Nobody Likes Riding North American Commuter Rail

In New York, two neighborhoods at the edge of the city have both subway and commuter rail service: Wakefield and Far Rockaway. Wakefield has 392 inbound weekday Metro-North boardings, and 4,955 weekday subway boardings. Far Rockaway has 158 riders (an average of boardings and alightings) and 4,750 subway boardings. Although both Wakefield and Far Rockaway are served by the 2 and A, which run express in Manhattan, those trains make many local stops farther out – in fact the 2 and A are the top two routes in New York for total number of stations – and are much slower than commuter rail: the 2 takes 50 minutes to get to Times Square while Metro-North gets to Grand Central within 25-30 minutes; the A takes about 1:05 to get to Penn Station, the LIRR about 55 minutes.

Vancouver, whose commuter rail service runs 5 daily roundtrips, all peak-hour, peak-direction, has a weekday ridership of 10,500. The Evergreen Line, duplicating the inner parts of the commuter rail service, is expected to get 70,000.

Caltrain, a service of intermediate quality between Vancouver’s peak-only trains and New York’s semi-frequent off-peak electrified service, has an intermodal station at Millbrae, which is now BART’s southern terminal. Millbrae has 5,970 BART exits per weekday versus 2,880 Caltrain boardings. And BART takes a circuitous route around the San Bruno Mountain and only serves San Francisco and the East Bay, while Caltrain takes a direct route to just outside the San Francisco CBD and serves Silicon Valley in the other direction.

The MBTA provides both subway and commuter rail service, with several intermodal stations: Forest Hills, Quincy Center, Braintree, Porter Square, Malden, JFK-UMass. In all cases, ridership levels on the subway are at least 30 times as high as on commuter rail. Rapid transit and commuter rail stations are close together at the edge of the Green Line’s D line, a former commuter line; the line’s outer terminus, Riverside, gets 2,192 weekday boardings, while the nearest commuter rail station, Auburndale, gets 301.

Across those systems and several more, such as Chicago’s Metra and Toronto’s GO Transit (no link, it’s private data), the commuter rail stations located within city limits, even ones not directly adjacent to a rapid transit station, usually get little ridership (there are some exceptions, such as Ravenswood on Chicago’s UP-N Line). The suburban stations beyond reasonable urban transit commute range are much busier.

Of course, this is just a North American problem. In Japan, where commuter rail and urban rapid transit are seamlessly integrated, people ride commuter rail even when the subway is an option. Consult this table of ridership by line and station for JR East lines in Tokyo: not only would any investigation of ridership on the main lines (e.g. Tokaido on PDF-page 1, Chuo on PDF-page 8) show that their ridership distribution is much more inner-heavy than in New York and Boston, but also stations with transfers to the subway can have quite a lot of riders. Nakano on the Chuo Line, at the end of Tokyo Metro’s Tozai Line, has 247,934 daily boardings and alightings, comparable to its subway traffic of 133,919 boardings.

Although my various posts about commuter rail industry practices focus partially on operating costs, this is not directly what makes people choose a slower subway over a faster commuter train. Rather, it’s a combination of the following problems:

1. Poor service to microdestinations. Rapid transit gets you anywhere; North American commuter rail gets you to the CBD. For people in Wakefield who are going anywhere but the immediate Grand Central or East 125th Street area, Metro-North is not an option. Station spacing is too wide, which means the choice of destinations even from a station that isn’t closed is more limited, and trains usually make just one CBD stop.

2. Poor transfers to other lines. The transfers usually require paying an extra fare and walking long distances from one set of platforms to another.

3. High fares. In the German-speaking world, and in Paris proper, fares are mode-neutral. It costs the same to ride the RER as the Metro, except for a handful of recent Metro extensions to the suburbs that postdate the RER, such as to La Defense. In Japan, JR East fares are comparable to subway fares, though there are no free transfers. In North America this is usually not the case: it costs much more to ride commuter rail than to ride a parallel subway or light rail line.

4. Low frequency. This is partly a result of low ridership based on the previous factors, partly a tradition that was never reformed, and partly a matter of very high operating costs. With low enough off-peak frequency (Wakefield and Far Rockaway are served hourly midday), commuter rail can achieve cost recovery similar to that of subways, and in some cities even surpass it. People who have no other options will ride hourly trains.

None of those problems is endemic to mainline rail. They’re endemic to North American mainline rail culture, and in some cases to labor practices. It’s all organization – it’s not a problem of either electronics or concrete, which means that the cost to the taxpayers of fixing it, as opposed to the political cost to the manager who tries to change the culture, is low.

The electronics and concrete do matter when it comes to building extensions – and this is where the ARC Alt G vs. Alt P debate comes from, among many others – but even commuter rail systems that do not need such extensions underperform. For example, Toronto does not need a single meter of commuter rail tunnel. Philadelphia, which already got most of the concrete it needs and partially fixed the microdestination problem, gets somewhat more commuter rail ridership in areas where people have alternatives, but frequency on the branches is still pitiful and inner-city stop spacing outside Center City is still too wide, leading to disappointing ridership.

Another way to think about it is that infrastructure should be used for everything, and not segregated into local transit and railroad super-highways that aren’t very accessible to locals. There are eight tracks connecting Manhattan directly with Jamaica, but the four used by the subway are far busier than the four used almost exclusively by suburbanites. Something similar is true of the Metro-North trunk, and some MBTA and Metra lines – the commuter rail infrastructure is redundant with rapid transit and gives very high nominal capacity, but in reality much of it is wasted. In this way, the mainline rapid transit concept including the Paris RER, the Germanic S-Bahn, and the Japanese commuter rail network, far outperforms, because it mixes local and regional traffic, creating service that everyone can use.


  1. John

    I think freight interference is a problem in some cases too that prevents the necessary frequencies to serve higher ridership. Mostly though it’s the other things you mentioned. Low frequencies, lack of inner city stations, poor connections to local rapid transit, higher fares, and no integrated fare structure.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        People are always grasping for counter-factual American Exceptional Explanations.

        Don’t you know there is no freight on the Swiss network? That’s the only possible explanation for the density of and on-time performances of passenger services, after all.

        • Andre Lot

          Swiss freight trains have much more high costs per ton-km, as they are limited in length and obliged to attain high speed to fit paths. And they don’t have either 200-car coal trains or 150-double stack low-flat container cars operating there.

          • Alon Levy

            Of the American lines I brought up in the post, none has heavy freight traffic. The existing freight operations are a few trains per day, with restricted clearance making double-stacked operation impossible.

            Of the Canadian lines, the West Coast Express is freight-dominant, and I believe that GO Transit is mixed but that the lines feeding into downtown Toronto are passenger-primary.

          • Nathanael

            GO Transit isn’t a fair example because it *was* freight-dominant until recently. Metrolinx decided not long ago that it had to buy the tracks in order to get better service and it has been doing so.

            However, they still have a cultural problem which causes them to not build stations in the closer-in parts of the city, and to not seriously consider electrification (FIVE studies and massive popular support aside), and to not try to improve boarding speed or frequency (multiple studies aside)…

          • Nathanael

            As noted, Metra has heavy freight traffic. Somehow they manage to get pretty good performance on the BNSF line — cooperation, y’know. The problem with freight traffic is not the *traffic* per se but the *attitude* of the freight haulers (CN has a particularly bad attitude, hence Metrolinx having to buy the lines in Toronto).

        • John

          Metra has several lines with heavy freight traffic, including the busiest line in the system (BNSF). Sorry we don’t all live in New York.

      • Nathanael

        I don’t normally want to blame organized labor for the problems with rail lines. In the case of the LIRR, however, the problem is very clearly with organized labor.

        Metro-North… well, Metro-North is a good lead example to use. Its labor situation seems typical for N American commuter rail rather than exceptional; its history is typical rather than exceptional; its interaction with freight and intercity passenger rail is typical rather than exceptional; and it has a lot of potential for ridership.

        In the case of Metro-North, I daresay it’s almost entirely fare policy; the Bronx and inner suburbs of Westchester are inhabited by a lot of *price-conscious* people. The NYC subway has flat fares for political reasons (it wouldn’t have flat fares if it were in any European city, it would have zone-based fares).

        • Rob B.

          Have to agree with Nathanael. And it would be easy to look-up the median income of the inner suburb and Bronx neighborhoods.

          But you can stretch it to the slightly farther out suburbs like Hastings and Tarrytown. The #1 Bee Line Bus runs parallel to the Metro-North Hudson line. It is crowded with people headed for the NYC subway terminus at 242nd Street in the Bronx. Why? Price.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Or they would have to take the bus to the train station and then get off the train in Marble Hill and transfer to the 1 anyway.

  2. Amanda in the South Bay

    RE Millbrae-
    I’d think a part of it has to do with people going to SFO from the South Bay, as well as people going to the East Bay from the South Bay. Also, if you’re going to Daly City, or anyplace near the Mission District BART stations, it makes sense to transfer rather than go into the city and transfer to MUNI/BART. A lot of Caltrain commuters work in and around Market, and I think its still faster to continue on with a baby bullet than it is to transfer to BART. I always see tons of people in the AM get on a MUNI express bus going to Market at the Caltrain station.

    • John Murphy

      Yes. The Millbrae analysis shows a misunderstanding of how that terminus works. The Caltrain boardings are primarily people exiting from BART and getting onto Caltrain headed to the South Bay – the Millbrae station isn’t exactly in a dense area (though there are definitely Millbrae/San Bruno residents who get to Caltrain and board it in one direction or the other).

      The rest of those exits are people who began on BART and are ending their trip there. The combined station has a huge parking garage compared to other stations on the Caltrain line..There is a population which drives to that station for the parking, and if their destination is on the BART line they won’t bother with Caltrain (fast) and a subsequent transfer to MUNI (slow and unreliable) even if their destination is actually in SF instead of the East Bay.

      Then you have the fact that since the garage is so big, BART is renting parking spaces long term to SFO airport riders who then take BART to and from SFO.

      If you counted the number of patrons whose journey includes passing through Millbrae – either on Caltrain, or starting on BART, there are a lot more on Caltrain. If you start somewhere like Palo Alto, it is much more efficient to just stay on Caltrain even if you work next to a BART station, because of the BART transfer and subsequent circuitous route to downtown.

      Caltrain ridership is at a record high and peak trains are running at close to max capacity at some point in their run.

      • Alon Levy

        The point in these comparisons is to see what happens when people have a choice, not what happens whenever there’s a transfer point. If you’ve already ridden commuter rail, an additional transfer is annoying and you probably won’t do it. If you compare total ridership on a line with ridership at one station, the line is generally going to win out, everywhere: Caltrain, the MBTA, the LIRR, Metro-North, etc. That more people ride the Harlem Line than board the 2 at Wakefield doesn’t mean that people prefer the Harlem Line to the 2.

    • Richard Mlynarik


      One can find good BART origin/destination data in the nice Exc*l-format spreadsheets they provide at

      If (and I haven’t double-checked my numbers) I have it right from the August 2012 counts, I see
      1024 average weekday trips from Millbrae to all East Bay destinations; compared to
      3310 to the four SF CBD stations; and
      1648 to south-of-SF-CBD (24th/Mission) and south;
      4367 total to San Francisco+Daly City; and
      and a surprising/depressing “sucker tax” count of 344 who are forced to use BART to get from Millbrae to SFIA, usually via a transfer in San Bruno. (Once a simple, fast, and free bus hop.)

      All from a total Millbrae average of 6007 (which should be compared to Parsons Brinkerhoff’s “prediction” of 16500 daily boardings. Systematic, deliberate, outrageous, deliberate corporate fraud: you’re looking right at it. Brought to you by the same people doing “projections” for CHSR and for BART to SJ.)

      It looks like only 17% of trips from Millbrae are to the West Bay, which makes some sense given how slow and expensive the trip is, the feasibility (if not desirability) of driving alone or in a carpool for such trips, and of course the usual US wretched “last mile” non-connecting-transit parking-lot-seas-not-destinations problems. I’m surprised it is so many. (I personally know two riders; one occasional, one regular, and both seem quite atypical even to non-driving me.)

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Richard-To me, that seems like good evidence people would rather transfer to BART to work downtown off Market, than transfer to MUNI light rail/bus at 4th and King? I’ve always thought that would be the shittiest part of any regular Caltrain commute.

          Also, almost no one get on Caltrain NB at Millbrae, which makes sense to me.

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  4. Eric F

    If you want to really bash it over the head comapre 7 Train boardings in Flushing NY with LIRR boardings, literallly two blocks away. The LIRR offers a trip time of under 20 minutes to Penn Station from Flushing. The 7 Train is a miserable slog, slightly improved if you squash yourself into an express.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that, too. Historically it was even worse – there used to be multiple stops between Woodside and Flushing, but they closed due to pitiful ridership because people switched from the hourly LIRR to the frequent subway.

