Who Rides Commuter Rail?

I’ve had an argument in comments with the author of Purple City about who commuter rail should serve. He’s argued before that cities should make sure outer suburbanites can get to the center via express commuter rail, and I will add that American cities do do that, and orient commuter rail too much around the needs of peak-hour outer suburbanites. Insofar as I think cities should have commuter rail there’s no disagreement, but what I think they do wrong is focusing too much on the peak. The two practices in contention are the low off-peak frequency (for example, Metra’s Union Pacific-North Line, which has no freight to speak of, has worse than hourly off-peak service), and the stop distribution, which has trains making few or no stops in the city proper.

The common thread of these two practices is that they optimize one variable: peak travel time for a suburban commuter to the CBD. This neglects other sources of ridership on commuter rail, which are suppressed in the US but significant in countries with more modern operating practices. I will contrast the peak-focused approach with a rapid transit approach, using examples that I believe will show that the latter is bound to get far more ridership, even in the suburbs.

First, let us imagine a contrasting system, one in which North American commuter rail looks more like an RER, an S-Bahn, or a Japanese commuter rail network. Such a system will have the following features:

1. Relatively consistent stopping pattern. The busier lines may have local and express trains, but the express trains will stop at the same major stops. Local trains will make all local stops over a fairly wide stretch.

2. Low ratio of peak to off-peak frequency, in the vicinity of 2:1 or even less. In a major city like Chicago or New York, a line that can’t support half-hourly service all day, at a bare minimum, will likely have no service at all; the only exceptions I can think of are services at range so long they’re practically intercity, like New York-Hamptons or New York-Allentown.

3. An urban stopping pattern that’s not too express. If there’s a parallel subway then it’s okay to have a somewhat wider stop spacing than in the inner suburbs beyond the subway’s range, but still closer to the 2-3 km range than the 4-5 km range of Metra.

If it’s possible to do so technologically, then the commuter line may be interlined with a subway line, even. This is usually hypothetical, since subways and commuter trains, where both exist, are almost always technologically incompatible; Tokyo and Seoul are the two major exceptions, with London a borderline case. However, it’s useful to consider such hypothetical cases, to examine what would happen to train service. I will consider two such cases: having Vancouver’s Evergreen Line take over West Coast Express (the original argument), and having Boston’s Red Line take over Old Colony Lines. Neither situation is technologically possible, even ignoring FRA and Transport Canada regulations, as both Boston and Vancouver build subway tunnels for much smaller trains than run on the mainline, but this discussion may be useful in cases where a takeover is feasible, such as when the commuter line is an isolated branch. I prefer to discuss the hypotheticals since the two examples in question are purer examples of priorities: outer-suburban peak service, or rapid transit-style service.


Vancouver’s rail service consists of the SkyTrain network, which gets about 400,000 weekday riders, and the West Coast Express, a peak-only commuter rail network running 5 trains per day per direction, with 11,000 weekday riders. SkyTrain’s under-construction Evergreen Line will intersect the West Coast Express at Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then serve more stations in Coquitlam off the mainline, while the WCE continues much farther to the east, into the Vancouver exurbs. The WCE connects Port Moody to Waterfront in 25 minutes and Coquitlam in 30 minutes; the Evergreen Line is projected to take 33 and 38 minutes respectively, with a transfer at Broadway/Commercial. Despite the slower service, the much higher frequency, all-day service, and connections to more of the Vancouver metro area win: the projected ridership for the Evergreen Line is about 23 million a year (see Table 2 on PDF-p. 4 here), which corresponds to about 75,000 per weekday.

Now, what’s in contention is whether it would be wise to have the same treatment at WCE stations farther east. The potential ridership at those stations is lower since they’re in less built-up areas, so it is likely cost-ineffective to build an Evergreen Line branch along the Canadian Pacific mainline and have it replace the WCE, but if such a line were built, it would most likely have the same effect on travel times: people would have to transfer at Broadway/Commercial, and not including the transfer time take 8 minutes more to get to Waterfront. The eastern end of the line, Mission, has 75-minute service now, and this would change to 83-minute service plus a transfer.

I claim that Mission residents would still take the train more often if it were 8 minutes lower. The reason is simple: as a proportion of overall travel time, the 8 minutes are more important to a 25-minute Port Moody commuter than to a 75-minute Mission commuter. Mission commuters live farther out, so they’re somewhat less likely to care about service to various neighborhoods along the way, but they’re even less likely to care about 8 minutes. They also are less likely to care about very high frequency, since their trips are longer, but they do care about service availability all day, even if they’d be okay with half-hourly service. Moreover, the Evergreen Line will connect to secondary nodes like Metrotown better than the WCE does, and eventually have direct service to Central Broadway and UBC, both of which draw commuters from the entire region.

In the present, the WCE works as a placeholder – it’s possible to reduce staffing and improve turnaround times to allow off-peak service, but there’s too little population east of Coquitlam to justify a SkyTrain extension, and so far population growth is fastest in inner-suburban Port Moody and Surrey (see here and here) and not east of Coquitlam. In the future, if those areas grow then it will make sense to replace the WCE with SkyTrain. WCE upgrades are unlikely – adding infill stations is practically impossible, as the line hugs an active port, with no good station sites. While SkyTrain’s driverless configuration keeps operating expenses down, it makes it impossible to extend branches to the suburbs cheaply by running them at-grade and in mixed traffic with freight.


Several of Boston’s subway branches are parallel to extant or closed commuter lines. The Orange Line runs alongside the Northeast Corridor to Forest Hills, the Blue Line took over parts of the narrow-gauge Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, the Green Line D Branch took over a commuter rail loop used by the Boston and Albany, and the Red Line took over a New Haven Railroad branch line to Ashmont and runs alongside the Old Colony Lines to Braintree. At the time the Braintree extension opened the Old Colony Lines were closed for passenger service, but they have been since reopened, running from Braintree to South Station with just one stop in between, either JFK-UMass or Quincy Center (never both, except on trains that skip Braintree); off-peak frequency is about every two hours on each of two lines, and with some off-peak trains skipping Braintree, service to Braintree is worse than hourly. The Red Line takes 26-27 minutes to go from Braintree to South Station, the Old Colony Lines take 19-21 minutes.

As is projected in Vancouver, ridership on the Red Line is much higher: according to the 2014 Blue Book, on PDF-pp. 14 and 74, the busiest MBTA commuter rail station, Providence, gets 2,325 riders per weekday and the busiest Old Colony station, Bridgewater, gets only 1,036, while the Braintree extension’s five stops get 6,975, 4,624, 8,655 (Quincy Center), 4,785, and 5,122 (Braintree). Those five stops get 30,000 riders between them, meaning 60,000 since it’s unlikely people ride internally on the extension; this is nearly half the entire MBTA commuter rail ridership, and three times the ridership on the Old Colony Lines (counting Greenbush, which diverges at Quincy, as a third line).

