Rail Transit and COVID-19, One Year Later

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

Friday the Thirteenth of March 2020 left its mark on millions of Americans as the last “normal” day that they might ever have. On that day and over the following weekend, states and localities ordered shut-downs of “non-essential” businesses and jobs. Many of the workers who still had a job started to work remotely from home, and a lot of them continue doing that. Transit ridership and revenue plummeted, as managers scrambled to save money by cutting service. It has begun to recover in some places, but will some of the changes become permanent?

The nation and the world are entering their second year of living with the COVID-19 virus. Things are looking up as more doses of the various vaccines are finding their way into people’s arms, but much of the economy has been hard-hit during the past year. That includes rail transportation everywhere. Amtrak Long-distance trains are coming back to daily operation soon, but is rail transit also recovering?

The answer to that question depends on which mode you are considering, as well as which place. Some systems are running full pre-COVID service, or close to it, while others struggle as much now as they did a year ago. There are a few general trends we can observe from checking the schedules for essentially every local railroad and rail transit line in the U.S. and Canada. There may also be some lessons for transit managers, as well as for the riders’ advocates, two communities who want transit to improve.

There is a caveat that applies to all of the analysis presented here. Yes, there are trends, but there are also exceptions to everyone. Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the House from four decades ago, famously said that “All politics is local.” Truer words were never spoken, especially when it comes to transit. Local elected officials, transit managers, rider constituencies with their particular needs, and the advocates who push for better transit on behalf of those riders all play a role. Elected officials play the largest role because, at both the federal and state levels, they can authorize the spending that helps keep transit alive. Most decisions about transit are made in Washington and state capitals.

If there is one difference in transit’s recovery over the past year, it has been mode-specific. Local rail transit has recovered far better than commuter railroads, whether legacy systems or relatively new starts. That is not to say that every city with rail transit has returned to full pre-COVID service, but few lines that ran before the virus hit remain suspended. Every line of the New York subways is running but, for the first time in the system’s 116½-year history, nobody can ride in the middle of the night. On lines elsewhere, like BART in the San Francisco Bay area and Metrorail in Washington, D.C., service ends earlier than it had in the past. Still, for the most part, local rail lines are running and taking riders where they want to go. They may be running less frequently, but waiting for a few extra minutes is far less of a hardship to a rider than having their line disappear. Losing span of service, especially with the service day ending several hours earlier, is a much more serious inconvenience that compromises mobility. It will be up to riders’ advocates and elected officials to push as hard as possible for pre-COVID spans of service to return.

The impact of the virus on transit has turned the traditional California rivalry between the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas on its head, at least as far as transit is concerned. San Francisco kept some of its rail transit while, until about 30 years ago, Los Angeles had none. In those three decades, the City of Angels has built several subway and light rail lines and the Metrolink commuter train system. The construction is continuing, with several projects in progress. Local transit on Metro has shown its strength, while the San Francisco Bay area has been hit so hard that only two light rail lines are running in the city, both on shortened routes and shortened service schedules. The other four are suspended, along with the historic streetcars on Market Street and the unique and world-famous cable cars. It seems inconceivable even to contemplate that, as recently as one year ago, Los Angeles could beat San Francisco in a transit competition. That is one of the stranger manifestations that the virus has brought.

Streetcars have generally not done as well as light rail or subway-elevated lines. San Francisco today provides some local evidence. In other places like Boston, Philadelphia, Portland and Toronto, where they are an established component of the transit system, they are doing well. That may or may not hold for places where a single streetcar line is still considered a transit novelty. Newly installed streetcar lines in Detroit and El Paso remain suspended, along with the one in Little Rock. The Delmar Loop Trolley in St. Louis failed in 2019, before the virus hit, and after a service life of only 235 days. Still, the Dallas and Kansas City streetcars are doing well, and the streetcars in Memphis have also come back.

Commuter rail is a completely different story because there are not many traditional commuters today. It remains to be seen how many of the pre-COVID commuters will return to their old peak-hou” trains, after the dust clears. As with other transit modes, local politics and the local economy will probably determine how many trains will still run on any given line.

