Commuter Rail Reform Faces High Labor, Infrastructure Costs

The pandemic has broken commuter rail’s business model, which relies on boutique services for white collar workers. Fixing it means more trains, better platforms, high-tech fare systems and fewer workers. Can it be done?

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Unlike European trains, America's commuter rail systems require several conductors to punch tickets and help passengers board trains from platforms that are often lower than train doors. (David Kidd/Governing)
Richard Dixon does not miss piloting trains. For years he served as an engineer on the vast web of commuter rail lines run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). When he retired, he realized the mental toll the job had taken on him.

“We have millions of dollars of equipment in our hands,” said Dixon. “We have people’s lives in our hands. I wouldn’t want nothing to do with it now. It’s a relief from all that pressure.”

SEPTA’s regional rail network is massive and diverse. It reaches down to northern Delaware, runs multiple lines through dense Philadelphia neighborhoods with no other rail transit and goes up to Trenton, N.J.

That’s the one that Dixon liked driving best, because it's a higher-speed line and that made it feel like time was going by faster.

“I used to like running trains,” says Dixon. “It wasn't a bad job. But it was very, very taxing. You can’t make a mistake.”

But there was some comfort in knowing that he wasn’t the only SEPTA representative aboard. Depending on the length of the train, there could be anywhere from one to three conductors along for the ride as well.

Today the future of America’s commuter rail model, including its heavy staff levels, is in doubt because of COVID-19. Unlike their counterparts in Europe or eastern Asia, these lines are a boutique service and offer few options on the weekends or weekday non-peak commuting periods. That’s because U.S. regional rail systems have long been oriented toward suburban white-collar commuters.

The pandemic eviscerated that business model. Although ridership on all forms of public transit plunged in 2020, commuter rail has recovered much more slowly than buses or subways. In the long term, it is projected that remote work will remain much more common, even after the pandemic eases. That means the core demographic for commuter rail could either continue to work from home or only come into the office a few days per week.

Rail operators and transportation policymakers have begun to grapple with this existential challenge. In Boston, commuter rail is running more frequently during non-peak hours and the contractor operating the service hopes to run even greater frequencies in the future. At both SEPTA and Chicago’s Metra, policymakers have discussed making similar changes. A report released by the city of Philadelphia promoted subway-style service every 15 minutes throughout the day.

That would be a radical change in how American commuter rail works, even if such levels of service are the norm throughout the rest of the wealthy world. In theory, such a change in Philadelphia would be a little less challenging than in other cities. Unlike in Boston, there is a connector tunnel beneath downtown that allows trains to cut through the city without a transfer. SEPTA also already has electric train lines, saving another expense that other commuter railways face.

But skeptics say that there are myriad challenges confronting such a transformation. One of the biggest is inefficiently allocated labor costs. American commuter rail systems operate on an antiquated model, employing not just engineers who drive the train but multiple conductors who punch tickets and help passengers on from platforms that are (in many cases) much lower than the train doors. For example, the staffing levels on the Berlin S-Bahn, the German capital city’s regional rail network, are about one-third the size of the Long Island Rail Road (America’s busiest commuter rail system), which in turn serves only about a third of the passengers.

“In Spain or Germany, you just have the train driver, there’s no one else on the train,” says Roger Senserrich, transportation advocate in Connecticut and a longtime commentator on Spain’s rail system. “Trains are complicated technology, but they are not the kind of thing that needs so many people supervising how they are used. They are doing less with more and doing it in an extremely inefficient way.”

The Problem: High Costs per Kilometer


Most American commuter rail services date back to the days when private companies owned mass transit operations. When the public sector took over these essential services, they also inherited many of the antiquated practices that private operators hadn’t updated as they sought to divest themselves of these no longer profitable ventures.

In addition to heavy staffing, other holdovers include diesel locomotives, which are more polluting and don’t accelerate as fast as their electric counterparts, and low-level platforms that don’t allow for easy boarding. All of this makes it harder to reduce the number of workers per train, because conductors are needed to check tickets and help people aboard.

For reform advocates like Senserrich and transit researcher Alon Levy, the upfront capital costs of such a transformation wouldn’t be a deal breaker. They calculate that bringing Boston’s commuter service up to international standards would cost about $10 billion, primarily because the MBTA needs to build a north-south connector tunnel and electrify their rail lines. In Philadelphia’s case, the tunnel is already built and the lines electrified, so the cost would be far less.

A bigger barrier, in Levy’s opinion, is that it costs $13 a kilometer to run the Long Island Rail Road, while even SEPTA and the MBTA cost a little less than $9.50 a kilometer. In European systems, the costs range from $5 to $7 a kilometer. To sustainably run service more frequently, those costs would need to fall.

“They [American transit professionals] speak with perfect confidence and say that things are impossible that happen thousands of times a day in other parts of the world,” says Levy, who lives in Berlin. “You have a country that doesn't really learn from Europe. You have railroad workers who don't learn from anyone except themselves. It’s not a question of resources. It’s all institutional.”

