Final in a Series: From “Commuter Railroads” to “Regional Railroads”

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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The COVID-19 virus did not kill all of its victims. Most people who were infected with it recovered. Still, the virus not only wreaked havoc on individuals, but also on communities and the economies of those communities. Transit is no exception. It is recovering slowly, but its long-term future is uncertain.

Transit generally is now on a form of life-support from Congress: Federal operating assistance under the COVID-19 relief statutes that were enacted during the past year. Ridership on local rail transit and buses is generally recovering better than on commuter railroads, which reported lower numbers like Metra in Chicago at 12% of pre-COVID levels and 30% on New Jersey Transit. 

This federal assistance is slated to run out soon, although some advocates are joining transit managers in calling on Congress to make it permanent. That appears to be a hard sell at this writing, so it seems likely that the local railroads will have to go back to counting on farebox revenue and assistance from state and local governments to keep running. In this article, I will provide some suggestions for managers and elected officials toward keeping those railroads going, as I conclude this series.

These are difficult times for the railroads that have historically depended primarily on commuters for survival. With technology allowing more people to work from home, rather than going to the office every day, demand for peak-hour seats is certain to decline; at least to some extent, with a consequent decline in revenue from former daily commuters. This is happening now, and it is likely to become permanent. While this is a large-scale change, the railroads can remain relevant and strong if they adapt to it. They could do this by changing their schedules, implementing new fare structures, improving connectivity and, most important, changing their attitudes about non-commuting riders for the better.

The latter change may be the most difficult, because “commuting” seems to be embedded in the DNA of those railroads. The practice of commuting is almost as old as railroading itself, according to railroad historian F.K. Plous, who says that riders going to their offices every day would get a “commuted” (reduced) fare as a reward for riding so frequently. This practice has not changed since that time, but the combination of technology, culture and necessity may soon force the railroads to offer alternatives.

Anybody who is familiar with marketing or advertising knows that consumers’ perceptions matter. That includes how riders view their local railroad. If the provider refers to itself as a “commuter” railroad, that self-description connotes favoritism toward commuters, as opposed to single-trip riders. Metro-North was originally founded as “Metro-North Commuter Railroad,” but eventually exorcised the word “Commuter” from its name. Today, the MBTA in Boston still uses the term “commuter rail” to describe its system, but SEPTA in Philadelphia refers to its lines as “regional rail.” It would not be expensive to adopt such a descriptive but non-value-laden term to characterize a railroad. That change should be the first step in reassuring non-commuters that their patronage and revenue matter.

As I noted in the previous article in this series, the commuter-centric schedules of the past may no longer serve the best interests of the railroads or their riders. Certainly, some former five-day-a-week commuters will return to that routine, but equally certainly, others will not. Some workers, especially in the tech sector, will hardly ever need to go to their old offices again. Other employees will adopt a “hybrid” situation: working from home some days and going to the office on other days. Clearly, such an outcome would reduce the number of seats needed to take people to offices early in the morning—which, in turn, would also reduce the number of trains needed to move those riders. There will be an additional result from that change: fewer early-morning trips to the office for the start of the business day, and more trips starting later in the day. Again, new circumstances would point toward a need for a reduced emphasis on the traditional peak-hour service and an increased emphasis on mid-day service. Advocates, managers and elected officials must be careful about spending scarce dollars to support obsolete riding patterns. It might now prove a better investment to develop new lines that would expand the rail networks to new places. More “new starts” would ultimately provide more mobility for more people.

The current fare structure may be obsolete, as well. Today, there are two sets of fares: one for commuters, and another for single-trip riders, no matter how frequently they ride. Commuters pay a flat rate for unlimited riding within their fare zone for the month or, less often, for a specific week. These fares are heavily discounted, as long as the purchaser rides often enough. For example, New Jersey Transit (NJT) charges about 28 one-way base fares for a monthly commutation ticket, so the discount starts on the 15th commuting day of the month. The general rule is that a person going to the office four days a week is better off purchasing a monthly ticket than paying separate fares for each trip. Some providers give an extra bonus for commuters. For example, NJT allows commuters a free transfer to a bus or light rail line for a one-zone ride. Riders paying single-trip fares are not accorded that privilege.

