Commuter Rail

Transportation Nation

LOOK: Florida's Brand New Commuter Rail Has Brand New Rail Cars

Friday, August 16, 2013


Central Florida got its first peek at new SunRail passenger cars this week. 

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Transportation Nation

Senate Panel Okays Funding for D.C. Transit

Friday, June 28, 2013


The agency that runs D.C.'s subways is looking forward to federal money to replace outdated equipment and catch up on years of deferred maintenance. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority would receive another installment of federal funds to rebuild its aging rail system under an appropriations bills approved by a Senate panel on Thursday.

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Transportation Nation

Will SunRail Change Central Florida's Driving Habits?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

SunRail will run right through the center of Florida Hospital's Health Village campus (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Listen to an audio version of this story here

Developers are building apartments along Florida’s new commuter rail line -- but if SunRail isn't reliable, both the idea of transit-oriented development -- not to mention SunRail -- could flop.

The SunRail tracks run straight through Florida Hospital’s campus on North Orange Ave. When the commuter train starts in 2014 it will be an important part of the hospital’s plans for a health village, which will include a mix of apartments, shops and businesses clustered around the yet-to-be built rail station.

Developer Craig Ustler says the project will transform the surrounding neighborhood.

“It would look like a lot of people walking, a pedestrian friendly environment, and maybe an evolution to a place where the car doesn’t win all the time.”

"It’s not a perfect set up yet," says Craig Ustler, standing at the site of the future Florida Hospital SunRail platform "they’ve got to build an administrative building and some retail to tie it all together, but a lot of pieces in place already to make a quality environment built around the transit.”

Ustler is counting on residents for a 250 apartment, $38 million complex he’s building a few blocks from the hospital.

The idea behind transit-oriented development (TOD) is to create pedestrian- friendly environments with access to transportation alternatives to the car. Local officials, like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, are excited about its potential.

“Transit-oriented development is popping up all around these stations, giving us new places to work, live and play," said Dyer when SunRail got the final go-ahead a year ago.

"New companies moving in, new jobs being created. People saving money because they don’t have to use their car. People saving time because they’re not stuck on I-4.”

With ten thousand hospital employees and about three thousand  students at the College of Health Sciences, all of them potential rail passengers, shoppers or tenants, Florida Hospital is ripe for TOD.

To make it work, though, the rail has to run often and on time. And right now SunRail won’t run on weekends.

Gregg Logan, managing director of the Orlando real estate advisory services firm RCLCO, says that could be a problem.

“If it’s not convenient, then people won’t use it and that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘see, we shouldn’t have funded it because people aren’t using it,'" says Logan.

"Well, people will use it if it’s convenient.”

SunRail says it will extend the service if there’s demand.

TOD is still untested in Central Florida, and that’s made it challenging for developers to get financing for big projects around rail. Compared to cities with well-established mass transit system like New York, Central Florida’s urban environment is relatively young, with most of the big growth springing up in the last 50 years. But Gregg Logan says that could be an advantage.

“I guess the good news is we can go to some of these other places and look at what worked," he says, "and borrow some of their best ideas.”

RCLCO's Gregg Logan points to a map of the SunRail commuter train route (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Logan says Central Florida should take inspiration from Portland’s street car and the Washington DC Metro, where TOD has driven up the value of land around rail stations. While Florida Hospital has big plans for development, some of the other stops along the rail line aren’t as far advanced.

One landowner trying to attract business for a potential development is Tupperware. Spokesperson Thomas Roehlk says the company has 100 acres for mixed use set aside at its headquarters near the Osceola Parkway station.

“We haven’t had the interest yet from businesses, partially as a consequence of the fact that we are in phase two, so we’re four years out from having a station, and secondly just because of the slow uptick to the economy," He says.

However, Roehlk believes Tupperware’s plan will succeed in the long run because of the location’s proximity to another major transport hub -- Orlando International Airport.

Meanwhile, developer Craig Ustler says once the train starts running past his building at Florida Hospital, Orlando residents will begin to see the potential for a well-planned urban environment.

