The Failure of Regionalism

» Suburban-oriented commuter rail projects may be cheap to construct, but they usually have limited effects on metropolitan travel.

The construction of new commuter rail lines in the United States has been a peculiar trend in an age of job sprawl and changing work habits. Though the largest American transit capital investments in terms of money spent have been in light and metro rail projects, commuter rail corridors — defined loosely as diesel trains running largely at peak hours between cities and their suburbs — continue to attract local interest. Over the past few years, Austin, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City, among other regions, have contributed millions of dollars to their construction.

The results have in general not been impressive. As Jeff Wood catalogued last week on The Overhead Wire, these investments have yielded very limited ridership — especially on a per-mile basis.

Nevertheless, cities to continue to make plans to focus their spending on them: Kansas City announced in 2009 that it was considering a 150-mile commuter network; late last year, Indianapolis suggested its primary rail investment would be in a commuter line to its northeast suburbs.

In a country in which planners have increasingly come to emphasize long-range decision-making at the regional scale, the recourse to commuter rail over other projects seems reasonable. With most local transportation taxes being collected via metropolitan units, rather than municipal ones, it is important to show that spending is being distributed not only in the central city but also at the edge. Because everyone wants rail and there is often inadequate money to pay for a full-scale light or metro rail project, cheaper commuter rail is seen as a reasonable first investment that, it is argued, will eventually lead to more support for more transit when “people” “see” how good the new line is.

If I may paraphrase and condense Jeff Wood’s argument*, however, the political difficulty with spending limited funds on commuter rail rather than other transit projects can be summarized as follows:

  1. The limited investments made in commuter rail produce a system with low frequencies because of single tracks in many places and competition with freight railroads.
  2. Low ridership results from generally bad service, which means few voters take advantage (and see the advantage) of rail service.
  3. Little voter understanding of the importance of rail systems increases opposition to future projects and even adequate funding of the regular transit system, since too few people, even in proximity of the commuter rail lines, come to understand why that spending might be beneficial.

But the problem with commuter rail is more significant than that. These investments do not meet much of a demand in many of the cities in which they are implemented — primarily because of their reliance on a peak-hour suburb-to-downtown professional clientele.

Except in the older cities (which have legacy commuter rail systems for the most part), the downtown job base has been falling off as a percentage of the metropolitan area’s total employment for decades. The rise of non-traditional working patterns that rely on Third Places and home offices mean fewer people need to get into central business districts for the same amount of work to be done. In most places, the center city simply isn’t a big enough attraction to require shuttling people to it from distant locales via big, heavy diesel trains running a few times a day. Indeed, in many cities, that work could probably be better done with a few express buses. Moreover, the suburbs lack the density (or, because of restrictive zoning, even the possibility of future density) to make those areas true destinations in themselves.

In regions with metropolitan governance schemes, though, the appeal of commuter rail is hard to dismiss: It provides the suburbs appealing rail service, and politicians need suburban support if, say, they want to enact tax increases to pay for better transportation. The construction of those suburban lines, however, has too little of an effect to truly convince suburban voters of the appeal of transit, so, as Jeff Wood wrote, those peoplehave little motivation to spend more on transit in the future. This is not a virtuous cycle.

If decision-making about how to spend a set amount of transportation funds is being made at the regional scale, leaders need to have a good idea of the kind of urbanism they’re looking for. If they want a jobs-heavy downtown core to which people from all around the area commute in, commuter rail might be a good idea. But that kind of job concentration is only possible when suburban employment is disincentivized or banned. Are any of the regions thinking about building commuter rail doing anything of the sort?

From the perspective of a central city mayor or city councilperson, focusing on their city’s transportation needs alone may be more productive, since urban-scale transit lines like metro rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit offer connections between a variety of destinations within the densest areas of the region — and they attract many more users in the process than do commuter rail lines. It is true that transit use even within central cities is also heavily dependent on the strength of downtown employment, but even a weak core, like strong ones, is more likely to attract riders from the surrounding neighborhoods than from far-out suburbs. We should be planning our public transportation systems accordingly. Can regions perform that type of planning?

* Note that I’m less convinced by Jeff Wood’s third argument that commuter rail lines are “too easy” to build. Most transit projects, of whatever scale, require a fight to be constructed. Just because a city or region is able to move forward with an expensive light rail project now does not mean they will be able to do do easily again five years from now.

Image above: A Salt Lake City FrontRunner train, pictured between two light rail cars, from Flickr user Russell (cc)

141 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    To take the commuter rail from Ogden to SLC every day, I would be spending almost the same amount as driving, but taking twice as long.

    Perhaps the reason for the low ridership is the FRA?

    • Lou

      wait 5 years… traffic and gas prices are only going up

    • One thing I’ve recently noticed about the FrontRunner is that its end-to-end runtime is about 50 minutes, which is beautiful if you want to provide hourly service with 2 trainsets. Instead, they turn around trains in 40 minutes instead of 10, as a result of which they need 50% more crew and equipment to provide the same service frequency.

      50 minutes is actually good industry practice, though under non-FRA practice it would probably be 50 minutes for a longer line, or maybe 1:20 for Ogden-Provo (difficult but possible with the wide stop spacing of the line).

      • Danny

        I just read that the Front Runner runs on its own non-shared tracks. Wouldn’t that mean they are free to use normal non-FRA compliant DMUs? If so, their decision to go with the standard Bombardier BiLevel + Loco combo was an incredible waste of money and potential speed.

        • If the tracks are disconnected from the mainline network, they can forgo FRA regulations entirely. If they’re connected but dedicated, then they can get a waiver from the worst aspects of the regulations pretty easily, though they’d still have to deal with special rolling stock modifications that would make it impossible to piggyback off of a large European order to keep the price down.

          • EngineerScotty

            How disconnected does “disconnected” have to be? If a light rail system were to provide a connection (possibly with a switchback involved) between its railyard and a nearby freight spur to permit it to take delivery of rolling stock that is shipped as freight on the mainline rail network, without needing a crane or other heavy machinery to transport the vehicle from the freight network to the LR tracks–does such a thing then put the entire light rail system under FRA regulations?

            • Adirondacker12800

              They can do many things to make it difficult to use the switch up to and including disassembling it when there are no deliveries.

            • A single spur probably doesn’t require FRA regulation. The NYC subway has an unelectrified spur connection to the LIRR. However, legacy tracks that are FRA-regulated can’t be so easily removed from FRA jurisdiction: for one, PATH would need to shut down the track connection to the mainline network.

              • jon

                with all the deregulation mantra lately why does the FRA still have a heavy handed stranglehold over rail operations in the US? most federal agencies today have become incestual shills for their respective industries.

              • Because the freight rail industry has no reason to run off-the-shelf rolling stock locomotives optimized for much lighter trains.

              • Max Wyss

                The FRA is in this case the organization to set and enforce technical standards. Such an organization must exist, and it must not be directly connected with the industry, because otherwise, the technical specification (in other words, safety) would be tainted by direct economic interests (such as in “we don’t need a train-length brake system; it costs us an intolerable amount of money”)…

                On the other hand, the standards set by the FRA are debatable (IMHO from the middle of the last century, and not taking account of progress in design and materials).

