Freight High-Speed Rail Infrastructure

Freight as Passenger Rail’s Worst Enemy — Or Something Else?

» The American freight rail system is often cited as a world model that must be protected from the intrusion of passenger rail networks. But comparisons with passenger-heavy Europe are not as meaningful as have been suggested.

Among those who argue against the public funding of improved intercity passenger rail in the United States, the notion that such improvements would reduce the viability of the freight rail system is frequently cited. The argument goes like this: Passenger and freight rail are in competition for the same infrastructure, so encouraging people to ride the trains would make it more difficult to transport their goods. The end result could be a minor improvement in passenger mode share towards the railways and a significant mode shift of freight away from the railways, to the highways.

The American freight rail network, it is argued, is one of the best in the world, able to move more goods over a longer distance than trucking can, partially because in most of the country, rail passenger services are basically nonexistent. The decreasing use of intercity passenger rail in the second half of the 20th Century appeared to correspond with an increase in freight by train.

Similarly, the comparison with Europe, where passenger rail has a far higher mode share, seems particularly informing: There, rail accounts for less than ten percent of freight ton-miles, compared to 38 percent in the U.S., according to a 2005 Harvard study by Jose Manuel Vassallo and Mark Fagan. Since 1995, the rail share for freight in Europe has declined from 20 to 17% while it has increased from 33 to 38% in the U.S. The European emphasis on passenger rail suggests a negative influence on freight rail, which implies that if the U.S. wants to maintain its freight system, further investments in passenger networks could be counterproductive.

Yet a closer read of the available data suggests that this story is specious. Though trucking accounts for a larger percentage of freight shipments in Europe, the U.S. actually moves a larger amount of goods (by ton-mile) by road than its European peers (1.7 million ton-miles versus 1.3 million), despite having a smaller population (310 million vs 380 million). How can this be? In order to consume what we consume, Americans rely on goods that are moved longer distances. And U.S. inhabitants are also larger consumers of material goods that require shipping; indeed, the country’s 6.5 million annual ton-miles of freight dwarf the 3.1 million in Europe.

Most significant perhaps is the American reliance on coal as an energy source; it accounts for almost half of overall power production in this country, compared to about 16% in Europe overall (and even less in some countries like France and Spain). Related is the fact that Europeans simply consume less energy — less than half as much on a per-capita basis and almost as little even in the wealthiest countries like Germany. For historical and logistical reasons, coal can be moved more efficiently by train, which explains a large share of the difference between American and European freight transport patterns. The coal moved by American railroads alone — about 1.5 million ton-miles, representing 23% of American goods movement — is equivalent to about half of all European freight shipments, according to the Harvard study, based on 2000 information.

More recent data suggests that the emphasis of American freight railroads on coal shipments has only become more pronounced, accounting for 47% of tons moved on the railways in 2007. Wyoming, of all states, is the leading state for outbound shipments of freight… because of the coal that originates there.

So the U.S. reliance on an incredibly polluting, inefficient power source has upped the use of trains for freight. But that is no success story in itself, since renewable forms of power production require no forms of material movement to and from production facilities. Less transportation — if not needed — is more efficacy from an economic and environmental perspective.

The Harvard report also indicates that the fact that European rail networks are sometimes not interoperable — Spain and France, for instance, have differing track gauges — structurally reduces the appeal of shipping freight by train, even though trucking is quite expensive (because of relatively high fuel taxes and frequent tolls). The ease of moving goods on the European coast means far more goods there move on the sea than in the U.S.

Thus this data does not demonstrate that Europe’s low freight rail mode share was “caused” by the continent’s excellent passenger services, the argument so frequently cited by campaigners against passenger rail investment. Rather, the evidence suggests that the reasons for Europe’s differences are multifarious in origin, with the effects of access by passenger trains only playing a minor role. In other words, the lack of a really strong freight rail system cannot be easily attributed to the existence of well-performing passenger trains.

On the other hand, the evidence for Europe’s differences do not “prove” anything about the feasibility of an improved passenger rail network in the U.S. nor does it discount the considerable investments the American freight railroads have devoted to improving their infrastructure, much of which occurred with little public aid. Implementing improved passenger rail networks on existing corridors cannot be done easily, nor should it interfere with the ability of existing freight companies to operate (even if they are transporting coal…). And European countries need to do more to guarantee the movement of freight on railways, which are more efficient than their truck-based counterparts.

