The Summary: How Trains Can Grow Again (Hint: Use The 4Ps)

  • Here is the Core Case for Metropolitan Rail.
  • Train commuting cannot grow because its key Problems are perpetuated by ineffective governance and outdated Policy. 
  • If train usage is to grow, governance must evolve by building metropolitan solutions. 
  • Within a federal structure, solutions only will be stimulated by federal Policy.
  • This Overview sketches how a federal Policy can convert 20th Century commuter rail into 21st Century Metropolitan Rail.

Overview. This first of three postings summarizes and synthesizes my writing projects over the last six years. This analysis of why America cannot convert its central terminals into through-stations also proposes how we can. To improve its success, this overhaul of commuter rail applies the following rendition of the scientific method to the policy process. Call it the 4Ps.

* The many Problems caused by antiquated rail are analyzed and, then, generalized to three solvable problems: a) 20th Century rail mechanics; b) poor agency collaboration; c) distorted transportation economics. Each is summarized in the left column of the box below.

* Match each general problem with its sustainable Principle in the right column.

* Prototype key through-routes so they provide models to develop a carrot-and-stick federal Policy for Metropolitan Rail (MR) that is flexible enough to adapt to the diverse evolution of metropolitan governance within the U.S.  

This 4P modeling increases the chances that U.S. global cities, eventually, can reach the much higher standard of Europe’s global cities and reduce Europe’s competitive advantages in mobility.

Why through-routes are strategic. Converting commuter rail will stimulate economic growth. It also encourages two specific trends in metropolitan transportation. First, this proposal reduces residual 20th Century urban/suburban tensions and, thereby, makes it possible for high-capacity Metropolitan Rail to grow the region. Second, the micro-mobility revolution is completing its first growth phase by successfully competing to provide alternatives for short trips. For second stage growth, micro-mobility needs higher-capacity train through-networks to facilitate a viable alternative for mid-range and long commutes. 

Quick Summary of Part B: Problems and corresponding Principles. U.S. federalism’s last major codification came with SAFETEA-LU in 2005. Since then, much has needed to change and hasn’t and, most likely, can’t change under today’s transportation regime. In particular, the on-going failure of states to modernize trains prevents their potential as the most efficient mobility mode. The proposed Policy strategy herein suggests how train modernization is prevented by three general Problems (again, the left column.)  Solving each will be more effective if guided by a Principle for governing transportation (right column.)

This table’s Problem-Principle dynamic is detailed in Part B to be posted on March 27.

Quick Summary of Part C: Test These Principles On 3 Prototypes and Synthesize All Into A Federal Policy That Benefits Other Metros

The Authority to be used is based on what each metro’s trains need. The prototype governance tool in each metro is its Corridor Council (CC.)  Corridors are well-suited because this is how trains expanded last time… over 100 years ago. If we want to expand, today’s incentives should be organized using corridors as well. Specifically, properties that benefit the most from train usage should participate in train’s revenue growth. Each CC gets its legal authority delegated from its state(s) and each is supervised by a U.S. Corridor Authority. The USCA helps design governance for the most promising corridors for federal investment. As needed to produce results, each CC applies federal authority in exchange for increased federal funds and lending. Here are the three most promising prototypes to be studied.

A Gentle Federal Authority (GFA) encourages stymied change. As example, a CC prototype could reverse the recent failure to tunnel between Caltrain’s terminus and downtown San Francisco’s new Transbay hub. And since the downtown now needs a second tunnel to downtown Oakland, this CC would continue under the Bay. GFAs are foreseen as the most common application of CCs among America’s metros.

The Moderate Authority example would take an existing under-utilized line at O’Hare Airport and through-route Ogilvie and Union Stations (where eight suburban lines terminate) and then cross to the convention center at McCormick Place and on to the University of Chicago and the southside.  Currently, the other most viable use of applying Moderate Authority would be to tunnel under downtown Boston and connect its North and South terminals.