Occasional riders pay higher fares for not commuting; often significantly higher fares. There have been efforts to reduce fares for riders taking the train outside of peak commuting hours, but that practice is now in decline. The purpose of off-peak discounts was to encourage price-sensitive riders to take the train when the commuters were not riding, and there was plenty of capacity for them. These fares began in the 1930s, when times were hard and the railroads offered low fares to encourage ridership and get some revenue, even if it was less than “full” fare. Ironically, even though they pay the lowest fares and are the most expensive customers to serve, many pre-COVID commuters have not yet returned, of those that will, many probably will not be riding during traditional peak hours. 

Does it still make sense to offer commuters such a deep discount, compared to fares for other riders? With demand for commuter-hour seats not expected to recover to pre-COVID levels, it does not appear that eliminating the discount for commuters would make sense. It would probably make more sense to offer fares that encourage discretionary riding at other times. One way to do this would be to reverse the trend of eliminating off-peak fares. These discounted fares are only alive and well in New York State, on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. The hours when the discounted fares are offered are restrictive (“p.m. peak” runs from 4:00 until 8:00, and early morning trains from Grand Central Terminal on Metro-North are considered peak-fare trains), but the discount is substantial—about one-third. 

NJT’s predecessor railroads offered discounted off-peak fares, and so did NJT for 27 years, but the agency eliminated the practice in 2010. Local advocates have called for its return ever since, and the time may now be ripe to give riders an incentive to return to the rails. SEPTA in Philadelphia used to offer such discounted fares at all “off-peak” hours, too, but they are now only available on weekday evenings, after commuting hours. The same fare structure would be valid there.

There have been some experiments with new fares. Metrolink in Los Angeles is offering six round trips for the price of five, valid for one month from date of purchase. That could be a good deal for riders going to their offices once or twice a week. NJT is also offering a “flex pass” fare: a 20-ride ticket for the price of 16 base fares, but it does not appear to be as good a deal as Metrolink is offering. It is mode-specific, and it does not include the transfer to a local bus or light rail line that a commutation ticket offers. It is also only valid for one month, so a rider must be sure to make at least eight round trips during that month. Otherwise, single-trip tickets would constitute a better deal. Both of these fares come with the additional drawback that they are only available on the provider’s app, but they could be expanded for purchase at ticket offices and on ticket vending machines.

If there was ever a time when new fare structures make sense, it’s now. Ridership patterns are changing, and the old commuter-centered paradigm no longer seems to work. Managers should continue to experiment. If they are not talking about new fare structures, some rider-advocates are. It would make sense for management to take these efforts seriously, to ensure their systems’ survival. 

Can railroads that promoted themselves for more than a century as a means for commuters to get to the office survive in a new role as multi-purpose transportation providers? I believe so, but it will take effort and a willingness on the part of managers and elected officials to make significant changes. In one way, the times may be as propitious as ever for such changes. While Wall Street is recovering well from the economic effects of the virus, Main Street is not. These are hard times, whether or not the politicians are willing to acknowledge it, and the level of inequality between the nation’s wealthiest people and everybody else is widening. The unwise alternative to better transit is more automobile use by motorists, along with non-motorists enduring more exclusion from daily life.

Automobiles are expensive, and vehicle technology is changing from an emphasis on fossil fuels to one centered on electric power. As millions of Americans whose lives and businesses were disrupted by the virus strive to make a new start, having to invest in a new vehicle would place them under a severe financial strain, along with whatever environmental damage increased vehicle use could cause. With reliable all-day rail service at affordable fares, those millions of individuals and families would be able to enjoy taking the train, but the service must be sufficiently frequent to be convenient. That means at least hourly service seven days a week for a full service day, and more frequently if demand justifies it. 

Most important, transit managers and elected officials must actively encourage people to take the train. In 2006, the late George D. Warrington, then Executive Director at NJT, told me that he considered non-commuters to be “incidental” riders. In other words, he, and by extension the agency he ran, did not care about them very much. Warrington is long-gone, but the prejudice against non-commuters that he expressed lives on in some places. That attitude will certainly prove damaging to any railroad that depends on every rider, including those who ride occasionally. Those persons should be encouraged, not demeaned.

Yes, our local railroads can stay relevant within their regions. They can become valuable providers of useful transportation at all times and for all potential riders. They must change some attitudes and innovate. Throughout history, that has always been the key to success, especially during hard times.  

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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