As in Vancouver, I claim that a Red Line extension taking over the Old Colony Lines would have much higher ridership. Of course the frequency per line, already middling since the Braintree extension is a branch, would not be very good; but at the range of the suburbs served by these lines, half the current frequency of the Red Line, giving about 20 minutes at the peak and 30 off-peak, is enough, and is a massive improvement over multi-hour headways. The extra 5-8 minutes of travel times matter less as one moves farther out, again; travel time to South Station from the first Old Colony stations past Braintree, South Weymouth and Holbrook/Randolph, is 28 minutes, about the same as from Braintree on the Red Line, and those two stations have a bit more than 500 weekday riders each.

Moreover, the Red Line has something the commuter trains don’t: service to multiple centers within the inner Boston region. Downtown Crossing is closer to most jobs than South Station, saving people the walk. Cambridge is a major job center in its own right (it has more jobs than any New England city except Boston, ahead of Providence, Worcester, and Hartford). Back Bay is a bit more accessible via the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing or the Green Line at Park Street than via commuter rail at South Station.

Like SkyTrain, the Red Line can’t run on mainline rail tracks, and there is not enough population to justify an extension, nor enough population growth in New England for such an extension to ever pencil out. However, it’s possible to modernize commuter rail, as I have written before. This would not provide direct service to Downtown Crossing or Cambridge, but could provide cross-platform transfers to Back Bay, decent frequency all day, and, since regional EMUs can have very good performance characteristics, much higher average speeds than with today’s slow diesel locomotives even if trains make more stops.

General Remarks

The examples of Boston and Vancouver’s ridership patterns suggest that it’s okay to sacrifice speed to provide coherent service. It’s worth noting here that the bulk of present-day ridership on North American commuter rail would not benefit too much from such sacrifice. North American commuter rail provides awful service in the off-peak or to non-CBD destinations: even the Newark CBD, relatively well-served by New Jersey Transit, has a 26% mode share as a job center as of 2000, as per an Alan Voorhees Transportation Center report called Informed Intuition (PDF-p. 13). There’s a huge amount of latent ridership on North American commuter rail, which is why rapid transit gets so much more ridership than peak-focused commuter rail.

This doesn’t change much at different ranges of distance from the center. The few minutes saved by expressing through the city to the CBD matter a great deal to the suburbs right beyond city limits, but those innermost suburbs are precisely the ones that could make the most use of service to multiple city nodes. Farther out, where commuters to the city tend to be more likely to be working at the CBD, since it is more specialized than most secondary nodes, frequency and service to everywhere matter less, but the extra few minutes matter even less.

However, since present-day riders are precisely the narrow slice of potential users who are okay with the current setup, they have the potential to engage in NIMBY protests against any attempt at modernization. Why change what works for them? This is why Long Island representatives oppose such modernization attempts as letting Metro-North access Penn Station; it’s entirely a turf war. Even reforms that do not degrade trip times to the CBD are unlikely in this political situation, for example mode-neutral fares: the people paying premium fare to ride the LIRR or (to some extent) Metra are the ones who are okay with paying this fare, and who may object to increased train crowding coming from lower fares.

Judging by the ridership multiple between the Evergreen Line and WCE, there are likely to be a few million weekday rides coming out of Eastern Queens and Long Island if the LIRR is modernized, but those are not the Manhattan-bound commuters who dominate the discussion today. Instead, they are people who have gotten used to unusable commuter rail, and drive to work, or take long bus-subway commutes to avoid paying higher fares. They do not seem like a significant source of regional rail ridership because they are not current riders (or they ride local transit instead), but they are precisely what makes the difference between the low ridership of every North American commuter rail system and the higher ridership of many European systems.


  1. ardecila

    Interesting post. Clearly some commuter operations are better-positioned to upgrade than others. East Coast operations tend to own their own track, as part of the fallout from the Conrail bankruptcy and other bankruptcies that saw private rail lines transferred to public hands. West Coast operations must ultimately surrender to UP and BNSF on everything. Metra is half-and-half, for the same historical reasons, although the busiest lines are also the ones owned by the western railroads.

    As you noted, though, freight interference is a convenient excuse for some operations and some lines, but officials won’t even consider upgrading service where freight is a non-factor (Metra UP North, East Coast, etc).

  2. R. W. Rynerson

    For future research, you may wish to make note of the commuter rail lines in Utah (now in service) and Colorado (3 lines in 2016, a 4th line in 2018). Both systems are run transit-style, with two-way, all stops service. The Colorado lines will basically be the first S-Bahn in the U.S. since Metra Electric. These two systems are integrated with the bus and light rail networks and tariffs. A third Mountain Time Zone commuter rail line in New Mexico is physically integrated with transit bus lines, has two-way, all-stops service, but less off-peak offerings.

    In Colorado the largest amount of non-CBD commuting is not on the commuter rail lines, with the exception of the DIA/East Line, but connecting light rail and bus routes do serve suburban job corridors, It will be interesting to follow this development, which will still face the usual suburban obstacles of vast parking lots, uncleared snow and ice, and building set-backs.

  3. betamagellan

    RET is currently doing this sort of project in Rotterdam—they’re taking the Schiedam-Hoek van Holland railway (which currently runs as a regional train between Hoek van Holland Strand and Rotterdam Centraal) and turning it into an extension of Metro line B. I’m not familiar with the history of the project, but I’m guessing getting metro access to Vlaardingen (just west of Schiedam) was the main objective, and simply taking over the entire line made more sense than building new infrastructure paralleling an already short (for Dutch regional rail), passenger-primary railway.

  4. Tom West

    Toronto’s Lakeshore lines had hourly off-peak servcie from day 1 (back in 1967). They changed to half-hourly off-peak last year. I do agree that in this day and age, half-hourly is sensible minimum for useful off-peak service.

  5. nei

    For the Eastern Queens’ Port Washington Branch, most off peak trains run local, the main reason most don’t ride the train is fare cost. If the fares were integrated with the local MTA (maybe adding an extra zoned fare to be $4 to Manhattan) and frequency increased with shortened trains, it would be a much more useful line. Perhaps 12 or 15 minute frequency could be supported with short trains (no more than 4 cars, maybe 2 is possible?) from Great Neck westward off peak while occasional expresses run from the eastern terminus. Peak hours is currently at capacity though

    • Adirondacker12800

      the reason they don’t ride as much off peak is that is the nature of suburbs. If they want to go into Manhattan during the day they take the train. There’s not as many of them outside of rush hour. Running the train three times an hour isn’t going to make more people appear. Otherwise they hop in the car. Which is why they have a car. It’s worth it to some people to own a car so they can go to the supermarket once a week and drive to their in-laws twice a month. And worth to many people to pay more for the housing so they can get by with no car or one car in what they consider the suburbs. A single family house with a patch of grass in the front and a patch of grass in the back and if they are lucky someplace off the street to park the car so they don’t have to worry about alternate side of the street parking. Or on street parking at all.

