Every U.S. Transit System, Every Line: A User’s Perspective

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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NJ Transit at Newark, N.J. William C. Vantuono photo

This article is like no other that I have ever written for Railway Age, or any other publication. It is about a personal transit accomplishment like no other. This piece is not a commentary in the traditional sense, nor is it a news story, because nobody else is making news here. It is an essay; a personal look at America’s rail transit from the standpoint of a person who has ridden every line on every system that is currently operating in the nation. So, for this one occasion, I will set aside the journalistically correct title of “this writer” and deliver my comments in the non-journalistic style of first-person-singular.

I did not set out to ride all the rail transit in the nation. I always wanted to go places, and I rode the transit that was there. I grew up on the Morris & Essex Line of Lackawanna Railroad heritage and commuted on it, even 40 years ago, when New Jersey Transit was founded and I was in law school. I loved to ride the New York subways, but pursued my first two degrees in the Boston area. The “T” felt very small compared to the massive New York system. I also rode many of the trains that operated during the tail end of the pre-Amtrak era in the early 1970s, before Amtrak standardized all of them.

Valley Metro, Phoenix. Valley Metro photo

Becoming an advocate for better transit, rather than just a rider, was an important step for me, one I took almost 35 years ago. As I learned more about transit, I planned trips on Amtrak (and buses, if Amtrak did not go there) to ride transit elsewhere and experience it, along with the cities where it runs. For the past few years, I planned those itineraries to keep up with the occasional new starts or line extensions, until I rode the newest segment of Phoenix’s Valley Metro light rail in Mesa on Sept. 28.

For the moment, I had ridden everything! Then, at the RUN (Rail User’s Network) conference held in Boston on Oct. 11, I learned that the “T” was starting regular weekday service to Foxboro on Oct. 21. I went back to Boston on Oct. 29 and rode it, so at this writing, I have ridden all rail transit in the U.S.!

MBTA photo

I am counting three modes as “rail transit”: regional/commuter trains, metropolitan rail (like the New York subways or the Red Line in Los Angeles), and light rail/streetcars. There are some unusual operations: San Francisco’s cable cars, monorails (of which few are used as transit, but this is not Wupperthal, Germany), and funicular or “incline” railroads. I have ridden them, too, but there are too few to treat in detail here. I am also not counting “tourist” streetcars (they are fun to ride, and I have ridden all of them, too) or tourist railroads, most of which are isolated from all rail transit and buses. I have also ridden the entire Amtrak system, but that is a completely different matter.

CTA Loop. William C. Vantuono photo

Today, we have a national rail transit collection that cannot be considered a “network” by any stretch of the imagination, even though it reaches into 32 states. There are 65 rail transit providers, of which a majority (34) operate only a single line. They range in size from the massive subway system in New York City to tiny commuter rail operations like Music City Star in Nashville and the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) train in Central California, whose entire daily capacity is limited to a few hundred commuters. “Legacy” operations in the Northeast region (Boston, New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia) and in Chicago are still the mainstays of American rail, but newer local rail transit networks are growing in such places as Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sound Transit, Seattle. Sound Transit Photo

One positive aspect of rail transit is that most lines run a full-service schedule, seven days a week, including evenings. So do bus routes in major cities, but many bus systems in medium-sized cities and rural areas do not run in the evening or on Sundays. Some do not run on Saturdays, either. So, while those areas may provide “lifeline-level” service for residents who do not operate a motor vehicle (for whatever reason), non-motorists who find themselves downtown after 6:00 or 7:00 PM are stranded. There are a few rail operations that run less than a full-service schedule, but not many. Most light rail and streetcar “urban rail” lines and almost all heavy-rail “metropolitan rail” lines run frequently, every 15 minutes or better during most of their service schedules. That gives riders convenient and reliable service. Many bus routes, even on large transit systems, do not meet that standard.

