Beyond Commuter Rail

Throughout its history, Caltrain has been classified as a “commuter rail” line. A well-researched and insightful master’s thesis by Sandy Johnston explains why the “commuter rail” model has persisted and stagnated in the United States, even as other countries around the world have moved toward more useful, higher-ridership “regional rail” service patterns, with all-day, frequent service, well-integrated into the region’s transit system.

The observations in the paper are spot-on for Caltrain, as construction gets under way for electrification and the agency works on a Business Plan to shape its future. The global best practices and analysis in the thesis, along with some first-hand observations of Caltrain and Bay Area transit, suggest a set of recommendations for the Caltrain Business Plan and beyond, offering insight about how Caltrain might to evolve into a higher-ridership service that better meets the need of a growing region.


Long Island ad execs and Atherton stockbrokers

“Commuter rail” emerged from land use and demographic patterns where wealthier people moved to suburbs, commuted back to jobs in central cities, and used transit primarily to avoid driving at rush hour. Commuter rail services therefore provide relatively expensive service, focused on the peak period, typically in one direction. These services were seen as serving a different market, therefore, commuter rail services were designed to be disconnected, in service and in fares, from the “metro” services developed for core cities.

But underlying demographics and land use patterns are changing. Since the mid-20th century, many jobs have located in satellite cities, creating multi-directional commute patterns. With changing cultural preferences and emerging policies to reduce sprawl and fight climate change, cities are re-focusing growth in walkable transit-served areas. With central walkable areas in short supply, lower-income residents are increasingly displaced to further suburbs, but are priced out of the historically high-ticket-price commuter rail services.

In other parts of the world, commuter services were transformed in the mid-20th century to become more comprehensive rail transit networks for the region (see chapter 3). But in the US, the 1945-1970 period, American policymakers allowed suburban rail to become a specialized service, providing high-quality rush-hour service to those who could afford it, with little benefit to anyone else. It might, therefore, be more accurate to say that the political firepower provided by wealthy constituents did not improve the commuter roads but rather cemented their niche status, bending them to their purpose of shuttling 9-to-5 white collar suburban commuters from bedroom communities to the city. (p. 13).

Coordinating regional transit

An important step in the evolution of commuter rail services around the world into “regional rail” is better coordination with other transit services. Beginning in the 1960s, West German politicians and planners realized that many of their cities were beginning to suffer from some of the same afflictions common in American cities, namely, traffic congestion, pollution, and sprawl. (p. 49)

In response, Germany developed systems of regional transit governance linking different modes together and a highly systematized timetabling system organized around precisely timed transfers at various points… Coordinating agencies, called Verkehrsverbund were established, to deal with sprawl and transportation issues by ensuring that schedules are coordinated between modes, allowing true competition with the automobile through speedy travel. (Mees 2009, p. 73).

The first Verkehrsverbund was was established in Hamburg in 1965, and Munich adopted the concept when the S-Bahn opened in 1972. Within Germany, perhaps the best example is the polycentric Rhein-Ruhr S-Bahn, which serves a wide region centered on the mid-size city of Nuremberg.

The Verkehrsverbund model proved highly successful and has since spread into Austria, Switzerland, where it was adopted with the opening of the Zurich S-Bahn in 1990 and even Madrid, albeit under a different name (Mees 2009, p. 153). (p. 50)

One of the functions of the Verkehrsverbund model is to coordinate fares – the organization covering the Berlin metropolitan area integrates around 40 transit agencies into a coordinated, zone-based fare structure.


The German rail design maxim is Organization before Electronics before Concrete, a philosophy that prioritizes designing a coordinated system before spending time and money to implement that system in computer technology and in fixed infrastructure. Johnston summarizes: “If there is one aspect of planning that is crucial to the establishment of a regional rail system, it is the ability of various organizations, companies and agencies to cooperate and integrate in planning and operations.” (p. 98)

Looking at the case studies reported and analyzed in the thesis, the issue appears to be more about coordination more than centralization. Agencies including like the Boston area MBTA and SEPTA in the Philadelphia area have centralized management, yet have failed to modernize and integrate their regional systems.


One of the common effective practices around the world has been to connect the mainline rail lines – initially built to stop at the periphery of the central city – all the way through the central city, at substantial expense, but with even greater return, as shown in this clear JNR illustration.

JNR through service paradigm

The thesis explains that running trains through an urban core instead of terminating them at a stub-end terminal is inherently more efficient from an operational perspective, in that it eliminates turning time at downtown terminals and the need to store trainsets on valuable downtown land. It is no accident that all of the international examples featured in this paper include an element of connection through a CBD area. (p. 120)

In 1972, Munich added a new tunnel connecting its suburban lines through the city, dramatically increasing ridership. “By connecting existing rail infrastructure… Munich constructed a network of approximately 400 km of S-Bahn in six years at a cost of about 1 billion DM (approximately $1.8 billion US in 2016 dollars). In the wake of its opening, daily ridership on suburban lines increased from 160,000 to 250,000, and would rise to 620,000 by 1986” (Weigelt 1986, p. 101).

