Shifts in where people live and how they work due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a major impact on commuter rail. Reorientation toward work from home, in particular, has had a negative impact on commuter rail ridership. The reduction in demand for commuter rail has had a negative impact on transit agency budgets, as fare collections decrease and a reallocation of resources to serve new types of demand is required.
Commuter rail is facing challenges that are similar to other urban transit modes. Ridership has increased since April 2020 but is still significantly below pre-pandemic levels. As of the second quarter of 2022, commuter rail ridership has seen an 83% year-over-year increase. Despite the increase in ridership from the lows of the pandemic, monthly pass purchases, previously a significant component of fare income, are well below the pre-pandemic level. The question remains that if the work-from-home culture persists and there is a corresponding decline in monthly pass sales, how can agencies adjust to the revenue loss? However, agencies are noticing a potential shift in demand away from traditional commute hours into weekend and off-peak hours. A change in performance metrics analyzing the total unique riders, more than the raw total ridership, might prove more beneficial in the coming demand adjustment.
Agencies are also reimagining how their commuter rail networks will operate in the future. SEPTA has begun the SEPTA Forward project, which aims to rethink how their commuter rail will be utilized. SEPTA Forward's approach is to take a more holistic understanding of transit and mobility, with commuter rail operating in stronger coordination with other transit modes to expand transit’s geographic reach.
NJ Transit, like SEPTA, has released its first 10-Year Strategic Plan with a similar focus on rebuilding key rail infrastructure and integrating commuter rail with other transit modes. Virginia Railway Express likewise is in progress with their System Plan 2040 to provide for the needs of workers who often work outside of 9 to 5 hours. Baltimore is also debating creating its own transit agency to focus on Baltimore specifically, with potential ramifications for the MARC network.
Other discussions as to the future of commuter rail include greater regional integration. As agencies deal with shifting demand, a proposal named Trans-Regional Express (T-REX) has been discussed to unify the trains connecting New Jersey, Long Island, Mid-Hudson, and Connecticut. T-REX has the potential to transform not only the rail network of the tri-state area, which is the most extensive metro center in the world by landmass, but also provide a model for regional rail cooperation in multi-agency regions.
The US DOT has recognized the aging passenger rail infrastructure across the country. On August 18, 2022, the Biden administration announced over $233 million in grant funding under the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair Program (Partnership Program) to repair and invest in intercity rail networks. The investment will have net positive impacts on commuter rail operations but is not exclusively commuter rail investment as Amtrak receives a sizable portion of the funds. Almost all of 2022’s grants fund projects on the Northeast Corridor, with some going to California and smaller stations in the Midwest.
The objective of this study is to research and project potential future shifts in commuter rail demand and examine how agencies can accommodate new demands. Analysis should focus on the following areas:
- Examination of changes in commute patterns and potential future trends,
- Analysis of how traditional factors’ weight against demand has shifted,
- Summary of factors that traditionally contributed to rail demand,
- Examination of how commuter rail networks have reallocated resources since the recovery from the pandemic,
- Changes in use patterns by time of day or day of week,
- Examination of other available service models from the United States or other countries, and
- Exploration of how changes in development around stations could increase commuter rail ridership.