Re-imagining Commuter Rail in a Post-Pandemic World

It’s nearly 6 p.m. in Chicago, Illinois. The sinking sun gleams off of the river reflecting the downtown high-rises. Cars swarm the street grid as the office buildings empty out for the day. Below the city, commuters crowd the platforms of Union Station, all heading home on the departing Metra trains.

In New York, the claustrophobic tunnels of Penn Station are jammed with passengers as the city strains under the weight of its infamous rush hour. Thousands more flood into Grand Central, flocking toward Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

On the west coast, the work day is beginning to wind down. A Sounder train pulls into Seattle’s King Street station in anticipation of the evening rush.

And in Minneapolis, riders spill off of the Target Field light rail platforms, making their way down the escalator to the Northstar train leaving for the suburbs.

A Northstar commuter train in Big Lake, Minnesota
A Northstar commuter train in Big Lake, Minnesota

A Brief History

Commuter rail is a longstanding institution in North America. Even as far back as 1834 – nearly two hundred years ago – the first line of the Long Island Railroad had begun operation, connecting New York to growing communities across the East River. The same year, commuter service began in Boston, utilizing several intercity railroads converging on the city center. Chicago, a major transcontinental hub, saw its first suburban line in 1856, and by the 1930s, the city had the largest public transportation system in the world.

The need for far-reaching commuter rail was not as pronounced as it would later become; travelers of the 1800s could not fathom the untold horrors of miles-long traffic jams and never-ending freeway congestion. North America had yet to undergo mass suburbanization caused by the rise of the automobile and subsequent disinvestment in cities. All of our major metropolitan areas had a much smaller footprint, with dense communities developing in and around urban cores. Simply put, the vast majority of people lived much closer to their jobs than they do today.

Nevertheless, as these regions continued to grow, so too did the demand for travel within and outside of cities. At the time, there were no municipal entities or public benefit corporations overseeing regional transit; no MTA in New York, no MBTA in Boston, and no Metra in Chicago. Most of these commuter routes were retrofit onto existing mainlines, and as such, were operated by the same private railroads running intercity passenger trains.

A historic photograph of an early 20th century Long Island Rail Road train
An early Long Island Rail Road train (Source: Internet Archive Book Images)

These services lasted well into the 20th century, with new commuter and intercity lines catalyzing growth throughout the US. However, as the automobile became more prevalent, and as our cities fundamentally restructured (i.e. “bulldozed”) themselves to accommodate the influx of drivers, passenger rail became less financially viable. The streetcars were ripped up. Dense neighborhoods were demolished in the name of urban renewal. Expressways razed historically marginalized, less affluent communities. The cities themselves were left in decline, while the middle and upper classes fled to the suburbs. Suddenly, everything was far away from everything else, and many neighborhoods were inaccessible without a car.

A before and after comparison of Kansas City showing the demolition of a dense neighborhood
Kansas City before and after urban renewal (Source: Reddit (u/FluxCrave))

Public transportation was no longer a cornerstone of our country’s development; what we had once led the world in was now forgotten history, something that was undesirable and looked down upon. Something that could never hold a candle to the freedom of the open road. Car culture became deeply ingrained in American identity, tied up in our ideals of individualism and self-reliance. Transit was no longer the great equalizer, but rather, an indicator of low class and status.

A Chevrolet ad showing a bus with "CREEPS & WEIRDOS" on its front display
Chevrolet advertisement disparaging bus riders in Vancouver

It’s no surprise that the railroads recorded their worst performance in the decades following World War II. Financial woes perpetuated a vicious cycle: Service was cut because of low ridership…because of cut service…because of low ridership. The diminishing fare box return was not enough to keep the trains running. Most companies inevitably went bankrupt, and their assets were acquired by public entities. Soon after, nearly all private commuter rail lines were subsumed under the newly-formed governmental agencies we know today.

"Table 3. Legacy commuter rail systems in the United States and Canada."

