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Taking the ‘Commuter’ Out of America’s Rail Systems

While the plunge in ridership has left some wondering if commuter rail is dying, others see a rare opportunity to reinvent the suburb-to-city service into something very different. But it won’t be cheap or easy.

The front car of a train stopped at the station with people walking past it on the platform.
Boston's commuter rail lines took a ridership hit of unprecedented magnitude when the pandemic engulfed the country. (David Kidd/Governing)
When Garrett Wollman was considering his housing options in the greater Boston region back in 2001, the possibility of a carless commute beckoned. After all, the city has one of the best mass transit systems in the country, including an extensive regional rail network that ranges down to Providence, R.I., and up to beach towns like Gloucester and Manchester.

He picked a townhouse in downtown Framingham, a Boston suburb, a little over 20 miles from his job in Cambridge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in part because it had a couple of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) regional rail stations within two miles of his front door.

In theory, it would take Wollman almost the same amount of time to drive to his job at MIT as it would to take mass transit. According to Google Maps, the trip by public transportation is a mere 10 minutes less by highway, so why not skip the hassle of traffic sometimes and ride the rail from Framingham?

In practice, Wollman has taken the commuter train precisely once in 20 years.

“It was the day my car was totaled in a crash on my inbound commute, about six weeks after I moved to Framingham,” says Wollman. “The combination of slow diesel trains and huge gaps in the schedule have made the MBTA’s offering especially unattractive to me. The fact that the commuter rail trip takes about twice as long as driving is a serious disincentive.”

That lengthy trip is made worse when factoring in the wait time between trains. As with many American commuter rail systems, the delay feels endless to the point of futility if you aren’t riding during the peak hours when most white-collar commuters are headed downtown. For Wollman, who punches in at 11 and out at 7, taking the commuter train turned out to be a near impossibility.

The Suburb-to-City Fixation

America’s regional rail lines haven’t always served a highly specific slice of the population. This mode of transit dates back to the first flush of the suburban exodus in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when private companies ran the rails and service was frequent throughout the day. As mass car ownership came into vogue, profit leaked out of that arrangement. A cash-strapped public sector pivoted to focusing the service on well-heeled commuters who had moved out of cities.

In recent decades, the vast web of rail lines that surround many older urban centers were only convenient if you worked a 9-to-5 job downtown. Fares were double or triple the cost of a bus ride, although many professional-class workers had them covered by monthly passes paid by their employers. Commuter rail was very expensive to those who couldn’t afford it, and often free for those who could. But even for those with higher-paid jobs, like Wollman, a schedule that even slightly deviates from the norm could make the system impractical.

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.

“I don’t want to say that COVID is an opportunity, but [we’re using this moment to look at] what needs to change and what can change in this new environment,” says David Scorey, head of the Boston branch of Keolis, a transportation company that runs mass transit systems across the world, including the MBTA’s commuter rail.

Like its North American counterparts, the MBTA’s commuter rail lines took a ridership hit of unprecedented magnitude when the pandemic engulfed the country. At its lowest, Scorey reports, only 4 percent of previous riders used the system. As the second wave receded in early 2021, ridership levels edged up to 8 to 9 percent of previous levels. By contrast, bus and subway lines saw their use plunge too, but mostly by three quarters or one-half, not by consistently over 90 percent.

That’s because the principal regional rail riders are professional-class employees who have been able to work remotely through the pandemic. Now, even as the world begins to open up again, there is doubt that their commutes will look quite the same as they once did. Although only 8 percent of workers were remote before 2020, estimates by the freelancing platform Upwork are that between 20 to 25 percent of jobs could be in the next five years. That’s below the high water mark of the pandemic, but even those who go back to the office are anticipating that they will have more flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities a day or two a week.

If commuter systems try to return to their focus on white-collar suburban commuters, their ridership will be considerably thinned. To continue to attract riders and fares, they will need to change their appeal. To do that, they will need to change their frequencies and their fares.