    • Nathanael

      Well, LIRR has done their level best to eliminate in-city ridership. I’d call it deliberate sabotage. Look at the way they’ve treated the stations inside NYC; they’ve just been allowed to crumble in place. (Flushing Main St. isn’t *quite* that bad, but look at East New York.)

      If you’re analyzing cultural attitudes, this is a contributing point (commuter rail services often actuvely want to *avoid* providing in-city services).

      If you’re analyzing things on a less political level, it means it’s a useless data point. It’s not incompetence in this case, it’s sabotage.

  5. JayBerns


    The devil is in the details. Yes – fares and CBD stops have a LOT to do with it: Wakefield-GCT Peak is $7.50 vs $2.25 on the subway and the 2 train is also a 1-seat ride downtown & Far Rock-Penn is $10!!! vs $2.25 — and that often requires a transfer at Jamaica — it’s a NO BRAINER to take the subway for the minimal time savings. But you also have to look at where people live. I don’t know Far Rock well enough, but at least in the Bronx, most of the housing is either closer to the subway for those that walk or take the bus from the East and minimally longer for those that take the bus from the West. It should be noted that very little housing exists along Webster Ave in the Bronx, and the Wakefield subway station is located between a busy highway and an industrial zone.

    The MNR stops in the lower Bronx, namely Tremont and Melrose have pitifully low ridership.

    • Alon Levy

      Where people live is itself a question of which service is better, at least partially. In New York, whenever there were parallel el/subway and commuter rail lines, the development shifted toward the el or the subway. So Lex became a major commercial street while Park became a residential one, QB became a major commercial street while most Main Line stations remained relatively undeveloped, Fulton became a more important commercial street than Atlantic, etc. In today’s era of zoning there’s more allowable development near the subway than near commuter rail because city zoning boards don’t perceive commuter rail as a source of TOD (in Yonkers there is some Metro-North TOD), but much of this happened even before zoning.

      That said, in Boston many of the stations are located at the same physical location, for examples Quincy Center and Malden, and many others are park-and-rides with a large commuter shed. Alewife’s ridership isn’t people who live near Alewife, but people driving in from farther west to avoid taking the Worcester and Fitchburg Lines.

      • Adirondacker12800

        So Lex became a major commercial street while Park became a residential one

        Fifth Avenue didn’t have any commercial so they had to have the retail somewhere. Fourth Avenue was industrial/commercial until the real estate developers and the NYCentral decided that it would be a great place to build luxury apartment buildings with a park in the median.

        • Eric F

          I thought Park became the most desired residential street because it was literally farthest from the water. Back during the era in which there was a functioning manufacturing/port system in Manhattan, the riverbank was where you’d get all the sights, sounds and smells of a pre-containerization port as well as industrial processes. I don’t know that this is the exact reason that Park Avenue became the most desired residential street address, but it’s a nicely tied up explanation.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Fifth and Lexington are farther away from the water.
            It had a steam railroad in the middle of it until 1910 or so. So did Second Ave and Third Ave. Fourth Ave’s was in a trench and Second and Third’s were on elevateds.

          • Alon Levy

            Before the NYC tracks were electrified and put in a tunnel, the most desirable avenue was Fifth, with posh residences on the park and luxury department stores below 59th. There’s a map from about 1900 that I almost certainly won’t be able to find showing property values per unit of area: the most expensive corridors were Broadway and Fifth.

            But it’s instructive to see what happens when Manhattan’s first two north-south subways were built. The burial of the tracks under Park led to luxury residential development. The construction of the IRT led to commercial development, moving the Upper West Side’s retail from Columbus. You can explain this away by arguing that Park was just spillover from Fifth, but if so, why did it not happen on Madison or Lex? Lex got regular retail when the IRT was extended, rather than more luxury residential.

            And this happened everywhere else in the New York area, at least until about the 1930s and the IND, when development in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn got a lot slower. (Of course in Queens it continued, leading to development along Broadway and Queens Boulevard.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            Madison and Lexington were developed when they hid the railroad under Fourth Ave. Much easier to build your luxury, elevator equipped, apartment building on the newly available “land” the railroad was selling than to try to assemble a property along Madison or Lexington. If Fifth is zoned residential and Park is zoned residential you have to put the retail on Madison and Lexington. Second and Third Avenue were decidedly lower middle class until after they tore down the Els.

            In 1900 Fifth Ave above 34th was residential. Single family houses residential. The luxury or not so luxury retail like Macy’s didn’t begin to move north until then.
            From Wikipedia:
            On Macy’s “In 1902, the flagship store moved uptown to Herald Square at 34th Street and Broadway, so far north of the other main dry goods emporia that it had to offer a steam wagonette to transport customers from 14th Street to 34th Street”
            On Bonwit Teller”…. in 1907 and the store made another move, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.”
            …. Bergdorf Goodman’s main store, which opened at its current location in 1928….
            ….B. Altman and Company was a New York City-based department store and chain founded in 1865 by Benjamin Altman which had its flagship store at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan from 1906
            …Lord & Taylor opened its Starrett & van Vleck designed flagship store and headquarters on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th streets on February 24, 1914.

          • Anon256

            The steam railroad was buried, and the grassy median created, in 1875. There were large holes in the median for ventilation which would have emitted smoke until 1910 and noise until the median was narrowed and re-landscaped in the late 1920s, and presumably these made the avenue less desirable, but c. 1900 maps are not indicative of development before the tunnel.

  6. rico

    I am surprised that services with more frequent multi directional services like NY are so poorly ( in comparison) used. I am not surprised low frquency uni directional services like Vancouvers Westcoast express get low ridership. By the way I would expect the potencial for higher ridership on the Westcoast express with the Evergreen line because now you could take it one way and get back on the Evergreen if you miss the last train. I also think the West Coast express trains tend to be full so ridership is limited by the number of trains they are allowed to run on the CP tracks.

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  8. WMATA Rage (@WMATARage)

    Oh, don’t get me started on MBTA commuter rail service. It is absolutely abysmal, especially for someone like a car-free high schooler or college student home for the summer. Trains MAYBE every hour off-peak, and the last train back at something like 11:15. Not to mention the quality of the service, but that paled in comparison to the infrequency.

    When when WHEN WHEN WHEN will transit planners realize that frequency is EVERYTHING? Using low ridership to justify cutting back to even FEWER trains per hour will just compound the cycle. And by the same token, if you speed up service, you’ve got to have the patience to see improved ridership. But no one seems to understand this (well, except you and Jarrett Walker, of course).

    • Beta Magellan

      Believe it or not most transit planners do, but for urban bus or rail increasing frequency doesn’t always make financial sense from the agency’s perspective. Particularly in a large city with strong (for US) ridership, increases in ridership don’t scale with frequency increases (doubling service might only increase ridership by one-quarter, for instance) and almost never scale with revenue—most urban buses don’t cover their costs, so increasing frequency usually means you need to find extra operating funds. This typically means tradeoffs in coverage (which can have political/social justice consequences), raising revenue or renegotiating contracts, the latter of which are typically out of planners’ hands.

      That said, I’m sure the case is different for commuter rail—it tends to be more overstaffed and has more people sitting around off-peak on high standby wages, which should make it easier to add off-peak frequency

      • Nathanael

        “it tends to be more overstaffed and has more people sitting around off-peak on high standby wages, which should make it easier to add off-peak frequency”
        Well, on typical commuter-rail work rules, perhaps. The LIRR work rules apparently mean that adding anything at all costs an arm and a leg. (“Ah, you made me work on both a diesel and an electric! Pay me extra! Ah, I get the rain differential on my pay!”)

  9. Jason Becker (@jasonpbecker)

    It’s more about fair integration than even the price. Buying a monthly Subway card gives me a ton of value for moving everywhere throughout the city all the time, not just my primary work route.

    Buying a monthly LIRR or other commuter rail pass for a daily commuter is expensive and really only offers value for the biggest to and from leg of getting to work. It’s likely that many of these people would want a monthly Subway pass anyway.

    There really should be no additional cost or separate fare system from someone traveling within the same city on trains run by the same agency, etc etc.

    • jim

      MARC sells a combined monthly commuter rail-unlimited Washington Metrorail pass. I think, but am not sure, they do a similar deal with Baltimore’s CharmCard.

      • Alon Levy

        CharlieTicket on the MBTA can also be used on the subway and buses. Alas, CharlieCard can’t be used on commuter rail, and if you’re buying on board (which is the only option at many stations) you’re not getting any fare media, just a receipt.

        But there’s some improvement. Worcester and Boston recently began selling commuter rail tickets that are good on Worcester buses, so that people can transfer for free.

      • Nathanael

        What’s needed is the equivalent of the Transport for London (formerly London Transport) Travelcard, and zone-based pricing.

        I do think that fare integration is the key here.

  10. Matthew

    Frequency and price are big factors in why the MBTA subway draws more people over the commuter rail when both are options. But there’s more. I think some of it is just awareness. For example, whenever JFK/UMass inbound has a problem on the Red Line, the T will run an extra commuter train there to pick up people for free. But many people simply don’t know about it, and wait around. Bad communication.

    There’s other curiosities. People who live out by Roslindale or Hyde Park have the option of taking the commuter rail downtown or the bus to Forest Hills Orange line. A lot of people opt for the bus because the zone 1 fare is so much higher than the bus/subway. But some prefer the 1 seat ride enough to pay the extra bucks, even though they’re only a mile or two away from Forest Hills.

    The reason why people don’t board at Porter Sq commuter rail much is because it’s inconvenient. There’s little point to transferring from the Red Line: you have to go up the enormous escalator and then wait, and it only gets you to North Station — most people are going where the Red Line goes. The people boarding at Porter are people who work near Porter, Harvard and Davis and live along the Fitchburg line, and who don’t drive. Same goes for Ruggles, which gets skipped a lot too. I have seen lots of people waiting at Ruggles, but I’m pretty sure they’re all coming from the Northeastern area, and only at pm peak.

  11. Casey

    In my experience the Millbrae station (largest intermodal station west of the Mississippi!) is little more than a glorified transfer point between Caltrain and BART. I use it because BART is much easier to access from my part of San Francisco and my work is further south than BART goes. Yes, I have a reverse commute.

    I think most Caltrain riders using Millbrae also use BART, plus a lot of riders use BART from Millbrae to access the airport.

    There is also the matter of Clipper, the newish transit card. BART offers discounted rides pretty easily through Clipper. Caltrain is a proof of payment system which means remembering to tag on at an inconveniently located kiosk (risking a $100 ticket if you forget) and remembering to tag off at the other end (charging me an extra $8 if I forget to tag off).

    The biggest problem with Caltrain is that it actually stops short of San Francisco’s CBD (which might be fixed with an estimated $2.5 billion dollar tunnel). It also stops short of San Jose’s CBD (which will be fixed by BART).

    All that said, BART’s future plan is to become commuter transit.

  12. Walter

    It would be amazing if we had old ridership numbers to see if it was always like this. The New York Central used to run rapid transit-like service in the Bronx (and into Manhattan at the present Park Ave tunnel emergency exits), with very close station spacing to Fordham (where there are remnants of a yard used for this purpose). Meanwhile, the Third Ave El ran parallel to and even directly above the NYC and stopped at the same places.

    • payton

      The University of Chicago has two transit services to the Loop at mid-day: the hourly Metra Electric (ex-Illinois Central) and the CTA’s #6 express bus, typically every 10 minutes. I’ve seen old Illinois Central timetables which showed rapid transit-like frequencies that evidently justified the electrification. The Hyde Park East neighborhood’s scores of residential towers were mostly built in an era when residents’ transit choices to the Loop would have been a quick express ride on the IC, or a grindingly slow local streetcar; the #6 bus didn’t even begin until 1946.

      Today, Metra counts fewer than 3,000 weekday boardings at all of its Hyde Park and South Shore stations — whereas CTA’s #6 bus, one of six express routes serving the two neighborhoods, counts almost twice as many boardings in the same neighborhoods. (All the express bus routes combined board about 11,000 inbound passengers a day.)

      (BTW, Metra ridership is available from the RTA at

      • Stephen Smith

        The Illinois Central was doing 10-minute off-peak headways (with maybe 20-minute headways on Sunday?) on the trunk(s?) at its peak, after they electrified and installed fare gates.