In the New York area, regional service is as close to pre-COVID levels as anywhere in the country. New Jersey Transit returned to full schedules on July 6, after only 15 weeks of limited service. There do not appear to be many commuters going to New York Penn Station early in the morning, but ridership is picking up at other times, and many “essential” workers are commuting further out from places like Newark. On the New York side, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) are also running close to pre-COVID schedules, sometimes because riders demanded that their old trains be restored. Some newer lines are running most of their old schedules, including TEXRail in Fort Worth and Trinity Railway Express. 

Other lines have made severe cuts to some parts of their scheduless. SEPTA in Philadelphia is running most of the old weekday schedules on its Regional Rail lines, but weekend service has been slashed from hourly to every two hours; sometimes less. Metra in Chicago has run only every two hours on weekends for decades, and that service has not changed much. Instead, it was commuting-peak and midday service that took a hit. The lines that that only ran a few peak-hour trains for commuters lost the most. On other peak-hour-only lines elsewhere in the country, the level of service was cut in half, or worse. 

In contrast, Metrolink in Los Angeles has slashed service at other times and placed the emphasis on traditional peak-hour commuting. Some lines are now peak-hour-only with no other departures, and there are very few evening departures anymore. In the Boston area, seven of the twelve regional rail lines lost all of their weekend trains, while the other five kept it. It seems as if a giant coin toss in the sky determined whether riders along those lines, especially those who depend on transit, would continue to have some mobility seven days a week, or they would have it on merely five. 

While it could be said that rail managers at MBTA wielded a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel, thereby achieving draconian-style results, the same managers are implementing an innovative idea that could save regional rail and allow it to retain at least some of its relevance. Stated simply, they changed the emphasis on scheduling. There will be fewer peak-hour trains, because there have been fewer peak-hour commuters. A few of those trains will disappear completely, but most of them are moving to mid-day slots. This will distribute service more evenly throughout the day than had been the case in the past. Midday service about every two hours was the rule on the Boston lines, and it will increase to hourly on many of them. Caltrain in San Francisco, the only legacy commuter line west of Chicago, recently pioneered the innovation of eliminating the commuting peak completely. There are two trains per hour in each direction from early morning until mid-evening running skip-stop patterns. There are also hourly locals after that on weeknights and all day on weekends. 

This experiment bears watching. It is highly unlikely that all, or nearly all, of the pre-COVID-era commuters will return to the traditional pattern of commuting to the downtown core five days a week, for the start of the customary business day. Some may go into the office less often, some might go in later in the day, while others might make the trip only occasionally. How well the railroads will survive as relevant components of their local transportation networks remains to be seen, but accomplishing that will require new, innovative thinking and policies. Rescheduling trains this way, along with other innovations like enhanced connectivity with other transit modes and fare integration, may be the key to staying alive by staying relevant to the riding public. 

It might also be the key to gaining the political and financial support these railroads need. Congress has to help, too, with federal operating assistance for transit. If it can keep transit going as a temporary measure, it can help build transit into the useful and necessary public utility that it should have been throughout its history, despite the difficulties it faced from wealthy and powerful competing industries.

Times are changing fast, and our urban transit and our local railroads must change, too. Local rail transit is weathering the current times better than other modes in many places, because the riding public considers it part of the city’s environment, and has come to trust it and depend on it. Management has played its part in those places by keeping it going as best they can, and Congress has come to the rescue with federal support; not unlike the support that built highway and airline travel in the past, much to the detriment of non-automobile transit through the decades.

Amtrak’s corridors and state-supported trains are struggling, but most of the long-distance trains will soon return to daily operation. It is hoped that, as the viral threat recedes, the states that support Amtrak will bring the state-supported trains back, and that the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and its branches will become stronger, as well. Similarly, manuy look forward to the right combination of circumstances coalescing to strengthen the transit that has survived the past year, and to restore the transit that was reduced so severely.

Canada’s local rail transit has done well, in a country where the virus still dominates society at a more severe level than it does in this country. The U.S. is ahead of Canada in the battle to get vaccine into people’s arms, even though it has not fared as well as Canada in the battle to keep local rail transit going, and even though VIA Rail is suffering worse than Amtrak. 

So it can be done. Transit in this country can turn the corner, survive, and become a recognized and relevant component of the nation’s transportation network. It takes effort, including that of politicians.

