Second in a Series: Railroads Respond to Changing Ridership Patterns

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Historians may look back on the Great Pandemic of 2020-21 and notice that February 2020 was the month in which commuting by train peaked in the United States. Beginning in March 2020, Railway Age has reported the overall decline in service on our local railroads, which came in reaction to the shutdowns that suddenly appeared to sweep the country on Friday the Thirteenth of that month.

Many people continue to work remotely, although some employers are beginning to call those employees back to their old offices, at least on some business days. Public-sector employers seem to be in the forefront of this move, and it is still unknown how much the private sector will follow the public sector’s lead. 

In the meantime, some commuter railroads have changed their service patterns, one is actively considering such changes, and another might. I will examine those changes in this article. I note that there are some small operations that do not run trains outside peak-commuting hours, or offer only limited service at off-peak times. Those operations lie outside the purview of this article, which will concentrate on the legacy systems in the New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago areas, along with Metrolink in Los Angeles, the only non-legacy provider operating a multi-line system.

Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay area (formerly the Peninsular Service on the historic Southern Pacific Railroad), is the only legacy commuter line west of Chicago. Until the virus hit, its peak-hour schedule was a masterpiece of the scheduling art. It featured three levels of service: Baby Bullet trains that made only limited stops, “limited” trains that made more stops, and local trains on its route between San Francisco and San José. A few peak-hour trains continued south to Gilroy. The pre-COVID schedule crammed an amazing number of trains onto the line to satisfy the demand for seats, as commuters swarmed into the City by the Bay. Then the virus struck, and everything changed. Ridership plummeted as did service, down to 42 trains per day (counting both directions) on weekdays. 

The current schedule does away with the commuter-peak entirely. Trains now run every 30 minutes in each direction, from approximately 5:00 in the morning until mid-evening. Alternating trains run on different skip-stop patterns, so every station has at least hourly service, and some accomodate all trains, approximately every half-hour. There are hourly all-stops locals later in the evening and on weekends.

In the Boston area, the MBTA cut several peak-hour trains and replaced many of them with mid-day trains on April 5. A counter-force to that change is the elimination of all weekend service on a majority of lines in the system. I don’t know when (or if) those weekend trains will return, but the State is studying the effects of the pandemic. 

Metra in Chicago may be the next railroad to start emphasizing all-day service. Spokesman Michael Gills told me that some service had been restored, after the cuts last year came in the wake of ridership dropping to 12% of pre-COVID levels. He added that Metra intends to run frequent service throughout the day. At this time, most lines run every two hours during mid-day, so there may be more trains coming back soon. Would this mean hourly service? I don’t know yet, but I will be watching.

SEPTA in Philadelphia has made severe service cuts, both during the week and on weekends, where trains now run every two hours, rather than hourly, as they did before the virus hit. The railroad says that much of the service that was lost will be restored later this year, but I do not have details. Still, SEPTA may follow the lead of other railroads by changing their schedules. On May 24, Darryl C. Murphy reported on local NPR station WHYY: “Over the course of the year, the agency … expects to restore Regional Rail service to 80%—a process that will be closely analyzed as the agency moves ahead with long-term strategizing about adopting the commuter rail to the new remote-work trends.”

The levels of service in the New York area are the closest to pre-COVID schedules. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) have kept their off-peak service at levels close to pre-COVID service, and a recent effort to cut peak-hour trains was on the LIRR was met by such strong resistance from commuters that the railroad backed down and rescinded the cuts. On the other side of the Hudson, New Jersey Transit (NJT) has been running the pre-COVID level of service since July 6. This writer has observed that peak-hour trains into Penn Station, New York have had few riders, while weekend and mid-day ridership have been picking up. NJT spokesperson Nancy Snyder said that rail ridership had been at roughly 25% of pre-pandemic levels, but was now at 30%, although she did not break that figure down by time of day. Still, compared to numbers from other railroads, it is an encouraging sign.

