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Can America’s COVID-Battered Commuter Rail Make a Comeback?

Ridership on commuter rail declined as much as 90 percent for some services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operators are now exploring options to bring back not only riders who sat out the pandemic, but new customers as well.

Ridership on commuter rail declined upward of 90 percent on some services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commuter service railroads are looking to various approaches and partnerships to attract new riders and better serve the changing transportation habits in a post-pandemic world.

Of all the public transit services impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, commuter rail lines — which have often largely served white-collar office types traveling into and out of city centers — were the most impacted, seeing their ridership drop upward of 90 percent.

Since then, operators have reduced fares, adjusted train schedules and taken other steps to if not regain former riders, entice new ones.

“The recovery is going to have to be a much broader conversation, involving supporting partners to sustain, and eventually rebuild, ridership,” said James M. Derwinski, CEO of Metra commuter rail in Chicago, during a recent listening session with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Metra operates 11 lines, covering 3,400 square miles in the Chicago metro region. As it recovers from the pandemic, when ridership declined more than 90 percent, Metra has launched several pilots and partnerships to reduce fares, increase service levels, and eventually, roll out fare integration with other transportation providers.

Phase I launched in January, affecting two of the 11 lines. It provides residents in more transit-dependent communities with more opportunities “to make transit their choice for commuting,” said Derwinski. The project lowered fares by 50 percent on these two lines.

“In the coming years, Phase II and Phase III will work with the other service supports in what will hopefully become fare integration,” he added.

Metra isn’t alone. Caltrain, a commuter service spanning 80 miles along the San Francisco peninsula, serving Silicon Valley cities like San Jose and Mountain View, plans to reduce fares 50 percent and has taken steps to rethink scheduling, placing more train service during off-peak periods to better serve riders in a post 9-to-5 commute posture.

Ridership through this spring and summer has been slowly inching upward, said Dan Lieberman, a public affairs specialist for Caltrain.

“Weekend and special event-related ridership have also been particularly strong this summer,” he told Government Technology. “To that end, we are planning to significantly restore and expand our service at the end of August to both recapture as much of the 9-to-5 commute market as possible while continuing to advance our goal of building new markets at all times of day.”

During the height of the pandemic, ridership on Caltrain sunk by 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Ridership is still down more than 80 percent. Caltrain plans to initiate a 50 percent off fare program next month, which it will couple with increased nonpeak service. Steps like these, and more, reflect a changing landscape for commuter rail as it aims to remain a relevant alternative to driving.

“The pandemic has accelerated a broader change in Caltrain’s thinking about the service it provides and has particularly pushed us to focus on operating in a way that is more useful and accessible to a broad range of riders — not just a certain group of commuters,” said Lieberman as he pointed to strategic shifts like transitioning the rolling stock to electric-powered, and to “growing the railroad into more of a ‘regional rail service.’”

Metra, in Chicago, which is also transporting only about 25 percent of its pre-COVID ridership, also plans to electrify trains and explore more nonpeak service.

“I often say, commuter was green before green was ever invented,” said Derwinski, as he pointed to the millions of cars commuter railroads across the country help to keep off the roadways. “There’s no better environmental choice for people commuting large groups over several miles, or several dozen miles.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.