        • payton

          You inspired me to look up 1930s IC timetables, which of course exist on the web. Outbound between 11AM-noon (i.e., definitely off peak), the IC ran 11 weekday trains with a maximum headway of 10 minutes; Sundays saw 7 trains, still no more than 10 minutes apart. Service even ran every hour overnight. During the World’s Columbian Exposition, the IC’s suburban lines could move more than half a million people a day — as many people as the entire “L” system moves on recent summer Saturdays.

          It was transit service of this quality, and Chicago’s generous lakefront zoning, that shaped Hyde Park into one of the nation’s densest commuter-rail suburbs — albeit one now marooned (so to speak) by a regional agency that doesn’t see serving Chicago as part of its mandate.

      • Beta Magellan

        It’s worse than that—55th-56th-57th actually gets two trains an hour—a local and express—about 10 min apart, so Metra can increase frequency without touching its operating budget. There’s no excuse for not having half-hourly frequency there, or for that matter every station from 63rd north—there’s no need for an off-peak express. The difference in travel time certainly isn’t great enough to significantly alter equipment schedules or labor costs.

        • Beta Magellan

          (Strictly speaking not increase frequency, but rather switch to half-hourly schedules)

      • Nathanael

        This is another case of deliberate sabotage. This time by Metra, which has always treated the Metra Electric — its *third most popular* line even despite the sabotage — as a “red headed stepchild”.

        You can ask the “CTA Gray Line” advocates about THAT.

        Hyde Park is still centered around the IC (now Metra Electric) stations, which are now crumbling and actually dangerous, and of course have substandard and overpriced service.

        • Beta Magellan

          I’d might believe that if viaduct structures weren’t in terrible shape throughout the region, but deferred maintenance on structures is an issue everywhere in the city and inner suburbs (the viaducts at Clybourn—which serves now-fairly-affluent Bucktown and Wicker Park—are easily worse than those at my old Metra station on 53rd). Furthermore, I think it’s hard to make a case for deliberate sabotage when you look at Hyde Park-53rd, 55th-56th-57th Street, and the stations along the whole South Chicago branch, which were all rebuilt in the last decade or so (and 59th-University of Chicago and 63rd are also scheduled to be rebuilt, as are a couple of stations on the Blue Island branch suburban mainline).

          While the mainline urban stations between 63rd and Kensington are in bad shape, they’ve had mediocre ridership since the end of the Illinois Central days—since 1979, most have averaged under 100/boardings a day, with only a couple barely breaking into the three digits. This is partly attributable to a lack of fare coordination between the IC/Metra and the CTA, but also to the fact that travel on the south side isn’t very downtown-oriented anymore. The major crosstown buses all beat Green Line ridership, and comparing Dan Ryan branch ridership to State Street subway ridership it looks like a number of Red Line trips are intra-south side as well. The IC’s mid-century downtown commuter base—white clerical and office workers—moved south along the line with white flight, and (anecdotally) the current trend of black suburbanization from neighborhoods like Chatham is following the same path. There just isn’t that much demand for downtown travel.

          • Nathanael

            They’re finally getting to 59th-U of Chicago? Well, that’s good!

            Arguably the most attractive station on the main line from a location point of view.

            The stairs have been crumbling at that station due to lack of maintenance of the concrete. It’s literally dangerous to walk in and out of it.

            When you contrast the lavish temples to railroad travel on the BNSF line, you see that SOMETHING has been different over the last 30 years.

          • Nathanael

            After all, the U of C students and professors are still pretty downtown-oriented… but they’re not taking the ex-IC line. Hmm, could it be the poor frequency, dilapidated stations, and high prices?

          • Nathanael

            Your link does not indicate that there are any plans to fix 59th-U of C, let alone funded plans. Boo.

          • Nathanael

            I don’t know what to say about the South Chicago branch — perhaps that really does indicate a change of heart — but the other rebuilds so far on the Metra Electric mainline are all part of the ADA mandate.

          • Beta Magellan

            I thought the article gave the full list—It’s in table 6 (state bond program) here. I have no idea how Metra decides to rebuild stations and in which order—I’d think it would be in order of ridership, but stations on the Blue Island branch with ridership as bad as (and in neighborhoods with similar demographics to) those on the mainline are also scheduled to be rebuilt. The funding situation can be complicated—Chicago contributes no money to Metra, for instance, and station ownership is kind of complicated. I know stations built since the 1990s typically belong to and are funded by the municipality that they belong in; I’m not sure about the other lines (I suspect they’re owned by Metra and the various railroads) but those nice cottages out west have nothing to do with the quality of Metra’s service planning, which is the main issue here. No amount of concrete helps when you’re not serving the population in an effective way (I’d even say in Metra’s case they’re a distraction).

            I’m an alum of the U. of C. who lived in Hyde Park for a year afterwards (no car the whole time), so I actually do have some experience with the local transportation environment. Despite its name, 59th-University of Chicago isn’t the main station for the university—although there are a couple of graduate facilities and dormitories nearby, 57th-56-th-55th (particularly the 57th entrance) is really the station most people use, and the platforms were recently (~last ten years) rebuilt. U. of C. students and professors don’t make up the bulk of riders, though—in Hyde Park, most boardings on Metra (and, at least during the peak period, buses) are from people who live in the neighborhood who work downtown.

          • Nathanael

            Perhaps I’m biased because my grandparents lived in the 5400 block of Dorchester. The 53rd/Hyde Park station is just as unsafe as the 59th St. station, and it’s not being fixed.

            Or perhaps I’m biased from knowing grad students at the U of C… who were closer to 59th than 57th. 😛

            You’re probably right that the suburbs were funding their own train stations while Metra did nothing. That’s still a crummy situation. The state bond program is barely scratching the surface of the problem of station maintenance.

            Given the appalling state of many of the stations, I have a suspicion that, after complying with the ADA key stations list, stations are being upgraded not in order of ridership, but in order from “most unsafe” to “most tolerable” — a sort of lawsuit-avoidance protocol. This would explain why they got around to Roosevelt Road, which was left in appalling condition for a very long time.

          • david vartanoff

            Some thoughts from a long ago Chicago and briefly Philly commuter. As a visitiong grandchild and later post college wage earner, I lived in South Shore. My Granddad shifted from the IC to the Jeffery Express because it was cheaper and time competitive (the stops were at the same corner four blocks from our house. By the time I was working in the Loop, the IC was down to 30 minute base day but still had excellent super express service in rush. I spent a little extra to ride the train which got me to work late exactly once in 1 1/2 years (a major blizzard). At the time (964-65) South Sshore was still a stable ‘hood with many Loop workers. By the time we sold the hou8se a decade later the ‘hood had totally changed and IC service diminished as ridership shrunk. I revisited the ‘hood arounde Labor Day riding to South Chicago where most of the passengers off loaded to their cars. There were some few at the intermediate stations, but the commercial areas along thev ROW have yet to recover except around Jeffery. Coming back on a current version of the Jeffery Express, I saw the 2 “demonstration BRT stations” being built as CTA spends fed $$ to marginally upgrade the route. As to getting more riders on to Metra Electric, the Gray Line would work IF the hood generated more downtown workers. (cart, horse?) In another forum, discussion of the impending Red Line rehab/shutdown turned to doing the3 Gray Line to give Red Line riders a fast ride. Neither Metra nor CTA seem interested.

    • Anon256

      The New York Central never had particularly frequent local service on Park Ave; see for the 1876 timetable. Once the elevated railways opened, demand and service decreased further.

      In Boston, as of 1900 the New Haven Railroad ran trains every 15 minutes between Forest Hills and South Station, but after the Washington St Elevated opened the New Haven found it could not compete and cut back local service to something resembling present-day levels.

        • Adirondacker12800

          and the steam trains would fairly regularly crash, one of the reasons for banning steam trains on Fourth Ave.

        • Anon256

          Since Grand Central at that time had fewer tracks (all at surface level), there were presumably fewer switches slowing down the final approach. I believe there was also less total traffic.

          Steam locomotives could not run into the Grand Central trainshed, so they were detached and switched out of the way while the arriving train was in motion just before reaching the station. The train then coasted to a stop at its platform. (For departures, the locomotive would be attached at the north end of the train, which was outside the trainshed.)

  13. David Edmondson

    I’m curious how this will play out in the SMART corridor. It’s an odd beast, running exclusively between suburban CBDs, only one train in the mid-day, and fares equivalent to the parallel bus service. Will the distaste for bus service win out over the distaste for commuter rail service?

    • Richard Mlynarik

      SMART is a guaranteed disaster.

      There isn’t one single decision that’s been made correctly. (Caltrain shares the same attribute, and many of the same consultants.)

      It’s pretty much perfectly optimized for failure.

      Of course the agency and the dim-wits who pretend they’re “environmentalists” will move the goal posts and declare that even one passenger per day represents success, and a Triumph of Transit over Peak Oil, the Koch Brothers, Bg Oil, and the Iraq War. Any perceived shortfallings will be due solely to inadequate funding.

    • Nathanael

      Depends on whether it actually gets to the Larkspur Ferry terminal. If it actually manages to land next to the ferries (as the public wants it to, but NOT as the current plans suggest), that will make up for a multitude of sins.

  14. Bureaucromancer

    Just chiming in to point out that it’s not strictly true that Toronto doesn’t need commuter rail tunnels. Off peak frequency certainly doesn’t, but in the peaks capacity through Union Station (both in terms of passengers and trains) is basically gone, and once the dig down is complete there really isn’t going to be much room to grow without additional platforms. There are a few projects that can delay the inevitable but at the end of the day we do have an acknowledged need for either a central tunnel adding additional platforms at Union. This can be put off by a number of other projects (one of which is itself a new subway through the CBD), but will definitely have to be done eventually, and quite likely sooner than later if there is ever a serious attempt to take GO beyond what it does now.

    • Alon Levy

      Disclaimer: I’m ignoring freight right now.

      With that in mind, I don’t think Toronto needs extra capacity through Union Station. Part of making GO more than it is now is running trains with larger doors to allow faster egress, with short dwell times even at rush hour, and then having those trains interline (as already happens on the Lakeshore lines off-peak) so that they don’t have to turn at Union Station. The station has, I believe, 14 platform tracks, with 8 access tracks to the west and 6 to the east. With reasonable but not top-line operating practices, passenger rail capacity on each track pair is about 24 tph, which is several times what any of the GO lines currently runs at the peak.

      • Bureaucromancer

        In the real world (Metrolinx idiocy aside) yes, we can do better than we are, but ultimately what Nathanael said about the trainshed is exactly right. Not only is it structurally incapable of rearranging the tracks the way that would be needed to make the platforms wider in any functional way but it is a heritage structure we aren’t going to be allowed to demolish in any realistic scenario.

        Further, 24 tph is wildly optimistic for space constraints involved. There is a lot of track in place, but the speeds are low and in a particularly brilliant move we sold off most of the railway lands to developers over the last twenty or so years. There is, in other words, essentially no room to reconfigure the approaches to Union in a way that will allow significantly higher speeds in either of the throats. As far as through routing goes it definitely has potential,but some (most?) of the platforms are long enough to be operated as two stubs, which may end up having higher capacity with the speeds involved (I doubt it, but Metrolinx as ever seems enamored with doing things differently, so this is one of those things that just won’t completely die).

        All that said, the dig down shoud be able to handle peak capacity for a few years yet, and it is the off peak that needs service more than anything at this point. Metrolinx occasionally talks about off peak service, but somehow that’s always forgotten the moment anything reaches a study, let alone service. Whatever money becomes available always ends up going into another marginal addition to peak capacity with vague platitudes that off peak is still on the radar at some point. Basically what I’m saying we’re in the same boat as everyone else with commuter rail, that the service as operated is both awful and inexcusable, that the biggest improvements don’t need any significant infrastructure and that there are some very big and expensive infrastructure projects that will have to happen at some point.

    • Gauephat

      There’s plenty of capacity at Union, provided that the services are run with a degree of competency. What’s really needed isn’t more platforms; it’s less. Many of the platforms are so narrow that they are what’s limiting capacity. Pave over a bunch of the tracks, maybe shrink to 10 or so total, electrify, get level boarding, have halfway decent signalling, and there’ll be way more capacity than there is currently.

      • Nathanael

        The trainshed design prohibits total rearrangement of the tracks, and unfortunately the idiots at Metrolinx have made zero attempts to provide level boarding.

        It is true that platform crowding is currently the limiting factor at Toronto Union Station.

        • ant6n

          Paving over tracks to provide wider platforms does not require any reconfiguring of tracks. Maybe some flyover functions at the branches.