A Comprehensive Snapshot

Railway Age checked the schedules for all local railroads and rail-transit lines in the U.S. and Canada to learn what is running where, and how often. This is a continuation of reporting over the past year, which began as a team effort at Railway AgeRailway Track & Structures and International Railway Journal.

It has now been a full year since transit ridership and revenue appeared to be in free-fall, and service in some places was slashed to the bone and beyond. In other places, managers kept service going because some people needed it. It was a difficult decision, and while Congress and President Biden have come to the aid of the transit industry as an emergency measure, its long-term future remains uncertain. So, now it’s time to take a closer look at the transit running on rails today: where, when and how much.

We recently reported on developments at MBTA in Boston, with improvements coming to weekday service, but there will still be no weekend trains on a majority of the system’s regional rail lines.

In Connecticut, Shore Line East is running essentially a weekend schedule every day. The same holds for the Hartford Line, where the service day ends earlier than during pre-COVID times, and connections to and from New York require longer waiting time at New Haven.

Service in the New York area has not changed much lately. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road are running hourly service on most lines and every two hours on a few (previous weekend levels of service). The former half-hourly service to Stamford on the New Haven Line and White Plains on the Harlem Line are gone, but there are mini-peaks for the remaining weekday commuters. There is still no weekend service on the upper portion of the Harlem Line to Wassaic. The LIRR cut some trains at the beginning of March, followed by complaints from riders and advocates that the remaining trans were overcrowded. The railroad restored the service, and on March 29, LIRR President Philip Eng said there would be no more cuts of that sort.

NYCT subways continue to run close to pre-COVID schedules, although they are still closed from 2:00 to 4:00 in the morning, and there was friction between management and labor over runs on the C and F trains that were never restored. The MTA has said recently that those runs are coming back to the schedule. On the New Jersey side, NJ Transit returned to full service on July 6, 2020. Ridership remains low on morning peak trains to Penn Station New York, but reverse commuting and off-peak ridership appear to be recovering at a faster pace.

In Philadelphia, SEPTA issued new schedules on March 7. Service on most regional rail lines remains below pre-COVID levels, with only the Airport Line running hourly on weekends (the prior standard). Most lines run every two hours on weekends, and some run limited service on weekdays, with two-hour gaps during mid-day and some three-hour gaps. There is limited service on weekdays and none on weekends on the Chestnut Hill West line, but that service returned March 8, after nearly a year. The Cynwyd Line, which ran limited service in the past, remains suspended. Peak-hour service to Newark, Del., returned on January 25. Light rail lines, including those running west of 69th Street Terminal, are running full spans of service, although some run less frequently than before the virus hit.

While local rail transit in Baltimore is running similarly to pre-COVID schedules, MARC Penn Line trains (on Amtrak’s NEC) are still running less frequently than before, with two-hour gaps at midday. Weekend service has returned, though. MARC’s peak-hour-only services to Baltimore’s Camden Yards Station and on the Brunswick Line remain sharply curtailed. VRE is running half of its old schedule: five round trips on the Fredericksburg Line and four on the Manassas Line. The DC Streetcar returned to full service hours on Oct. 24, 2020, but WMATA Metrorail still closes earlier than before. Trains run until 11:00 pm (it had been 9:00 before).

Elsewhere in the East, light rail service in Pittsburgh and Buffalo is running essentially at pre-COVID levels, as is much of the rail transit and trains in the Southeast: Norfolk, Charlotte, Atlanta, the Orlando area (Sun Rail), and the Miami area (Tri-Rail). Passenger trains on privately owned Brightline are still suspended, but construction of the railroad’s expansion to Orlando Airport continues.

Elsewhere in the South, there is less service. Streetcars in New Orleans are running less-frequently; every 32 minutes on each branch of Canal Street service (a critical junction remains out of service due to a building collapse in October, 2019), every 18 minutes on the St. Charles Avenue line for most of the day, and half-hourly on the Riverfront Line. This is about half the pre-COVID level of service. Schedules are the same every day, and all lines now run all night. There is an exception: The Rampart-St. Claude Line is still out of service, due to the 2019 building collapse. The Metro Streetcar in Little Rock also remains out of service, at least until July 31 for a construction project. In Memphis, the Main Street Trolley is back to a full-service schedule, and the other two lines are back with limited schedules: the Riverfront Line every 40 minutes during the late morning and afternoon only, and the Madison Avenue Line on a half-hourly schedule, but not evenings or Sundays. In Nashville, Music City Star continues to operate two commuter runs in each direction, plus reverse moves to get the trains back to Lebanon, where they are stored. A short-turn run was eliminated and has not returned.