For Senserrich, transforming America’s commuter rail systems into more of a rapid transit system could be a boon for everyone. Riders of all kinds would be better served, even traditional white-collar commuters who could spend more time downtown without fearing getting stuck by infrequent train service. For workers, scheduling would be easier and split shifts could be eliminated. Service could be more cost-efficient if trains weren’t full one way and almost empty the other. Senserrich even believes that such a transformation could be minimally disruptive for employment levels at the agency: conductors could be re-trained as engineers, who will be in higher demand with more frequent service.

But he doesn’t downplay the difficulties either. Just because something is technically possible, doesn’t mean it is politically easy.

“Moving away from how things are done will require difficult talks with unions and there is an extreme reluctance by authorities to get into that and risk a strike,” says Senserrich. “This fear of confrontation and lack of trust between agencies and unions is in many ways what makes that transition really hard.”

Unions: Commuter Travel Will Come Back


American public transit agencies have a complex labor landscape, with different unions representing conductors and engineers. Neither of the national unions that represent these workers responded to requests for comment. (Cleaners, inspectors and repairers have their own union too.)

In Philadelphia, the leader of the local union representing engineers says he is skeptical of big changes coming to commuter rail. He’s heard about Philadelphia’s transit report promoting subway-style service, but says that no official talks have yet been had.

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Unions representing conductors and engineers cite out-dated and unreliable equipment, including doors that don't open automatically, and congestion on inner-city lines, as reasons why commuter rail isn't ready for European style transit service. (David Kidd/Governing)
“Personally, I think it's putting the cart before the horse,” says Donald Hill, general chairman of the Philadelphia branch of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “There are businesses and venues that are announcing that they're planning to re-open as we speak. Just like the Spanish flu back in the 1920s, people will get over their initial fears and go back to their normal practices.”

Hill has a lot of other critiques of the idea. He argues that SEPTA is facing an engineer shortage if they even want to return to pre-pandemic levels of service (a claim the agency disputes). There’s also the issue of scheduling the trains appropriately to avoid traffic jams in Philadelphia’s Center City.

“Back then [pre-pandemic] there was so much service, trains were meeting at all these junctions and we would have to wait,” says Hill. “If you run a lot more service than that, you're going to have a lot more of that. What I’m saying is there's no easy button to push that just solves all our problems.”

From the agency’s perspective too, they are still a long way off from being able to provide 15-minute service. (They’ve promised something similar in the past, to little result.) For now, SEPTA press representative Andrew Busch says they do not have the staffing to provide the kind of frequency outlined in the city plan.

There are other challenges too. Two-thirds of the regional rail fleet date back to the 1970s and the doors are not automatic, which means the Federal Railroad Administration requires conductors to manually open them. Then there are all the platforms the agency needs to upgrade to a uniform level that will allow ease of boarding, without conductor assistance, across much of the system.

“If we could get in a position where we were able to get the fleet up to speed and make at least some of the infrastructure improvements, those would really be the keys,” says Busch. “We don't think staffing would stand in the way of [much greater frequencies].”

The Goal: Keeping Transit Viable


But advocates of enhanced service argue that these infrastructural challenges are not as big as transit agencies are claiming. In an era when the federal government has been providing unprecedented support to mass transit and Congress is debating the largest infrastructure spending initiative in modern memory, there may be fiscal room to maneuver.

There is already proof in America that such service can thrive. In Philadelphia there is another suburban train service, the Port Authority Transit Corporation Speedline (PATCO), that operates similarly to European regional rail services. Built in the 1960s, it never used conductors and instead has ticketed turnstiles and uniform high-level platforms. There is just one operator on every train and, at least pre-pandemic, service ran every 15 minutes throughout the day between Center City Philadelphia and a large swath of the South Jersey suburbs. (Unlike SEPTA’s regional rail, however, PATCO does not share track with Amtrak or the freight companies, so it does not face the traffic jams Hill warns about.)

But from the perspective of Richard Dixon, now retired from SEPTA, this discussion of running more frequent service with fewer workers per train seems outlandish. It also seems dangerous.

“The idea of just one guy to control a lot of doors, to save money, you start getting into some safety issues then,” says Dixon. “You may have a handicapped person somewhere, or there can be a problem at a certain door, you aren't going to be able to see everything. But people always had this idea, because they're looking at the bottom line. And the bottom line only.”

Dixon also believes, like Hill, that this discussion is addressing a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist. Those morning and evening rush hours will be back eventually, he predicts, and so will traditional commuter rail.

But transportation observers aren’t so sure. Even in New York, America’s most transit-dependent city, ridership is still deeply depressed. New York University’s Eric Goldwyn argues transit unions that represent workers like Dixon could be brought around to a more dramatic vision of reform, like European-style regional rail system that runs frequently. If they see that the previous model is outmoded and this is a way that their members' jobs can be preserved, a coalition may be possible.

“The unions can be open to improvements, if they can be shown that this is going to be in the best interest not just of transit riders and our budget, but also in keeping transit viable and more attractive in the long run,” says Goldwyn, who is an assistant professor of transportation at NYU. “It’s about trying to make this win-win-win. But threading that needle is really difficult.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart
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