Will Commuters Ever Go Back to Commuter Trains?

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Last year, the fiscal management control board of MBTA, Boston’s regional transit agency, faced a critical decision. With area commuters enduring the worst car traffic in the United States, would the board greenlight a multi-billion-dollar revamp of its traditional commuter rail network, expanding it to offer bi-directional “regional rail” service every 15 minutes? Doing so would be a paradigm shift for a network that was designed to fulfill the more modest goal of bringing suburban commuters into the city in the morning and back out again in the evening.

The answer was yes. In November 2019, the MBTA’s board approved the commuter rail transformation project. Speaking after the vote, the board’s chair said that it was time to “provid[e] more aggressive service for the region … in order to decongest the roadway systems.” MBTA would still have to find upwards of $10 billion, but transit advocates were thrilled to envision a network that could accommodate Bostonians ill served by traditional commuter rail, such as workers traveling to suburban job centers, or parents scrambling to get to a midday doctor’s appointment.

But then the coronavirus lockdowns arrived, and MBTA ridership crashed more than 90%. Across the United States, passenger counts on commuter rail have fallen even more sharply than those for bus, subway and light rail systems. In Maryland, ridership on MARC’s commuter rail service, which collects D.C.-bound workers from points all across the state (and into West Virginia), plummeted 94% since lockdowns kept much of the federal workforce at home; in Baltimore, by contrast, subway and bus ridership fell 75% and 51%, respectively. In Chicago, the Metra commuter rail system anticipates a 97% dropoff in April, while trips on CTA’s bus and rail networks have dropped “only” 80%.

Will these commuters ever come back? With gas prices at record lows, traffic light and teleworking being normalized, transit experts fear that rail riders may be slow to return when the pandemic ebbs. But there is a path forward for these systems—if their leaders embrace the kind of visionary transformation that MBTA’s board did a few months ago.

It feels like ancient history now, but until very recently commuter rail was riding a wave of ridership growth. Passenger trips nationwide rose almost 4% between 2017 through 2019, more than double the rate of heavy rail, the transit mode with the next-highest gain. Many individual commuter rail networks did even better; those in Long Island, Orlando and Denver attracted at least 10 percent more riders than in 2019 than they had the year before.

Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association (disclosure: I have done consulting work for APTA), believes that worsening auto traffic boosted commuter rail’s recent ridership: “The increase in vehicle miles traveled has caused additional congestion, which makes commuter rail more competitive.”

Among transit modes, commuter rail is particularly well-positioned to benefit from traffic woes because its relatively affluent riders can more easily afford an automobile. A survey released by MBTA in 2018 found that 45% of commuter rail riders had an annual income that exceeded $108,000, compared with 26% of heavy rail passengers and 15% of those riding a bus. Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of Southern California’s Metrolink commuter rail system, says that the median income of her system’s weekday riders is $92,000, and that 85% own an automobile.

Historically, commuter rail service has been designed to serve the needs of suburbanites who travel into and out of the central city at peak hours during the workweek, often driving to large “park and ride” lots arrayed along the route that fill up in the morning and empty out at dinnertime. Far fewer trains are available for city residents needing to “reverse commute” to reach jobs in the suburbs, or for those traveling at off-peak times (who are disproportionately women). The focus on peak service is expensive for transit agencies, particularly because many commuter rail employees must work short shifts.

During the current pandemic, data from cities nationwide collected by Transit App shows that peak transit demand — commuter rail’s lifeblood — has collapsed, while off-peak demand has been more resilient. Those riders are often the ones doing work deemed essential — health care, public safety and service jobs. It’s unclear whether the traditional rush hour peak will snap back once the current lockdowns ease and the less-essential workers reappear. Offices may stagger opening hours to help avoid crowding, and those with the option to telecommute may be encouraged to continue doing so, as European cities like Milan are now doing. The latter scenario is particularly problematic for commuter rail; Wiggins says that 30% of Metrolink riders chose to telecommute regularly before the virus struck.

To lure riders back, agencies will need to be able to keep their them safe. The good news is that they can choose from among an array of strategies and technologies to do so, ranging from ultraviolet light disinfection to reconfiguration of train cars interiors to adopting a policy of operational transparency so riders can see agency safety efforts with their own eyes. Systems in Asia are a frequently cited model. In Taiwan, for example, all passengers commuting by rail between Taipei and Taoyuan must wear masks, and transit employees check riders for fevers.

But simply “winning back” the old commuter rail crowds could be the wrong frame; it’s possible that a whole new set of riders could board trains in the future, if the service could be adapted to their needs. Over the long run, Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic blog believes that commuter rail must expand to become true regional rail: “These lines need to move into providing all-day, frequent, two-way services in order to attract more riders,” he says.

Expanded, bi-directional service would improve access to suburban jobs, and also offer security to riders that they can travel at off-peak times if something unexpected pops up. “People in our region want access to rail throughout the day and throughout the weekend,” says Wiggins.

Another opportunity: Most people won’t walk further than a quarter mile to a transit station, but the recent upsurge in bicycle purchases could make commuter rail a feasible option for those who live further away. Agencies can appeal to these new cyclists by installing secure bike parking at rail stations, as in the Netherlands, and by adding more bike cars to trains, as systems like MBTA and MARC have been doing.

That’s the more expansive commuter-rail vision that MBTA’s board embraced last November, and it aligns with pre-pandemic expansion schemes in other regions as well. In the Washington, D.C. region, Virginia’s VRE and Maryland’s MARC systems are developing plans to extend service across state boundaries, while the Bay Area’s Caltrain is pursuing a dedicated source of funding to increase service frequency.

But these regional rail expansions carry price tags that now feel particularly daunting at a time when cities and states are strapped for cash. Potential funding sources do still exist; rock-bottom oil prices suggest drivers may be more willing to accept a gas tax hike, for instance. Or the federal government could use deficit funding. As Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, notes, “it’s only with transit that we assume we need a dedicated fund from the user.”

Local governments have some funding options of their own, particularly if they can capture some of a future increase in land value on parcels adjacent to regional rail stations. Such increments will be higher if property owners can build taller buildings near stations—which also offers the secondary benefit of growing long-term rail demand from those living and working nearby.

With auto traffic already rebounding in at least some U.S. cities, investments like these can keep commuter rail networks competitive. The alternative — a long-term slide in ridership, service cuts and a spike in traffic congestion when ex-riders flood the highways — could be untenable for some of the most vibrant metro economies in the country. “Our region would come to an absolute standstill,” MBTA oversight board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt tells me when I ask her to imagine Boston without its regional trains. “I have no idea what impact it would have on businesses being able to attract and retain workers. The idea of our roadways getting worse … at some point you hit a breaking point. We’re already pretty close.”