Source: National Academies Press

I won’t belabor the details of these acquisitions, but the history is fascinating from a political and a business standpoint. If you’d like to learn more about the subsidies, operating grants and eventual purchases of these commuter lines, I recommend the guidebook Contracting Commuter Rail Services, Volume 1 published by the National Academies Press in 2018. Chapter 2 goes on to discuss the federal programs responsible for creating brand-new rail service in the US, including the Regional Rail Reorganization Act (1973) and the Northeast Rail Service Act (1981).

Toward the end of the century, commuter rail became a sought-after solution in traffic-clogged cities which did not carry legacy systems from the age of private railroads. Further federal grants and state initiatives completed new projects in regions like Miami-Dade, Southern California, the Bay Area, and the Pacific Northwest. Expansion continued into the 2000s and 2010s, with Denver, Salt Lake City, and several others constructing their own flagship commuter lines. 2009 saw the opening of the Northstar, offering service between downtown Minneapolis and its northwest suburbs.

"Table 4. New start commuter rail systems in the United States and Canada."
Source: National Academies Press

Present Day Impacts

Two hundred years have passed since commuter rail was first conceived of in this country. Eighty years since it showed its first signs of stagnation in a rapidly shifting economy. Thirty years since its rebirth under the charter of public entities, and even fewer since the newest systems began operation. Is commuter rail a success story in North America? How has it shaped our communities throughout the decades? How does it compare to the transportation networks in peer cities overseas? What is the role of commuter rail in the modern day, and how has this changed since the onset of the pandemic?

A Metra commuter train at Chicago Union Station
A Metra commuter train at Chicago Union Station

In some cities, commuter rail is an indisputable necessity. If the Long Island Rail Road did not exist, New York’s highways would need an additional 10 lanes to match the capacity. And that’s just one of the three commuter rail systems serving Manhattan, each carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers per day.

In most transit data analyses, New York has this annoying habit of blowing its competition out of the water. It’ll show up as a clear outlier on almost any graph, but plenty of other regions in North America boast impressive statistics. GO Transit in the Greater Toronto Area accounted for over 35 million rides in 2022. Metra recorded 23 million in Chicago. Even Miami’s Tri-Rail, which is a much smaller system with only one line at the time, had almost 4 million riders. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner came in at just over 3 million, and Seattle’s Sounder cleared 1 million.

A plot of commuter rail ridership vs metro area population (comparing 23 US/CA regions)

These systems are far from perfect, and in most cities, their coverage leaves a lot to be desired. But it doesn’t take a megaregion like New York or the larger Northeast Megalopolis to justify regional transit options. All over the continent, commuter rail has been an attractive option for those who could rely on it. Where would we be had we failed to invest in it all those decades ago? What would our cities look like with potentially millions of extra car trips per year?

In some regions, however, the need for commuter rail is being called into question, particularly in light of COVID-19 and its impact on transit ridership globally. In 2022, the Northstar reported the lowest volume of passengers (overall and per mile) of all systems in the US and Canada — a meager 77,100 in total. It has become something of a scapegoat in conversations about rail transportation in Minnesota. Why should we build more trains if nobody rides the one we have now? Last session, some legislators were even calling for the Northstar to be replaced by Amtrak or scrapped entirely.

And yet, before the pandemic, the Northstar carried almost 800,000 passengers per year.

A plot of the Northstar's average weekday ridership (2019-2024)
Ridership data courtesy of Metro Transit

The Northstar suffers from being a one-line system; moreover, one that is still incomplete fourteen years after construction. During the planning stages, this train was slated to go all the way to St. Cloud, a sizeable metro area of 200,000. But it runs only halfway there, terminating in the much smaller town of Big Lake. A connecting bus bridges the gap, but that hardly offers the comfort or capacity of the 10-car trains that used to run before pandemic service cuts.

