Final Thoughts

Observations on the differences between the United States and Europe, for various trains and public transportation.

The first subway or rapid transit system I rode in my life, was the CTA in my hometown of Chicago. With forward facing seats just like a bus, along with backwards facing seats. The second system I rode was the London Underground, on a family vacation during my childhood. I thought it unusual with all sideways seats, but that turns out to be the norm for such systems. Including the New York Subway, and the now the newest CTA cars. The London Underground trains move along rather well, as do CTA trains. While New York Subway trains generally plod along more slowly. The CTA base frequencies are every 7 to 10 minutes. The New York Subway frequencies are every 4 to 10 minutes, with multiple local and express services on the many 4 track lines in Manhattan. In London, lines generally operate every 2 or 3 minutes throughout the day. In London, like in Chicago, lines are generally 2 tracks with no express service.

Unlike in Chicago and New York, the London Underground uses a distance based fare system, and tickets or cards are needed to exit at stations. Human beings formerly checked tickets, but stations now have fare gates accepting the Oyster Card. The Oyster Card is London's stored value smart card, their equivalent to Chicago's Ventra Card. And with the Oyster Card, fares are properly deducted according to distance travelled. Washington DC similarly has the SmarTrip Card, which accommodates their Metro Rail fares also based on distance. One nice thing about the Oyster Card is what they call "capping". If the Oyster Card is used enough during the day, the system stops deducting value, and it automatically becomes like a one day pass. The capping value depends on the number of fare zones travelled.

Within Greater London, the main line commuter trains use the same fare structure as the Underground. The main line railways in Britain use high level platforms and have very few crossings, which restrict the passenger flows through the stations enough so that fare gates are practical at the busiest stations. Stations formerly had human beings checking the tickets of passengers entering and exiting the platforms, but now stations in London basically use the same kind of fare gates as used on the London Underground.

A large indoor shopping mall in Stratford, on the east side of London. This mall is directly served by several rail lines. While in the US, malls served by rail transportation are rare, with the Mall of America in Minnesota being one of them. Stratford is the area where the 2012 Summer Olympics took place, rail transportation was improved in the area for that. While it is rather amazing, that Atlanta had the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Riding a commuter train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, the train sometimes reached 100 mph. Possibly the only commuter trains in the US reaching such speeds are the New Jersey Transit trains on the Northeast Corridor main line. Metra is limited to 79 mph on a few lines, other lines have lower speed limits.

Amtrak train reservations assure that seats are available for all passengers. But seats are not assigned. In the early days of Amtrak, a large variety of older cars inherited from the private railroads were used, with different seating capacities and configurations. Those cars were vulnerable to frequent mechanical problems. But a passenger railroad with modern equipment is able to provide trains with predictable consists, and it becomes possible to assign specific seats by number. Longer distance trains which I rode in Europe were London to Edinburgh, Glasgow to London, London to Brussels, and Brussels to Amsterdam. And I liked the fact that I was able to reserve window seats in advance. Which is better than sometimes boarding a long distance Amtrak train, and having a car attendant randomly assign a seat upon stepping onto the train. Riding from Glasgow to London, I sat next to a college student originally from China. The train basically operated on time. But at one point I surprised him by mentioning that if this were Amtrak, by now it would not be unusual for the train to be perhaps an hour late. Passenger traffic in Britain never declined to the point, where second track was eliminated. When Amtrak trains are delayed on a single track line, the meets are no longer able to be on time, and the delays become worse.

Under construction in London, is a new through line connecting the lines serving Liverpool Street Station to the east, and Paddington Station to the west. Historically, many different railways serving London constructed many different terminal stations. And through connections between the railways were limited. And now this situation is being remedied. Chicago, a smaller city than London, also evolved with multiple railroad stations. The "Crossrail" concept has been suggested for Chicago, but that probably will not happen for a while.

A new dedicated high speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel, connecting with new dedicated high speed lines in France and other countries. No new dedicated high speed lines have yet been constructed in the US. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link includes significant sections within tunnels, including between London St. Pancras Station and Stratford, east of Stratford, and under the Thames River.

The Netherlands is a densely populated country, with many metropolitan areas overlapping in terms of commuting distance, and in many cases no clear distinction between commuter and intercity trains. Nationwide, the Netherlands has the stored value "OV Chipkaart" smart card, which works on all the main line railways and on all local public transportation systems. The train stations have vending machines which sell the OV Chipkaart and other tickets, all of which are accepted at fare gates in the major stations. Major stations have gates, other stations instead have simple posts with readers for the cards. Whether the stations have gates or the posts, passengers must "check in" or "check out" with the OV Chipkaart or ticket. Tickets are not sold on trains. On the trains, conductors make occasional random inspections of tickets, similar to random inspections on light rail lines with "proof of payment" fare systems. The conductors have hand held devices capable of reading the cards. Passengers have a definite incentive to check in and check out, whether or not the stations have gates. Because checking in would initially deduct a fare for the maximum distance possible from that station. But checking out would make the correction, to the proper fare being deducted. Sufficient value must be on the OV Chipkaart to cover the maximum distance just in case. The card can either be reloaded manually at a vending machine, or automatically with a registered credit card.

It took me perhaps a day of traveling in the Netherlands, before I really understood what was going on with using the OV Chipkaart. Part of it was not understanding enough Dutch. But then I realized. This is the kind of fare system which could enable Metra to adopt the Ventra Card, already used by CTA and Pace in the Chicago area. Metra and other main line commuter railroads in the US have been slow to adopt any smart card technology, with conductors continuing to check traditional tickets priced according to distance. Back home I did further research on commuter railroads using smart cards. It turns out that this system is used in London, where many outlying commuter stations do not have gates. And one must use the Oyster Card to check in or check out at readers. All of the stations which I used in London had gates, so I was not aware of this while there. And further research revealed that in North America, Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose now accepts the Bay Area "Clipper Card", and the Government of Ontario Transit commuter trains now accept Toronto's "Presto Card". The commuter railroads in the Northeast Corridor have been slow to get on board with accepting smart cards. But in the Philadelphia area, SEPTA has recently started replacing older fare collection methods with the "Key Card" for all transit modes.

A 2011 Illinois state law required all Chicago area transit systems to adopt a universal fare system by 2015. CTA and Pace complied with the law by adopting the Ventra Card. Metra does make fares available through the Ventra smart phone app, but that is not the same thing as an actual Ventra Card. In 1966, Chicago became home to a pioneering installation of a fare collection system involving fare gates and machine readable tickets, on the Illinois Central Electric line. That line was well suited for such fare collection, with high level platforms and no crossings on the main line. But Metra got rid of the turnstiles in 2003, as incompatible with the rest of the Metra system, with low level platforms and street crossings at many stations. Perhaps Metra could now start over again, and modernize its fare collection system to accommodate the Ventra Card. Metra could install fare gates at the downtown stations, and install the posts with readers at the suburban stations. And with vending machines installed at all outlying stations, fewer ticket agents would be needed, and conductors would no longer need to handle cash. The Ventra Card could become a replacement for all Metra tickets, including the monthly pass and the weekend pass. And perhaps there are ways in which transferring between Metra and CTA or Pace could be done with a discount.

Commuter railroads usually focus on connecting a central city with suburban locations. But some commuter lines and branches operate entirely within a city. Including many lines in Greater London, especially south of the Thames River where there are fewer Underground lines. These lines continue to be a significant part of London's public transportation system, and use the same fare structure as the Underground. Many of these trains operate locally every 15 minutes or more often. With additional express trains on the main lines providing service to more distant points. In Chicago, the Illinois Central and the Rock Island railroads have a history of providing commuter service within the city. But those railroads are now part of Metra, which is more interested in serving the suburbs than stations in the city. Notably on the former Illinois Central electric commuter line, where amidst a transit funding crisis in the early 1980's, fares were increased significantly and frequencies were reduced. And many riders eventually shifted to the less efficient CTA express buses. The result is the former Illinois Central line being very underutilized. Politics should not be a determining factor, in which public transportation services are emphasized. There was a time, when Illinois Central operated trains between the downtown Randolph Street Station and South Chicago every 10 minutes, all day. Perhaps Metra fares should not be as cheap as the basic CTA fares. But perhaps a fairer fare structure for the CTA rapid transit would be distance based, with the Ventra Card required to exit through the turnstiles. And the Ventra Card should make it easier for passengers to adjust to a distance based fare structure, as the correct fares would be automatically deducted from the card. The same distance based fares could be adopted for the Metra Electric line within the city, and the Metra Electric stations could be equipped with the same CTA turnstiles accepting the Ventra Card. And perhaps any express buses should have fares comparable to any distance based rapid transit fares. Some riders might object to new distance based fares in Chicago. But this could insure greater stability for local bus fares.

Links to fare information for public transportation in London, and the Netherlands.
Transport For London/Fares & Payments
Netherlands Railways/Tickets