N-S Rail - Commuter Rail Overview

Commuter rail in general consists of trains running on tracks, in routes from about 25 to 75 miles in length, connecting suburban residential areas to downtowns of major cities in a region.  The schedules and configuration of commuter rail services, as the name suggests, are generally designed to serve commuters, or people traveling to and from work.  The trains often consist of unpowered cars, pulled and pushed by powered locomotives, but may also consist of self-powered cars. 

Commuter rail is different from “light rail” or “street cars” or “rapid transit” which tend to be self-powered and may even operate on city streets.  Commuter rail also frequently shares tracks with freight rail, which runs on the country’s “general railroad system”, which is regulated by the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA); the other rail modes rarely carry freight and are not FRA-regulated.

The State of Michigan MITrain fleet currently consists of 23 railcars that would be pulled or pushed by a locomotive.  This fleet would likely be used to provide N-S Commuter Rail Service or other commuter rail services in the State.

  Passenger locomotive for optional lease/purchase shown in a sample MiTrain paint scheme

  MITrain railcar on display in Hamburg, 9/21/2013

To see a video of the N-S (WALLY) Commuter Railroad demonstration train that took place in Howell, MI, August, 2014, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5tbOzYgTfo

There are currently 23 commuter systems operating in the US (depending on how you count), and others in the planning stages. As with most commuter rail projects, the amount of service (frequency, days and times operated, length of route) may start out being fairly limited, and then grow later if there is sufficient ridership.  For further information on North American Commuter Rail systems, see Wikipedia; "Commuter Rail in North America".

Commuter rail trains stop at stations specifically designed for that purpose, again unlike street-cars or light rail services which sometimes stop and load/unload on the street or in areas without significant structures.  Commuter rail stations generally consist of boarding platforms that are designed specifically for getting on and off the trains.  The platforms often have shelters, lighting and a number of other features.  It is common, but not absolutely necessary, for the station to contain an enclosed structure where people can wait, buy tickets, and get schedule information.  Large commuter rail systems like New York and Chicago have some very large stations that include commercial establishments, offices, community centers, etc. Most new systems use smaller, less-full-featured, stations, especially in the outlying parts of the system, perhaps with larger stations at major terminal points.

To ride a commuter rail train, a customer typically buys a ticket and presents it to the trainman on-board the train.  Ticket sales may be handled by a station agent who works in the boarding station, or may be provided via vending machines on the station site.  On-line ticket sales are becoming increasingly common, and some systems use a proof-of-purchase or the ‘honor system’ to check tickets, rather than having a person on board the train to check tickets.

To get to a commuter rail station, a customer may drive, walk, bike or get dropped off by another driver or a bus.  Commuter rail stations typically provide extensive parking at suburban locations, to accommodate the many people who may drive 1-10 miles to get to these stations.  Stations situated in denser small town suburban settings will usually have relatively fewer parking spaces due to the number of people who can walk or bike to such stations.  Such small town settings will also frequently provide bus services as ‘feeders’ to their stations. 

A typical suburban commuter rail station – note shelter, lighting, boarding platform

Most commuter rail systems have one or two major terminal stations that serve as the most common work trip destination for riders, and these are typically larger, denser cities with large concentrations of employment.  At such stations, there is usually less automobile parking, and more bus services, to get people to their final destination if it is too far to walk. 

  Nashville’s downtown Music City Star Station


Rail stations have historically been community centers because of the important role they once served as ‘gateways’ to the community.  While this historical role has diminished, communities still use rail stations as focal points for community activities.  Thus, it is not uncommon for a station to be developed in conjunction with other uses such as residential and commercial development.  Businesses often gravitate toward stations because the station helps generate sales.  Home developers often locate near stations because the proximity of the station can makes those residences attractive places to live. This ‘transit-oriented development’ creates a mutually beneficial relationship whereby the train station encourages development that, in turn, encourages ridership.  This is why property values often increase when rail service is nearby, and why transit has been shown to have a healthy impact on the economy, as shown by several national studies [ 1, 2, 3].

In Michigan, several commuter rail projects are currently under investigation including: