Ticket to ride: What’s it like to commute to Boston on the Downeaster

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All aboard: The Downeaster makes 5 round trips between Maine and Boston, with a stop in Exeter. Photo/Amtrak

EXETER, NH — As the state mulls whether to go forward with a commuter rail project connecting Manchester and Boston, people wonder whether it would be worth it. Commuting by car to Boston, one of the most congested cities in the world, is clearly a headache, but what is it like to commute to Boston by train? I decided to take Amtrak’s Downeaster from Exeter to North Station with commuters to find out. Mondays and Tuesdays are the busiest days for commuters so I took our trip on Tuesday, May 7.

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I bought a round trip ticket for $38 online for the 680 train, scheduled to leave Exeter at 6:39 a.m. and arrive North Station in Boston at 7:50 a.m. Business class tickets would have been $53. People who make frequent trips can buy discount tickets. A six-ride ticket that lasts a year costs $86, a 10-ride ticket that lasts 45 days is $137, and a monthly commuter pass is $319. If you don’t get your tickets online, you can purchase them at the kiosk at Gerry’s Variety Store.

Since Exeter is about a half hour from Manchester, I needed to leave the house before 6:00 a.m. if we wanted to be sure to get a place to park. I arrived at the Exeter station at about 6:25 a.m. and easily found a spot to park. There were already about 2 dozen people at the station.

Ticket to ride: Kathy Staub bought her ticket online for $38, but you can also pick one up at Gerry’s Variety in Exeter. Photo/Jacob Staub

Among the commuters several were traveling with bicycles. Erin from Newmarket has been commuting five days a week for about a year. She brings her folding bicycle, which she rides from North Station to her job in Cambridgeport. “I enjoy the time outside and the network of bicycle paths makes it easy and enjoyable.” Even in winter? “Yes, even in winter. This winter wasn’t bad at all. Besides, if I were driving to work I would have to leave my house at 5:15 a.m. to get to work on time.”

David from Durham had been working as a consultant when he decided to take a job in Boston. Since October he has been commuting four days a week and also enjoys riding his bike the last few miles to work. He likes the train because commuting by car has become such a nightmare. “ I can also work while I am on the train. The cars are comfortable and there is wi-fi.”

Morning breaks at the Exeter train station, where Boston commuters get on board. Photo/Jacob Staub

By the time the train arrived there were between 80 and 100 people waiting at the station. When we left Exeter, the train was mostly full. I sat with Jim from Exeter who commutes four days a week to his job at Fidelity. He loves being able to take the train. It was one of the reasons he chose to come back to Exeter following a stint in North Carolina. Although I didn’t use it on my trip, he says the Downeaster Cafe Car is a great way to start the day

As soon as people boarded the train many of them took out laptops and began their workday. According to Jim when the Wi-Fi gets overloaded a lot of people set up hotspots with their phones. Each seat has an electrical outlet so people can run their laptops or recharge their phones if needed.

For a time Jim took the bus from Newburyport. The buses run more frequently, but he finds the train more relaxing. “I do wish the train ran more frequently because that would provide more flexibility for riders.” Currently the Downeaster runs five round trips a day. The next morning train after the one I took out of Exeter leaves at 9:38 a.m. and arrives at North Station at 10:50 a.m., so it is not a great fit for most commuters.

Because North Station is directly under the TD Bank Garden, the Downeaster also runs a late night 11:25 p.m. train on concert nights and any night with a Red Sox home game.

Downeaster route: Exeter is the most popular stop for NH commuters. It takes about an hour and 20 minutes to get to Boston from there. Graphic/Amtrak

The ride was smooth and uneventful. People chatted quietly, read, or worked on their laptops. The conductor came through and scanned people’s tickets. The train stopped briefly in Haverhill and Woburn to pick up additional passengers. Both of these towns are also served by MBTA Commuter Rail so there weren’t that many.  The train arrived at North Station just before 8 a.m. and we stepped out onto the platform. North Station has connections to the Orange and Green Lines of the subway system. I bought a round trip ticket to Kenmore Square for $5.35.

