Is Amtrak allowed to have "Commuter Rail" service?

Amtrak Unlimited Discussion Forum

Help Support Amtrak Unlimited Discussion Forum:

Joined
May 28, 2019
Messages
156
I didn't know where else to ask this, and this might seem like a silly question, but I was wondering how much of the type of service that Amtrak has is required by regulation.
All Amtrak trains, whether corridor service or cross-country trips, have certain things in common. You need to buy tickets ahead of time, for a specific passenger. The trains have amenities like bathrooms and dining cars. But are these things required by regulations?
This might seem like a silly question, but is there a federal regulation that says how far a train has to travel before it is required to have a bathroom? Caltrain and Sounder trains apparently have them. But obviously BART does not.
If Amtrak wanted to, could it run corridor service trains without bathrooms or dining cars. And also without the need for a specific ticket, where people could board through contactless cards? This might seem like a theoretical question, but I am wondering if Amtrak could run a commuter rail train without a dining car or bathroom between, say, Portland and Salem Oregon.
 

Trogdor

BURNiNATOR
Joined
Aug 3, 2004
Messages
5,965
Location
Here
It should be noted that Amtrak runs several trains without food service already.

The Hiawatha, Springfield-New Haven Shuttle (and, IIRC, Keystones? Not sure about the latter) do not have any food service. There is no requirement for food service (and plenty of trains don’t have “dining cars,” if you use the official meaning of that term, but have cafe counter service instead).

I don’t know the official regulation for requiring restrooms, other than to say that it’s not a good idea to run a train of moderate distance and trip duration without one.

Commuter service, per se, can be operated by Amtrak (and is, in some parts of the country, such as the Metrolink service in the LA area; in the past, MARC, VRE, MBTA, Sounder and Caltrain were also operated by Amtrak). There are regulations requiring state subsidy for trains that operate less than 750 miles, so Amtrak couldn’t just operate that service on its own volition. Also, commuter service requires a different kind of service planning and management than Amtrak is set up to provide.

Changing fare payment systems would also be very expensive, and not something that Amtrak really would be in a position to do unless they could apply it systemwide (or, at the very least, on the NEC). That said, if a state agency wants to pay for it for their service, Amtrak could definitely comply.
 

zephyr17

Engineer
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
6,611
Location
Washington State
The establishing legislation (Railroad Passengers Act of 1970) specifically excluded commuter service and stated Amtrak was to operate intercity trains only. This was to prevent railroads still operating commuter services from unloading it onto the Federal government. Since then, commuter rail has been gradually taken over by state and local transit agencies.

Several commuter agencies contract with Amtrak for operating personnel, such as CalTrain and Metrolink, but that is different than Amtrak running it themselves.

Amtrak operates several services without amenities, the Hiawathas and Keystones come to mind. There are also several services that are unreserved, thr Surfliners are one, I am not sure about others, I think the Hiawathas and the Keystones may be.

The line between "commuter" and "intercity" is fuzzy. IMHO, the Hiawathas could conceivably be classified as "commuter" while LIRR between New York and Montauk could be "intercity".

For Portland-Salem, you probably could call it intercity if you wanted it wholly operated by Amtrak, it is right in the fuzzy zone.
But since it is less than 750 miles, Oregon would have pay for it entirely if set up as an Amtrak operation. They might well choose to call it "commuter", work things out with UP and put it under a local/regional transit authority and avoid having to mess with Amtrak. A clear parallel of similar distance is the ACE train between Stockton and San Jose.
 
Last edited:

Qapla

Engineer
Joined
Jul 15, 2019
Messages
2,479
Location
Gator Country Florida
PATH is a good example of "what do you call it" since it operates as a commuter line but, only is it "intercity", it is also "interstate" since it runs between NY and NJ
 
Joined
May 28, 2019
Messages
156
These answers have clarified things for me, thank you. So it seems like there is no legal or regulatory difference between an intercity and commuter line, at least in practice? And that Amtrak is somewhat flexible in offering different levels of service, and that it mostly offers the type of service it does because of customer demand, and practice.
I thought that certain things, like needing photo ID to purchase a ticket, were due to federal laws---which can be silly at times, because there are many places where someone can ride a commuter rail, light rail, or even a city bus, for a distance longer than a "ticketed" trip. I think the longest "city bus" I've ever rode was 100 miles, between Brookings and Coos Bay.
 
