INTRO: In recent years commuter rail has become a favoured way of tackling road congestion in the USA. But costs are rising and federal funding is getting harder to obtain, reports Julian Wolinsky

OUTWARD sprawl of US cities shows no signs of abating, despite the best efforts of planners to redirect growth inwards. As inter-regional highways reach saturation and new roads become increasingly difficult to build because of cost and political or local opposition, commuter railways have taken on a renewed cachet in the last decade.

Politicians are increasingly enthusiastic about commuter rail, perceiving it as an economical form of public transport requiring less expensive infrastructure than light rail or metros, and minimising land take through use of existing rights-of-way. However, the early price estimates of some projects have spiralled rapidly upward as the costs of the required rolling stock, infrastructure upgrades, level crossing improvements and station construction become readily apparent.

During the 1990s at least six new commuter rail systems were established across the country. Virginia Railway Express links suburban communities in the state of Virginia to Washington DC. Sounder serves communities in the Puget Sound region between Tacoma and Seattle. Tri-Rail links Miami with Palm Beach in southern Florida. Metrolink is focused on Los Angeles, and now encompasses more than 800 route-km in a sprawling five-county region of southern California. Altamont Commuter Express connects the dormitory communities of the San Joaquin Valley with the high technology employment centres of Silicon Valley, and Coaster serves the increasingly populous corridor between Oceanside and San Diego.

There are now almost 20 new commuter rail schemes at various stages of planning, with major expansion projects underway or proposed for seven existing networks. Most of these are in some way dependent on federal funding, but planners and local politicians are becoming concerned about the long-term availability of this once-dependable source of cash.

The Bush administration has recommended reducing the proportion of federal to local financing from as much as 80:20 down to 50:50. In the future those schemes seeking only 50% or 60% from Washington will have a far better chance of being placed on the Federal Transit Administration’s recommended list. Additional uncertainties are being spawned by the faltering economy, increased military spending, and a perception that the government’s political agenda is less friendly to social programmes.

Advanced stage

A start of construction is closest on two projects. Most advanced is a proposed 56·3 km line between Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, which Triangle Transit Authority has been planning since early 1992. The Federal Transit Administration has approved the Final Environmental Impact Study and preliminary engineering, and in late February authorised the start of final design work.

In 1999 initial estimates put the cost of this project at around $250m, but the price has now increased to $724m owing to factors including inflation, the decision to install double track throughout, increases in engineering and insurance costs, and the need to acquire and demolish four houses and 43 commercial buildings.

Agreements have been signed for TTA to run DMUs on separate tracks along the freight rights-of-way owned by CSX and North Carolina Railroad. A request for expressions of interest in supplying DMUs brought responses from Colorado Railcar, Bombardier, Kinki Sharyo, Siemens, CAF, Rotem and Goninan. The trains will be expensive compared to similar sets in Europe, as they must meet the 800000 lb buff load standard now required by the Federal Railroad Administration for all passenger rolling stock. Only Colorado Railcar has experience of building an FRA-compliant vehicle, having produced a prototype which is currently being demonstrated across North America.

A preliminary schedule calls for work on the depot and some of the 16 stations to begin by the end of this year, with revenue services by the end of 2007. Trains would operate for 18h each day, with 15min headways at peak times and 30min headways off-peak. Extensions from each end to serve North Raleigh and Duke University Medical Center are being contemplated for 2011, with longer-term plans for expansion throughout the TTA’s three-county service area.

Also approaching the construction stage is a 23·6 km project costing $120m to link Wilsonville, Tigard and Tualatin with the Beaverton Transit Center in the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. DMUs would use existing freight rights-of-way parallel to Interstate 5 and Oregon 217, connecting with the MAX light rail network at Beaverton. Service along the mostly single-track route would initially run during peak hours only, and would provide a 26min end-to-end journey time, compared with 40min by car and 54min by bus.