“I think the vast majority of people have woken up to the fact that living 30 miles away from where they work, and driving, and the price of gas and all that is probably not the most efficient thing in the world," says Ustler.

"We still need some time to work through exactly how to fix that and how to give people the tools to make a move.”

Ustler's apartment complex breaks ground next month.




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Transportation Nation

As in the 1800s, Bikes and Trains Could Boom Together in Florida

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

DeLand, Florida (Photo by Matthew Peddie)

In central Florida the car rules. A network of wide highways link sprawling cities.

But now two machines which saw their heyday in Florida more than a century ago  are making a comeback: the train and the bike.

With the arrival of the SunRail commuter train in 2014 some cities are looking to bicycles as a way to get passengers to their final destination.

In Winter Park -- built in the late 1800s -- the city's sustainability coordinator Tim Maslow is thinking about how to incorporate cycling into the transportation mix. Maslow says the new SunRail and Amtrak train station could be a starting point for bike sharing.

Winter Park's train station will be demolished and rebuilt (photo by Matthew Peddie)

“We see having a station here with maybe ten bikes at first to see how it goes," says Maslow. "You could go up to 20 bikes per station with some of the companies we’ve been looking at.”

One company talking with Winter Park is the Wisconsin based B-cycle, which is backed by the bike manufacturer Trek. In Denver, the company has some 50 bike share stations where users can rent their bikes, and B-cycle says the system works well with the city's light rail line. Train passengers use the bikes to go the last leg of their journey after getting off the train.

Bike sharing already has a foothold in South Florida, where Broward County has started a system. Sales manager Lee Jones went for a ride around Orlando on a recent visit. He says bike share stations around SunRail may have to be positioned to avoid the busiest roads.

“I did find some of the very wide streets, basically three lanes across, it was almost like being on the interstate," he says.

Early map of Winter Park

Some cities along the rail line are ideally situated for this back to the future approach to getting around.

Tim Maslow, from Winter Park, points out his city was designed so passengers could easily walk to and from the train station.

“That was before the automobile was so prevalent in everyone’s lives, so when they came down to the train station they actually had to go to different locations that were no longer than a 15-20 minute walk, because in Florida no one would walk that far,” says Maslow.

A return to cycling as a primary means of transportation may seem a bit old fashioned. But when the bicycle first appeared in America, it was high tech. In the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman's Cassidy shows off a bicycle with the words: "meet the future."

The movie was set in the late 1800s, when the real-life Cassidy and the Kid were robbing trains in the American West.

In Florida at that time, rail barons were laying a network of tracks across the state, and the whole country was gripped by a cycling craze.

"It was huge in this country, huge," says Tim Bustos, the executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association.

"Next to the railroad, bicycling was like the most powerful transportation lobby out there. [Bicycles] were expensive, so it was mostly well to do and influential people that could afford them.”

And in the late 1800s, well-to-do people were taking the train to cities like Winter Park to spend their winter vacations.

Winter Park’s not the only place where rail and cycling could make a comeback.

Tim Bustos, Florida Bicycle Association

The Florida Bicycle association’s headquartered in Deland, and Tim Bustos dreams of making the city a hub for cycling in the state.

He says SunRail’s completion in 2016 could help, by giving riders better access to a network of cycling trails. Bike share could also be part of the mix.

“People that would have rented a car five years ago, are now using bike shares," he says.

"It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s more enjoyable.”

Some DeLand cyclists have reservations- they say a safe route first has to be found from the train station to the city’s downtown, five miles away.

“We’re researching routes that could be bike friendly," says Ted Beyler, who owns the Deland Cyclery, one of two bicycle shops in Deland.  Beyler’s on a chamber of commerce committee looking into the problem, and he says if that can be worked out, bike sharing could take off.

"That’s the major hindrance that I see is the proximity of the station to downtown Deland," says Beyler.

However, central Florida bicycle advocates agree that SunRail’s arrival brings with it a chance to begin a new chapter in the shared history of cycling and rail.

DeLand Cyclery (photo by Matthew Peddie)


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Transportation Nation

Massachusetts Has First Smart Phone Rail Ticketing in U.S.

