The National Academies

TCRP G-14 [Final]

Contracting Commuter Rail Services

  Project Data
Funds: $300,000
Research Agency: Texas A&M Transportation Institute
Principal Investigator: Ms. Linda Cherrington
Effective Date: 2/18/2015
Completion Date: 6/30/2018
Comments: Completed; Published as Report 200 Vol. 1 & 2


Over the past 40 years, there has been considerable change in the way commuter rail services are provided in the major metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada. Up until the early 1960s, commuter rail services in these two countries were owned, operated, and paid for by privately owned freight railroads. Starting around that time, public agencies began to subsidize the continued operation of the few remaining trains that ran in only a handful of metropolitan areas. By contrast, the commuter rail industry in North America today has grown to 29 systems serving 24 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada. Most of these systems contract for all or part of their operating and maintenance services.  This expansion and evolution of commuter rail has led to a wide variety of strategies and approaches for managing the operation and maintenance of these services, which are offered by a growing number of entities. The result has been two basic approaches to service delivery: (1) bundled services where one entity provides all the functions necessary to operate the service and (2) unbundled services where the provision of services are broken down into separate contracts. Currently, there are no guidelines or generally recognized best practices to consider in determining how to provide a city or a metropolitan region with commuter rail service. There is a need for a presentation of potential approaches, an evaluation of the approaches, and guidance on how and when to apply them to existing and new services.

The objective of this research is to provide guidance to public agencies and other key stakeholders in the contracting of commuter rail services. This research will include an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of each potential approach, including the service effectiveness, service quality, and service cost effectiveness, as well as any safety impacts, of each approach. Key system attributes should be included as part of the evaluation such as passenger miles, train miles, revenues, costs, infrastructure ownership, and other appropriate criteria that could help the practitioner compare and assess the value of the various service approaches. The expected product is a guidebook that describes commuter rail services in North America, the various delivery approaches, and a broad range of issues associated with contracting of commuter rail services that will include, at a minimum, the following:
  • The general context for the provision of commuter rail services in North America (e.g., statutory framework, policy and funding environment);
  • The various current service delivery approaches;
  • The evolution of the various service delivery approaches and why they changed;
  • Quantifiable effectiveness of service delivery approaches from both the private and public perspectives;
  • Significant lessons learned from contracting out services;
  • Current best practices for contracting out commuter rail services; and
  • Innovative international and domestic approaches for contracting transportation services applicable to commuter rail.
As noted, most service providers in North America procure some or all of their commuter rail services from contractors. While it will be the intent of the research team to gather data and develop information from the systems using contractors, the focus will be on those systems that have recently procured commuter rail services or undergone a significant change in contracting methodologies. Data collected should include the contracted service functions (see examples below) and the nature of the contract type employed (e.g., bundled or unbundled, fixed-price or cost-plus) and its principal terms and conditions.
Examples of contracted functions include, but are not limited to:
  • Dispatch services
  • MOW (signal, positive train control, electrification, bridges, track)
  • Transportation (engineers and conductors)
  • Ticketing, sales, revenue collection
  • Maintenance of equipment
  • Facilities maintenance
  • Environmental services
  • Management services
  • Risk management
  • Materials management
  • Customer service
  • Information systems for asset management and reporting
  • Safety
  • Security
  • Stations
  • Marketing
  • Communications
  • Non-revenue equipment
  • Supplemental work

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