      • nei

        I’m referring to Eastern Queens and a few parts of western Nassau. What you’re saying is accurate for most of Long Island, not much of the region of the Port Washington Line. The buses on Northern Blvd are packed, but run parelell to the LIRR. Feeder buses to Flushing get bogged down by congestion, many are coming from a few miles to the east; it would save time if the bus transfer points were on LIRR stations to theast.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Sez you.
          Who says they are packed onto the buses to get to Manhattan? People lead happy and contented lives without going into Manhattan at all or very very infrequently. Maybe they are packed onto the buses to get to their doctor in Flushing. Or go to the cell phone store. Or work three blocks away from Main Street and using the bus makes more sense than taking the bus to the nearest LIRR station and then taking the bus from Flushing Main. a slow one seat ride probably beats out a three seat ride, two legs on the same slow bus.
          I know too many people who live in places like Auburndale and Murray Hill to make me think that they think they live in the city. They live in the suburbs in their mind. Back in the 50s people who lived in Jackson Heights thought they lived “on the Island” Rego Park and Forest Hillls are suburban enough for some people.
          ….How come there are buses on Lexington Ave? And most of the avenues in Manhattan?

          • lop

            The Q12 runs every 10 minutes off peak on Northern. The N20/21 gives you a few more buses. Another 5 for the Q13. There seems to be demand for travel on the corridor. Bayside-Flushing you have a bus every 4-5 minutes. Do you really think there is so little demand for semi frequent (15 minute headway) reliable express travel that doesn’t charge a premium? Not necessarily to Manhattan.


            Most of the cost would be from lowering the fares, not running two more trains per hour. I’m not sure if those numbers count the loss from lowering off peak fares only, or peak hour too.

          • Adirondacker12800

            having the bus is great if you want to go to Corona. Not so great when you want to go 22 blocks up or down the bus line.

      • Purple City

        There’s also a class issue at work here as well. Most higher-paying jobs are going to be some variant of normal business hours. Engineers working 7:30-6 or lawyers working 7-8 are still working normal biz. Whereas the people headed to work or getting off at 1 in the afternoon are your CVS, your Kroger, your Amazon distro worker, your community college student.

        Most of the US has a “double donut” distribution where most of the affluent live in the ‘burbs while a smaller subset live in a few desirable urban neighborhoods. Whereas Parisians reserve everything inside the Peripherique (and a substantial chunk beyond) for the affluent, while the most far-flung suburbs are filled concrete-block apartments.

        RER scheduling would probably be a lot peakier without the dystopian Corbu housing blocks. Conversely, Metra UP-N would be a lot less peaky if you could relocate 25,000 North African immigrants to Winnetka.

        • Alon Levy

          I could argue the class issue the other way: over here, retail tends to close on Sundays (at least in my bourgeois neighborhood – things may be different in Södermalm), whereas in the US it opens except on a few national holidays. This compels transit service to rely on the peak more.

          • Eric

            Operating 6 (or even 5) days a week is not a huge waste compared to operating 7 days, particular as a transit agency’s human resources need to take weekends off. 2 hours morning peak and 3 hours afternoon peak leads to much bigger wastes the rest of the time.

        • betamagellan

          It’s not really a question of anchors—trains can branch with lower and lower service levels farther out, which is my understanding of RER’s operations in the outer suburbs, and some Metra lines, for instance, terminate in old second-tier cities—in Aurora’s case, at least, this generates significant ridership, while Waukegan (where a number of peak-period UP-North trains originate) ridership is roughly the same as important, more Chicago-oriented commuter suburbs like Wilmette and Highland Park (both of which have more developed, denser, more mixed-use station areas). I don’t think half-hourly service is necessarily unreasonable to these locations.

          I can’t speak for suburban Paris, but one big difference here in the Netherlands (or even in Massachusetts) outlying bedroom (or quasi-bedroom) settlements started before rail and have things like actual town centers, whereas in much of suburban Chicago bedroom communities’ existence is predicated on the existence of a rail line, and are often nearly all detached houses and affluent, maybe spreading out from a small, village-like core. It’s more inertial—just as it’s hard to change commuting habits among highway users and land use in primary-highway-use areas, it’s hard to change habits and land use in nineteenth century bedroom communities that developed along locomotive-hauled, privately-run commuter rail lines. It also means that there’s less room for gains—while I imagine electrification would benefit legitimate suburban subcenters a lot, I can’t imagine Indian Hill or Kenilworth or (on the BNSF line) any of those suburban villages between Berwyn and Lisle seeing much increase in ridership even with increased service levels.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Chicago suburbs were built around the grid for the Northwest Territories as was most of Chicago itself. There’s a broad wide boulevard every mile. Things east of the Appalachians are much more disorganized.
            The West Village is a disorganized mess compared to the rest of Manhattan because it’s on two grids, one for the farm that was along the river and the other for the farm that was farther inland. Which got even messier when they carved Seventh Ave. South through it.
            Downtown Newark is oriented to Broad Street and Market Street. Kinda sorta. It’s not perfectly grid like. Farther out the grids are oriented to the radial avenues and clash. By the time you get out to the railroad, as opposed to the trolley, suburbs the grid falls apart and the post World War Two development is those nice car friendly cul de sacs. The interwar development tends to be set up so that the non driving housewife could walk to the trolley line or the train station. And all the other fun things you can do in the suburbs like have day help come in once a week. Or the washer woman come in because there are no washing machines yet. less need to run to the supermarket because the dairy, meat, bread and vegetables got delivered along with the mail which was done twice a day six days a week and once on Sunday if you had first class mail coming to you. ( think Saturday Evening Post, as opposed to the Saturday Morning Post. ) ,,,, and the railroad and trolley had weekday schedule and a Sunday schedule. Because almost everybody who worked, went to work 6 days a week. And because of the blue laws there wasn’t much reason to leave the house on Sunday.
            ….. the bus garage in Maplewood New Jersey is where it is because it’s where the rural horse barn for the horse car line was. Which became the car barn for the trolleys and then trolleys and buses and then trolleys and buses and trolley buses and the just buses. Then the amusement park that was at the end of the line closed. But the bus garage is still where the car barn was in 1880….

      • Joey

        Not everyone can rely on peak-dominated schedules. Having young kids or various other things may require being able to get between home and work without waiting half an hour for the next train, often without prior notice. Plenty of people might have a schedule which aligns with peak most of the time but can’t rely on it doing so 100% of the time. It can be difficult to fill off-peak trains but having infrequent off-peak service drives riders away. Where possible, shorter but more frequent trains are desirable, assuming they don’t increase operating costs too much. Of course it does increase operating costs on overstaffed American commuter railroads…

  6. Desmond Bliek (@desmondbliek)

    Maybe not in line with your pro-Evergreen argument, but I always thought that if TransLink ever moves forward with the Burnaby Mountain (SFU) Gondola, that it should run up and over the mountain and add a stop along the inlet, allowing for transfer with WCE (so Production Way or preferably Burquitlam > SFU > WCE). Thoughts?

    • Alan Robinson

      Getting to SFU from the east is a pain, but the Evergreen Line with a transfer at Como Lake or Production Way will largely solve that problem. A gondola extension to Port Moody would be nice, but duplicative. There’s no reason to drive a gondola into Burrard Inlet.

