Commuter Rail Flops

The July issue of Trains magazine has a cover story and series of articles with lots of positive things to say about commuter rail and hardly a mention of the incredible amount of money some cities are spending to move a relative handful of people. “Commuter railroads shape urban life,” says one headline. “Utah’s FrontRunner is a Salt Lake City success story,” says another.

This is baloney. Consider Salt Lake City. Why is it a success? Because it “provides an alternative to Interstate 15 traffic jams.” Simply providing an alternative doesn’t mean anyone is actually using it.

Utah Transit spent $1.5 billion (in 2014 dollars) starting its commuter rail service between Provo, 44 miles to the south, and Ogden, 44 miles to the north. For all that money, it is carrying fewer than 9,000 round trips per weekday, and the Census Bureau says just one-half percent of commuters take commuter trains to work. Fares cover less than 15 percent of its operating costs, and an even smaller share of operations and maintenance costs. Instead of “providing an alternative” that fewer than 9,000 people will use, Utah should have spent the money improving traffic flows for everyone using I-15 and other area highways.

Salt Lake’s expensive commuter-rail boondoggle is far from the worst commuter-rail line to be added in the past two decades. Other especially poor performers include:

  • Dallas-Ft. Worth spent something like $700 million starting up a commuter line between the two cities. It carries fewer than 4,000 round trips per weekday and less than a third of percent of the region’s commuters, covering less than 30 percent of operations & maintenance costs.
  • In 2011, Dallas suburb Denton started a 21-mile commuter-rail line called the A-Train for $325 million; it carries just 900 round trips per day and covered less than 6 percent of its operating costs in 2014.
  • Seattle’s Puget Sounder cost well over $500 million, carries just over 7,500 round trips per weekday and less than half a percent of commuters to work and covers less than 16 percent of its operating costs.
  • Orlando’s SunRail cost $357 million to start up and carries just 1,800 round trips per weekday. In 2014, it covered less than 10 percent of its operating costs.
  • New Mexico’s RailRunner cost more than $350 million to start up and carries 1,650 round trips per weekday; fares cover just 10 percent of operating costs.
  • Nashville’s Music City Star cost just $40 million to start up but carries just 250 round trips per weekday, just 0.04 percent of commuters, and covers just 16 percent of its operating costs.
  • South Florida’s TriRail has spent over $1 billion starting and improving its commuter service, but carries just 6,700 weekday round trips, less than 0.15 percent of commuters, with fares covering less than 20 percent of operating costs.
  • Minnesota spent $320 million starting the Northstar commuter-rail line; it carries 1,400 round trips per day, less than 0.15 percent of commuters, and fares cover 15 percent of operating costs.
  • Austin’s little rail line cost around $100 million, carries less than 1,500 round trips per weekday or less than 0.2 percent of commuters and covers less than 20 percent of operating costs.
  • Portland’s commuter-rail line cost well over $100 million, carries just 900 round trips per weekday and around 0.2 percent of commuters and covers just 8 percent of operating costs.

Just for comparison’s sake, commuter trains in the New York urban area carry more than 425,000 round trips per weekday, close to 4 percent of commuters, and cover well over half their operating costs. Chicago commuter trains carry 140,000 round trips per weekday, about 3.5 percent of commuters, and cover close to half of their operating costs. Boston and Philadelphia commuter trails each carry about 65,000 round trips per weekday, well over 2 percent of commuters, and cover half their operating costs. The Antiplanner wouldn’t call these successes, but they are a lot more productive than the newer commuter trains listed above.

People make well over 10 million trips per day in most of these urban areas. A commuter-rail line that carries a few thousand trips per day and well under 1 percent of commuters to work will not “shape urban life” except by imposing a huge tax burden on everyone in the area.

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2 thoughts on “Commuter Rail Flops

  1. Dave Brough

    As a former resident of greater Salt Lake City, I made it a practice to experience each of those ‘success stories’. One trip took me to the FrontRunner commuter line’s north-most terminal during the afternoon rush hour where I viewed all of 5 people disembark, 3 wearing reflective vests. My ride to Salt Lake International revealed a mere handful disembarking, most without luggage, leading me to believe they were workers. (Maybe the Antiplanner can relate how many of his fellow riders during his Denver trip looked like workers vs travelers).
    If you really want to love rail, visit one during construction. Even better, own a business around one during construction.

  2. prk166


    Minnesota spent $320 million starting the Northstar commuter-rail line; it carries 1,400 round trips per day, less than 0.15 percent of commuters, and fares cover 15 percent of operating costs.

    Northstar carries far less than that on a regular basis. 1/4 of the trips on it are for special events. The corridor’s capacity is constrained during the work week rush hours, not when a sports team is playing 20 miles away.

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