                In other countries, “heavy haul” and “regular operation” can peacefully coexist (such as on the Kiruna-Narvik line).

              • Sure, but the FRA has no reason to even look at what they do in Sweden, Russia, China, etc. What they have works, in the sense that heavy freight is profitable; who wants to hear about how passenger trains should fit into this?

              • Which means its the Secretary’s job to bang their heads and make them care ~ having someone who can press these various mode-specific authorities to consider the the needs of the larger system is why these authorities are in a department, headed by someone responsible for Transportation as a whole, reporting to the President and answerable to Congress.

              • Max Wyss

                Under the point of view “technical standards”, profitability must not be relevant to the authorities. (consider the behavior we see, for example from the German EBA, that’s the reality)

                You are right, Alon, the FRA does not need to care about other standards, because there is no interoperability. When we get the Bering Strait Rail Link, and all of it connected, then things may be different, but not before…

                This leaves us to questioning the regulations on a technical / standards technical basis. For example wherever there are regulations on _how_ a certain specification has to be fulfilled (in other words, if the standards state _how_ a certaing specified buffer force has to be accomplished).

                As far as I got it through this and other sites, the FRA regulations do not honor modern structural design techniques.

                And, of course, one could question the specified values.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Humans still operate the trains. They need to use the toilet, get a cup of coffee etc every now and then. I imagine they could accommodate that with a crew swap, Metro North and NJTransit manage it in ten minutes.

        • Metro-North manages it in about 5 minutes at New Haven. And the MBTA manages it in 5-10 minutes at Worcester. For a reason I don’t understand, these railroads turn quickly at the outbound terminal and slowly at the city terminal, where track space is at a premium. And then they cry for capacity increases.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Meadowlands Specials that run from New Haven had a ten minute layover in Penn Station. Where Metro North and NJTransit changed crews. So they can do it. Why they don’t otherwise is a different question. I suspect the Metro North crew wandered off to the crew lounge to loiter for a few hours and the NJTransit crew had loitered in the crew lounge after turning over their train to an Amtrak crew for the run to Sunnyside.

    • Allen

      Danny, the FRA isn’t the reason for the ridership levels you’re seeing on the Front Runner. It’s that most people who work in downtown SLC don’t live as far north as Ogden.

  • Buckeyeman

    From what I can gather from this article, in order to make Regional rail work there needs to be some serious addressing of issues presented in the article. If I were a central city mayor, one abiding interest I’d have would be to develope the area around the downtown station as much as humanly possible. One other issue that didn’t get mentioned is station locations which aren’t always ideal including less than ideal transit connections.

  • bob

    I think Indianapolis is a bit different from the other recent projects. Many of the others take an existing rail line just because it’s convenient, even if it takes a circuitous path to the destination, has strong competition from freeways, and/or serves areas with very little population (certainly the case in Nashville and Austin).

    The rail line proposed for Indy is a direct shot from the downtown areas of the suburbs (that were originally built along the rail line) to dt Indy, and there is no comparable freeway that goes straight downtown. The suburbs being served are the most heavily populated in the region and have a solid mix of residential and commercial. The rail line is also not in use, so there’s no freight conflicts.

  • Michael

    Good points, and I think one needs to look at transit in this picture as being a way to build downtown employment.
    A serious issue is the decentralization of cities, and
    transit is going to need to be used to put the focus back on downtown and the inner city.
    However commuter rail with two trips a day, might not be the answer.
    But the focus on downtown needs to be kept. That is why some planners don’t agree with transit projects that make suburb to suburb trips easy. Because then you just promote job sprawl and decentralization of the city.

  • Attempting to re-use freight rail corridors for passenger service is often a bad idea because they tend to be dominated by industrial uses. Unless you either make a strong commitment to TOD, or there is a significant enough history of passenger rail travel on the corridor, the population centers simply won’t be well-oriented for it. If there is a history of passenger service along the line, an effort should be made to build as close as possible to the old station location. Those old stations drove the early development of towns for decades, and they still tend to be the densest parts with the most walkable business districts.

    These modern services have been designed to be very car-dependent, which kind of eliminates the whole point of transit in the first place. The biggest financial savings for transit riders and the communities they live in comes when a household can get rid of a car. Park and ride is a tool that should be used sparingly, yet many transit agencies have become dependent on that method of operation.

    I suspect that a lot of the poor station locations have to do with the old cost-effectiveness index that drove the FTA’s decision-making for a long time. Why else would the Elk River station on the Northstar Line be basically built out in a field, 2 miles away from the center of town where there used to be a stop? I suppose that location shaved off a few seconds for commuters driving in along U.S. 169.

    Of course, many stations do have TOD plans. It’s hard to judge something after just a few years, since it can take 30 years or so for a neighborhood to fully develop. In that context, many of the problems these lines have are fixable, but it’s certainly easy to lose patience.

    Frustratingly, we’ll probably be dealing with this for at least another decade—Most of the station locations for the planned Red Rock commuter line in the Twin Cities have already been chosen, yet the line isn’t planned to be built for another ten years or so, and I’m sure there are similar stories across the country.

    However, as much as I’d like to see a new regional or commuter line pop up, I’d probably rather see that $300 million get spent on improving the core bus network around here. My bus stop could really be improved with a shelter, a bench, or just a freakin’ schedule for crying out loud…

    • The cost effectiveness index has a lot to answer for ~ including the fact that a little bit of park and ride counted for far more than a lot of local infill development allowing substantially more Active Transport as a side effect, creating a perverse incentive to locate stations in the wrong place, because that’s where there was space for a park and ride lot.

  • Suburbs want commuter rail which provide no transit within the city, cities want light rail or streetcars which provide little transit to the suburbs.

    There are alternative systems that provide to both to an extend: tram trains, RER, S-Bahn. Although these would probably be hard to implement if the suburban portions would have to follow FRA rules.

    • Adirondacker12800

      They have to conform to FRA regulations if they connect to the national system. For instance BART isn’t FRA compliant. And there can be waivers. The River Line in New Jersey isn’t compliant and the line is used by freight trains. ( With temporal separation, freight runs in the dead of night when the DMUs aren’t running )

      • Nor standard gauge, so even if the FRA gave BART permission, getting the trains to run on a freight line would require dual gauge rolling stock, a la Spain.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Using an odd gauge doesn’t make BART non-suburban.

          • Not that … that even a UIC-aligned tier of FRA compliance that passenger rail could more readily comply with would not allow BART to run onto that portion of the network ~ because of its wide stance.

          • Adirondacker12800

            BART doesn’t have to run on standard gauge tracks to run in the suburbs, It runs in the suburbs on it’s broad gauge tracks. They want to extend it to San Jose, which according to the Census Bureau and San Jose is another metro region.

          • Yes, at massive cost ~ making it a bit of a monster as far as grabbing “dedicated” improvement funds for other systems ~ and also making it run as an urban mass transit line that happens to be running through the suburb.