  7. knott

    While I completely agree with all the proposals with reform and great untapped potential for American style commuter system, I think one should be very careful with assuming that the same absolute time difference means different things for different parts of the city. I think that time improvements closer to the center matters more, but that is because the density of ridership and the density of the areas around the stations are higher centrally and that it thus affects more individuals. The individual value for a given amount of time is probably quite similar throughout a system.

  8. Purple City

    A few brief responses.

    (i) Loco-hauled diesel to EMU conversion offers the opportunity for a pareto-optimal solution. If you can shave 13 minutes off an outer suburban-core trip, you can reinvest 10 of those adding infill stops and give the remaining 3 to the ‘burbanites. Everybody wins.

    (ii) Your relative weighting of commute priorities is off. If I have a 15-minute commute, that’s almost too short; going to a 22-minute commute, while a 50% increase, has almost no negative effect on happiness. But if I have a 70-minute commute, that additional 7 minutes is unbearable. I already don’t have enough time to relax and unwind; now you want me to spend *even more* time on the train?

    (iii) Neglecting transfer time is inaccurate. Transfer time for frequent services is properly calculated as (i) walk time between platforms, plus (ii) one-half the average headway on the connecting service. For Skytrain at Commercial-Broadway that’s an additional 5-6 minutes.

  9. Eric

    “However, since present-day riders are precisely the narrow slice of potential users who are okay with the current setup, they have the potential to engage in NIMBY protests against any attempt at modernization.”

    This basically comes down to: Every potential change is going to help some people and hurt others. If the change helps vastly more people than it hurts, then it should be done. But the people who are hurt are going to scream really loudly. What they will visibly lose is more tangible than what other people will someday gain, and current US political systems are set up to reward obstructionists, so even a tiny minority that will be hurt has a good chance of swaying popular opinion and getting the change cancelled.

    As a way around this, I wonder if some metric can be developed to objectively measure the various gains and losses of a potential project. Transit planners already use primitive metrics like “dollars spent per new rider”, but perhaps much broader and more powerful metrics can be developed. If such a metric is developed, proves itself in analysis of past projects, and becomes accepted by the professional community, then perhaps it can be marketed to the public with the line “This helps X people and hurts X/10 people”, or “This causes X dollars of gain and X/50 dollars loss” and thus be more accepted.

    Right now, not only NIMBYs and self-centered people, but even reasonably well-educated transit nerds throw subjective estimates of project gain and harm back and forth with no way to compare them to each other.

  10. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois within walking distance of the Metra UP-North line, and even as a kid I was kind of struck by how limited it was. Dad would take the train to work in the Loop every day, almost without fail, and being able to transfer to the L at Davis in Evanston made going to the occasional Cubs game simple enough. Still, any sort of suburb-to-suburb trip was never even considered on the train. I found this surprising because of the good number of residential neighborhoods and walkable suburban downtowns that are all connected by it. Due to the infrequent schedules and relative complication of ticket buying, climbing onto a train, and just the “big feel” of the double-decker coaches seems to make it an anathema to anyone but a few housekeepers who live in Highwood and have no other way to get to the houses in Lake Forest, Highland Park, Winnetka, etc.

    Still, I would think that smaller more nimble DMUs or something could be used for intermediate off-peak service. Some sort of reduced fare or special pass that doesn’t require punching a ticket would go a long way. Level boarding is a much harder nut to crack, but dealing with strollers is a big impediment to getting families onboard (literally and figuratively), especially when frequencies are so low not only on weekdays but on weekends when you’re more likely to get those impromptu trips and family outings to begin with. Even more stops would help too, but again that’s a tough nut to crack. The service provided by the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban before the shore line was abandoned in 1955 was much better suited to this sort of travel, but it was also able to get away with much much smaller platforms and limited station buildings.

    • Adirondacker12800

      It’s less congested between suburbs and the parking is a lot cheaper or free and much easier to get.

    • betamagellan

      Metra’s continued infatuation with zoned scheduling doesn’t help, either.

      I’m personally very skeptical of DMU’s—FRA-compliant (and there’s no way places like Boston and Chicago are going to get big FRA waivers) DMU’s in practice tend to be heavy (i. e. fuel guzzling and with only marginal improvements over diesel locomotives), and I doubt it makes much sense from an operations perspective to have a separate fleet for off-peak service (which seems to be the typical suggestion from railfans in Chicago—maybe they all have fond memories of when they tried using Budd railcars for this purpose on the Chicago & Northwestern—and from whoever came up with this). American EMU’s are heavier than European ones and obviously require electrification, but at least you get similar power-to-weight rations and grade-climbing abilities that go together well with other modernization schemes.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Back when Budd railcars were new technology some railroads were still using steam. The conventional wisdom then was that it made sense to run Budd railcars on low use branch lines that needed three cars or less. Two car DMUs on NJtransit’s River Line make sense. they don’t make sense for the line to Lindenwold. Ending electrification at Croton made sense in 1910. When the population of Duchess County was much lower and real estate in lower Westchester was much cheaper. If they decide to electrify to Poughkeepsie it would make the most sense to do it at 12.5 or 25Kv and run M8ish kinda things on it. And maybe even consider ripping out the third rail between Highbridge and Croton. It has to be third rail into Grand Central. The clearances aren’t high enough for high voltage catenary. And they would probably want to reelectrify the Harlem Line. DMUs make sense some of the time in some places. Sometimes it’s cheaper to run locomotive hauled trains and haul around empty cars off peak. Sometime it makes sense to consider electrification like they did with Wassaic and Ronkonkoma. Or ripping out the electrification and reinstalling new like they did to NJTransit’s Morris and Essex lines, are doing to the New Havenline and the NEC someday. The electrification on the Harlem line is teetering on the edge of capacity during rush hour. They are going to have to do something with that someday soon.

      • Max Wyss

        FWIW, but it seems that DMUs following the newest UIC crashworthyness standards no longer need a waiver, and can operate in mixed environment. That would open the doors for more GTWs (which, particularly with two diesel motors in the power cube are pretty good performers), or FLIRTs with a diesel power unit.

        • Joey

          The FRA seems ready to allow mixed traffic, but the freight RRs are still wildcards, and in certain cases (UPRR) it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t. A lot of the track in the Chicago area is publicly owned but not all of it.

  11. R. W. Rynerson

    An update from the Mountain Time Zone (it’s the one that keeps the Central and Pacific Zones from colliding):

    1. I was wrong in implying that all NM trains make all stops. They now have one pair of express trips.

    2. In this morning’s Denver Post, the addition of a healthcare education program with new buildings at the underdeveloped Ridge campus will triple the student population at their station on the commuter rail Gold Line. The new building is planned to be completed in 2016, a few months before the “Denver S-Bahn” opens.

    3. New multiple-family housing is going up along the Gold Line, but it is too early to tell which direction they’ll travel, other than with modeling generalities.

