SCOPE: The subcommittee is concerned with public transportation applications for urban passenger trains using tracks shared with the national conventional railroad system. Fields of exploration relate to operations, economics, technology, regulation, and implementation.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Thoughts from the Chair on the Post-2020 Commuter Railway

My career in the commuter railroad industry has spanned almost 44 years.  During those decades I 
have participated in a rapidly expanding industry where the the number of US cities with commuter or regional service has more than doubled and the ridership on the systems that predated my arrival had grown by more than 75%.  Click here for more detail.  The markets for commuter rail service grew with skyrocketing office employment in central business districts.  New jobs increased peak passenger demand for downtown travel which clogged highways and spiked parking charges.   Commuter rail usually turned out to be faster than driving and cheaper than parking.  Every new downtown office tower increased demand for commuter railroad travel as suburbanites filled new well-paid jobs at their desks in the city.  

This all changed in mid-March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic closed factories, schools and offices for the protection of the population.  Travel, transit use and commuter rail ridership plummeted.  Click here for more detail.  

Office workers and their employers exploited the latest commerically available tools for telecommunication to establish a new mode of "Working From Home".  WFH turned out to be big success that will likely endure long after the other painful memories of the pandemic eventually fade.  

As the imperative for social distancing has waned, the world is traveling again.  We're going to ball games, flying to distant cities and dining in restaurants.   But less than half of us have returned our old offices.  The transformative impact of WFH will likely have a permanent impact on commuting behavior that will be most pronouced in the commuter rail industry.  

As noted above, decades were spent building up a national commuter railroad movement that linked suburbs to downtowns as a way of bypassing crowded highways and avoiding expensive parking.  It gave downtowns access to white collar workers that were unwilling or unable to live near their offices.  But that's all changed, perhaps permanently.   Those office workers that were the core of the commuter rail market can now work from home and don't seem likely to return.  WFH is just too easy and effective. 
Let me share a few lines from Sunday's NY Times.
Since late March 2022, office occupancy has remained fairly flat, just above 40 percent, . Many company leaders who have reopened their offices are struggling to fill them, as the persistent delays in R.T.O. plans undermined both deadlines and details, like the specific days of the week that workers are expected back. 


Unlike fully remote or in-person work arrangements, hybrid models have unfolded differently in every office, sometimes entailing two or three days a week of attendance and in other cases leaving employees to pick when they come in at will.  A global survey of more than 10,000 offices found that  nearly 20 percent of American office workers are back one day a week,  

    • about 10 percent are back two days a week,  
    • just five percent are back three days a week, even fewer are back four or five days a week and  
    • more than 50 percent do not use the office consistently every week.  

Wednesday is the most popular day for going into the office.   Nearly a third of employers surveyed haven’t decided on their return to office plans, 


In contrast to offices, many entertainment and leisure activities have come roaring back in recent months.  

    • NBA game attendance is at 95 percent of its pre-pandemic level,  
    • TSA  checkpoints are at 89 percent and  
    • Open Table dining is at 87 percent.  
The roads are full of cars. The schedule flexibility of WFH has allowed/required folks to travel by automobile at all hours of the day in a very atomistic fashion.   Our current model for rail transit is not well suited serving this atomized market.   The days of legions of workers filling scores of 1000-seat trains to all arrive at one destination at roughly the same time may never return.  
As I see it, the challenges facing US commuter railroad management require it to respond to new market conditions.  The less peaked travel spread over the entire day with a bidirectional orientation will require frequent, fast bidirectional travel with good first-mile and last-mile connections.    

The railroad will still need to try to peal drivers away from their cars.  That mode shift will be more difficult with the dispersed nature of post-2020 urban travel and WFH.  
In order to economically operate the sorts of services attract riders in the free-range WFH era, "commuter railways" will need to:
  • Cut costs per train mile
  • Reduce station dwell times. 
  • Reduce station to station running times.
  • Reduce fares
  • Provide capacity for frequent bi-directional traffic 
  • Find more terminal capacity
  • Solve first-mile and last-mile challenges
It's easier to identify the challenges than it will be to solve them.
  • Cut costs - one person train operation or two-person train crews
  • Reduce station dwells - level boardingautomatic doors.  Also necessary for one and two person crews. 
  • Reduce station to station running times - Self powered multiple unit trains with better weight to traction ratios. 
  • Reduce fares - high transit mode shares require fares that are below the cost of parking at the destination. 
  • Increase line capacity - more double, triple, and quadruple track
  • More terminal capacity - If more frequent service is offered, how much more terminal capacity will be necessary?  
  • First mile/last mile - bikes, ride sharing, denser development in the vicinity of outlying stations.  
A significant immediate research need to help practioners develop services responding to the needs of Post-2020 commuter passengers is survey data to understand their demographics, trip purposes, service sensitivities (fares?  frequency?  speed?) and how they are different from 2019 passengers.  

The  industry is getting started on many of the right things, but I don't forsee any unanimity of purpose until the major cultural shift in how "knowledge workers" will interact with one another in the post-2020 world is resolved.    But, WFH seems too successful for us to ever RTO as we had before. 

Stay tuned.  

David O. Nelson
Chair of TRB Commuter Rail Subcommittee: AP065(4)
and Senior Consultant, Jacobs Engineering Group
Nominally: 120 Saint James Avenue | Boston Massachusetts 02116 | USA
Mobile: (978) 360-0449 |

1 comment:

  1. Just got of the phone with colleagues at one of the operating agencies to discuss this topic. They suggested and we discussed several specific TRB research topics related to the challenges listed above.

    1. Ridership - Who's riding the post-2020 commuter railroad? How are they demographically different from who was riding in 2019? Have the mix of trip purposes changed?

    2. Forecasting - What service parameters will drive ridership growth in the post-2020 market? Fares? Speed? Frequency? The last general study of the commuter rail ridership responses to changes in fares, frequency and journey time was published by Lago and Mayworm in 1981. This research should obviously be updated with a focus on the post-2020 commuter ral market.

    3. Dwell times - What changes in materials and station designs will reduce the costs of converting stations to allow for level boarding? Wooden platforms? Less lengthy platforms?

    4. Dwell Times - What are the range of generally acceptable standards for measuring dwell time improvments from level boarding.
    Is an update to TCQSM required?

    5. Multiple Units - What are the overall running time improvements available from replacing long push-pull trains commuter trains with more nimble multiple unit trains.

    6. Fares - See number 2 above

    7. Line Capacity - The basic line capacity topics are covered in the TCQSM. Not clear that more general research is required.

    8. Terminal capacity - Throughput at stub end commuter rail terminal station is generally believed to max out at two or perhaps three turns per track per hour. What can be done to increase throughputs.

    9. First mile/last mile topics

    Bicycles: What are the tradeoffs concerning bicyle management. Secure bike parking? Bikes on trains? Bicyle sharing at larger terminals and stations.

    Ride sharing: How much ride sharing (commercial serve passenger automobile service) is used by post-2020 commuter rail passengers? How is it different from 2019? Can or should it be improved by changing facility designs? Fare integration? MaaS?

    Land Use: What strategies are being explored to promote the sort of dense land uses near commuter stations to reduce first/last mile travel challenges?