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.
A MARC consist, led by GP39H-2 #72, makes a brief stop at Gaithersburg, Maryland where the town's depots have been restored on a hot August 3, 2005.
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. This is interesting and somewhat ironic considering most were ripped up in the 1930s and
1940s (a time when many dotted the landscape across the country) in the
name of "progress."
LRT services have become increasingly
popular, just within the last 15 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.
San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) trolley car #1895 slowly meanders along the streets of the city on August 1, 2007.
Many folks who ride today's commuter trains, especially in large
cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia
probably are not aware that long ago such services were provided by the
private freight railroads and not the state/federally assisted
operations we now enjoy. For instance, all of the big cities in the
Northeast boasted local commuter services (then required by many state
public service commissions) served by roads like the Lackawanna,
Pennsylvania, New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, and New Haven; the
Windy City's largest railroads all provided local service (Burlington,
Rock Island, Milwaukee Road) long before there was Metra and also
boasted popular interurbans such as the "Roarin' Elgin," North Shore
Line, and South Shore (still in operation); in the years prior to Los
Angeles had Metrolink the city was blessed with one of the greatest
high-speed interurbans, the Pacific Electric.
Alas, the coming of
the automobile, improved highways, and later the expansive Interstate
drew many away from these commuter services. It's fascinating to see
today's systems return to state of popularity today considering what was
once in place; we once had magnificent commuter and light rail
operations all around the country. As the railroad industry grew weaker
during the 1960s and 1970s, along with what remained of the few
interurbans by then, most petitioned to abandon these money-losing
operations (at the time they received virtually no subsidy or financial
support). As many states with large cities realized they would be
without any commuter service if the freight lines pulled out several
began providing subsidies or launching their own agencies during the
1970s and 1980s, which brought us names like MARC, Metra, and others.
Sounder train #1513 arrives at the station in Auburn, Washington led by F59PHI #901 on September 2, 2010.
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 three graphs you see here (information courtesy of the American Public Transportation Association or APTA), illustrate that commuter rail and LRT (as well as intercity services offered by Amtrak) are increasingly
being used by the public. The numbers reflect the total usage of
commuter, light, and heavy rail in millions, dating to
1984. If you would like to see numbers dating back as far as 1907 please click here to visit APTA's 1999 Annual Transit Fact Book. When viewing this report the streetcar/interurban systems were listed under "Light Rail." Note how heavily these services were once used! In 2013 APTA began listing streetcars as a separate mode due to their popularity.
It seems, once again, the old adage of things coming full circle applies to rail transit as well. However, the current streetcar numbers are only
a tiny fraction from the early 20th century when folks regularly used such transportation in cities and towns both large and small (this largely due to the lack of systems currently in service nationwide). Interestingly, if you
notice, some of the largest gains in all
types of rail transit has occurred since the 2000s. These gains can be
partly attributed to the fact that since then more monies have been
spent at the state and federal levels to expand commuter rail and LRT. As states continue spending to upgrade their rail transit infrastructure ridership numbers will almost surely continue going up throughout the future. Aside from California and North Carolina, Florida as well as Washington are two other states heavily subsidizing rail tranist. In any event, below you can find more information about many of the
current commuter and light rail operations around the country:
Virginia Railway Express has borrowed a Sounder trainset from the Puget Sound of Washington as it heads southbound through Aquia, Virgina on August 4, 2005.
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.
A Metrolink commuter run stops briefly at Burbank, California led by F59PHI #910 as it heads for Los Angeles on August 2, 2007.
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.