When you think about rail in the past, how do you envision it? Is it the romantically wood-paneled, chandeliered, crystal and velvet private cars that carried robber barons on scenic trips across the country? Or maybe the long lines of efficiently-packed cattle cars of the Midwest that ended the golden age of the cowboys?

How do you envision rail now? Is it the subway or light rail cars that shuttle large crowds from one place to another, practically but impersonally?

All of the above is true for me. As our country continues to debate the future of Amtrak policy, local operators have quietly created a patchwork of passenger rail lines in dense metropolitan areas across the country, changing the way we use and think about rail.

Passenger rail has a long history; in fact, the motorized urban streetcars we see today started as horse-drawn buggies pulled along iron rails that first came to America in the 1830s. Since then, we’ve moved slowly from animals to steam and coal to electricity to propel people at faster speeds between cities, and as a result Americans in many metropolitan areas around the country can use rail as a means of transportation either between other cities or as their daily commute.

Defining what commuter rail and long-distance rail are can be hard sometimes. For instance, you can take the Keystone service all the way from Harrisburg, PA to Philadelphia, but despite the difficult commute that would entail some agencies, such as the Federal Transit Administration, still classify it as a commuter rail line.

The federal government defines long-distance rail lines as service corridors over 750 miles. These lines are generally legacy lines, constructed by private enterprises from the earliest days of the railroad in America back in the middle of the 19th century. Today they’re operated by Amtrak, formed in 1971 to support a failing passenger rail industry in order to ensure its continued existence.

Commuter rail lines in America, by and large, are either former privately owned lines nationalized as they were losing money and then gradually devolved to municipal and regional authorities, or newer lines created to ease car traffic congestion and connect suburbs to the cities they surround.

The way we talk about these two forms of rail is completely different. Commuter rail is as exciting, new and sexy as public transportation can get, while long-distance rail is considered old, plodding, and a vivid illustration of our nation’s issues with infrastructure. Plenty of pixels have been devoted to articles proclaiming Florida’s Brightline commuter rail as the future of transportation, for example, in part because it’s the first privately funded line in operation in decades. While the line’s success could provide a model for new privately operated lines in other areas in the country, it isn’t necessarily a foolproof method for building the future of rail. And it isn’t a model that will be replicable in the hundreds of rural communities that depend on Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

There are lots of why questions when it comes to rail: Why can’t my train run on time? Why not just turn our railroads into maglevs or Hyperloops, like Elon Musk wants us to? The answer to many of these questions is that the infrastructure required to build and maintain railroads is different than for, say, cars. Because freight rail companies own many of the lines that passenger rail uses today – Amtrak owns only 600 out of the 21,000 miles of track it operates on, or about 3 percent – a lot of planning and coordination goes into determining how, where, and when passenger rail companies can use these private lines, which is a lot less financially daunting than building brand new tracks for every new rail line we’d like to run.

Commuter rail and long-distance rail don’t succeed at the others’ expense, however. Over the last 20 years Amtrak’s long-distance rail ridership actually been steadily expanding, in part because the pickup in creating commuter rail systems meant passengers travelling long-distances on Amtrak could transfer to local lines to get to their final destination. In order for both forms of rail to succeed, the patchwork of local entities that make up commuter rail must create systems that work best for the tracks and people in their own regions, so that long-distance rail can bring people to places they want to go. In the end, while long-distance lines can’t use the same tactics to expand as their more nimble commuter counterparts, any new passenger rail line is a win for the passenger, as our country’s railroads become increasingly interconnected.

One Comment

  • Jacob:

    Excellent comment on intercity rail and commuter rail. Clearly they reinforce each other. And together they can be an important force for strengthening the cores of cities in the face of ever-growing suburban sprawl

    These rail systems come together in central rail stations. If well designed these “union stations” can be an important organizing element.

    One note on the market served by “long-distance” trains. While 750 miles may be a Federal definition for some types of funding it’s clear that very long distance trains can serve a variety of overlapping travel markets.

    Needed is a nationwide “plan” for advancing a coordinated passenger rail system that serves metropolitan, regional and national needs.

    Perhaps a “working group” of rail advocates could focus on developing such a multifaceted plan.

    George Haikalis.
    Council member from NYC and President of IRUM (www.irum.org)

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