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Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines

Though the number of rail lines has jumped, the number of people riding them has fallen. The solution, as New York City found, is bumping up service.

Rail Runner. Northstar. Trinity Railway Express. Music City Star. America’s newest generation of commuter rail lines certainly have catchy names; they’re also sprouting up at a record pace. More than a dozen new lines have opened in the last 10 years, creating what could be characterized as a new golden era of passenger rail in America’s biggest urban areas—except it’s not.

In 2012, commuter rail accounted for 466 million passenger trips in the U.S., making it a vital cog in public transit. But while last year may have been a banner year for public transportation, with a record 10.5 billion trips—the second-highest annual ridership since 1957, according to the American Public Transportation Association—commuter rail ridership barely budged (up 0.5 percent) and 10 out of 28 systems lost riders. More troubling, the decreases occurred at some of the newest commuter lines, including Albuquerque (down 9.09 percent), Dallas-Fort Worth (down 7.73 percent), Minneapolis (down .47 percent) and Nashville (down 6.37 percent).

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So what’s going on? The biggest problem commuter rail faces is that its customer base lives in far-flung suburbs where cars are used for just about everything. “You are trying to attract people who are the least likely to use transit in the first place,” says Yonah Freemark, editor of The Transport Politic. Furthermore, service is mostly limited to a not-so-frequent hourly schedule and the final destination is often not the central business district. It all adds up, says Freemark, to a series of impediments to growth.

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While the public may love the notion of commuter rail lines, they are perhaps the least popular form of transit for politicians. The subsidies for commuter rail are tremendous, says Michael Smart, a researcher with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A study of the Minneapolis Northstar line concluded that taxpayers were paying a subsidy (which included capital costs) of $89 per passenger. Other studies showed subsidies of much lower rates, but still significantly higher than those for bus or subway riders.

The answer to commuter rail’s problem may sound counterintuitive, but it involves more service. That’s what New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) discovered last year. After watching ridership decline for decades on its Metro-North Railroad line, the MTA added more off-peak and weekend service, as well as another 187 trains, representing the most ambitious service expansion in its 30-year history. As a result, ridership has grown robustly.

That doesn’t surprise Freemark, who argues that the success of a commuter rail line is best measured by the number of riders it carries. And the only way you get more riders, he says, is by offering frequent service throughout the day and on weekends. “Too many of today’s commuter rail lines are wasted infrastructure. Can you imagine a highway where the lanes are only open during rush hour?”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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