Ten-car Northstar train
Ten-car Northstar train (Source: Hi/Zeph/400)

Additionally, the schedule used to be much more flexible. Multiple trains ran in each direction per day with special service for Twins, Vikings and Gophers games. In 2022, there were only two morning trips and two evening trips. No reverse commutes. No weekend runs. Meanwhile, other cities have sustained all-day bidirectional service on their commuter lines. When I visited my family in Chicagoland that summer, I was able to take a late-night Metra train into the suburbs after getting into Union Station.

As for the Northstar, the line is showing signs of post-pandemic recovery. Through the first half of 2023, ridership rose 29% compared to the first half of 2022. At the end of the year, new scheduling added a daily reverse commute, and game-day trains returned in time for the Twins’ playoff run!

Packed gameday train at Target Field (October 2023)
Packed gameday train at Target Field (October 2023)

Ridership is on the rise across all transit modes, but the Northstar’s future remains uncertain. Depending on what action is taken following the Met Council’s post-pandemic study, whether more service boosts or the long-awaited extension to St. Cloud, passenger numbers might soon scrape the pre-pandemic threshold.

Plots of January ridership across all Twin Cities rapid transit + Northstar
A plot showing average weekday ridership trends (2019-2024)
Ridership data courtesy of Metro Transit

But why should our goals end at restoring pre-pandemic service? Why settle for a train that’s “as good” as it was in 2019? For better or worse, COVID-19 has forever changed the landscape of the Twin Cities. Where people live. Where they work. How they get around. If our aim is to make transit exactly as it was before the pandemic, then we’ve already failed. Rather, we should embrace this change and adjust our long-term plans accordingly. A hallmark of effective regional rail is its ability to adapt to growth. With that in mind, how can we build on this post-pandemic recovery to shape our transportation system into a sustainable, future-proof network?

Twin Northstar trains at Target Field
Twin Northstar trains at Target Field

Looking Forward

Historically, commuter rail has been designed to accommodate travel demand between the city and the suburbs — and expectedly, most systems are centered on a typical 9-to-5 commuting pattern. Downtown workers flock to the city in the morning and clear out in the evening, with few travel options provided outside of those hours. Newer systems in particular were built as a Band-Aid to mitigate congestion, and thus, they were fit to the mold of mid-century planning: You live in the suburbs, and you work downtown. But today’s cities aren’t so monocentric.

More and more people, particularly younger generations, are favoring an urban life over the traditional single-family house with a white picket fence. Home ownership is not as attainable as it once was, nor as desirable. Cars are now viewed less as a symbol of freedom and more as a burden; even those who can realistically afford a vehicle are choosing to live car-free or car-lite, opting for a lifestyle which encourages walking, biking, and transit use. Downtowns are becoming more livable, with office buildings being converted to residential units and new amenities popping up. Even the suburbs are diversifying, as zoning reform seeks to allow a mix of densities and uses in single-family neighborhoods. Suffice it to say, the American Dream has changed, and our transportation paradigms must do likewise.

That is why I submit to you the term “commuter rail” — useful though it’s been for the purposes of this discussion — is fast becoming outdated. If our cities, suburbs and greater metro areas are to develop into sustainable, livable, delight-cultivating places, we must shift our focus to holistic regional transportation.

GO Train at Agincourt Station near Toronto
GO Train at Agincourt Station near Toronto

So what is regional rail in a broader sense?

All over the world, cities have developed complex, intricate rail systems to handle large-scale travel demand. The Berlin S-Bahn. Paris’s RER. Sydney’s S-Trains. São Paulo. Johannesburg. Kuala Lumpur. There are examples of effective regional rail in every continent. Well, maybe not Antarctica, but I can’t be sure what those penguins are up to. Each system is unique, responding to the needs and challenges of its specific region, yet the most successful and prominent networks all share the same underlying design characteristics.

Decentralization: Not all trips start or end downtown. In fact, typical city-to-suburb commuting makes up less than 20% of all travel in the U.S. A strong regional transit network should provide competitive options for the other 80% (or something close to it). For a start, consider the largest trip generators that aren’t necessarily in a central business district. Airports and transportation hubs. Stadiums, arenas, and other large venues. Universities. Fairgrounds and amusement parks.