Local rail transit in the Midwest has returned essentially to pre-COVID schedules, except that the Waterfront light rail line in Cleveland is out of service for a construction project. The Kansas City Streetcar ends its service day earlier, and Q-Line streetcars are not running in Detroit. They should be back late in the summer, and non-passenger runs began on March 29. Kenosha’s Lakefront Trolley, which runs historic PCC cars, is also suspended. It is now slated to run as a seasonal service from May through September, Wednesday through Sunday from 1:45 until 9:15 pm. Milwaukee’s streetcar, The Hop, is running a shortened day: every 20 minutes, ending by 9:00 pm.

Except for the NICTD South Shore Line between Chicago and northern Indiana, midwestern commuter lines are running on schedules that went into effect last year. Metra has reduced peak-hour and mid-day service on most lines and ends the service day earlier on weekdays. There are few trains left on lines that ran mostly at commuter hours. Weekend service did not change substantially. Northstar Rail from Minneapolis still runs only two commuter round trips on weekdays and no service on weekends.

The cold snap in February brought havoc to transit in Texas as previously reported, but most schedules in the Lone Star State have returned to pre-COVID service levels. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, that has happened on all lines except the A-Train to Denton, which operates essentially hourly on weekdays and about every two hours on Saturdays. There is no service on Sundays. Metrorail in Austin now only operates from early morning through late afternoon on weekdays; Friday and Saturday evening service has not returned (the line never ran on Sunday or until late afternoon on Saturday). The recently rebuilt PCC streetcars in El Paso are still not running, as the line remains completely suspended. Houston’s light rail lines are back to a full span of service, as are the two streetcar lines in Oklahoma City.

Service is slowly returning to pre-COVID levels in the Mountain West. Rail service is recovering gradually, under schedules that took effect March 6 on Denver’s RTD. Most of the light rail lines operate at full service every day, but it ends earlier than before, typically around 11:00. For example, the G Line between downtown Denver and Arvada runs only every 30 minutes, while it ran every 15 before the virus hit. The F Line is not operating. Only the A Line to Denver Airport is running its pre-COVID schedule. In Salt Lake City, the three TRAX light rail lines and the S-Line streetcar are running every 15 minutes on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends, with an early evening end to the service day on Sundays. There have been some reductions on FrontRunner commuter trains between Ogden and Provo, with slightly augmented hourly service on weekdays and hourly on Saturdays. The line has never run on Sundays. As previously reported, New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express returned to service on March 8 with a reduced weekday-only skip-stop schedule. It is the nation’s last commuter rail line to return to service, after a suspension of almost a full year. Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix is running a full schedule on 15-minute headways, 20 minutes on Sundays. Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar is back to full service, although it stops running about 8:00 on Sundays.  

In the Northwest, Seattle’s Link Light Rail, operated by Sound Transit, runs a full span of service, but slightly less often than before the virus hit, generally every ten minutes. Tacoma Link is back to the limited service it ran pre-COVID, including a short service day (essentially 10 to 6) on Sundays. The schedule on Sounder commuter trains is still slightly reduced on the line from Seattle to Tacoma and Lakewood, and still down to two commuter runs from Everett to Seattle. The First Hill Streetcar Line runs a full span of service, with a shorter day on Sundays. The South Lake Union Line runs a more-limited day. On March 7, the Portland Streetcar returned to 15-minute headways for the busier part of the day and 20-minute headways at other times on the north-south lines, while service continues to run every 20 minutes on the other lines. The service day ends at 11:30. All five MAX light rail lines again run at least every 15 minutes through the day. WES Commuter rail between Beaverton and Wilsonville (on the way to Salem, the State Capital), continues to run every 45 minutes during peak-commuting hours only. The pre-COVID schedule called for trains every 30 minutes during those times.

