That view changed rather abruptly in the past decade, as these railroads found themselves having trouble meeting customer demands. But, with a lack of a unified transportation policy that sees railroads as part of an integrated transportation system, federal money mostly came in the form of a few grants here and there.
The States Step In
It was the states that ended up stepping in. In states ranging from California to North Carolina and Pennsylvania to Florida, states began focusing on the development and expansion of rail corridors. (New York and New Jersey have long been leaders in rail transit of all types.)
What these states wanted was to be able to run more passenger trains — on tracks that already had freight traffic, and sometimes a few long-distance Amtrak trains.
Though there has never been an absolute distinction between intercity trains and commuter trains, many of these projects blurred the distinction even further.
Commuter trains have normally been identified by a few characteristics: closely spaced station stops; cars with multiple large doors to facilitate quick loading and unloading at stops; and densely spaced seating, which put the emphasis on maximizing passenger loads, rather than passenger comfort and amenities.
But, if you run hourly service in a corridor that includes several major cities, are these commuter trains or intercity trains? Certainly some passengers will use them to commute to work, as well as for other travel.
How did the states get the freight railroads to accept these trains? They invested heavily in infrastructure.
Lines were double-tracked. Sidings or cross-overs between tracks were added. Signal systems were added or improved. Grade crossings were either upgraded to more safely handle fast-moving trains or were closed.
In some cases, the role of the passenger train operator being a tenant on the freight train line was reversed. The commuter systems bought the rail line and took over track maintenance and dispatching, while allowing the freight railroad to continue to run trains on the line. In this case, the freight railroad found itself relieved of paying property taxes on the now more valuable infrastructure, only paying use fees for the trains that it did operate.
Cities Look Inward
All over America, in cities with massive traffic congestion — and that now includes almost all bigger cities — people from mayors to transit advocates suddenly became aware of unused or underutilized rail corridors. If the corridor is largely intact but currently totally unused, the community is ahead of the game.
If there are still tracks there, connected to part of the national rail network, that’s another plus. In most cases, it’s much easier to rebuild existing track than to have to start from scratch. If you have usable track, even if it is in bad shape, you can bring in track machines and supplies, such as new rail and gravel ballast — by rail.
But, often, the urban and suburban rail corridors are still being used by a freight railroad, even if, in some cases, the volume of freight traffic is so low that the line sees at most one freight train per day. If that’s the case, time separation of commuter and freight operations is possible. That means that the line can be used by electrified light rail vehicles or non-FRA-compliant diesel equipment. (The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) sets the standards for what types of passenger equipment are allowed to mix with freight traffic.)
Several U.S. transit systems currently use time separations, with freight trains only venturing onto the line after the transit system has shut down for the night. Two different operations in the San Diego area — the San Diego Trolley and the Oceanside-Escandido Sprinter service — fit into this category.
But, if there is still a substantial amount of freight traffic on the route, bringing in commuter rail becomes much more complicated. Most freight railroads are amenable to commuter operations, as long as they don’t substantially interfere with freight operations and as long as the freight railroad is adequately compensated. That compensation may include track and signal upgrades paid by the transit system — upgrades that also help move freight trains.