Wayne Davis is renowned for his success in building support for the Downeaster, an exemplary passenger train service that runs from Boston to Maine. He’s also known for his continued efforts to strengthen the coalition of rail advocates across New England. In this podcast, Wayne tells his story along with his colleague Bruce Sleeper, who helped write the legislation that brought the Downeaster to life. That service, run by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, has become a beacon to rail advocates, and because the planned East-West service in Massachusetts mirrors it in many ways, this is a particularly timely program.
Wayne Davis was CEO of BankEast Mortgage in Maine after having been a senior vice-president of several Maine banks andr nine years as Finance Officer for the Maine State Housing Authority. He joined the Rail Passengers Association in 1988 and became vice-president in the early 1990s shortly after forming TrainRiders Northeast. He was appointed by US Senator George Mitchell to serve on the National Commission on Inter-modal Transportation (created by the first President Bush) and for several years traveled from coast to coast as a commissioner. That led to professional relationships with the FRA, FTA, urban mass transit folks in USA and Canada. TrainRiders Northeast has worked closely with Amtrak top management for thirty-three of its fity years.
F. Bruce Sleeper is an attorney based in Portland, Maine. He served as a chair of the former Commercial and Consumer Law Section of the Maine State Bar Association and served as a member of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority from 1995-2000, and helped to prepare the legislation which created the Authority.
Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the published podcast.
SPEAKERS: Wayne Davis, Bruce Sleeper, Karen Christensen; recorded Tue, 10/26/21
Karen Christensen 01:36
Wayne and I, before we started, were talking about the about how awful it is to have to drive. We are definitely people who prefer to take the train if we can, but you two have have been at this for really quite a long time with notable really very well known and very, very important results for your state and our region. So I am dying, as I know our listeners are, to hear how you did it. How did you get started restoring train service to Maine?
Bruce Sleeper 02:20
Well, I think I think the first thing and the the easiest way to start is to say we’ve been doing this since the last century Train Riders was formed in 1989. And I was not involved in the formation, the initial formation, I joined a little bit after that, but So Wayne Can, can can speak about how it was originally formed. Because that’s an interesting story in and of itself. But it’s 1989 to 2021 is a long time. My kids, my kids were being born back then. And at this point, my youngest turns 30. In in a week.
Karen Christensen 03:09
So they’ve grown up with with trains. Well, Wayne, since you were there from the very beginning. Tell us how what about the gestation the birth of this effort?
Wayne Davis 03:21
Well, the birth was my background was in banking, and a CEO of a mortgage company. And one of my little stock pieces was if your two family, you live somewhere where you need two automobiles, if you could get rid of one of them, you might be able to afford a mortgage. But when you were calculating the eligibility, if you need the two cars, you might not be able to have the home, you have to make a choice. So you should pick a house that’s somewhere near public transportation, like a train station. So I was I did enjoy trains, but I hadn’t been here. But I my job as President of the Mortgage Bankers Association, was to go to DC periodically in New York. And I used to fly. But I had those inevitable bad trips on People’s Airline. I don’t know whether or not you’ve ever remember that. I’ve heard of it. That was the first of the cut, right? You know, no chairs in the waiting room, you sit on your suitcase. Simple, simple airline. When we landed in New York, we blew out a tire. And the train Did you know The plane did a loop around and round and round tool, the pilot got it under control and scared the hell out of me. So I got to my meeting anyway, when it was time to return I called the office and said What am I going to do? She and my secretary said, Well, why don’t you take the train. My husband and I took the kids to Washington for the, you know, the flower festival and was wonderful. I hadn’t been on a train since the 50s when I was in the service. So she made the reservation for me on the train from from New York to Boston, and then rented a car for me. So it was it was a delightful trip. So from that point on anytime I had to go to the Bankers Association, I would drive to 128 Station and board the train or overnight to Washington if it was the if that’s where the meeting was going to be. So I just fell in love with the service. It was so convenient and so civilized. Then I had the inevitable bad trip on the train to Amtrak President Graham Plater complaining about the condition of the fairly new and fleet equipment, burned out reading lights in the coaches and poor condition of the restrooms on a trip to New York. After my complaint, I ended the letter with an MLS. Well, we have to do to have you extend down direct service to Portland from Boston to save me a trip to Boston in the car. And lo and behold, Mr. Claytor answered all of his own mail back in those days, and he wrote me a personal letter 10 days later, apologized for the equipment, shared what he intended to do to correct the problems, thanked me for writing and suggested that if I was interested in having Amtrak, sir Portland, Maine, then I should do a quickie survey of public opinion. And if there was an interest, get back to him. I learned later that Mr. Claytor quite often personally responded to every piece of mail, not just those that interested. But following his suggestion, I put an ad in the newspaper inviting folks to come to the bank to discuss the issue and enjoy refreshments. People showed up and ultimately became the first board of directors of the group we named train riders. Our first activity was to collect public opinions on election day, and share the results with Mr. Slater.