This is the first exclusively suburb-to-suburb commuter rail scheme in the USA. Despite modest ridership projections, about 5500 weekday boardings by 2020, it has drawn interest and support from the FTA because it could serve as a proving ground for the concept of encouraging motorists from outlying communities to switch to public transport by providing quicker and more dependable links to urban transit systems compared with the private car. Washington County, in which the line would run, and the state of Oregon together have pledged $60m, and it is hoped that a commitment for $62m in federal funding will be received late this summer, allowing trains to start running by September 2005.

Expansion underway

Seven existing commuter railways have substantial expansion programmes in progress, primarily extensions and capacity improvements.

The most ambitious is New York MTA’s East Side Access project, which for the first time will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal, a more convenient destination for thousands of commuters than the present terminus at Penn station. The scheme will take a decade to complete and cost a staggering $5·27bn. The plan calls for building an underground connection from LIRR’s Sunnyside Yards in Queens to the lower level of the existing 63rd Street tunnel under the East River, then a new 1524 m bored tunnel south to a new 10-track station alongside the existing lower level of Grand Central. Final design and initial construction are currently underway, including a yard expansion and an initial phase of tunnelling in Queens. Work on the Manhattan bore is due to start late this year. When finished, the East Side Access will carry an estimated 161500 passengers on an average weekday.

Boston’s MBTA also has an expensive commuter rail expansion plan underway, which is badly needed to relieve road congestion but is becoming increasingly unaffordable. The first stage is the restoration of services on the 28·5 km Greenbush line running south to Weymouth, Hingham, Cohasset and Scituate.

Greenbush will be the third leg of a group of routes known collectively as the Old Colony Lines. The Middleborough and Plymouth branches were completed in late 1997 (RG 1.98 p27), but Greenbush has been held up by protests from several of the towns, which simply didn’t want trains running again following withdrawal in 1959. After MBTA won numerous legal and environmental battles, the towns capitulated.

A design-build contract was finally awarded last autumn for a project that has jumped from $285m to $470m since 1998. It will be built without federal help. Even as preliminary work began, the price threatened to rise further, and in February the transit agency put the project on hold for six months to develop a more cost-effective approach. MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials insist Greenbush will not be cancelled, but with the state facing a deficit and a new governor looking for ways to cut expenses, its future is far from certain.

Extensive design and engineering has been carried out on MBTA’s second major project, a two-branch, 75·6 km extension to New Bedford and Fall River in southeastern Massachusetts. Here too, the estimated cost has skyrocketed from $410m five years ago to $669m now. Funding has still not been fully identified, and there has been considerable opposition from towns along the route fighting an increase in rail traffic. Given the state’s financial situation, this scheme is probably many years away from fruition.

Other long-term extensions being discussed include links to Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire; to York County, Maine; and to T F Green Airport south of Providence, Rhode Island, on the Northeast Corridor. However, funding would have to be developed by all the states and so far, with the exception of the relatively-inexpensive airport proposal, there has been little interest.

Midwest hub

Chicago regional commuter railway Metra is in the midst of three major expansion projects costing a total of $558m, funded in part by the federal government under a multi-year Full Funding Grant Agreement. The Union Pacific West line is being extended from Geneva to Elburn. New stations are being built on the heavily-used North Central line between Antioch and Franklin Park, which is being doubled and the signalling upgraded to allow 22 weekday trains to use the route instead of the current 10. The SouthWest route is being extended from Orland Park to Manhattan, and double-tracking and signal improvements will increase the number of weekday trains from 18 to 30.

There are also proposals to extend three Metra lines north into Wisconsin, including a route to Milwaukee. However, although there is strong local support for these services, Wisconsin would be obliged to pay the capital costs, and so far no financial backing has been forthcoming.

In January Metra announced plans to expand commuter rail to a large area in the western and northwestern suburbs (RG 3.03 p120). The Suburban Transit Access Route (STAR) would use DMUs to provide a metro-style high-frequency all-day service. The 88·5 km project comprises two sections. The Outer Circumferential Segment is a north-south line from Joliet to Prairie Stone in Hoffman Estates, using Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway tracks.

