Schaeffer: The Amtrak Downeaster: Obama on wheels



For a few years now, I’ve been closely following and commenting on state and local level circumstances relating to the Amtrak Downeaster, and in particular, its extension to Brunswick. Not to mention the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) that operates it, and their closely affiliated lobbying organization, TrainRiders/Northeast.

For those who aren’t aware, in spite of its name, NNEPRA is a creature of Maine State Government, defined statutorily in 1995 during the Angus King administration. The law mandates that NNEPRA create passenger train service in Maine, bypassing any thought of analyzing public transit needs, and then synthesizing and proposing a publicly driven approach, if indeed one was warranted.

The structural model for NNEPRA is very much like that of the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) and the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA.) Each has a Board of Directors appointed by our governors, and an Executive Director that reports to that Board. Accordingly, NNEPRA, like the others, operates all but autonomously, since it does not belong to any state government department.

It is largely free of administration and legislative oversight, unless someone makes a point of looking into its operations. Which can be a real problem. Those who stay in touch with statewide news, especially via The Maine Wire, should have ‘fond’ memories of what transpired at Maine Turnpike Authority and Maine State Housing Authority in recent years.

At the same time that I’ve been following the Downeaster news, at the other end of the government spectrum, we’re barraged daily with news of the Obama administration. Recently, with the help of various newspaper articles and magazine columns, an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb appeared over my head, filament aglow.

In December of last year, The Maine Wire published an article I wrote with a friend, “Why Obamacare is Off the Rails.” This connection with railroads was a bit of editorial whimsy. Especially in contrast to the hypothesis I offer here: that the Downeaster and its ‘administration’ embody the very essence of Obama the man, and the establishment that surrounds him.

Herewith my case for this assertion; while there are too many examples to include in one column, I’m confident even more will occur to you as you read below. Perhaps you would be good enough to share them in a comment, or even a follow-up column of your own.
What do we mean by our premise? Let’s head down that ‘road less traveled,’ taking things in no particular order.

We begin with this comment in a Wall Street Journal column: “’Nudge’ is a favorite Obama slogan for government encouraging citizens to do what government thinks is best for them.” Speaking bluntly, the Downeaster has been forced upon we citizens from the very beginning, without regard to underlying viability or sustainability, because government knows best. “Push” seems more accurate than “nudge.”

In a recent Weekly Standard article, we read that for Obama, things were going fine, and “like a burst of bad weather, the winds blew, the skies opened, and things went to hell. Mysterious forces conspired against him, terrible setbacks occurred for no reason, “ etc. This fits perfectly; like the failure to capture competitive federal grant funding in 2012 and 2013 (and maybe this year?), and the ‘unexpected’ realities of New England winters, which reeked havoc upon rails and ties on which $70 million or more had been spent in recent years, and for whose fitness for Amtrak use NNEPRA is responsible. Regardless, in an article this spring, Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA’s Executive Director, was reported on this way:

Addressing the authority’s board of directors on Monday at a meeting in Portland, Quinn said that Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks between Brunswick and the Massachusetts border, has been replacing 2,000 rail ties. The ties were damaged due to age and the repeated freeze-thaw cycles that occurred during this year’s extended winter.

“The railroad was not left in good shape after the winter,” she said

Note the passive voice. Given a regulatory mandate to inspect the track a minimum of twice a week, you’d think ‘someone’ might have noticed problems before a crisis could sneak up on the system.

downeaster crowd


Nevertheless, here’s a review of the striking similarities between Mr. Obama and the Downeaster:

Both the Downeaster and Obama like to have five hours of idle time in the middle of the work day. The former sits and burns diesel fuel, smelling up the neighborhood, abusing the local landscape. The latter abuses the local landscape, but we pay people to walk behind him, picking up his divots and replacing them. His rhetorical smoke is usually deflected away with mirrors.

Critical thinking is suspended for both. Supporters, and even those who profess impartiality, don’t want to hear the back-story, the rest of the story, or the real facts associated with either, because they’re too enthralled by the ‘vehicle.’ Facts that threaten ‘the dream’ are not welcomed warmly.

Both habitually show up late at scheduled appearances, but expect forgiveness as a matter of course. The Downeaster has perhaps the worst on-time performance record in the Amtrak system; the chief executive gets all the slack he needs on tee times and press availabilities.

Both benefit from an adoring press and fawning support organizations that strew their paths with rose petals and palm fronds, and turn sows ears into silk purses with waving arms.

