Across the country, city transit lines that serve lower-income riders without vehicle access or who work in health care, retail and other jobs that can’t be done from afar have retained much of their pre-pandemic ridership, experts say. Meanwhile, long-distance systems have lagged, as the bulk of their more affluent customers with more flexible desk jobs continue to telework or turn to driving.
Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system is sending free fare cards to residents who recently moved into its suburban service area. New Jersey Transit is touting its commuter trains and buses as a convenient ride to Manhattan’s entertainment and a more flexibly priced commuting option for the city’s stage, restaurant and hotel workers.
Many commuter rail systems have started offering discounts to less frequent commuters as an alternative to the traditional monthly pass. Some are adjusting to more flexible work schedules and targeting nonwork trips by moving rush-hour trains to all-day service. Others are trying to lure weekend customers with flat fares and free rides for children.
Metrorail ridership rebounded in recent days to 29 percent of pre-pandemic levels, after more offices reopened on Tuesday. Even so, Metro officials have predicted overall ridership on the rail and bus systems will reach just 53 percent by this summer and 75 percent by mid-2024 — with the biggest losses among long-distance commuters.
Ridership on Maryland’s MARC commuter rail bumped up to 23 percent of pre-pandemic levels as more offices reopened this month. Like other commuter rail systems, MARC has begun offering a discounted and more flexible fare pass for fewer trips. It also has experimented with a new evening express train to speed up the trip between Union Station and Baltimore.
Ridership on Virginia Railway Express hit 16 percent of pre-pandemic levels this month, its highest customer load since the pandemic began. Los Angeles’s Metrolink and Chicago’s Metra commuter rail systems are at 30 percent, according to the agencies. In New York, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North lines have fared better, with ridership above 50 percent. New Jersey Transit reports rail ridership at 50 percent.
Ensuring the viability of long-distance trains and buses is critical, industry experts say, because like all mass transit systems, their operations rely on public subsidies. The less ridership revenue, the more government must make up the difference without service cuts. In addition to providing a public service, officials say, long-distance transit helps reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions while attracting and focusing growth around stations.
The new service is noticeably busy in the mid-afternoons, probably because it now serves 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. work schedules common in health-care and construction jobs, Poftak said. He said two years of teleworking also seem to have left commuters with newfound flexibility to leave the office early, such as to pick up children, before finishing the workday at home. Running trains throughout the day entices passengers who previously might have worried about getting home quickly for a midday emergency, he said.
However, officials for both VRE and MARC say they can expand service only if Amtrak and the freight railroads that own the track their commuter trains run on grant them more space. That would require funding to add more track and other capacity, officials said. VRE is pursuing new weekend service and additional weekday trains, but MARC officials say they can’t expand anytime soon because of capacity constraints.
Transit officials in Washington and across the country say they are hopeful a resurgence in traffic congestion, as miserable as it is, will help woo back riders lost to driving. Many major metro areas, including the D.C. region, are reporting traffic congestion approaching pre-pandemic levels and, in some case, are surpassing them.
That feeling resonates with Herndon resident Nelson Richardson, 35, who said he has driven to his IT job at the Capitol throughout the pandemic only when he needed the flexibility for child care. But he mostly has stuck with VRE or Metro, opting for the solitude of the train over an increasingly jammed Interstate 66.
Kettle, its chief executive, said he is eyeing residents who moved farther out for more affordable space during the pandemic and took on a longer commute, even if it’s less often. He said he hopes the return of Southern California’s stifling traffic congestion will help make the case for riding rail.
Experts say the extent to which many systems recover — and how long it takes — will depend on unknown factors, such as whether another variant emerges, how long employers permit hybrid schedules and how comfortable passengers feel riding long distances in enclosed spaces. Another big question: how much two years of working from home has dampened some long-distance workers’ willingness to schlep to and from an office, even a few days a week.
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