US Commuter Rail: What it Is and What It Could Be

Jake Blumgart has a superb piece in Governing (free but click “Continue to site.”) about the distinctly North American artifact called commuter rail, and why it’s so different from the way heavy rail infrastructure is used for transit in most other developed countries.

The key difference is that most other countries want their heavy rail services to be useful all day, while the default in most of the US has been to run only at rush hour with at best minimal service the rest of the time, as though the briefcase commuter is the only conceivable customer.

There are not such sharp contrasts between regional rail and the rest of transit systems in most wealthy European or East Asian nations. But in North America, the divide was sacrosanct. As recently as 2016, then-MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola drew a bright line between this service and the rest of the agency’s subway, bus, and light rail services: “Commuter rail is commuter rail. It’s not transit. It’s designed to bring people into the city in the morning and take them home at night.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, calls that whole concept into doubt.

“It’s not transit.” “The divide was sacrosanct.” Of course this division of the market by trip purpose also implied a distinction of social class, manifested especially in very high fares.  But high ridership is diverse ridership.  If the goal is to help everyone go places, it’s always best to design services that are useful to everyone and make those services connect, rather than run two systems side by side (commuter rail and slow buses, for example).

Commuter rail services also tend to run long distances across core cities without providing much relevant service to them.  They either run nonstop or offer a frequency that’s too low to be relevant for the shorter in-city trips happening along the line.

I have my own trauma about this, because I spent too many years in the 1980s trying to advocate for an all-day frequent service on Caltrain, the commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose in California.  Caltrain has the geography of a frequent all-day rapid transit service: it runs through the historic downtown of almost every city it serves, because the downtowns grew around the rail line.  In terms of the useful transit provided, it could have functioned as another BART line.

Yet decades later, Caltrain service levels are still terrible in the context of the corridor it serves.  It was big event when the midday frequency was improved from two hours, as it was in my day, to one hour, but that still makes it irrelevant to most trips along the corridor, especially those of less than 10 miles or so where waiting time becomes more onerous.  So a bus system has to run alongside it, inefficiently serving some of the same trips that rail could be serving, and unable to efficiently feed the rail line very well because of the rail’s low frequency and erratic schedule.

Since then, as a bus network planner, I’ve encountered the same problem in many other cities.  There’s just no way to integrate commuter rail with a local bus network, because good bus networks involve regular patterns of frequency that are not what US commuter rail does.  At best you have to provide dedicated shuttles that meet the trains, and that’s a form of duplication that leads to worse access for everyone.

Blumgart’s piece touches on the effort that’s now being made to rethink commuter rail to make it more like what it’s always been in Europe, East Asia, and even low-density Australia and New Zealand.  In all these countries, rail is how you travel longer distances across the region all the time, not just at rush hour.

That difference arises in part from a different geography of social class.  When I lived in Sydney, I wasn’t happy with midday frequencies on the all-day rail network — mostly every 30 minutes then, mostly 15 now — but that was far superior to what most big US cities are used to.  The difference is the suburbanization of poverty, which has been happening for decades in Europe and Australia but is only now accelerating in the US.  The most remote parts of Sydney are some of the poorest.  In this urban structure, lower income people have to travel longer distances, but mostly to non-peak jobs.  Making heavy rail services part of the total transit system isn’t just a better use of infrastructure, it’s increasingly going to be an equity issue.

If Covid-19 causes a permanent drop in rush-hour commuting, we could see a golden opportunity to make better use of all the existing infrastructure of commuter rail.  There are plenty of obstacles, but they aren’t physical. They’re mostly cultural issues embedded in regulation and labor practices.  When it becomes important enough, those can be solved.

16 Responses to US Commuter Rail: What it Is and What It Could Be

  1. Alon Levy April 26, 2021 at 10:31 am #

    Canada has US-style commuter rail. Montreal specifically severed the Mont-Royal Tunnel from the mainline network to build REM. Toronto is trying to increase frequency on GO Transit but the project is plagued with trad railroader resistance and very high construction costs. Envying Canada here is actually bad.

    • Jack O April 26, 2021 at 11:31 am #

      And the REM pretty much eliminates any hope of through-running for Canada’s VIA HFR project. Unless they build a new tunnel for such. I feel like that’s a worse crime than railroader resistance for Toronto’s GO RER project.