Joined
Jan 15, 2012
Messages
3,844
Location
LAX
In the case of Southern California's Metrolink (SCRRA), Amtrak is the "operator" because they provide (by contract) engineers and conductors. That doesn't make it an Amtrak train.
Prior to the Chatsworth head-on collision in 2008, the contracted Metrolink engineers and conductors were provided by Veolia.
Amtrak is currently the contract operator of Metrolink commuter trains.
 

zephyr17

Engineer
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
6,611
Location
Washington State
PATH is a good example of "what do you call it" since it operates as a commuter line but, only is it "intercity", it is also "interstate" since it runs between NY and NJ
Interstate wasn't a factor in the definition, which wasn't really a definition. It was more being within the same metropolitan area. But it really was just a "I knows it when I sees it" thing, with distance being more a factor. You pretty much have to get up over 60 miles for it to be "intercity" and anything much over 100-120 miles would be hard pressed to call "commuter". Between roughly 60 and 120 miles, it is in the eye of the beholder.
 

joelkfla

Engineer
Joined
Oct 16, 2018
Messages
2,428
Location
12 miles from Walt Disney World
The line between "commuter" and "intercity" is fuzzy. IMHO, the Hiawathas could conceivably be classified as "commuter" while LIRR between New York and Montauk could be "intercity".
I don't think anyone would honestly call LIRR an intercity railroad. All of Long Island is within the NY/Newark MSA. The LIRR operates as a commuter railroad; that is, passengers typically park their cars at or take local transit to a station, and ride it to and from work. Sure, some NYers might ride LIRR out to the Hamptons or Montauk for a weekend, but that doesn't change the essential character of the railroad.
 

zephyr17

Engineer
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
6,611
Location
Washington State
I don't think anyone would honestly call LIRR an intercity railroad. All of Long Island is within the NY/Newark MSA. The LIRR operates as a commuter railroad; that is, passengers typically park their cars at or take local transit to a station, and ride it to and from work. Sure, some NYers might ride LIRR out to the Hamptons or Montauk for a weekend, but that doesn't change the essential character or the railroad.
LIRR generally is clearly a commuter railroad, but the Montauk line certainly has some intercity characteristics, if one chooses to see it through that lens.

IIRC, the Montauk service was cited as an argument in the action that Monterey took to California PUC to force SP to continue to operate the "Del Monte" as part of SP's "commute" service. They argued it wasn't an intercity service back at Amtrak's inception. It was based partly on the fact that the length and duration of the trip Montauk route was longer than the Del Monte to Monterey and still considered commuter. They lost and the Del Monte was discontinued with SP's other intercity services (which, except for the San Joaquin Daylight and the Del Monte, lived on under the Amtrak banner).

The main difference in practice was the LIRR hadn't sought to join Amtrak and discontinue Montauk under that authority (think the Pennsy/Penn Central had already sold the LIRR to NYS by then. PC might have given it a shot😉), and SP did. Note if they had joined Amtrak they would have been required to keep the vast majority of their service as commuter operations. Only the Montauk, Greenpoint, and just maybe Port Jefferson services stood a chance of being considered "intercity".

My main point is the line between "intercity" and "commuter" is quite fuzzy and ill-defined.
 
Last edited:

Stremba

Train Attendant
Joined
Apr 27, 2022
Messages
62
Location
Crafton
For the record: I have been on many Keystones. They have no food service, not even a cafe car. They also are partially unreserved. Any trip involving Harrisburg, Philadelphia or any of the stations between those two is unreserved. Any trip to stations beyond Philadelphia is reserved (on those trips that extend to/from NYP)
 

Cal

Engineer
Joined
Jan 23, 2021
Messages
4,006
Location
Socal
PATH is a good example of "what do you call it" since it operates as a commuter line but, only is it "intercity", it is also "interstate" since it runs between NY and NJ
I’d say it’s pretty clear. I believe it’s classed as a commuter railway, however really it’s a rapid transit system. I don’t classify any rapid transit system (this includes BART imo) as commuter rail.
 

MisterUptempo

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Jul 1, 2014
Messages
350
Location
Chicago, IL
Could the old Valpo Dummy, which was a commuter route first run by the Pennsy, then Penn Central, and then Conrail, finally being run by Amtrak as the Calumet, from 1979-1991, be considered an exception to the rule?