          • ant6n

            *flyover junctions – I mean the only reconfiguring of tracks that may be required may be flyover junctions at the end of the union station corridor, where the lines branch. Other than that, it’s just reducing the number of tracks, without changing their position much.
            Note that paving over every second track, you’d get wide platforms on both sides of trains – so you get increased door-capacity without having to use different rolling stock.

          • ant6n

            But also, part of the point Alon is making is that there need to be more stations downtown. One could envision three or four more stations in downtown, that would take away from the passenger load in at Union, while at the same time giving people a better change to get where they are going – of course at the expense of a few minutes extra time. This requires through-routing of trains at least to the other end of downtown, if not full through-routing.

        • Nathanael

          It’s worth noting that VIA has a stupid collection of ancient equipment — with multiple loading gauges! — and therefore has appalling dwell times. You could get some capacity by through-running and electrifying GO, but in order to get enough capacity to actually pave over trackways, you’d need to fix VIA’s rolling stock.

          • Gauephat

            Well, yeah. What needs to happen is to get all the big players (GO, VIA, AMT, CN, CP, etc.) and get them to agree to a series of standards for Canadian railways: platform height, rolling stock, signalling, ownership of urban tracks, future plans (for HSR, legacy rail, and urban rail), and hammer out a cohesive and sound plan for the future. And then have everyone work together towards improving things.

            But the chances of that are, of course, virtually nil.

  15. JJJ

    Its all about the price.

    The MBTA charges ludicrous prices for the commuter trains that have service within the subway/bus area.

    $6 for the train or $1.50 for the bus to get to the same place?


    The logic goes ” commuter rail is a premium service” but since when is a train every 60 minutes considered premium service when the bus comes every 15?

    • Alon Levy

      For the most part, yeah. The innermost parts of the network, south to Forest Hills, do charge subway fare, but the shorter the trip, the more important frequency and good connections are.

    • Beta Magellan

      Metra Electric fare, at least when I lived in Hyde Park, was the same as bus fare. The difference was choosing between a service that arrives every ten minutes versus one every hour.

      • Alon Levy

        The one time I used it, Metra Electric was marginally more expensive. But on top of that, the farecard I had, which was good on the L and the buses, was not good on Metra and I had to buy a new ticket.

        • Beta Magellan

          It is possible to get a sticker for free Metra-CTA transfers, but it’s poorly advertised, only covers peak hours, and only makes financial sense if you use the transfer twice a day. I never bothered because there was a peak-period express bus that ran closer to my apartment and took me right to my subway connection downtown (it was time-competitive, too, depending on traffic), whereas Metra was a longer walk from home and too the subway.

          Unified fare media is the holy grail of Chicago area transit (and now state law), but it’s being pursued poorly because it was stipulated to be a farecard (hello, Cubic!) and Metra’s doing its best to resist. Their attitude, I think, reflects that of their main customer base, which almost exclusively consists of suburban and exurban peak-period commuters who like having a transit service all to themselves.

          • Nathanael

            “Their attitude, I think, reflects that of their main customer base, which almost exclusively consists of suburban and exurban peak-period commuters who like having a transit service all to themselves.”

            This might not be their customer base if they hadn’t spent 30 years trying to drive away city dwellers, Metra Electric being the case in point.

        • ardecila

          I was about to make this point… Metra fares are surprisingly congruent with CTA fares within CTA’s service area. This dramatically lowers the financial bar for fare integration if not the cultural one.

          Inner-city ridership I think suffers from both the frequency problem and the zoning problem. Ravenswood with 20-minute peak frequencies and a completely-loftified neighborhood is the exception. This proves pretty objectively IMO that the barriers can be broken.

          • ardecila

            Metra also has an advantage for professional commuters because its West Loop terminals have attracted the lion’s share of new office space while the areas around Loop CTA stations have been eroded by residential and academic conversion.

          • Alon Levy

            Do you know if Ravenswood’s ridership is primarily peak or reverse-peak? Does Chicago have edge cities with nontrivial numbers of people commuting by rail, like Stamford and White Plains?

          • Beta Magellan

            As of 2006, Ravenswood’s ridership was split 2/1 between downtown and reverse commutes during the morning peak. Aside from Davis Street in Evanston (which is too close in to count as an edge city), some of the stronger destination stations are Great Lakes (Naval Base), North Chicago (Abbot Labs), and Braeside, a major transfer point for “shuttlebugs” to the Lake-Cook Road employment area/edge city, whose Metra station (on the MD-North line—and, if Aaron Renn were to get his way, Hiawatha) is commonly cited as the strongest reverse commute destination in the system.

            Note, though, that the numbers are pretty small—assuming all Braeside alightings are bound for Lake-Cook Road, we’re only talking about 600 reverse commuters to Lake-Cook Road plus around 250 coming from suburbs north, which is a major suburban employment center. Although I don’t have time to look up Lake-Cook’s daytime population, I suspect these number is disappointing (Naperville, whose edge city is also served by shuttles, has somewhat lower, but overall similar numbers). Part of this might be due to poor scheduling—reverse peak period schedules aren’t clockface, even if there are 1-3 trains per hour—but mainly because Lake Cook’s so sprawled out and unwalkable that a shuttle transfer is required of most potential commuters (a problem worse in Naperville).

          • Nathanael

            “Inner-city ridership I think suffers from both the frequency problem and the zoning problem. ”

            In the case of Metra Electric, the station maintenance is a *huge* issue. The stations along the IC viaduct have been allowed to fall into gross disrepair, while stations on most other lines are in decent shape. Roosevelt Road was the most extreme and embarassing example until its recent reconstruction.

          • Alan Robinson

            My introduction to the Metra Electric via the 59th/60th St. station on a slushy early spring day was certainly far from tolerable. Any protection from the elements had long since decayed.

    • d.p.

      An MBTA weekly pass ($18) will allow you use of the commuter rail within the urban zone (i.e. in the manner that this article is discussing). That includes most subway-served areas, plus Roxbury and Dorchester, Chelsea, and West Medford.

      A monthly pass hypothetically also includes this perk, though until they finally get CharlieCard readers on the commuter trains, there’s no way to prove it. No conductor has ever called me it between South Station to Back Bay or Ruggles (the segment for which commuter trains are frequent enough to be useful).

      So it is fair to say that fare integration exists on the inner MBTA; it’s just the frequencies and stop locations of the commuter lines that make them less useful than they could be.

      It is worth noting the delayed but in-progress project to turn the Fairmount Line into a more rapid-transit-like asset, with refurbished stations and trains shuttling in the 15-20 minute frequency range.

      There has also been talk over the last few years about creating an Auburndale-South Station shuttle along the Worcester Line, featuring frequent local service and rebuilding long-abandoned stations in Newton Corner, North Brighton, and Lower Allston.

      • JJJ

        Thats only the case on some lines. Check out winchester center, belmont and others that have local bus service to Boston but charge over $5 for the train.

        • d.p.

          The commuter rail access provided by Charlie’s Link pass covers, as I said, most of the “contiguous urban extent” of Boston, Cambrige, Somerville. Medford, and Chelsea — the places where the T provides primary mobility for the preponderance of trips and uses. The T looks to parallel subway coverage (excluding the distant southern reaches of the Red Line and the sprawling western reaches of the D Line) as a reasonable gauge for where complementary commuter rail offerings should have share fares and transfer rights, so as to improve the urban mobility spectrum.

          Belmont and Winchester, on the other hand, are both proudly ritzy commuter suburbs that organize themselves as such. They are close enough in that local bus service still makes sense, and does provide a standard $2.00-fare entry into the urban bus+subway system.

          But commuter rail from these mostly-bedroom outposts serves primarily a non-integrated function: 9-5 commutes to downtown Boston. At those distances, that represents dedicated, direct, express, premium service, and it makes sense to charge fares that reflect the premium, just as it does on peak express buses.

          Low-fare intraurban use takes advantage of marginal capacity to diversity the urban-transit portfolio. The commuters from Belmont and Winchester and Wellseley are the drivers behind the service and it’s capacity, and so they should bear a reasonable portion of the cost of its existence.

          (The is in keeping with the original post, which seeks unified urban utility, and which would never suggest expanding New York’s “City Ticket” fare modulation to Westchester or Nassau, or to the detriment of the MTA ‘s bottom line.)

          If the Newton turback commuter line is ever built, you should expect to see base T fares from Lower Allston to Newton Corner (blocks grim central Watertown). The fares from West Newton should be a bit higher, though still low enough to render it an all-purpose option in in the non-commute hours, so that high frequency will get used.

          • Matthew

            Hyde Park, Roslindale, West Roxbury and Fairmount are all places within the city of Boston. They are also all places where people must pay Zone 1 fares ($5.50/ride) to use the commuter rail, while also having access to local bus service. These are better examples than anything on the north side.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            At those distances, that represents dedicated, direct, express, premium service, and it makes sense to charge fares that reflect the premium, just as it does on peak express buses.

            Where do people get these ideas? Its got to be something in the water. “That’s The Way We Do Things.”

          • Adirondacker12800

            They get them from people who scream “Communist!” whenever someone suggests that mass transit… should do anything other than be transportation of last resort for people who are too poor to own cars.

  16. Stephen Smith

    Two things:

    1. Why the hell does Canada, and specifically a city as transit-oriented as Vancouver, run US-like commuter rail ops?! Do they have FRA-like rolling stock requirements?

    2. In Philadelphia, a weekly/monthly commuter rail pass from any zone has a magnetic strip and also works as a “TransPass,” which gives you free access to all of SEPTA’s “transit” division – rapid transit, buses, and trolleys.

    • Alon Levy

      1. Yes, they do. The West Coast Express also runs on a freight-owned, freight-primary route (which isn’t true of, say, the MBTA), which means that a time separation waiver like the one used in Ottawa is unlikely.

      2. I thought SEPTA might have free transfers. The MBTA kind of does, too, and is moving in the right direction. But in cities with different agencies running urban transit and commuter rail, even New York where it’s all under the MTA, you can forget about it.

      • Beta Magellan

        Alon, is West Coast Express really slow, too? Given the location of the route I’m not at all surprised that it doesn’t provide much urban service, but its meandering (and freight-primary—i. e. not canted to any useful degree) looks very slow to me—I’d guess that Vancouver’s lack of expressways is the only thing that gets people to ride it at all. In addition to the obvious frequency and connections advantage of SkyTrain, how will travel times compare?

        • Alon Levy

          Good question. The WCE is slow for the stop spacing it provides, but because it runs nonstop from Port Moody to Waterfront, the travel times are reasonable. It’s 25 minutes, or 30 from Coquitlam. The travel times on Evergreen are going to be 35 and 40 net, plus a transfer at Commercial-Broadway; if you’re traveling to Granville instead, which is more central within the CBD, cut 3 minutes from that.

          • Alan Robinson

            The travel time is better than driving to downtown Vancouver from any station along the route, by at least 10min in light traffic. The Port Moody to Waterfront leg are slow due to the geometry along the route, but are as canted as FRA allows. The Pitt River bridge and the Port Coquitlam yard are the most unnecessarily slow part of the trip (I believe 20mph over the bridge, 40mph along the tangent section of the yard bypass). There are also speed restrictions at the curves at Hammond, Kanaka Creek, and the Stave River. The rest is 79mph.

            With lighter rolling stock, the time taken at the 6 intermediate station stops would be decreased. There is some padding in the schedule, partly to allow for slow acceleration of 10 car trains. The evening trains to Mission, especially ones running light with only 5 cars, normally arrive 3-4 minutes ahead of schedule and dwell for ~90 sec at intermediate stops.

  17. Henry

    LIRR does offer some reduced-price options for city riders, although they are poorly advertised. CityTicket is still sort of pricier at $3.50 and only on weekends, but it beats the $6 that they charge during the weekday peak. Apparently, there’s also a discounted monthly pass for students for about $130, but they have to ask their school for forms and hand it in to a station manager.

    You’d think that the MTA would more effectively use, price, and market the LIRR train lines in Queens, especially considering that both the 7 and Queens Blvd lines suffer from capacity and reliability issues, and promoting LIRR would cost very little. The 7 is standing-room only leaving Main Street, and the E & F are standing-room only by the time they reach Kew Gardens.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The LIRR trains are SRO at Kew Gardens and Main Street too…
      Maybe when East Side Access opens they can relieve overcrowding on the 7 by running shuttles between Penn Station and Main Street and Grand Central and Main Street. Faregates to get on or off the platforms at Main Street.
      Pity the Queens Blvd super express trains are fading from everyone’s memory.

      • David Alexander

        Pity the Queens Blvd super express trains are fading from everyone’s memory.

        That idea only exists because we’re unwilling to beat the LIRR into RER or even S-Bahn levels of performance.

