are less visitors now, they too expect more people to be traveling with the relaxed restrictions.

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