In a lot of North American cities, these destinations are served by more local transit modes; for instance, the Blue Line here in the Twin Cities, which connects downtown Minneapolis to both airport terminals and the Mall of America. The light rail is incredibly useful for city rats like me who live near a rapid transit line, but it doesn’t help others trying to make these trips from farther away. For comparison, Frankfurt Airport is served by two lines of the Rhine-Main S-Bahn (in addition to intercity rail), allowing passengers to more easily access it using a high-capacity mode of transportation better suited to long distances.

Frankfurt transit map showing S-bahn (regional) and U-bahn (metro) lines
Frankfurt transit map (Source: Pinterest (vadakkus))

Even outside of major, non-central destinations, there’s plenty of demand for suburb-to-suburb travel. This includes malls, activities, job centers, and dense nodes near transit hubs. Even satellite cities and small towns dotted throughout a metro area. Effective regional rail should link them with circumferential routes connecting to other radial lines.

A map of Berlin's S-Bahnring, a circular regional rail line
Berlin S-Bahn Ring Line (Source: All About Berlin)

Intermodality: Regional rail is just one component of a comprehensive transit ecosystem. As such, it should be designed to integrate with rapid transit lines and allow seamless transfers between them. This takes the pressure off of other modes to satisfy long-distance demand and allows them to feed into the regional rail network. Slower, low-capacity services like light rail should not be relied upon for long trips, such as from Minneapolis to St. Paul; instead, they should be used for short hops along a major corridor with multiple transfer points to exchange for regional trains.

A tram passing over regional sprinter trains at Den Haag Centraal Station
A tram passing over regional sprinter trains at Den Haag Centraal Station

Reliability: What’s the number one rule of real estate? Location, location, location. If there’s an equivalent for transportation planning, it’s frequency, frequency, frequency. Regional trains should come often enough that trips can be made spontaneously, both within and outside of the city. A few Northstar trains per direction per day? That’s not cutting it. Copenhagen’s S-tog runs every 10 minutes at peak hours and every twenty minutes off-peak. In the city center, where all of the lines join together, trains come every few minutes. This makes the service useful both as commuter rail and as an express metro, providing fast and dependable travel options for urban and suburban residents alike.

As part of its GO Expansion plan, Metrolinx is looking to replicate this model in the Greater Toronto Area. In fact, the project was originally dubbed “GO RER” nodding to the Réseau Express Régional in Paris. The RER has influenced transportation all over the world, with dozens of cities using it to shape their own regional networks.

An infographic of the former GO RER plan showcasing benefits

"More than 50 large cities across the world use Regional Express Rail systems."
GO RER infographic (Source: Metrolinx)

Toronto is in the midst of the most ambitious regional rail transformation in North America. Lines that currently run only rush-hour service are being upgraded to “two-way, all-day” service. By electrifying and double-tracking their corridors, GO is aiming for fifteen-minute (or better!) service on all lines. This comes with a whole host of accessibility and modernization improvements that will make GO better for everybody — not just commuters.

A second, more current infographic showing several improvements included in the GO Expansion plan
GO Expansion infographic (Source: Metrolinx)

Through-Running: Due to the nature of…how cities work, major stations in urban areas experience by far the highest passenger volumes compared to their suburban counterparts. New York Penn Station is just a tiny bit busier than, say, Port Washington out on Long Island. As more and more lines converge onto a single choke point, the capacity of the entire network is drastically reduced. The problem is exacerbated when all trains have to back out of a station in the direction they came, creating conflicts with other trains trying to enter the platforms.

Map of the Metro-North Railroad in New York
Metro-North (NYC) map (Source: Wikimedia)

The solution? Treat regional rail like true rapid transit.

If you look at any metro line in North America, whether it’s the New York Subway or the Chicago L, the busiest part isn’t the terminus; it’s the middle. The Silver Line in Washington, D.C. starts in Virginia, runs through the city south of the Capitol, and continues into Maryland. Toronto’s Line 1 originates in Vaughan, north of the city, runs through Union Station, and horseshoes back north toward Finch.

