» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.
There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.
For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.
But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?
European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.
The Leipzig experience
Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.
As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.
The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.
Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.
Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.
That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.
Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.
The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.
Many other cities have invested similarly
Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.
Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.
Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.
That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.
Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.
Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.
This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.
For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.
Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.
What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?
In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.
But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.
New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.
Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.
Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.