Welcome to this two-part Travel Spot, dedicated to Amtrak’s Downeaster, connecting Boston and Maine with five daily services in each direction, departing from/arriving at Boston’s North Station. Regular readers will be aware of my hit-and-miss relationship with the Downeaster, having been on it just once before, at the start of my Portland-to-Portland trans-America train trip. Since then I’ve found the bus more convenient when travelling between Boston and Portland, although tomorrow that will change when Amanda and I take the Downeaster from Portland to Boston, the subject of Part II of this two-part Travel Spot.
So, what’s Part I all about? Well, the Downeaster doesn’t just connect Boston with Portland: there are two more stops north of Portland, Freeport and Brunswick, where the train terminates. Ahead of tomorrow’s journey, I decided to catch the train in the other direction, from Portland to Brunswick, just so that I could say that I’d travelled the full length of the line, albeit in two separate trips. Ideally, I’d have taken the train back to Portland, but Amtrak’s schedule is quirky to say the least. Returning by train would have required a 2½ hour wait, so I caught the Greater Portland Metro BREEZ bus instead.
As usual, I’ve split the post into the following parts:
- Getting to the Station
- Portland Transportation Center
- Business Class on the Downeaster
- Portland to Brunswick
- Brunswick and the BREEZ Bus to Portland
I’ll talk about Amtrak’s quirky timetabling in Part II, but for now, let’s start with how to get to the station, which can be challenging. You can see how I managed it after the gallery.
The Downeaster leaves from the Portland Transportation Center on Thompson’s Point, which it shares with Concord Coach Lines (where I caught the bus to Logan Airport the last time I was here). West of the city and right off 1-295, it’s convenient both for the buses and if you’re picking someone up/dropping them off by car, since you don’t have to go into the city centre. I also suspect, given the two large car parks which surround the Transportation Center, that plenty of people drive here each morning and, presumably, commute to Boston (or elsewhere).
However, as I discovered in 2015, Portland Transportation Center is anything but convenient if you’re trying to get there on foot or by public transport. Ironically, Portland used to have a station much closer to the city centre. Union Station, which opened in 1888, was on St John Street, just across from the Inn on St John (where I stayed in 2015), at the western end of the city. Sadly, passenger services were withdrawn from the station in 1960 and the building was demolished a year later. Passenger services limped on until 1965, but it was another 36 years before train travel was restored to Portland with the arrival of the Downeaster in December 2001. These days, a nondescript outdoor shopping mall occupies the Union Station site, although the handsome Maine Central Railroad Building (once home to Maine Central, one of the railroad companies which used Union Station) remains, just south of the mall.
In theory, you can get to the Transportation Centre by public transport, although it’s not that easy. For example, from Amanda’s house in Westbrook, there are no direct buses, the closest one (Route 5) requiring a five-minute walk, and while it’s quicker to take Route 4, that leaves you with a 15-minute walk. The alternative is to go into the city centre and take Route 1 out to the Transportation Centre, but that’s a bit of a faff as well, although at least the bus takes you right there.
The final option, other than a taxi, is to walk. Sadly, while the original Union Station was a 20-minute walk from the city centre (and is better connected by bus), it’s another 20 minutes to get to the Transport Center, an unpleasant walk that involves going under I-295, which cuts off Thompson’s Point from the city centre. Naturally, that’s what I decided to do, although I had a few errands to run first.
I caught the HUSKY bus from Westbrook to Portland, then headed over to Little Woodfords, where I caught up with the owner, Andy, presenting him with Little Woodfords’ Coffee Spot Award certificate (Little Woodfords was runner-up for the Coffee Spot Special Award). We also exchanged some gifts of coffee. From there, I walked down Congress Street, popping into Speckled Ax (to buy some coffee), before calling into Tandem Coffee + Bakery (which is currently operating a takeaway service) for a decaf cappuccino.
Suitably refuelled, I continued down Congress Street to the Transportation Center, with a short detour down St John Street to check out the site of the old Union Station. If, like me, you follow Google Maps, don’t. It gave me two routes, one via Frederic Street and the Fore River Parkway, and the one that I followed, which saw me continue along Congress, past Frederic Street, under I-295 and down Sewall Street to approach the Transportation Center from the other side.
However, the best route is to take Congress Street under I-295, then turn left at Fore River Parkway, where a pedestrian route leads along the parkway right to the front of the Transportation Center. Quite why Google Maps refuses to show it is beyond me!
I’ve become familiar with the Portland Transportation Center over the last few years. It’s a fairly modest, single-storey building, mostly given over to Concord Coach Lines, which has the right-hand side of the terminal. If you use the main doors at the front, you’ll see the ticket desks for the buses in front of you, and the gate (Gate B), which leads to the boarding area, to the left of that. Indeed, you might not even notice that there’s a train station here as well.
