City Transit Diaries 9: Commuter Rail

This is Part 9 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.

Commuter rail lines are so named as they typically serve the needs of daily commuters, connecting suburban residential areas to the urban core where many employment centers are located. They generally terminate at a central station, requiring riders to transfer to another mode to complete their trip.

Whereas these services could be useful for general intercity operation, commuter rail in the U.S. (with a few exceptions) typically only operate for commuters. That is, the service runs one-way into town in the morning rush, and away from town in the afternoon.

The lines can be relatively inexpensive to implement, compared to other modes of rail transit. They can integrate into existing freight or passenger rail lines, necessitating only stations be built. Without dedicated tracks though, frequency can be limited, and there is a risk of delays caused by other services operating on the infrastructure.

The most common type of commuter train configuration in the U.S. and Canada is the locomotive-hauled push-pull train, where an engine pulls a number of passenger cars in one direction, and pushes it from behind on the return trip (with the operator in a cab on the trailing passenger car). An increasing number of systems are utilizing multiple-unit trainsets, with operating cabs on each end.

Below is a list of the cities with commuter rail lines in the U.S. and Canada, including several that have no other form of local rail service, and were not included in the City Transit project.



The New Mexico Rail Runner Express links Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico. The 97-mile line opened in phases between 2006 and 2008, though several infill stations were added as recently as this year. Its name is a play on the state bird the Roadrunner, and even features door chimes based on the Looney Tunes cartoon character.



The Red Line is the first and only line of the Capital Metro rail system. The 32-mile route links downtown Austin to the northern suburbs. It utilizes diesel-powered multiple-unit trainsets that briefly operate on downtown Austin streets akin to a light rail line.



Two of the three lines of the MARC commuter rail network serve Baltimore: the Penn Line, which operates on the Northeast Corridor main line both to the north and south of Baltimore; and the Camden Line, which connects Camden Yards station to Washington DC.



The 12-line MBTA Commuter Rail system totals nearly 400 miles of rail lines originating from two disconnected hub stations in downtown Boston. The system is the sixth-busiest commuter rail system in the U.S., and one of the few to operate services outside of rush hour.



Metra is the busiest U.S. commuter rail network outside of the New York area. The services span nearly 500 miles over 11 lines, and terminate at four different stations in downtown Chicago. The network also includes electrified services to South Chicago, operating unique bilevel EMU trainsets.

The South Shore Line compliments the Metra network, operating further south and east into Indiana to the city of South Bend. The line was built in the very early 20th century, and includes a unique segment operating on the streets of Michigan City.



The Trinity Railway Express line connects Dallas and Fort Worth on a 34-mile east-west route. It began operation in 1996, shortly after Dallas' light rail system opened. Additionally, the A-train serves as an extension of the light rail network, connecting the northeastern suburbs to the city of Denton. The 21-mile line utilizes diesel multiple-unit trainsets similar to Austin.



Denver's young but growing commuter rail network operates from the hub of Denver Union Station and is the westernmost electrified commuter rail system. It currently consists of the A Line, connecting to the city's distant airport; and the first phase of the B line, which is currently only a 2-station shuttle. Further stations of the B line, as well as the nearly-finished G Line are under construction.


Los Angeles

Metrolink is a 7-line, 534-mile network of commuter rails lines which first opened in 1992, shortly after the city's first light railline. Most of the services originate at Los Angeles Union Station, stretching far into the sprawl of the greater Los Angeles region with limited service outside of peak periods.



Tri-Rail connects Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to the north. The 71-mile line terminates at the Miami Airport station, which provides a connection to the city's rapid transit system into downtown. There is a second line of the system in planning which would connect to downtown Miami proper.



Opened in 2009, the Northstar Line links the northern suburbs to downtown Minneapolis and the city's light rail system. The system runs on 40 miles of shared freight lines, with a future extension further to the city of St Cloud proposed.



The RTM commuter rail network serves the greater Montreal region in every direction, spanning 150 miles over 6 lines. The network is a mix of diesel and electric power, with multiple-unit and push-pull equipment. It ranked first among North American commuter systems with a punctuality rate of over 96%.



The 32-mile Music City Star line connects Nashville to the city of Lebanon to the east. It is considered a "starter" project to demonstrate the effectiveness of commuter rail service in the area. As such, it was built very inexpensively on an existing freight rail line, and operates with a small fleet of hand-me-down equipment from Chicago.


