Illustration by Jarrod Barretto
Illustration by Jarrod Barretto

Railroading has, like almost all industries, made great strides in labor productivity since its inception more than two centuries ago.

From the replacement of horses with steam engines in the 19th century to the elimination of drivers entirely with recent generations of automated trains, railway engineers have been relentless in the pursuit of more efficient transit.

For the past 50 years, however, this progress has eluded passenger rail in the U.S. While unions and management squabble over wages and benefits, the overarching issue of labor productivity remains unresolved. The resulting high labor costs drag down service, prevent new lines from opening, and depress ridership and revenues.

Inefficient use of labor is found throughout American transit, but nowhere more so than with the nation’s regional, or commuter, railroads. Built decades before the first subways, these lines are some of the oldest, and their labor practices are antiquated. As a result of their high labor costs, regional railways are treated as a luxury commuter service for suburbanites, with few attempts made to operate the lines more like the high-frequency, low-cost rapid transit that they have the potential to be.

According to Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the main impediment to more frequent service is the way that tickets and fares are collected.

Unneeded Conductors

The standard regional-rail operating practice of having an onboard conductor punch every ticket on every ride is “extremely obsolete,” he says. “The conductors stepping on and off the train, punching tickets, shouting -- it’s very 19th century.”

Instead, he argues, regional railroads should adopt leaner train crews, allowing them to run more trains an hour. In other words, get rid of conductors. Turnstiles would replace them on busy lines, with proof-of-payment systems for those with less traffic. This honor system enforced by occasional ticket checks with heavy fines for fare dodgers was popularized in Europe, and has already spread to buses and newer North American rail systems.

Compared with the current practice of having as many as four or five employees on long rush-hour trains, having just one -- the driver -- would drastically cut the cost of adding more frequent service. In the Philadelphia area, Vuchic says, “it would allow us to replace four-car trains every hour with two-car trains every half-hour at the same cost. And if they could really give us two trains per hour, I’m sure ridership would go up 20 to 30 percent.”

The idea of converting regional-rail lines with conductors to rapid transit lines with ticket gates goes back almost a half-century. In 1966, the Illinois Central Railroad started installing magnetic ticket gates in stations along what is now the Metra Electric line, which connects Chicago’s Loop to its southern suburbs, passing through wide swaths of Chicago’s South Side, including Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.

In the 1960s, service was only half what it was at its peak, but trains along the Illinois Central were serving the suburbs every 40 minutes and the South Side every 20, with more during rush hour. Just as Japanese and Western European railroads were doing, the Illinois Central installed automatic fare gates and sought to emulate rapid-transit practices by paring train crews down to just an engineer and conductor.

Work Rules

The railroad’s reforms were thwarted by labor arbitrators and eventually a short strike, according to a 1998 report by John Allen of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority. Any trains with six or more cars were required to have three-person crews. Unable to make a profit amid declining ridership and high labor costs, the RTA started subsidizing Chicago regional-rail service along the Illinois Central in 1976, and bought the tracks outright in 1987.

But organized labor is only one obstacle to reform. Management and politicians also have to want it, and it’s not clear they do.

Philadelphia has perhaps the most extensive U.S. regional rail network, and the wasted potential to go along with it. Its Center City Commuter Connection, which linked the terminal stations of the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads, allowed trains to run through the city without stopping to turn around, increasing capacity and bringing the system to the same level as express rapid-transit systems in Germany and France. Add in its totally electrified network, and the regional-rail infrastructure of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is the perfect candidate for an upgrade.

David Gunn was general manager of Septa when the Philadelphia transit authority took over the network from Conrail in 1983, and faced down the regional rail unions in a strike that lasted more than three months. Management eventually won the right to assign work in maintenance shops without onerous craft-union restrictions, as well as the right to assign engineers to drive between the old lines of the Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Reached by telephone at his home in Nova Scotia, Gunn said Septa managers also won the ability to set train crews at rapid transit levels if they so desired.

Vuchic, who designed Philadelphia’s original through-running system, has been advocating for decades to upgrade the commuter-rail system to rapid-transit standards, to no avail.

“I don’t think they have even pressed the unions to do it, but they’re using them as an excuse to not make any change,” he said, referring to the authority’s management. “They’re not even trying!”

Platform Problem

Vuchic also cited Septa’s regional-rail platform heights as an indication that the impediments to reform are bigger than the unions. Besides taking tickets, conductors are also needed on regional trains to cover the cars’ stairway for high-platform stations, and uncover them for those with low platforms. Getting rid of conductors requires that every station on a line be given a high platform, flush with train floors -- something that Septa has made no systematic attempt to do, according to Vuchic.

The problem isn’t limited to the nation’s regional railroads. The New York City Subway and its New Jersey counterpart, the PATH (for Port Authority Trans-Hudson), have clung to their conductors long after other U.S. rapid-transit systems cut back to a single worker driving and controlling its doors.

And the labor issues in New York’s transit system extend outside of the train cars. When asked by transit blogger Benjamin Kabak about its high construction costs, Michael Horodniceanu, president of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction division, gave a two-word answer: “work rules.” Citing the example of the city’s revered sandhogs, he said the MTA employs 25 for tunnel-boring machine work that Spain does with nine.

To the extent that organized labor is opposed to rationalizing staffing levels, John Allen argued that major service increases should accompany the elimination of redundant positions. “The intention is to build a win-win situation for all parties,” he wrote. “Management gains greater efficiency, labor enjoys a greater number of more secure jobs, and customers benefit from more frequent service at all hours.”

(Stephen Smith is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, who covers land use and transportation. The opinions expressed are his own. Read his first article here.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Smith at smithsj@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.