Commuter Rail in North America
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Commuter Rail in North America
NJ Transit has an extensive commuter rail system connecting New Jersey to New York City and Philadelphia.
A Metra train in West Chicago, IL.

Commuter rail services in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica provide common carrier passenger transportation along railway tracks, with scheduled service on fixed routes on a non-reservation basis, primarily for short-distance (local) travel between a central business district and adjacent suburbs and regional travel between cities of a conurbation. It does not include rapid transit or light rail service.


Many, but not all, newer commuter railways offer service during peak times only, with trains into the central business district during morning rush hour and returning to the outer areas during the evening rush hour. This mode of operation is, in many cases, simplified by ending the train with a special passenger carriage (referred to as a cab car), which has an operating cab and can control the locomotive remotely, to avoid having to turn the train around at each end of its route. Other systems avoid the problem entirely by using bi-directional multiple units.

Other commuter rail services, many of them older, long-established ones, operate seven days a week, with service from early morning to after midnight. On these systems, patrons use the trains not just to get to and from work or school, but also for attending sporting events, concerts, theatre, and the like. Some also provide service to popular weekend getaway spots and recreation areas. The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the only commuter railroad that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in North America.

A rebuilt GO Transit Bombardier cab car at Toronto's Scarborough Station.

Almost all commuter rail services in North America are operated by government entities or quasi-governmental organizations. Most share tracks or rights-of-way used by longer-distance passenger services (e.g. Amtrak, Via Rail), freight trains, or other commuter services. The 600-mile-long (970 km) electrified Northeast Corridor in the United States is shared by commuter trains and Amtrak's Acela Express, regional, and intercity trains.

Commuter rail operators often sell reduced-price multiple-trip tickets (such as a monthly or weekly pass), charge specific station-to-station fares, and have one or two railroad stations in the central business district. Commuter trains typically connect to metro or bus services at their destination and along their route.

After the completion of SEPTA Regional Rail's Center City Commuter Connection in 1981, which allowed through-running between two formerly separate radial networks, the term "regional rail" began to be used to refer to commuter rail (and sometimes even larger heavy rail and light rail) systems that offer bidirectional all-day service and may provide useful connections between suburbs and edge cities, rather than merely transporting workers to a central business district.[1] This is different from the European use of "regional rail", which generally refers to services midway between commuter rail and intercity rail that are not primarily commuter-oriented.

Some transit lines in the NYC metropolitan areas have commuter lines that act like a regional rail network, as lines often converge at one point and pass as a main line to the destination station. They also pass through large business areas (ie Harlem, Jamaica, Stamford, Metropark), and some lines operate every 5-10 minutes during peak hours, and roughly every 15 minutes during off hours.


The two busiest passenger rail stations in the United States are Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, which are both located in the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and which serve three of the four busiest commuter railroads in the United States (the Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit at Penn Station, and the Metro-North Railroad at Grand Central Terminal). The commuter railroads serving the Chicago area are Metra (the fourth-busiest commuter railroad in the United States) and the South Shore Line. Other notable commuter railroad systems include SEPTA Regional Rail (fifth-busiest in the US), serving the Philadelphia area; MBTA Commuter Rail (sixth-busiest in the US), serving the Greater Boston-Providence area; Caltrain, serving the area south of San Francisco along the peninsula as far as San Jose; and Metrolink, serving the 5-county Los Angeles area.

There are only three commuter rail agencies in Canada: GO Transit in Toronto (the fifth-busiest in North America), Exo in Montreal (eight-busiest in North America), and West Coast Express in Vancouver. The two busiest rail stations in Canada are Union Station in Toronto and Central Station in Montreal.

A suburban train in Bejucal, Cuba

Commuter rail networks outside of densely populated urban areas like the Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, and Toronto metropolitan areas have historically been sparse. Since the 1990s, however, several commuter rail projects have been proposed and built throughout the United States, especially in the Sun Belt and other regions characterized by urban sprawl that have traditionally been underserved by public transportation. Since then, commuter rail networks have been inaugurated in Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Orlando, among other cities. Several more commuter rail projects have been proposed and are in the planning stages.

Rolling stock

Commuter trains are either powered by diesel-electric or electric locomotives, or else use self-propelled cars (some systems use both). A few systems, particularly around New York City, use electric power, supplied by a third rail and/or overhead catenary wire, which provides quicker acceleration, lower noise, and fewer air-quality issues. Philadelphia's SEPTA Regional Rail uses exclusively electric power, supplied by overhead catenary wire.