Transit in the San Francisco Bay area was hit hard last year, and struggles to recover. The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (Muni) once had one of the strongest rail transit networks in the nation, but not now. There was no rail transit in the city for most of the past year, but two light rail lines have returned: the J Church and T Third Street, both on shortened routes and shortened service days. Buses continue to replace cars on the other four lines where light rail used to run. The unique cable cars and historic streetcars on Market Street and the Embarcadero remain suspended, as well. Muni continues to encourage travelers to find other means for non-essential trips. 

Elsewhere in the region, BART schedules have not changed much. Most lines have service every 30 minutes, seven days a week. Weekday service starts about 5:00, weekend trains start running about 8:00, and the service day ends by 9:00 pm. The pre-COVID schedules ended at midnight, with trains every 15 minutes for most of the day on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends. Caltrain has added an early morning local train to its schedule in each direction, but the half-hourly weekday service without a commuter-peak and hourly weekend service continues. Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains continue to operate only two commuting trips from San José to Stockton. Pre-COVID schedules called for four on weekdays and two on Saturdays. VTA in San José is running similar frequencies to the pre-COVID schedules on its light rail lines, but service ends earlier than before (it once ran all night). North of the Bay, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) line still runs its April 8, 2020 schedule: eight trains on weekdays during morning-peak and late-afternoon. Weekend service remains suspended. In contrast, Sacramento Regional Transit is running much of the pre-COVID light rail service, although the service day ends earlier than previously.

Southern California is doing better, but results vary in different places. Metro in Los Angeles is running all of its rail lines close to pre-COVID schedules (every 12 minutes until mid-evening and every 20 minutes until midnight closing on most lines), but the late night service that used to run on Friday and Saturday nights is gone. Schedules on Metrolink, the commuter rail system in the region, have recovered little in the past year. Weekday service was slashed, and many of the trains that previously ran outside peak-commuting hours have not returned. Service ends earlier on every line than it had before the virus hit, and some lines now run in commuting-direction only. Weekend service has not changed, although it was always limited and did not run on all lines. The current schedule for Coaster trains between Oceanside and San Diego looks much like last year’s, with three morning trains and three afternoon trains in each direction. There are two more round trips added, which will fill the mid-day service gap on weekdays. There still will not be any trains on weekends. Sprinter service between Oceanside and Escondido is running every 30 minutes (hourly on weekend mornings and early evenings), until mid-evening Sunday through Thursday, later on Friday and Saturday. The San Diego Trolleys pre-COVID schedules for the city’s three light rail lines are running again. However, the Silver Line, a weekend loop downtown that used historic PCC cars, is still suspended.

Canada has been hit hard by the virus. VIA Rail is not running any additional service at this time, as indicated in its April 1 schedules. Most of that railroad’s corridors in Ontario and Quebec are running pre-COVID service or less, while all other trains (except to Churchill, Manitoba) are running only once per week. Despite VIA Rail’s woes, rail transit in Canada has recovered better than in the U.S. Local rail transit is back in Canada, while only a few trains that were suspended on account of the virus are still not running. 

Montreal has the only rail transit in Quebec, and it seems to be running pre-COVID schedules, except for a major construction project that affects two commuter rail lines. It appears that Metro service in the subway has been restored to pre-COVID levels. So has service on four of the six EXO commuter train lines. Because of construction for the new REM Line, the local service line to Deux-Montagnes was shut down at the beginning of this year, and all except two round trips on the Mascouche Line turn at Ahuntsic, a point closer to the outer terminal than to downtown Montreal. There are shuttle buses provided from stations on those lines to points on the Metro subway system for access to downtown.

Transit in Ontario is doing well, too. Toronto’s transit appears strong, as it always has. Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway and streetcar routes run full service, some streetcar lines running 24 hours a day. GO Transit trains are running on their traditional schedules, too. So is the Union-Pearson (UP) Express to the airport, although its service day ends with a 10:00 pm run. Ottawa’s new Confederation Line appears to be running full service, but its Trillium Line is out of service for an expansion project. The ION light rail line in Kitchener and Waterloo is running standard service, every 15 minutes or less, seven days a week.

In Western Canada, Edmonton’s LRT returned to full service on Aug. 30, 2020 with service every 15 minutes on both lines, every day. Calgary’s CTrain lines also run every 15 or 16 minutes every day, for the entire service day. Vancouver’s Sky Train runs full service, but West Coast Express commuter trains were cut from five trips to three, a change that has not been reversed.