Monday, April 23, 2012

By fall, MBTA riders will be able to purchase and display commuter rail tickets on their smart phones. The MBTA says this is the first for  a commuter rail system in the U.S.

Less than half of the MBTA's 140 commuter rail stations have vending machines, forcing customers to buy tickets on board.

The MBTA says 2/3 of riders now have smart phones.

“With this new and innovative approach, we are putting a ticket machine right in the palms of our customers’ hands,” said Acting MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis, in a statement.

The tickets will work through barcodes that conductors will check -- also using smart phones.

The MBTA will pay the developer,  Masabi US Ltd, 2.8 percent of each ticket price, the same price it pays small retail stores (coffee shops, newsstands), to sell their tickets.

"We're using the 'bring your own infrastructure' model," said the MBTA's Joshua K. Robin. "Instead of our buying vending machines, customers bring their own smart phones."   Robin says a vending machine/smart card ticketing system for the MBTA was projected to cost $50-70 million.


The MBTA says it will use focus groups to design the new application, and will run a pilot in late summer. The full system will see the application in the fall.

Boston was one of the first transit systems in the nation to release real-time bus arrival information to software developers, a system now used by as many as a third of bus riders.

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Transportation Nation

Florida Transportation Officials Plug Safety as Train Traffic Increases

Friday, February 24, 2012

(Orlando -- WMFE) With work beginning on SunRail, train traffic along the stretch of tracks running from Poinciana to Deland is expected to triple.

Rail safety experts worry that could lead to an increase in the number of motorists or pedestrians straying into the path of oncoming trains.

According to Federal Railroad Administration figures, rail crossing accidents have risen over the past 2 years after years of steady decline. In Florida in 2010, 67 people were involved in accidents at rail crossings, up from 48 the year before.

The Florida Department of Transportation says people will have to be extra vigilant once SunRail starts running.

“These railroad tracks, that had been active in the past, are going to be even more so, and these trains are going to be coming through quicker, they’re going to be quieter, and they just could sneak up on you," says Steve Olson from the Florida DOT.

So the agency is focusing on Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide rail safety education program.

Spokesman Jim Martin says the SunRail development is a good opportunity to get the safety message out.

"We have multiple lines here in Orange County, and in the Central Florida area, so my message is much broader than just the SunRail itself," he says.

And rail traffic could increase in Central Florida even after SunRail begins: the Florida DOT is commissioning two further studies looking into the potential for other commuter rail lines, one of them extending from Orlando to Eustis, and the other linking Orlando International Airport with the city.



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Transportation Nation

Transit Tax Break Buried in Partisan Debate

Saturday, February 18, 2012

(photo: Joe Shlabotnik)

Commuters had high hopes that Congress would restore the full federal transit tax benefit, cut late last year, as part of the massive payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits bill passed today. But it didn’t happen.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said all tax extenders were excluded as part of the compromise on the payroll tax cut deal, including the mass transit benefit and others. "The college tuition tax credit, and many other credits" were cut, Schumer said.

The credit allows commuters to deduct $125 of their transit costs from their pre-tax pay check. But the credit use to be worth $230. That amount was sunset out at the end of last year. And Congress has been unable to reach agreement on increasing the transit benefit.

Dan Neuburger with Wage Works Commuter Services said transit advocates will keep trying to find a way to restore the entire amount of the credit. "We're hopeful that Congress will do the right thing and increase the benefit cap, so commuters aren't discouraged from public transit in favor of driving their car to work."

He said the reduction of the benefit is essentially a tax increase. "It’s especially hard on commuters in urban areas, like New York, " Neuburger said. The monthly pass to ride the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit or Metro-North Railroad, exceeds the $125 benefit.

The next chance Congress will have to restore the full tax break for commuters could come when the U.S. House resumes work on the Transportation Bill after next week’s congressional recess.

Senator Schumer is hopeful he the tax credit can be restored. "We successfully attached the commuter mass transit benefit to the Highway Bill and are hopeful we will be able to get it passed," Schumer said.