Whether bus advocates like it or not, rail transit appears to draw riders in ways that buses (even so-called BRT routes, which I call “Bogus Repackaged Transit”) do not. Buses seem to lack the appeal of rail. I heard an oft-quoted statistic at APTA (American Public Transportation Association) some years ago: Before St. Louis built its MetroLink light rail line, 78% of bus riders were transit-dependent. After the light rail began operating, the numbers were reversed: 78% of MetroLink riders had access to an automobile, and they rode the rail line by choice. Wherever they start their trips, discretionary riders increase ridership totals and farebox revenue, and that includes linked trips between rail and bus modes. In short, rail attracts riders.

MetroLink, St. Louis. Metrolink photo.

A few rail transit lines are tourist attractions in their own right: the New York subways, the downtown Loop on Chicago’s CTA, the cable cars and vintage streetcars in San Francisco, and the historic streetcars in New Orleans. But almost everywhere it runs, rail transit seems to be popular, with only a few exceptions. The same cannot be said for buses, wherever they run.

There is one overarching problem with transit generally, and that includes rail transit. Except for Brightline/Virgin in South Florida, all transit is in the public sector. In short, the private sector wanted to get rid of it, so the public sector had to pick it up, or there would be none. Unfortunately, that means the pervasive influence of politics determines how much transit the riders get, both in terms of lines and frequency of service. The political structure varies from one locality to another, much like the management structure varies from one transit provider to another. Still, whether we like it or not, it is politicians who never (or seldom, at best) ride transit who make decisions about how much transit the rest of us are permitted to have. For those of us who depend on transit, those politicians literally decide how much mobility we are allowed.

LACMTA photo

Sometimes local elected leaders can make a difference. When I first visited Los Angeles 40 years ago, slow buses on congested streets provided the only transit, the air quality was terrible, and mobility in the city was worse. Then, in the 1990s, the city and the region started to think about rail as a solution. Former Mayor Tony Villaregosa persuaded his fellow Angelinos to pay for rail transit, and he embarked on a diligent program to build it. Eric Garcetti, the current mayor, is continuing the tradition. The air is better, mobility is better, downtown and other neighborhoods have been revitalized, and some city residents are choosing to live a car-free lifestyle and use the growing transit network available to them.

Elected officials are making a difference elsewhere, too, whether for better or worse. Sometimes it comes at the state level. New Jersey Transit is a statewide agency that provides transit within the Garden State and also to New York and Philadelphia, so the rough-and-tumble politics in Trenton determine how much transit my fellow New Jerseyans and I can ride. New York’s MTA runs the transit in New York City and the commuter railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. Because it is a state agency, it is not immune from statewide politics, which includes legislators from as far away from New York City as Plattsburgh and Buffalo.

MTA New York City Transit. Joseph M. Calisi photo

 It happens in other states, too. Chicagoans need state funding for their transit, and Downstate Illinois stretches further south than Carbondale, which is itself one-third of the way from the Windy City to New Orleans. Philadelphians (including in the suburbs) and Pittsburghers depend on state funding to help support SEPTA and Port Authority Transit, respectively, but there is no rail transit anywhere else in Pennsylvania.

If there is one variable that can make a difference in the struggle for state funding, it is the attitude of transit managers, as demonstrated in their willingness to fight for money for their own agencies. Willingness to campaign for funds has been far from universal among transit managers, but there are exceptions. When the CTA was faced with funding cuts, there were announcements all over the system urging riders to contact their legislators about transit funding.

One unhappy artifact of the Federal Transit Administration’s funding regulations is the divide between capital and operating funds. Programs like those under 49 U.S.C. §5307 give grants for capital improvements, but not for operations. So planners and managers compete for grants to build new facilities, while it remains questionable whether or not they will always be able to afford to operate those facilities in a manner that optimizes service for the riders. Federal operating assistance existed back in the 1970s, but bringing it back would require a change in the federal statute, and that will not happen anytime soon.