An Emergency Authority would build two new Hudson Tunnels. Then to build ridership and relieve stress in the subway and streets, this CC would connect Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. This would be precursor to a multi-state collaborative authority replacing three separate systems with higher-volume, integrated metropolitan rail. Currently, the only other likely use of Emergency Authority would be to prepare Washington Union Station for through-route electric trains so they can reduce stress on DC’s Metro.

The Federal Policy Emerges. An on-going fourth study starts by detailing the powers of the U. S. Corridor Authority (USCA.) It also studies results from these three prototypes and how they can be applied to other metro’s corridors and for other modes, including tolled highways. As with the three through-route prototypes, this fourth federal policy study should be funded by today’s Reauthorization to test better governance of transit services. This is necessary so federal taxpayers can invest in trains that provide better benefits.

Here’s The Deal: States don’t fund; metro governance integrates fares. So states collaborate in delegating authority, these proposed through-routes will receive more than today’s 50% standard for federal transit grants. The negotiable balance is filled by federally-insured loans. To make these loans, the U.S. needs to know it will be paid back through higher, sustainable ridership revenue. For that, Fare-Integration is essential. This, also, has been proven in Europe by suitable metro-wide bodies. So as a CC completes its through-route, that CC sunsets while delivering the through-network to its metro’s enhanced body. By then, that body already should have Fare-Integration producing much better revenue. 


As further Preview to Part B, here is a quick back-grounder on how this 6 year inquiry progressed.

Celebrating a life-long passion for stations, the author in 2013 took this photo of the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal during its 100th birthday.

2013-2015, Get perspective on the future. My inquiry’s first phase explored this hypothesis: how a central station works will reflect how a metropolis manages its transit. I surveyed 24+ U.S terminals, developed scorecards for 10 and wrote an 8 article series entitled “America’s Train Stations: What makes them sustainable or not.” Posted in “The Urbanophile,”  the series concluded by proposing a new hypothesis that remains true today: that U.S. terminals would continue to limit ridership growth unless metros had the authority to Through-Route.

The author’s 2015 photo captures the great unanswered question: Who will transform America’s largest station? We can hope the MTA’s Capital Budget gets Moynihan Station built; but that talk has taken decades to go not too far. Similar stories are told in Boston, DC, Chicago, San Francisco and LA. Time for talk has run out.

2015-2018. Sharpen Hypotheses. Sketch Metropolitan Solutions. This Phase 2 clarified governance issues and concluded that states must delegate proper authority to metros. Drawing on comparative analyses from Europe, the UK, Canada and Australia, the 12 articles posted on “What Stations Teach” sketched how proper delegation might occur in nine U.S. systems. Based on its analysis (see table summary), metropolitan solutions were sketched to convert terminals into through-stations. While each metro requires a solution specific to its problems and politics, most proposals suggested the bite-size step of re-organizing a key corridor and, eventually, evolving that prototype into a regional agency with proper authority. This process is facilitated by a federal Policy for funding with guidelines. They are being developed in the next Phase.

campaign logo designed by Charles Comstock

2019-2021? Study Corridor Prototypes. This Phase 3 tests a new federal Policy. The process started with the “Pre-Reauthorization Series” suggesting how to overcome political stumbling blocks. Key is that Metropolitan Rail has a small constituency… until MR is recognized as a strategic device to reduce the legally-wired tension between a metro’s suburban and urban areas. Tension-reduction is a precursor of unifying transportation policy. MR also is a strategic policy link to deliver benefits to the governing coalition that Democrats are trying to build. To start building federal Policy, three studies will explore the feasibility of governing train corridors so they can Through-Route. 

Since capital will be federal grants and loans, the U.S. needs to know how cash-flow will improve. For that, every metro’s primary tool is Fare-Integration. How to develop a metropolitan body to integrate fares and services became clearer in my immediately previous article focussed on Munich. There and throughout Germany, metropolitan authority operates under authority delegated by states; yet this is guided within a federal policy that ebbs-and-flows depending on how large the project is. Munich’s high standard of success gives good clues as to what might work in the U.S.

But before we propose the new U.S. Policy, let’s understand clearly the Problems and how they can be corrected by proper Principles. That gets posted next week in Part B.

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