STB allows faster Downeaster speeds

( posted the following Associated Press article by Clarke Canfield on February 1.)

PORTLAND, Maine -- A federal transportation panel ruled Friday that the Downeaster passenger train can operate at speeds of up to 79 mph on its Portland-to-Boston run.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board issued a decision that orders Guilford Rail System to permit Amtrak to operate the train at that speed on Guilford-owned track. The Downeaster has been operating at 60 mph since service began in December 2001, but Amtrak has argued that it should be able to run at faster speeds.

The faster speed will allow the Downeaster to shave seven to 15 minutes off the full run, which now takes two hours and 45 minutes. Officials said the Downeaster could be running at the faster speed in 45 to 60 days.

"It's a significant milestone," said John Englert, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the rail service. "But it's not like we can turn on a switch and be at those speeds tomorrow."

David Fink, Guilford's executive vice president, said he had not yet read the decision and declined to comment.

The Downeaster has been operating at a maximum speed of 60 mph since it began service in December 2001. Amtrak has contended that faster speeds are safe, but Guilford has maintained that 60 mph is the fastest that trains can travel on Guilford's 78 miles of track from Portland to Plaistow, N.H.

The rail authority petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to intervene in the dispute. The board's decision states that the track's 115-pound welded rail is sufficient to support the faster speed.

The faster speed is important for the future success of the Downeaster, which exceeded passenger and revenue projections in its first year of operation.

Englert said the goal is to cut the Portland-to-Boston run to two hours and 30 minutes.

"Consumers look at things in 15-minute intervals, and if we can get to two hours 30 minutes, there's a beneficial ridership impact with that," Englert said.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the decision removes the final regulatory hurdle for faster speeds.

"This decision will provide increased incentives to passengers who will benefit not only from convenient, comfortable service, but also assure that rail service remains faster than driving," she said.

The Downeaster runs from Portland to Boston with stops in Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells, Maine; Dover, Durham and Exeter, N.H.; and Haverhill and Woburn, Mass.

Monday, February 3, 2003

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