Karen Christensen 07:35
What year was that?
Wayne Davis 07:38
Probably 1987, maybe 1986 87?
Karen Christensen 07:46
Wayne Davis 07:48
Probably 80, 87.
Bruce Sleeper 07:52
Well, you you didn’t get informed, informed train riders until 89, 1989.
Wayne Davis 07:52
And but we were 1988 was a busy busy time when I look back in my old calendars. visits with Henry for now. And I got to meet Henry, who was then a director of the board of directors in Washington.
Karen Christensen 08:19
Let’s let’s explain to listeners what NARP is. Could you do that? Explain. Just NARP is not necessarily familiar to everyone.
Wayne Davis 08:29
National Association of Railroad Passengers. Today, they still use that Rail Passenger Association.
Karen Christensen 08:39
And that’s existed since since Amtrak was formed, I believe in the early 70s. Yeah.
Wayne Davis 08:46
But but so we were somewhere, around eighty seven and early eighty nine because it took me a while to to meet all the people and get started on it. But we were, we were we were blessed with with a result that got the attention of Amtrak. And back in those days, I think they were they were looking for expanded things that that might make sense to them. We told Mr. Slater, we sent him all the results of the survey and he said come to DC. So I gathered the Commissioner of Transportation and a couple of new board members of train riders, and a consultant we had hired to help us. We went to Washington on the night owl and to Union Station and when we were introducing the transportation commissioner and the rest of us to Mr. Kaylor in a conference room full of multiple department heads. One of the VIPs said you know, you’re the first officials from any state that we’ve ever picked up at the station here in Washington.
Karen Christensen 10:03
Wayne Davis 10:06
But, but he was a peach. Everybody thought Mr. Claytor was a curmudgeon. But he was awfully nice to me. And when we were we’re done with the big meeting with everybody. He called me into his office and he said sit you want to train, I’ll tell you what you got to do to have a train. Haha. So he gave me six items. You know, he said, One, you got to have the best equipment in the world. Because you only get one chance at this. So you got to have new equipment. You can’t use any junk on our trains. So he said that’s my department, I can take care of that. Which is where we wound up with $20 million worth of the newest rail equipment that they had. And I kept the memo which said at no cost to the state of Maine. tie that into this atmosphere.
Karen Christensen 10:57
It’s so true. And that’s one of the questions anyone today is today ask well, how how do all these pieces fit together? You know who who are the necessary participants in having you know, a train service come into existence.
Wayne Davis 11:16
We started with the with the governor and the commissioner, you got to be on speaking terms with them.
Karen Christensen 11:21
And then when did because because you actually were then wrote legislation. Right, it Bruce, is that when you came in the picture?
Bruce Sleeper 11:34
Well, actually, I came in MIT a little bit before that. Um, and I guess I guess, you know, to get back to your your question, I think.
Bruce Sleeper 11:48
I think what’s important for us has been, it’s got to be a grassroots effort, it’s got to come from the bottom up. You can try and do it from the top down. But it’s far better to start with citizens get people to sign petitions, talk to their legislators, local legislators go through the local governmental entities and municipalities get support there and keep going up through the state legislature, through the governor’s office through very important that the commissioner transportations office, and also reach out to the to the federal government, which includes not just Amtrak, but includes the congressional delegations in the areas that you want to serve. And it can also include the the FTA, and the FRA, the federal aid entities that have various grant monies that you can distribute. It’s become much more of a formal process since we did it. Because we were one of the first to do what we, we didn’t have to go through some of the hoops that are now exist where everybody’s trying to get this money for free service.