London, too, greatly increased the connectivity, utility, and ridership by through-running its regional rail. The first such initiative was Thameslink, which opened in 1988, using the semi-abandoned Snow Hill tunnel through central London to create a north-south linkage between two commuter rail networks. Once this link was created, demand was much greater than initial capacity. “Because of various limitations of platform and track configuration, the Thameslink core could originally handle a maximum of only eight trains per hour in each direction, each a substandard eight cars long….The end goal is for Thameslink to finish the decade as a true rapid transit railway, serving up to 24 trains per hour in each direction triple original capacity (Barrow 2014).

Crossrail is a better-known and more recent initiative intended to create a central link in an S-Bahn-like network, with large suburban and regional networks feeding into one high-frequency central corridor. Crossrail is adding 13 miles of new tunnels through central London (new tunnels in pink).  These tunnels will run from Paddington to Stratford and Canary Wharf in the east.[10] An almost entirely new line will branch from the main line at Whitechapel to Canary Wharf, crossing under the River Thames, with a new station at Woolwich and finally connecting with the North Kent Line at the Abbey Wood terminus. (Wikipedia)


Another prominent example is Paris Reseau Express Regional (adapted by English-speakers as Regional Express Rail). When the Paris metro first created regional lines, city leaders believed that they would benefit through travellers and suburbanites more than city residents. Therefore, the regional lines tended to end at stub-end terminals at the edges of the citys core. This network was designed separately from the Metro subway network with a loading gauge small enough to forever prevent interoperability between it and the mainline railways (Hall 2013, p. 180).

Starting initial service in the 70s, the RER stitched together elements of regional rail through the city, evolving into a network of five lines combining the operations and roles of a local city centre underground rail system and suburbs to city center commuter rail. Inside the city center, the RER functions much like the Metro, but is faster as it has fewer stops.



One of the core elements in transforming a commuter rail line into a modernized regional rail network is electrification, which allows trains to accelerate much more quickly than diesel trains, enabling the service to make multiple stops within a short distance, while maintaining competitive travel times. The regional systems profiled in the thesis are almost fully electric.

Johnston cites Paul Druce (2015) estimating that the break-even point for electrification rests between 21 and 29 roundtrips per day, when social and environmental considerations and cost savings are taken into account.” Caltrain, for comparison, runs 96 trains per weekday, well past the break-even point where electrification pays off.

The overstaffing tradition in commuter rail

A fascinating section of the thesis covers the role of staffing practices in maintaining the traditional commuter rail service pattern. Johnston writes that ˜overstaffing of transit vehicles” virtually defines the commuter rail mode by international standards. (p. 23)

The biggest critique cited in the thesis is not excessive compensation, but US commuter rail’s low productivity, a measure having more to do with work rules than compensation. Between a peaky schedule and work rules that often forbid the hiring of part-time employees, current arrangements often result in crew members being paid a full day’s wage for less than a full day’s work. (p.20)

Johnston writes that “The most important of these [overstaffing] practices included – and still includes – staffing trains with large numbers of crewmembers and in some areas, [including Boston and Chicago] insisting on collecting tickets manually, both of which exist in distinct contrast to customary best practice on most non-North American regional rail systems, not to mention contemporary North American transit operators. (p. 20)

While Caltrain has a proof-of-payment system where conductors check tickets periodically, the system maintains a two-person train crew. Since boarding Caltrain currently uses stairs, staff are currently needed to help passengers with mobility challenges to board the train with lifts and ramps.


The thesis explains that one of the key aspects of transforming mainline rail into rapid transit-like regional rail in many non-US contexts has been the ability to cut staffing costs. In Germany, S-Bahn systems have typically striven to operate with one-man crews (a driver, engineer in American railroading terminology), and little to no station staffing; fares are checked at random by inspectors (Weigelt 1982). (p. 74)

The socioeconomics of commuter rail and the suburbanization of poverty

Why haven’t US “commuter rail” systems not yet taken these steps toward creating a more coordinated regional system? The core of Johnston’s thesis is that “the key barrier to making mainline rail more useful in the US problem has been social and political, not technical.” (p. 5). These political barriers are shaped by the origins of commuter rail as a service for the wealthy.

Suburban development enabled better-off households to move away from cities that were increasingly crowded and dirty toward small villages along newly constructed railroads. With the poor and the middle class unable to afford rural land prices or railroad fares, everyday travel on steam trains became essentially reserved for these higher-status families. (p. 8)

Johnston’s thesis cites a 1954 Saturday Evening Post article describing the social atmosphere of the Long Island Railroad at the time.

