And Trapeze is on board with support and innovations
Rail doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in the public transit industry, but really for over 150 years it’s been rail that has connected the country and powered the economy. Rail was how people got around before cheap air travel. From subways to commuter and intercity, rail has always been one of the most efficient ways to move people over long distances. Commuter rail lines let people work in the city, but have a better quality of life in the suburbs.
The pandemic hit some parts of the rail sector harder than others, but these challenges have also become new opportunities for rail. Looking back on my 30 plus years in the rail industry, I think it’s an exciting time for rail; here are five reasons why and trends to watch for in a new era of rail in North America.
Listen to my conversation with Tris Hussey about rail, Trapeze, commuter rail, and some of the rail trips I love on
Commuting isn’t what it was three years ago. The pandemic forced a sea change in how people live and view work. Beyond the Great Resignation, people are working and commuting differently now. Anecdotal evidence from commuter rail lines points to a shift from Monday through Friday mornings into the city and afternoons out, to Tuesday – Thursday commutes spread out throughout the day. Many cities are seeing increased demand and ridership on evenings and weekends as people who work from home all week outside of the city want to come into the city for fun.
And there’s the opportunity.
This puts commuter rail in a position to help cities get back on their feet. Some cities and commuter lines who increased runs in the middle of the day, evenings, and weekends have seen off-peak ridership exceed pre-pandemic levels. This puts commuter rail in the driver’s seat to help reduce congestion, pollution, and dependence on cars in major urban centers. A single train carrying 1200 or more passengers diverts over a thousand cars from roads and highways. Cars and air travel weren’t able to replace rail, we learned this decades ago and this resulted in dozens of new or revived commuter rail lines since the early 90’s. COVID has changed things but in many ways has also offered some opportunities.
As more people see commuter rail lines as the smart alternative to driving when they need to go into the city and more and more cars can be pulled off the road, commuter rail will be seen as the essential link between suburbs and cities.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has given the entire transportation section a much-needed injection of funds, and rail has seen much of this once-in-a-generation investment. From helping railroads buy newer, greener train sets and systems, to updating, repairing, and upgrading rail infrastructure, the BIL is giving agencies the money it needs to adapt to changing ridership, aging infrastructure, and climate change.
The COVID lull in ridership offered railroads the much needed time and access to make improvements.
Amtrak alone received billions of dollars to update its aging infrastructure and improve high-speed rail in the Northeast and service across the U.S. The money from the BIL is helping agencies across the U.S. ask, “what if we could offer this service…” and create new transportation solutions for their communities and riders. Long-delayed plans for highspeed rail and improved service—like Vancouver, BC to Portland, OR—are being dusted off and reexamined across the U.S. giving commuter rail and intercity rail lines a real opportunity to shape the country’s transportation future.
From Florida to Texas, the Northeast Corridor to California, there is renewed interested, investment, and ridership in intercity rail. While the Northeast Corridor has always been a haven for intercity rail, the promise of hopping on a train to travel places that fall into the “too long to drive, too short to fly” category is finally becoming a reality. Brightline in Florida is connecting cities and giving people greener and more convenient options than flying or driving. Many people have begun to realize it’s a lot more convenient, more relaxing, and a better use of their time to hop on a train instead of driving three hours somewhere and back.
Rather than being stuck in traffic, they can use their travel time effectively and, again, divert cars from already packed highways. Highways will always be critical for moving people and goods around North America, but rail will have an increasingly important role as an alternative to driving or flying.
Diesel powers most trains in North America, but that’s changing. In 2024 Caltrain will be bringing its first electric trains into service and San Bernardino County Transit Authority (SBCTA) will introduce North America’s first hydrogen powered trains. Even diesel-powered trains are going green, Metrolink switched entirely to renewable diesel this year.
Commuter rail is much easier to convert to electric or renewable energy sources than rubber wheel transportation. Electricity has long powered many subway and light-rail systems and advancements in electric locomotive technology is bringing that same flexibility to commuter rail. Even when running fossil fuel diesel, just getting people out of their cars and onto trains helps. Fewer cars, less congestion, fewer emissions from cars, it all helps.
The BIL has funding set aside for low and no emissions investments and commuter rail—and rail in general—is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.
Texas Central and Brightline are just two private players in the rail sector who are bridging the intercity rail gap that cars and planes couldn’t completely fill. Buoyed by government and private investment, companies are finding new ways to build sustainable rail services that neither purely public nor purely private could achieve in the past.
People want to travel more conveniently, more cheaply, and greener and rail fits the bill. But rail requires significant investment in infrastructure and equipment, and public money alone can’t fund these projects. By the same token, private money needs support from cities and regions to make any large scale rail project a success. Today public-private partnerships (P3s) are finding interest and funding to make long-awaited projects come to life.
Over the next decade plus, as we move to a lower emissions future, these projects will bear fruit and we will see new, innovative ways to travel between cities and across the country.
Rail properties rely on Trapeze to keep them on track
From asset management to management of your workforce, safety to scheduling, Trapeze has deep and mature solutions for rail. Relied on by major rail properties across North America and around the world, you can count on our expertise to keep systems and operations running.
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