US Commuter Rail Renaissance: A 30-Year Progress Report

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - rail, organisation - competition, organisation - contracting, place - north america, ridership - commuting


Commuter rail, US, competition


In 1989 the first new US commuter railroad in living memory opened for business in South Florida running over a 41-mile route between Miami and Boca Raton. “Tri-Rail” quickly expanded to result in a 71-mile-long service that spanned three counties. Tri-Rail soon had a long string of imitators among other Sun Belt and western cities wrestling with highway congestion and a paucity of affordable fixed guideway transit options. New commuter rail services were started in other cities with no previous history of commuter rail service. Thirty years later, commuter rail service is now offered in 14 new US jurisdictions. Most had no previous experience with commuter service. The number of US commuter railroads has more than doubled in the last 30 years and the legacy systems have enjoyed a 50% growth in ridership. This paper reviews this remarkable success story, tracing the “New Start” commuter rail phenomenon while also reporting how the nine “Legacy” systems that were operating in 1988 have fared over the last 30 years. The paper uses the most recently published (2016) federally collected data to compare the New Start services with the older, and generally larger, legacy systems. 1987 also marked the US’s first competitively procured commuter rail service in Boston, soon followed by Miami in 1988. Today, 14 US commuter railroads are operated under the auspices of a competitively tendered procurement. Eleven other railroads are “owner operated” either by employees of the public agency sponsoring the service or by the private owner (freight railway) of the subject railway under the auspices of a negotiated service contract. This paper considers how this management innovation has worked out by comparing the economic performance of the “competitive contract” services with the “owner operators.”


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