Amtrak initially ran two Chicago-bound trains during AM Rush and two Valparaiso-bound trains in PM Rush, with seven stops in between, weekdays only. Metra's Heritage Corridor doesn't do much more than that today.
 
Joined
Apr 5, 2011
Messages
5,020
Location
Baltimore. MD
Amtrak accepts monthly MARC passes between Washington and Aberdeen on a few selected Northeast Regionals. A lot of people ride the Northeast Regional between Baltimore, BWI and Washington. It's more expensive (although I've been seeing $8 one-way tickets recently, the same price as MARC), but it's faster and more comfortable.

I had a former colleague who lived up around Gaithersburg somewhere and commuted into work on the MARC Brunswick Line. Way back in the distant past (late 20th century) at one point Amtrak was accepting MARC tickets on the Capitol Limited, or maybe it was the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge, which made more stops along the Brunswick line than the Capitol Limited makes today.

Here's the timetable from 1981

 
Last edited:

zephyr17

Engineer
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
6,611
Location
Washington State
Could the old Valpo Dummy, which was a commuter route first run by the Pennsy, then Penn Central, and then Conrail, finally being run by Amtrak as the Calumet, from 1979-1991, be considered an exception to the rule?

Amtrak initially ran two Chicago-bound trains during AM Rush and two Valparaiso-bound trains in PM Rush, with seven stops in between, weekdays only. Metra's Heritage Corridor doesn't do much more than that today.
That's another case of the fuzz in the definition. Clearly, it was considered "commuter" initially and not discontinued when PC joined Amtrak. In 1979, Amtrak picked it up, probably at the behest of Illinois and Indiana authorities, so became "intercity" at that point. It is right in the twilight zone of 60-120 miles and across a state border. It is arguably still within the Tri-State Chicago Metro.

I don't think it of an exception to the rule, but as the powers that be taking advantage of the fuzziness in the rule, since it really could go either way, and has.
 

MikefromCrete

Engineer
Joined
Mar 24, 2009
Messages
2,813
Location
Crete, IL
PATH is a good example of "what do you call it" since it operates as a commuter line but, only is it "intercity", it is also "interstate" since it runs between NY and NJ
Seems to me that PATH is a heavy rail transit line, not a commuter train. BART is also heavy rail transit.

Amtrak's operation of the Valpo trains was kind of a holding action, awaiting approval of a subsidy by Indiana authorities. When Indiana failed to act, the trains were canceled.
 

jis

Chief Dispatcher
Staff member
Administator
Moderator
AU Supporting Member
Gathering Team Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2003
Messages
33,507
Location
Space Coast, Florida, Area code 3-2-1
I think they found dealing with the MBTA too much of a hassle and not worth it.
Actually it had to do with the amount of money that MBTA offered for running the system. Amtrak decided that they will have to cover additional costs which it is not allowed to do in such contracts, so it decided to not proceed further.
 

AmtrakWPK

Conductor
AU Supporting Member
Honored Member
Joined
Jun 18, 2004
Messages
1,858
Location
Casselberry, Florida
91/92, 87/88 if I recall the numbers correctly (on my phone)... physically COULD operate as once-a-day commuter srvice in the Miami to West Palm corridor but do not, being pick-up-passengers ONLY northbound and drop-off-passengers ONLY southbound. Also you cannot use 91/92 for travel between Lakeland-Tampa, something I always have considered really STUPID, as, if the trains were close to on-time, could be useful for folks living there as I-4 in that corridor is a daily nightmare. Those rules have cost Amtrak ridership.
 

jis

Chief Dispatcher
Staff member
Administator
Moderator
AU Supporting Member
Gathering Team Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2003
Messages
33,507
Location
Space Coast, Florida, Area code 3-2-1
91/92, 87/88 if I recall the numbers correctly (on my phone)... physically COULD operate as once-a-day commuter srvice in the Miami to West Palm corridor but do not, being pick-up-passengers ONLY northbound and drop-off-passengers ONLY southbound. Also you cannot use 91/92 for travel between Lakeland-Tampa, something I always have considered really STUPID, as, if the trains were close to on-time, could be useful for folks living there as I-4 in that corridor is a daily nightmare. Those rules have cost Amtrak ridership.
To some extent that is true, but the counter argument is that filling up capacity with shorts and thus preventing longer distance passengers from being able to use the service on the whole reduces revenues, not enhance them. Even if they are allowed, inventories have to be carefully managed, and if unable to do that it is better to deny service to shorts on LD trains. So I think considering them "stupid" is a bit over the top. ;)

Additionally, OTP on these services are so terrible that they would hardly be of great use to anyone trying to use them for commuting and such anyway.

