Commuter trains have always been an important means of travel for folks heading to and from the workplace. However, only since the 1970s have most commuter rail operations been handled by city, state, or federal agencies as prior to that time it was the private freight railroads' responsibility. This soon changed following the collapse of the intercity passenger rail business in the 1960s and early 1970s, which prompted the creation of Amtrak in the spring of 1971.
While the freight systems continued to handle commuter traffic following Amtrak it soon became apparent that most just were not financially capable of doing so, not to mention that while a necessary service light rail was just not profitable, which prompted many states to begin implementing their own services with names like NJ Transit, Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC), Sound Transit, and many more. Today, these services have become increasingly popular; particularly as gas prices continue to rise.
Another service that is making a big comeback is the old interurban lines (trolleys), today also known as light rail transit or LRT for short. Essentially the same thing as the venerable trolley, which during the first half of the 20th century could be found in virtually every medium-sized town throughout the country, these single car or small trainset operations use much lighter rails (hence their name) to serve a local city or region. LRT services have become increasingly popular, just within the last 10 years and have begun popping up all over the country in cities like Charlotte, Austin, Norfolk, Minneapolis, and Portland among others. You can also still find traditional trolley cars operated in New Orleans, San Francisco, and even on SEPTA in Philadelphia.
One of the biggest benefits to LRT operations, particularly compared to “heavy rail” services, is the lower cost of building and operating/maintaining such systems. Still, even though heavy rail services are more expensive (such as what is offered by NJ Transit and Sound Tranist) to operate many of these trains continue to be full, or nearly full, and are becoming increasingly popular for commuters heading too and from work as gas prices rise. And, likewise, over and over it is proven that if the service is offered, the passengers will come. For instance, ridership projections for new trains, whether they be LRT, commuter rail, or long-distance operations continually prove to be too low.
Two of the most proactive states regarding passenger and commuter rail services include North Carolina and California. Both are doing a magnificent job developing passenger rail corridors in their respective states, particularly North Carolina. If you are interested in seeing how a passenger rail network should be properly implemented, planned, and carried out have a look at what the Tarheel State is doing.
For instance, the two graphs you see here (information courtesy of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics), illustrate that commuter rail and LRT are increasingly being used by the public (the numbers reflect the total usage of commuter rail and light rail transit in millions, dating as far back as 1960). Interestingly, if you notice some of the largest gains in both types of rail service has been just since the start of the 2000s, part of which is due to the fact that since that time more monies have been spent at the state and federal levels to expand commuter rail and LRT. Please note, the below graphs date to the 2007. However, as of January, 2012 this is still the latest information available and as it is updated the graphs will accordingly be changed.
In any event, below you can find more information about many of the current commuter and light rail operations around the country:
For an idea of just how many new commuter rail and LRT projects are either in the works or under way please visit this page at Light Rail Now!, the premier resource on the web covering commuter operations and light rail transit. Also, for full data and statistics regarding not only light rail and commuter rail operations but also all modes of public transportation please visit the American Public Transportation Assocation's (APTA) website. There you can also learn about the latest news, happenings, and other goings on regarding the subject. A final resource worth mentioning is the Bureau of Transportation Statistic's website which provides additional resources highlighting rail transit.
Above and beyond everything already said, as Don Phillips stated in his monthly column in Trains Magazine a few years ago that either we as country decide to properly update our transportation network (including our Interstates), particularly passenger trains and their infrastructure, or face complete gridlock as Interstate funding is barely able to keep up with the growing traffic volume. Along with the Interstate issue currently airline service is nothing but in shambles, and for the money invested passenger rail is the most cost-effective solution at reducing highway (and overall traffic) congestion. In all, however, the future of passenger trains in this country looks very bright and here to stay. Finally, for a state guide to available Amtrak passenger trains please click here.