Map of the WMATA Metro in Washington, DC
DC Metro map (Source: WMATA)

By running through the city’s densest region, trains are able to make quick stops and continue in the same direction, greatly increasing the throughput of downtown stations and allowing more frequent service.

“…just imagine if subways lingered at Times Square, Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Center like they do at terminus stations in Coney Island, Flushing or Inwood.”

Tri-State Transportation Campaign
An infographic illustrating the difference between stub-ended and through-running rail
Through-running rail infographic (Source: I-94 Rail Coalition)

In 1984, Philadelphia completed a landmark project to improve the efficacy of its regional rail for decades to come. The Center City Commuter Connection, or CCCC, linked the city’s two downtown terminus stations with an underground rail tunnel. Before Philly’s network was unified under SEPTA, commuter service was managed by two private entities: the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose lines terminated at Suburban Station; and the Reading Company, which ran its trains out of Reading Terminal. After SEPTA gradually assumed control of these commuter routes, the system resembled that of present-day New York, Chicago, or Boston — multiple major stations in the urban core where all lines were forced to end.

Now, all of SEPTA’s regional trains are able to run continuously from one side of the city to the other without need of lengthy stops or forced transfers.

SEPTA regional rail map showing four central stations connected with the through-running tunnel
Source: Port of Authority
An aerial visualization of the underground tunnel running beneath central Philadelphia
Source: North South Rail Link

“More impressively still, Philadelphia’s run-through service generates far fewer non-revenue trips, thereby reducing costs while preserving capacity for further service improvements. By contrast, almost 30% of the trips in and out of [Boston] South Station are non-revenue (i.e., unproductive) trips necessitated by the inherent inefficiency of stub end terminal operations, which the MBTA itself concedes in the SSX DEIR.

The new through-stations, with just four tracks, now carry more than 650 trains per day (revenue trips). By contrast, South Station’s 13 tracks are able to handle just 449 trains per day, and many of those train movements are non-revenue trips.

North South Rail Link

To this day, the CCCC remains Philadelphia’s most impactful single infrastructure project, at least as far as its regional transit is concerned. With just one short tunnel, they managed to massively raise the ceiling constricting the system’s capacity, ridership, and potential growth. Could other cities follow their example?

A side-by-side comparison of Boston's commuter rail network before and after the proposed North South Rail Link
Proposed NSRL map in Boston (Source: North South Rail Link)

Regional Rail in the Twin Cities

Even now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, a full return to pre-COVID work culture is doubtful. The lockdowns of 2020 taught us that – surprise! – not all work needs to be done from a cubicle. When faced with an arduous, traffic-jammed commute, a lot of employees are more than happy to stay home, sitting on their couch with their nasty cat blanket. The long-term viability of our downtowns should not depend on commuters returning to their offices. If we want to revitalize our urban spaces, we must cater them to the people who live there. Hybrid regional rail is a solution that benefits everybody – one that is flexible and can adapt to the needs of tomorrow, not just today.

Amidst all of the ongoing transit investments in our state, now is the perfect time to envision how modern regional rail can shape the future of the Twin Cities. With only a few Northstar trains per day, Target Field is hardly a choke point. But what will happen when we increase frequency and extend service to other parts of the metro area? After authoring a bill that overturned the twenty-year moratorium on commuter rail last year, Representative Jess Hanson is now championing the Dan Patch line — a heavy rail service that would run from Minneapolis to Savage or even Northfield. Why not combine it with the Northstar and create a continuous line with Target Field at its center?

Map of the proposed Dan Patch corridor running south from Target Field
Source: UrbanMSP

Similarly, freight tracks in the vicinity of downtown St. Paul could be used for suburban rail lines anchored to Union Depot. Regional trains could provide express service to under-served communities and open the door for future Amtrak routes to outstate cities like Mankato, Owatonna and Rochester.

