An interesting discussion on Twitter came out of an alternatives analysis for Philadelphia commuter rail improvements. I don’t want to discuss the issue at hand for now (namely, forced transfers), but the discussion of Philadelphia leads to a broader question about tails. Commuter rail systems sometimes have low-frequency tails with through-service to the core system and sometimes don’t, and it’s useful to understand both approaches.
What is a tail?
For the purposes of this post, a tail is whenever there is a frequent line with trains infrequently continuing farther out. Frequency here is relative, so a subway line running every 2.5 minutes to a destination with every fourth train continuing onward is a tail even though the tail still has 10-minute frequency, and a commuter line running every 20 minutes with every third train continuing onward also has a tail, even though in the latter case the core frequency is lower than the tail frequency in the former case.
The key here is that the line serves two markets, one high-intensity and frequent and one lower-intensity warranting less service, with the outer travel market running through to the inner one. Usually the implication is that the inner segment can survive on its own and the contribution of the outer segment to ridership is not significant by itself. In contrast, it’s common enough on S-Bahn systems to have a very frequent trunk (as in Berlin, or Munich, or Paris) that fundamentally depends on through-service from many suburban segments farther out combining to support high frequency in the core; if ridership farther out is significant enough that without it frequency in the core would suffer, I would not call this a tail.
When are tails useful?
Tails are useful whenever there is a core line that happens to be along the same route as a lower-intensity suburban line. In that case, the suburban line behind can benefit from the strong service in the core by having direct through-service to it at a frequency that’s probably higher than it could support by itself. This is especially valuable as the ridership of the tail grows in proportion to that of the core segment – in the limiting case, it’s not even a tail, just outer branches that combine to support strong core frequency.
Tokyo makes extensive use of tails. The JR East commuter lines all have putative natural ends within the urban area. For example, most Chuo Rapid Line trains turn at Takao, at the western end of the built-up area of Tokyo – but some continue onward to the west, running as regional trains to Otsuki or as interregional or as intercity trains farther west to Shiojiri.
Munich and Zurich both use tails as well on their S-Bahns. In Munich, the base frequency of each of the seven main services is every 20 minutes, but some have tails running hourly, and all have tails running two trains per hour with awkward alternation of 20- and 40-minute gaps. In Zurich, the system is more complex, and some lines have tails (for example, S4) and some do not (for example, S3); S4 is not a portion of an intercity line the way the Chuo Line is, and yet its terminus only gets hourly trains, while most of the line gets a train every 20 minutes.
What are the drawbacks of tails?
A tail is a commitment to running similar service as in the core, just at lower frequency. In Philadelphia, the proposal to avoid tails and instead force what would be tails into off-peak shuttle trains with timed transfers to the core system is bundled into separate brands for inner and outer service and a desire to keep the outer stations underbuilt, without accessibility or high platforms. Branding is an exercise in futility in this context, but there are, in other places than Philadelphia, legitimate reasons to avoid tails, as in Paris and Berlin:
- Different construction standards – perhaps the core is electrified and an outer segment is not; historically, this was the reason Philadelphia ended commuter rail service past the limit of electrification, becoming the only all-electrified American commuter rail network. In Berlin, the electrification standards on the mainline and on the S-Bahn differ as the S-Bahn was electrified decades earlier and is run as an almost entirely self-contained system.
- Train size difference – sometimes the gap in demand is such that the tail needs not just lower frequency than the core but also shorter trains. In the United States, Trenton is a good example of this – New York-Trenton is a much higher-demand line than Trenton-Philadelphia and runs longer trains, which is one reason commuter trains do not run through.
- Extra tracks – if there are express tracks on the core segment, then it may be desirable to run a tail express, if it is part of an intercity line like the Chuo Line rather than an isolated regional line like S4 in Zurich, and not have it interface with the core commuter line at all to avoid timetabling complications. If there are no extra tracks, then the tail would have to terminate at the connection point with the core line, as is proposed in Philadelphia, and the forced transfer is a drawback that generally justifies running the tail.
Do the drawbacks justify curtailment?
Not really. On two-track lines, it’s useful to provide service into city center from the entire line, just maybe not at high frequency on outer segments. This can create situations in which intercity-scale lines run as commuter rail lines that keep going farther than typical, and this is fine – the JR East lines do this on their rapid track pairs and within the built-up area of Tokyo people use those longer-range trains in the same way they would an ordinary rapid commuter train.
This is especially important to understand in the United States, which is poor in four-track approaches of the kind that the largest European cities have. I think both Paris and Berlin should be incorporating their regional lines into the core RER and S-Bahn as tails, but they make it work without this by running those trains on dedicated tracks shared with intercity service but not commuter rail. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia do not have this ability, because they lack the ability to segregate S-Bahn and RegionalBahn services. This means Boston should be running trains to Cape Cod, Manchester, and Springfield as tails of the core system, and New York should electrify its entire system and run trains to the Hamptons as LIRR tails, and Philadelphia should run tail trains to the entire reach of its commuter rail system.