The commuter car is a club. A train with eight cars is a train composed of eight rolling men’s clubs. True, there are occasional female invasions, but the clubs really belong to the men. And they are perhaps the most remarkable fraternal group on earth. They have an unwritten but well-defined code of conduct and they require adherence to it. Without the use of blackball or ballot they are accustomed to expel any member who violates that code and shows no sign of repentance (Smith 1954, p. 98).


This identity as as a service for the elite shaped the branding and design of the systems. Johnston gives the example of the Northwestern line in the Chicago area. Along with the Northwestern’s upgrade efforts came an equally conscious effort to brand the commuter trains as a service for a particular social class, to be provided only in those markets where the riders can be expected to want the high quality and be willing to pay the high price. It would be expected that this type of service would be desired primarily by middle- to upper-income families. (p. 80)

The thesis reports that anecdotal evidence suggests that non commuter rail riders are aware that the mode is “not for them.” Documentation from other regions confirms this observation. For example, the Fairmount line, which runs through Boston, had higher fares and less frequent service than local transit, and, as reported in Streetsblog, was seen through the lens of an inverted class stigma. Neighborhood residents, disproportionately black and poor, perceived commuter rail as the domain of rich white suburbanites.

The MBTA has been working to address these issues. They lowered fares, added infill stations, and have plans to increase service frequency. To combat the the neighborhood perception that the trains “aren’t for us,” the MBTA worked with community organizations, such as the Greater Four Corners Coalition, which had been pushing for better service on the Fairmount Line since the 1990s.

First-hand observation in the Bay Area strongly confirms this pattern. Working in a coalition on Santa Clara County’s Measure B transportation ballot measure, a leader of a group serving low-income workers commented that Caltrain and BART “are not and will never be for our people.” And we have heard similar first-hand observations from advocates for low-income transit riders in San Francisco that Caltrain is for wealthy commuters and not for low-income residents.

However, the design of the fares and service patterns of “commuter rail” for wealthy commuters is increasingly a mismatch to current land use and population distribution. Job centers have grown in satellite cities, but the pricing structure of “commuter rail”service makes the lines serving these cities inaccessible to lower-income commuters.

For example, research from Palo Alto’s Transportation Management Association shows that higher-income commuters drive at a rate under 30%, while lower-income commuters, with less ability to pay, without access to the transportation benefits that are often available to higher-income workers, and without access Caltrain’s bulk-discount pricing offered only to full-time employees of larger corporations, drive at a rate around 80%.

Recently, PATMA Pilot programs offering Caltrain discounts to low-income workers have been popular, undermining common speculation that low-income workers won’t use Caltrain because the service is inaccessible to where they live, or because rail service is incompatible with work and life schedules. While these factors are true for some, the successful pilot shows that there are notable numbers of commuters who use Caltrain when it is financially accessible.

It is also true that “peak-period” service designed around white collar jobs are imperfectly matched to the schedules of lower-income service workers whose shifts often start earlier or end later than the professional workday, and whose work week may include weekends, for example retail and restaurant workers whose workplaces are open 7 days a week.

The service design for an affluent, white-collar audience suppresses ridership among lower-income users. The average income of a Caltrain rider is $127,000, while the average income of bus services in the same area is under $40,000. Johnston’s thesis argues that continuing to design the service for wealthy commuters makes the systems less competitive in a market dominated by driving. Moving from commuter rail to regional rail is not a guarantee of a more equitable transportation system, but failing to move is a guarantee that transit will never compete in many American suburbs. (p. 32)

As walkable, central areas become more popular and more expensive, lower-income residents are displaced to further out in the metro. Given the pricing and schedule of commuter rail service, the choices of these lower-income workers is to take slow buses, or to drive cars that create cost burdens for low-income households.

The perception that “commuter rail” is intended for wealthy users also causes political challenges in regional support for rail improvements, because politically powerful organizations perceive the service as not serving their riders.

Service redesign for social inclusion

By contrast, several regions covered in the thesis case studies have reconceptualized their former”commuter rail” systems given contemporary land use and demographics, and have implemented improvements to address regional housing and economic challenges.

System improvements in London and Paris were explicitly developed in order to address challenges with housing affordability and access to jobs. According to an interview with London Rail’s former managing director Ian Brown on the Talking Headways podcast, the Crossrail system was planned with goals of social inclusion, putting hundreds of thousands more people within 45 minutes of jobs in Central London and the Docklands, by connecting lower-income areas to jobs using transit with integrated fares, and fostering transit-oriented development along the new lines.

Paris is currently building a major expansion of its metro rail, adding ring lines connecting suburban destinations to each other, connecting to regional rail and providing much better access to jobs for residents in low-income suburbs. The graph shows the greatly expanded access for a major low-income suburban town.