Unlocking Travel Patterns

In Boston, Keolis is trying to face that future by making the system more like its inner-city counterparts. On April 5, they announced that all the commuter lines will now have more regularized and predictable scheduling that arrive at least hourly throughout the day. Some of the most heavily used branches, like the service up to Beverly on the North Shore, will come every half hour. For every line, the update means no more gaping, multi-hour holes in the schedule during midday or late night. For the outer suburbs like Framingham, they’ve updated the schedule so that the trains come every hour all day with even more frequent service during high ridership periods.

“We couldn’t have done this pre-COVID because people were so locked into their travel patterns,” says Scorey. “The bulk of the resources were concentrated on the peak, because that’s the time that people were traveling. [But now] we can try to get ahead of emerging work patterns and enable people to build the future world of work around the service, rather than wait for the service to catch up.”

Transit advocacy groups are pleased with the changes but are pushing for more, like electrifying the fleet to decrease carbon emissions and increase train speed, expanding frequency further and reducing fares to ensure they are actually affordable to all.

Scorey says he cannot comment on the fare structure, as that is entirely in the hands of the MBTA, although he says there is a “real appetite” for change. The old monthly commuter rail passes, for example, are not expected to remain an attractive product. Companies won’t pay for something that encourages trips every day if workers are not going into the office that often.

Stakeholders seem convinced that these changes are just the beginning, both in Boston and across America.

“This is really, really a huge transformation for the U.S.,” says Clément Michel, Keolis’s regional director for North America. “The [MBTA is the] first network that changes from this really commuter rail pattern. It’s more inclusive and it’s just the beginning of a bigger transformation.”

The MBTA is the leader among American commuter rail systems when it comes to re-shaping commuter rail, but other transit systems are also thinking about a return to normalcy that doesn’t look exactly like what came before.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) serves the Philadelphia region, and boasts an impressive web of regional rail lines that spider out across the region. Like the MBTA’s system, however, they greatly increased fares and reduced frequencies in the 1980s to stabilize finances and service more monied white-collar workers. This aggressive suburbanization strategy was even pursued on the lines that exist solely in the city limits, traveling through dense neighborhoods without other rail transit.

But earlier this year, policymakers from Philadelphia city government and SEPTA released a post-pandemic plan for its various transit systems, which includes a “reimagined approach to regional rail as a frequent, regional transit system that runs more like a metro than a commuter railroad.” It includes an outbound line for service every 15 minutes for 15 hours a day.
Two SEPTA trains stopped at an open-air station.
Philadelphia wants to rethink SEPTA, its regional transit system, so that the trains run more like a subway than a commuter railroad. It would include service every 15 minutes for 15 hours a day. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Chicago, the head of Metra, the region’s commuter rail service, said in early 2021 that his agency is considering similar changes. “Maybe they’re every half-hour, and during rush hour, every 15 minutes,” said Jim Derwinski, Metra CEO, in a speech first reported by Trains Magazine. “It lets people know there’s always going to be a train to come — not as fast as rapid transit, but definitely more enhanced than the one- or two-hour windows we have now.”

Transit advocates have spent years being told that such a transformation would be impossible, too expensive, too complex, too radical. But now, transportation executives and managers are facing a do-or-die moment. Something has to change and if reforming commuter rail was too expensive before, it now looks a lot more affordable than running a fleet of half-empty trains or building a lot of brand-new infrastructure. After all, the commuter rail networks are already in place. No tunnels need to be bored, no property obtained, no zoning changes secured or dyspeptic neighbors quieted.

“In a lot of legacy cities, building a new subway line is really expensive and it’s hard to see that happening,” says Jarred Johnson, executive director of the Boston advocacy group Transit Matters. “Transforming regional rail is a game changer, allowing for commuter lines that pass through dense, often low-income and minority, communities to provide service in a more cost-effective way than new subway or even light rail lines.”

