Fares Go Up, But Not Enough: Why Commuter Rail is Unsustainable

Credit: Harford Courant


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As Metro-North returns to charging peak fares at rush hour this week, it’s time to get honest about the unsustainable nature of commuter rail in Connecticut.

Sure, our state’s rail riders already pay some of the highest fares of any commuter line in the US (because the railroad’s subsidy, though high, is the lowest in the country), but those fares don’t come close to covering the actual cost of operations, let alone the cost of capital equipment (new trains, locomotives, stations).  Metro-North is losing taxpayers’ money with every trip… lots of it!

Back in the good old’ pre-COVID era, almost half of the railroad’s cash flow came from the sale of monthly commuter passes.  Now the railroad is offering a further 10% discount on those all-you-can-ride tickets to try to encourage dwindling sales.

Ever so slowly, commuters are coming back to their offices in New York, some very reluctantly:  not out of health concerns but because they’ve proven themselves so productive working from home and don’t want to trudge into the city if they don’t have to.

Avoiding the expense (in time and money) of a daily commute is now a major negotiating point in hiring.  And with 33 million Americans having quit their jobs in the past year, it’s a seller’s market for talent.  Demanding in-person, in-office appearance five days a week is a non-starter.

Once skilled workers have tasted the sweet fruit of working from home, bosses will never be able to take away that benefit.  That’s why weekday ridership on Metro-North is still just 45%.  I think it will be many years, if ever, that ridership is fully restored to the pre-COVID levels.

Yes, some rush hour trains are getting crowded.  To their credit, the railroad is adding additional service and speeding up some runs in late March.  There will also be new discounted 20-trip tickets for the occasional rider.  But all that still won’t be enough to win back riders.

Even when the trains were standing-room-only, the railroad was losing money.  Now with ridership down by more than half and fares being further discounted, those losses will compound.

On the heavily-traveled New Haven mainline  every trip (pre-COVID) was subsidized by taxpayers by $3.25.  On the Danbury and Waterbury branches, the per-trip subsidy was $17 and $24 respectively.  And on Shore Line East, every passenger ticket was subsidized by almost $50.

Now, with just half of its previous ridership, you can double those subsidy numbers and you’ll see the true cost of running this commuter railroad.

For now, Uncle Sam is picking up the tab as part of the Feds’ COVID relief package, which really means that taxpayers and future generations will pay for this bailout.  But these kinds of losses are unsustainable.  Something’s got to give.

Maybe service will be reduced, especially outside of rush  hour.  And if so, there may be layoffs of railroad staff.  Or fares will have to increase to cover the deficit, but that would only further discourage ridership.

Nobody expects a commuter railroad to operate at a profit.  If it could, the original New Haven Railroad would still be run privately.  No, commuter rail is a public service but needs to find a way to better adjust to the new work-life realities of a post-COVID America.

Photo credit: Hartford Courant