A screenshot from OpenRailwayMap showing all existing railroads near St. Paul
Freight mainlines near downtown St. Paul (Source: OpenRailwayMap)

As beneficial as typical commuter rail in Minneapolis and St. Paul would be, these lines would prove doubly useful if they were integrated into a region-spanning network. In a recent public meeting, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced that they will begin studying a heavy rail connection between Target Field and Union Depot, thereby linking the two downtowns. This is being done for the benefit of Amtrak’s new route to Chicago, the Borealis, which is slated to open this year.

Last summer, I wrote about the Rethinking I-94 project and an idea I called the “Twin Cities S-Bahn.” In the piece, I expressed my frustrations that MnDOT had so hastily dismissed a rail option without adequately studying the region-wide ramifications of connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul with a dedicated, state-owned passenger rail spine.

“…by considering the project corridor as a standalone commuter line, they failed to recognize the value of heavy rail in the context of a larger network.”

A map showing a possible alignment for a Minneapolis to St. Paul heavy rail spine
Source: I-94 Rail Coalition

As the project has moved forward, advocates and community leaders have shared their visions for a more vibrant and livable I-94 corridor. Yet even as hundreds of survey respondents voiced their support for a rail option, it has never been given due consideration in the context of Rethinking I-94.

Community feedback quotes on a Rethinking I-94 rail option
Survey metrics quantifying responses mentioning a rail option
I-94 survey results (Source: MnDOT)

This freeway transformation is no small undertaking. We’re talking about a critical piece of infrastructure that could last a hundred years. Once Rethinking I-94 is seen through, it will be decades before we touch this corridor again. Considering this, many of the alternatives shared by MnDOT seem short-sighted and uninspiring. If we’re content to make compromises that will only pose a detriment to our growth and longevity, then I ask: Why even pursue this project to begin with?

Rethinking I-94 is the perfect opportunity to build a high-capacity passenger rail spine unifying both cities’ suburban rail networks in the future. Whereas the full Minneapolis to St. Paul trip can take as much as an hour by light rail, a regional train could do it in twenty minutes. An electrified rail tunnel buried in the freeway trench could exist underneath an at-grade boulevard or a land bridge and serve communities along the corridor with rapid express rail.

“Aside from reducing the downtown-to-downtown trip time, a corridor such as this would properly link the platforms of Target Field and Union Depot, allowing regional and intercity trains to through-run along I-94 and access both stations.”

I-94 Rail Coalition
A hypothetical map showing a regional and intercity rail network centered on the Twin Cities
Hypothetical Twin Cities regional rail map (Source: I-94 Rail Coalition)

With several separate routes interlined along the central trunk, crosstown trips could be made with a one-seat ride. A train could depart St. Cloud and end up in Hastings, stopping in both Minneapolis and St. Paul along the way. A train from Northfield could run through St. Paul toward White Bear or Lake Elmo, possibly even serving the airport with a transfer point at Mendota. Gameday trains could access every stadium from every corner of the Twin Cities metro area. Just a few months ago, we saw how popular the Northstar’s gameday service is even after the pandemic. That represents just one quadrant of our three million-strong metro area. What if those trains could continue on past Target Field, making stops at Allianz Field and Xcel Energy Center?

The benefits of heavy rail cannot be overstated, especially in the context of our dynamic region. Commuting patterns will continue to change, as will the way people travel and where they live. Our current plans for expanding transit in the Twin Cities are strong, but light rail extensions and bus rapid transit cannot be the end-all be-all of our ambitions. Going forward, we must prioritize transportation that is versatile and robust; high-capacity and scalable — transportation that is designed not only for our current needs, but for the sustained growth of our region.

There are enough success stories around the world. So let’s write our own. Who knows? One day, we might be a model inspiring other cities to do the same.

An evening Northstar train departing Target Field
Jesse Cook

About Jesse Cook

Pronouns: he/him/his

Third year aerospace engineering student (UofM) | Transit and housing advocate | Fan of trains and rockets