Nonetheless, when it comes to freight rail, the comparison between the U.S. and Europe is inappropriate.

Image above: Intermodal freight in Indiana, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

Commuter Rail Dallas

North of Dallas, a New Commuter Rail Line that Never Makes it Downtown

» A train line adds to the Dallas region’s plethora of rail options.

There are many competing reasons to invest in new transportation capacity, the most compelling of which is often to expand mobility — that is, to increase the number of places an individual can get to within a certain period of time. The need to decrease travel times between major destinations is an essential question for transit, since its major competition, the private automobile, usually provides quicker, more convenient trips.

In cities with high levels of highway capacity per capita, the only transit mode that can compete relatively well in terms of mobility is commuter rail, as its limited stopping pattern and sometimes very high speeds allow it to move faster than even free-flow traffic in some cases. The value of commuter rail is of course disputed since its fast running times tend to encourage decentralization from the center city, but assuming one purpose of transit is to increase mobility, it can be quite productive.

That is, it can be productive if it’s designed to fulfill a real travel need.

Some recent commuter rail lines, like Minneapolis’ Northstar and Austin’s Capital Metrorail, have produced somewhat mediocre ridership because of their limited frequencies and inaccessible downtown termini. They both offer relatively fast transit times from the suburbs to the business core, but their inconvenient operating patterns and difficult-to-get-to stations diminish their value, which explains why few people ride them.

The nation’s newest commuter rail line may be even more questionable and raises significant questions about what its designers and planners were intending when they funded it.

Opening this week, the 21-mile Denton County A-Train connects the far northwestern suburbs of the Dallas region, including Medpark, Lewisville, and Hebron, with the Trinity Mills light rail station in Carrollton — a stop that is itself 38 minutes from the region’s central business district via the Dallas DART Green Line light rail, which opened for service late last year. The new $320 million project is expected to attract 4,000-5,000 passengers a day.

Unlike peer systems almost everywhere else in the county, the A-Train does not provide direct access downtown. Rather, it offers connectivity between suburban destinations, with the possibility of a transfer downtown via DART light rail at North Carrollton. The whole route, including the 8-minute connection? About 80 minutes. Compare that to the express bus service between Denton and Dallas that was offered until now, which could make the link in about one hour.

The now-longer ride will not provide much convenience for people who make the daily commute, and in terms of speed itself it is a downgrade from the old service (though of course the train offers more station stops). To make matters worse, the service is only offered during morning and evening rush hours, with a very occasional bus route filling in the gaps during the midday. While there is currently congestion on the highways between Dallas and its northwestern suburbs, the state is about to begin a $4.4 billion expansion of I-35 East, which follows a route similar to the train. This construction project may increase transit ridership in the short term as people look for an alternative, but its reopening is likely to spur a significant decrease in the advantage of taking the train, especially since it is significantly slower than the express buses it replaced.

Could there have been a feasible alternative? One option could have been extending the DART Green Line (already the nation’s longest light rail route) further north, but this would have come at an incredible cost; the construction expenditures required to install a pair of dedicated tracks and the catenary required for light rail would be far higher than that needed for infrequent and diesel-powered commuter rail operating on tracks shared with the freight railroads, as is the A-Train.

Another possibility could have been extending the commuter rail line all the way into downtown Dallas along a mostly single-tracked freight line. But this would have been difficult to justify, as it would require upgrades to a track almost directly adjacent to the Green Line.

Then there is the third option, which arguably would have been the most effective: Allowing A-Trains to run express along Green Line tracks. Using tram-train equipment now increasingly common in Europe, the commuter trains could use occasional bypass tracks to make their trip around light rail trains stopped at stations. This is effectively what occurs in Lyon, France, where the Rhônexpress airport train shares a portion of its tracks with the T3 tramway. Not stopping at the majority of the T3 stations allows the airport train to save five minutes compared to a 25-minute trip on the tram.*

Unfortunately, this compromise approach never had the chance to come into being. The fact that Denton County is not a sales tax-paying member of DART (but rather operates its own agency, DCTA) poses a major obstacle; why would DART make an effort to incorporate services by another entity into its plans if the two did not cooperate? This project may come to be interpreted as yet another failure of American metropolitan areas to act regionally.