But that might not be successful either - the transportation bill is currently the subject of a partisan debate.

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Transportation Nation

Study: Transit Ridership Up in 2011

Monday, October 03, 2011

Austin, TX, got a new commuter rail in 2010.

Transit ridership increased by 85.7 million trips, or 1.7 percent nationwide, in the first six months of 2011, according to a report released today by the American Public Transit Association, the pro-transit lobbying group.

The report said ridership increased across the board on commuter rail, light rail and bus systems, with the biggest jumps on commuter rail in Austin, TX, which added a new service, (221.4 percent) and Nashville, TN (38.5 percent)

Light rail saw ridership hikes in Seattle (42.2 percent) and Dallas, TX (32.3 percent).

Miami and Orlando had the biggest upticks in bus ridership, showing a rise of about ten percent in both cities.

You can see the full report here.  Analysis coming soon.

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Transportation Nation

Pressure Mounting to Approve Sunrail in Central Florida

Thursday, June 16, 2011


(Orlando, Fla-WMFE)  Stakeholders across Central Florida are nervously waiting for Governor Rick Scott’s decision whether or not to approve the region’s 1.2 billion dollar commuter train project.

Scott says he will announce his decision at the end of June.

The Sunrail project has been in the works for years and looked to be running forward smoothly until the Governor put major contracts related to the commuter train on hold in January pending his approval.  But that didn’t stop communities from moving forward with their plans to develop storefronts and other transit related amenities near the proposed stations.

See the Sunrail route here.

Some communities have already paid their consultants, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, and could risk spending the money for nothing if the Governor shuts down Sunrail.

According to Phil Laurien, the Director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, “ It’s a risk if they did not plan for Sunrail.  If we waste the asset of the Sunrail stop to have more high density, transit oriented, walkable development, mixed use where people can shop and live and work, those are tremendous assets.  Everywhere that transit oriented development has been done right it has stimulated the local economy.”

Laurien says he recently was visited by members of the German Parliament looking for places to invest in sustainable development in the US.  He says the Germans consider Central Florida to be a loser region without the commuter train project.

Recently US Congressman John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation Committee heard a presentation on a proposed rail line that would run adjacent to Sunrail from downtown Orlando northwards into rural Lake County, called the Orange Blossom Express.  State transportation officials have 13.8 million dollars set aside to improve rails on that line.  The Orange Blossom Express could be running within five years

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Transportation Nation

Unlike Systems in SF, Denver, Bikes (Mostly) Banned from NY Commuter Rails for Friday Before Memorial Day, But OK on Subways

Thursday, May 26, 2011

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) On Memorial Day weekend, bikes are allowed on the subway. In fact, they're allowed on the subway 24/7, year round, though the MTA doesn't recommend it during rush hour. But on the Long Island Railroad? Not on the Friday before memorial day weekend, so that would mean, no bikes on the commuter rail to the Hamptons tomorrow.

Bikes are okay (with a permit) on a very limited number of Metro North trains to upstate counties and Connecticut, but not in both directions, and not at peak times this holiday weekend, one of the busiest driving times of the year, according to the AAA. For the complete rules, and an explanation of why the MTA would seem to be lagging behind commuter rail systems like those in the Bay Area and Denver, which actually encourage bikes on commuter trains, look after the jump.

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Transportation Nation

Church Program Gives Away Bikes to the Undocumented, Poor

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

(Patchogue, NY -- Jennifer Maloney, Transportation Nation) It was early on a Saturday morning, and the gymnasium at the Congregational Church of Patchogue was filled with bicycles. The church was giving them away—no questions asked—to workers who couldn’t afford a car, or who couldn’t get a driver’s license because of their immigration status. As a team of bike mechanics made last-minute adjustments to the donated fleet, Pastor Dwight Wolter welcomed a line of people stretching out the door.

Joselyn Bishop, 38, stepped into the gym and smiled in amazement.

“You’re like a kid in a candy store, girl!” Wolter teased.

“Yes, I am,” she said, laughing.

