The Amtrak Downeaster: Boston to Portland, Maine

The following is a trip report for a journey I took in September 2012. At the time I made this journey, all Downeaster trains terminated at Portland. Now, 2 services per day have been extended 29 mi (46 km) to Brunswick, Maine. It was probably a blessing in disguise that the service wasn’t running to Brunswick at the time I travelled, as I would have made the entire journey, and missed out on the charming city of Portland (and the smoky little surprise it had in store for my visit).

On a sunny Saturday morning in Boston, I left my hotel and caught the subway to North Station My transport would be the Amtrak Downeaster, and my destination was Portland, Maine. At North Station, I found my little train standing at the platform;  a short 4 car consist made up of Amfleet I stock, consisting of 3 coach class cars and a combination business class/cafe car. There was a P42 locomotive at the Portland end of the train, with a cabbage car bringing up the rear. Cabbage cars are older diesel locomotives which have had the engine removed, but retain control equipment. They are use for baggage, as well as a cab control car (Cab + Baggage = Cabbage).

An Amtrak Cabbage car at the rear of the Downeaster at Boston North station. Note the roller door installed in the side for baggage loading.

An Amtrak Cabbage car at the rear of the Downeaster at Boston North station. Note the roller door installed in the side for baggage loading.

For the princely sum of US$9 in each direction, I had upgraded to Business Class, so I made my way to the combination business class/cafe car at the rear of the train. I entered through the food service section, where brown vinyl bench seats stood behind laminex tables. A smiling Amtrak employee stood behind a stainless steel and glass counter, already serving light breakfast and hot drinks. The business class section was behind a curtain, which I pushed aside and found my seat. Seating was 2 +1 (as opposed to 2 + 2 in coach), with overly generous leg room, a small pillow and 110v power outlets at each seat. Business class was around ¼ full and I as settled into my seat, the conductor came around to make sure I belonged in business class. After checking my ticket, I was given complimentary orange juice and offered a newspaper.

An Amtrak P42DC locomotive leading the Downeaster at Boston North station

An Amtrak P42DC locomotive leading the Downeaster at Boston North station

Our train departed without fanfare at 9:05, and we made our way out through Boston’s northern suburbs on MBTA’s Lowell line. After stopping at the suburban station of Woburn to pick up passengers, we diverged onto the 2.8 mi (4.5 km) Wildcat Branch line which connects MBTA’s Lowell and Haverhill lines. After a brief stop at Haverhill, we left Boston’s fringe and passed over the state border into New Hampshire.

The journey was mostly through densely wooded countryside, with the occasional glimpse of a town or road. The on-board WiFi worked well, and I enjoyed the beautiful countryside as it passed by my large window. The journey to Portland took just over 2½ hours, and on arrival in Portland, I was surprised to find that only 2 of the 4 cars fit on the short platform. The rear 2 cars (including business class) were off the platform, so passengers had to walk through the train to alight. The Amtrak staff had made announcements about a bus to the city centre, so I waited with about 20 others at the bus stop. The local bus turned up and after a 20 minute trip on the route 5 bus of the Greater Portland District Metro, we were deposited in downtown Portland.

Portland is a charming city, and the mild autumn day with clear blue skies made it the perfect day for exploring the historic Old Port precinct by Casco Bay. After stopping for lunch in one of the many cafes, I noticed a sign pointing to the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. Any railway museum is worth a visit, so I walked in the direction shown of the sign to see if it was open.

Diesel locomotive 1 at Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum

Diesel locomotive 1 at Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum

After walking for about 10 minutes, I found a set of narrow gauge railway tracks and could see a thin plume of black smoke slowly rising in the distance. I walked on the footpath beside the tracks, and soon came upon a small steam locomotive with a consist of equally small passenger cars behind it. The locomotive on the train was Number 4; a 1918 Vulcan 0-4-4T steam locomotive, which operated on the Monson Railroad in Central Maine until 1936.