The Downeaster travels between, Boston and Brunswick, Maine, with stops in New Hampshire at Dover, Durham, and Exeter. In the 1990s the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) was formed to manage the passenger rail system in Maine. After more than a decade of planning the train made its first run on December 15, 2001. By 2003 there were 260,000 riders annually. Ridership has continued to grow and last year the Downeaster had more that 550,000 riders. About 85 percent of all riders on the Downeaster are traveling to and from Boston, 31 percent of riders are from New Hampshire. Dover had 59,000 boardings, Durham had 58,000 boardings, and Exeter had 89,000 boardings.

Even though thousands of New Hampshire residents take advantage of the Downeaster every year, the state contributes nothing toward it. It costs $22.8M annually to operate the train. $12M comes from ticket sales and concessions and $8.5M comes from federal transportation grants. The remaining costs are covered by Maine state funding. A study in 2013 estimated that the Downeaster brought in $12M per year in tourist revenues.

After spending a pleasant day in Boston strolling through the Fens, and having lunch with my son and daughter, I took the Green Line back to the station to catch the 5 p.m. train. I arrived at North Station at 4:30 p.m. because I was told that the 685 was often pretty full on the way back. The station was crowded with people who were waiting to board the half-dozen commuter trains that leave in the half hour before the Downeaster’s departure. It turns out the train wasn’t that full. I was able to get a seat by the window and enjoy the scenery on the way back. As the conductor came through for our tickets I noticed that most of the people in my car were getting off in Exeter.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Exeter at 6:09 p.m. and we pulled in at 6:18 p.m. The Downeaster has a relatively good on-time performance rate. In 2017 it was in the top 10 for all Amtrak trains with 72 percent of trains being on time at their final destination. It is hard to say why we were late. Perhaps there was another train on the line or maybe the rain that started falling slowed us down. Nevertheless, the trip was about an hour and 20 minutes. Not bad for rush hour.

In the rain people hustled to get to their cars when we disembarked. Getting out of the parking lot was the longest delay I experienced on the whole trip. The 30-minute ride home was uneventful and I pulled into my driveway right at 7 p.m.

Exeter, like Manchester, is about 50 miles from Boston. A proposed schedule in the Capitol Corridor rail study lists a 6:37 a.m. train from Manchester that would arrive at North Station at 8:05 a.m. On the return trip a 5:30 p.m. train out of North Station would arrive in Manchester at 6:50 p.m.  It is true that it is still a long day, but the time could be spent finishing up work, making plans with friends, or reading a book instead of fighting through traffic.

Commuters can make it to Boston in about an hour and a half from Exeter, and sleep through the commute if they want to. Photo/Jacob Staub

The Amtrak Downeaster has higher-end cars because they are made for comfort on longer rides over greater distances. The NH Capitol Corridor Rail trains would be the purple MBTA commuter rail cars. Not all of them have wifi, and bicycles are not allowed during peak commute times. Nevertheless, passenger rail would give people who don’t want to drive to the city an alternative.

On Wednesday, May 22 the NH House Public Works and Highway Committee will be taking up Senate Bill 241, which would restore funding for the project development and engineering phase of the Capitol Corridor Rail project.  The resulting report would provide a detailed analysis of engineering, environmental, and geotechnical aspects, and a financial plan for expanding passenger rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester.

Sen. Levesque

According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, “This would allow the NH Department of Transportation to access the federal funds needed to do the engineering and fiscal plans. The NH House also voted to put it in their budget, but if something happens there we still have this stand-alone bill.”

Either way, the Governor will need to approve it. Over the summer the Executive Council will be holding hearings around the state to hear from residents what they want to see in the plan. This is the next step in getting the rail project back into the 10-year Transportation Plan. Levesque believes that re-establishing passenger rail service in the Merrimack Valley will help revitalize the cities of Manchester and Nashua.