In his thesis Johnston makes a case that the political calculus in the US might be changeable. “There is an emerging promise of coalitions that reflect shared interests, rather than the zero- sum competition that has for decades characterized city-suburb relations (at least in the popular suburban mind). Alternative voice in newly diverse suburbs and a new, more open-minded generation of leadership in both the public and nonprofit sectors offer the potential for coalition- building based on quality-of-life and even inequality issues (Weir, Wolman, and Swanstrom 2005, pp. 754-755) (p. 141)

Thinking outside of the commuter rail box

As Caltrain works on a business plan, the Johnston analysis of the straightjacket that the “commuter rail” model has become in the United States is a cautionary tale. Comparisons with the ways that global services have improved service levels, regional connections, capacity and ridership, are useful and inspiring models. Learning from the thesis, there are a number of recommendations that emerge.

Electrification sets the stage. The electrification of Caltrain service, now planned, is finally under way, potentially laying the groundwork to achieve the suite of improvements to transform into a “regional rail” service. Once trains are electrified, Caltrain plans to make platforms and trains longer to increase capacity. With the platform extensions, Caltrain also plans to provide “level boarding” which will substantially improve accessibility for people with mobility needs, luggage, bicycles and strollers – and substantially improve service by reducing dwell time and thereby increasing service speed.

Accessible fares. Even before electrification, Caltrain has the opportunity to extend its popular bulk-discount GoPass to cover “transportation management associations” serving smaller employers in dense downtown areas, and contract workers at the sites of larger employers. These changes would bring Caltrain within financial reach to many lower-income commuters.

Transit-oriented development and car-light life. Looking forward, Caltrain has an opportunity to adapt to the changing demographics and land use patterns. Many areas with transit stations – in the the corridor’s larger and smaller cities – are rediscovering or re-creating walkable, mixed-use centers. These areas attract companies, workers and residents with preferences for less driving, lower car ownership, and greater use of transit, walking, bicycling, and other alternatives to solo driving. The term “alternative” becomes misleading in places where 50% or fewer trips are made by driving alone, which has become the minority activity. Caltrain has an opportunity to rethink its service offerings for customers who’d rather not be driving, even if they can afford a car.

Frequent, all-day service. An electrified system will enable service that is more frequent, and that covers a greater span of time, to be provided more cost-effectively. A more frequent, all-day, all-week service would support commutes for non-white-collar workers with different work schedules, and would support additional non-work trips.

Regional service connections. With the Bay Area’s housing crisis and environmental goals, two complementary solutions are denser infill, transit-oriented development, and additional housing opportunities, hopefully in walkable patterns, along transit corridors in the broader region. Better regional connections with ACE, Capitol Corridor, and eventually High speed Rail can help connect people with Bay Area jobs with additional housing options.

Staffing. While changes to staffing can be extremely challenging, there are distinctive opportunities created by growing ridership, electric service and level boarding. The need to provide individual services for passengers with mobility needs is a key factor in Caltrain’s current staffing level of two conductors per train. Once level boarding is in place, Caltrain could reduce the staffing level per train, and retain the staff by providing even more frequent service over a greater span of time.

Regional fare coordination. The Bay Area’s transit system is notoriously un-coordinated, with 26 transit agencies depending on how you count, each with its own, largely un-coordinated fares, schedules, and marketing. Strong arguments have been made by SPUR and others that this lack of coordination suppresses overall transit ridership in the region. With Clipper 2.0, the Bay Area has an opportunity to make progress on more streamlined fares, and with its “means-based fare” initiative, there are opportunities to provide deeper subsidies to people with greater financial need.

Downtown Extension and through-running. The global examples of regional rail best practices cast additional light on the opportunities in the Caltrain corridor to connect the line from its current terminus at 4th and King to the richer job and transit connections at the transbay terminal in the heart of downtown. Caltrain’s odd terminal location at the margins of downtown makes historical sense in the context of other services around the world that originated as “commuter rail,” and the value of the Central Business District connection to the region, not just to the CBD makes even more sense in the context of global improvements.

Also, the longer-term opportunities to through-run with a second transbay crossing that includes conventional rail (Caltrain and HSR) sounds less extravagant and more sensible in the context of multiple services around the world that have completed similar projects, with the outcome of greater capacity, greater ridership, and greater value for the regional transit system as a whole.

Global expertise. Given the underperformance of US metro region rail systems, and the evolution undergone by metro region rail systems around the world, it would be helpful to bring in people with global expertise to help Caltrain consider and plan its options.

Beyond commuter rail. Caltrain was created as a commuter railroad in the age of steam. Toward the end of diesel age, the emergence of a bi-directional commute pattern, popular recreational uses, and transit-oriented development point the way toward a different model. Electrification can lay the groundwork for more efficient, more frequent, higher-capacity services that is closely coordinated with the region’s transit, with much higher ridership, higher revenue, and greater value than today.