How Commuters Can Have Their Trains

Commuter service on public transportation has become one of the most besetting problems of our time. For a constructive solution we have turned to STANLEY BERGE, Professor of Transportation at Northwestern University School of Business. Mr. Berge has made special field studies of the railroad situation in six of our large American cities and has made three trips to Europe to collect data bearing on the subject.

THE great cities of today owe much of their growth and present stature to the railroads which have served them for upwards of a century. But as the cities outgrow their past and extend into the suburbs, people everywhere are asking in some anxiety whether there is any way the railroads can meet the new challenge.

The disorganized commuter railroads often give the impression that they do not even wish to participate in future metropolitan transportation. While the press publishes gushing predictions of big plans for motor transport and aviation, one looks in vain for a single enthusiastic, imaginative proposal for large-scale improvement in coordinated metropolitan railroad service. Instead of getting together and pooling their resources to develop a dramatic long-range plan, even the most strategic railroads serving our great cities seem to be going it alone. The newspapers continually report suburban fare increases, train curtailments, and complaints about subsidized competition and unfair taxes. Occasionally there is an encouraging announcement that an individual road has introduced new suburban coaches to replace decrepit old rattlers. But where is there any indication that the railroads, as a group, have any radical improvements in mind for their metropolitan commuter services; their medium-distance intercity passenger services, where they still have a fighting chance; or their through metropolitan freight service, where the present pace of rail performance is almost a joke?

In fact, most railroad managements today are resigned to the idea that insofar as metropolitan transportation is concerned, they are a declining industry. All of their big plans, it seems, are geared to a concept that the future of the railroads is limited solely to the carriage of long-distance intercity bulk freight.

Whether they realize it or not, the strategic rail lines in our large cities possess locational and technical advantages not possessed by any other form of transport. If by some magic injection these despondent carriers were aroused, it could be demonstrated that big cities need coordinated railroads quite as much as coordinated highways and air and water transport.

A fact too often overlooked in discussions of the metropolitan transportation problem is that efficient movement of freight within and across the urban area is just as important as efficient movement of passengers. Hence, any future planning for railroad commuter services and other passenger services should aim at maximum utilization of tracks, equipment, and other facilities by both freight and passenger trains. Is this being done today? The answer is No. Railroad executives and city planners are still struggling with proposals for commuter facilities and for rapid-transit extensions exclusively to take care of passenger traffic. It is not surprising that most of these plans are slow to get public acceptance. Their failure to obtain financial and general support is primarily the result of a fundamental fallacy in metropolitan transportation planning; namely, that because no more than twenty hours per week of use can be expected of commuter railroad and rapid-transit facilities and personnel, such facilities can never be made self-supporting and their operation will always incur a deficit. Since deficits must be carried either by taxpayers, in the case of transit lines, or by shippers and stockholders, in the case of commuter railroads, it is hardly to be expected that metropolitan transportation plans involving extensive deficit financing should be greeted with widespread enthusiasm. In our enterprise system, the public is apt to look askance at any industry, even in the public service, which openly declares that it cannot exist without direct public subsidies on a permanent basis.

Why is it that so many people think of the metropolitan transportation problem simply as a mass-transit problem? To be sure, mass transit by bus and rapid-transit lines is certainly a vital part of urban passenger transportation, but unfortunately it is not suitable for long-distance extensions, as metropolitan travel reaches out fifty miles or more from the central business district. Neither are mass-transit facilities and equipment particularly suited to the transport of mail, express, and freight, which must also be carried if metropolitan rail lines are to become self-supporting. Hence, rather than extend rapid-transit lines far out of the central cities into thin-density territory, why not avoid duplication, waste, and frustration by assigning responsibility for relatively long distance metropolitan transport of both passengers and freight to coordinated metropolitan railroad systems and turn over the closely spaced stops and high-density urban transport of passengers to the transit lines. The railroads would thus become a super rapid-transit network which could be effectively coordinated with an inner network of urban transit services.


One day there will be a great awakening in one of our large metropolitan cities. The present bottleneck of stub-end railroad terminal stations will be broken, enabling trains to move freely through the central city, making stops at a series of convenient platform stations instead of forcing all passengers to enter and leave all trains at a single, congested, downtown location. The old-fashioned, inefficient, stub-end terminal stations in the hearts of most large cities are inherited from the nineteenth century. Further confusion results when cities are served by two or more stub-end stations which, in view of modern needs, are rather inconveniently located.