    Information about the new Colorado transit construction, as well as boarding and alighting figures for light rail stations and bus/rail productivity figures by route, is available via http://www.RTD-Denver.com . Direct access to reports and studies is at:
    http://www.rtd-denver.com/Reports.shtml .

    The light rail station count is broken down by direction, so some of the suburb to suburb ridership may be deduced. The commuter rail cars will also have Automatic Passenger Counters.

  12. Alan Robinson

    I grew up in Mission and have commuted on the WCE.

    “I claim that Mission residents would still take the train more often if it were 8 minutes lower.”
    Yes, we would still take the train if it was 8 minutes slower, in large part because driving is much much slower.

    “Mission commuters live farther out, so they’re somewhat less likely to care about service to various neighborhoods along the way.”
    No. A very high proportion (tens of percents) of people getting on the train in Mission aren’t going to downtown Vancouver. I personally know teachers getting off in Maple Ridge, students going to SFU or BCIT, office workers going to Surrey, and I’ve commuted to northern Burnaby. However, most people are commuting to or connecting at Waterfront. Having a better transfer to the rest of the region’s transit network at PoCo is going to be a boon for most of these travellers. It’s a travesty that other commuter rail networks, such as Metra in Chicago, don’t recognize the importance of non-CBD commutes for suburban residents.

    While the above two points would seem to support through running commuter rail with rapid transit, there’s a strong argument against doing so. What is really important for commuters from Mission is that we get a comfortable seat. Everyone I knew on the train had a routine on the way home to nap, read, chat, etc… The 4 across alternate front back seat layout of a Bombardier Bi-Level coach, makes these routines possible. This type of seating arrangement severly restricts passenger flow on rapid transit vehicles. Personally, I read through Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis on my commutes (summer of 2nd year of undergrad), something I would not have been able to concentrate on without sitting at a table. This routine was invaluable to winding down and it helped me decided to never take an analysis course.

    “They also are less likely to care about very high frequency, since their trips are longer, but they do care about service availability all day, even if they’d be okay with half-hourly service.”
    All day transit service to the west is one of the most frequent demands for transit improvements in Mission. However, this isn’t ever going to be all-day rail service on the CP mainline. It will be bus service. We don’t, and won’t for the foreseable future, have sufficient demand for that type of rail capacity. Even if rail service were feasable, the railway largely bypasses Haney and most of Maple Ridge, the most important destination all-day service would serve.

    “In the present, the WCE works as a placeholder – it’s possible to reduce staffing and improve turnaround times to allow off-peak service”
    The West Coast Express does offer off-peak service using busses. This service is much slower than the train service, but does provide important span coverage, especially later in the evening. Given existing track infrastructure and new platforms, it may be possible to offer one or two reverse peak trips as far as Maple Meadows, but the main purpose of this would be to improve fleet utilization and to increase capacity without requiring more yard space at Waterfront. Off-peak service would be extremely difficult to schedule around freight movements, and would require a third track built between the Coquitlam yard, over the Pitt River, to Maple Meadows. This would be a very expensive capital project (> $100 million for the bridge, maybe as high at $500 million) for a limited amount of increased service and little possibility of further extension. Capital dollars for concrete should go towards rapid transit.

    • Alon Levy

      All I can say about the seat issue is that people at the outer end can find seats either way, and it’s the people from closer in who’d have to stand. Subway lines in the Bronx have seats, and only become standing room only as they enter Manhattan. You wouldn’t have tables, though.

      • Adirondacker12800

        People who are leaving the core have to compete with people who are leaving the core for the middle of the line and sometimes don’t get a seat until after the people who snagged a seat for a close in stop, get to their stop. I’ve hopped on PATH trains headed to 33rd Street because I know if I loitered around on the platform by the time the train got back to the station I was at it would be filled and I’d have t stand all the way to Journal Square and pass time in Hoboken to do that…. it depends, on who gets a seat….

        • Alan Robinson

          On the WCE, the train is held at the station a good 20-25 minutes before departure. There’s a fair number of commuters that arrive early on the train to guarantee a seat, and for those who don’t, seats become available at Port Moody.

  13. Joey

    Some thoughts

    1) It’s apparent that Metras UP-N line has little to no freight south of Lake Bluff. That’s most of the line, but some trains would still have to run through onto freight-shared tracks. So how do you make that service compatible with modernized service on the inner segment? Mix FRA and non-FRA trains, padding the schedule more to allow for UP-associated delays? Spend the money for dedicated tracks along the rest of the route?

    2) Even where interlining between regional and metro lines is technologically impossible, it may still be useful for them to share ROW in a FSSF or SFFS configuration with cross-platform transfers. Where regional and metro lines share ROW today (at least in America), they usually do so in a FFSS configuration and transfers (if they exist) require multiple flights of stairs and lack fare integration.

    3) What would be the best course of action to take with the old colony lines assuming the MBTA ever fulfills its obligation to build the North-South Rail Link? The biggest constraint I see is that much of the ROW is only 3 tracks wide with little room for expansion. One possible solution would be to dedicated all 3 tracks and intermediate stops to regional rail, allowing some degree of local/limited service, but the ROW/track adjustments necessary would be quite expensive.

    • ardecila

      In the case of UP-N, there’s no need for modernized service north of Waukegan. Continue with the hourly trains to Kenosha and upgrade service along a more densely-populated segment of the line. It’s moot, though – the freight volumes on shared segments of the line north of Lake Bluff and south of Clybourn are very modest, only 4-6 trains per day.

      One commuter/metro in an FSSF configuration is WMATA’s Red Line between Silver Spring and Brookland. No cross-platform transfers with MARC but it’s theoretically possible.

      • Joey

        the freight volumes on shared segments of the line north of Lake Bluff and south of Clybourn are very modest, only 4-6 trains per day.

        I’m surprised there’s even that much freight traffic south of Clybourn. Where is it all going? There’s no through route available. There are a few freight spurs which look serviceable – a few on Goose Island and one on the Chicago Tribune building, but I’m surprised that they can support one train per day let alone 4-6.

        One commuter/metro in an FSSF configuration is WMATA’s Red Line between Silver Spring and Brookland. No cross-platform transfers with MARC but it’s theoretically possible.

        I noticed that. Any idea why it’s built that way since they obviously weren’t thinking about actual transfers?

        • Alex B.

          I believe they built the Red Line that way because the B and O still had freight customers on both sides of the tracks with active sidings. That is no longer the case, but that was part of the reason to put the Metro in the center rather than keep it along one side and build a lot of flyovers for rail sidings (an approach they used on the Orange line near Landover).

  14. Pingback: Notes on Peaky Transit | Purple City
  15. EJ

    BART would seem to meet all the requirements you’ve laid out. Consistent stopping patterns, reasonably high off-peak frequency, metro-like stop spacing in urban areas. But its ridership is no higher than Metro North. Not bad, but nowhere near that of European commuter systems. What gives?

    • Adirondacker12800

      It’s too easy to park outside of San Francisco? There’s no toll to pay for local trips? Going to the supermarket on BART, especially if you have a car, isn’t attractive?

