Commuter Rail. Balancing Freight Clearance with Level Boarding and Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Requirements

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

infrastructure - station, infrastructure - stop, mode - rail, place - north america, policy - disability


mobility impairment, disability, stairs, commuter trains, level boarding


Federal regulators and passenger railways are both concerned about passengers with mobility impairments that limit their ability to use stairways. Federal policy and railway practice strongly encourage development of services that allow for level boarding and alighting from commuter rail trains. In addition to benefiting individuals who have trouble using stairs, level boarding can lead to significant improvements in service delivery for the rest of the public by reducing unproductive station dwell times, improving safety, and creating opportunities to improve crew efficiency. One obstacle to level boarding has been concerns presented by the freight railroads that operate over (and often own) trackage shared with the commuter trains. The freight operators wish to maintain a full horizontal clearance envelope allowing unrestricted operations. These concerns often limit the close door-platform interface necessary for level boarding. This paper summarizes current Federal Transit Administration policy on level boarding, discusses the benefits of level boarding, reviews the tension between freight clearance concerns and level boarding, and reviews the state of the practice in serving passengers with mobility impairments. On the basis of an industry review, it highlights three innovations that have been implemented or considered to expand the scope of level boarding among North American commuter railroads. Finally, it provides recommendations for further research.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Transportation Research Board, Washington, copyright remains with them.