From the standpoint of the railroads, stub-end terminal stations are both inefficient and wasteful of space, equipment, and manpower. Throughstation tracks can handle at least four times as many trains and passengers per hour as stub-endstation tracks. In Chicago, for instance, forty-five multiple-unit trains can be operated by the electrified Illinois Central suburban line to and from its stub-end terminal station at Randolph Street in a single rush hour. Since the station contains six stub-end tracks, this means an average of approximately seven trains per track per hour. By way of comparison, the State Street subway line of the Chicago Transit Authority averages thirty trains per track during a single rush hour, and in addition offers the passenger a number of convenient platform station stops. In this case, the subway and the railroad both use self-propelled, electric, multiple-unit trains with double-end controls exclusively, yet there appears to be a fourfold gain in efficiency resulting from the throughstation operation compared with the stub-endstation operation.

Moreover, the average efficiency of stub-end railroad terminals is still further impaired by the fact that most commuter railroads operate trains propelled by locomotives. Unless the double-end “push-pull” type of control is provided, it is necessary to engage in extensive — and expensive — switching operations in and out of the terminal station simply to put the locomotive at the head end of each train. Before its recent inauguration of push-pull suburban trains, the Chicago and North Western’s entire sixteen-track stub-end station at Madison Street in Chicago could accommodate only sixty train movements during a single rush hour — no more than are handled in the same hour on just the two through tracks of the transit authority’s State Street subway line.

The distance covered in back-up and turnaround train movements is often considerable. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, for instance, using one end of the stub-end Chicago Union Station, is compelled to back passenger trains three miles to the Western Avenue coach yard, turn them around, and again back them three miles into the station. This procedure not only involves a great waste of track and station capacity but is equally wasteful of equipment and crew time.

To sum up: Obsolete stub-end railway terminals must give way to efficient platform stations located on unified through-track systems, thus permitting effective coordination of metropolitan railway operations. In other words, it is high time that the principle of continuous flow should be applied in metropolitan railroad networks just as it has been applied in the development of expressways and rapid-transit lines. It is no more logical, for example, to stop all New York Central and New Haven passenger trains at a brick wall in Grand Central Terminal than it would be to stop all subway trains at a brick wall under Times Square, or to bottle up all motor vehicles using the Lincoln Tunnel in a giant midtown parking lot.


The advantages of through stations on connected tracks are evident in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s 30th Street and North Philadelphia stations in Philadelphia, as well as in the through-track arrangement of Penn Station in New York. Outside the United States, metropolitan Tokyo has one of the best arrangements of unified tracks and stations. Stations in the Netherlands are almost without exception of the through type. Stub-end stations in Brussels have recently been rebuilt as through stations by linking tracks in a cross-town tunnel. A tunnel has just been completed to link the rail lines in Madrid; and the French are studying a tunnel plan to link the principal rail lines and eliminate major stub-end stations in Paris. Not the least of the advantages of such continuous-flow railway networks is that they are useful for freight, mail, and express trains, as well as for commuter trains and intercity passenger trains. They are thus much more likely to achieve sufficient utilization to pay their way without the need for direct subsidies from the taxpayers.

Consider the New York—New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. The New Jersey railroads, with the exception of the Pennsylvania, all terminate in stub-end stations west of the Hudson River. Even the Pennsylvania, whose two tunnels were completed in 1909, operates very few trains through and beyond Penn Station. As a result, its two tunnels get far less utilization than they could if a pattern of through metropolitan rail service were developed. The idea of operating trains from New Jersey through Manhattan east to Long Island and north to Connecticut is not a new one, but it is still a good one. Why should the LongIsland Rail Road continue to struggle with the obvious inefficiency of dead-end terminal movements in the heart of Manhattan when its service could be made much better and less costly by swinging its trains under the Hudson and terminating their runs at various points on the New Jersey railroads? Consider, also, the advantages that would be gained by extending Grand Central tracks of the New York Central and New Haven through a tunnel connection with through rail operations between Long Island and New Jersey. Such a terminal unification project would finally consummate one of the major unrealized objectives of the Port of New York Authority’s Comprehensive Plan of 1921.

In the Boston area, the sufferings of Suffolk County and the suburbs would be greatly reduced by breaking a tunnel through about a mile and a half of soft slate, putting Boston’s North and South stations on the same through tracks. Such a bold stroke would not only break the city’s ancient bottlenecks by transforming its two stub-end stations into through stations; it might be the welcome signal for finally getting New England’s most important railroads — the New Haven and the Boston and Maine — to work as a winning team. Certainly each road has been finding solo operations a losing proposition.