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Long Island has the biggest commuter railroad in the country, but unless you live and work near a station, it’s tough to get around without a car—especially in Suffolk County, where bus service is limited, and on Sundays, service doesn't run at all.

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Transportation Nation

Boston: Upwards of 1/3 of Riders Use Transit App Tools

Friday, May 13, 2011

Photo: MBTA/Next Bus

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  About a year ago, I did a story for Marketplace on how Boston is releasing the GPS data on buses to the private sector -- and how you can see where all its buses are, at any moment.  Just got this email update from Joshua Robin,  Director of Innovation and Special Projects at the MBTA:

"We finished rolling out bus data systemwide last fall (on 187 routes) launched a pilot subway data feed, and are planning to put out our pilot for commuter rail in the next few weeks.  All told there are more than 30 apps that have been built as a result of us releasing all this info.  On snowy days this winter we were seeing upwards of 1/3 of riders using the tools which is pretty amazing considering how recently we rolled out, etc."

On February 1, which Robins called the "worst day of the winter," 100,000 bus riders used the app.  He says about a third of riders continue to use the app.

More recently, we looked at Roadify's efforts to crowdsource transit and parking info.

Any other areas getting 1/3 rider usage of GPS data or crowdsourcing?  Let us know.

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Transportation Nation

Rail Supporters Holding Their Breath in Florida

Friday, March 25, 2011

(Orlando, FL -- Mark Simpson, WMFE) The dream of improving rail transit in Florida isn’t dead… completely.  High speed rail desires dissipated after weeks of dancing back and forth between HSR supporters - including US Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  The two fell short of convincing chief opponent, Governor Rick Scott, that cost concerns over the $2.6 billion project would be resolved.

There is one other Florida rail project that is currently in a state of suspended animation — Central Florida’s Sunrail commuter train.  It's supposed to run on 61 miles of track between Deland and Poinciana.  It's been approved and is supposed to be up and running by 2013. Planning and contract work worth about $235 million for the project is on hold while Governor Scott reviews Sunrail.  Scott says he will not make a decision until July when the new fiscal year begins for Florida. Supporters of Sunrail are worried though, because the Governor followed a similar review process before rejecting federal High Speed Rail money in February.

This week, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs met with Governor Scott for a half an hour to discuss the Sunrail project, and she told the Orlando Sentinel that she thinks Scott is still undecided. The Sentinel also released an analysis that shows the price of Sunrail is going up by close to $5 million because of the Governor’s hold on the project.

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Transportation Nation

Houston's METRO Looking to Expand Rail Service to the 'Burbs

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority may expand its rail service out to the suburbs. The line would link Houston with Missouri City, roughly paralleling the existing freight rail track along the US 90A corridor for eight miles. It would begin just south of the Medical Center and end just inside Missouri City at Beltway 8. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service design and development with METRO, says traffic in the southwest Houston area will only get worse --  so it's crucial to have other transportation options on the table. Slaughter says METRO is studying this corridor "to find another way to provide high-capacity transit to move people in [the southwest Houston] region."

Listen to the story over at KUHF.

Alignment options for Southwest Rail Corridor

METRO is floating five possible options for the rail project. Most involve light rail technologies. Just one considers commuter rail. They would all require laying down brand new track. Sharing track with freight rail has been talked about in the past, but Slaughter says it isn’t possible now because there's just too much freight traffic. The project is expected to cost between $200 and $250 million dollars.

METRO is holding four  meetings this month to get public input on the project.  “We’re asking the public to come and join us," said Slaughter. "We’re asking for all stakeholders, public agencies, residents, landowners...employees in the area, to come to the public meetings and tell us what else should we consider; what other alignments we should consider,” she said.

Slaughter says if all goes smoothly, construction could begin on the rail line by late 2017. But finding money for transportation projects is difficult in this economic and political climate, so METRO may have trouble coming up with the cash.

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Transportation Nation

Metro North Debacle Won't End Soon

Friday, February 04, 2011

(New York -- Jim O'Grady, WNYC) Riders on Metro-North's New Haven Line will wake up Monday to find their rush hour service on already overcrowded trains cut by ten percent. Railroad officials are blaming bad weather for a backlog of repairs that has left them with too few train cars to meet the demands of regular service.

