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As workers make fewer office trips, commuter rail systems struggle to fill empty seats

New hybrid schedules allow many workers to skip the daily commute, requiring commuter rail systems to search for new riders

Maryland commuters exit a MARC train at Union Station on March 2. While ridership has rebounded as more offices reopen, it remains far below pre-pandemic levels. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Many workers returning to offices on new hybrid schedules won’t resume the daily commute, leaving public transit systems with significantly fewer of their most reliable customers: suburbanites heading downtown, day after day, for 9-to-5 jobs.

The uncertain futures of city subway and bus systems have received the most attention amid changing commuter habits, but experts say longer-distance trains and buses that took the biggest hit during the pandemic remain at an even higher risk of long-term ridership woes.

Across the country, city transit lines that serve lower-income riders without vehicle access or who work in health care, retail and other jobs that can’t be done from afar have retained much of their pre-pandemic ridership, experts say. Meanwhile, long-distance systems have lagged, as the bulk of their more affluent customers with more flexible desk jobs continue to telework or turn to driving.

Two years into the pandemic, those trends have transit officials in the Washington region and elsewhere considering how to fill seats while shuttling fewer workers from outer suburbs to city cores. The D.C. area’s two long-distance commuter rail systems have been among the slowest to rebound.

“Those are systems built for a commuter who won’t ever return or won’t return in the numbers they used to,” said Joe McAndrew, who oversees transportation issues for the Greater Washington Partnership, composed of chief executives between Richmond and Baltimore.

Teleworkers say they've come to see the commute as an unnecessary drain on their time

McAndrew said 53 percent of Washington-area jobs can be done remotely — the second highest of any U.S. region behind San Francisco — and many major employers expect nearly 30 percent of their employees to telework on any given day. As of Feb. 23, buildings in the D.C. metro area served by office security firm Kastle Systems were at about 33 percent capacity — below the 37 percent average recorded across 10 major metro areas.

With commuter rail and bus lines running up to two hours each way, passengers also have a bigger incentive to stay home. Many who moved to outer suburbs for more space during the pandemic probably did so with the intent of commuting less, experts say.

That hasn’t stopped rail systems from courting them as transit agencies adjust fares and schedules to try to broaden their customer base and hold on to less frequent commuters.

Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system is sending free fare cards to residents who recently moved into its suburban service area. New Jersey Transit is touting its commuter trains and buses as a convenient ride to Manhattan’s entertainment and a more flexibly priced commuting option for the city’s stage, restaurant and hotel workers.

Many commuter rail systems have started offering discounts to less frequent commuters as an alternative to the traditional monthly pass. Some are adjusting to more flexible work schedules and targeting nonwork trips by moving rush-hour trains to all-day service. Others are trying to lure weekend customers with flat fares and free rides for children.

“We can’t keep just thinking about the white-collar worker who’s going from Claremont, California, to Los Angeles,” said Darren Kettle, chief executive of the Los Angeles area’s Metrolink commuter rail. “We have to sort of rethink who we are.”

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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shifted some Boston-area commuter trains from peak commute times to midday to try to resuscitate ridership, which hovers at 39 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“I don’t think ‘worried’ is the word,” said Steve Poftak, the authority’s general manager. “I think we are watching carefully how ridership comes back and what trends we’re seeing in the employer community. I think we’ll need to adapt.”

The expectation that many riders will continue teleworking at least a couple days a week also will deal an outsize financial blow to regional subway systems like Metrorail, which relies financially on charging more for longer-distance rides during peak commute times.

Metrorail ridership rebounded in recent days to 29 percent of pre-pandemic levels, after more offices reopened on Tuesday. Even so, Metro officials have predicted overall ridership on the rail and bus systems will reach just 53 percent by this summer and 75 percent by mid-2024 — with the biggest losses among long-distance commuters.

Rail trips taken during the traditional morning and evening rush have hovered at 15 percent to 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels, lagging behind the off-peak ridership of 35 to 45 percent. Trips beyond 15 miles are at about 15 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Metro.

Steep ridership losses will force changes to Metro service after the pandemic, officials say

Metro, already hampered by more than half of its rail cars being sidelined for safety problems, has shifted trains from peak commute periods to create standard wait times throughout the weekday. It also has encouraged passengers to take the train more often for errands and leisure trips by extending late-night service and creating a flat $2 weekend fare.

But replacing the revenue lost from daily commuters will be a challenge, Metro officials say.

“Will they come back?” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said during a recent House subcommittee hearing on the agency’s outlook. “No one knows, of course, but will they come back to the scale that we were? I doubt it, to be frank.”

Ridership on Maryland’s MARC commuter rail bumped up to 23 percent of pre-pandemic levels as more offices reopened this month. Like other commuter rail systems, MARC has begun offering a discounted and more flexible fare pass for fewer trips. It also has experimented with a new evening express train to speed up the trip between Union Station and Baltimore.

Even so, state officials don’t expect MARC ridership to recover to even 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels until summer 2023.

“If someone was commuting five days a week and is now commuting three, that’s a 40 percent drop in how often that person rides,” Maryland transit administrator Holly Arnold said. “If you take that across all of our riders, it does add up. We’re trying to make sure we’re ready for that.”

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Ridership on Virginia Railway Express hit 16 percent of pre-pandemic levels this month, its highest customer load since the pandemic began. Los Angeles’s Metrolink and Chicago’s Metra commuter rail systems are at 30 percent, according to the agencies. In New York, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North lines have fared better, with ridership above 50 percent. New Jersey Transit reports rail ridership at 50 percent.

Ensuring the viability of long-distance trains and buses is critical, industry experts say, because like all mass transit systems, their operations rely on public subsidies. The less ridership revenue, the more government must make up the difference without service cuts. In addition to providing a public service, officials say, long-distance transit helps reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions while attracting and focusing growth around stations.

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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority moved some of its Boston-area commuter trains last spring from the morning and evening peaks to provide regular hourly service throughout the day.

The new service is noticeably busy in the mid-afternoons, probably because it now serves 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. work schedules common in health-care and construction jobs, Poftak said. He said two years of teleworking also seem to have left commuters with newfound flexibility to leave the office early, such as to pick up children, before finishing the workday at home. Running trains throughout the day entices passengers who previously might have worried about getting home quickly for a midday emergency, he said.

“We give customers the option to do that because we’re running a train every hour, whereas in the old days we were really focused on getting people in and out of the city around that 9-to-5 window,” Poftak said.

In the Washington region, VRE recently adjusted its schedule in response to customers’ requests to fill morning and afternoon gaps. The last morning and evening trains leave later, while others are designed to be more reliable by reducing conflicts with other trains.

However, officials for both VRE and MARC say they can expand service only if Amtrak and the freight railroads that own the track their commuter trains run on grant them more space. That would require funding to add more track and other capacity, officials said. VRE is pursuing new weekend service and additional weekday trains, but MARC officials say they can’t expand anytime soon because of capacity constraints.

Transit officials in Washington and across the country say they are hopeful a resurgence in traffic congestion, as miserable as it is, will help woo back riders lost to driving. Many major metro areas, including the D.C. region, are reporting traffic congestion approaching pre-pandemic levels and, in some case, are surpassing them.

“That’s going to wear on a daily commuter,” said KellyAnne Gallagher, CEO of the Commuter Rail Coalition. “Are they up for doing it one or two times a week? I don’t know. It can get pretty brutal.”

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That feeling resonates with Herndon resident Nelson Richardson, 35, who said he has driven to his IT job at the Capitol throughout the pandemic only when he needed the flexibility for child care. But he mostly has stuck with VRE or Metro, opting for the solitude of the train over an increasingly jammed Interstate 66.

“Traffic, driving is a nightmare, especially coming from the Herndon area,” Richardson said after hopping off a VRE train at Union Station last week.

Germantown resident Henry Choi, 55, a pharmacist, said he has enjoyed mostly empty MARC trains throughout the pandemic on his daily commute to Children’s National Hospital in D.C. His other options — taking Metro or driving an hour-and-a-half each way — would cost him time.

“That commute is a little bit more of a pain,” he said.

Metrolink, the third-largest commuter rail system in the country, saw 90 percent of its passengers evaporate early in the pandemic. It has gained back almost one-third, and agency officials hope that will grow to 44 percent by midsummer.

Kettle, its chief executive, said he is eyeing residents who moved farther out for more affordable space during the pandemic and took on a longer commute, even if it’s less often. He said he hopes the return of Southern California’s stifling traffic congestion will help make the case for riding rail.

“In the past they wouldn’t have taken the train,” he said, “but now they have a 40-mile commute.”

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Experts say the extent to which many systems recover — and how long it takes — will depend on unknown factors, such as whether another variant emerges, how long employers permit hybrid schedules and how comfortable passengers feel riding long distances in enclosed spaces. Another big question: how much two years of working from home has dampened some long-distance workers’ willingness to schlep to and from an office, even a few days a week.

Scott Zuchorski, global group head of infrastructure and project finance for Fitch Ratings, said he believes the long-term effects won’t be clear until late this year, after the crisis phase of the pandemic is presumably over and more workers have settled into new commuting routines.

“It’s just a matter of when people return to that pre-pandemic lifestyle and to what extent,” he said. “There probably will be some people who don’t return fully or make other choices in their lifestyles.”