Aside from politicians, it appears that the most important group whose support is vital in the campaign for improved transit is the local business community. Advocates often make the case for transit in terms of the environment (an argument that worked in L.A., because the air was getting palpably worse over time), or social justice and inclusion. These arguments are valid, and I have often made them. Looking at the big picture, though, they seldom work without also making the “business case” for better transit. Revitalization of towns or neighborhoods, transit-oriented development (TOD), and the sort of long-term commitment to a neighborhood’s economy that laying rails represents are the sort of arguments that can persuade the local business community. Those decision-makers usually do not ride transit, but they can usually tell if transit will bring money into their cities or their neighborhoods. APTA once had a slogan: “Transit Means Business,” and they were right.

It can be tricky to achieve the right balance between the social justice and environmental arguments that stir grassroots participation, and the economic arguments that entice business leaders to come on board. Still, a campaign that can cover all those bases is the one that can win. Those arguments worked in Phoenix last August, as the riding public and transit-friendly politicians worked together to beat back a referendum that would have crippled the city’s popular and expanding light rail line.

New York MTA photo

If there is one challenge for today’s transit managers and advocates, it is the age gap between them and the new cohort of riders in the cities. Today’s riders, especially on rail, are a diverse group, in terms of age, race, ethnic heritage, and any other variable you might choose for measurement. There is one group of riders who will become powerful when their time comes, and they are young city-dwellers, who like the excitement of the urban lifestyle, and who use transit to access all that their cities have to offer. They do not need an automobile to connect with everybody else. They have their electronic devices, which they can use while they are on transit. They do not seem as interested in possessing an automobile as their elders do, and they seem to prefer rail transit to buses. They are a diverse group, and they get along well with one another. They also like transit, and they want transit that takes them where they want to go, frequently and conveniently. Simply stated, they are the hope for the future of transit, especially rail.

I personally know many of the advocates who are active today. They do not represent the diversity found in contemporary transit ridership, or even in today’s management cadre. Almost all of them, including me, are senior white males. Don’t get me wrong. I have a great deal of respect for the seniors who advocate for transit. Most of us remember when transit was threatened everywhere, and we fought to preserve it as best we could. Through our efforts and those of our allies, we have reached the point where rail transit is growing. Now the challenge is to bring the young urban transit riders on board, so they will continue the struggle. Our age cohort has started to turn the momentum from retrenchment to growth. The young riders might be able to strengthen that momentum, so they can someday enjoy a level of transit service that would appear to us as an impossible dream.

There is an apocryphal story that, one day in 1922, General Motors Board Chair Alfred P. Sloan was standing in Cleveland, watching the crowds get onto streetcars to head home from their downtown offices. He decided that GM could never sell enough automobiles, as long as the popular streetcars kept running, so he started his campaign to eliminate them. Thus, the story goes, began the campaign that destroyed about 98% of America’s transit on rails. The only extensive “legacy” multi-modal transit systems that survived are in the Philadelphia, New York (including surrounding railroads), Boston and Chicago areas. Only seven American cities: Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans and San Francisco (and only Toronto in Canada) still have one or more streetcar lines that survived. Today, transit is growing, but keeping it growing will require constant vigilance and struggle for at least the next generation, and maybe longer.

As I reflect on the transit that we have in this nation, I think of where I will go next. There will be more new starts and expansions in the future, both in this country and in Canada. There are also some lines on VIA Rail that I have not ridden yet, along with the Alaska Railroad, White Pass & Yukon, and a trip “across the pond” to visit London and also ride genuine high-speed rail. As I wrote last winter, I do not expect to be able to ride true HSR in this country.

Ottawa Confederation Line. William C. Vantuono photo.

Still, I have one overarching thought. It is quite an accomplishment to ride all of the rail transit in the U.S, and I am proud that I did it. There is a broader and more ominous meaning to that thought, though. If one person can ride all of the nation’s rail transit, our country most certainly does not have enough of it.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).