Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Passenger Perspective: “Commuter rail” moniker: Dead weight

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By Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

doug_bowen.jpgWords matter, so the overall talk is encouraging: Believers in passenger rail’s potential, and its worth within the larger realm of railroading, have every right to think their trains may have finally arrived. It’s an attitude reinforced at many venues, like the annual rail conferences hosted by the American Public Transportation Association.

Those words and attitude matter when APTA members and others get their points across to various media. Print and other media talk more often about reliance on “public transit” instead of the more pejorative-sounding “mass transit.” And, in a switch that at times is almost total, “dependence” is now applied to auto drivers and not (just) rail riders. (I think of myself as “rail reliant.”) At last month’s APTA Rail Conference, President Bill Millar alluded to this shift, part of the “choice” rail transit gives a nation starving for options. It’s hard for Americans of any ideology to denigrate “choice”; Millar was on target.

The delicious irony now, too, is hearing oil junkies demand some kind of government action or protection (“Drill! Drill! Drill!” and/or “I need my car!”) with the same gusto and reverence they once reserved for “free market” transportation. They got the “free” part down; the automobile has had a decades-long subsidized trip, and it won’t end soon, but at last it’s in the glare of the taxpayer spotlight, just like “subsidized trains.” 

Words matter, and I say this not just as an editor but as a believer in the product. So can we now also shun “commuter rail” as a label, and seek something better?

Too many North American “regional rail” systems, old and new, must still overcome the ephemeral but all-too-real obstacle of “commuter rail” mentality, a tag applied not just by average citizens but by the industry itself. It’s damaging and it’s limiting, even if at times a true “commuter rail line” exists within a system, used for the classic “citybound by morning, homebound by night” rider that makes up an important part of many rail networks.

It’s 1950s thinking at its best—half a century out of date.

“Commuter rail” is damaging because it gives aid and comfort to its adversaries. Preposterous? Here’s a test: Substitute “those people” for “commuters” next time a press release crosses your desk from any source—rail authority, rail advocacy group, anti-rail partisans. Hear the problem now? “Those people” may want a choice, but since “I” don’t commute by rail, what do I get out of it? Why should I care? Why should I pay?

“Commuter rail” is also limiting. In one swipe, we, as an industry, discourage other potential riders from trying the product. Day trippers, shoppers, vacationers, and others aren’t bidden, encouraged, to ride when the equipment (and often the crews) are available and the capacity is more plentiful.

Ridiculous? Why, then, is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, of all things, often referred to as a “commuter railroad,” when the parallel New Jersey Turnpike isn’t a “commuter highway” in turn? Lots of commuters use the Turnpike, or Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, or California’s I-5, right? But the media persist with a false distinction. In part it’s our fault as a passenger rail bloc to not object.

Some passenger players already see this (though not enough, in my view). MTA Metro-North Railroad dropped the “Commuter” out of its name more than a decade ago, and actively seeks (and talks about!) other passenger market niches. Chicagoland’s Metra, another top-flight regional railroad, continually plays with weekend and off-peak service options and price packages that are outright admirable. And, no surprise to this observer but still a pleasure all the same, at one of APTA’s sessions in Chicago last month, Eugene Skoropowski, managing director of California’s Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, offered ideas on attracting more riders from all walks of life as one way of “Coping with Increased Ridership in the Face of Rising Costs.”

Even some political players get it. It took the governor of Connecticut to knock on nearby New Jersey’s proverbial door asking for regional rail access to and from New York Giant football games in the Meadowlands. To their credit, New Jersey officials, along with New Jersey Transit, belatedly caught on to the potential. True, the tri-state run (through Manhattan) is initially aimed just at sports fans and only on Sundays. But that still transcends “commuter rail.”

And so should we all, whether we’re a big rail transit property or a small one-line startup that, indeed, is counting on commuters to initially justify its existence and (one hopes) future expansion.

If “regional rail” doesn’t fit a given property, seek something else, something better, something (more) accurate—ideas welcome! But perception is part of the industry’s potential (and potential woes) just as high speed turnouts and positive train control issues are, and “commuter rail” is jargon, an albatross around our collective necks that needs to be shed. We should be focusing, and espousing, passenger rail’s potential across the rider spectrum. The words matter.

Comments? Email dbowen@sbpub.com.

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.