  • ant6n, actually, most light rail starts in this country in the last 20 years have bridged the gap quite well – providing urban service and then suburban service on the edges – like Dallas, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, etc.

    Unfortunately the last 4-8 years, commuter rail caught fire and has actually displaced good light rail lines before they had a chance.

    • I’ll buy that Portland and Minneapolis’s lines are half-decent – but not more, not if you compare them to lines in any non-US city. And Dallas is downright awful: it cost, what, $50,000 per rider to construct? The lines ant6n is thinking about as alternatives rarely go over $10,000. I could name you one in Canada, the O-Train, which cost $1,500.

      • When we’re talking about US cities, Dallas is a success – in that it has a lot of riders, and generated momentum for a vast expansion of their system. Comparing to European cities is a complete waste of time, as people in London, for instance, rarely need to worry that their employer will relocate out to the sprawl.

        • Not even by American standards is Dallas a success. Its ridership per route-km is second from the bottom among real LRT lines (i.e. not legacy streetcars or commuter rail-LRT hybrids), after the VTA.

          Comparing to London is a waste of time, you’re right. The standard should be small-city transit, because there it’s impossible to expect a large mass of riders who don’t own a car. Karlsruhe is not London. In North America, there’s Calgary; the Houston line is also very good, and should be a blueprint for future American urban LRT lines.

          • Alon, comparing to ANYWHERE in Europe is a waste of time. The employers in Karlsruhe aren’t competing against suburban office parks that are heavily subsidized and under-regulated; and the transit agency isn’t competing against gas that’s only a few bucks a gallon.

            Dallas is a success by what matters – unlike some other cities in the Sun Belt, rail has stuck there because they made the right first choice – light rail that goes right up the gut and then out to the suburbs, rather than messing around with either commuter rail or shared-lane streetcar.

            • Calgary has tons of suburban employment. So does PACA, which has about 95,000 daily riders on the TER (Nice light rail and the Marseille subway not included). Even in those places, costs are about an order of magnitude less relative to ridership.

              Or if Dallas offends you, look to Houston. Yeah, sure, it’s only built one line so far. If that’s your standard, then the best transit city in the Sunbelt is Atlanta.

              • Andrew

                Mike’s point is that DART started out on the right track (unlike Austin…). Yes, we can see that the project is not as successful as it used to be (for some of the reasons Mike listed), mainly due to a lack of TOD and endless sprawl. If Dallas wants more TOD, they have plenty of T; they need more O so they can get the D.

              • Again, comparing to countries that actually regulate land-use in the suburbs and have relatively high gas prices tells you nothing.

                Yes, even Canada.

              • By actually regulate land-use I mean “allow unlimited office sprawl”.

              • Calgary regulates land use in the suburbs? What?

              • Adirondacker12800

                Does Calgary have suburbs?

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calgary_Region

                Round numbers, 900,000 people in a metro area of just over a million live in Calgary itself.

              • Calgary itself is a giant suburb. The density there is about on a par with Houston and Dallas. If it offends you that the suburbs are within the same municipality, then consider the fact that Houston’s biggest edge city, Uptown, is within city limits.

              • Andrew B

                Other Andrew:

                Dallas started off with both DART and TRE commuter rail to Fort Worth.

              • FG

                I kind of disagree with you about Calgary in one respect – not that it’s not suburban, but that it’s unplanned. I remember flying in and seeing how all the edge suburbs ended crisply at fields with well planned roads which continued between (if not within) subdivisions – which seemed to have been developed in bigger units than a similar US area would have been, with better planned roads. The density seemed higher and there isn’t the ragged edge of exurbs you’d see in an American city. Now whether or not it’s actually denser, or just develops to that density quicker is another question – I also don’t know whether that is a developer or urban planner driven system – I can’t say – or for that matter whether it would be enough to be less car dependent.

              • Re Calgary, again, I do not believe that any Canadian jurisdiction allows quite the unplanned willy-nilly office sprawl that the typical US metropolitan area endures. And that makes a huge difference.

                Overall density figures are completely meaningless, as we know from the “LA is more dense than New York!” nonsense.

              • And a little bit just on wikipedia proves it:

                http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f7/Calgary_panorama.jpg/1100px-Calgary_panorama.jpg

                This is a denser skyline than most US cities – with more skyscrapers than Houston and Dallas put together in a smaller apparent space than either. MUCH denser in terms of employment, obviously.

              • Calgary’s downtown densification has followed LRT, instead of the other way around. In order to ensure people would actually use the trains, Calgary removed all parking minimums downtown, replaced them with parking maximums, and encouraged infill development on former parking lots.

                I don’t have census tract-level density numbers for Calgary, but Calgary Transit claims a downtown residential density of 4,000/km^2, if I remember correctly. It’s not high by the standards of Houston’s few dense neighborhoods; the densest Houston census tracts are above 10,000.

              • Employment density is obviously high enough that they could have nothing but single-family sprawl and still achieve pretty good LRT results with nothing but park-and-rides.

                Again, this just shows how little many transit activists know about the urban macroenvironments that have experienced the most growth the last few decades. Portland is the only US city that both HAS and has been willing to (somewhat) exercise that kind of regulatory authority to roll back the suburban assumptions on parking that infest our municipal codes. Even NY hasn’t done so.

                Austin, for instance, still has minimums in the CBD that go down, at their lowest, to around 20% of the suburban norm (IIRC); has no maximums anywhere; and the only concession made to urban density at all is that the minimums in the ‘urban core’ are set to 80% of the previous city-wide number. Our tax structure also heavily penalizes employers that locate downtown (high reliance on property taxes for local school funding and city/county government); and we have essentially no ability at all to prevent employers from building strip mall employment centers on highway frontage roads (which they do in large numbers).

              • “urban core” is more than CBD if that wasn’t clear – urban core is basically the area inside what appears to outsiders to be an ‘inner loop’ comprising all of the parts of Austin worth living in, IMO. CBD is a fairly tiny section of what most folks consider downtown.

              • The employment density, too, is in large part a product of LRT. Calgary made a choice to upzone around stations, limit park-and-rides, and develop its downtown instead of require huge parking lots. I’m well-aware that Austin has not done the same – and it shows in its transit use statistics. So maybe American cities should spend more time adopting the rules used in Calgary instead of insisting they have nothing to learn from Canadians.

            • I’ve just looked, and the Nice tram line alone has 90,000 daily riders (link), on 8.7 km of route, coming in at twice the ridership per route-km of Boston and Calgary. And that’s a city located right next to a very large suburban mall (Cap 3000) and an even larger edge city (Sophia-Antipolis), in a region where parking is amply provided and therefore very cheap (usually free). It doesn’t have the gigantic freeway network of an American city and didn’t urban-renew itself to death, but it’s not your stereotype of the carless European city.

            • M1EK,

              Houston is a better Light Rail example than Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland or Baltimore. By designing the first 7.5-mile line connecting major urban points of interest, they attracted 40,000 daily riders. 40K / 7.5 miles = great performance that sparked demand for 5 more lines under construction.