Karen Christensen 13:03
Yeah. It is complicated now, and certainly different similarities. Now there are in those throwing money, did you find that the state officials once you got near the top that they were supportive? Did they have to be convinced what was the situation there?
Bruce Sleeper 13:21
Well, dependent upon which state official you, you wanted to talk to? You mentioned a minute ago about the legislation while I did write the legislation that authorized and required, what was then the, the Maine Department of Transportation, to take all steps necessary to return passenger rail service to Maine, going down to Boston, which we hadn’t had since the 1960s. And, and so I put that legislation together. But while we were putting it together, we met with the Commissioner of Transportation, who was then Dana Connors, and we had a very interesting meeting with him. He was he was very, you know, it wasn’t like he was going to make it his project, at least immediately. But he was not standing in the way of things. And one of the questions we asked was, we’re not sure what we want to put in the legislation for how soon we should have service in Maine. And we’d like to put in, you know, six months or something? And he thought about it thought about and said, Oh, yes, six months is fine. Well, that was probably 1990. When we did that we didn’t get service until 2001. So six months was a little a little, a little slow, short of an estimate. But But yeah, we had a choice early on, we could have been an adversary of the government and and taken, taken a position that we were trying to force things on there, or we could work with him. We took the ladder choice. And it worked. It worked amazingly well. It’s it’s unless you have a level of government that is dead set against passenger rail service. And that happens. It’s so much better, so much easier to work with government officials than to try and force them and coerce them to do what you what you want them to. And we were lucky because we were in Maine, people were open minded at almost all levels of government. And also because it mean, the scale of things is not you know, as long as large as it might be. Most public officials are very accessible in the state of Maine. I mean, you know, here here,
Karen Christensen 15:48
that’s that’s a good point. I try to provide some background context for listeners who are in other parts of the country or perhaps even other parts of the world. Why don’t I ask Wayne to just describe main To those who are not familiar with it, what, where’s this place that you are trying to get train service to?
Wayne Davis 16:13
Well, we still had manners. And still, I think we honored the past senior citizens up here where we’re rather revered I remember from my Grandparents Day of you were senior, you were pretty hot stuff. To the younger people. But interestingly, some of the things that Bruce has said really still go back to Graham Claytor. Who was not quite my age when we met when he was in his late 70s, early 80s.
Karen Christensen 16:45
Oh, I guess we should we should you better tell listeners how old you are. So they know exactly what we’re talking about.
Wayne Davis 16:50
At this point, I don’t use Walker’s or canes or, or glasses or anything like
Karen Christensen 17:00
See, that’s what campaigning for trip train service will do. That’s what I at least that’s what I’m hoping.
Wayne Davis 17:06
I have snow white hair, which wasn’t white when I started. But it was cleaner who said you have to form the relationships with your your Commissioner of Transportation or your Secretary of Transportation, and your governor. And of course, we want on both on both issues there. And it’s always it was somehow easier to deal we with the officials. They were always so polite. When I halfway through this process met the the Administrator of the Federal Federal Railroad Administration, Gil Carmichael. To me, he was like my grandfather. And he Welcome to me and he said, Come in here from Maine, I love made into World War Two, we left from Portland’s Union Station come in and sit down. And I remember his secretary saying, but you’ve got a room full of people in your conference room. And he said, That’s all right. Take them some bottled water and tell him I’ll be in in 15 minutes. Karen really just about I don’t know what it was. But the car, the stars and the planets were aligned. Because everywhere we went, that’s what happened. And then
Karen Christensen 18:33
what year did the train service actually the down Easter start running?
Wayne Davis 18:38
Bruce Sleeper 18:40
Wayne Davis 18:46
Yeah, before a wheel turned, that was 12 years of our effort. Yeah. 2001. runswick was 2013.
Bruce Sleeper 18:57
Well, 12 or 13.
Karen Christensen 19:01
So so let’s let’s talk about about the downy stir, where it runs, what it does, and and how the impact it’s had?
