For the first time in four months, Downeaster trains returned to normal schedules Saturday, signaling what supporters hope will be a new era following the service’s dreadful performance over the past 15 months.
“The great New England passenger rail nightmare is over!” exclaimed TrainRiders/Northeast, a pro-rail citizen group, on its Facebook page.
A nightmare it was.
When the rail service’s books closed June 30, it reported an annual on-time performance of only 30 percent – less than half the Amtrak national average of 71 percent. In May, the Downeaster’s worst month, not a single train arrived on time. In June, fewer than 8 percent arrived on time. In addition, 13 percent of trains – 488 trains in all – never made it out of the station in fiscal year 2015 because their trips were canceled, mostly due to construction.
Two bridge repair projects in Massachusetts last spring and this year’s harsh winter caused numerous delays and cancellations, but most of the woes were due to a massive tie-replacement project that took months longer to complete than anticipated.
Passengers responded by finding other ways to travel. In all, the service had nearly 100,000 fewer riders than the 536,524 in the previous fiscal year, an 18.2 percent drop.
One former fan is Kristina Egan, who lives in Freeport and travels two to three days a week to Massachusetts.
Before the construction began, Egan rode the Downeaster all the time because she enjoys its smooth ride and roomy seats. But after missing several meetings in Massachusetts, she switched to the Concord Coach Lines bus.
“I can’t afford to miss an important meeting because I like the train better than the bus,” said Egan, who heads Transportation for Massachusetts, a group that advocates for transit funding.
Another is Anthony Zeli of Portland, a longtime fan of trains who now rides the Concord bus to Boston if he needs to get somewhere on time. The train, he said, is only suitable for a “lazy and enjoyable weekend trip.”
A CREDIBILITY PROBLEM
Winning back disgruntled rail passengers is now the goal for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster. Once touted as a national model for how regional rail lines should be operated, the service is in recovery mode. The rail authority plans to lure back passengers by stepping up its advertising efforts, which had been put on the shelf during the construction project, and launching promotional fares, such as a 25 percent discount for travel on the midday trains, which were the most disrupted by the construction.
In the end though, marketing specialists say, what matters to the public is performance.
Amtrak and the rail authority have a credibility problem, said Karen DeMitto of Portland, who depends on public transportation because she does not own a car.
She said Amtrak employees who staffed its toll-free line didn’t seem to know what was happening with the service whenever she called to ask if a train was running. She said rail authority officials, in communications with the public, consistently underestimated how long the construction project would last.
“It was always, ‘Maybe next week it will be fixed,’ ” she said. “I was trying to get to Brunswick for the last seven weeks. Every week they said next week might be better, but it wasn’t.”
Any time a transit agency is experiencing major problems, it needs to tell the public what the problems are, why they are occurring and when they will be fixed, said Kenneth Hitchner, a former spokesman for New Jersey Transit who now manages public relations for Creative Marketing Alliance, a firm in New Jersey.
“When you are selling a service, it’s always about managing expectations,” he said.
But the delays and cancellations are symptoms of a deeper problem, said Dennis Bailey, who owns a public relations firm in Portland. The entire Amtrak system is plagued with decaying infrastructure because of inadequate funding, said Bailey, who last year worked for a Brunswick group that opposed the rail authority’s plans to construct a layover facility in Brunswick.
“They are not going to spin their way out of it,” he said. “There are some real issues they are going to have to resolve to match their PR.”
It wasn’t always like this. For years, the Downeaster was seen as a model for expanding rail service elsewhere in the country. Its customer satisfaction rates, ridership growth and on-time performance were regularly among the highest in the Amtrak system.
The Downeaster’s woes began in April 2014, when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority began to rehabilitate three railroad bridges spanning the Merrimack River in Haverhill, including a bridge the Downeaster uses.
Then, in May of that year, rail inspectors determined that harsh winter weather and heavy snow melt had destabilized the ground under about 27 noncontiguous miles of track, mostly between Portland and the New Hampshire border. Because the Downeaster operates on a single track, trains were canceled or delayed to give the crews time to make repairs.
Last winter’s harsh weather caused numerous delays and cancellations. In February, a southbound train was stranded in a remote area of North Berwick because of an engine problem. The train eventually arrived in Boston more than six hours late.
The weather delays were compounded by a project to replace 30,000 rail ties on the 78-mile line that Pan Am Railways owns between Portland and the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border. The rail authority bought the ties for $2.3 million, and Pan Am paid for the equipment and labor to install them.
Pan Am replaced 8,000 ties last year. This year, however, the “tie gang” – the Pan Am crew that removes the old ties and replaces them with new ones – didn’t begin work until late May. The project was delayed by a number of factors. Some heavy equipment Pan Am needed for the project was delivered late by the manufacturer. Amtrak tried to send heavy equipment to Maine, but the shipment was delayed by an Amtrak derailment on May 12 in Philadelphia.
Now that the tie-replacement project is finished, the rail authority plans to increase its marketing effort. It has $520,000 to spend, including $40,000 carried over from last year’s budget.
The authority plans to use television, print and search-engine advertising. The message will be the same as in recent years, which is to highlight the “high quality, high value” experience of the rider, said Natalie Bogart, marketing director of the rail authority.
She said the authority won’t be talking about how it will overcome its recent poor on-time performance because a large segment of the target audience never rode the train before or encountered a problem.
“There are a lot of people who have been disrupted,” she said, “but a lot of people didn’t know anything happened.”
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail authority, said she’s confident she can get those who have abandoned the train to give it another chance.
“We are going to be more reliable than we have been in a long time,” she said. “It will take some time, but we will have to earn that reputation back.”
Promotions are a nice gesture, but passengers will return if they trust the service, said Wayne Davis, who heads TrainRiders/Northeast, which successfully lobbied the state in the early 1990s to establish the train service.
“I think just delivering people on time is the most important thing we can do,” he said.
Egan, who now rides the bus to Massachusetts, said she will be looking at the service’s performance carefully before deciding to take the train again.
“I need to see a couple of weeks of close-to-perfect performance and an explanation of why all the delays happened over this past year and how they are not going to happen over the next year,” she said.