              • And by building that first, they ensure that if they build a regional rail link that connects to that line, it can serve as more than a commuter rail system, because of the transport opportunities along that line.

                Indeed, one direction of expansion is a Rapid Streetcar, which has a shorter streetcar line in a different area, then an express closed path to connect to the present streetcar line. That is an example of the kind of system which could be very useful but which would have scored quite badly in the old financial viability index, heavily biased toward park and ride commuter rail and against systems that offer more one seat trips to more real origin/destination pairs.

    • Allen

      M1EK, MPLS’ current LRT line serves “downtown” Bloomington and downtown Minneapolis. The Mall of America may have been the “edge” 40 years ago but it long ago stopped being that.

      • Allen,

        In this sense, “suburbs” means “areas of suburban-style development”, not necessarily a separate jurisdiction.

      • Cameron Slick

        I reverse commute to “downtown” Bloomington and would estimate maybe 10% of my co-workers use transit, as opposed to 40%+ in downtown.

        Also, the “Cedar Ave BRT” to Apple Valley & Lakeville was initially planned as an LRT extension, hence the space between bridge spans on Cedar crossing the Minnesota River. Had this been implemented, or even considering the future BRT service, this Hiawatha/Cedar Line could be considered one that truly goes to the edge of suburbia, but would have provided a substantial river crossing.

  • Lou

    Commuter rail is really a misnomer. In philly the Chesnut hill west and east lines never leave the city. stations can be incredibly close together, less than a mile apart. and frequencies can be high so can speeds. It all depends on how much an agency puts into the system.

    A region should look to commuter rail if they meet the following conditions, not in order of importance.

    1, Legacy rail freight lines with room to grow… like atlanta (lots of rail lines and many downtowns around them), the city became prominent because it was the freight rail hub of the south.

    2, some sort of downtown train station with a good system for the last mile issue. like what happened in notheren Virgina (had union station and Metro service)now getting 20k riders a day (it helps to start with amtrak corridors.

    3 the lightly used frieght lines are along your growth corridors, like Salt lake city whose metro is growing north/south and whose rail lines parellel it.

    4. if your metro area streches over 20 miles from the center of city, any less and you might want to do light rail or heavy rail if densier.

    5. Choose corridors that are growing in jobs and housing and already has older towns along the corridor. Nashville chose the cheapest corridor first with the least amount of rail/highway traffic, probably not the best choice in the short term but it was so cheap it acted as a demonstration project for a region without any passenger rail, even amtrak

    6. plan for TOD early so the rail line will grow in ridership

    Commuter rail lines are great if done well, They tie the city with the suburbs, increase capacity on major traffic corridors, make the downtown office district desirable to large parts of the region and reduce the need for parking downtown as well as reinvigorate rail burbs that no longer have service.

  • Andrew

    One old (aka 30 years ago) example of these sort of commuter rail projects failing would be TriRail in Southern Florida.
    Another problem with heavy-rail commuter rail projects is that they don’t connect to one or more of the major destinations in the central part of the city. For instance, in Austin, there’s Downtown, the Capitol Complex, and UT. The Red Line only directly connects to Downtown, and at that it misses about half of it. The Capitol Complex and UT are the two low-hanging fruit for any sort of transit project, yet Cap Metro considers shuttle-buses to be their “service” to these locations from the Red Line.
    The advantage of a metro or light rail line is that they can directly connect such destinations, giving much more ridership. If a commuter rail line is built, it can connect to the urban rail line. But the urban rail line needs to be built first.

  • AlexB

    There are many reasons investing in commuter trains is not the best decision, as mentioned in the post. Low ridership, high operating costs, miniscule effect on transportation mode market share, etc. All that said, there is something to be said for building a regional network of commuter trains. Even though they will never get a big share of the market, they provide redundancy in case of temporary spike in gas prices or road closures, and they give people without cars a means of getting around in our sprawling regions. Those benefits can’t necessarily be replicated with express buses. Instead of being the best mode for a corridor, commuter trains serve as the best second choice and it’s good to have choices. Because the rights of way already usually exist, you can avoid many of the headaches of building in the central city. While not easy, these are far easier and cheaper than most urban light rail lines. I’d prefer we build dense networks of transit lines in the city centers first, but I’ll take what I can get, and I understand what we can do in the current political and economic environment.

    • The entire problem of North American commuter lines is that they do not do any of what you say they do. They do not let people get around without cars – on the contrary, they’re built around park-and-rides. Even the legacy lines with downtown stations don’t do this well; I take Metro-North to New Haven fairly regularly, and took the MBTA to Worcester recently, and neither is walkable except by my masochistic standards. Getting to Worcester’s station from the college I had a conference at involved walking in a striped freeway median.

      At the end, those new lines are not actually cheaper than LRT, not per rider. That’s the problem I have with them, and the problem I have with Jeff’s argument. The problem is not that they are cheap; it’s that they are expensive.

      • Kyle

        Interestintly about Worcester, the old station was rebuilt which is essentially right downtown. Worcester is a downtown station, with a large parking garage. The station location is Worcester is not the problem, the type of development and lack of good public transportation is the issue in Worcester. With that said, many of the other stations along the line are built as park & rides, while other stations are right downtown. It’s an odd mix.

        • Worcester is the sort of station that would’ve been great, if urban renewal had worked. But it didn’t, and as a result, there’s a huge abandoned building nearby with a sign “Mixed-use development coming soon,” which the person at the conference who’s local tells me has been there for years.

          • Kyle

            There are definitely some problems with development in Worcester, one of the worst being the now completely abandoned Worcester Common Fashion Outlets, basically across the street from the station. Current plans would tear the entire complex down, reestablish the streets that were built over and create new sustainable development. The major problem with Worcester is the same with many old Northeast industrial cities, they were allowed to decline over time and are now trying to reinvent themselves, it’s going to take a while.

      • AlexB

        I’m not saying these systems are useful, I’m saying they could be used as an alternative to driving if necessary. For example, if you wanted to visit a friend on the other side of town and your car was in the shop, the friend could pick you up in their car from the station. It’s not a good situation for frequent use, but it can get the job done in a pinch. Without it, there might not be any other way to get somewhere besides renting a car.

        • I use these systems too, so clearly it’s possible. It’s just not for anyone with other options, and service that’s planned around people in unusual circumstances is going to get trivial ridership.

      • Nathanael

        This gets back to the problem of *lack of sidewalks*. Sidewalks need much, much more funding.

  • Rico

    Why are people using North American’commuter rail’ as a goal at all as ant6n noted there are a lot of good European models RER, S-Bahn etc. The infrastructure is similar, the difference is frequency/freight conflict. If it is a decent corridor it should be able to support all day less than 1/2hr clock face service. If it has all day frequent service it will get the ridership (on a good corridor).