The engine of a Metra train stopped at an open-air station.
Chicago's commuter rail service, known as Metra, relies on aging diesel locomotives to move the trains. But regional rail will require lines to be electrified, diesel cars scrapped, and uniform platforms installed. (David Kidd/Governing)
David Kidd

Boston Creates Prototype Regional Rail

The MBTA is unusual in that it has already made moves towards more rapid and equitable regional rail, at least on one line. A coalition of neighborhood groups and advocacy organizations pressured the transit authority to make changes to the Fairmount line. One of the system’s shorter routes, it passed through many of Boston’s majority African American neighborhoods without stopping.

Under political pressure from community leaders, and spurred on by the awful optics of commuter trains zipping through working-class Black neighborhoods, the MBTA was compelled to add four new stops, institute weekend service to the line, extend hours later into the evening, and lower the fares for those boarding at the new stations to the same level as a subway ride. The frequencies were increased to every half hour during peak and every hour otherwise — still not rapid-transit levels of service, but better than what came before.

As a result of these changes, the Fairmount line’s ridership had some of the sharpest growth in ridership (pre-COVID-19) in percentage terms, with a 236 percent increase between 2012 and 2018. Because it was growing from a very low base, the actual numbers were an increase from a few hundred passengers a day to a few thousand. Currently, it has the highest ridership levels of any commuter rail line, with a third of its pre-pandemic ridership still onboard on weekdays and 90 percent of pre-pandemic ridership intact on weekends.

Across the regional rail network, the April 5 changes that somewhat echo the Fairmount experiment have boosted ridership. It is still only 18 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but that’s the highest post-March 2020 ridership the commuter rail system has seen.

Transit Matters and other advocates are pleased with the new changes, but they both argue much more is needed and are very confident that further changes are coming.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think the possibility for more change is really, really high,” says Johnson. “The communities that these lines pass through are excited about this. I think the MBTA board is excited about this.”

The challenges facing the MBTA are not small and the costs are not minor. More frequent service requires newer, cleaner, faster trains that riders can board quickly without the aid of train crews. That means the lines need to be electrified, diesel cars scrapped, and uniform platforms installed. Most importantly, Boston lacks a north-south rail connection that would allow passengers to travel through the city without transferring. The total costs, according to transit researcher Alon Levy, could come to $4 to $5 billion for the north-south connection, and the same amount for uniform platforms, new trains, and line electrification.

“The physical changes needed are not that big and once one American city gets it, they will all follow,” said Levy. (Keolis and the MBTA would not put an exact number on the costs of the necessary changes).

The Key Will Be Frequency

But at the most basic level, to win riders outside the white-collar professional class to this new paradigm, fares will need to be lower to ensure it is affordable to those without high-income jobs. And to win riders of any income and profession, including higher-income suburban professionals like Wollman, service will have to be frequent enough to allow riders of any income a degree of flexibility that can match car travel.

For Scorey, the question of even greater frequency than the April 5 levels will depend on where ridership develops and where needs are seen to be greatest. “But, yes, there is the opportunity to run even more frequent services in the future,” he says.

For Wollman, who’s been following the MBTA’s new plans closely, the April 5 changes haven’t quite been enough.

“The schedule changes that were just put into place were a step in the right direction, because now there is no longer an enormous gap in the schedule right at the time I would be looking to get to work,” says Wollman.

But for Wollman, the question of whether he will ever actually use the rail lines that first attracted him to Framingham depends on more than just the April 5 guidelines. For now, it’s still faster to drive to work, especially because the older diesel trains are simply slower than their electric counterparts. Wollman allows that all may change if traffic or parking gets worse or more costly as the return to work intensifies.

“The difference between a 40-minute car trip, one way, and an 80-minute train and subway trip is still a bit much,” he says. “I really like the new schedules… [But new frequencies alone won’t get him aboard] without improving running times first. It may depend on what future costs for parking at my office look like, and what our work schedules look like post-COVID.”
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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