Special Report: Passenger Rail Stat Snapshot

June 8, 2021
The light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel seems to be getting closer with each passing week as new vehicle orders and infrastructure projects continue to progress.

In a typical pre-pandemic year, rail modes would account for nearly half of U.S. transit ridership. However, passenger rail providers are contending with deeper ridership reductions and many have not experienced the start of rebounds that bus modes have seen.

However, the industry is fighting to keep rail modes robust and viable options within the mobility mix through advocacy efforts and continued investment.

In late May, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) submitted testimony for the record to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure urging the establishment of a passenger rail trust fund.

“Passenger rail is an underutilized mode, and ripe to connect with national and local transportation networks and rural areas with high-performance corridor services. These services will relieve congestion on highways and airspace and provide efficient, accessible, equitable and environmentally friendly mobility options. New and reinvigorated rail corridors will have multiple users and would connect seamlessly with Amtrak and local and regional public transit services,” APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas wrote. “Dedicated funding for passenger rail is critical to realize these goals.”

At a regional level, officials in Virginia announced in late March agreements had been signed between the commonwealth, Amtrak and freight railroad CSX, that would deliver rail improvements across the commonwealth through the $3.7 billion Transforming Rail in Virginia plan. The plan calls for the construction of a new bridge over the Potomac River, doubling of Virginia-supported Amtrak trains, increasing Virginia Railway Express service, establishing the foundation for a Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor and other significant rail investments.

While the pandemic paused some construction activities on passenger rail projects, several have made notable progress in recent months.

Brightline in Florida announced in May the 170-mile extension between West Palm Beach station and Orlando International Airport was 50 percent complete. Brightline suspended service between Miami and West Palm Beach early in the pandemic, but continues to build its system out. When the Central Florida extension is complete, it will connect Brightline’s 235-mile network between Miami and Orlando. Brightline says it has more than 1,000 construction workers on multiple sites to complete the $4.2-billion project by late 2022.

In Canada, the month of May brought several announcements marking progress on passenger rail projects, including the financial commitment from the government of Canada to fund up to 40 percent of the province of Ontario’s four priority subway projects and up to 50 percent of an 8.7-mile light-rail project in Hamilton. Across the country, in British Columbia, construction began on the Broadway Subway Project in Vancouver, which will extend the SkyTrain Millennium Link approximately 3.5 miles.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) completed repair work to its F Subway Line tunnel under the East River. The project wasn’t the largest or most complicated to deliver, but significant in that it was the last of MTA’s 11 under-river tunnels damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to be repaired and made more resilient against future storms.

Rail Vehicle Fleet

Fleet replacements move forward; heavy rail looks to greener power options

With budgets growing tighter from the impacts of the pandemic, rail transit providers remain committed to their fleet renewal strategies.

In April, the Chicago Transit Authority began to introduce its new 7000-series railcars into service on the Blue Line. The new cars incorporate additional safety and comfort amenities such as an active vehicle suspension system, new passenger information displays and a new interior seating configuration.

Sound Transit in Seattle, Wash., put its first Series 2 cars into service in May. The Series 2 cars have larger windows, wider center aisles, more room to stow luggage, seating for 70 and dynamic information displays.

In Canada, funding from the federal government, as well as the province of Ontario, will allow the Toronto Transit Commission to purchase 60 zero-emission streetcars, as well as expand its Toronto Hillcrest storage facility. The new streetcars will help TTC match capacity of customer demand.

Metra in Chicago is challenging the industry to create a zero-emission commuter locomotive by converting an older engine from diesel to one powered solely by batteries. The railroad issued the Request for Proposals for the battery electric conversion and says the proposal “could be game-changing.” Metra also issued an RFP for six switch locomotives that will, at minimum, meet EPA Tier IV standards.

Two new EPA Tier IV locomotives entered Northern California’s Capitol Corridor fleet, replacing two Tier 2 locomotives. The new locomotives will provide a 90-percent reduction in particulate matter emissions and 80 percent NOx reduction compared to the older locomotives they replace.

Agencies have also been trying to address what to do with retired railcars. In New York State, rail cars are strategically deployed to grow the state’s artificial reef network. In October, 16 rail cars were deployed to the Atlantic Beach Reef to bolster fishery resources and improve marine habitat.

Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design in Oregon hosted a MAX Reuse Design Challenge competition to re-envision the use of TriMet’s oldest light-rail vehicles. The winning concept imagined a MAX village with four vehicles stretched along a sidewalk next to a park; each with a different community-focused purpose.

Improved Accessibility

With a greater commitment to equity, better accessibility comes into focus

Agencies, municipalities and federal officials are putting their believe that transit is for everyone into action through a series of moves designed to improve accessibility on vehicles and facilities.

According to data within the National Transit Database, more than 1,000 transit stations out of a total of 5,645 stations were not accessible per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2019, the most recent year full data is available. While the total number of ADA accessible stations increased by more than 500 between 2018 and 2019, the data suggests new stations account for most of that increase rather than existing stations undergoing ADA-related improvements. The total number of stations increased by 483 between 2018 and 2019. The number of non-ADA accessible stations decreased by 21.

The All Stations Accessibility Program Act of 2021 was introduced in mid-May in both the U.S. House and Senate. The bill would establish a discretionary grant program to support local transit authority and commuter rail efforts to upgrade existing stations to meet or exceed the standards included in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At a more local level, New York’s MTA has proposed a change to zoning policy that would incentivize developers to work with MTA to deliver improved accessibility to a wider swath of the region’s transit network.

On the rail vehicle side, a trio of transit providers have made progress expanding the accessibility of their rail fleets, including the Regional Transportation District of Denver where a program to retrofit 172 light-rail cars with a 60-inch circle of maneuverability was completed last year.

In December 2020, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority introduced three streetcars equipped with wheelchair lifts at the front and rear of each vehicle. The project also modified 12 St. Charles Streetcar Line stops to enable streetcar operators space to deploy ramps, as well as other ADA-related upgrades.

In Memphis, Tenn., the Memphis Area Transit Authority rail trolley cars were installed with new service ramps made of a lightweight, composite material: carbon fiber reinforced polymer. The material provides additional strength to the ramps, while remaining lightweight enough for operators to lift and place them at stops.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.