          • Alon Levy

            It doesn’t. But the RER goes into the Grande Couronne whereas the usable rapid transit network of New York doesn’t serve the suburbs.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Define “suburb”. To pick a place, Versailles is 17km/10.5 miles from Notre Dame. Jamaica is eleven miles from Penn Station. Newark is ten miles from Penn Station which means Broad Street is ten miles from Penn Station give or take. So I dug out the Official guide.
            Woodside 5.1
            Forest Hills 8.7
            Kew Gardens 9.7
            Jamaica 11.3
            Cedar Manor 12.8
            Locust Manor 13.6
            Higbie Avenue 14.6
            Laurelton 16.0
            Valley Stream 17.7
            Gibson 18.6
            Hewlett 19.5
            Woodmere 20.1
            Lawrence 21.8
            Inwood 22.2
            Far Rockaway 22.9

            The Transilien trains that serve Pontoise don’t make all the stops the RER trains make and the RER trains don’t make all the stops the Metro makes. Kew Gardens and Forest Hills already have an RER stop, on the E and F lines. Maybe if during the Dual Contracts they had made it more difficult to transfer from the express to the local and vice versa it would satisfy you urge to call it RER.

          • Alon Levy

            Versailles is far from the only place served by the RER. The farther-reaching RER lines go 70+ km from central Paris, which is comparable to Ronkonkoma, Fairfield, and Princeton Junction. All lines, even the relatively shorter-range A and B, go into the Grande Couronne, which is the comparable geography to New York’s suburbs (Paris ~ Inner London ~ Manhattan and inner Brooklyn and Queens; Petite Couronne ~ London proper ~ New York proper; Ile-de-France ~ London metro ~ New York metro).

            In New York, the only RER-like lines are the Rockaway lines and the Dyre Avenue Line. And the stupid thing is that the subway only took over these lines as far as city line.

          • Henry

            Because, even though improvements in LIRR service might not be the ideal solution, it’s certainly one of the cheaper ones.

            I’d imagine that CBTC on the LIRR Main Line and fare integration could make the LIRR a lot more useful for Queens residents.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Yes the people of Wykagyl and Quaker Ridge are going to abandon their cars, which can take them to a Harlem or New Haven station and a one seat ride to Grand Central to take a train to E180th Street and change to the subway. It may have made sense in 1912 when almost no one had a car, less so in 2012.

          • Anon256

            @Adirondacker12800: If one were going to restore RER-like service on the old NYW&B, the obvious thing would be to give it a one-seat ride to Penn Station via Hell Gate. (The loss of the ROW north of the city line makes this a pretty dubious idea however.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            The ROW didn’t go to the Hell’s Gate Bridge, it went to E133st where instead of changing the the subway to get downtown you changed to the 3rd Ave El to get downtown. An even slower ride. The ROW that goes to the Hell’s Gate Bridge is farther east.

          • Anon256

            It ran along the same ROW as the Hell Gate line from near E 177th St to just north of the bridge approach/Port Morris (where it turned west to Harlem River/Willis Ave terminal). The tracks between E 180th and E 177th have been removed but the ROW there is intact and/or MTA-owned; restoring these tracks and building a new junction where they meet the Hell Gate line would be sufficient for trains from Dyre Ave to reach Penn Station.

        • Henry

          Expanding the LIRR into a more robust borough-wide S-Bahn Style service is probably not happening, if only because I believe the LIRR Main Line may already be at capacity (and that “third track” certainly isn’t happening any time soon).

          There’s also the reliability issues that come with stuffing everyone onto one trunk line, which are already apparent when you look at the existing Queens Blvd line.

          • Alon Levy

            The Main Line capacity issues are east of Floral Park – and even then it’s possible to squeeze a handful of extra trains if the LIRR gives up one-way running.

      • Henry

        Well, yes, it is also SRO there, but it can’t be as terrible as the crowding on the E and F sometimes.

        Theoretically, one could make a lot more standing room by having LIRR seating in a 2×2 setup instead of a 2×3 setup, and i’d assume that a lot less people would care about standing if they only had to do it for 20 minutes vs. 40.

        • Alon Levy

          My pet issue regarding this is not seating, although I do agree 2+2 is better than 2+3, but comfortable standing space in the door vestibules. The M7s do this more or less right, and I’ve never had problems standing on them on the way to JFK. The RER bilevels do this even better, because of their enormous doors. The NJT bilevels also do this okay, because of the large middle levels with the longitudinal seats. The M8s do not do this so well, since the only standing room is right in front of the doors or between the rows of seats.

  18. Andre Lot

    A question regarding LIRR: how full are commuter trains when they reach Jamaica station from other locations? If I remember correctly, LIRR trains have typical “commuter rail” seat arrangement with plenty of seats, making travelling standing uncomfortable.

    What I know about this issue is the situation in Milan (Italy) where I’ve lived for a period. There is complete fare integration within the metro area (for all tickets, subscription, vehicles – except long-distance trains – and routes), so fares are not a consideration. In many cases, passengers could use a faster commuter train coming from the outskirts to reach the central station, but would not do so on peak time because these trains come relatively full so the reasoning of many passengers was to gamble a subway ride with much more stops where chances of getting a seat for at least part of the ride were higher. There were also issues like lack of real time information panel of next commuter trains on stations or connecting bus/tram stops, so the higher frequency of subway rides probably offset the chances of just missing a commuter train and sitting and waiting another 10-15 minutes.

    However, without fare equivalency it becomes hard to make such comparisons because price-time elasticity is usually too big of a factor to be ignored (and the US$ 6 vs. US$ 2.25 illustrates the case well).

    • Henry

      Getting a seat on the subway in Jamaica is never a given anyways due to the massive amount of buses that feed into the subway, so the whole “I’ll take the subway for a seat” thing is less of an issue. Standing for 20 minutes in a relatively clean LIRR car is probably more bearable than standing for 40 minutes in the sardine can that is the E train.

      When I’ve ridden a LIRR, it looks like there is ample standing room for those who wish to do so, although that would probably not be the case if a LIRR fare was the same as subway fare.

      • Adirondacker12800

        If you are going to Penn Station. If you are going to E52nd and Madison, not so much. Or even W52nd and Seventh. Or the World Trade Center.

        • Henry

          The E train works very well because it connects one of the largest bus hubs in Queens & Queens Blvd to Manhattan, provides a crosstown route through the middle of Midtown, happens to hit the PABT and Penn Station, and winds its way down to TriBeCa and Battery Park City.

          It works a bit too well, though, so anything that has a remote chance of boosting capacity (Queens Blvd CBTC, fare integration with LIRR, etc.) would be warranted.

  19. Davey

    Hello. I enjoyed reading your post tremendously. Like you, I believe, as you have eloquently stated, that the key to resolving this issue is an integrated, intermodal approach with standardized fare structures. This cannot be achieved, however, without an in-depth analysis of how places like Wakefield and Far Rockaway evolved over the century leading up to 2012. Our evolutionary trajectory in North America has been vastly different than those of our cohorts in Europe or Asia.

    I think it would be painting with an extra-wide brush to make comparisons with European and other systems and conclude that ‘Nobody Likes Riding North American Commuter Rail’. It’s not that easy. The assertions you make here are based on a way of looking at the evolution of societies and public transport in the US in complete isolation of socio-ethnic-economic indicators unique to Europe’s former colonies in the Americas, Asia and in Australia.

    Wakefield and Far Rockaway were two areas of New York in which a massive wave of blockbusting and bank-sponsored redlining along the lines of race, concurrent with the abdication of local manufacturing and businesses occurred in the 1950s-1960s. The low ridership figures we see today are a direct result of this. I would be interested in seeing an analysis including the boarding and alighting statistics of both the Wakefield and Far Rockaway stops, from the century leading up to 2012, coupled with a demographics assessment of the surrounding areas. Of particular interest would be any statistics you could find from the 1920s through 1945.

    We must examine the lay of the land prior to the advent of the centrality of the bus and the automobile in the five to ten mile radius around Wakefield and Far Rockaway Stations. The Cross Bronx Expressway and other Robert Moses-initiated projects in Queens violently uprooted thousands of New Yorkers in these areas, and disrupted the lives of millions. The scars are still here for all to see. Thousands and thousands of homes were demolished in order to build these roadways, which bisected and cut off everyone from everything familiar to them. The fabric of daily life was torn asunder and it has not recovered. If anything, it has only degenerated further. The massive exodus of educated middle-class and working class people from both of these areas as the jobs which once sustained the areas vanished cannot be ignored. This is a phenomenon which Europeans and Asians have never, ever experienced.

    In the post-war, Marshall Plan era, both Europeans and Asians concertedly reconstructed their cities and towns in the multi-modal centrally-planned, integrated way they had always done. Not so their American counterparts, who, while the war was raging, ripped up a huge chunk of our rail infrastructure and drew up plans for highways designed to bisect and cut off neighborhoods from the power-centers of the cities and towns for good. Money flowed into Europe from the US to make all the necessary reconnection possible. By contrast, in the United States, in the Post-WWII period, all the money went towards disconnection and dissociation, in no small part because of the Great Migration of poor African Americans from the rural south to the north. All they wanted was a chance at a better future, and had our industrial base not fled our urban areas at the same time blacks were moving in, they would have found those opportunities. Fascism as a political force for social engineering in Europe was went quickly out of fashion as people picked up the pieces of their shattered lives, ajd rediscovered social solidarity and the intrinsic value of community. They restored and reconnected bombed railway lines. They modernized their infrastructure, beginning what would become a decades-long march to the unified public transport modalities and seamless operations of services we see In Europe and Asia today.

    Here in the US by comparison, our logistics are still contending with the aftermath of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. It cannot be stressed enough that the 1950s while the influence of fascism quickly declined in Europe, in the US it grew substantially. The auto and oil industries were key players in a new fascism based on the disconnection of the American citizenry from one another. Men such as Henry Ford, Alfred P. Sloan, and Robert Moses delivered us into the disconnected, wildly impractical, expensive and irrational logistics nightmare with which we contend. This was not of our making as human beings and citizens. This was made by corporations which largely operated in a consequence-free environment utterly divorced from the environmental, social and economic realities of city dwellers.

    There was once a massive web of electric streetcar and interurban lines which linked the subway and rail hubs of the five boroughs of New York City, not just with the tri-state area, with the entire Eastern Seaboard. They provided a near seamless integration with the web of subways and commuter and regional rail networks, rivaling even those in Europe. That is, up until they were destroyed by Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, and General Motors in the fiasco known as the National City Lines scandal.

    Such a scandal is something which never, ever happened in Europe in quite the same way.

    Hard-working middle and working class Americans who had savings and great civic pride were never involved in the decisions which were to destroy their communities from the inside out. A complex group of private, unaccountable manipulators of the political process led Americans into a decades-long trap of race baiting by committed, hateful dividers who made billions of dollars on destroying millions of American lives, engineering our own people into a paradigm of unsustainable living based on a taxpayer-subsidized, war-for-oil logistics equation. A small cadre of fascists worked through the ICC to systematically shutting down North America’s commuter and intercity passenger rail manufacturing and transportation industries, in favor of the motorcar in the years following the Kennedy Assassination.

    The proof would be in the pudding. And the pudding is there for all to taste. Take a look at photos of people boarding at Wakefield and Far Rockaway from the 1930s, when streetcars and interurban lines were connected to the stations. Then, take a look at photos taken in the years following the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. We must no longer be unwitting accomplices in a domestic logistics model which has gutted our municipalities and disconnected the rail modality even from the mindset of the average American. This wasn’t the case at the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents. And this has never been the case in Europe or Asia. Ever.

    I only have a general idea of Far Rockaway today. Wakefield I know a little better. I can tell you that it is a depressed area with no remaining manufacturing sector of great importance. The area is not too far from several important teaching hospitals, some doing vital bio-medical research. To be honest, while I agree with the your premise, I think we need to reassess the claims you have made in light of the socio-economic and social engineering factors above. Europe and Asian societies pull together because their histories have shown them this is the way to lift everyone and everything to a higher level. Up until today, they were also fairly homogenous in terms of racial composition. Americans were violently disconnected from one another during the post WWII McCarthy period by racists and for racists. The low overpasses on Long Island’s Parkways can attest to this, designed as they were, to keep city dwellers from getting too far by bus….

