Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Does It Cost?

I spent some time the past couple of weeks researching fares for commuter rails in the U.S. What I was after was a way to compare these fares, so I decided to use the rather arbitrary benchmark of a one-way 20-mile (as the bird flies) peak-hour trip as the basis of my fare comparison.

Of course, it's impossible to expect a regional rail network to have a station exactly 20 miles away from the CBD--although some come darn close. In one extreme example, I had to use a station 25 miles away as there were none closer to the 20-mile mark, despite a town along the railroad being approximately 20 miles from the city center and in another, the line wasn't 20 miles long. Finally I excluded rail lines operating non-FRA-compliant equipment, as part of what I'm getting at is how much a fare costs for equipment that mixes--or, more accurately, can mix (at a regulatory level)--with freight rail in this country.

Agency Trip Fare (One-way station peak)
LIRR (New York) NY Penn-Hempstead $10.00
MNRR (New York) NY GC-White Plains $10.50
NJT (New Jersey) NY Penn-Woodbridge (NJ) $10.00
MBTA (Boston) Boston South-Framingham $6.25
SEPTA (Philadelphia) 30th Street-Lansdale $6.25
MARC (Maryland) D.C. Union-Gaithersburg $5.00
VRE (D.C.) D.C. Union-Woodbridge (VA) $7.85
Metra (Chicago) Ogilvie-Glen Ellyn $4.50
South Shore Line (Chicago) Millennium-Hammond $4.75
Northstar (Minneapolis) Target Field-Elk River* $5.50
Music City Star (Nashville) Riverfront-Martha $5.00
Tri-Rail (Miami) Central-Hollywood Airport $3.75
Trinity Railway Express (Dallas) Union Station-Hurst/Bell $5.00
Rail Runner (Albuquerque) Albuquerque-Los Lunas $2.00
FrontRunner (Salt Lake City) Central-Layton $3.75
Sounder (Seattle) King Street-Mutilkeo $4.00
WES (Portland) Beaverton-Wilsonville** $2.35
Caltrain (San Francisco) 4th & King-Redwood City $4.75
ACE (San José) Diridon-Pleasanton $7.75
Metrolink (Los Angeles) L.A. Union-Sylmar $7.25
Coaster (San Diego) S.D. Union-Solana Beach $4.00

* Closest station to 20 miles is 25 miles (or greater).
** Line extends for less than 15 miles. Assume at least one zone increase were line lengthened.

Observations about this table:
  1. The cheapest fares in the country are in the Southeast and Desert Southwest, with Albuquerque's Rail Runner being, by far, the cheapest fare of all. (I was shocked by how cheap it said it was on their website.)
  2. The most expensive fares in the country are in the Northeast and in California. The three most expensive fares, overall, were all concentrated in the New York Area, while the next two most expensive were in L.A. and Northern Virginia.
  3. It's more expensive to commute to downtown D.C. from Virginia than Maryland. Additionally, it's substantially cheaper to commute to San José from the Peninsula than from Altamont Pass.
  4. Of the five largest cities in this country with commuter rail (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Diego), the cheapest fare is San Diego's (at $4.00).
  5. Three of the ten largest cities in the U.S. by population have no commuter rail whatsoever (Houston, Phoenix, and San Antonio).
  6. Two of the ten densest metropolitan areas in the U.S. have no commuter rail whatsoever (Pittsburgh and Louisville). *Pittsburgh is especially surprising, given how much rail infrastructure exists in and around the city.
This list, of course, brings up further questions. According to Metrolink's website, AAA calculates the cost of driving at $0.541/mile, which means that every commuter rail network in the country offers a cheaper fare than the $10.82 it would cost to drive the 20 miles...even the Metro-North to White Plains, the most expensive fare on the table. So why is ridership depressed despite the cost savings?

Secondly--and this applies more for the cheaper fares--what is the farebox recovery ratio? With commuter rail (or any sort of mass transit, really), a farebox recovery ratio of 50% or better is preferable; some systems have it 75% or better; NJ Transit usually operates at a profit. Granted, networks that use a proof-of-payment system have lower labor costs, but the majority of commuter rail systems in this country use F59PHIs or MPI MPXpresses and gallery cars, and there's considerable cost disparity between these systems. It is impossible to believe that Rail Runner, for example, realizes a farebox recovery ratio better than 50%, based on this cost figure.


  1. NMRX only recovers 10% via fares. Sounder is around 20-25%. Albuquerque was designed for the automobile with wide streets, high freeway speeds, and 30 cents a gallon cheaper gas than the Puget Sound reigon. Until gas prices go up again, the Rail Runner is more for those who do not live in Santa Fe since it is a pain in the butt to find parking in Santa Fe without looking for 15-30 minutes.

  2. Keep in mind that the AAA's methodology is fairly absurd and their numbers are far too high as a result. Alon Levy's done a post on it, but my laptop is a bit too FUBAR at present for me to go and grab a link.

    Bearing that in mind, the pricing issue is one of marginal cost (plus time value and convenience) of driving compared to the commuter fare. Almost all of those fares are above the marginal cost of driving, which means it needs to be significantly faster or more convenient or both than driving to entice large numbers of commuters (keeping in mind that this is a lot easier if urban design and transit make car-free feasible).

    The short distance is probably skewing your fares too I believe. Metrolink (and others) charges a base station fee that makes shorter trips disproportionately expensive. A 40 mile trip from South OC (Irvine) to LA is only 9.75 for instance (although the OC Line now has a $7 all day fare between most of it's stations, which may do well for generating more shorter trips).


    As for commuter rail fares, I love my super-cheap, super-subsidized $8.25 one-way trip to Boston, which is 42 miles along the tracks. It's roughly in line with the worth of the MBTA's 60-mph-diesel-loco-on-electrified-150-mph-track, 2-hour-off-peak-frequency service.

  4. Paulus--I'm looking for something standardized. Much longer than 20 miles and I won't have a SEPTA route, for example. I noticed while compiling this info that commuter lines along the West Coast were significantly longer than their East Coast brethren, but what arbiter would be better than distance to measure comparative pricing?