In the Philadelphia-Camden metropolitan area, it has so far been apparently impossible for the railroads to shake hands across the Delaware River. Not only do the Pennsylvania suburban trains fail to reach the tracks of the PennsylvaniaReading Seashore lines on the Jersey side of the river, but even on the Philadelphia side there is no coordinated use of tracks and stations by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Railroad. Each of these lines terminates its suburban runs in a separate stub-end station in downtown Philadelphia. A rail tunnel under Market Street and across the Delaware River would forge an effective through rail network for the City of Brotherly Love and its hinterland.

Chicago, the railroad center of the United States, suffers from its failure to unify tracks of railroads terminating in five obsolete stub-end stations. Chicago’s terminal unification problem will never be solved until a coordinated unifiedtrack system is developed with a series of conveniently located platform stations, so that both suburban and through trains can collect and discharge passengers at more than one station, and so that tracks and facilities can be used for mail, express, and freight trains, as well as passenger trains. Such a unified-rail system could be created on the cast side of the central business district by constructing a three-mile tunnel connecting the Illinois Central south of the Chicago River with the North Western north and west of the river. On the west side of the Loop, a good connection is needed between the North Western’s tracks and the Union Station, making Union Station an efficient through station.

In the San Francisco Bay area, one wonders why the Southern Pacific’s peninsula line northward from San José still gets no farther than the old stub-end station at Third and Townsend Streets, when, by tunneling under the relatively shallow waters of the bay to Oakland, it could become an effective through route for both freight and passenger traffic. Such a cross-bay tunnel would create an efficient San Francisco Bay belt line connecting San Francisco, Oakland, San José, and the many rapidly growing intermediate communities on either side of the bay.

Even Los Angeles, city of the freeways, is crisscrossed by the rights of way of the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Pacific Electric railways. While the local passenger service of the Pacific Electric has been abandoned, the other railroads still operate through passenger trains into Los Angeles’ Union Station (another stubend facility), and freight service requires the maintenance of many miles of track in the Los Angeles area. Time is running out, but much might still be accomplished if the remaining strategic rail lines of this area were to decide to work as a coordinated metropolitan system.


Couple a bolt of lightning to flanged wheels on through metropolitan systems of steel rails and you will have the key to the solution for the metropolitan transportation problem. The nearest thing to a lightning bolt coupled to a railroad is the economical new 25,000-volt AC system of railroad electrification, which is now rapidly spreading across Europe and Asia. The 25KV 50-cycle system, developed by the French National Railways since World War II, has been adopted by the British Transport Commission for an extensive electrification program in the British Isles. Soviet Russia has adopted it for a big new program of electrification. This system has been successfully employed on suburban lines both in Turkey and in Portugal, which is now extending the system northward from Lisbon to Oporto. In Asia, the new system has been adopted for major installations in India and in Communist China and will be utilized in extensions of electrified lines in Japan.

In France, a combination of technical leadership and aggressive promotional efforts has developed a new system which has cut the investment cost of railroad electrification in half while at the same time increasing its efficiency and reliability. By 1961, at least 70 per cent of all traffic carried by the 26,000-mile nationalized railroad system will be moved electrically. Tremendous advancement in the speed, capacity, and stamina of conventional electrified railroads has been scored by the French, while monorail promoters have been attempting to convince the world that the best way to get 100-mile-an-hour trains is to take them off two rails and suspend them from one. Yet, while no commercial monorail has yet been built to carry passengers even as fast as 50 miles an hour, the French have operated trains propelled by modern electric locomotives at 205 miles an hour over a stretch of conventional standard-gauge track near Bordeaux. Following these successful tests, the French stepped up the speed limit to 100 miles an hour on the Paris-Lyon portion of the famous Mistral run to the Riviera. The Mistral, fastest scheduled train in the world over a long run, now averages 80 miles an hour over the 318 miles between Paris and Lyon.

Rhythmic, trouble-free, high-speed operation twenty hours a day on the Paris-Lyon run has also brought to the French the world’s locomotive stamina championship. This was achieved in 1955 by the Alsthom electric locomotive CC-7147, which covered a distance of 273,400 miles — more than equal to a trip to the moon — in seven months of regular runs averaging 1272 miles daily. The locomotive was then given its first general overhaul. Not being satisfied with this record, the French National Railways has since decided on a policy of running a million kilometers — equal to a round trip to the moon — on the Paris-Lyon run before giving the electric locomotives a general overhaul.