  • Lou

    in nj the commuter rail is so dense that it allows people to get around without cars on key corridors. the lines shaped land use in the burbs. look at south orange, on a commuter rail line, with only a small parking lot it gets over 3,000 riders a day to use that one station. the line it is one is electrified and has no grade crossings, the line is a string of suburban pearls that connect nyc to northern nj. it promotes density around stations, even in modern times, and high off peak, reverse peak, and weekend ridership. the line gets over 30k of people a day with room to grow. not bad, not bad at all

    not all commuter rail lines are created equal.

    • Adirondacker12800

      the line gets over 30k of people a day with room to grow. not bad, not bad at all

      It’s at standing room only as far out as Summit during rush hour. Yes you could run lots more trains on the line. Unfortunately the only place you could run them to is Hoboken. The trains to Hoboken aren’t SRO.
      The line serves Newark and New York City. Most places don’t have Manhattan on the end of the line. Most places don’t even have Newark at the end of the line.

  • John

    As Lou said above, not all commuter rail lines are created equal. I’m from Albuquerque, where we have the recently-built Rail Runner line, and if you ask me it made perfect sense to build. It serves a mainline track route through the middle of the valley which several communities and urban centers built around, so it connects some major urban destinations (most notably Downtown Albuquerque and the central government/tourist district of Santa Fe). Yes, it was an easy route to choose, but it also made perfect sense given the regional context. The freight traffic along the route is minimal, and the state purchased the track to ensure the Rail Runner is given priority in the corridor (honestly in my experience, the once-daily Amtrak train causes more schedule problems than freight traffic). Plus the route is almost 100 miles long, which is a distance that just doesn’t make sense for light rail.

    The Rail Runner isn’t perfect – it does have low frequency and that certainly contributes to its relatively low ridership, plus the cities it connects do not have a history of developing strong public transit systems, so most people who use the Rail Runner drive to the stations, where parking space is limited. But in the regional context with a growing population and a single freeway connecting Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the choice of a commuter rail line between the two cities just made sense. We’ve got a long way to go, but that train finally got the ball rolling on developing a regional public transit system for Central New Mexico. I can’t speak to the systems in Austin or Nashville, but I strongly defend the choice of commuter rail for the Albuquerque/Santa Fe metro area.

    • Andrew

      The rail runner is more like a regional rail system than a commuter one, as it connects two major centers located more than 30 miles apart. I really do like the Rail Runner, but the ridership is quite low due to the still low populations of ABQ and Santa Fe.

      • The ridership is low because the speed is low for the stop spacing, the turnaround times are 30+ minutes (requiring higher fares), the fuel consumption and crew requirements are excessive (again requiring higher fares), and similar issues coming directly from compliance with FRA rules and standard American commuter rail operating practices.

        • Nathanael

          Turnaround wouldn’t seem to affect a system with the frequencies of RailRunner. I agree that speed, fuel consumption, and crew requirements are *all* related to the FRA weight requirements. Sigh.

          But then we here are all agreed that FRA weight rules have to be fixed, right?

          • Not just weight. The FRA mandates two employees per train and 3″ cant deficiency.

            • Does two employees per train apply even when the train leaves the FRA network?

              The present regulatory schedule for the Cant Deficiency to 6″ is OST 28 April, OMB 6 June, OMB Clearance 9 September, Publication 12 September.

              • Those commuter rail schedules predate the 6″-if-you-submit-to-special-testing-in-Pueblo rule.

              • So come September, they can start the process of upgrading the schedule, even without the blanket abolition of the FRA.

                Amazing.

              • The FrontRunner’s problem is not travel time – it does the trip in 50 minutes, which would be great for using two trains for hourly service. It uses three trains because they love them some 40-minute turnarounds.

                You might as well ask for a piecemeal reform of the Koch Brothers.

  • The best comparison for commuter rail in the United States is the stark difference between Metrolink and Caltrain in California. Caltrain is a legacy service that connects relatively dense suburbs to San Francisco and San Jose. It has been in constant operation since the 1930’s in various forms. Metrolink is a much newer system (1991) that stretches across the entire 17 million person Southland. Ridership on both systems is equal. Metrolink has over 500 miles of track and Caltrain has 80. Obviously Metrolink and the LA area have something to learn from Caltrain – station area development, introduction of express service and the like. As Yonah pointed out, Nashville, Austin, and Salt Lake City all have commuter rail that even Metrolink puts to shame in terms of ridership and effectiveness.

    • Spokker

      Metrolink is adding midday and evening trains, as well as baseball trains and express trains.

      Caltrain is cutting service to the bone.

      One service is on its way up and one is on its way down. Metrolink has a way to go but soon the student will become the master.

    • Spokker

      Much of the praise should go to Metrolink CEO John Fenton and his staff, who are doing more with Metrolink this year than the organization has done in the past ten years.

      The next big push is for the Union Station run through tracks, so one day LAUS will be just another station on the line and not a stub.

      • You are right to praise Metrolink’s advances of late, but Caltrain still performs better on a per passenger mile basis. Caltrain will electrify in 2014 and increase from 96 to 110 trains daily each direction. The Transbay Transit Center will open iby 2017-18 letting Caltrain extend to downtown SF. Don’t be surprised if Caltrain patronage dboosts by 50%.

        • aw

          Thomas, that’s a pretty optimistic outlook on Caltrain given its financial difficulties. They’re talking about reducing trains, not increasing them. If they’re going to electrify, I’m not sure they know they will pay for it, but maybe CAHSR will help them out.

        • Spokker

          I certainly hope they do everything you describe, but the HSR outlook is not looking good, and Caltrain isn’t electrifying without HSR.

          Unless the federal money starts flowing soon, and it won’t since 2011’s allocation for HSR funding has been zeroed out, none of that is happening.

          The Transbay Transit Center will be an overpriced bus terminal.

          Perhaps after (if) he is reelected, the lame duck Obama administration will return to focusing on HSR. But as far as I am concerned, HSR is currently on hold in this country.

          • “Unless the Federal money starts flowing soon, and it won’t because 2011 allocation for federal funding has been zeroed out …”

            There is a mismatch between the premise and the evidence ~ since the CAHSR has funding to break ground, and could get more when the $2b from Florida is redistributed, it has no pressing need for more money in this session of Congress.

            It will want more in 2013, or 2015 at the latest, certainly, but that is one or two sessions of Congress in the future … what this session of Congress does is “no indicator of future results” ~ lets see what happens after a House is elected on Presidential year demographics after the Republicans have had to try to run away from their attack on Medicare and their strongest voting demographic in the last Presidential year election.

            • Spokker

              It will be very difficult for the CHSRA to justify breaking ground if the prospect for future funding is nil. I would like to see railroad tracks to nowhere in the Central Valley as a symbol of Republican intransigence, but I feel the real public response would be HSR backers advocating a train to nowhere.

              It’s unfortunate that a railroad is held to a higher standard than highways, but that is the reality.

              • Yes, assuming the prospect for future funding was nil, that would make it more difficult to break ground.

                But while the FUD strategy of the API/Exxon funded anti-HSR propagandists includes trying to claim that the future prospects for funding are nil, there’s no reason to think its so.

                And assuming that the funding is nil in order to predict that they won’t break ground in order to argue that because they won’t break ground they will lose their funding would be begging the question.

