The Downeaster makes its way south in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald


With summer full-steam ahead and pandemic restrictions easing, the Downeaster Boston-to-Brunswick passenger rail service is steadily inching toward pre-pandemic norms.

According to Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn, ridership for June 2021 will exceed 25,000 passengers. For comparison, June 2020 — a summer season hobbled by the pandemic — saw just 768 riders, a sharp decrease from the 48,284 riders in June of 2019.

“We’ve come back a long way,” Quinn said. “We’re at 54% of where we were and are very confident that we’re going to have a good summer and be in good shape going into the fall.”

In May 2020, the train halted service and reported zero riders for the first time in history to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ “Stay Safer at Home” COVID-19 executive order. Beginning in July 2020, the train offered four round trips from Brunswick to Boston, and in early May of 2021 the Downeaster restored the pre-pandemic norm of five daily round trips.

According to Quinn, between 75-80% of riders are traveling to or from Boston.

There are currently no travel restrictions in place that impact the Downeaster, and capacity limits have been lifted. Masks are still required on-board the train and at the station, in accordance with federal guidance. Vaccination for employees and passengers is not required, but encouraged.

According to Quinn, one of the last barriers to reaching pre-pandemic ridership numbers is retaining the working commuters, which has not rebounded to the same degree, possibly because of remote jobs.

“Pre-pandemic we had a strong base of people that took the train to go to work every day,” Quinn said. “That’s decreased significantly, so the everyday Boston worker, that market has not come back.”

Quinn said that the current ridership is a mixed group of those traveling for recreation, visiting friends and family or for medical and business appointments.

A Downeaster train pulls into Saco. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Associated Press file photo

Speaking at the Brunswick station on Thursday waiting for the 10:15 a.m. train, New Jersey resident Frank Forte said he typically travels to Brunswick about once a year for leisure.

“Of course last year with all the restrictions and everything I couldn’t do it, because you needed a negative COVID test within a certain amount of time and it didn’t line up,” Forte said. “It’s not a drive that we want to make from New Jersey through all the big cities and everything, but you sit on the train and next thing you know you’re in Brunswick.”

Going forward, Quinn said that, while ridership is almost impossible to predict given the pandemic, she hopes that in a year from now the train will see near 2019 level ridership.

“We’re trying to remain optimistic and expect that ridership will continue to grow and increase,” Quinn said, noting that marketing efforts have increased in the last few months.

According to Tom Barter of the Brunswick Downtown Association, the increased ridership has expectedly translated to more traffic at the Brunswick Visitor Center.

“It’s been very dramatic in the last three weeks or so,” Barter said. “We are always looking for additional volunteers if people are interested.”

The visitor center is currently open seven days-a-week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. According to Barter, the center is considering expanding hours due to traffic as well as a new, 10:15 a.m. train added to the schedule in May.


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