Reasons for Commuter Rail Electrification: Early 20th Century and Since 2000


John G. Allen

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, mode - rail, ridership - commuting, ridership - growth, technology - alternative fuels, economics - capital costs


Commuter rail electrification is a complex, capital-intensive matter requiring careful study. Between 1905 and 1931, North American railroads inaugurated electrifications for commuter trains that survive today in New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; and Montréal, Québec, Canada, as well as for intercity passenger trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. A renaissance in electrification is taking hold once more. Since 2000, three new-start electrifications have been placed in service: one for intercity passenger trains (between Boston, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut), and two others for commuter rail (in Mexico City, Mexico, and Denver, Colorado). Two more are proceeding forward (in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and San Francisco, California). Despite the great changes caused throughout the railroad industry by the mid-20th century switch from steam to diesel, there is little change in the reasons for commuter railroad electrification in the two eras. Although the justification threshold is higher today than in the early 20th century, it has lowered somewhat as various considerations again converge in favor of electric traction. This is important, because electrification both requires and reinforces heavy ridership, and today’s resurgence of electrification is happening amid a sustained upswing in commuter rail ridership.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by SAGE, copyright remains with them.