              • Spokker,
                The pessimistic view for HSR certainly applies to Florida and possibly Texas in the short term. But at present there is no reason to think California and Illinois aren’t moving ahead with enough funding and robust in-state political support until 2013.

          • AlanF

            CA HSR has received about $3.6 billion total of the federal ARRA and FY10 HSIPR funding and is likely to get a chunk of the $2 billion to be reallocated from the returned Florida HSR funds. Combined with some of the $9 billion of the available state bond funds, that is enough for the CA HSR system to make a lot of progress and get started on construction over the next several years while working to line up additional federal funding and see if they can get a private consortium to put up 1/2 the money.

            HSR has taken a hit, but it is hardly dead. Sustained high oil and gasoline prices are going to have an effect.

            • And indeed the two different strategies ~ attacking projects by newly-elected TEA (Tax Everyone by the Affluent) Party governors and attacking the project by the House Republican majority with many members more afraid of a TEA-Party primary challenge than their position in a general election ~ work at cross purposes here, because the loss of FY2011 money hurts by not allowing the DoT to continue to award projects, but the money handed back by the states allows the DoT to award more projects.

              There will be ground broken in multiple corridor projects by 2012, and service improvements rolling out through the next session of Congress, and meanwhile the Republican majority in the House decided that they best way to use their majority is to attack Medicare.

        • Ted King

          An ugly reality about Caltrain is that it is something of a bastard child without a power base. Its funding is dependent upon several other agencies who have severe problems of their own.

          Some points :
          1] There was an electrification proposal back in the early 1990’s.
          2] The cost overruns of the BART extension to SFO / Millbrae sucked in all available transit dollars for the peninsula.
          3] Design flaws in BART’s Millbrae station are going to either be wasted dollars due to demolition to correct them or require a more expensive HSR design due to ROW constraints.

  • Metrolink in Los Angeles is hobbled by a few problems:
    1) FRA regulations require heavy, slow diesel trains due to shared use with freight, so stations must be far apart to achieve reasonable speed (due to poor acceleration). Electrification would help but would be very expensive

    2) Many corridors have single-track segments, or 2 tracks shared with large numbers of freight trains, which makes it difficulty to run frequent service in both directions.

    3) Large amounts of freight on half of the lines interfere with schedules and again make it impossible to use modern DMUs

    4) Most of the lines run thru industrial areas, or along the edge of cities rather than thru the center of towns (which were previously served by the Pacific Electric interurban system, not the freight railroads for the most part)

    5) The main station, Union Station in Los Angeles, is 2 miles from the main financial and business district, requiring a transfer to the subway to get to most destinations. And there is no subway or light rail to Santa Monica, Westwood or Century City, which have more jobs than Downtown (combined).

    Fortunately, problem 5 will be solved by the Westside subway and the downtown Regional Connector in 8 to 30 years (depending on if America Fast Forward happens, letting us spend Measure R sales tax dollars now, instead of later). And the construction of the California High Speed Rail system may result in improvements to 3 out of 5 corridors.

    With double tracking of the single-track lines and reform of the FRA rules to allow the uses of DMUs with fast acceleration, Metrolink could become much more useful to the city.

    • Buckeyeman

      Well, there IS a company right here in thr U.S. ready with an FRA-compliant DMU. It’s called American Railcar, which bought up the rights to all of the defunct Colorado Railcar products. I’m sure they’s be more than happy to supply DMUs anywhere in North America.

      • Adirondacker12800

        There’s a reason why no one is banging on their doors to buy them. Many reasons actually…

        • EngineerScotty

          And they all run between Beaverton, OR and Wilsonvile, mornings and evenings–assuming they have not broken down… :)

          • Adirondacker12800

            don’t they have some 50+ year old Budd RDCs as backup?

            • EngineerScotty

              Yup.

              And of course, WES is (allegedly) unique in that its a suburb-to-suburb commuter line–it doesn’t go downtown. The northern end, in Beaverton, has good connecting transit–but the southern two cities do not. Wilsonville actually withdrew from TriMet two decades ago, as they had a high concentration of employment (TriMet is funded by payroll tax, levied at the jobsite) and decided to keep “their” tax money within Wilsonville rather than subsidizing transit operations elsewhere. (The city does have its own transit agency running half-hourly circulators; but local industry got to pocket a lot of cash). Tualatin is in the TriMet district, but is a sprawlburg that TriMet doesn’t bother providing much service to.

      • orulz

        Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo is producing FRA-compliant DMUs for SMART that, given their past track record, will likely prove to be reliable, excellent pieces of equipment. They have decades of experience building DMUs for the Asian market, and built FRA-compliant EMUs for NICTD that have been running with exemplary reliability for 30 years now in the harsh conditions of northern Indiana on the South Shore line.

        But FRA stuff SUX0RS, you say, it’s too heavy and slow! True, it’s heavier, but by how much? The Nippon Sharyo cars weigh in at about 0.8 tons per seat, whereas light “non-compliant” DMUs are more typically in the range of 0.6-0.7 tons per seat. Not as big of a deal as some would have you believe.

        • The cost of these compliant DMUs is about 2.5 times the cost of noncompliant DMUs in Europe. If the FRA hadn’t had special regulations, it would have been possibly to piggyback on a large order by a European agency, as the O-Train had done, and get the lower prices.

          • Of course, piggy backing on big European orders is no more the ideal than the present regulations are.

            Just as the ideal in terms of regulation would be an international standard compliance class to build toward, the ideal as far as orders would be to establish the public finance structure that allows US orders to be big enough to offer economies of scale in their own right.

            • For small cities, it is exactly ideal. Ottawa bought 3 3-car trainsets, for the per unit price of a large order. Until the US government gets off its butt and writes decent specs for a commuter rail car – something that looks like the E231 or the Talent, rather than Colorado US Railcar trash – the only way to do it is to piggyback.

              • Max Wyss

                Also not to forget that the European crashworthy standards have been tightened considerably over the last 10 to 15 years; one can for example see this in the difference of the front section of the FLIRT, comparing the first with the very latest models. The space where the energy-absorbent elements are located is very well visible…

              • For small cities, the ideal is to piggyback onto larger orders of larger US cities.

              • Max Wyss

                …when/if ever such orders materialize.

                It would also require a technical standardization (which is feasible), and a versatile design (such as Alstom’s Citadis, for example, or Stadler’s Flirt).

              • I’m all for designing future US subway networks to be BMT/IND-compatible and piggyback on New York’s orders. But legacy rapid transit systems are not so standardized – e.g. Boston’s three subway lines are incompatible with one another. Commuter rail networks could in principle piggyback, but the only rolling stock worth copying in the US is the EMUs used on the LIRR and Metro-North, so diesel lines need to go abroad for rolling stock – and even the LIRR/Metro-North EMUs are inferior to FLIRTs.