    • Alon Levy

      First, BART has way more ridership per capita than any US commuter rail system. It has three times the ridership of the MBTA or SEPTA, more ridership than Metra in a smaller and less CBD-centric metro area, and a bit less than half the ridership of the New York commuter rail system on a quarter to a third the metro area population and again with a less CBD-centric job distribution.

      Second, BART reproduces one of the misfeatures of American commuter rail that make it so useless to people who are not CBD peak commuters: park-and-rides. That’s why SkyTrain gets slightly more ridership, on one third to one half the metro area population: Vancouver and its suburbs built TOD, including commercial TOD at Metrotown, so now there’s a mass of commuters who chose where to live precisely to make use of SkyTrain, who therefore can conveniently use it at all times of day.

      Third, BART’s alignment in Oakland is awkward, because it can’t put SF, Oakland City Center, and East Oakland on a single line.

      • Adirondacker12800

        On the other hand PATH gets almost as many riders with the amount of route and stations that BART has on a branch. Metro in Washington gets, in round numbers, three times as many riders with a similarly sized metro area. And on a similar amount of route miles. And goes to an airport without much drama. And competition from MARC and VRE. Not very vigorous competition but competition. BART is trying to be Metra and the L and the Norristown Speed Line and the express streetcar for Berkeley and Oakland all at the same time. PATH has an unpopulated swamp in the middle. In very round numbers it’s twice as far from Journal Square to Harrison as it is from West Oakland to Embarcadero. And it ain’t a short ride from Exchange Place to the World Trade Center either. a bit longer from Hoboken or Newport to Christopher Street. Hmm, nah, that PATH runs 24/7/365 doesn’t make much of a difference. Nobody in their right mind considers sending Metro to Baltimore a good idea. Baltimore Penn Station is closer to Untion Station in DC than San Francisco is to San Jose. Or sending PATH to Trenton or the Red Line in Boston to Providence or the L to Milwaukee or the … I’d have to find someplace in metro Philadelphia that’s as far away from Philadlephia as San Jose is from San Francisco. Atlantic City is a bit too far and Wilmington is a bit too close as is Trenton. Phlly subway to New Brunswick? I had a serious sense of deja vu when typed “New Brunswick?”

        • Joey

          Metro in Washington gets, in round numbers, three times as many riders with a similarly sized metro area.

          Yes, because the Washington Metro is more focused on serving dense core areas and secondary CBDs rather than suburban park-and-rides like BART.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s not Washington problem Califorinians don’t have any secondary CBDs or places where you can walk to the suburban train station. Or Chicagoan’s problem. Or Long Islander’s problem. New Jersey has enormous park rides to avoid putting big ugly garages in the middle of dense walkable suburban downtowns.

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: There are a lot of very dense parts of SF, Oakland, and Berkeley that aren’t served by BART. Antioch isn’t going to get very good ridership per route mile.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The enormous park-n-rides are in Ramsey, Wayne, and Montclair. Oakland doesn’t even have an active passenger train station. I’d have to go digging to see if the Mighty Susie Q ever had one. Probably and it probably closed in 1922 or something like that.
            There are other big park-n-rides in places farther south. IIRC Summit has a fairly big one but Summit financed it themselves so they can restrict parking to Summit residents. Maplewood decided to go with jitneys which worked out so well Springfield now has them. And a few other places I don’t remember. Hicksville decided to plop one right in the middle of downtown. I’m sure people just love the extraordinarily low rates by bitching and whining and then bitching some more about how high they are.

          • Joey

            Oakland does have an active passenger train station, but not a very busy one.

            But why does that even matter? My point was that there are dense core areas that BART doesn’t serve and yet all their expansion projects focus on low-density outward expansions.

          • Adirondacker12800

            I’m almost sure that people in Oakland New Jersey who want to go to New York City either get on a bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 41st and Eighth or drive to a park-n-ride in Ramsey. So that they can change to train going to Penn Station or go all the way to Hoboken to change to a PATH train. Most of those go to the World Trade Center but some of them are going to Exchange Place or someplace in Jersey City or even Hoboken itself or Newark.

          • Joey

            Okay, I get it, you’re trolling because neither I nor Alon explicitly stated which Oakland we were talking about.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There are dense parts of Manhattan that don’t have service. Second Avenue for instance. No one has ever suggested that serving that with Metro North or it’s predecessors would be a good idea. No one except really frothy subway foamers ever suggests sending PATH to Trenton. Or even Philadelphia’s Broad Street line to Trenton. Or the subway to Suffolk County or Fairfield County. Baltimore is closer to Washington DC than San Jose is to San Francisco. The urban rail lines in DC and Baltimore are stubby little things compared to BART. There was a passing fad to send PATH to Terminal A, downtown Elizabeth and then replace the Raritan Valley line with PATH. Only to Plainfield. Suburbanites all up and down the line screamed Queensification and it never happened. I have fantasies of PATH to Irvington Center via Lyons Avenue with a huge park-n-ride hovering over the interchange for the Parkway and I-78. That ain’t gonna happen and Irvington’s bus terminal is one of the busiest in the state. Not surprising considering the big gray building next to it that should be full of retail is a PSE&G substation that’s there to power all the trolley lines that used to go to where the bus terminal now is. More or less. Lovely suburban low rise Irvington is denser than Oakland California, San Francisco California and Newark New Jersey. Even after the population crash recorded in the 2010 census. Oakland California is only a little bit denser than bucolic suburban Maplewood New Jersey. A great big chunk of Maplewood New Jersey is a cliff with a park on top of it. Well it’s so hard to get to it’s more or less undeveloped second growth forest up on top. Long Beach NY, at the suburban end of the LIRR line, is twice as dense as Oakland California. Ya want me to go on?

          • Alon Levy

            Oakland’s overall residential density, counting port areas and such, isn’t high. But look at Oakland’s center on Google Earth, or on OnTheMap. Its job density is the highest in the Bay Area outside SF proper – way higher than anything in Silicon Valley, and almost as high as the Newark CBD’s.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Nobody actually lives in Newark’s CBD. that’s what the buses and trains are for.
            Um Um there are port areas in Newark and a big friggin airport. And railroad yards just like Oakland. They want to use a part of the disused railroad yards right next to Newark Airport to store PATH cars….. And the spaghetti bowl of the Turnpike, US 1, 9, 22 I-78 and State Highway 21 and 24.
            Which is one of the reasons why Irvington is denser than Newark. And East Orange. Probably Vailsburg compared to the city as a whole because Vailsburg seamlessly blends into East Orange and Irvington. Oakland is about as dense as Hillside NJ. which is where the trolley ‘burbs of Weequahic and Irvington begin to peter out into the automobile suburbs of Union County. Elizabeth New Jersey is more densely populated than Oakland and has two lousy train stations one of them almost without service. And really busy bus lines into Newark. Elizabeth has the parts of the airport not in Newark and port. and some railroad yard.