The Northwest Corridor Segment is new alignment connecting the OCS to the Interstate 90 corridor at Prairie Stone, then heading east to Des Plaines and south over a freight line to O’Hare International Airport, with a connection to the CTA Blue Line at a proposed new terminal on the airport’s west boundary. There would be 17 stations, with transfer points to 11 other Metra lines.

Also part of the STAR plan is an extension from central Chicago to Crete in the southeast suburbs using existing CSX and Union Pacific freight lines. Officials are hoping STAR will be substantially funded by Washington under the reauthorisation of TEA-21, a $247bn six-year transport programme scheduled to be approved by Congress later this year.

West and east

Transit agencies on opposite coasts of the USA are also engaged in wide-ranging capacity expansion schemes which should lead to significant increases in ridership.

In southern Florida the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority is completing a five-stage project to double track its entire 116 km route from Miami to Palm Beach. Commuter trains operated under the Tri-Rail banner currently share a single line with Amtrak and heavy freight traffic, limiting peak headways to 60min. When the work is completed in 2005, the second track, upgraded right-of-way and refurbished stations will improve ride quality and timekeeping, shorten peak headways to 20min, reduce travel time and allow for future expansion. Tri-Rail predicts 27900 average daily journeys by 2015, up from just over 10000 now.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, operator of the Caltrain service linking the city with San José and Gilroy, has begun its CTX upgrade project. This will allow Baby Bullet express services to begin running between San Francisco and San José by 2004. Sporting a distinctive livery, Baby Bullets will cut the current 1h 30min journey time in half.

CTX has been divided into north and south sections, with work on both incorporating continuous welded rail, renewing sleepers, installation of Centralised Traffic Control, and adding a third or fourth track at key locations to allow express trains to bypass locals. A fleet of 17 Bombardier double-deck coaches and six MP36-PH-3S locomotives of 3 600 hp from MotivePower Industries have been acquired. At around $110m, CTX is the largest capital improvement in Caltrain’s history and is expected to be completed in 2004.

Preliminary engineering and an environmental impact study are underway for a Caltrain extension from Gilroy to Salinas in the San Joaquin Valley. It was hoped to start services by 2006, but California’s anticipated $35bn budget deficit may force this and other projects to be cancelled or delayed.

Advanced planning is continuing on a scheme costed at more than $600m to electrify Caltrain between San Francisco and San José, and to extend the line by 2·5 km from the Fourth &King terminus to a new TransBay terminal in the city centre which is being designed. In addition, a new cross-bay line is under consideration using a disused rail trestle adjacent to the Dumbarton road bridge. With rehabilitated tracks on both sides of the bay this would provide a link between the BART station at Union City and Caltrain at Redwood City. From here the service could run north to Millbrae or south to Palo Alto and San José. However, funding for all three schemes seems problematic in the short term, given the state’s current financial crisis.

Further north, Seattle’s Sound Transit plans to expand its recent Sounder commuter operation both north from the existing Seattle terminal and south from Tacoma after completion of publicly-funded capacity improvements to the BNSF-owned right-of-way. Currently, only three peak-hour return trips are operated on the 64·3 km route, but the schedule will gradually be increased as the $349m track and signal upgrading is completed. The work includes installation of bidirectional signalling, some double tracking, additional passing sidings and high speed crossovers, designed to allow a substantial increase in passenger service without jeopardising the freight business.

Difficult environmental problems and an inability to reach agreement with BNSF have significantly delayed completion of the segments to Everett, 56·3 km north of Seattle, and to Lakewood, 11·2 km south of Tacoma. However, Sound Transit is hoping to conclude a deal very soon with BNSF over right-of-way improvements and has resolved most of the environmental issues.