BTW, there is no 87/88 in Florida. It is 97/98.

Miami to West Palm Beach hardly needs another Commuter train anyway, and that too with spectacularly unreliable schedule.
 

jis

Chief Dispatcher
Staff member
Administator
Moderator
AU Supporting Member
Gathering Team Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2003
Messages
33,507
Location
Space Coast, Florida, Area code 3-2-1
On the NEC Amtrak used to have a service called Clockers between New York and Philly, which was for all intents and purposes a commuter service. So much so that NJDOT actually subsidized part of it for the facility of allowing NJT pass holders to use it between Trenton and New York and points between. Eventually they were transfered to NJT to become the NJT Outer Zone Expresses to Trenton, and the service to Philly was essentially dropped or picked up by SEPTA's Trenton service.
 
Joined
Sep 12, 2022
Messages
2
Location
Red Bank NJ
To some extent that is true, but the counter argument is that filling up capacity with shorts and thus preventing longer distance passengers from being able to use the service on the whole reduces revenues, not enhance them. Even if they are allowed, inventories have to be carefully managed, and if unable to do that it is better to deny service to shorts on LD trains. So I think considering them "stupid" is a bit over the top. ;)

Additionally, OTP on these services are so terrible that they would hardly be of great use to anyone trying to use them for commuting and such anyway.

BTW, there is no 87/88 in Florida. It is 97/98.

Miami to West Palm Beach hardly needs another Commuter train anyway, and that too with spectacularly unreliable schedule.
More passengers, even for a portion of the trip, always means more revenue; and should mean closer scheduling which would attract more riders of both kinds; long distance can have reserved seats so aways be accommodated; standees will never bother those with their heads in their Iphones —and more trains/people may insure amenities such as cafe and bar cars; which will attract even more riders, especially if the trains add stops within airport terminals. Once schedules get closer, ridership increases; the high speed line between Tokyo and Osaka runs full every three minutes 24/7 so they are now building a new mag-lev line using tunnels to cut the distance to accommodate that demand.
 

jis

Chief Dispatcher
Staff member
Administator
Moderator
AU Supporting Member
Gathering Team Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2003
Messages
33,507
Location
Space Coast, Florida, Area code 3-2-1
More passengers, even for a portion of the trip, always means more revenue; and should mean closer scheduling which would attract more riders of both kinds; long distance can have reserved seats so aways be accommodated; standees will never bother those with their heads in their Iphones —and more trains/people may insure amenities such as cafe and bar cars; which will attract even more riders, especially if the trains add stops within airport terminals. Once schedules get closer, ridership increases; the high speed line between Tokyo and Osaka runs full every three minutes 24/7 so they are now building a new mag-lev line using tunnels to cut the distance to accommodate that demand.
In the context of Florida dreaming is good. But I am afraid we are talking Apples and Oranges here. Amtrak has one or two trains a day with extremely unreliable schedules. It is more appropriate to create Tokyo to Osaka like service on corridors as is the case of NEC. By no stretch of imagination will Amtrak service in Florida ever look like that. That role will be played by Brightline and perhaps TriRail and SunRail (some day) that will hopefully provide that kind of service. Amtrak LD trains play not much of a role in Commuter service in Florida and nor will it in Florida. It is possible that Amtrak could have a Regional service some day in Florida with more than two trains a day, but I am not holding my breath.

Also remember, this is a thread about Amtrak and Commuter Service, and not about star gazing about what could be. ;)

Coming back to Commuter, there are some vague plans to cover the Orlando - Tampa segment with Commuter service some day in the future, but I doubt it will be Amtrak that will be doing it.
 
Last edited:
Joined
Mar 10, 2016
Messages
1,480
I don't know what the length of journey requiring toilet facilities is (if, in fact, it is a requirement), however, as a historical tidbit, Metra Electric did not have toilets until the latest generation of Highliners appeared. The longest possible journey on MED is an hour and seven minutes (local train from downtown to University Park).
 
Top