    • Matt

      This is a good summary of Metrolink problems, but one left off is that it is not well integrated into the Metrorail system. For example the Orange County Line stops just east of the last Green Line station in Norwalk requiring a 2.5 mile shuttle. On the other end, the red line stops short of the Burbank Airport where it could meet with Metrolink. Instead the only way for Metrolink passengers to access the Metrorail system is at Union Station. These are major missed opportunities.

    • Andrew B

      High acceleration DMU’s are perfectly legal under the FRA rules. Metrolink just needs to find someone to build one.

      I assume what you are really referring to is low-weight non-crashworthy cars. Metrolink has had enough accidents to show why this would be a terrible idea.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Metrolink has accidents because it has a signal system that would have embarrassed UP or SP of 1955. The grade crossings don’t help either.

      • Nathanael

        The grade crossings on LA’s Metrolink are a really serious problem; not only are there are hell of a lot of them, but the road signalling around them is really poor in a lot of cases, as I’ve seen plenty of documentation of.

      • Anon256

        Studies by Caltrain showed that lightweight European-style EMUs fared better than “FRA-compliant” rolling stock in grade crossing crashes. There is really no reason to keep the antiquated FRA weight rules.

        • Max Wyss

          And are these studies based on the newest EuroNorm standards?

          About a year ago (or so), there was an accident in the netherlands, where a truck got hit by a Stadler GTW (that’s the same type of vehicle running in New Jersey, Dallas and Austin, TX).

          The truck did not look very nice after the encounter, and if I remember correctly, the GTW was damaged, but could reach the repair center under its own power.

    • Joseph wrote:
      “And the construction of the California High Speed Rail system may result in improvements to 3 out of 5 corridors.”

      I presume you meant these 3 Metrolink lines

      Palmdale-LA Union Station
      San Bernardino-LA Union Station
      Oceanside-LA Union Station

      If so, you’re forgetting upgrades to the Santa Barbara-LA Union Station Metrolink line being made by Caltrans, Amtrak and occasionally USDOT FRA and FTA money. These upgrades are happening gradually, but the pace will likely pick-up this decade due to high gasoline prices and more freeways congestion that can not be addressed with lane widening.

      Collectively by 2025, the upgrades to Metrolink routes, larger patronage feeds from LA Metrorail and pass-thru tracks at LAUS should have Metrolink outdrawing the patronage of Caltrain and ACE commuter trains the SF Bay Area.

  • Andrew

    The reason for the relative lack of success of all non-New York City North American commuter rail systems is poor frequency. Trains need to run frequently all day 7 days a week if you want to get people to ride them. 30 minute off-peak frequencies are a bare minimum, 15 minutes or better is preferable. People expect to be able to take the train all the time not just in the peak direction in rush hour. We need to get rid of the FRA nonsense, and electrify/double track lines like basically every big city in Europe, Japan and Australia. It annoys me in Toronto to see discussion of massively expensive subway projects, while the regional transportation authority (Metrolinx) takes only baby steps to making the necessary improvements to existing commuter rail lines (likely for about 1/10 the cost) which have the potential to provide a more or less equivalent quality of service. Commuter rail will work well if it is done right.

  • Ben Smith

    To be the devil’s advocate, I’d argue the problem with commuter rail is its execution rather than its concept. With urban and metropolitan areas as sprawled out as they are in North America, there is an argument to invest in faster transit to transverse these long distances, rather than rapid transit lines which tend to be designed to work over intermediate distances. Commuter lines also tend to be designed to compete with expressways, while rapid transit lines tend to compete better against arterial roads.

    Obviously there can be problems with their execution, such as limited service and having to share space with freight, but these can be overcome. Once established, investment can be made in passing and extra tracks to allow both to operate with little conflict. Off-peak bus service can be implemented for travel beyond the rush hour scope. Finally, depending on the design of the line, you can have stops in old downtowns for TOD, and stops in low density areas to accommodate park and rides.

    Let’s not forget that many of these systems are being constructed in very sprawled cities where expressways are dominant. While we can try and fool ourselves that people will give up their cars and suburban lifestyles en mass for TOD and light rail lines, the reality is that these people will not like our “solutions” being shoved down their throat because “we know what is best for them.” This is one of those cases where it may be better to give the people what they want, rather than telling them what they want.

    • Adirondacker12800

      that people will give up their cars and suburban lifestyles
      In most places your choice is a single family home in a residential neighborhood where any other use except maybe schools and chrurches isn’t allowed. So the choice people have is living in suburban splendor or under a bridge. I suspect most people will pick a single family house on it’s quarter acre lot miles from the nearest store over living under a bridge.

    • That ignores the fact that is requires a policy change in most places where people live to permit TOD around a regional station.

      That is, the fact that people in suburbs live in sprawl suburbs is due to zoning restrictions. Establish an easement to permit mixed use, multi-residence development up to three stories in lots within a quarter mile of each regional “commuter rail” station, and in those locations where developers take advantage of the easement, every suburban resident in the hinterland of the suburban village around the station has been moved out of a pure sprawl suburb into an area where local transport can be focused around a local, multiple use central place …

      … even though for the majority of residents of that TOD suburb, nothing has changed with their house or the local population density. All that has changed is the existence of a single place to go in the local area where it is possible to do a variety of things and where it is possible to catch a regional train to the neighboring city to do even more.

      • Adirondacker12800

        …when you have a rainy afternoon to waste look up “Mt Laurel Decision” I think they are up to Mt Laurel V or VI by now. It’s intertwined with Abbott vs Burke in some respects. Abbott is up to VII or IX by now.

        • That is only partial relief from zoned mandated sprawl, though, since actual sprawl is not just low density, but also block single use zoning, which implies that households with needs to access different types of uses must travel to the zone set aside for that use.

          Its the combination of low density and single-use block zoning that creates sprawl conditions of increasing motor vehicle miles traveled to get the same damn things accomplished that once was able to be accomplished with less travel.

          The easement suggested above would be along the lines of professional, commercial or retail use allowed on the ground floor with stacked townhouses on the second and third floors, as well as stacked quad or triple townhouses.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s not relief otherwise it wouldn’t have been in the courts for the past few decades. Newest twist I heard about is the nice exclusive suburb gets X number of Mt Laurel units assigned to it. They then turn around and build them in places like Newark or Camden. A decision they will regret when gas is 8 bucks a gallon but c’est la vie.

            • A multi-use, multi-unit easement around a train station would also not be relocatable.

              As we’ve seen in Michigan’s governor taking away the authority of elected officials of a Michigan town and vesting them in the hands of a real estate developer who wants to take a local Lakefront park as part of an exclusive golf club real estate development … state governments have wide powers to overrule local government.

              This easement would be a reasonable use of those power for any rail corridor where the state paid for part of the infrastructure.

        • Ted King

          To save a little time here are some links to ‘Adirondacker12800’s New Jersey law topics :
          Re : Mt.Laurel – Wikipedia and Rutgers’ NJ Legal Lib.

          Re : Abbott – Wikipedia

      • This is a load of nonsense – TOD hasn’t happened around commuter rail in this country in any fashion ANYWHERE, while it’s happening all over the place around light rail.

