Federal funds pave way for Downeaster improvements
As originally appearing in Morning Sentinel (Waterville, ME)

By Ann S. Kim
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Improvements are in store that should shave time from the Amtrak Downeaster run from Portland to Boston, thanks in part to Florida’s refusal of federal high-speed rail money.

The federal Department of Transportation awarded $20.8 million to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority for a project to reduce congestion on the Portland-to-Boston service. Twenty-two projects were awarded a total of $2 billion on funding Monday, using money that Florida Gov. Rick Scott had rejected. Ninety-eight applications were submitted, requesting more than $10 billion in funds, after Florida’s money became available.

“Competition for this funding was tough,” Patricia Quinn, executive director of the rail service, said in a statement. “NNEPRA is grateful to the Federal Railroad Administration for recognizing the importance of the Downeaster to Maine and our region by continuing to invest in our service.”

The Downeaster project will create 10.4 miles of double track between Wilmington and Andover, Mass. The area is part of the 38 miles in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s right of way. The MBTA line accounts for nearly 65 percent of delay minutes for the Downeaster.

The rail authority expects the alleviation of a bottleneck in that area will create more flexibility in scheduling and help eventually add another round-trip to the five now in operation.

Ten Downeaster trains now share the stretch of single track with 26 MBTA commuter trains and several Pan Am Railway freight trains.

One of the Downeaster trains must move in reverse after occupying one spot on the single track, a maneuver that causes a delay of at least three to five minutes. One-way trips between Portland and Boston’s North Station are scheduled to take either two hours and 30 minutes or two hours and 25 minutes.

Double-tracking the Downeaster line is an important goal for TrainRiders/Northeast, a non-profit volunteer group that advocates for passenger rail in Northern New England. The 116-mile line consists almost entirely of single track, said Board Chairman Wayne Davis.

Davis said the creation of 10.4 miles of double track will allow trains to speed up and provide a way for them to pass one another. Delays in the schedule generally stem from trains missing a small window in congested areas, he said.

“This is a good, good thing to have happen. It puts us on the way to accomplishing the rest of our goals,” he said.

Davis noted that the addition of a double track in Dover, N.H., helped establish the fifth round-trip in 2007. He hopes the project will fill holes in the schedule. There’s no train out of Portland between 2:35 and 7:55 p.m on weekdays and none between 3 and 8 p.m. on the weekend. There are no trains out of Boston from about 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on any day.

In February, Scott, the Florida governor, turned away $2.4 billion that had been awarded to his state for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. He expressed concerns about state taxpayers being responsible for capital cost overruns of up to $3 billion, ridership projections and money Florida would owe the federal government if the service was shut down.

The following month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood invited other states to apply for the money. The 98 applications came in from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak.

Nearly $850 million was awarded to projects in New England, a development praised by the New England Council, an alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions and other organizations. The group said the region would benefit from better connections between economic centers in the Northeast.

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