Locomotive number 4; a 1918 Vulcan 0-4-4T on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad

Locomotive number 4; a 1918 Vulcan 0-4-4T on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad operates a railway museum and 1¼ mile (2 km) 2 ft gauge track along the Casco Bay waterfront. Some locomotives date back to 1913, and there are a mix of steam and diesel locomotives, representative of the 2 ft gauge railways which were once common around the state of Maine. When the museum is open, trains operate hourly on an approximate 35 minute round trip. When I visited in 2012, most trains were steam hauled. As of March 2014, all steam locomotives are out of service for heavy maintenance and trains are currently diesel hauled.

Inside the enclosed carriage

Inside the enclosed carriage

The train was about to depart, so I bought a ticket and boarded one of the vintage passenger cars. The train lurched into motion, heading slowly back towards the Old Port area. We soon arrived at end of the track, where the train simply changed direction and the old locomotive slowly pushed the wooden carriages back towards the museum. We passed the museum, and sedately made our way further around the waterfront, receiving many friendly waves from the families enjoying walks and bicycle rides along the path that followed the rail line. Our train was going so slowly, that kids on bikes were overtaking us! On reaching the eastern end of the line at Fish Point, the train changed direction again and chuffed back to the museum.

Locomotive number 4 and train at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway museum

Locomotive number 4 and train at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway museum

After leaving the train, I walked along the path by the line, and further around Fish Point. As I walked, I could smell something unpleasant, and soon came upon an unexpected sight; the Portland water treatment plant beside the walking track behind a cyclone wire fence. It has been turned into a sort of working museum, and has plaques explaining what each machine does, quite interesting, although the ripe smell meant I didn’t fancy hanging around for too long.

A disused rail swing bridge in Portland

A disused rail swing bridge in Portland

Further around the corner, I found a wooden railway swing bridge across the entrance to Back Cove which was in a state of disrepair. There was a road and pedestrian bridge running approximately parallel with the railway bridge. As those who have read my blog before may know, I have a thing for walking across bridges, so I crossed and was able to have a close look at the old railway bridge as I did.

Locomotive Number 4 hauls a Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad train

Locomotive Number 4 hauls a Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad train

I walked back to towards the railway museum, and found the little train on another run. The walking path was the perfect vantage point for photographs, and I kept pace with the little train as it slowly made its way back to the museum. At the museum, locomotive 1 shunted most of the carriages that number 4 had brought back. Locomotive 1 is a GE 23 Tonner from 1949, and I watched the little diesel doing its work, before having a look inside the museum. The inside of the museum is well done, but limited. It has some beautifully restored, non-operational narrow gauge stock, as well as pictures and artefacts from long closed narrow gauge lines. The museum was closing up, so I bade farewell to this unexpected gem of a tourist attraction, and walked back to the down town area.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad

All of the shops were closing up, but I managed to find a cafe for dinner. There was just over an hour until my bus back to the railway station (the last bus that connected with a train for the night), so I made sure I was at the stop early. A growing crowd gathered at the bus stop, as the same bus served the railway station, airport and a large hotel where a convention was being held. By the time the bus arrived, there was already a crush load waiting, and we piled on, much to the bemusement of the Driver, who was visibly astonished at the amount of people catching his bus on a Saturday evening.

Diesel locomotive number 1 shunts some carriages at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway

Diesel locomotive number 1 shunts some carriages at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway

We made a few stops in the downtown area, and by the time we headed into the suburbs, the bus was full to its legal limit. We stopped at a suburban stop for a couple of youths, but the Driver told them that the bus was too full to let them on. They looked crestfallen, until a group of 3 told the Driver they were getting out at the next stop. The Driver told the youths to run to the next stop, and he’d pick them up when the other passengers got off. The bus drove slowly to the next stop (about 300 metres away), and waited for the intending passengers who had done as instructed and ran after the bus!

At the railway station, about half of the passengers left the bus.We made our way onto the waiting train and departed for Boston. The journey back to Boston was made after dark, so I enjoyed my comfortable business class seat and free WiFi as we slid smoothly through Maine and New Hampshire and on into Boston. After a short subway ride, by day trip was over and I was back in my hotel.

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