    • Peter L April 26, 2021 at 1:35 pm #

      REM is a very bad joke told poorly. There is huge potential for it to damage Montreal’s ability to build transit for a generation or more.

      And it’s ugly

      • Uche April 26, 2021 at 7:48 pm #

        What will damage Montreal’s ability to build transit is those high construction costs. The Blue Line extension of the Montreal Metro costs $6B for a 5.5 km extension. $1B/km. Not even Toronto has reached $1B/km in their new subway lines/extensions to my knowledge. As a result, the Blue Line extension will probably be the last extension of the Montreal Metro for decades to come.

        As for the REM, it’s a noble attempt to build extensive rapid transit service at lower costs, via the use of shorter but more frequent trains. If anything, Montreal will have the second most extensive rapid-transit network in North America when both REM projects are complete which is truly impressive. But that comes at the cost severing the Mont-Royal tunnel and losing your only through-running mainline. VIA HFR cannot run to Quebec City because of that and any sort of EXO commuter rail improvements die along with it,

        Montreal should’ve done what Toronto did and bought up their mainline tracks so that they can run more trains and move towards and S-Bahn/RER system like in Toronto. Not saying we should completly envy Toronto as they’ve made questionable decisions, insanely high costs and had railroader resistance for such a conversion as Alon mentioned.

      • Dan April 28, 2021 at 9:38 am #

        Surely REM is a step in the direction Jarrett’s is suggesting? The project converts 2 commuter rail lines (Deux Montagnes and Mascouche) with an all day bi-directional service with headways similar to a metro.

        Yes, the Mont Royal tunnel conversion means that the Mascouche line gets ‘chopped’ and will affect potential HFR services. However in terms of equity I would suggest that dramatically expanded urban transit provision across the entire Montreal region (REM) represents a ‘better’ outcome than potential impact on long distance rail services in terms of equity.

        • Peter L April 28, 2021 at 1:33 pm #

          Except that it’s a modern version of the Expo ’67 Minirail — OK, a slight exaggeration — and not what Mr Walker is talking about. My numbers are from a few years back when the first horrifying numbers came out of CDPQ-Infra’s team of cilvil engineering school seniors (who developed this as their “capstone” project – I made that up … or did I?) so may be out of date.

          4-car trains with 30 seats per car, so 120 *seats* per train. Claimed crushload of 780/train (5.5 standees/seat).

          Former system — completely rebuilt ballast-to-power-distribution in 1995, mind you — usually used 9-car trains of MR-90 EMUs each of which sat about 90 (depends on presence of cab, washroom, etc) giving 830 seats per train and a claimed crush load of 1900 per train (1.3 standees/seat).

          The problem is that the STCUM didn’t buy any more MR-90s. Nor did successor AMT. Even after they renamed to exo (lower case). But there were only ever enough sets to send 9 trains in to Central Station at morning peak (0600-0900). Even with the Mascouche trains with their Unicorn dual-modes and bought-for-the-tunnel double deck cars, the 100+ year old tunnel was nowhere near capacity.

          The only way that REM gets better numbers is that they claim (again, numbers may be stale) is by running 54 of their minirails in the same time period. Each carrying a crush load. And if you think that “well, they can just run double sets of cars” … apparently the platforms are all exactly one train-length long.

          I *don’t* think my numbers include trains to/from Baie d’Urfe or YUL, only from the “main line” to Sainte Eustache.

          Had AMT ever invested in more train EMU sets, REM likely never would have happened.

          They are trying to build an airport train and build a train over the (new) Champlain bridge to the South Shore and, well, let’s also throw a bone to the West Island and pretend that it will be paid for by investors (it will not lose any money any more than a man can have a baby). And, as a bonus, they managed to get a “shot” at the unions by making it driverless!

          Have you seen the western stations? Imagine waiting on the platform in January. Think Red Line stations along the Dan Ryan or Blue Line stations along the Kennedy. Yeh. Brilliant putting them 10-20 m above ground.

  2. James S April 26, 2021 at 10:33 am #

    Not just social class, but also race. By essentially allowing one-way service (inbound morning, outbound peak) they prevent the “urban” people from taking the train to the suburbs where naturally, they “will commit crimes”.

    Some regions are more explicit about this kind of racism than others.

    Also why commuter rail trains even within the city will charge a $8 fare to go one stop when a bus line serving the same corridor charges $2. It’s to keep “those people” away. NYC is big on this policy. Of course the official justification is that the trains are very expensive to run, but having 8 staff on one train is a choice.