The line carries commuters to New York City from points north, including Connecticut. Explanations of the debacle imply good service will be back up once the wintry conditions pass.

Don't count on it.

For the rest of the story, read here.

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Transportation Nation

SF and Points South: What Will Happen to Caltrain?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

(San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) We reported a few months back on the grassroots effort by riders to try and save Caltrain, the Bay Area’s commuter train system. It’s the only one of the Bay’s 28 (!) different transit agencies that doesn’t have a dedicated funding source; it’s facing a $30 million deficit and considering cutting train service by nearly half.

Luckily for Caltrain, it’s also the only Bay Area transit agency whose riders care so much that they’re willing to dedicate their weekends to figuring out how to save it. Last Saturday, citizen group Friends of Caltrain organized an all-day brainstorming summit whose attendees included everyone from workaday commuters to elected officials. Panels and breakout groups explored funding strategies—levying a gas tax, charging more for parking, adding onboard WiFi, and improving connectivity to other transit were among the suggestions. And they also talked about messaging: how to sell the idea of Caltrain to people who don’t ride it, and how to convince policymakers that the rail is worth saving.

SF Streetsblog has more.

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Transportation Nation

New Transit Lines Open Today in Dallas, Rhode Island

Monday, December 06, 2010

[UPDATED 12/7/2010 explaining Rhode Island service addition more accurately]

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation).   Two new transit lines launched today. Dallas Area Rapid Transit opened its electric light rail Green Line. And in Warwick, Rhode Island,  new rail service kicked off connecting the local airport with the regional commuter rail line to Providence and Boston allowing for more transit commuting options.

The Dallas Morning News calls Dallas' 28-mile Green Line a "new era" as the DART rail system adds 15 new stations and grows from 48 to 72 rail miles (the Green Line shares track for four miles with another line).  The cities of Farmer's Branch and Carrollton are now connected with downtown, the Baylor University Medical Center, Victory Park and the Pleasant Grove area of south Dallas.

Along with those extra rail miles, DART adds: 18 new high capacity light rail vehicles, 38 redesigned rail cars, 2,700 parking spaces, and 10 park-and-ride lots. DART estimates that its light rail lines are responsible for about $7 billion in current and projected transit-oriented development.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood enthusiastically touts on his blog that the $1.8 billion project, including $700 million in Federal money, was completed on budget and ahead of schedule, six months ahead of schedule by some counts.

See the new route on this special Green Line centric DART map, or watch the video above to actually see the view from the front of a test train run. It almost looks fake as the train passes pristine empty stations again and again.

The new rail line in Rhode Island, is far more modest, but also Green. The new service connects the T.F. Green International airport and its surrounding area to Warwick, RI, in the process making possible rail commuting to Providence and Boston. The six trains each weekday will connect to Amtrak regional rail in those cities. This, in theory, offers an alternative to a ride up Interstate 95 for some commuters south of Providence. They can now park at the new station and commute by rail from to Providence, or if they want, connect on to Boston.

As Jef, in comments section correctly points out, this opens the door to reverse commuting to the Warwick area and thus potential transit oriented development in the airport area.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama, LaHood to Ohio to mark start of the 10,000th road project launched under recovery act.  (Columbus Dispatch)

Boston commuter rail link to South Coast takes step forward with purchase of frieght tracks.  (Boston Globe)

Toyota resumes building Mississippi facility, promising 2,000 jobs.  UAW accuses company of skirting union shops.  (AP)

Seattle jaywalking spot becomes YouTube sensation, police concern.  (Seattle Times)

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Transportation Nation

WNYC: New Braking System Coming to MTA Commuter Rails

Thursday, October 01, 2009

NEW YORK, NY October 01, 2009 —The MTA says a new federal law is forcing it to spend $700 million over the next five years to install an automatic braking system on commuter rail roads. WNYC's Matthew Schuerman has more.

Listen to the full story.

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