Happening Now

Congress Examines State of Commuter Rail Industry

April 19, 2024

by Sean Jeans-Gail, VP of Gov't Affairs + Policy

The heads of five commuter rail agencies provided a briefing to Members of the U.S. House this week on the state of the commuter rail industry in the post-Covid landscape.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials heard from the heads of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, RTD-Denver, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (Tri-Rail), New Jersey Transit (on behalf of the Northeast Corridor Commission), and Southern California’s Metrolink.

Overhauling Commuter Railroad Operations to Better Serve Riders’ Needs

Metrolink’s Chief Executive Officer, Darren Kettle, addressed the biggest problem facing the industry in his written testimony: shifting travel patterns among Americans. Commuter railroads work best when they can bring large amounts of office workers from Streetcar Suburbs into densely developed central business districts, then back home again. However, even before the post-Covid shift to remote and flexible work, the last 60 years of commercial and residential development in the U.S. have severely undercut this operational model.

The U.S. should be shifting away from commuter rail service to the regional rail model seen in other developed countries. These systems cross city and state boundaries, like commuter rail. However, regional rail service provides high-frequency service throughout the day, serve more stations, and provides convenient connections to more than just the central business district.

Mr. Kettle described efforts by Metrolink to align the railroad’s operations with the way Americans go about their everyday life:

“For the last 30 years, Metrolink has operated service focused on these commuters, offering peak service in the morning to primary job centers such as downtown Los Angeles and Orange County and then returning in the evening, centered around traditional white-collar office schedules. Today, remote work and hybrid work schedules remain common, and the white-collar commuter customer group – Metrolink’s historic core market – may never fully ride in the same patterns or frequencies as they did before the pandemic.

“In early 2022, Metrolink began to work on the development of a new optimized service plan to increase off-peak service levels and support our transformation from a commuter rail model to a regional rail model. We started on the path of determining how to serve a broader set of markets such as leisure travelers and non-office commuters, while operating more cost-effective service by optimizing crews and equipment and operating more train miles with fewer train sets.

“We have had time to observe changed travel patterns and welcome some riders back to our system. While peak commuter period ridership remains below pre-pandemic ridership levels, off-peak ridership has returned more strongly. We see this on our weekend ridership and off-peak trains; there is an unmet demand for midday service and desire for travel across multiple lines. Presently, Metrolink operates a total of 142 trains across all our line segments that are primarily focused on peak periods. The recommended schedule to transform our system to a regional rail model would increase service by 36 trains, with 178 total trains operating in the system, and would spread service across the day and into the evening. The schedule would promote transfer opportunities through “pulse” scheduling across lines, providing a more competitive travel time when compared to driving.

“We have started to implement this first phase of systemwide service optimization starting with our Antelope Valley Line, which provides service from northern Los Angeles County, through the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles. In October 2023, we implemented a 58% increase in revenue train-miles with most of the new service added during non-commuter hours and doubling weekend service. During this time, we also launched a pilot student pass program using funds provided from a State of California grant program that allows all students to ride at no cost.

For the four months following the expansion of service on the Antelope Valley Line, total ridership increased by 27% compared to the same period of the prior year, with students accounting for half of the new ridership. We expect to see further increases long-term, but the short-term results are promising. We believe that a full roll out of optimized service with pulse scheduling and distribution of trains to cover non-peak times will be a successful model and transform the transportation landscape for Southern California.”

There are several systems across the U.S. that have been shifting service patterns to meet this latent demand: the MBTA has added additional late-night departures leaving Boston, Metra in Chicago is doubling the number of weekend trains on their BNSF route, and Virginia's VRE is looking to add weekend service for the first time this year. Additionally, the South Shore Line in Indiana has just completed a double-tracking project, which will allow for better trip times and more off-peak service.

Other Notes from the Hearing

- Mike Noland, President of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (which operates the South Shore Line), also appeared in his role as the Chair of the Commuter Rail Coalition. He warned of the challenge U.S. commuter railroads have faced securing excess commercial liability insurance up to the federal liability cap, which currently is set at $325 million. Due to the state of the domestic insurance market, agencies have been forced to spend taxpayer dollars in oversees insurance markets to secure this coverage. There are larger questions about the wisdom of the current liability insurance framework, given commuter rail’s safety record and the introduction of Positive Train Control. He also warned that when the next inflation adjustment hits in 2026, many commuter railroads will struggle to meet the existing 30-day deadline to secure additional coverage beyond existing levels.

- Mr. Noland also argued that commuter railroads should have access to the dispute resolution mechanisms offered by the Surface Transportation Board when dealing with Class I's and Amtrak.