    NJTransit has 4 or 5 rail stations within Newark that were closed in the 80s. Now, suburban trains go by without having to stop in the city. Newark residents are directed to the bus. Im sure the legacy of closed inner stations is true in most big cities.

    • Peter L April 26, 2021 at 1:45 pm #

      > they prevent the “urban” people from taking the train to the suburbs where naturally, they “will commit crimes”.

      Did you know that the children of the instigators of the LOOT RAIL thread on USENET have taken up where their parents left off when they died? True story that I just made up.

      I am fine with a unionized workforce (and kinda wish I was in one) and don’t want anyone to lose their job, but for god’s sake, why are so many CR systems still using on-board fare collection?

      I moved away from Metra 15 years ago now, so may have out-of-date info, but back then not only did Metra have a hierarchy of people (Conductor, Assistant Conductor, Collector) on the trains collecting fares but they had human-staffed stations to sell you a ticket! And this in a system where most (peak hour) riders had a monthly and many of the rest of us had 10-rides.

  3. Steven April 27, 2021 at 10:55 am #

    Given the stunted and distorted nature of rail transit in North America, is high-speed rail an expensive waste of money and focus in the US?

    • AJ April 29, 2021 at 3:06 pm #

      If it is just fancy branding to create dedicated ROW for passenger rail and run frequent, all day trains, no.

      If it is an attempt to run trains faster without improving horrible frequency and span of service, yes.

  4. Jarrett April 28, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    NOTE: Not wishing to launch any more bouts of Canadian self-criticism, I’ve deleted the reference to Canada to which some of you are responding. I was thinking mostly of Toronto, but Vancouver’s commuter rail is definitely US-quality and I guess I was wrong about Montreal.

  5. AJ April 29, 2021 at 3:11 pm #

    Do you think the mooted merger of Caltrain with BART will drive a major change in how Caltrain sees itself?

    For all of BART’s criticisms as an urban subway system, it provides frequency and span of service that would be consider good for regional rail in most of the world. If BART acquires Caltrain and starts with the mindset of “let’s run this line like we run our BART lines,” that seems to be a good thing?

  6. asdf2 April 29, 2021 at 6:01 pm #

    A lot of the reason you off-peak commuter rail service in the US is so abysmal is that it’s operated on a cost structure with a very high marginal cost per trip.

    In Seattle, for example, the agency didn’t have the money to actually build their own track, so commuter rail operates on rented track from a private freight rail company. Each additional round trip the agency wants to operate requires negotiating an agreement with the rail company, and the railroad company always has the upper hand because the transit agency needs them (they have no alternatives except to give up and run buses) more than the railroad needs the agency’s money (they make plenty of money as it is, just running freight trains). So, each additional weekday round trip costs tens of millions dollars annually, just in trackage rights, before even getting into the cost of actually running the train. On top of this, antiquated rules require the line to be operated with gigantic trains and multi-person crews. This results in an insanely high cost per passenger, unless enough passengers exist to actually fill the gigantic trains, which, of course, happens only during rush hour.

    It’s the classic tradeoff between capital cost and operating cost. When the intent is to only run the train a couple times per day, paying more in operating cost to save on capital cost seems to make sense. But, the tradeoff is that if you later decide you want an all-day, frequent train, the cost quickly becomes prohibitive.

    • Peter L April 29, 2021 at 6:38 pm #

      Which “antiquated rules require the line to be operated with gigantic trains and multi-person crews”? Please be specific.

    • AJ April 30, 2021 at 3:31 pm #

      I think the line of criticism in this article is generally directed at ROW fully owned by the relevant public agency, like Caltrain, rather than a service where specific time slots are purchased for passenger rail service, like Sounder or many Amtrak routes.

      I believe in Chicago’s Metra it is a mixed bag, where some lines’ ROW is fully owned by Metra but others are shared with freight.

      • Peter L April 30, 2021 at 5:30 pm #

        Metra does it all ways – UP owns/operates UP-N, UP-NW, UP-W and BNSF owns/operates the line to Aurora.

        Metra operates trains over CN for North Central Service and Heritage Corridor and over NS for the SW Service.

        The other lines are “Districts” — Metra Electric, Milwaukee North, Milwaukee West, and Rock Island — are all Metra, ballast to dispatching.

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