Wayne Davis 19:12
Well, it’s had a tremendous impact. And that was part of our dream as a citizens organization to begin with. It wasn’t just to be a toy, it was supposed to be something that would ultimately my way of thinking should be very firmly woven in with the fabric of life in Maine. And I can remember a Senator in Washington when I testified before Congress, he said and what makes you think that you’re a 19th century technology is going to have any passengers on it. I smiled and said, Well, Senator, the state of Maine has just spent about, you know, many millions of dollars to do ridership studies. And the, the Federal Railroad administrator says this is the most, you know, sensible project that crossed his desk and in about 10 years. So I said, I think we’re, you know, we’re, we’re, we’re in place, I think we will ride the train. Again, probably the main thing our governor then was, was Angus King, who was now today’s US Senator. Okay. Yes. And we talked about the train. I dealt with him for the eight years on a personal level, both he and his wife. While I was involved with schoolchildren educating them about below the lovely life, you could have a few road train that they were responsive and and liked it. But the governor worried before the inaugural he said, maybe you could get some of your board members to be hosts on board the train. As you know, people can hurt themselves when they’re not familiar with crane cars. They may reach out to grab the diaphragm or something between cars lose a finger. So we did that. So board members acted as a volunteer hosts for the inaugurals. And afterwards, the governor said, you know, that was neat. Maybe you should keep that running for the benefit of the public. Volunteer Host Program was born, which really set the train apart. The rail authority state officials and everybody were fascinated with the fact that the train had a volunteer host on it roaming up and down.
Karen Christensen 21:35
So so how does that yeah, how does that work? I didn’t know about that. And and I think it’s intriguing. So if I got on the down east or from Boston, if say, next summer I go to to Maine on what what would I see?
Wayne Davis 21:52
Well, we hope the Host Program will be restored it was for the pandemic and for the condom train was suspended. Yeah, many months. But now volunteers are back at stations. People. But Conde Nast did a big article on the down Easter when it was new. And they refer to it as America’s most charming train. Well, okay, we accept the charming, say, fastest or most modern, but we’ll take charming and I think yes, what people expect when they boarded on Easter. It’s clean. We also run the only train which has its own food service. come from the Amtrak commissary, we have home aides. And we did. Of course, yeah. The supper train, the five o’clock train on the Boston quite often had homemade lasagna being served in the cafe car. And you could hear people calling home and saying don’t wait supper for me, dear, I’m going to eat on the train.
Karen Christensen 22:59
That is how it should be That sounds wonderful. I can see that, that no one’s mentioned that to me before, but I have so often had, as we talk about, say, east west or west east service in Massachusetts. And people have said, well, we’ve got to look at what the downed Easter does and what the northern New England Passenger Rail Authority has, has done. Actually, that’s that’s a point that perhaps we should spend a few minutes on perhaps. Well, either if you could talk about what what is the the passenger rail authority?
Bruce Sleeper 23:58
Well, they like to say that they the they don’t run the train, but they make the trains run they oversee, they are that they are the state authority that oversees the service. They can do more than just the down Easter, but that’s what they’re doing right now. And they work with Amtrak as well as the host Railroad, which is now pan-am may wind up being CSX soon. And they they are the ones that set the fares. They set the schedules within the parameters of what Amtrak can provide. They have a budget as to you know, what it’s going to cost and so on. What they were created for, however, was that originally it was going to be the mass, the Maine Department of Transportation RM dot that was was going to be in that position. There was some concern that there might be some liability directly to the state if that was the case. So the Rail Authority was was created, and I worked on the legislation for that as well. And they’ve been in place ever since the ever since before the train started running. And continue to do an excellent job. And Patricia Quinn, there they are executive directors is a nationally known figure in passenger rail circles. And as a leader among the Yes, state supported service groups. And we’ve just had a great experience with that. It’s not just training. I
we it’s it’s not just train riders, we started everything. And we like to think that we help keep it moving. But there’s a lot of other bits and pieces here from from pan-am to Amtrak to nepra to the federal government and so forth that are all working together to make this a success. As Wayne said, we put in some new unique touches. The Host Program is completely volunteer and we usually have we try we’d love to have one one host on every single train. But we just don’t have enough hosts for that. Plus there’s one train that’s pretty late at night. Nobody wants to be bothered, but those hosts when they’re on there. go up and down the aisle and say, Does anyone need any help? Do you need any directions? Do you need any? What would you like? And give guidance, as well as physical help, in some instances to the, to the passengers. They work closely with the with the crew, because of course, the train crew is in charge of everything. But they’re, you know, they’re there. They’re almost like assistance to the crew, in some instances, limited, but in some instances, and otherwise, they’re there for the passengers. And just for the passengers, you
Karen Christensen 26:37
Now, Bruce, weren’t you telling me when we had an earlier conversation that that you were giving some train history on a on a run recently?