Similarly, the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules on the sharing of tracks between freight and lighter passenger trains make it almost impossible to foresee the A-Train simply continuing along Green Line tracks as an occasional service from downtown Dallas, even though the trains purchased to be added to the A-Train fleet next year would be able to do so technically.** Even without bypass tracks, the ability to avoid the transfer at Trinity Mills would save commuters at least eight minutes. But this would require true cooperation between Denton County and DART. The A-Train is planned to have a connection into the proposed Cotton Belt rail line that will run somewhat circumferentially around the region, but that project has yet to be funded.

The fact that the A-Train never reaches downtown, however, could be interpreted as a positive feature of the system, reflecting on the area’s dispersed living patterns. In a highly suburbanized metropolitan area like Dallas, this may make sense; after all, shouldn’t a city attempt to adapt its transportation offerings to the living patterns of its citizens? And indeed, estimates of the train’s ridership suggest that the majority of its users will be reverse commuters, taking the trip into the suburbs in the morning and and back towards the city at night. Denton and the surrounding towns host a number of universities and medical centers that attract thousands of daily commuters heading out from Dallas County.

Even so, the point remains: If the goal of the A-Train is to encourage mobility — and mobility means speed — the system could have been designed in a way that ensured that those reverse commutes were more effectively quickened.

Whatever the relative benefits of the line, though, perhaps the greatest success of the project’s backers was getting it funded in the first place through the creation of a 1/2-cent sales tax in 2002, approved by the electorate by a wide margin, and the redirection of road tolls, which covered 80% of the cost (no federal dollars were involved to speed up the process).

Denton County is no progressive place; its voters supported McCain over Obama by a 62% to 37% margin in 2008. But for residents of these suburban areas, the promise of a train — in whatever form — was enough to merit their contribution through taxation. One hopes similar networks, which clearly benefit from popular support, can be better designed to satisfy the needs of more people in the future.

* On the shared portion from Gare Part Dieu to Meyzieu.

** The A-Train is currently running with older trains borrowed from the Trinity Railroad Express, which runs from Dallas to Fort Worth.

Image above: Light rail in Dallas, from Flickr user Retail Mania (cc)

Amtrak Congress Finance Northeast Corridor

Are Private Operations on the Northeast Corridor the Means to an End, or Just an End?

» Without a commitment of more federal funds for improvement, an initiative to transfer rights to private entities to operate trains along the Northeast Corridor would not accomplish much.

In order to take advantage of the roadways effectively, bus drivers — not to mention car drivers — do not need to take possession of said roads. Indeed, they need only to be in possession of a vehicle that can navigate along the streets and be able to pay for fuel, part of whose cost returns to cover many of the expenses required to build and maintain the roads. Many different vehicles, owned by many different people or organizations, can share the roads, usually without problems. Sometimes, there are accidents, which can be mostly avoided through proper design of the roadways, and there is sometimes congestion, which can be relieved through road fees. Fundamentally, the system works: There are vehicle owners, usually private individuals, and there are infrastructure owners, usually the public sector, and they get along fine.

All of this, I know, is obvious. But when it comes to rail transportation, this formula has been avoided, especially in the U.S. The owner of railroad tracks usually is also the operator of trains along them. When other operators want to move their own trains in, conflicts typically erupt. The frequent disagreements about acceptable service levels between national rail operator Amtrak and freight railroads on tracks that the latter owns (and which it isn’t very happy to share) are indicative of this problem. But these disagreements are not irreconcilable. Indeed, an infrastructure owner that is able to arbitrate between competing operators could be more effective in producing efficient service for everyone than might be an owner-operator, which discriminates against other operators.

In this context, yesterday’s revealing of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s (R-FL) plan for the Northeast Corridor raises a number of interesting questions. Convinced of the value of private sector competition and promoting a pull-out of the federal government from every public service imaginable, Mr. Mica has submitted a proposal that attempts to re-imagine the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s flagship route and the nation’s most-traveled intercity rail line, as a place where, fundamentally, the rules of the road — but not the railroad — could apply.

The bill (draft text) would force Amtrak to abandon its control of (much of) the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, handing it over to the Department of Transportation, which in turn would lease it to an “Executive Committee.” Amtrak would have to give up all of its assets and it would loose federal funding. The Committee, in charge of infrastructure and setting pricing policies, would then engage a public-private partnership (PPP) with a private group, which would commit to upgrading the line and then operating trains to offer two-hour trips between New York and Washington and 2h30 between New York and Boston — within ten years, twenty years more quickly than Amtrak has said it would be able to make roughly the same improvements.

