Take the Train to Maine
Whether you ride it everyday or only once a summer, the Downeaster is a great way to enter Maine.
Seven years ago Bob Rasche wanted to retire to Maine, but he didn't want to give up his job at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the meantime. He and his wife built their dream home in Wells, and Rasche tried driving the seventy-seven miles to Cambridge every day. Then he rode a bus from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a while. In 2002 he boarded the Downeaster, the passenger train that connects southern Maine and Boston. He's been traveling the train ever since."I find the Downeaster just about ideal for me," Rasche explains. "I board at Wells, go to the café car and buy my breakfast, take it back to my seat, and plug my laptop into the electrical outlet below the window." With Mozart on his headphones and work involving high-performance instruments and optics for satellites on his computer, Rasche says the two-hour ride into Boston's North Station passes almost too quickly.
Rasche, 71, is one of a small but growing number of southern Maine residents who find that they can enjoy life at or near retirement age in Maine while keeping in touch with their former lives and jobs in the Boston area. "The train offers a new form of empowerment," observes Cape Porpoise resident Bill Lord, who commutes to his teaching job at Boston University three days a week on the Downeaster. "I can live in Maine where I want to live and work in Boston. I would get very tired very quickly of driving back and forth or taking the bus."
If the numbers are any indication, more people than ever are discovering the train's convenience, particularly within the past year. "Ridership has been phenomenal," notes Patricia Douglas, who became executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority in September after serving as marketing and public relations director. "July through October ridership in 2005 was 114,000 people, 30 percent higher than the same period in 2004. It has even been higher than it was in 2002, the first year of operation, and people told me when I took this job that we would never break those figures."
About a third of those riders get on and off in New Hampshire, a fact that persuaded Granite State officials, long skeptical of the train's usefulness, to allocate $1.6 million for a side track near Dover, New Hampshire, that will allow the Downeaster to add a fifth daily trip. Settlement of a longstanding dispute with a New Hampshire bus service owner also helped, and the two transportation systems now have an agreement that allows bus and train riders to buy dual-use tickets.
Rasche says he's typical of a growing number of highly skilled professionals who can enjoy life in Maine while staying in touch with their offices in the Boston or Route 128 area. "There's a woman who works in information technology at Northeastern University," he explains. "There's a gentleman who uses his laptop and headphones to compose music for a boys choir on his way to a job as a business analyst. Another man is a programmer. All sorts of people."
Like Rasche, Bill Lord has ridden the Downeaster since service began in 2002. Before that, he rented an apartment in Boston and came up to Maine on weekends. "I saved $20,000 a year by not living in Boston," he points out. "Sure, I spend up to six hours commuting door-to-door some days, but those hours on the Downeaster are very productive. I can correct papers, read, chat with other riders."
Ridership in September spiked 48 percent over the previous year. Lord credits soaring gasoline prices for the rise. "Many people didn't realize the Downeaster was here until they needed it," he observes. "They were stuck in a rut driving to Boston every day."
Train riders don't fall into any particular demographic, although Rasche notes that the regulars at the station in Wells tend to be professionals in their fifties and sixties. The New Hampshire stops attract a large following of students going to and from Exeter Academy or the University of New Hampshire, as well as young professionals who have moved to southern New Hampshire specifically because they can commute to work in Boston on the Downeaster.
Rasche was able to use his experience on the Downeaster to negotiate flexible work hours with the observatory. These days he goes to Cambridge two days a week and works at home another two days. "One of the effects of the train has been to whittle away at the resistance to flexible hours," he notes. "It's certainly been important to my life. I'd probably be a starving retiree now without the options the train provides. The Downeaster has made it possible for me to continue the work that I greatly enjoy."
Lord notes that riding the train is no longer a novelty. "It's gone from 'Wow, isn't this great' to 'Oh, I'm on the train again,'" he says. That's an important distinction to his mind, because it says that the train's current popularity lies more in its usefulness than its novelty. "People know it's dependable transportation," he remarks.
The Downeaster has routinely ranked second in Amtrak's annual national survey of customer satisfaction, but in 2005 the route came in first. "The Downeaster really seems to have come into its own in developing a loyal following of regular riders, as well as people who use it for occasional daytrips," the rail authority's Douglas adds. "What we've found is that people try the Downeaster and once they try it they keep using it."
Although no one has tried to measure the train's impact on southern Maine, "I think it has had a huge effect," Rasche says. "Bill Lord and I are only two good examples. We both earn reasonably good incomes, and we're plowing that back into the Maine economy. The train allows people to live in Maine and follow their interests in Maine and yet bring back the effects of good jobs from the Boston area. It's attracting the kind of people who make a real difference in the places they live.
"The Downeaster makes it possible to have a life in Maine and a job in Boston," Rasche concludes. "It's hard to get any better than that."