2012-02-17 / Commentary

Downeaster ridership easily exceeds expectations

LOCAL COMMENTARY
BY PAULA BOYER ROUGNY

When the grassroots citizens’ group Trainriders/ Northeast formed with the idea of once again providing the state with passenger rail service, Maine was one of only three states that did not have Amtrak. The other two were Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The group’s first goal was to return service between Boston and Portland. Further steps included extension of the line to Freeport, Brunswick, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor and, via branch lines, to other towns that also once enjoyed having trains stop and people step off. This would include such destinations as Belfast, Greenville, Orono and Trenton — the latter for ferry or bus shuttle to Mt. Desert Island.

Though the first goal took 13 years to realize due to political opposition by interests that favored widening and extending highways, which they hoped would add more vehicular traffic, the inaugural train cruised up the coast, over the Scarborough salt marshes and into Portland in 2001.

The FRA predicted that 178,000 people per year would ride the train.

They were wrong. Today sees 500,000 citizens per year taking the Downeaster train between Boston and Portland and stops in between. Last month alone saw a ridership that was 8.4 percent higher than January of the previous year, and that was higher than all the Januarys before that.

I cite the above figures because I disagree with Joe Ciarrocca’s local commentary, “ Question ( Rail) authority,” which was published Feb. 3, and the many misconstrued and inaccurate ideas he puts forth.

It is ridiculous to compare industrial era ruins in Pennsylvania to the yet-to-be-designed layover facility in Brunswick. The industrial revolution was an era that grew, thrived and died. Its ruins exist from coast to coast, and while some of them remain ghostly remnants of yesteryear, others have been turned into handsome condos and office buildings with street level shops. But it has nothing to do with a layover facility here or anyplace else.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) created the Citizens Advisory Committee so that homeowners who live near the tracks could participate in decisions about design of the layover facility. The group is free to discuss and advise NNEPRA in what it deems appropriate and attractive.

I regret that an earlier group of neighbors filmed the wall of Bath Iron Works rising from the sidewalk of Bath’s Washington Street as an example of what the new layover facility in Brunswick will look like. The wall in Bath is six stories high. The layover site already includes trees that are taller than it will be.

As for its length, it will be fleasized compared to the wall in Bath, which was built to enclose battleships the size of entire suburbs.

Tracks in the layover building area have been zoned as a rail yard since the 19th century. The neighborhood has seen freight trains and idling, now obsolete, locomotives for all that time. It featured passenger trains until the early 1960s, when vested petroleum interests, represented by the military-industrial- Saudi Arabian complex won its war to demolish trolleys, light rail and long-distance rail because transit was used only by the people and got in the way of making the moguls richer sooner.

People who live next to the tracks knew when they bought their homes they were buying next to a firmly established, strictly zoned, rail yard that was not going to go away.

Just last spring, during the weeks when many miles of track in the Atlantic and New England states were inundated by floodwaters, freight trains were backed up as far north as Brunswick. The Brunswick rail yard brimmed with freight cars and idling engines. No one complained.

The engines now used by the Downeaster, which will begin stopping in Brunswick later this year, are the least polluting ones available at the time they were ordered.

A new generation of engines is about to come out, and in the end America will catch up with the mind-boggling rail tech now employed in countries in Europe and Asia, where trains skim over the countryside at up to 230 miles per hour (though usually cruising at 150 or 160) with such sleek silence that if you don’t look up you miss them.

Mr. Cairrocca’s most ludicrous statement was that “shock effect” from “this” (a building?) may be “a form of violence.”

Violence?

He suggests human brutality? Death?

We have wars and criminal activity for that. We have road rage and traffic accidents that kill 40,000 Americans per year. If that many deaths were caused by the railways or airways, the citizenry would be up in arms.

We accept 40,000 yearly deaths on roads, along with the air and ground water pollution it causes and the lost work hours that take their toll in many millions of dollars. We accept illnesses that often lead to chronic medical conditions. It’s all we know.

Public transit no longer exists except in large cities, and workplaces, schools and shopping centers beckon several miles from our Main Streets. They must be located where they are so we have room to park our vehicles.

Passenger rail service is here to stay. It means we will once more have another mode of travel to the two we’ve been living with for more than half a century, which is fly, drive, or stay home.

Finally, I grant Mr. Ciarrocca his opinion that the “train project” will fail in five to seven years. This is what a handful of pundits predicted in the 1990s, when they crowed that people would ride the Downeaster once for novelty and never again, and when other, private citizens let it be known that if they wanted to go to Boston they’d drive.

Well, guess what?

Paula Boyer Rougny lives in Brunswick.

letters@timesrecord.com

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