However, off to the left, tucked away in the corner, is an Amtrak ticket desk (which even has its own entrance to the left of the main one). There’s a separate waiting area here as well and, in the far, left-hand corner at the front, Gate C opens onto a long, covered passage which leads down to the platform. This is a fairly basic affair, which has a raised area in the middle and two low-level areas at either end.
The first thing you need to know about the station is that it’s on a spur off the mainline. Whereas the old Union Station was right on the mainline as it cut along the western outskirts of Portland, the Transportation Center is served by a spur, the start of an old freight line which (ironically) runs in a straight line to Westbrook and beyond (there are attempts to reintroduce a passenger service between Westbrook and Portland). As a result, all trains approach from the left (coming from the direction of Portland), stop at the platform, then head back out the way they came.
My train was due at 14:25, but was (allegedly) delayed by six minutes, which gave me a chance to look around, although in reality there isn’t very much to see. The train arrived at 14:25 and, despite the long(ish) platform, just a single door in the middle carriage opened to let passengers off, before those of us waiting for the train (in this case, just me) could board.
The Downeaster consists of a single diesel locomotive (a Genisis P42DC for those who want to know) at the front, followed by four coach carriages and a fifth carriage at the back, which combines the café car and a small business class seating area. Finally, and unusually for Amtrak services, there’s what’s called a NPCU (non-powered control unit), an old EMD F40PH diesel locomotive with its engines taken out. This acts as a driving cab when the train does it southbound run (from Brunswick to Boston), with the diesel locomotive effectively pushing the train from the back.
I’m used to Amtrak trains spending ages at stations, but even with the Downeaster having to reverse back out of the station and onto the mainline, pretty much as soon as I was onboard, we were on our way, the train having spent maybe two minutes at the platform!
Normally I would travel coach class, which, for a one-way trip to Brunswick, would set me back $3, but I decided to splash out on a business class ticket (all of $8), largely so that I could check out the seating. The Downeaster has four coach carriages, while business class is in its own exclusive little compartment at the far end of the train, beyond the café car (although I suspect that the precise configuration depends on the specific train).oweve
However, having to go through the café car to get the business class gave it an extra air of exclusivity, particularly since we were next to the NPCU, so no-one was wandering through. Business class on the Downeaster consists of just 17 seats, with a five single seats on the left and six pairs of seats on the right. When I got on at Portland, there were just four other passengers in business, so I had plenty of choice, sitting in one of the pairs of seats on the right (largely for the views).
The seats themselves are large and comfortable, with plenty of legroom, more, for example, than business class on the Acela, which I tried for the first time a couple of months ago. There’s plenty of luggage space at the end of the carriage and on the large overhead racks above the seats. Each seat has a fold-down table and while I didn’t have my laptop with me, I suspect it would have been more than adequate. There’s also a foot-operated footrest (press the pedal to the left of the footrest) and the seat reclines a decent way (although it still leaves plenty of room for the person behind).
Each pair of seats has a pair of power outlets in the wall (so if you are sat next to the aisle, you’ll need to trail a wire across your neighbour), while the single seats have two outlets per seat. There’s also free Wifi throughout the train. Finally, there’s a generous armrest between each pair of seats which comes with a couple of cupholders.
Overall, I was impressed with the standard of the seating, which was better than I remember it on the Northeast Corridor (even though it’s a separate, branded service, the Downeaster is still technically part of Amtrak’s Northeast corridor). It certainly felt more comfortable and spacious than the Acela and very reasonably priced (for comparison, Amanda and I will be travelling coach class to Boston tomorrow). My only complaint is that the seats and windows aren’t aligned, so if it’s busy and you’re unlucky, you might not get much of a view.
The café car looked to be the standard Amtrak offering, with light meals, snacks, soft drinks, some alcohol and coffee. However, I didn’t try it out, partly because I think it closes not long after leaving Portland, but more because I’d brought a sticky bun for the train when I was at Tandem Coffee + Bakery (which was awesome), plus I had some coffee from my visit to Little Woodfords. This was a sample of the batch brew which I’d put in my Frank Green Ceramic about three hours before and was still at perfect drinking temperature.
The conductor came through to check my ticket (a scan of a QR Code on the Amtrak app on my phone) just after we left Portland, after which I settled down to enjoy the 45-minute ride to Brunswick.
From the Portland Transportation Center, the Downeaster reverses its route, with the NPCU leading the way, passing under I-295, then briefly running alongside the Fore River estuary before the track curves inland past the Cumberland County Jail. The Downeaster then re-joins the main line, carrying on a short way to the south to clear the junction.
After a brief stop, presumably while the points are reset, the Downeaster changes direction to head north, the diesel locomotive leading once again. The line passes the Maine Central Railroad Building (which I can’t help thinking would make an awesome station) then runs along the back of the shopping mall on the site of the old Union Station before crossing Congress Street. In quick succession it passes over Park Avenue (a rare example in this part of the world of the train tracks going over a road on a bridge) and back under I-295 before running through Portland’s northern suburbs, crossing street after street by level crossing.
