Bringing Riders Back to Trains Means Eliminating the ‘Commuter’ in Commuter Rail

In 2013, Toronto’s regional transportation provider Metrolinx did something that could be considered unconscionable in similar North American cities — it doubled the service on the Lakeshore West and East corridors virtually overnight, the busiest on the GO Transit commuter rail network, while adding a measly CA$7.7 million annually to the budget.

Yet similar North American commuter rail providers have changed little since their origin, providing limited service to affluent, downtown professionals while ignoring the masses that no longer work traditional nine-to-five positions. In major metro areas like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, suburban commuter trains only attract between 4.7 and 6 percent of commuters, with a lower portion for the people living furthest away from downtown and the closest (who would likely take local transit instead). Interestingly, heavy and light rail ridership have increased 67.65 percent since 1990, while commuter rail has increased by 55.84 percent — with much of the increase happening recently as agencies look to attract casual riders aboard.

“Toronto’s efforts are the most ambitious in North America, but it’s not the only city considering changes that would increase commuter rail frequency,” explains Yonah Freemark, Senior Research Associate at Urban Institute. “Caltrain in the San Francisco region is actively electrifying services to be able to provide all-day frequent service, and commuter rail agencies in Boston, Chicago, and Washington are all planning for improved service.”

Now as the coronavirus lockdowns have caused ridership across the continent to dissipate with little indication of rebounding, the change in priority to providing all-day, all-way service will be an important driver in attracting people back to public transportation.

For many transportation agencies across the continent that currently operate commuter-oriented services, a change to an all-day model might be the only logical next move.

The commuter in commuter rail

The concept of commuter rail really only exists in a North American context. A large traditional train running at peak-hour, shuttling people downtown from their suburban neighbourhoods in the morning and in the opposite direction in the evening. While riders are able to walk, bike or bus to the station, the majority drive and park in an unpaid ‘park and ride’ lot.

A GO Transit commuter train at Exhibition Station in Toronto. 📸: Facebook

These trains run only in a certain direction and during a specific time, making them largely unhelpful to a big portion of people who rely on public transit — people travelling from suburb-to-suburb, late at night or in a counterflow direction. And because these trains run to downtown in the morning and head back in the evening, they require a lot of space, provide a small amount of service and cost a high amount of money to run.

This is not only an issue in Toronto, but across North American cities from New York to Boston and Los Angeles. A train might only arrive every half-hour or hour, or have a large mid-day service gap. On a Long Island Rail Road trunk route service at some times runs only slightly under hourly, while the MARC line from Washington to Baltimore runs at infrequent intervals of every hour or two, despite connecting highly-populated areas. For Philadelphia, despite having an electrified network that more closely resembles a rapid transit system, trains only arrive every half-hour.

A big reason a lack of service exists is because of agreements between transit agencies and the companies that own the tracks. However, is becoming lesser of an issue because passenger operators have began purchasing the track they operate on. In Toronto, GO Transit owns around 80 percent of the tracks it runs service on — and, while in other regions this number is usually smaller, it’s still not insignificant. This doesn’t prevent agencies from being able to boost their service levels but rather, adds an additional financial and political hurdle to overcome.

To agencies operating regional services, they think less in terms of transporting commuters and more in terms of providing adequate service at all times. It’s no longer in the best interest to attempt to draw back downtown office workers, but rather a whole new, larger audience.

A more rapid transit

More than a decade ago in the GO 2020 plan, Metrolinx had already understood it would need to develop a more comprehensive service, linking the region’s activity and community centres together. It had set a goal to provide service every 15 minutes in peak-hour and double in off-peak, in anticipation of Toronto-based ridership doubling by 2020 and ridership outside the core to triple.

📸: Facebook

In the last decade, it’s since developed the Regional Express Rail plan to boost service and essentially, transform GO Transit into a rapid transit provider.

Now, the Toronto Board of Trade has released a report dubbed Getting on the Right Track, highlighting the nitty-gritty and logistics of how the currently-underway system will look. The report illustrates a vision of how trains might run, including service patterns and how to the system will eliminate most of the problems riders experience now.

“If we had a system like this, it would completely change the way transit works in the region,” says Jonathan English, Director of Policy for Transportation and Infrastructure.

The concept is based on the S-Bahn in Berlin and Réseau Express Régional in Paris, where regional trains run from the suburbs and into the downtown core using a cross-city tunnel, before heading back out to another suburb. This creates an ultra-frequent subway while managing to still run a high-level of service to the suburbs and surrounding cities.

Toronto is at an advantage because there’s already a large rail corridor running downtown, negating the need to construct an expensive tunnel like most European counterparts were required to. Eventually a train could be running in from Brampton, Hamilton, Markham or Barrie at 10-minute intervals, leading into a corridor downtown where a train runs every minute or two.

“In terms of bang for the buck, you’re never going to get anything like this, because most of the infrastructure is already there,” English says.

This doesn’t mean the plan isn’t complicated, however, It will require an electrification of the entire network, an intensive and complicated process that will involve hundreds of kilometres of track. The new, subway-like trains will hold more people than the traditional bi-level ones running currently, requiring an intensive amount of reconstruction at Union Station to remove and widen the platforms — allowing more people to board, disembark and wait for a train while ensuring the safety of passengers.

“Union isn’t even designed for long-distance commuter [service], it’s more for basically intercity trains with sleeper cars,” explains English. “The platforms are very narrow … it doesn’t work well when you’re talking about trains where people are crammed in.”

The network could eventually handle hundreds of thousands of riders, acting as a surface subway in places where it might not be cost-effective to build a rapid transit line. Under the SmartTrack program tickets are proposed to be priced similarly to pre-existing modes within Toronto, helping to integrate the regional lines into the local transit system.

Bringing riders back

The price tag to transform Toronto’s commuter rail network to a rapid transit isn’t cheap, costing at least CA$13.5 billion as of 2017. While this cost seems incredibly high the benefits are certainly worth the cost, enabling a higher level of connectivity in the region, all for a small fraction of the cost of building a subway network or light rail lines.

This cost is prohibitively high, especially in cities that are facing large budget gaps as a result of the coronavirus.

But prominently, the best way to pay for such a transformation in many cities is to net the increase in value that will happen when new stations and better service is introduced. Essentially, because people will want to live by transportation and currently stations are surrounded by large swaths of parking, agencies can either sell or lease surrounding land. In the U.S., transit-oriented development is poorly planned, but in European cities with similar systems, people are interested in living near stations because they can reside in a suburban area, while still retaining a high-quality link to the city.

Fortunately, other cities are headed in a similar direction. Linking the San Francisco Bay Area, a major modernization is underway at Caltrain that will introduce electric trains and much more frequent service. In Boston, the MBTA will change its schedules so a train runs approximately every hour. And Philadelphia is proposing a train every 15 minutes on the regional rail network, which will help connect the city and suburbs in unimaginable ways.

“The idea is catching on because it’s leveraging existing infrastructure to significantly improve the day-to-day travel of people throughout entire metropolitan areas,” Freemark says.

There will be cities that resist such change but, because of how slowly public transit projects are built, embracing this change will go a long way to creating more housing, jobs and opportunities, without the high cost of building from scratch.