Diesel-electric locomotives based on the EMD F40PH design as well as the MP36PH-3C are popular as motive power for commuter trains. Manufacturers of coaches include Bombardier, Kawasaki, Nippon Sharyo, and Hyundai Rotem. A few systems use diesel multiple unit vehicles, including WES Commuter Rail near Portland and Austin's Capital MetroRail. These systems use vehicles supplied by Stadler Rail or US Railcar (formerly Colorado Railcar).

List of North American commuter rail operators

Metropolitan area(s) Country System Province / State Number of lines Avg. Weekday
(Q4 2018)[2]
Denton County  USA A-train Texas 1 1,500
San Jose-Tri-Valley-Stockton  USA Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) California 1 (1 under construction) 6,100
San Francisco-San Jose  USA Caltrain California 1 57,000
Austin  USA Capital MetroRail Texas 1 2,700
Sacramento-San Francisco Bay Area  USA Capitol Corridor[note 1] California 1 5,700
La Ceiba  HON City Rail Atlántida Department 1
San Diego-Oceanside  USA Coaster California 1 4,500
Brunswick-Portland-Boston  USA Downeaster[note 1] Maine / New Hampshire / Massachusetts 1 1,300
Montreal  CAN Exo Quebec 6 83,300
Ogden-Salt Lake City-Provo  USA FrontRunner[3] Utah 1 19,200
Toronto-Greater Golden Horseshoe  CAN GO Transit Ontario 7 217,500
New Haven-Hartford-Springfield  USA Hartford Line Connecticut / Massachusetts 1[4]
Havana  CUB Havana Suburban Railway La Habana / Artemisa / Mayabeque / Matanzas 8
Harrisburg-Philadelphia-New York City  USA Keystone Service[note 1] Pennsylvania / New York 1 5,000
New York City-Long Island  USA Long Island Rail Road New York 11 360,000
Baltimore-Washington, D.C.  USA MARC Train Maryland / West Virginia / District of Columbia 4 23,500
Boston / Worcester / Providence  USA MBTA Commuter Rail Massachusetts / Rhode Island 12 (1 under construction) 121,600
Chicago  USA Metra Illinois / Wisconsin 13 277,100
Los Angeles-Southern California  USA Metrolink California 7 (1 under construction) 37,600
New York City / New Haven / Poughkeepsie  USA Metro-North Railroad New York / Connecticut 8 315,700
Nashville  USA Music City Star Tennessee 1 1,100
Northern New Jersey-New York City
Philadelphia-Atlantic City
 USA NJ Transit Rail Operations New Jersey / New York / Pennsylvania 12 (1 under construction) 238,082 (FY2017)[5][note 2]
Albuquerque-Santa Fe  USA New Mexico Rail Runner Express New Mexico 1 2,500
Minneapolis-Saint Paul  USA Northstar Line Minnesota 1 2,600
Panama City-Colón  PAN Panama Canal Railway Panamá / Colón 1 1,500 (2013)[6][needs update]
Denver  USA Regional Transportation District Colorado 4 28,700
Santa Rosa-San Rafael  USA Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit California 1
Chicago-South Bend  USA South Shore Line Illinois / Indiana 1 (1 under construction) 10,900
Philadelphia  USA SEPTA Regional Rail Pennsylvania / New Jersey / Delaware 13 126,000
New Haven-New London  USA Shore Line East Connecticut 1 1,800
Everett-Seattle-Tacoma  USA Sounder Washington 2 18,300
Greater Orlando  USA SunRail Florida 1 5,600
Fort Worth  USA TEXRail Texas 1
Mexico City  MEX Tren Suburbano Mexico City / State of Mexico 1 (2 under construction) 195,000 (2017)[7]
Dallas-Fort Worth  USA Trinity Railway Express Texas 1 6,800
Miami-South Florida  USA Tri-Rail Florida 1 (1 under construction) 14,600
Washington, D.C.  USA Virginia Railway Express Virginia / District of Columbia 2 16,800
Vancouver  CAN West Coast Express British Columbia 1 9,900
Portland  USA WES Commuter Rail Oregon 1 1,600

List of under construction and planned systems

There are several commuter rail systems currently under construction or in development in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Under construction


The following systems have ceased operations since the formation of Amtrak in 1971.

See also


  1. ^ a b c State sponsored Amtrak route with commuter rail focus
  2. ^ This figure is from NJ Transit's Fiscal Year 2017, which covers the calendar period July 2016 to June 2017.


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