Mr. Mica also claims that this could be done at a cheaper price than Amtrak’s $117 billion proposal.

Outside of the Northeast, states would have to offer their rail corridors to competitive bidding; current subsidies to Amtrak would simply be redistributed to the winners of those operations bids.

Despite the wide-ranging proposed effects of the bill as summarized, the manner in which any of this would be implemented remains incredibly unclear. How would intercity rail operators interact with the freight and commuter railroads that also use the tracks, in the Northeast and elsewhere? If a PPP were implemented, how much would the government agree to commit to pay for improvements?

Unfortunately, the bill would not provide a realistic way to promote true operational competition. Nor does it would it offer a promise of actual federal support to fund an upgrade of the corridor, which seems unlikely to be sponsored by private entities alone. Most problematic would be the transfer of authority over the line’s management to the currently non-existant Executive Committee, whose ability to make decisions about rail properties has yet to be tested, let alone proven.

Fortunately, the proposal is unlikely to make it through the Senate, where Democrats and other Republican supporters of Amtrak are likely to prevent the bill from passing even if it makes it through the House. The American intercity rail system and the governance bodies that oversee it at the federal and state levels are too underdeveloped to be able to guarantee that this semi-privatization wouldn’t be a disaster.

But Mr. Mica’s bill does articulate a number of policy changes that could play an important role in shoring up passenger service in the Northeast. The status quo, in which Amtrak operates relatively infrequent and slow passenger trains within the nation’s most important megaregion, certainly is not ideal. If managed appropriately, the separation of track ownership and line operations could allow for a situation in which multiple operators offer competing services along the same routes, just as Megabus and Bolt Bus compete for the most customers on I-95.

In mainland Europe, E.U. regulations have mandated that national rail companies like France’s SNCF or Germany’s DB allow other operators (in many cases, SNCF and DB affiliates) to run trains between similar destinations. Though I am not convinced that this will produce universally positive results, it will at least likely result in lower fares for customers on the most heavily trafficked rail corridors. And focusing on the most-used lines is clearly Mr. Mica’s goal; according to the bill, the second-highest stated priority for potential investors are “activities that benefit the greatest number of passengers” (just after safety). Amtrak’s current policies do not exactly fit that bill since they are designed to push lower-income individuals (like myself) onto slower and less comfortable intercity buses.

Yet the Mica proposal would not produce true competition in rail operations. It would encourage competition in rail operations contracts. Rather than invest in the infrastructure and then open up the rights to use tracks, the PPP structure as proposed would be a build-operate-maintain system in which one private group would invest in improvements and then have control over operations, which it would perform itself. Mr. Mica has repeatedly referred to Amtrak as a “Soviet-Style” system because it has a monopoly over its services, but it is hard to see how a PPP extended over a long contract would be any different, except that it would charge even higher prices to make up for the initial cost of capital improvements and — even worse — it would be literally banned from cross-subsidizing other services with the profits, according to the proposed bill. Is this in the public interest?

The biggest question of all, though, is whether Mr. Mica is in complete denial about the extent of either the private sector’s ingenuity or their collective willingness to invest in public infrastructure. While it may sound nice, asserting that corporations can rebuild the Northeast Corridor in 10 years at a far lower cost to the taxpayers than Amtrak has proposed could is a stretch. And even a $50 billion upgrade would be larger than any single private investment in infrastructure ever in the U.S. What evidence does Mr. Mica have that a plan like this could move forward?

Image above: Inside New Haven’s station along the Northeast Corridor, from Flickr user Andrew Ciscel (cc)

Chicago Detroit Social Justice Urbanism

Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?

Boston Commuter Rail

Fairmount Corridor Construction Promotes Better Use of Commuter Lines in Boston

» Capital investments will do part of the work in expanding use of the regional rail network, but operations is where the real benefits will come.

Boston has one of the nation’s most extensive and well-used commuter rail systems, with twelve lines splayed out from its terminal stations located downtown. But use of those services within the dense core communities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville is limited. Despite the fact that the commuter lines pass through those cities as they head out into the suburbs, few residents there choose commuter rail over the subway and bus network, likely because of few stops, limited frequencies of service, and inadequate connections with te rest of the transit network, both in terms of operations and fares.

