One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit


Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is one of many urban “commuter rail” lines that really need to be high frequency rapid transit lines. Now that’s a little more likely. Photo: Lucius Kwok.

Here’s some good news for people who want more rapid transit service in US cities, and soon.

In the US, all passenger rail services that could potentially mix with freight are governed by the regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This applies not just to Amtrak but also, critically, to “commuter” rail lines, crucial rail transit services that run on freight railways.

If cities wanted to rapidly upgrade their rail transit systems, the cheapest way is often using upgraded commuter rail rather than building new lines.  Many major cities have large networks of radial commuter rail lines [typically originally freight lines] which, if upgraded to run every 15 minutes or better all day, would effectively become metro lines, on the cheap.  You’ll find this level of service in many major metro areas overseas. Toronto’s Smart Track plan is exactly this idea.

The problem, as always, is frequency, which in turn is a problem of operating cost.  Most US commuter rail systems are far too infrequent to be useful for anything but 9-5 commuting, even though many of them run through dense urban fabric where the demand is there for all-day frequent service.

The Obama FRA, responding to several freight rail disasters, had proposed a rule mandating two-person crews, and had quietly inserted language extending this to passenger rail, even though passenger and freight rail present very different safety issues.   Those requirements would have made commuter rail service too expensive to run frequently enough for it to be useful, and would have persisted regardless of whether technological developments improved the safety outcomes of one-person crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just announced that it will stop requiring two-person crews and preempt state requirements to do so.  If this were a genuine safety issues, I’d be alarmed, but it really isn’t. The new FRA position liberates transit agencies and other local governments to negotiate the right solution with their unions in the context of what’s technologically possible.

Yes, removing this requirement is a “conservative” idea that would be unlikely to come from a Democratic administration.  But it removes a significant barrier to providing more useful urban public transit, which leads to all kinds of benefits for equity, prosperity, and the environment.

7 Responses to One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit

  1. Eli May 24, 2019 at 10:08 am #

    A note on SmartTrack: Commuter rail expansion to all-day frequent services was already underway by Metrolinx, the regional transit authority, branded simply as RER. SmartTrack was Toronto mayor John Tory’s plan to add a number of infill stations to the plan — which had been dropped by Metrolinx because ridership would not justify stopping the trains there. But building stations looks good politically, so Tory has gone ahead and agreed to build the stations on the city’s bill.

    One other interesting note about Toronto is that even though none of the system is electrified yet, Metrolinx has started to increase train frequency where it makes sense. The lakeshore line already has close to 15-minute service all day on weekdays, using traditional unpowered carriages pulled by diesel locomotives.

    • Eric May 26, 2019 at 5:46 am #

      Infill stations might not be justified now. But when trains are electrified, they can accelerate and decelerate much faster, which means that each stop introduces less delay, which means that infill stops are justified.

  2. asdf2 May 24, 2019 at 5:58 pm #

    While allowing one-person crews is a good step in the right direction, many of the cities I’ve been too, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to get their commuter rail running every 15 minutes all day.

    In some cases, a private freight company owns the track, and milks the transit agency for all its worth, since the agency has essentially no alternative short of buying up the land and building its own tracks. Thus, the cost of the trackage rights to operate even one additional trip can often far exceed the cost to actually operate the train.

    In other cases, the track it self is just one track, shared by trains traveling both directions. When the trains are running only inbound in the morning and only outbound in the evening, this isn’t a concern, and if that’s the service goal, spending the money up front on double tracks feels like a waste of funds. But, it prevents trains from ever operating all day at any kind of reasonable frequency, without a massive capital investment.

    There are also, I believe FRA rules requiring trains in the US to be of a minimum size and weight, with the theoretical goal of reducing injuries and deaths in the event of a collision. This rule prevents passenger trains from running at all unless they’re huge – so huge that enough passenger demand to fill them will never exist outside of rush hour and a handful of special events. Thus, the only “right-sized” vehicle it is legal to run, during the midday, is a bus, and if the bus takes twice as long as the train because it has to stop at stoplights and sit in traffic, well, too bad.

    • Nathanael July 24, 2019 at 10:58 am #

      The “build your trains like tanks” rule was FINALLY eliminated a couple of years ago, after massive lobbying by the Rail Passengers Association, commuter railroads, urban transit authorities, APTA, and others. Now we can buy nearly-off-the-shelf European equipment, finally, thank god.

      That said…. trains only make sense if they’re long. They’re essentially an economies-of-scale business to start with. The problem was that the FRA was requiring them to be heavy as well as long — good trains are very lightweight while being long.

  3. Dave Miller May 25, 2019 at 6:38 am #

    THere is usually more money to build more highway lanes to reduce conjestion (well at least until induced demand overwhelms them again) but seldom funding to double track and increase commuter rail frequency.

  4. Steve Dunham June 4, 2019 at 9:30 am #

    Are any North American commuter trains running with one-person crews? Fare collection would be on the honor (proof-of-payment) system, correct? The one member of the crew would be driving the train, and there would be no conductor, I suppose.

    • Adron via Transit Sleuth June 4, 2019 at 11:26 am #

      As I ride the Seattle area Sound Transit Sounder Commuter train along the south line every now and again, it seems I rarely see a conductor or get a ticket check. There’s always just one person driving anyway, so this seems far more logical since lost fare is minimal compared to another salary. Hire more engineers, drive more trains IMHO. I’d rather the service instead of the measly revenue lost.