There are a few specific (coffee-related) sights along the way, including the original home of Little Woodfords and the Speckled Ax coffee bar/roastery on Walton Street. After about 10 minutes of this suburban landscape, the line crosses the Presumpscot River (which runs through Westbrook) and swings northeast to run parallel to the coast, but about five to ten kilometres inland. The landscape is predominantly forest, punctuated by the occasional farm or urban area (such as the outskirts of Yarmouth, which the line bypasses).
The first stop after Portland is Freeport, where the line swings under both I-295 and US 1 (which have been running parallel to it, but closer to the coast) before pulling up at a small but neat modern station which opened in 2012 at the eastern end of town. Freeport has a long history, dating back to around 1700, but these days is better known as the home of retailer L.L.Bean, which sells outdoor clothing and equipment.
We arrived five minutes late at 15:00, but once again the Downeaster surprised me. No sooner had the passengers got off than the train was on its way again, a refreshing change from Amtrak’s usual habit of having its trains linger at the platform. From Freeport, the line continues through the predominantly forested landscape before swinging east for the final approach into Brunswick, where, I have to say, the best views were from the other (left-hand) side of the train.
We pulled into Brunswick Maine Street Station a few minutes behind our scheduled arrival time of 15:10. This is another new station, which also opened in 2012, when the Downeaster was extended north of Portland. It has a single full length, high-level platform with the station buildings on the right at the eastern end of the platform. I had hoped that the Downeaster would hang around at the station, but after less than five minutes, it was on its way, the NPCU leading the way as it reversed its direction, heading (I believe) for sidings and a rolling stock shed (the Brunswick Layover Facility) which we’d passed a short way before the station.
Due to the Downeaster’s weird timetabling, the next (and final) train to Portland didn’t leave until 17:45. Had it been summer, I’d have happily hung around and explored Brunswick. However, although it had been warmer that day, it was still around 0°C (having regularly been around -10°C the week before), which is not ideal weather for exploring. I also wanted to make the journey back in daylight and, finally, I had to be back at Amanda’s for a work call at six o’clock, all of which meant that I was going to catch the next bus back to Portland. This left at 15:50, giving me around half an hour to explore.
Brunswick, which was settled in 1628, is on the southern bank of the Androscoggin River. A compact town, it’s probably best known as the home of Bowdoin College, which was founded in 1794 and occupies a large, historic campus at the southern end of town, where it’s linked to the river by Maine Street. If I had had time, I would have loved to walk around campus, as well as taking a stroll up to the river and the Swinging Bridge, a pedestrian suspension bridge built across the Androscoggin in 1892.
As it was, I wandered north along Maine Street as far as Everett Street, then returned through the Brunswick Town Mall, a narrow park between Maine Street and Park Row. The station is pleasingly located on Station Avenue, which connects Union Street with Maine Street, ending just to the north of the junction between Maine Street and Bath Road, south of which is the Bowdoin campus. In theory, the railway line, which runs along the north side of Station Avenue, continues east across Maine Street and Park Row. However, even though there’s a level crossing on Maine Street, judging by the way the snow had been piled up across the tracks, no trains have been east of the station for a while!
I took the BREEZ service back to Portland, which conveniently departs from outside of the station. When I caught it, it departed from opposite the station, but by the time you read this, it will be on the other side of the street, directly in front of the station. It takes an hour to central Portland before continuing on to the Portland Transportation Center, charging a flat $4 fare.
When I caught it, the bus went north along Maine Street to the river, then picked up US 1, but by the time you read this, it will have a new route out of Brunswick, skipping Maine Street and cutting out the river, instead joining up with US 1 just west of town. From there, the bus follows US 1 and I-295 pretty much the whole way, calling in at Freeport and Yarmouth. It’s quite a pretty route, particularly the approach into Portland across the bridge over Back Cove.
In theory I could have stayed on the bus, returning to where I’d started at the Portland Transportation Center, but instead I got off at the library in the heart of downtown Portland. From there, it was a couple of minutes’ walk to the METRO Pulse on Elm Street, where I caught the Husky back to Westbrook, a far more convenient outcome compared to taking the train, which would have left me to retrace my steps from the morning.
I’ll leave you with one final observation about using public transport on this trip. It’s a requirement to wear masks (due to COVID-19) on all Amtrak trains, as well as on Portland buses. I was pleased to see that with one or two rare exceptions, everyone wore masks, and wore them properly (over nose and mouth).
That concludes my short ride on Amtrak’s Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick. Don’t forget Part II of this Travel Spot, where Amanda and I take the Downeaster from Portland to Boston, this time travelling coach class. For a different take on the Downeaster (and a lot more detail) check out this video from Simply Railway.
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