Special report: Trends in passenger transport in 2024

Following a dip in rail openings due to several factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain challenges and construction quality issues, new rail transit and passenger rail projects in North America are being celebrated with ribbon cuttings of Honolulu, Hawaii, to Montreal, Québec, Canada.

Since the publication of the 2023 Rail Special Report, several rail projects have been commissioned, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Regional Connector, Honolulu’s elevated autonomous rail system, Skyline, the Réseau Express Metropolitain South Shore Branch in Montréal, Quebec , Brightline’s extension to Orlando, Florida, the Valley Line Southeast light rail in Edmonton, Alberta, TriRail’s extension to Miami Central Station, Valley Metro’s Northwest Phase II extension in Phoenix, Arizona, the first segment of South Transit’s Link 2 Line and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District’s Double Track Northwest Indiana project.

Additional projects are expected to open later in 2024, including the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s South Coast Rail project, Metrolinx’s Finch West Light Rail Transit and possibly the Eglinton Crosstown project.

Major maintenance projects also generate operational profits for rail carriers. In April 2024, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) returned scheduled service to the F and M trains after completing an eight-month track replacement project. In November 2023, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched its Track Improvement Program, which aims to eliminate all existing speed limits and bring the tracks closer to a state of good condition by the end of 2024. Between November 2023 and May 1, 2024, MBTA has lifted a total of 104 speed limits following maintenance work on the Red, Orange, Blue and Green lines.

New and improved services have helped increase rail passenger numbers. The American Public Transportation Association’s Quarterly and Annual Totals by Mode ridership report shows that heavy rail, light rail and commuter rail will account for 46 percent of all transit trips in 2023. All rail modes saw an increase in ridership in 2023 compared to 2022, with heavy rail increasing by 14.3 percent, light rail increasing by 15.3 percent and commuter rail increasing by 18.7 percent. Although the increase in passenger numbers has slowed slightly year on year, the figures show a robust recovery compared to the end of 2020. Light rail passenger numbers increased 51.3 percent in 2023 compared to 2020, heavy rail increased 75.5 percent and commuter rail increased 80 percent. In intercity passenger traffic, Amtrak reports that ridership exceeded 28 million nationwide in fiscal 2023. The railroad attributes this bump to significant growth in the Northeast Corridor, where ridership has surpassed pre-pandemic levels since early summer 2023.

An April 17 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee examined the state of the commuter rail industry and the challenges and solutions found within it. One of the topics raised during the hearing was the challenge commuter railroads face in a hardened insurance market. Mike Noland, president of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and chairman of the Commuter Rail Coalition (CRC), summarized the issue by explaining that commuter railroads have $323 million in additional liability coverage, which is the federal cap. This limit will be changed in early 2026 in accordance with the Consumer Price Index and a notice will be issued by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) giving commuter railroads 30 days to secure the additional coverage.

Up to $32.5 million per railroad can be purchased from domestic insurance companies, forcing commuter railroads to use foreign insurance markets to secure the balance. The possible outcome of failure to secure the additional coverage could be a suspension of operations.

In a column for Mass transitCRC CEO KellyAnne Gallagher called the situation in the excess liability insurance market “illogical.” CRC proposes a multi-state liability sharing agreement, with the federal government providing a safety net if the excess liability insurance market fails and expanding the implementation period from 30 days to 365 days as possible solutions to help commuter railroads.

“Extending the implementation period from 30 days to 365 days will ensure U.S. commuter railroads have the time needed to secure the additional coverage and allow them to operate with confidence. Stabilizing the U.S. insurance market will allow taxpayers’ money to remain within the borders of the United States. We need both solutions for a prosperous future for commuter rail,” Gallagher wrote.

Further safety improvements

Rail has statistically been a safe way to travel. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that the number of injuries per 100 million passenger train miles fell from 1,639.6 – the highest level in the past decade – to 547.7 in 2023. The number of fatalities per 100 million passenger train miles fell from 6 .7 in 2022 to 0.9 in 2023.

While ambassador programs and increased levels of security personnel have increased safety, rail and passenger railroads have also embraced technology to support their commitment to operate safely and provide a safe environment in which to travel and work.

In late June, following the expiration of a mandatory 90-day notice, New York City (NYC) will pilot electromagnetic weapons detection technology to detect weapons carried by travelers onto the MTA system. New York City Mayor Eric Adams says the New York Police Department seized 1,515 guns on the subway system in 2023, an increase from the 947 guns seized the year before. The pilot program will be rolled out to designated metro stations where it will be evaluated.

Across the Hudson River, New Jersey Transit will use a Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation Grant (SMART) from USDOT to collaborate with the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation to develop artificial intelligence-based systems to improve safety at improve light rail crossings by reducing accidents at intersections and rights of way. Phase 1 of the project will prototype a custom, artificial intelligence-powered technology solution consisting of stationary cameras at five light rail crossings and forward-facing cameras in one Hudson-Bergen Light Rail vehicle. In phase 2 of the project, the technology will be installed at 50 intersections and five light rail vehicles.

On the West Coast, Metrolink will use its SMART grant to develop and demonstrate a track intrusion detection system. The prototype will explore the use of artificial intelligence-enabled cameras and radar or light detection and proximity sensors in combination with Metrolink’s existing Positive Train Control system to identify and validate track intrusions.

One of the most impactful changes to rail safety involves a rule change by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). On March 22, FTA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing mandatory minimum standards for track workers working for rail carriers. Although the FTA provides guidance through the National Public Transportation Safety Plan to ensure safety on transportation systems, it sets voluntary minimum safety standards. The proposed rule would impose minimum safety standards for the first time. FTA explained in the NPRM that the safety program has matured and it is now appropriate for FTA to propose required minimum standards for road worker protection (RWP).

The proposed rule would require rail transit agencies to adopt and implement an RWP program, establish minimum RWP elements, document RWP programs, and implement RWP training.

“This rule will ultimately save lives,” said FTA Acting Administrator Veronica Vanterpool. “Once finalized, this rule will support safer conditions for workers who perform critical tasks that keep public transportation operating efficiently and safely.”