Kool-aid is the official drink of both.

Both are gratuitously awarded for spectacular non-achievement. NNEPRA and Patricia Quinn have won several business/business leader of the year awards, even though NNEPRA is a state agency that operates at nearly a 50% loss ratio. Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, within months of taking office.

Both continuously campaign for their cause, while ignoring their obligation to be effective stewards of the enterprise with which they’re entrusted. They have the former in their DNA, and just can’t be bothered with the latter, for which they have little career experience.
TRNE claims the Downeaster is “the most successful train in the nation,” while others claim Obama’s reign began with a day the oceans stopped rising and global warming ended. Oh, and don’t forget that the Downeaster will bring an end to ‘traffic jams on 295,’ and excessive carbon footprint that results. Have you ever watched an Amtrak diesel engine idling? What do you think the exchange rate is for converting a 4,250 hp diesel unit to Priuses?

The ‘likability’ of the train and the President overwhelm reason, common sense, and any proportionate response to either. Love the man, love the choo-choo.

Theatrics overwhelm reality. Disbelief is mean-spirited.

Each came into their own because of a ‘populist uprising,’ which in both cases confirmed widespread belief in the tooth fairy and free lunches.

Both are seen as ‘transformative;’ one for the underlying principles of our country, the other for the underlying principles of common sense. You can decide which is which. Each thinks they can turn a lackluster economy into prosperity by continuously increasing the national debt.

Both have to borrow or otherwise seek ‘revenue sharing’ for 40% of every dollar they spend operating their enterprise. Neither has any clue how to live within their means, and even worse, their sponsors and benefactors have no expectation that they will do so, nor any appreciation of the very concept.

Both are heralded as ‘the second coming.’ One as the rebirth of passenger rail as a viable transportation option, the other as the reinstitution of free lunches as a workable governing philosophy.

Both believe they have every right to overrule laws or ignore regulations and procedure because they are all about ‘the greater good.’ They’re from the government, and they’re here to help us. That provision of Obamacare? We’ll enforce it ‘someday.’ The border? Ha! Zoning requirements and the DEP? Surely you can’t be serious.

Each operates as if they have a mandate. One actually does, in Maine statute; the other just acts like he does, because he knows no one will challenge him. Both know how to use the ‘watchdog media’ to protect their yards.

Each seems to spawn bad news on a regular basis, but with the help of a fawning media disinclined to actually look into things, can turn unresolved problems into ‘old news’ in a matter of days and weeks. One woman’s track maintenance mismanagement is another man’s VA incompetence or IRS corruption.

Each arrives at a public platform with a dazzling countenance, an outsized grin, and two clear panels through which they look at the adoring public. Those in attendance go bonkers at the scene.

Both inspire beliefs that individuals don’t have to make a go of things for themselves and that businesses aren’t built by motivated owners, because government is bringing the gravy on a train.

Behind the curtain manipulators see to it that their stars are ‘handled’ appropriately by the press; provide talking points for the gullible; and demonize those who dare to challenge the approved narrative.

Challenge any policy or decision made by one, and you’re a racist. Challenge any policy or decision made by the other, and you’re a trainist – you hate the choo-choo. You despise Amtrak-Americans.

Both seem to act as if a legend precedes them, and there’s no necessity for facing reality in the current age. Passenger rail as a viable, widely used public transport mechanism died for very good reasons. Socialism has been a disaster virtually everywhere its been tried. But no matter; the ‘right’ people can change the laws of economics, physics, and human nature.
Pem Schaeffer is a retired Business Development Leader who spent his career in defense related high technology. He blogs at The Other Side of Brunswick. Contact him at Or, if you prefer, buy his lunch at the next MHPC event in Portland.


  1. Yawn…..There are over 100 downtown businesses that are all for an increase in train ridership into Brunswick because they know it a ‘no-brainer’ for economic improvement. That cannot be done unless a layover station is built. The Brunswick town council approved it, even Obama’s environmental Nazis approved it. Why is the ‘businessman’ in Augusta dragging his feet, doing everything he can to keep local economic growth from happening???

  2. I enjoyed my rides on the Downeaster and welcome the opportunity to thank those anonymous and clueless taxpayers who mad it possible. I can only hope that the businesses who profit from their helpless ignorance will join me in this.

  3. You overlooked the duplication of color schemes for the train and for Obama campaign materials. Check out images of Obama bumper stickers and the similarity will become obvious.

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