Mixed results in New Jersey

Back on the east coast, on September 30 2002 New Jersey Transit opened the Montclair Connection, a small but vital 457m link between the Boonton and Montclair branches. For the first time, this provides direct service from Montclair to Manhattan’s Penn Station. First proposed more than 70 years ago, the connection also includes 8 km of electrification along the Boonton line through Montclair and construction of an overnight stabling depot at Little Falls.

Another major NJT project is the $450m Secaucus Transfer station, which has fallen nearly two years behind schedule because of contractor delays. It is now scheduled to open in phases, starting later this year. Designed to shorten travel time for thousands of commuters, the station will allow passengers to interchange from Main line, Bergen, Pascack Valley and Port Jervis trains bound for Hoboken to those operating directly into Manhattan’s Penn Station along the Northeast Corridor.

Total cost of Secaucus Transfer and related work, including new and upgraded stabling facilities, improved signalling and a $71m link between the Pascack Valley, Bergen County and Main lines, comes to $1·1bn. NJT has also embarked on a rolling stock renewal and expansion programme that includes 476 coaches, among them NJT’s first double-deckers, 29 electric and 33 diesel locos.

For the longer term, NJT has proposed an extension of the existing Port Morris line to Scranton in Pennsylvania. To obtain $200m in promised federal aid, New Jersey and Pennsylvania must each contribute $40m and develop an operating agreement spelling out how the funding and revenue will be shared. Preliminary engineering is already underway, and officials are hopeful revenue service on a 210 km route from Scranton to Hoboken or Manhattan can begin in 2006.

Another large project on the drawing board is the proposed Middlesex - Ocean - Monmouth commuter rail line. Being considered in a $4·5m Environmental Impact Study are routes from Lakehurst to Monmouth Junction, Lakehurst to Matawan and Freehold to Matawan/Aberdeen. There is significant opposition from some affected communities along the routes, although others are strongly behind it. In the event, the high capital cost combined with New Jersey’s financial difficulties will probably conspire to keep MOM a distant goal.

Many other proposed commuter rail schemes of various lengths and complexity are considered viable (Table I), although most have encountered funding difficulties. It is unlikely that any of these schemes will be running within four years, and it could take a decade or more for some to reach fruition.

Table I. Proposed US commuter rail lines

TABLE: State Location Status

Alaska Anchorage - Wasilla Feasibility study

Colorado Denver to International Airport } Denver to Boulder } Feasibility study Denver to Fort Collins }

Florida Orlando - Altamonte Springs Early proposal not yet funded

Georgia Atlanta to Macon and Athens Advanced planning

Kansas Kansas City - Topeka Feasibility study

Kansas Kansas City - Olathe Preliminary engineering

Minnesota Minneapolis - St Cloud Preliminary engineering & final environmental impact statement

Nevada Las Vegas - Henderson Environmental study

Pennsylvania Harrisburg to Carlisle and Lancaster Preliminary engineering

Pennsylvania Philadelphia - Reading Preliminary engineering

Tennessee Nashville - Lebanon Final design

Texas Denton County, Dallas to Carrollton Awaiting local vote on funding (linking with future light rail line) for initial planning

Texas Houston - Rosenberg Feasibility study

Utah Salt Lake City to Brigham City Preliminary engineering & and Ogden environmental impact statement

Wisconsin Madison - Middleton Part of approved regional transportation plan

CAPTION: Radiating from Los Angeles Union Station, Southern California’s Metrolink network now operates 138 trains a day on seven routes totalling 824 km

CAPTION: Several cities have expressed interest in new-generation DMUs. Trinity Express in Dallas still operates a fleet of Budd RDC units dating from the 1950s

CAPTION: Refurbished Highliner EMUs on the Metra electrified routes serving the southeastern suburbs of Chicago

CAPTION: Due to be completed over the next decade, New York MTA’s $5·7bn East Side Access project will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal

CAPTION: NJTransit services into Hoboken Terminal will interchange at Secaucus Transfer with the Northeast Corridor routes to and from central Manhattan