As in other American cities, this represents a significant under-use of an asset that could play a significant role in upgrading Boston’s transportation network.

With the Fairmount Corridor improvement project, however, that situation will begin to improve on a limited basis — at least within a few neighborhoods south of downtown. Last week, MBTA transit officials broke ground on an infill station at Dorchester neighborhoods’s Talbot Avenue, one of four new stops planned on this commuter rail link (only one remains unstarted). These new infill stations — the others are at Four Corners, Newmarket, and Blue Hill Avenue — and faster connections into the central business district will aid commuters by decreasing travel times and reducing necessary connections. But in order to maximize ridership, these capital investments will not be adequate.

The push for amelioration of service on the 9.2-mile Fairmount Line (whose entire route is within the City of Boston proper) has been long demanded by neighborhood groups in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, who see trains pass by them everyday but lack easy access to stations, as the route currently only has five including the termini at Readville and South Station, where connections with the Red Line subway and Silver Line busway are possible. Of the MBTA’s commuter routes, the Fairmount Line is the lowest-performing, with less than 3,000 daily riders and only 70 passengers per train on average, compared to more than 200 for all the rest.

After significant public efforts to encourage the construction of new stops along the route in the early 2000s, a court order required the completion of the four stations by December 2011 — a deadline that is unlikely to be met. But when the improvements are finished, Boston will get something like a third rapid transit line to its southern neighborhoods, joining the Orange Line to the west and the Red Line to the east.

Though many of the new stations will be within a mile of Red Line ones, the neighborhoods through which the Fairmount service goes are sufficiently dense that two rail routes through the area does not seem inappropriate, especially at the relatively minor $15-20 million cost of building each of the new infill stations.

Rapid transit, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Commuter rail service between service end points takes about 25 minutes with the existing trainsets (faster DMUs are being considered for the future), much faster than is possible using current bus or subway routes (55 minutes). But if service levels remain as they are today, it is difficult to imagine many new riders hopping on board. Only 17 round-trips are provided each day, with frequencies of every 45 minutes at rush hour and less than every hour during the midday. There is no night or weekend service.

While schedules such as those might be acceptable for people who leave their cars at park-and-ride lots in the suburbs in order to make their trips into the city in the morning and out in the evenings, they are completely inappropriate for transit-dependent populations such as those found in the areas through which the Fairmount Line runs. This, and the focus of bus services on the subways, not the commuter rail, explains the corridor’s currently low ridership in spite of the high use of other types of transit in the neighborhood, generally on par with Boston’s average of 33% public transportation mode share.

Past Fairmount Corridor feasibility studies have examined the possibility of expanding service to every 15 minutes at peak times, an operations level that planners suggest could increase ridership to more than 4,000 a day. Fare integration with the rapid transit network allowing free transfers into the subways and buses would bump up use of the line even more. To get from Readville to Downtown Boston currently costs $5.25 on the Fairmount Line, far more than the $1.70 required to take the bus.

Improvements such as those being implemented here — the creation of infill stations, expansion of frequencies, and potential fare integration — should be considered for all of the Boston area’s commuter lines since they are cheap ways to improve the quality of the public transportation network.

Like in most other American cities, commuter rail services in Boston are arbitrarily separated in terms of fares from the subway and bus networks. This in an inefficient use of resources since it encourages people to take overcrowded but lower-priced local networks instead of commuter lines that can in many cases get people to where they need to go more quickly.

Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of transit funding in this country, due to federal support, getting capital improvements underway is a more simple process than are expanding service hours or reducing fares, both of which are mostly reliant on local funds. This results in a situation where construction projects continue even as the frequency of trains and buses declines. If the primary purpose of programs such as the Fairmount Corridor improvement project is to increase ridership, this is a problematic situation.

Whatever the fate of service along the route, local community groups have been pushing hard to encourage redevelopment around the new and existing stations. A series of urban villages have been proposed in these districts; the effort received livability funds from the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Specifically, a former chemical facility near the Fairmount stop in the Hyde Park neighborhood has been targeted for a major project. This is a welcome effort by the community to take advantage of new transit resources, rather than to turn their back on them, as is far too frequent in other cities.

Image above: Boston’s South Station, from which Fairmount Line trains originate, from Flickr user Tim Sackton (cc)