NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The Downeaster is Maine’s train. There are some similarities to The Badger State Express (my fictional name for the soon-to-be-launched Milwaukee to Madison train).
The Downeaster makes five round trips daily between Boston and Portland, about 115 miles. It’s not a high speed train, topping out at 79-miles-per-hour. It runs with conventional Amtrak equipment; two diesel engines, four coaches, and a snack car. It seats about 400 per run.
The Badger State Express will have a slightly shorter run between two cities with slightly smaller populations. Our train will be more modern, seat slightly fewer people, and run at approximately the same speed.
Maine is responsible for the operating costs of the Downeaster after an initial start-up subsidy ran out. Maine keeps the ticket revenue, and pays Amtrak the difference between the fares and the expenses. So is the Downeaster going to bankrupt Maine? No. Ticket revenues for the Downeaster were about $6-million last year. Operating costs were $11.5 million. The cost of the train to taxpayers is $5.5-million.
Suppose Wisconsin’s operating costs were about the same, or even a little higher. Considering the state’s overall budget is $64-billion, the Badger State Express isn’t going to bankrupt anything. In fact, at less than 1/1000th of the state budget, the train’s funding is inconsequential.
And the financial performance of Wisconsin’s train may be better. Maine keeps its fares artificially low. A one-way trip from Boston to Portland is priced at $26, which does not cover operating costs and is priced about the same as a bus ticket. The Downeaster carries large numbers of tourists, and the state figures subsidizing the fare is good public policy. Those passengers will stay at the state’s hotels, campgrounds, and beaches. They’ll spend money and stimulate the state’s economy after they’re done riding. The Downeaster gets no financial subsidy from Massachusetts or New Hampshire even though the train makes stops there. Tickets would have to be pricds at about $42 to cover the cost of the train from the farebox. Undoubtedly ridership would be lower at that price point.
Wisconsin will not subsidize ridership to the level Maine does. Tickets will be somewhat more expensive. But if you substitute college students and state workers for tourists, ridership of the Badger State Express might be about the same. Wisconsin’s train will be more modern, faster, and will be a better downtown-to-downtown service. The economics will be about the same.
I rode the Downeaster last weekend from Boston to Wells. The train was a little more than half full. I had a blueberry muffin and orange juice in the snack car and had a comfortable window seat. Service was good. The train was fast and efficient. I couldn’t help but think if this exact train was running in Wisconsin, people would ride it.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communication-Wausau