The one major non-legacy commuter railroad is Metrolink in the Los Angeles area. That agency cut about 30% of its trains when the virus hit, and many of those ran outside peak-commuting hours. It appears that Metrolink went against the tide, reinforcing the dominance of peak-hour trains, and even transforming some of its lines into peak-hour-only operations. Metrolink spokesman Paul Gonzalez told me that ridership is higher than a year ago; up to 7,000 daily riders, although pre-COVID ridership averaged 40,000. He said there would be some trains added back later, and touted weekend service which, although limited, was not cut. He added that kids under 18 ride free on weekends (up to three for each adult), so a family of eight could ride of $20 a day on those days. As for weekday trains outside peak-commuting hours, I will have to wait and see, as with most other regional railroads.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which administers Amtrak’s Downeaster trains between Boston and Portland, Me., is technically a commuter railroad, and for two decades, its schedule reflected that designation to some extent. Two of the five trains on the pre-COVID schedule left Boston an hour apart in the late afternoon, making a “mini-peak” for commuters from New Hampshire and even from Maine. The level of service recently returned to five daily trains each way, but they are now balanced through the day, without the “mini-peak” that favored commuters.

In the first article in this series, I examined the possibility that peak-hour commuting, as it was known before the virus hit, could fall far short of its pre-pandemic popularity after the dust settles. It is true that some people argue that New York’s commercial demise after September 11, 2001 was wrongly predicted. Similarly, the argument goes, the damage caused by the COVID-19 virus will cause only a temporary decline in the fortunes of New York and other large cities. Circumstances may be different this time. While it may be true that New York and other major cities will recover from the effects of the virus, that does not guarantee that commuting as it was practiced in the pre-COVID era will recover to its former magnitude during the post-COVID era. Technology has changed, and it has enabled many of the five-day-a-week office workers of the past to stay home some of those days and only go into the office on the other business days. There may be a cultural change taking place, too. Commuting time eats up a large chunk of the day for many commuters, especially those who live far from their offices.

NJT’s Nancy Snyder told me that ridership on the agency’s interstate buses has recovered to 40% of pre-COVID level. That is a stronger recovery than on the rail side, and it could be construed as evidence that more former commuters were again taking the bus to get to their offices. Without a breakdown according to time of day, however, it’s difficult to say. It is also possible that, like rail ridership, bus ridership is increasing at mid-day and on weekends.

Before the virus hit, New Jersey had a robust network of privately-owned bus companies that operated routes that did not compete directly with NJT’s bus routes, but sometimes competed against NJT’s rail lines. These private-sector companies did not receive any of the capital subsidies that went to the public-sector transit providers, although NJT gives free buses to private-sector carriers in New Jersey. In addition, private bus companies have complained bitterly that, while NJT shares in the temporary federal operating assistance from the COVID relief bills passed by Congress during the past year, they do not. Accordingly, they are more-severely affected by reduced demand for seats than NJT’s bus side, they say.

So, it appears that some former commuters will return to their historic commuting practices when the emergency is over, but other former commuters will not. There are new options for going to the office less often; establishing a “hybrid” work situation. That would mean going to the office on some days and working “remotely” at home on other days. If some estimates of 30% to 40% less office space will be needed in the future, that means approximately 30% to 40% fewer seats on trains and buses will be needed to take workers to their offices on the days they make the trip.

If that happens, it will be difficult for the regional railroads, but it need not be fatal. I have written columns that called on Congress to make the operating assistance for transit that has been part of the COVID-19 relief bills permanent, but it will not be easy to persuade Congress to make that change. 

Still, there are things that the railroads can do to make themselves relevant in the upcoming post-COVID era. It will require innovation and new attitudes. There will be potential riders who are not commuters, but who would still need the railroad outside traditional commuting hours. There will be other potential riders who are not commuters, but who will need to ride on some days. 

What can the railroads do to stay relevant and, therefore, stay alive? I will offer some suggestions in the concluding article in this series.

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.