          • David Alexander

            have fantasies of PATH to Irvington Center via Lyons Avenue
            In contrast, I wanted a spur from Newark City Subway down Springfield Avenue…

          • Adirondacker12800

            Springfield Avenue. South Orange Avenue, West Market and Central Ave buses all clog Market Street along with the the less frequent services. Up. down all those avenues from the perspective of the suburban areas to the west of downtown is “down” because you are going downtown. Which is partly why the main shopping and services area in Irvington is Irvington Center. And Bloomfield Center and Union Center and…. center. Downtown is Newark or Elizabeth.
            They tried running the trolley lines into the subway, no one liked it, at least not the lines that go up and down Market before spreading out. On the other hand Market Street has had peak direction rush hour exclusive bus lanes since the 50s. No one finds it unusual after all this time so no one talks about it in those terms. It’s just that there is no stopping, no standing and no parking which is more or less enforced and the buses use the whole block as multiple stops assigned to different lines.

          • Purple City

            In what universe is the DC Metro not park and ride focused? DC is almost unique in that it has direct freeway flyovers right into park and rides, including a two-mile interstate spur in Gaithersburg that was later cannibalized for the ICC. The only similar setup I know of is in Atlanta, at North Springs MARTA.

            BART’s ridership differential vis-a-vis WMATA is mainly the fault of the Bay and Marin County. The Bay, because where DC has midrise/rowhouse density extending for several miles in every direction, the eastern half of BART spends that time underwater and re-emerges amidst bungalows and SFRs. Marin County, because the original system had a westside branch that ran under Geary before turning north to cross the Golden Gate. Instead, Marin went the exclusionary zoning route and we get 3-minute headways to Daly City.

            If you went back to 1955 and told the PB-Bechtel guys that Marin would never happen, they’d probably route the Geary branch west and then south to SFSU. And then you’d have your DC-comparable ridership.

          • Adirondacker12800

            In very round numbers Metro has three times the ridership of BART with the same amount of route miles. Unless someone is hiding really big garages someplace lots of people use Metro without going anywhere near an automobile. Buses maybe but not automobiles.

          • Alex B.

            I don’t know that these are mutually exclusive categories. DC’s Metro has big park and rides; it also serves secondary CBDs (Bethesda, Silver Spring, Crystal City, Alexandria, Rosslyn-Ballston, and now Tysons Corner).

          • Adirondacker12800

            Crystal City was built because Metro was coming. Rosslyn-Ballston developed because Metro was there and Virginia doesn’t have the height limits the District has.

        • David Alexander

          the express streetcar for Berkeley and Oakland all at the same time

          Admittedly, in my drunker moments, I’ve argued that instead of trying to jury-rig BART into a subway, just admit that it’s an American version of the Frankfurt S-Bahn*, and just build a proper complementary streetcar network?

          *I’ve also felt that WMATA is America’s Berlin S-Bahn. Again, a properly planned streetcar (and not some half-assed federally funded real estate development tool) would probably work wonders.

          • Alon Levy

            San Francisco has Muni Metro, which is like the Frankfurt U-Bahn.

            BART is an S-Bahn for the cost of a fully greenfield subway. WMATA is a bit more complicated – I don’t think it’s quite as branched as the Berlin S-Bahn, and, again like BART, it has the problem of not being able to leverage legacy rail lines at low cost. The Red Line goes parallel to the Brunswick Line rather than on it, and the Silver Line goes in the Dulles Access Road median rather than the now trailified abandoned railroad that’s parallel to it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Metro is providing the local service in the denser residential areas and MARC is providing the express service from the less dense suburbs. The Dulles Toll Road was built with provisions for someday putting rail in it. Along with Dulles itself.

        • Joey

          In what universe is the DC Metro not park and ride focused?

          This is true, and you’re also right that geography plays a role, but that still doesn’t account for the difference. The Washington Metro has much more complete coverage of the dense central areas than BART, and the extents of the system are farther out.

          Also, as I recall, Geary was kept in BART’s plans for some time even after Marin withdrew.t

  16. Alex B.

    Metro’s Silver Line follows the freeways rather than the old interurban railbed because that’s where the land use is to support transit. All of the offices followed the highway investments, not the old rail line.

    Hence, they routed the Silver Line to serve those clusters of jobs and denser development. The challenge will be in adapting that area over time to better complement transit – making the edge city walkable, maximizing the use of that transit investment, etc.

    The other challenge is that once you get to Reston, you might as well serve the airport – and that’s right where the old interurban ROW heads north, while the airport is due west. It would’ve been great had they never dismantled that right of way in the first place, but that’s water under the bridge.

  17. nei

    Is there any way to convert the MBTA Fairmount Line into a subway line, perhaps as a third branch of the Red Line? Or is the only practical setup for it is to have it terminate at south station as it does now?

    • Joey

      Or the MBTA could build the North South Rail Link as they were ordered to do as part of Big Dig mitigation.

    • Alon Levy

      The Red Line’s antediluvian signaling permits a maximum frequency of a train every 4 minutes; three branches would result in even worse frequency on each branch than is available today.

      • threestationsquare

        Electronics before concrete! Would running the Fairmount Line into the Red Line make sense if the signalling were improved?

        Also the Red Line used to have shorter headways with its older signalling system, running ever 2 minutes at peak in 1929.

        • Alon Levy


          The reason I’m apprehensive is that the Fairmount Line needs to take some mainline traffic off the inner part of the Providence Line, to allow intercity trains to run with less commuter rail interference. Right now, the inner part of the Providence Line gets trains from both Providence and Franklin. The Providence Line suburbs already have high demand, in the 4 tph peak area, and the Franklin Line suburbs probably would if frequency were improved. Intercity trains can run alongside 8 tph’s worth of commuter trains, but that leaves zero room for Stoughton Line traffic. So something has to run through to the Fairmount Line instead – either intercity trains, which can run alongside commuter trains every 15 minutes without overtakes, or Franklin Line trains, clearing the mainline for intercity trains.

          • Joey

            Sending Franklin trains up the Fairmount line would also eliminate the junction at Readville, turning it into a simple crossing, which would increase reliability and schedule flexibility.

  18. nei

    Perhaps a better candidate for conversion to rapid transit would be converting two commuter rail branches south of Forest Hills: the Needham Line and the Providence/Franklin Line to either Readville or a station in Deedham (with several added infill stations) into Orange Line branches. There’d be almost time loss for the Needham Branch. Both branches would fairly short, if the frequency of the existing Orange Line is kept each branch would have an off peak frequency of a train every 20 minutes. Which leads to a frequency issue I haven’t seen mentioned on transit blogs. Waiting for a late night NYC subway train that has a 20 minute frequency, when you don’t know when it’s scheduled is very frustrating. A commuter rail train that arrives every 20 minutes is much less frustrating, with a bit of planning you can time your arrival to the station to the train. BART trains keep a schedule, the current red line branches have similar frequencies to BART, but instead of a schedule only a frequency is given. Would it be possible for MBTA trains, at least off peak, to follow a schedule?

