Boston to Portland and Back on Amtrak’s Downeaster.

The Downeaster’s story is an interesting one … and it provides an object lesson for those of us advocating* more and better train travel across the U.S.

Back in the early 1990s, several citizen groups in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine began talking about the need for a train connecting Boston with a number of communities to the northeast, roughly along the Atlantic coast. The asked, then they pressed, then they started demanding and, eventually, the politicians took notice. Now this train operates several round-trips a day between Boston and Portland, Maine. And guess what? Using federal stimulus money, the route is being extended farther north in Maine to Freeport and Brunswick, with service scheduled to begin sometime this Fall.

I know I’ve written about this train here before, but until yesterday I had never had an opportunity to ride it myself.

I boarded train #681 at Boston’s North Station and we departed on time at 9:05. It was a typical Spring day – trees just starting to leaf out, temperatures crisp and in the high 50s, but sunshine taking the chill of nicely. For the next two-and-a-half hours we got a good look at New England as the Downeaster ran though a few mid-sized cities and a good many small towns and villages.

I’m not sure why, but I was a bit surprised that the train ran at what I assume was at or close to the maximum allowed of 79 mph along much of the way. It was a scenic ride, too, although in another few weeks, when trees along the tracks are fully leafed out, much of the scenery will be obscured.

There was one brief delay, but we arrived in Portland only a few minutes behind schedule. By the way, Portland has recently opened a new inter-modal transportation facility where passengers can literally step off the Downeaster and onto a bus to continue their journey to other points to the north and west.

After long and relaxed lunch with an old and dear school friend of mine – Peter Parnall, a well-known author and artist, specializing in wildlife illustrations and marvelous children’s stories – I was chauffeured back to the station and enjoyed the return trip to Boston.

* Please check out and consider becoming a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.