Such record-shattering speed and trouble-free performance of modern electrified railroad service are in themselves staggering, but the most spectacular discovery was yet to be revealed. This was the first successful large-scale use of standard high-voltage alternating current for railroad electrification. Less than ten years of post-war research and experimentation, largely conducted on a fiftymile line near Geneva, led French engineers to embark upon general application of the revolutionary 25KV 50-cycle single-phase system of rail electrification. The use of such high-voltage alternating current of standard frequency (50-cycle in Europe and 60-cycle in the United States) removes the principal obstacle to railroad electrification — the huge cost of initial installation.

Having built both 1500-volt direct current fines and 25,000-volt 50-cycle alternating current lines at the same time and under similar conditions, the French were able to demonstrate a saving of approximately 50 per cent in the construction cost of the AC system. First, the catenary wire and supporting poles required to feed 25,000-volt alternating current to electric locomotives or self-propelled trains are only about one third as heavy as those required for the 1500-volt direct current trolley wire. Second, the 25KV system does not require a parallel, high-tension transmission line along the right of way, since the trolley wire itself is the high-tension line. This eliminates the complication and cost of three wires and their supporting poles along the right of way — a vast saving in original investment and in maintenance expense. Third, costly substations along the right of way, required to change standard utility current into direct current, or some special low-frequency alternating current, are virtually eliminated. Thus, instead of requiring substations with transformers and rectifiers every four to eight miles, the 25KV 50-cycle trolley wire needs to be fed only every thirty to fifty miles, where it is connected by transformer with the public-utility power grid.

For metropolitan railway operations, electrification must be regarded as the next important step to be taken after unification of tracks and stations. Under high-density traffic conditions, such as prevail in metropolitan service, electric trains are more efficient and economical than diesel-powered trains. In the long run, using the high-voltage AC system, fuel and maintenance costs will be less for electric than for diesel power. With more traffic concentrated on fewer tracks in a coordinated system, the time will be ripe for a new era of American railroad electrification. By that time, experiments now being made may have perfected a system of automatic train operation by remote control on electrified routes. Louis Armand, former president of the French National Railways, told me in 1955 that automatic operation of electric trains would in the future be considered just as practical as automatic electric elevators are today. Just last year, installation of a new system of electronic safety devices permitted the Swiss Federal Railways to adopt universal one-man cab control on all trains.


Some railroad commuters have been willing to put up with 100 per cent fare increases since World War II simply because they would rather pay the increased fares than drive to work. But this does not mean that they are happy with either the fares or the train service. As more and more people have been commuting by automobile, the commuter railroads have been losing passengers, even though commuter revenues are reaching record highs. Under present conditions the automobile gives most commuters faster, more comfortable, and more convenient transportation from door to door than public transportation by railroad or transit lines. Furthermore, for those commuters who have access to free or cheap parking at their places of business, the automobile is more economical than railroad commutation. Since the average American family possesses at least one automobile, the fixed costs of car ownership are incurred whether or not the vehicle is used for commutation. Hence, the commuter compares the out-of-pocket cost of driving and parking with the out-of-pocket cost of rail fares plus bus fares to and from the railway stations. Thus many commuters have decided that rail service is too slow, too inconvenient, too uncomfortable, or too expensive for door-to-door transport.

Fortunately, the railroads are not yet out of the race. As fares have been increased, new and comfortable equipment is appearing on some of the roads which seem to believe that their commuter service has a future. How can this change of heart be organized into a vigorous long-range program of spectacular improvements in the quality and economy of rail service?

People will use automobiles only as long as nothing better is available. Trucks will carry most of the freight within and through metropolitan areas only until faster, more efficient, and more economical transport is available. Mail and express will continue to suffer from central terminal delays only until a better system of coordinated metropolitan mail and express distribution is available. Some will say, “Why flay the dyingiron horse? His days of service are nearly over.” Others will reply that coordinated electrified through metropolitan railway systems may still be made a dynamic force in the new metropolis with beneficial effects upon land utilization and human activities.

We would do well to keep in mind that commercial, social, and recreational developments invariably follow good equipment on good schedules over good routes. The corollary is that transportation improvements can be financed most economically by capitalizing on the future values which transport improvements invariably create.

The modern metropolis challenges the railroads, and the future role of the iron horse in urban transport depends upon the response of railroad management to this challenge.