Bruce Sleeper 26:47
Well, that wasn’t me, that was Wayne. And it was, it was Wayne. And we’ve done that before we they used to be a more of a tourist train that used to go from Brunswick up to Rockland and wing did a little history thing there too. But he should tell that story.
Karen Christensen 27:05
Wayne, when people ask you about the train and the train history, what are their questions?
Wayne Davis 27:11
Well, they want to know they will board the trip when they board in Boston quite often, I always say where is home? And where did you come from today? And people that have arrived by train from Washington or New York, or Chicago or California and they came in on the Lakeshore, you know, through the Worcester and Springfield and all of that. And they say this train is different. Well, how do you mean, well, look at your your heating system on the side, they look so shiny, you could toast an English muffin on a train cleaner. The crews after smile, if you don’t smile, your history was quite new, there was a turnover of conductors periodically. Because they were you know tended to let they were having a bad day the customers and the passengers were were suffering because of it. So now everybody’s charmed by the conductor’s we’ve had marriages onboard the train, where the the groom and the bride met on the train as commuters. Oh, that’s marvelous. So we’ve had the ceremony for marriages, we have the conductors know when everybody’s birthday is when somebody gets a job, a new job or an increase. If you’re in the cafe car on the on the five o’clock or the 530 out of Boston, the cafe car is normally before the pandemic was jam. All the way.
Karen Christensen 28:52
That’s the one I’m taking.
Bruce Sleeper 28:58
One of the things I think about with this train is that it’s not just a happy train. It’s it’s like the crew, the passengers, the hosts, whatever, it’s almost like a family. And sometimes families are dysfunctional. I don’t think we’re dysfunctional here. We’re very happy family. And it works well together. And I just don’t think you have the same atmosphere on on many of the other trains that Amtrak runs. And nor do I think you could.
Karen Christensen 29:30
It’s something to aspire to. I think this is actually what you bringing up is is really important as we think about what we want in in future. I actually for final question on I would love to know something about the people who are riding the train. What what you know, some of them are presumably that you know, the summer tourists, summer visitors. Who else is there?
Wayne Davis 29:59
The last figures, you know, before the world came to an end, about 30%. Little over 30% of them were commuters that had jobs in Boston or on route the rest of them or day to day travelers. And it’s been that way ever since except during oh, let’s say from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. That’s when we get the people from all over the country and Europe. We’re getting an awful lot of people from Asia. Yeah, yeah. And they were all fascinated with the service as being you know, unique in some way. You couldn’t really put your finger upon it, but it was the smiling conductors and the happy hosts and the good food. You know, and on time performance plays in there once in a while. When the road bed is in good shape and your trains are running on time. Everybody loves you.
Karen Christensen 30:56
That’s right. Yeah, that sort of thing makes really makes a big difference. But I think all these other things that you brought up are even more important. And, and I, I see now more clearly than ever, why, why why what you’ve done is a model. Although I have to admit that I hope it won’t take quite as long.
Wayne Davis 31:25
One of the one of the greatest things, Karen, is that we’ve had, during our history, seven Presidents of Amtrak have come to our annual meeting and delivered their greetings, and half of those people as we got into the service, you know, in the 10th, year, 11th, year 12th year, they were saying the down Easter was a perfect example of how local service should be operated.
Karen Christensen 31:57
It’s a great complement. And I have to compliment both of you that perhaps especially Wayne, because he has seniority for for the terrific efforts you’ve made in the influence that you are the rest of us working to bring back the trains in other parts of the country. It’s been really a great pleasure to talk to you today. I appreciate it very much. And we’ll I’m sure meet again before long but you know, I’m going to be on that train next summer to
Wayne Davis 32:34
Let me know when that’s going to happen. We’ll make sure you have a super ride.