Commuter rail in North America

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.

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.


The two busiest passenger rail stations in the United States are Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, which are both located 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 and the South Shore Line. Another notable commuter railroad system is Boston's MBTA Commuter Rail, which serves the Greater Boston metropolitan area, and extends as far south as Wickford (North Kingstown), Rhode Island. The next-largest commuter railroads are SEPTA Regional Rail, serving the Philadelphia area; Caltrain, serving San Francisco to points south along the peninsula; and Metrolink, serving the 5-county Los Angeles area.

There are only three commuter rail agencies in Canada: GO Transit in Toronto, Réseau de transport métropolitain in Montreal, and West Coast Express in Vancouver. The two busiest rail stations in Canada are Union Station in Toronto and Central Station in Montreal.

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

System Country Metropolitan area Province / State Number of lines Avg. Weekday
(Q4 2018)[2]
A-train  USA Denton County Texas 1 1,500
Altamont Corridor Express (ACE)  USA San JoseTri-ValleyStockton California 1 (1 under construction) 6,100
Caltrain  USA San FranciscoSan Jose California 1 57,000
Capital MetroRail  USA Austin Texas 1 2,700
Capitol Corridor[note 1]  USA SacramentoSan Francisco Bay Area California 1 5,700
City Rail  HON La Ceiba Atlántida Department 1
Coaster  USA San DiegoOceanside California 1 4,500
Downeaster[note 1]  USA BrunswickPortlandBoston Maine / New Hampshire / Massachusetts 1 1,300
Exo  CAN Montreal Quebec 6 83,300
FrontRunner[3]  USA OgdenSalt Lake CityProvo Utah 1 19,200
GO Transit  CAN Toronto, Hamilton Ontario 7 217,500
Hartford Line  USA New HavenHartfordSpringfield Connecticut / Massachusetts 1[4]
Havana Suburban Railway  CUB Havana La Habana / Artemisa / Mayabeque / Matanzas 8
Keystone Service[note 1]  USA HarrisburgPhiladelphiaNew York City Pennsylvania / New York 1 5,000
Long Island Rail Road  USA New York CityLong Island New York 11 (15 former) 360,000
MARC Train  USA BaltimoreWashington, D.C. Maryland / West Virginia / District of Columbia 4 23,500
MBTA Commuter Rail  USA Boston / Worcester / Providence Massachusetts / Rhode Island 14 (1 under construction) 121,600
Metra  USA Chicago Illinois / Wisconsin 13 277,100
Metrolink  USA Los AngelesSouthern California California 7 37,600
Metro-North Railroad  USA New York City / New Haven / Poughkeepsie New York / Connecticut 8 315,700
Music City Star  USA Nashville Tennessee 1 1,100
NJ Transit Rail Operations  USA Northern New JerseyNew York City
PhiladelphiaAtlantic City
New Jersey / New York / Pennsylvania 12 (1 under construction, 1 former) 238,082 (FY2017)[5][note 2]
New Mexico Rail Runner Express  USA AlbuquerqueSanta Fe New Mexico 1 2,500
Northstar Line  USA Minneapolis–Saint Paul Minnesota 1 2,600
Panama Canal Railway  PAN Panama CityColón Panamá / Colón 1 1,500 (2013)[6]
Regional Transportation District  USA Denver Colorado 3 (1 under construction) 28,700
Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit  USA Santa RosaSan Rafael California 1
South Shore Line  USA ChicagoSouth Bend Illinois / Indiana 1 10,900
SEPTA Regional Rail  USA Philadelphia Pennsylvania / New Jersey / Delaware 13 (1 former) 126,000
Shore Line East  USA New HavenNew London Connecticut 1 1,800
Sounder  USA EverettSeattleTacoma Washington 2 18,300
SunRail  USA Greater Orlando Florida 1 5,600
TEXRail  USA Fort Worth Texas 1
Tren Suburbano  MEX Mexico City Mexico City / State of Mexico 1 (2 under construction) 195,000 (2017)[7]
Tren Urbano de Costa Rica  CRI San JoséCentral Valley San José / Heredia / Cartago 4
Trinity Railway Express  USA Dallas–Fort Worth Texas 1 6,800
Tri-Rail  USA Miami–South Florida Florida 1 (1 under construction) 14,600
Virginia Railway Express  USA Washington, D.C. Virginia / District of Columbia 2 16,800
West Coast Express  CAN Vancouver British Columbia 1 9,900
WES Commuter Rail  USA Portland 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.

Metropolitan Area Country Province/State System Official
Halifax  CAN Nova Scotia Halifax Transit [8]
Ottawa  CAN Ontario / Québec Moose/Transport Pontiac-Renfrew[note 3] [9] [10]
Aguascalientes  MEX Aguascalientes Tren Suburbano (no official name yet) [11][12]
Guadalajara  MEX Jalisco Tren Suburbano [13][14]
Mexico City megalopolis  MEX Mexico & Mexico City Toluca–Mexico City commuter rail [15]
Alameda County  USA California Tri-Valley-San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority [16] [17]
Anchorage  USA Alaska Alaska Railroad (existing long-distance railroad, proposed commuter service) [18] [19]
Ann Arbor  USA Michigan WALLY [20] [21]
Atlanta / Athens / Macon  USA Georgia Georgia Rail Passenger Program,
Georgia Brain Train
Atlanta / Clayton County  USA Georgia MARTA Clayton County commuter rail [22]
Charlotte  USA North Carolina LYNX Red Line [23] [24]
Cleveland  USA Ohio Cleveland commuter rail [25] [26][27]
Cincinnati  USA Ohio Eastern Corridor Commuter Rail [28]
Dallas  USA Texas DART Silver Line [29]
Detroit  USA Michigan SEMCOG Commuter Rail [30][31][32]
Fort Worth  USA Texas Burleson commuter rail [33]
Greensboro  USA North Carolina TRIAD Commuter Rail [34]
Harrisburg / Lancaster  USA Pennsylvania Capital Red Rose Corridor (Capital Area Transit) [35]
Houston  USA Texas Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas [36][37]
Jacksonville  USA Florida First Coast Commuter Rail
Madison  USA Wisconsin Dane County Commuter Rail,
Transport 2020 Commuter Rail
Minneapolis  USA Minnesota Dan Patch Corridor [40]
Pittsburgh  USA Pennsylvania Eastern Corridor Transit Study
(no official name as of 2010)
[41] [42]
Raleigh / Durham / Cary
(Research Triangle)
 USA North Carolina Durham-Wake Corridor [43]
Redlands  USA California Arrow [44]
San Antonio / Austin  USA Texas LSTAR [45]
St. Louis  USA Missouri / Illinois St. Louis Commuter Rail [46]
Under construction


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

See also


  1. 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.
  3. The proposal in Ottawa is actually 2 organizations proposing similar systems.


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