  • Dexter Wong

    I don’t live in a single family home or under a bridge. I live in a high-rise condo next to a busy mall with frequent bus service, that’s my choice. My relatives live in single house condo developments some distance from shopping, that is their choice. As to who is smarter, I leave it up to you to decide.

    • And how many housing units like yours currently exist and are unoccupied? Suburban sprawl isn’t going anywhere; the BEST we can hope is that new construction will be slightly less off-kilter.

    • Nathanael

      The reason units like yours are so expensive is that there aren’t very many of them in most cities.

  • Susan P

    You don’t see road builders arguing whether you should build a road out to a suburb or through downtown; they just build them all. Rail has some catching up to do.

    Sure, some rail lines are better than others, and if you are making a clear choice between line A and B, choose the better line. But does that mean these commuter lines should not be built? I would argue no. Rail can be built around existing development or development and ridership can be built around existing rail. (Restrictive zoning and out-dated development ideas are changing.)

    • Actually, the road builders did argue about it in the first few decades of the road program. They built roads exclusively between cities and in rural areas, and chose not to build anything within urban areas; federal aid did not cover urban roads until the late 1930s, and even then (and to this day) it underspent on urban roads relative to both the urban population and the amount of gas taxes raised from city driving.

      • Andrew

        And chances are, there were probably road projects in the early days that were canceled in a similar way as the rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have.

        • Possibly, but never in the same manner. There was no major political force that actively opposed road investment on the ground that railroads were better. Until 2008, there was a nearly universal consensus in American politics that building roads was a good thing.

          • Indeed, part of the impetus for the “Good Roads” movement was to get to the train ~ both passengers to the station and farmers getting their harvest to the grain loader.

            Meanwhile, decades of bought and paid for Western Railroad Senators in the days before the directly elected Senate cast a long shadow on the reputation of the heavy rail industry with progressives, and much of the light rail interurban passenger line development has been targeting property development, and as the last lots of the developments were sold off, with it went a lot of the incentive to improve those lines.

            • Andrew

              Yeah, one the ironies of railroads is that they were the target of progressives, while that faction would had supported the public roads system and the automobile.
              The reason why the automobile won in political circles is that it produced a win-win-win situation for all sides.
              Today, the automobile and flying has lost its charm and attractiveness with many Americans, but the same was true for the railroads back in the first half of the 20th century.

            • Nathanael

              The Senate has been trouble for the US’s entire history, hasn’t it? Well, that’s what giving absolute power to stop legislation to a malapportioned body with staggered terms will do to you.

              • The trouble caused by the Antebellum Senate was precisely the trouble that the Senate was supposed to cause ~ the compromise that established the Senate was supposed to protect the interests of states as such against the interests of voting blocks.

                While the modern abuse of the filibuster is at historically unique levels, it has its roots in the post-WWII maneuvers to prevent adoption of Civil Rights legislation. AFAICT, tt was in the process of that maneuvering that the filibuster rule itself become subject to filibuster.

  • jon

    Dont forget Vancouver BC, they are a fantastic transit city with a poor infrequent single commuter rail line.

    LA, as a non transit legacy city, built a pretty decent modern commuter rail system.

  • cph

    Metrolink really isn’t too bad, especially the San Bernardino Line (the busiest and most frequent line in the system). That doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement, though…more frequencies, double tracking…electrification down the road. But all of that is coming.

    • Is Metrolink’s improvement a support for the thesis? Despite stereotypes, its not a regional rail line operating only as a commuter rail line with no rail on either end ~ it connects into a growing urban rail system, and indeed connects with multiple services per day intercity rail at several points (though it could be more).

      If that is the context where regional rail works best, then the first steps to establishing a successful regional rail line are to first establish the growing urban rail system and the multiple services per day intercity rail.

  • Brandi

    The Republican focus on cutting spending and framing spending as the problem while talking about the debt is all smoke and mirrors. They increase military spending and spending on things they like. Meanwhile the attack spending on the EPA, Planned Parenthood, and high speed rail. They don’t really care about spending just on spending on things they like. For example, taking tax money (the majority which comes from urban areas) and spending it in rural areas to encourage exurban sprawl and consumption of open space. These new exurban areas have exorbitant infrastructure and maintenance costs per person and require constant subsidies from taxpayers. I want to see the cost-benefit analysis for a exurban development 2 hours from a major job center. It’s preposterous that every public transportation project is suppose to produce a profit but highways in far out places and sprawl they produce are given a blank check.
    It’s even more a shame that limited public transportation dollars are squandered on commuter rail lines of limited utility. We should be focusing on light rail and heavy rail that will actually draw the crowds and has the opportunity to densify our existing areas which have lower infrastructure costs.

  • The true failure of regionalism in the Los Angeles area is the failure of coordination between the myriad of operators in Southern California, both service coordination and fare coordination. The widespread adoption of the TAP card system will make it technically easier to transfer between the different systems, but will not save passengers any money on fares at this time. In terms of Metrolink, the commuter system will not reach its full potential until systematic service and fare coordination agreements are put into place with all of the systems that connect with it.

    Which is too bad, because Metrolink serves an area not unlike the New York City region, with multiple fairly large cities and one dominant one. Unfortunately, unlike in New York, Metrolink usually decides to place their stations in the middle of nowhere instead of in populated areas for the ease of providing parking.

    For what it does, I feel that Vancouver’s West Coast Express is successful. Unfortunately freight operations seem to preclude service expansion.

  • Should we not join the 21st century and investigate the concept of TramTrain, that has been so successful in Karlsruhe Germany? With TramTrain, one vehicle is a commuter train, light rail vehicle or a streetcar. Thus with a TramTrain one can board the vehicle on-street, in the city centre, network out of the city on a dedicated light rail rights-of-way, then proceed to communities farther away track sharing with the mainline railways.

    http://www.railway-technology.com/projects/karlsruhe/

    http://youtu.be/pzFgSOTUVPM

    I know the railway operators here would give the idea thumbs down and giving any excuse they can, but rules can change and if gas rises to $5 or $6 a gallon or higher, I will bet the FRA rules may change a lot sooner than one would have dared hoped for.

    Commuter trains as we know them are a dying breed and hopefully sooner, rather than later, will politicians embrace 21st century public transit philosophy.

    A note on Vancouver’s West coast Express, yes it is successful to a degree, but the provincial government will not pay for extra services, on top of its 5 morning inbound trains and 5 evening out bound trains.

    What the West Coast Express has done is extend urban sprawl up the Fraser Valley, with families seeking cheaper housing and creating massive traffic problems that the limited commuter rail system just can’t cope with.

    Maybe I am dreaming in Technicolor, but with gas prices continually rising, we need to start building effective public transit, something that will truly attract the motorist from the car.

  • Cph

    Actually, the Metrolink stations have a systemwide average Walk Score of 66-“somewhat walkable.” Not too shabby. Of course there are a few standouts at both ends of the scale: Claremont on the “most walkable” end and Acton/Vincent Grade on … “the other end.”

    I have a detailed analysis, including spreadsheet, at http://morethanredcars.com/?p=184

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