Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again? Act 3

At this point it should be quite evident that passenger train service to and through suburbia is neither a new nor novel notion. With all the progress on this front made to date, coupled with what seems to be unwavering resolve in pushing on, I see nothing but clear track ahead.

A personal journey

In Baltimore, Maryland – land of my birth and where I resided until age 20 – brought back was rail-based public transit in the 1980s. Long since relocated to California by that time, I tried to keep my finger on the pulse as best I could (remember: the Internet was unavailable then) regarding what in the way of rail development was taking place in my former stomping ground. A visit in the mid-80s afforded a ride on Baltimore’s then very new subway line. I make it a point to ride rail mass transit in places I visit during my travels – that is in the locales that have such systems.

In addition to the subway, the eastern seaboard city located on the Patapsco River estuary of the Chesapeake Bay also possesses a light rail system. The line that I am familiar with shares tracks with freight trains and ties the Pennsylvania Railroad Station (also known as Union Station) with the office district of Hunt Valley, a North Baltimore suburb. The freights, incidentally, use the tracks during the overnight hours when light rail transit service is restricted.

“Suburb,” being the operative word here and its connection to transportation in general and rail-based mobility in particular is what this story is about.

Now: the view out the front window.

Where is automated mobility going? The next revolution

There is much speculation floating about as to what automated transportation in the future will look like; what it will consist of. The buzz right now seems to be over autonomous automobiles or cars that can drive themselves. But, really, is this the ultimate resolution?

Moreover, sealed tube-travel concepts like Hyperloop have surfaced recently.

DSCN4328 (255x340)As for the above, I think it is too early to predict where, exactly, these endeavors and not-quite-off-the-drawing-board proposals, respectively, will go. But by no means does this mean that these and other ideas (similar in principle or otherwise) should not be pursued.

What I will focus instead on, is city-based (i.e., between and within cities) public passenger rail transit.

To try to get a better grasp on the direction transit more along these lines in North America will likely take, I have decided to consult: “The Most Promising North American Rail Regions Over the Next Decade,” an entry posted by Rich Sampson on the Potomac Express who provides a very good overview.

Please keep in mind that this was presented almost a year ago, but below is a sample from the list that Sampson assembled:

In tenth place are several. Places on the local and regional passenger train maps have names like Kansas City, Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, Austin, San Antonio, Memphis, just to name a few should ring a bell. And in reference to the Cincinnati streetcar system it has had to overcome quite a few hurdles, but the construction operation is moving proudly forward “full steam ahead.”

Ahead of this, the nine spot is reserved for Detroit and Ann Arbor. In the case of the former eyes are affixed on the M-1 Rail plan. This 3.2-mile-long route is taking shape as I write this and will connect the Motor City’s Midtown and downtown districts. Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, there is the “proposed” 27-mile “Walley” (Washtenaw to Livingston) line.

Weighing in at number eight on Sampson’s list is Orlando and Central Florida. Based out of Orlando is SunRail expected to open this year if it hasn’t already done so. It is a regional rail system paralleling Interstate 4 its entire length. Add to this All Aboard Florida, a private enterprise bridging together by passenger rail Miami and Orlando with possible future extensions to Jacksonville and Tampa. Sampson mentions some additional prospects here in the number 8 spot also.

Ottawa’s “O-Train” enters the station on track seven. Here the Potomac Express blog poster chats up the line that is to replace an existing bus rapid transit service and then some when completed.

Coming in in the sixth position is the on-tap Central Link light rail with a couple other honorable mentions such as the Tacoma Link, East Link and the University Link extensions. Add to this five, count ‘em, five additional streetcar service possibilities, and what seems clear is the direction transportation in Washington State’s Puget Sound region is heading.

In the five slot is the greater Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas; namely, Phoenix with its MetroRail light rail transit offering and Tucson with its currently-in-the-works Sun Link streetcar addition. The Central Mesa extension on the eastern end of the MetroRail corridor in the Phoenix metropolitan region is taking shape too. This extension, when complete, will add 3.1 miles to the current 20-mile, 28-station system. And on matters of sustainability, Metro Rail is going solar.

Though too long to include the entire list, for the rest of the story and specifically to see details on the final four, go here:


As should be as plain as day, the earlier installments – Acts 1 and 2 of this “Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again?” series – have dealt exclusively with the present and past. Now, with this third and final act (concerning “what lies ahead”) a wrap, and on top of this, the series itself being complete, the full story is thus told.

– Alan Kandel