As I alluded to in the last few posts, although the FRA is the primary obstacle to a passenger rail revival, the old railroader traditions it reinforces are still strong in the commuter railroads. At some, for example the MBTA and the New York-area railroads, practices are even worse in terms of cost and performance than required by the FRA.
Witness the following issues, recurring on almost all US commuter lines:
1. Overstaffing, more than required by the FRA. The MBTA currently has one assistant conductor per two cars, and its proposal for an upgrade to newer rolling stock retains one conductor per two cars. The New York- and Chicago-area commuter trains have 3-6 conductors, punching everyone’s tickets. Caltrain maintains assistant conductors even though it does not punch tickets anymore. And New York’s plan with smartcards is not to institute proof-of-payment, as is normal throughout Europe, but rather to have conductors check every ticket using a smartcard reader, only faster: Jay Walder said as much at the MTA Unconference (it starts at 7:50 into the linked video, and goes into the next part).
2. Poor choice of rolling stock. See the same link above for the MBTA’s present acceleration profile, which is similar to that of the other commuter rail operators in the US using diesel locomotives. During acceleration from 0 to 60 mph, a train loses 70 seconds relative to going the same distance at full speed, and even under the DMU plan, it would lose 43. In contrast, a FLIRT loses about 13 seconds accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h. Despite this, there are no plans to electrify or ask for an FRA waiver.
Electrification alone could solve some problems, even without a waiver. The EMUs used by Metro-North lose 13-15 minutes from 12 intermediate stops on the Harlem Line, which after factoring in 30 seconds of dwell time works out to 35-45 seconds per station counting both acceleration and deceleration. Alternatively, if electrification is out, then an FRA waiver would open the doors to fast-accelerating as well as more fuel-efficient DMUs.
3. Poor use of existing infrastructure, especially at terminals. Even with FRA regulations, commuter trains with push-pull or multiple-unit service turn in about 5 minutes at their outer ends. They dwell for much longer at the downtown terminal, creating the illusion of capacity issues. To solve those capacity problems, railroads propose massive concrete, with no attempt to improve electronics or organization: the ARC cavern, the expensive ESA cavern, track expansion at Boston South.
4. A concrete-before-all-else strategy of investment, in direct opposition with organization before electronics before concrete. Amtrak and the commuter railroads that claim to be at capacity never investigated the possibility of better signaling, such as ERTMS. In addition, Amtrak’s Master Plan proposes extra trackage to avoid capacity problems in Massachusetts and Maryland that could be resolved with timed overtakes. Although organization is not sexy, it’s trivial for the various railroads using a station to share ticket vending machines and concourses, instead of separating into agency turfs; in addition, electronics is capital investment, and can get federal investment as well as good headlines about squeezing more capacity out of infrastructure. There’s no excuse for prioritizing concrete.
5. Poor integration with local transit in terms of fares and schedules. Commuter train stations are usually glorified parking lots; for one especially egregious example, compare Westborough’s train station location with its downtown location. Transit-oriented development is minimal. Best industry practice is to do the opposite, and instead integrate commuter rail with connecting buses at the suburban end, to say nothing of urban rail at the city end. Clipper in the Bay Area and the MTA’s proposals in the New York area have a single card that can be used to pay on both commuter rail and urban transit, but people will still have to purchase tickets separately, being punished first by the inherent inconvenience of transferring and then by being made to pay an extra fare.
6. Indifference to off-peak and reverse-peak riders. Peak ridership can fill trains, but is expensive to provide, because providing for more of it requires additional capital spending as well as additional employees working split shifts. Among the older railroads, the LIRR deserves singular scorn for running trains one-way on its two-track Main Line; although peak traffic on the three lines using the two-track segment is 23 tph, within the capabilities of two tracks under present signaling, the LIRR prefers being able to run express trains than any reverse peak trains. Outside the inner ends of a few very busy lines, such as the New Haven Line, off-peak service is at best hourly, and sometimes much worse. And at the peak, the commuter railroads eviscerate local service on their busiest lines in order to provide trains that make a few local stops and then express to the city, ensuring nobody will be able to use them to get to suburban job centers on the way.
7. Poor timetable adherence. Metro-North and Metra do somewhat better than the rest, but Amtrak only achieves 80% on-time performance even when it owns the tracks, and that’s after counting Northeast Corridor trains that are 20 minutes late as being on time. In contrast, SBB achieves 92% on-time performance by a 3-minute standard.
The importance of all this is that reform has to come from above, directed from Congress or the White House, or else from below by reform-minded railroads asking for many waivers and creating a template for smaller railroads to follow. Bruce McFarling has written various comments saying the FRA’s problem is one of regulatory capture by the freight railroads, and therefore the solution is to spend money on inferior passenger rail until there’s enough of a lobby for passenger rail-friendlier rules. This is unlikely; passenger rail advocates rarely care, with some positive but small exceptions such as NJ-ARP, and the passenger rail operators depicted in this post are wedded to the old way of doing things.
FRA reform by itself could help some of this, by creating a template for modern operations, consisting of a clockface schedules, short turnaround times, modern rolling stock, and regionally integrated fares and schedules. However, absent it, some forward-thinking railroad has to be the first to propose modernization. The MTA is ideally suited for it because of its high commuter rail ridership, but has no interest. As a result, good transit advocated need to keep harping on commuter operators as well as Amtrak to improve and reform, or propose reforms themselves. Hoping the status quo reforms itself will not cut it.