    We must incorporate the aforementioned, missing chunk of the narrative in order to become the reconnectors our common humanity requires of us as we move forward. And we must be bold, dispassionate and frank with one another. It is sobering. It is depressing. And it is necessary in order that it never, ever be permitted to happen again. Statistics-oriented American urban planners and researchers can be shockingly timid in confronting the collective, Big Oil-engineered, Ayn Rand-informed fascist conspiracy to divide and conquer the American commuter. A decades-long pattern of redlining and internal migration, nationwide. An utter abdication of the social compact by industry and manufacturing and the simultaneous flooding into formerly prosperous communities of poor, unskilled, uneducated blacks coming north from the rural south and the West Indies looking for better opportunities. Communities which had begun to lose their tax bases a decade before the massive wave of unskilled, uneducated Hispanics began to flow into the Grand Concourse while affluent, educated Jews fled for Westchester County and Connecticut, becoming absentee slumlords during a period when urban planning and social engineering was concentrated in the hands of a very few, Ayn Rand-loving fascists at the top of the auto and oil industries.

    It’s not racism to talk about these things. It’s history and it’s well-documented. It’s ugly. By definition, looking at our past dredges up pain and unresolved issues. But in order to move forward, we have to have to open dialogue and rebuild the bridges which others burnt before we were born. We’ve come a long way in many ways, but who amongst us thought that four years after electing our President, we’d still see so many of our fellow citizens so hell-bent on demanding proof of his citizenship and his religion?

    All of us, regardless of race, religion, social status, etc. need to find out how to reconnect to one another. Those who divide and conquer the American people today know precisely what they’re doing, and though they’re achieving some of their objectives, I believe more and more people do see through what’s going on. Many of us feel powerless to do anything during this era of economic stagnation, where wealthy real estate investors with dubious motives, located in China, Russia and Europe conspire with predatory banks and lenders in continuing the pattern of re-draw the maps of our cities in their image. The dividers are as committed as ever to keeping Americans disconnected and isolated. It’s time to talk about these issues, to examine our painful collective past, to look one another in the eye, reconcile and join forces for a better future. We must stop making comparisons with our European and Asian cohorts, who didn’t experience in their societies what we experienced in ours in any way, shape or form in the modern era.

    The process of reconnecting and reintegrating our towns and cities begins with an informed citizenry committed to truth and social justice. The right to free movement and association is a human right we reconnectors must reclaim massively.

    Best regards to you, and to all who believe in and work for rational logistics in the name of the derivative social, economic and planetary harmony they most certainly promote.

    • Alon Levy

      I think you’re missing the point of the comparison with this. White flight and redlining affected all of Far Rockaway and Wakefield, not just the areas around their mainline train stations. The same factors that depressed rail ridership depressed subway ridership. But in both neighborhoods, people overwhelmingly use the subway rather than commuter rail, and that’s not a matter of redlining, but of how the two different transit networks are configured.

      And in fact, historically the decline of commuter rail predates redlining and postwar suburbanization. The LIRR’s ridership peaked in 1929, whereas the subway’s peaked in 1946. Commuter rail and the subway were always viewed as two separate systems rather than as a unified network, and because the subway offered show-up-and-go frequencies and 5-cent fares and commuter rail charged 20-30 cents and came once an hour, passengers chose to ride the subway. LIRR line abandonment began well before WW2: the College Point branch was closed in 1938, and although the Elmhurst and Corona stations survived into the postwar era, they had very low ridership. The duplication of els and commuter rail lines is even earlier – the Fulton Street el, a block away from the LIRR, opened in 1888.

      The other issue is that many of the same issues of urban disinvestment happened in other countries, too. Britain did everything the US did, except there it was not explicitly racial. It rebuilt and built new towns along auto-oriented lines, urban-renewed working-class neighborhoods, and encouraged suburbanization. London just now surpassed its 1951 population peak; its population drop from 1951 to 1981 was larger than New York’s population drop over the same period. France preserved Paris, but tore up all urban streetcar networks, pushed the poor and the immigrants out to suburban housing projects, and built a fast intercity motorway network. The reason the RER has such different ridership from contemporary hybrid urban-suburban BART and Washington Metro is entirely a series of mostly technical decisions that Paris got right, the Bay Area got completely wrong, and Washington got mostly wrong.

      • David Alexander

        The reason the RER has such different ridership from contemporary hybrid urban-suburban BART and Washington Metro is entirely a series of mostly technical decisions that Paris got right, the Bay Area got completely wrong, and Washington got mostly wrong.

        I’ve made jokes to railfans about BART being a second rate new-build S-Bahn like Frankfurt or Munich, while WMATA is a second rate Berlin S-Bahn, but my pet theory behind these jokes is that these networks are a half-assed attempt replicating some of the utlity of these networks, but within an American context. Of course, one could argue that BART and even WMATA to a certain extent could have been done with upgrades to mainline railways. I suspect that the real problems may have been in dealing with the coordination of the private railway firms, FRA regulations, and the unions that proved to be destructive to SEPTA’s once avant-garde (in North America) approach to how a regional railway network should be run. One could argue that BART and WMATA blew their advantages of starting new with high wage structures, but one has to admit that their approach may be capital heavy, but avoids the entire problem of dealing with the FRA or railway employees who didn’t want any changes to their pre-Staggers Act setup. Yes, we ended up blowing quite a bit of money to duplicate resources, but at minimum, we have the advantage of usable service to middle area suburbs without bleeding too much in operating costs.

        One could argue that the perpetual extensions into suburban regions on new built lightrail systems are also an attempt to replicate this phenomenon. As long as American transit planners are locked into “frequent and separate” or “infrequent, heavy, overstaffed, and mainline”, we’re going to get stuck with this operating pattern until an agency is bold enough to break the mold and get waivers, and that presumes others will follow the pioneering agency. Caltrain can get waivers, but it’s not automatically going to make the LIRR operate any better, nor will it make Metra get usable equipment.

        • Beta Magellan

          Waivers won’t make Caltrain operate any better, for that matter. The fact that Metra operates “infrequent, heavy, overstaffed, and mainline” on Metra Electric—which could easily operate under a waiver (no freight, owned by Metra) says a lot about the agency.

          • Richard Mlynarik


            Caltrain had the option to escape from FRA regulation and freight railroad type operating rules, but its staff freely chose to continue to operate line as 19th century conductor-infested creaking long-dwell long-headway high-cost “commuter railroading” holdover, forever.

            Buying some marginally lighter — but made-in-USA, custom-for-USA, priced-for-USA — marginally different rolling stock isn’t going to change any of that, sadly, Nor is putting some wires on top going to transform anything — no more than adding googly eyes to the locomotives might. Metra Electric at least has level boarding, something Caltrain staff have decided need never even be aspired to, let alone provided.

            Another billion delicious tax dollars to be squandered in California.

  20. Pingback: Towards a DC S-Bahn, part 2 « City Block
  21. Davey

    No, I get your comparison, I just feel you’re comparing apples to oranges. Americans’ attitudes towards public anything have been shaped by laissez-faire capitalism. It’s not until we leave the country and see what others who live in representative democracies were able to accomplish that our most cherished assumptions about commuter rail in America go up in smoke. All rational, clear-thinking North American rail commuters would want integrated, centralized planning, standardized fares and full integration of all modes, across all our cities, and between our cities. Ditto for healthcare, education, public utilities and resource management.

    An RER for Boston, Eastern and Central Massachusetts? Absolutely possible in a perfect world where the Bay State truly cared about deriving its inherent huge economic and social benefits. A comprehensive third rail and/or catenary-powered regional commuter rail service should fundamentally restructure and incorporate what is today the South Shore Extension of the Red Line into a new, fully-integrated south-north-west electric-powered, multiple unit-operated commuter rail system operating on frequent headways. The redesigned regional rail network would ideally incorporate the Big Dig-promised-but-cancelled rail tunnels under Boston, connecting South Station to North Station, linking all of the old New York, New Haven and Hartford routes from the South Shore and metro- Providence to the old Boston and Maine Routes on the North Shore, into the Southern New Hampshire and Portland commuter districts.

    Today the MBTA contracts its truncated, hobbling, 19th-Century, diesel-operated commuter rail system to Veolia (France). National Grid (UK) has control over the state’s electricity supplies. Any talk about building the rail tunnels linking South Station to North Station (which would also allow for seamless rail travel up and down the entire East Coast, into the Maritimes of Canada, and the Province of Québec, is met with silence. Who’s been running the show? Big Oil, Big Auto, and organized crime. Have the riding public ever been able to play any meaningful role in engineering the MBTA’s services to meet their daily needs in any meaningful way? No. Bay-Staters, including this writer, watched as a once vast electric statewide streetcar network was reduced to a handful of lines radiating out from Boston. In 1985 – along with the promised rail tunnels which came to naught – we saw Green Line service beyond Heath Street to Arborway permanently cancelled, the tracks removed or paved over, and the catenary removed after a whole bunch of dirty dealing.

    The Silver Line? That was supposed to be trolleys incorporated into the Green Line originally. Not the sub-standard, second best, petroleum-sabotaged nightmare it evolved into. Trolleys were once again supposed to run along Washington street once the El structure was torn down and the Orange Line began running in the Southwest Corridor. The trolleys would have made the same stops as the old Orange Line, entering the subway somewhere near where the Lenox Portals were once located before the Mass Pike and the Southeast Expressway destroyed the South End. These back-to-the-future streetcar lines were intended to join the other branches of the Green Line at Boylston Street. That would have complete sense, and it would have been hugely convenient not just in terms of access to Logan, but for the residents of South Boston, who had hoped to see trolley service returned to that area between Broadway and Andrew, and possibly even Dorchester and Mattapan via the Columbia Road. But shamefully, reintegration is not what the MBTA has stood for, and we all know why. It’s the reason why when you get off the Green Line at Park Street, and you transfer to south-bound Red Line service, you know which train just came through by the skin-tone of the people waiting on the platform around you. Nobody at the MBTA wants to talk about these things. Integration of public transportation services is a touchy subject in Boston still. That’s just plain wrong and self-defeating to everyone. If anything is un-American, that is. Entrenched race and class issues are reflected in the way public transport does or does not serve certain communities better than others. In the 21st Century, there’s no reason Blue Hill Avenue shouldn’t have trolleys running up and down it again, connecting Mattapan to Arborway and South Boston. Ditto bike lanes. Property values would soar and crime rates plummet as the neighborhood’s local economy became more sustainable, and working class or poor families weren’t expected to depend in any way, shape or form on cars. Why does this keep happening to us?

    Here in New Jersey where I have lived for quite some time, Deutsche Bundesbahn (Germany) was involved in New Jersey Transit rolling stock financing. Crucial aspects of public transportation construction, planning and safety management have been privatized and handed over to an opaque, unaccountable giant called, ominously, “MatrixNeworld”. The NJ Transit employees working at stations and in security are being hired and paid by MatrixNeworld as well, though they wear NJ Transit outfits. The company is also involved in Airport security.

    I hear you man, but with all this involvement by opaque, international, for-profit, often European-based companies in the most fundamental aspects of our nation’s public sector, and with the advent of corporate citizenship through the Citizens United decision, how can we ever centralize planning and realign North America’s commuter rail interests with the highest aspirations of those who underwrite it and rely upon it the most – you and me, its taxpaying patrons?

    • Alon Levy

      You’re still talking about something very different from what the post is about. If you’re interested, I said something similar to what you’re saying in a post from 3 months ago.

      The issue that you’re still punting on is why, despite the fact that commuter rail is used by wealthier people, it still sucks so much more. It’s not privatization. The LIRR is not privatized, and neither is Metro-North. The MBTA did contract out its operations, but this actually reduced costs from the status quo of having Amtrak run everything.

      Meanwhile, privatization is increasingly the norm around Europe – EU rules require separating infrastructure and operations, and in Germany it’s common for state governments to run competitive bids between multiple private operators as well as DB for their regional rail services. In Britain all operations are private, and while it’s been a disaster, this disaster is still better than anything that runs on mainline rail in the US. In France Veolia is starting to bid on regional rail operations, which are opening to bidding by the aforementioned EU rule. In Japan they go further, and behave much like the US railroad network did before the 1960s, only more modern. The big-city commuter lines in Japan are fully privatized, but they still run through to the subways (currently public, though most of the Tokyo subway is being slowly privatized) and emerge on the other side running through on other private lines.

      There are enough issues in the US that really are about class and race and privatization. This isn’t one of them. Skin color is not why people who can get to Quincy Center and Braintree choose by margins of 30+ to 1 to ride the Red Line rather than the Old Colony Lines. It’s not why people who can get to Far Rockaway choose by similar margins to ride the A rather than the Far Rockaway Branch. When the same effect happens in every single instance in North America where a subway or light rail station is co-located with or close to a commuter rail station, it’s time to stop blaming privatization, or for that matter anything else that affects all rail transit forms equally.

