Since the 1800s, commuter rail services have played an important role in transporting people from outlying cities, towns, and suburbs to larger city centers. For many years, commuter rail largely served older metropolitan areas on the east coast, Chicago, and San Francisco, but over the past 30 years new services were initiated in other parts of the United States.
Since the late 1980s, ridership on legacy and new commuter rail services increased significantly as employment in large cities grew, downtown parking prices increased, congestion worsened (making driving times longer and unpredictable), and real estate prices skyrocketed in many urbanized areas. Having the option to travel longer distances allowed many people the opportunity to purchase a home they could afford and travel to work on reliable commuter rail services.
Commuter rail services generally enjoyed regular customers who traveled, largely during rush hours, 5 days a week. Most of these customers paid for their trips using monthly passes. This provided a predictable revenue stream and economies of scale, as peak trains ran close to capacity.
Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability of many office workers to work from home seriously impacted ridership on commuter rail services. As a result, ridership on commuter rail in North America has remained down, as a large share of its pre-pandemic market has changed its travel behaviors.
Although public transportation ridership has partially recovered since the height of the pandemic, passenger counts, especially for commuter rail services, remain below 2019 levels. Fewer weekday passengers and fewer monthly pass sales have reduced fare revenue and negatively impacted budgets. Commuter rail providers are facing challenges to redefine themselves to serve a broader array of passenger markets and improve integration with other public transportation services. A variety of initiatives are underway or are being considered to address these challenges.
Prior to the pandemic, when urban travel markets were vigorous, many commuter rail providers were actively engaged in addressing the issues of equity, environment, and sustainability. As they serve new markets, many providers continue to uphold their commitment to these important concerns in the face of post-COVID-19 challenges.
Attracting more passengers will require commuter rail providers to determine market needs, trends, and opportunities; explore potential changes in service levels and configurations; introduce new fare strategies; and refine marketing and messaging. Finding opportunities to improve efficiency (i.e., reduce costs per passenger served and per vehicle mile) and secure new and larger funding sources is more important than ever. Commuter rail providers in North America will need to demonstrate that they remain important to the future vitality of urban centers and their surrounding communities.
The objective of this research is to identify implementable and practical strategies for commuter rail services in North America that will facilitate recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, transformation, and continued relevance. The final deliverable should document proven strategies, emerging practices, and innovations being considered by domestic and international commuter rail service providers. The strategies should address areas such as travel demand, service planning, operations, maintenance, funding, infrastructure (e.g., right-of-way ownership and access rights), marketing, customer and community relations, and interorganizational relationships.
The research should address: ridership and revenue trends, service configurations and schedules, fares, funding, cost management. equity, environmental and sustainability initiatives, and marketing and messaging.
STATUS: The research begins January 2024.