New Haven

Shore Line East operates along the Northeast Corridor through southern Connecticut from New Haven to New London. It also serves as an extension of Metro-North commuter rail services, which continue on to New York from New Haven. It began in 1990 originally as a temporary service, and was upgraded in the early 2000s.


New York

The greater New York region is served by three commuter rail systems, all of which which rank as the three busiest networks in the United States.

The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest system and one of the few to operate 24 hour service. It connects New York to every region of Long Island to the east over 700 miles of track.

The second busiest Metro-North serves New York and Connecticut to the north and northeast. Services in New York operate with diesel-powered trains, and services to Connecticut operate electrified multiple-unit trainsets which share the Northeast Corridor.

The third busiest NJ Transit Rail network operates from two divisions in Hoboken and Newark, with some services crossing into Penn Station in Manhattan under the Hudson River. The network is a mix of electrified and diesel power, which also utilizes dual-mode locomotives in some instances.



The 31-mile SunRail line connects downtown Orlando to the northern suburbs. It opened its first phase in 2014, and a second phase which extends the line to the north and south is planned to open next year. The line shares its route with several intercity Amtrak services.



SEPTA's extensive Regional Rail covers 280 miles over 13 lines. It is the busiest network in the U.S. outside of New York and Chicago. The network consists of lines from two former railroads which terminated at two different stations downtown that were connected in 1984.

NJ Transit also operates one line in the Philadelphia area. The Atlantic City Line runs nearly 70 miles to Atlantic City on the coast. It does not operate traditional commuter service, and is completely disconnected from other NJ Transit commuter rail lines.



TriMet's Westside Express Service is a 15-mile line linking the city's light rail line at Beaverton to Wilsonville, both in the western suburbs of Portland. The rolling stock used is a unique DMU built by Colorado Railcar, a short-lived American manufacturer, which shut down during construction.


Salt Lake City

The FrontRunner connects Salt Lake City with the suburban cities of Ogden to the North and Provo to the south. The 88-mile line opened in two phases between 2008 and 2012 and does operate outside of peak periods including weekends, and connects to Salt Lake City's light rail system.


San Diego

The 62-mile Coaster connects San Diego to Oceanside to the north along the Pacific Ocean coast. The line connects to San Diego's Trolley system, as well as Sprinter light rail service and MetroLink service to Los Angeles in Oceanside.


San Francisco Bay Area

There are three commuter rail services in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, all run by different operators.

Caltrain runs 77 miles along the San Francisco Peninsula, from downtown San Francisco into San Jose, and further south to Gilroy. It operates outside of peak periods, and offers an express service every 30 minutes during rush hours.

The Altamont Corridor Express connects San Jose to Stockton through the mountainous Altamont Pass. The 86-mile route began in 1998, and several service expansions and reroutings are planned.

Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit is the youngest commuter rail system in the U.S. and Canada, opening in June of this year. This first phase operates 43 miles from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, to the north of the Bay Area. The full system will be 70 miles and provide a direct connection to ferry services into San Francisco.



The Sounder system operates an 83-mile line in two segments, split in Seattle. The North Line runs north to Everett, and the South Line runs south to Tacoma and points further. Service generally runs during peak periods, though some reverse commute routes are also offered.



GO Transit is one of the earliest modern commuter rail networks, first opened in 1967. It pioneered the Bombardier bilevel commuter coach, which today can be found in a majority of commuter rail systems. GO trains are some of the longest, up to 12 cars long with a capacity of nearly 2000. The 7 lines of the 280-mile system originate at Toronto Union Station.

Additionally, the Union Pearson Express provides supplementary commuter service, sharing its route with GO Transit but providing the only direct rail connection to the Pearson International Airport. It utilizes DMU trainsets which can be upgraded to EMU if plans to electrify the greater system move forward.



The 43-mile West Coast Express line opened in 1995 and connects the western suburbs to SkyTrain, ferries and other transit modes in downtown Vancouver. Additional connections to the SkyTrain system opened with the Evergreen extension in 2016. Compared to Toronto and Montreal, West Coast Express operates much more limited service, only during peak periods, due to its shared rail corridor.



The Virginia Railway Express began operation in 1992 and along with MARC service detailed earlier make up the commuter rail network of greater Washington. VRE's two lines connect downtown to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Fredericksburg and Manassas to the south and southeast over 90 miles of track. Both rail operaters terminate at Union Station in DC.