  22. Davey

    PS: Come help liberate us from our Governor, who cancelled the ARC tunnels to Penn Station along with 6,000 shovel-ready jobs and the promise of fast, efficient commuter and intercity passenger rail services along the East Coast, into and out of Penn Station. Service which would have transformed the way millions of East Coasters traveled and increased property values for New Jerseyans by double digits in most cases. Christie jacked up fares 25% on NJ Transit, cut Hudson Bergen Light Rail Weekend services, eliminated off-peak ticket discounts, and only raised tolls in order to pay for the Port Authority-administered ‘Freedom Tower’ project at the World Trade Center site. All the money which was supposed to go to rail has gone into road construction, paving and widening, and the insatiable appetite of the PANYNJ for wasteful projects in which the public have no say. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Sigh.

  23. Davey

    PPS: Agreed re: Redlining, which is possibly a holdover from cave-dweller days. Until 1938, in Boston, Jewish people were forbidden from opening bank accounts! They formed their own credit unions, called Aktsiya, which enabled the community to pool resources and send people on holidays for a week to the Catskills or the beach, and enjoy a decent minimum living standard. It was very smart. All I meant was that the practice accelerated in the Post-WWII period and it was used by predatory lenders from the aforementioned areas, and Far Rockaway and Wakefield, and nationwide, to keep African-Americans down and reduce their mobility. It’s still happening today. The community reinvestment act was scrapped years ago. There’s no social contract. There’s no real grassroots input. Everything is done above our heads, and we are still being engineered into fitting the mold the rich and powerful are pressing down on us.

    • Andre Lot

      I dare to disagree: even in the most egregious Jim Craw states, African Americans were never banned from driving, which is the mode of transportation that accounts for the overwhelming majority of US mobility. That might have been an issue in the past, but it is not today (poverty rather than “race” affects mobility).

      • Davey

        Andre, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. In the rare instances where African-Americans in the south could afford to buy cars, they were not at all free to circulate by car during the height of the Jim Crow years. They ran the risk of being lynched, day and night. In many areas of the south, they still do.

        A mobility that impoverishes the working classes by enslaving them to automobile-petrocentric logistics is not mobility. It is enslavement through logistics. The average car-dependent American can expect to spend over a quarter of a million dollars over their lives to own, maintain, fuel, insure and replace automobiles. We inhabit a country where Big Oil calls all the shots. Our politicians are beholden to them, and our people pawns in a game in which we were never given an option not to play.

        • Andre Lot

          Well, the median income-after-tax of Americans is the higher of virtually any other country. So it shouldn’t be a problem of affordability there.

          I don’t think it is a fair assessment to say African Americans are routinely killed or assaulted if they are out at night “in many areas of the south”. I doubt it. This just sounds like stereotypical views of Dixie country.

          Actually, I think minorities living in the urban ghettos that should be razed face far more risk of violence from gangs and the likes than anyone living in the deep south these days.

          • Matthew

            Wow! You think that some urban neighborhoods should be razed because some minorities live there? Did you just step out of a time machine from the 50s? Or did you grow that bigoted attitude all on your own?

          • Zmapper

            Say goodbye to Five Points Denver and all the history, architecture, and culture that exists there, because if Andre was in charge back in the 1980-90s the neighborhood probably wouldn’t have been able to bounce back like it did.

          • Henry

            Had this argument been followed in the 70’s and 80’s, I would assume that large swathes of the five boroughs would be smoldering ashes.

            Nothing in North America is actually a “ghetto” or a “slum” – to find a true slum, one must go to a developing country.

          • Andre Lot

            @Matthew: my argument is that certain neighborhoods are so plagued by social ailments like territorial gangs, widespread order breakdown, shoddy/illegal/criminal commerce, a culture of lawlessness etc. that razing whole areas and redeveloping them is the only possible remedy when on top of all that you have widespread squatting or decaying buildings whose restoration is not feasible.

            That applies regardless of local demographics. I consider myself a “post-racial” person who doesn’t care about phenotype as of any relevance. On the other side, I’m fiercely opposed to the concept of allowing areas to developed into ethnic ghettos where (in the American case) English is not the only dominant language or non-Western signs are used throughout and reverse discrimination (like minority business owners not hiring people not from their own background) is rift, and I see as positive the physical destruction of any such areas if, as I said, crime, vandalism, lawlessness and building stock inadequacy are also present.

          • Alon Levy

            Well, in New York specifically, the neighborhoods with other dominant languages than English are not the ghettos. Flushing, Chinatown, Sunset Park, Coney Island, Washington Heights, and Forest Hills are all perfectly fine neighborhoods. Chinatown and Washington Heights are poorer than the rest, but their building stocks are fine, their residents graduate to at least lower-middle class status within a generation, and Chinatown is a huge draw for tourists. (Washington Heights also has perfectly average crime rates; Chinatown has high crime rates per resident, but it’s a commercial neighborhood, same as Midtown, and on top of that it has uncounted residents.) People who immigrate are not doing so to engage in crime. If their neighborhoods remain economic ghettos, it’s by definition because the second and third generations remain poor, but then they still speak English.

          • Anon256

            Even ignoring the racist undertones of Andre’s argument, the claim that “razing whole areas and redeveloping them is the only possible remedy” seems obviously absurd. The past few decades have demonstrated pretty clearly that gentrification is far more effective at improving conditions in “urban ghettos” than centrally-planned wholesale redevelopment, as well as being less disruptive and less wasteful.

            It appears that no neighbourhood is too poor to eventually gentrify if the citywide economy remains strong, though the hardest to gentrify are the botched consequences of just the sort of deliberate redevelopment Andre is arguing for.

          • Henry

            @Andre: Yikes. Just because an area may have a non-English language as a “dominant” language, doesn’t mean it’s a ghetto. Flushing, for example, is a major retail destination in Queens, and there have been new developments going up throughout the recession. I’d argue that these are actually desirable – places like Flushing are the gateway for many first-generation immigrants, and they make New York the ethnic melting pot that it has always been.

            I’d also like to point out that there’s a difference between actual discrimination (“I won’t hire this person because he’s so-and-so”) and not hiring because of a lack of qualifications (“I won’t hire this person because he won’t be able to speak with a large amount of my customers.”)

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Cupertino (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) Unified School District, per US Census “2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates” (sorry, the stupid site won’t provide actual URLs for query results, and sorry about the table non-formatting. I’m going to try the <code> tag and cross my fingers):

            Percent of specified language speakers

            Subject                        | Total     |"very well"| "less than"
            Population 5 years and over    |132868±6691| 80.3%±3.0 | 19.7%±3.0
            Speak only English             | 42.4%±3.3 | (X)       | (X)
            Speak other than English       | 57.6%±3.3 | 65.8%±4.3 | 34.2%±4.3
            Spanish or Spanish Creole      |  2.9%±1.2 | 77.7%±14.8| 22.3%±14.8
            Other Indo-European languages  | 14.3%±2.5 | 81.0%±7.1 | 19.0%±7.1
            Asian and Pacific Island       | 39.5%±4.1 | 58.8%±4.9 | 41.2%±4.9
            Other languages                |  0.9%±0.6 | 90.0%±10.4| 10.0%±10.4

            “very well” = Census “Speak English “very well””
            “less than” = Census “Speak English “less than very well””

            High bits: 57.6% speak other than English at home.


          • Nathanael

            Andre: Sorry, but you’re talking like a racist whether or not you consider yourself one. You might want to check your assumptions at the door and go do some research.

            And although it’s safe *now* for black people to go out and drive at night in *most* of the Deep South… in the Jim Crow era, it sure as hell wasn’t. And there are pockets of this left. Heck, in suburban Atlanta a black woman was prosecuted for crossing the street (which is not, in fact, illegal).

  24. Davey

    Alon, I think we’re on the same side of the fence. I read your article from earlier in the year, and I concur with it. But I was confused by what you were trying to articulate in this post, and I’m still not completely sure how we will ever get the kind of public transport services we need in this country if there isn’t a major effort by the Federal Government to intervene on our behalf.

    Privatization may well be the norm worldwide today, Alon. I’m just not so convinced it has served the highest good of the most citizens, and I think the way it’s been carried out in Britain is downright unethical and humiliating to the people who use it. They are paying higher fares than ever before for service which is still being cut. Surely Britain was better served by rail before Beeching and Thatcher butchered British Rail, compelling more Britons to buy cars than ever before?

    I don’t want to see the kind of privatization of our services that became commonplace in the UK. I don’t think the people of London had much say in how the RATP, Arriva and Veolia muscled their way in, and I know our people here won’t have much of a say. It makes me nervous. Public and private companies are being snapped up by European firms. I walked by a Trailways bus with the RATP logo on it in midtown Manhattan. Who in a million years would have dreamt that possible 25 years ago? Not I, and I love Paris, believe me!

    How does it benefit Americans to have private companies based in Europe, connected to the very aristocracies which colonized the Americas from Hudson’s Bay to Tierra del Fuego, running our logistics and controlling our electricity and water? How do we still call ourselves Americans these days when control of our logistics, or our public electric and gas utilities, water and resource management facilities have all passed into British and French hands? British Petroleum gas is pumped into British owned buses, wearing down America’s taxpayer-financed roadways. I just learnt last week that New Orleans’ public transport system is now completely taken over by Veolia. Vive la France! May the long-suffering, hard-working people of la Nouvelle Orléans soon enjoy the rights and privileges to which their French counterparts are entitled, including healthcare and five weeks vacation.

    Seriously – you know better than I – but, are we not unwittingly recolonizing ourselves at this point? Help me to understand why all of this privatization is necessary, and if so, please tell me why we’re selling the shop to Europe and not keeping this an American affair? Wasn’t the Marshall Plan enough and fifty years of troops stationed in Europe plenty?

    The world has changed, and the average American has almost no voice in the logistical policies and decision-making currently shaping our destiny as a people. All of these things should be centrally-decided – we’re in agreement there, right? But if any aspect of operations are found to be more economically advantageous through privatization, then surely the private interests in question should all be owned and operated by Americans and for Americans, should they not?

    Nobody from anywhere outside the US should be able to compete to run America’s logistics or make a profit off of them except the American people, wouldn’t that be fair to say? I feel it’s a violation of our national sovereignty as much as the idea of fighting for endless subsidy and wars on behalf of the extraction industry are violations of our national sovereignty.

    Our people work more hours than anyone in Europe for far less money, and most of our 350,000,000 fellow citizens don’t get to enjoy the living standards enjoyed by the citizens of Europe. Our public transport systems don’t serve our communities evenly, and some American cities, such as Detroit, simply ceased operating public transportation in large swathes of the city altogether. The auto industry extinguished the city like a cigarette under its boot once they’d squeezed every last drop of blood they could out of the workforce.

    I really disagree on the notion that race and class don’t play a central role in all of this, Alon. If we’re from Boston, we know immediately whether an Ashmont train was the last train to have come through Park Street by the dominant skin tone of those around us. If we come downstairs from the Green Line and everyone around us is African-American or Hispanic, we know the Braintree train just came through. It’s that simple and that complicated. When we were kept in the dark about what was going on around us, banks were busy redlining our neighborhoods. The Neponset River bridge and so many rail bridges, car houses and so much rolling stock was mysteriously going up in flames nationwide, we didn’t know it was happening. We saw them as isolated events. They were all connected though. We can see this now. The conspiracy against the streetcar had achieved its major objectives by the 1950s. The conspiracy against commuter rail continued under the radar. Things were different because our media didn’t connect us then the way it connects us now. We were more easily manipulated by powerful, shadowy interests hell-bent on capitalizing on perpetuating a cycle of urban decay.

    Now we see what happened to us in the 50s and 60s, and we don’t want to become accomplices in reinforcing segregation again. We want to reconnect the whole area, not just Downtown Boston to the South Shore, but Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan as well, right? So if we are handing our logistics, our utilities and our water supplies to The Crown on a silver platter, how is that benefitting Americans, concretely? Look at how all those nativist Tea Party jerky-boy policy governors turned back federal financing for rail projects in the midwest and in Florida.

    Given our painful history, should we not take more pains to provide everyone, regardless of race and class, with the same levels of reliable mobility? American public transport must remain first and foremost a public enterprise. Our country needs forceful Federal involvement on this issue if there is ever to be any justice. If any aspects of our public transport networks are to be privatized, we American people should be the first consulted and they should be given all the background information they need to make educated, informed decisions in our best interests. The laws of the United States are no longer stacked in favor of the citizenry, if indeed, they ever were on the issues of social justice and equality through rational logistics. Corporations are viewed as persons today by the Supreme Court, Alon. People! Until Citizens United is reversed and corporate personhood banned by Constitutional Amendment, how can we ever be sure that we’re getting what’s in our best interests, and not the pipe-dreams and fantasies of the objectivist hedge-fund operators and high-stakes gamblers on Wall Street, the City of London or Paris? Surely the United Kingdom was better off with the comprehensive rail network it had in place before the Beeching Era cuts than they are today, where Britons, like Americans, have become conditioned to buying cars in large numbers, and fares have gone through the roof? Help me to understand.