    I suppose if there was a North-South commuter rail link, it would be better leave both branches as commuter rail but with higher frequencies. Converting to the Providence/Franklin Line to an Orange Line might require sacrificing one of the three commuter rail tracks and building another track, or at least has the downside of building and adding space for one extra track. Would there be any reason to convert the two branches to an Orange Line if the north-south rail link were built? Downside I could is that the commuter rail lines running at a higher frequency would roughly duplicate orange line services as an express, but would probably only be a few minutes faster so an express is unnecessary, while being a bit more inconvenient in station location.

    • Adirondacker12800

      NYC subway trains have a schedule and from what I’ve been told, I’ve never bothered, they keep to the schedule off peak.

      • Mycroft

        Both the New York and Boston subway systems vary frequency of service, as do London and Paris.

  19. Mycroft

    Sometimes, and this is one of those times, history does matter. America’s post WW2 “love affair with the automobile” came while Europe was pulling itself up by its bootstraps and needing its regional rail. At the same time, US railroads were running head on into the problems of already counter-productive ICC regulation becoming aggressively damaging because it assumed no competition in the face of the emergence of truck and auto competition. And, US auto forces were actively subsidizing destruction of flanged wheel passenger transportation, viz National
    City Lines. So, while only rail was sensible for commutation, particularly so in the case of NYC,
    suburbanites suddenly could use autos to get around the suburbs and even take mid day trips. After the Depression and the war, there was very significant highway capacity available to absorb the surge in auto usage, so it was initially easier and more convenient than it has since become, much easier and more convenient and less expensive than it is easy to imagine it ever being again. (A personal note, I was born in 46 and lived in Marblehead; rail service was by the B&M through Lynn and by the River Works (where the stops were even then not frequent enough to be used for commuting, leaving my GE engineer father no choice but to take the bus). At that time, the rolling stock was old and shabby enough that it made one look for Abraham Lincoln in the seats across the aisle; buses were significantly more modern and comfortable in that forward looking time – better heated in winter, better illuminated at night, and had better suspensions and seating. And, soon all our families and friends had our own cars and could go directly point to point without suffering the vagaries of public transit.

    On many lines between 1945 and 1952, off peak regional rail ridership dropped more than 90%. The marginal direct cost of off peak service suddenly vastly exceeded the fares. So, the railroads were able to justify cutting this service back, which then made providing peak service a painful money loser. Faced with an obligation to meet this demand and an unbearable financial loss, in an anti-subsidy/pro-highway political climate; the railroads were driven to deviously find ways to abandon service or to sell regional rail lines to the cities/metro areas they served. These agencies saw their mission as preserving the central city by preserving commuter passenger service to the central core; they didn’t understand the need for freight service to continue for the sake of commerce, nor were they interested in serving the non-commutation needs of those lucky auto-driving suburbanites. And, they were grimly underfunded.

    What you are protesting is largely the direct consequence of this history in the US and less so in Canada. By missing the North American auto bubble, our European friends have had an easier start in moving to modern regional rail. In England, where the national sports are class warfare and the war between “the wicked southeast” (London and environs) and the rest of the country, the history was complicated by nationalizations and rationalizations (Thank you, Dr. Beeching.), but finally seems to be moving into a lucid and consistent planning process (See the Network
    Rail Route Studies and other planning documents available here
    They are truly fascinating.) Interestingly, the UK is now seeking to achieve the off peak service goals and suburb to suburb service that you seek. However, when faced with the need for capital investment to meet peak demand, they are willing to minimize it by making middle class commuters STAND for an hour or more on key commuter lines. (The descent from the Brighton Bell to very cramped standing room on the service to Brighton is a truly sad come down, but it minimizes subsidy for Conservative mps and it minimizes indulgence of the middle class for militant tendency Labor civil servants doing the analysis.)

    • Adirondacker12800

      It’s pity the study has evaporated from the intertubes. The railroads were bleeding red on passenger service in New Jersey. And those bright shiny highways were not yet congested. The Department of Roads commissioned Parsons to do a study.

      In 1959

      They came to the conclusion that the cheapest most effective way to get people from the suburbs to Manhattan and with some consideration to places like Newark and Jersey City was rail. Building enough bus tunnel would cost too much. Building the bus terminals would cost too much. It took into account the beating buses do to roads. If I remember correctly just that made it worthwhile to maintain the railroads. The biggest expense was the ferries. So the PRR was given permission to cease service and the CNJ was connected to the Lehigh Valley and most of the trains went to Newark instead of Jersey City. Again if IIRC future plans included electrification of what is now called the Raritan Valley line and a connection between the Delaware Lackawanna and Western and someway for people in Bergen and Passaic to get to Midtown without going to Hoboken and getting on the Hudson and Manhattan. Part of the reasoning behind it was to increase ridership on the H&M which was also bleeding red. It’s a pity it wasn’t integrated with the suburban fares. Oh well.

      Yep in 1962 you could live in surburban splendor in New Jersey and drive to your job in Manhattan. By the early 70s that dream had fallen apart and they instituted the eXpress Bus Lane. And instead of improving rail, more farted around with building more bus terminal. And when Amtrak. the LIRR and the newly formed NJTransit said they would run out capacity by the time something could be built almost everyone giggled. They were projecting 2010 or 2015. They needed it in 1995. East Side Access is only 50 years behind the original schedule. The Second Avenue Subway is pushing a century behind schedule. And instead of 6 tracks south of 63rd Street we might be lucky to get two by 2040.

      Upper middle class voters in New Jersey, who whine and moan about how they have to stand for an hour on their commuter trains re-elected the governor who canceled the plan that would have given them a seat in 2017 ( according to plans, it probably would have been 2020 but they are looking at 2025 and more likely 2030 now )

      • Adirondacker12800

        No, it’s evaporated. Quite quaint to look at. I’m hope the typist who cut the stencil for the mimeograph was well paid. It was a scan of the report.

      • threestationsquare

        This is a tangent, but in retrospect it seems baffling that the railroads kept their Hudson River ferries running as long as they did. The CNJ didn’t have much choice, but the H&M was running frequent service to the PRR, Erie and Lackawanna stations by the end of 1910. Some of the railroad ferries carried significant auto traffic for a while but the Holland Tunnel opened in 1927. Yet the PRR maintained their ferry service until 1949, the Erie maintained theirs until they moved their trains to Hoboken in 1957, and the Lackawanna ferry at Hoboken ran until 1967.

        One would think that in addition to being more efficient to operate the H&M trains would provide a superior service, getting people to their (usually inland) destinations in Manhattan much more quickly and without exposure to issues like weather. Indeed in most of the US and elsewhere ferries were rapidly driven out of business when rapid transit (or vehicular) crossings opened. Were the ferry fares much cheaper than the H&M (I gather this is part of how Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has survived)? Did the railroads particularly want to provide service under their control all the way to Manhattan? Were the regulatory barriers to abandonment just too high? Or what?

  20. Pingback: Quick Note: MBTA Electrification | Pedestrian Observations

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