The opening of Seattle’s Sound Transit last year made it the 14th commuter rail operation since 1988 and the first time the city has seen such service in about 60 years.
Those features made it an ideal place to hold the American Public Transportation Association’s Commuter Rail Conference, which focused on the future of commuter rail.
“For the first time in many years, we are beginning to see progress,” said Dave Earling, chairman of Sound Transit. “The automobile that caused the decline of railroads is the same automobile that is causing the success of the train now.”
While overall public transit ridership grew more than 3% from last year, ridership on commuter rail grew 5.2%. Commuter rail provided 400 million trips (compared to the 9.4 billion public transit provided), making it the fastest-growing form of public transportation.
There are currently 115 miles of rail under construction or in advanced planning stages.
“Last year, public transportation carried 15 times more people than the airlines,” said Bill Millar, president of APTA. In the last five years, the population grew 5%, highway use grew 11%, the airlines grew 19% and public transportation grew 21%.
This boom in commuter rail comes from a strong economy, Millar said. “People are either going somewhere to make money or going somewhere to spend money,” he said.
That, he said, is why good customer service is so important. That is achievable through new technology and better funding.
“If you make an investment in public transportation, people will use it, and in a large degree,” Millar said. With the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) expiring in 2002, Millar stressed the importance of working on a reauthorization effort.
“According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with inflation, just to stay even, we need $17 billion a year,” he said. That’s a big jump from the $6.7 billion guaranteed under TEA 21 until 2002.
There are currently 21 commuter railroads in the United States and Canada, and new starts are taking place in such cities as Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Salt Lake City; and Atlanta. Existing railroads are also growing, with Chicago’s Metra, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and the MTA Metro-North Railroad in New York (which recently had its first-ever extension) all planning or completing extensions.
“We can all take a great deal of pride in how commuter rail has grown in the last decade and a half,” said Peter Cannito, president of the MTA Metro-North Railroad.