    • Alon Levy

      Two things.

      First, I’m not so much giving you a hard time because of your liberal politics (most of which I share), but because I think that this particular issue is just not political. It’s not about why US transit is in such shambles. It’s not about why cities destroyed their streetcar networks progressively beginning in the early 1920s. It’s about why, given the choice between two forms of transit, Americans overwhelmingly choose one over the other.

      Second, leaving aside the question of whether privatization is good, it doesn’t really matter who owns the corporations. Domestic corporations are perfectly capable of causing mayhem on their own: the Gang of Four, frog wars, monopolistic practices (rail barons bought and dismantled steamship lines, GM bought and dismantled streetcar lines), a financial panic triggered by a bidding war for the Burlington, electric monopolies, contractor collusion leading to expensive and shoddy public works. More recently, we have the Tobacco Institute, the Kochtopus, climate change denialism, Microsoft funding Bush in 2000 because he’d drop the lawsuit against its monopoly practices, domestic finance acting like it owns politics, and again contractor featherbedding leading to high construction costs. The people working in the City of London are causing worldwide crises. So are the people working in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but those also schmooze with and fund friendly US politicians and media figures, while at the same time ranting about punk staffers.

      In contrast, competitive international bids can be much friendlier to the public. The rolling stock industry is international, because the US vendors made shoddy products and collapsed because of the ensuing lawsuits. This makes rolling stock cheaper than in Canada, where Bombardier gets no-bid contracts because it’s Canadian, even though on most other matters Canadian transit is far better-run than American transit, and also better than it was in 1970s, when the aforementioned US vendors, protected by Buy American, delivered substandard trains.

      Likewise, although the European privatized operations are owned for the most part by Europeans, they are not always owned by Europeans of the same country. Veolia runs trains in Germany – and so far its record is better than that of DB, which because it’s trying to look good for privatization has bad maintenance practices leading to high-profile catastrophe. The Hong Kong MTR runs some services in London and Stockholm. Hitachi has exported trains to Britain. SNCF and DB are starting to run competing services in each other’s territory. All of this is resulting in problems, both because of the privatization and because of government attempts to protect their national companies from competition; Britain renationalized infrastructure is now seriously considering doing the same to operations. But Britain’s passenger rail use is outgrowing North America’s, because it doesn’t have any of the regulatory problems that make American mainline rail unusable for most passengers. Light, lightly-staffed trains with rapid transit maintenance schedules are legal on British tracks, but illegal on American ones, and the rail operating culture in Britain (as in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, etc.) is less hostile to short-hop ridership than in the US and Canada.

      • Davey

        Thank you so much for that, Alon. I really appreciated the clarification, and all the great background information. Which agency or legal authority created the regulations that have thus far hobbled our attempts to introduce the lighter EMUs and DMUs of which you speak, which are standard everywhere else in the world?

        Can’t we change these rules and get our nation’s freight railways to comply and lay track for the parallel running of ace, deuce and multiple unit passenger services? I’ve spent my life riding, reading about, taking photos of and drawing trains. I truly want to be part of the effort to make widespread, universally-accessible and affordable rail service reassume its rightful place in American society. I do the best I can with my own knowledge to write about my own experience, and share what I have learnt. I want to get involved in rail advocacy and help get passenger rail back to its rightful place in any way I can.

        Thank you very much for all your great information, and this post. It’s really got my head spinning with new ideas, even to try to find a place to volunteer.


        • Alon Levy

          The agency in question is the FRA. It might already be changing – it’s unclear. Go to the FRA category on this blog and see what they’ve done.

          For commuter rail institutional inertia, it’s harder to collate – I don’t think there’s a single source. Some of my posts tagged commuter rail explain. This post gives a basic explanation, but there are more issues than those and any explanations of them are spread among multiple blogs, posts, and comments.

          • Nathanael

            FYI, regarding staffing, I’ve always figured Amtrak needed one person per car on long-distance trains just to appease the passengers when the trains are late (so, reconsider that staffing level AFTER fixing the problems preventing on-time performance)…. but this doesn’t apply to commuter rail lines which generally run vaguely on time.

          • Davey

            Alon, just read your post, and, what can I say? I feel less alone in the world. Thank you very, very much.

          • Davey

            It’s complex, for sure. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve stumbled upon a perfectly useable railway station in New Jersey and New York and found it had been repurposed to serve as a police station, VFW post, or the HQ of a fraternal organization. This has been going on since the McCarthy Era. The rights of way could easily be reactivated and integrated into existing commuter or light rail networks. When a neighborhood loses its rail station, it develops a fatal blood clot and dies a slow, painful death. I have been documenting this phenomenon for a while now with my camera. It’s nothing short of a calamity, nationwide. If at the root It’s that a few angry, rich nazis are keeping the people of this country addicted to oil, then we should be confronting them. We’ve seen entire cities and towns destroyed when their rail connections to the wider region were severed.

          • Michael John

            Perhaps we should try to find more of those issues and post them on a single post or a series of posts with one subject.

  25. Davey

    PS: Though it is private-public, I had thought Japan Rail was 100% Japanese-operated. I do not know if there are foreign entities operating Japanese commuter rail services anywhere on Japanese soil. Are there? Japan is a homogenous society where centralized planning is deeply ingrained in the national psyche and there is a strong central government. JR has a superior model, and I would love to see something like what Japan has here in the US. Public funded infrastructures and private companies contracted out to run the services – great idea, so long as we here in the US can guarantee that everyone benefits equally from them, not just a select few. I occasionally buy Japanese train magazines and though I don’t understand Japanese, I venerate the beautiful photos inside. The Japanese are train lovers, and they would never let happen to them what happened to our public transport systems here in the US at the hands of the utilities companies which controlled them. Ditto the Germans.

    Strong central government was what kept what happened in Cincinnati from ever happening in Japan or Germany:

    The same for Rochester:

    Just two mini-scandals from a nation full of larger scandals presided over by scandalous corporations scandalizing us for profit. It doesn’t matter that more than 2.5 million Americans have been killed in traffic accidents, or perpetual wars rage all over North Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia and a chunk of Greenlandic ice the size of an aircraft carrier breaks off every few seconds these days. With all our debt held by China and no money in the public coffers, it’s already too late for us to have TGVs. If we are fortunate enough to get our commuter rail infrastructure up to the standards prevalent in our sister penal colony, Australia, then we’ll already have done pretty well for ourselves, I reckon….

    • Nathanael

      If we got a less corrupt government (how?) the money wouldn’t be a problem. Money can be *printed* to pay workers to build things we need. The excess money in the hands of the rich elite can be *taxed out of their hands*. National governments which can print their own money and raise taxes don’t need to worry about “money”, per se, unless they have to import from outside.

      That said, I don’t see how to get a less corrupt government. The current one is intent on funnelling money to rich crooks.

      • Nathanael

        (Note, for anyone confused, that not having to worry about “money” doesn’t mean that a government is immune to actual economics: the government still has to worry about resources.)

        • Adirondacker12800

          North America is the Saudi Arabia of wheat, corn and soybeans. Even if the fertility rate drops to 1.5 children per woman worldwide we’ll have something to export for the next few hundred years.

          • Andre Lot

            It is totally off-topic, but you are right in the sense that US is a powerhouse of worldwide agricultural exports (facing serious competition for #1 only with Brazil) and, while people in Africa keep reproducing at high rates and China and India mvoes to a meat-based diet, the market perspective for American agricultural exports is quite high indeed.

      • Andre Lot

        You obviously ignore basic mainstream macroeconomic theory from 200 years that printing money to use “as wish” is the basic recipe for inflation. How much inflation and how much inflationary inertia is up for discussions, but to espouse the idea that “money is not a problem” for governments that can print it at will is just an absurd proposition.

        • Adirondacker12800

          I thought the magick of markets would make it all self correcting. As the government borrowed “too much” money interest rates would rise. The invisible hand of the market is saying, that right now, there is no hope of inflation anytime soon.

          • Nathanael

            And note, that when that happens, what you do is raise taxes on rich people.

            If you’re having inflation and taxes on rich people are at 90%, then you might have an actual “money management” problem.

            …or the inflation might be caused by a resource shortage (like it was in the 70s), which is an entirely different problem.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Well if your campaign plan is to run against Jimmy Carter you might end up with the current Republican positions on many things. Though Saint Ronnie was a bit too left wing for today’s Republicans.

        • Nathanael

          That’s not accurate macroeconomics. Learn some real macroeconomics rather than cargo cult macroeconomics, Andre.

    • Andrew in Ezo

      Davey, the three biggest JR Companies are completely private and are listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Also, Japan has a great number of independent urban railways that have always been private enterprise ventures, and indeed compete with each other as well as with the JR companies (moreso in Osaka, less in Tokyo). They have little to do with central government policy and more with pursuing profits and creating synergy with their real estate and retail ventures, though they have benefited from Japan’s dense settlements patterns and a government and society that lacks the ideological battle between roads and railways.
      You are right that people in Japan are proud of their trains, and indeed believe them the best in the world. It is this pride, and associated high standards expected of the railways among the general population, that have helped keep the levels of service high, among other factors.

      • Davey

        Thanks so much for that, Andrew. How I long to visit Japan someday and ride the beautiful trains! I love the aesthetics, gastronomy, music, gardens and natural beauty of the country, which I only know from looking at picture books and Japanese friends here in America.

  26. Andre Lot

    “Given our painful history, should we not take more pains to provide everyone, regardless of race and class, with the same levels of reliable mobility?”

    No, I disagree. Mobility, especially for work commute and access to public essential services should be provided, but your level of income should definitively play a role in deciding whether you can afford weekly, annual or none trips to Colorado mountains, whether you could buy yourself a better commute experience with more money (regardless of modes involved) and whether you can live in better places by paying more (for housing or for travelling).

    • Davey

      We’re not talking about visiting resorts in the Rocky Mountains here. We’re talking about commuting. Sometimes a holiday can mean being able to visit and stay with one’s family and friends in another state for a few days. My grandparents came from Europe at the beginning of the last century, and that’s all they did for enjoyment. To be honest, that’s what I do for the most part as well. But the point is, they were able to travel everywhere – EVERYWHERE – by railway and streetcars at the time. They weren’t expected to disburse a quarter of a million dollars over their lifetimes to own, maintain, insure, fuel and replace cars. They lived within their means and saved their money. Those two goals are quasi-impossible for car-dependent working poor, Andre.

    • Nathanael

      Visiting one’s college friends, grandparents, parents, and children is NOT a luxury.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Yes it is. My grandparents left Europe and never went back. My father left for the Pacific in 1943 and didn’t get back until 1946. Just like my uncles who left for the Pacific or my uncles who left for Europe.

  27. Davey

    I heard a great quote recently, which went something like “You can tell how prosperous a society is not by the number of poor people driving cars, but by the number of rich people using public transport.” 😀

  28. Matt D

    Unless it changed recently, the MBTA charges the same fare for commuter rail and subway at the joint stations. From the perspective of most operators, who cares if you don’t get many commuter rail riders getting on at Forest Hills? They can, and should, take the Orange Line, which runs more frequently and is more appropriate for that distance. Stopping at Forest Hills and Ruggles increases travel time for the majority of riders, and in the case of a station like Ruggles, where there aren’t platforms on all tracks, causes operational headaches.

    • Alon Levy

      This is true at the short-distance joint stations, like Forest Hills and Ruggles (where frequency is more important), but not at longer-distance stations. Quincy Center is in zone 1, and Auburndale (close but not quite joint) and Braintree are in zone 2.

      As for what’s more appropriate, it all depends on service quality. In New York, even people who ride 1 express subway stop will get on the express if it’s available, and people who ride 2 express stops will often not get on a local and wait for the express. In Paris I don’t know what the locals’ behavior is, but I’d switch from Line 1 to the RER A to get from Nation to Chatelet, two RER stops.

      But the importance of this is not just what happens at joint or nearly-joint stations. It’s what happens just beyond them. Unless the MBTA improves its commuter rail, the only ways to provide transit service to Hyde Park, Readville, Newtonville, Waltham, Lynn, and similar outer-urban or inner-suburban areas are to extend the subway ($$$) and to use buses (slow, unreliable). The current service levels on commuter rail are too low to get riders except for peak-hour CBD commuters.

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