Special Report: Passenger Rail Trends

May 31, 2022
Increasing ridership, new service frequency and significant new investment is ensuring rail modes remain a relevant part of the mobility mix.

Rail modes have typically accounted for half of all transit rides taken in the U.S. However, year-end ridership information collected by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) shows rail modes accounted for approximately 42 percent of all transit rides in 2021. Year-end 2021 versus 2020 overall transit ridership shows a 3.6 percent increase. This is supported by a 9.7 percent increase in ridership from rail modes, which was driven by an increase on heavy rail.

This rebound of rail use isn’t unexpected as rail modes suffered the most significant decreases in ridership during 2020. As workers’ schedules fluctuate and continue to move toward more hybrid plans, the focus for rail service providers, particularly commuter rail, will be on frequency of service. In Ontario, Canada, Metrolinx’s multi-project GO Rail Expansion program aims to provide two-way all-day service on five core lines. The largest element of the program, the On-Corridor Works project, entered the development phase in April. The project will add more than 124 miles of track, electrify more than 372 miles of track and the route will be served with a new electric train fleet. Metrolinx described the contract as a “single, innovative, fully-integrated contract” with construction anticipated to begin in 2023.

Additional rail projects to mark recent milestones include the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Regional Connector project, which saw the completion of construction of all track work and guideway systems in April 2022 and the Crenshaw/LAX Line, which reached substantial completion of the first two construction segments of the 8.5-mile line. On the East Coast, the Portal North Bridge project, a critical component of the Gateway Program, received a Notice to Proceed in early April, which will allow heavy construction to begin. In the Midwest, construction started in early April on the 3.5-mile KC Streetcar Main Street Extension.

In 2021, rail projects opened in Seattle with the start of service on the 4.3-mile Northgate Light Rail Extension, the Charlotte Area Transit CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar opened for passenger service Aug. 30 and the Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley opened in November (story on page 12).

More ribbon cuttings are expected in 2022. The first occurred in March when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority opened the Green Line Extension Union Square Branch – the first of two segments – followed by the May opening of the Valley Metro Tempe Streetcar line. The second segment of the Green Line Extension is expected to open this summer. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency anticipates opening the Central Subway this fall and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority could open the second phase of the Silver Line in late summer.

Investment for Fleets and Access

Two new rail programs were created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and with the passage of the Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Package in March, FY22 will be the first year these programs will have an impact on passenger rail networks.

The Rail Vehicle Replacement Grants will award approximately $300 million in each of the next five fiscal years to help agencies replace railcars that are past their useful life and improve reliability, safety and accessibility for transit passengers. According to the most recent reports from the National Transit Database (NTD), the number of active vehicles at or exceeding their useful life for heavy rail passenger cars, light-rail vehicles and commuter rail passenger coaches all increased.

In January, Valley Metro placed the first of its new S700 light-rail vehicles into service; the agency ordered 11 light-rail vehicles for use on its Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa lines. In April, Sound Transit took delivery of the first of five new light-rail vehicles supporting its future Hilltop Tacoma Link extension. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) also began accepting deliveries of its Fleet of the Future cars after a year long suspension to resolve reliability issues with the new vehicles.

The second new rail program created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the All Station Accessibility Program, which will award approximately $350 million in each of the next five fiscal years to reduce the number of legacy rail transit stations that remain inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.

Information comparing 2019 and 2020 NTD statistics show nearly 75 percent of stations on all rail modes are ADA accessible. Rail modes increased the number of ADA accessible stations by 1.75 percent, while non-ADA accessible stations were reduced by 1.59 percent. However, when the data is isolated to legacy rail systems in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, approximately 48 percent of all rail stations are non-ADA accessible.

The All Station Accessibility program’s chief architect U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) told Mass Transit this past November she believes the industry will see rapid compliance with the ADA because the funds included in this program are protected from being used for anything else and prioritizes disability access.

Making sure stations are accessible is one part of the solution, streamlining where access is within a station is another. In February, BART opened a new fare gate at the Embarcadero platform aimed at giving riders the ability to tag out of the station at the platform instead of the concourse. BART explains that for people who rely on elevators, the new platform fare gate improves access to the station by streamlining the path to tag in or out of the station. Before the platform fare gate, riders had to travel up two levels to the concourse, reach around to tag out of BART at the fare gate, travel to the Muni entrance, tag in at their fare gate and travel down one level.

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.