In 2014 ridership across all public transport modes in the United States reached 10.8 billion, the highest level for 58 years. Rail ridership was up 3.3%, while passenger numbers for light rail climbed 3.6% with a 2.9% increase in commuter rail usage.
2016 will bring more new lines and stations across the United States. To highlight just a few examples, Denver will open three commuter rail lines, one of which - the A Line - will connect Denver Union Station in the city centre with Denver International Airport. Denver will also open a light rail line that will connect to the A Line. Cincinnati will open a 5.8km tram line linking the urban core with city neighbourhoods. These are not the older, legacy cities that have had rail for decades. Denver and Cincinnati illustrate the growing reach of rail transit in this country.
The future is bright for passenger rail in the US, but why is it so popular now? To begin with, more people are living in urban areas and rail is an efficient way to move people. The largest generation in the United States, the Millennials (roughly aged 18-35), like having transportation choices and like urban living. So do many of the Baby Boomers (aged 50-70), the second-largest age group, who are increasingly moving to urban areas where they can use public transit services.
Another reason why rail is on the increase is because of its positive impact on communities. Mayors of towns and cities throughout the United States know the powerful impact that rail transit can have. Transit-oriented development around rail stations can change a blighted area into a thriving, mixed-use neighbourhood filled with apartments, offices, and shops.
In Washington DC, U Street is now a preferred residential area, filled with nightlife and restaurants thanks to the opening of a metro station on the Green Line. Then there's the comprehensive transformation of Denver city centre into a multimodal transit-oriented community where its Union Station is the hub to connect light rail, commuter rail, buses, Amtrak intercity rail, shuttles, bicyclists, taxis and pedestrians. In addition, 15 construction projects, comprising more than $US 1bn in development, are occurring on an 8 hectare site surrounding Union Station bringing new retail, residential, office space, public plazas and a boutique hotel to lower central Denver.
A good rail network can bring employers to a community. That's good for the economic tax base, as well as for the residents. Companies that want to employ Millennials know that it helps to be near a station. The Marriott hotel chain announced last year that it would move its headquarters when its lease in Bethesda, Maryland expires. Why? So it could be close enough to public transport to attract Millennial workers.
However, it's not just about employers; a good rail system offers access to jobs. Early this year Sound Transit in Seattle will open its light rail University Link. This 5km line will connect people to
the University of Washington, one of the largest employers in the northwest. By 2030, this line will carry 71,000 passengers per day to nearly 21,000 jobs, education and medical services,
as well as sporting events.
While rail transit is on the move in the United States, there are challenges. One certainly is the need for robust federal funding. As I write this article, Congress is in the process of negotiating a new multi-year surface transportation bill. Federal investment is essential for the health of our rail systems. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) reports that there is an $US 86bn maintenance backlog. Additionally, with safety as the number one priority, commuter rail systems are working hard to install positive train control (PTC). The commuter rail operators - which are public agencies - have so far invested $US 1bn of the $US 3.5bn needed to develop and implement PTC, and this cost estimate does not include the extra cost of acquiring the necessary radio spectrum. This is a large amount of money, especially for public agencies, but everyone is committed to rolling out PTC as quickly as possible in order to make commuter rail even safer.
On top of funding challenges, there are workforce challenges. As the Baby Boomers retire, historical knowledge is leaving with them. Cognisant of this issue, Apta conducted a survey of its members in 2015 to identify the most in-demand occupations. The goal was to identify and develop career pathways for the five hardest-to-fill transit industry positions in North America. All five jobs turned out to be in vehicle operations and maintenance across all modes. Three of the five roles were specifically rail positions: rolling stock technicians, signalling engineers, and electrification/track maintenance staff.
To help promote rail as a good industry to work in, Apta funded a Passenger Rail Engineering Education Symposium last summer, which was co-sponsored by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (Arema) and hosted by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Septa). The purpose of this programme was to bring rail transit awareness to engineering professors at colleges and universities. Apta also held the fourth biennial Youth Summit for high school students to highlight the public transport industry as a career option.
In closing, the presence of shared mobility companies is forcing rail transit to evolve. Apta rail members are already leading the way with partnerships that enhance rail services in a way that addresses one of the policy's principles - promoting integration and coordination. For example, in Dallas, the local transit system has partnered with on-demand ride firms. Regular public transport users can use their transit passes to connect with Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar for the first mile or last mile of their trip.
In autumn 2015, Apta adopted a 12-point policy statement that emphasises the themes of our industry's future: inclusion, collaboration, coordination, cross-industry dialogue, expanded customer service, and innovation.
One thing is certain: growth and change are part of the rail industry's future. Apta and its rail transit members stand ready to meet the challenges of the future and to always look for the opportunities that will help us improve.