In Conversation

 Commuter Rail Coalition: the voice of US commuter railroads

The Commuter Rail Coalition is committed to educating the government and the public about the benefits of commuter rail transportation, and advocating for future resources. Julian Turner gets the inside track from executive director KellyAnne Gallagher.


ellyAnne Gallagher is a public transportation policy professional and strategic advisor currently serving as the executive director of the Commuter Rail Coalition. Previously, she worked for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the American Public Transportation Association.

Julian Turner: What is the Commuter Rail Coalition (CRC) and what are its long-term objectives? 

KellyAnne Gallagher: The Coalition was launched by a group of current and former commuter rail agency CEOs who had long felt the need for focused advocacy in support of commuter rail.

Governed by a set of regulations and standards distinct from that of other public transportation modes, commuter railroads have their own story to tell about the benefits they convey to the communities they serve – not least of which being it is the safest mode of surface transportation.

The Commuter Rail Coalition brings together agencies, operators, and public owners, along with the supply and consulting sectors, all united by a shared respect for the value of commuter rail as a public asset, and a desire to sustain and grow the mode as a critical transportation resource for the major metropolitan regions in the US.

Our goal is to educate stakeholders of the value of commuter rail, and advocate for the resources necessary to sustain commuter rail a mode of choice. As publicly-funded entities, commuter railroads must ensure they have the resources necessary for continuous improvement.

What is lost on the riding public, perhaps, is the many initiatives that commuter railroads introduce to enhance the safety of their riders and workforce, among them obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) screening and treatment, and confidential close call reporting, a programme borrowed from NASA to confidentially report safety risks in railroad operations as a means to improve safety practices before potentially life-threatening consequences arise.

First and foremost, we will be delivering our message directly to the committees of jurisdiction on Capitol Hill.

JT: Why does the commuter rail sector require an advocate in Washington? 

KG: Since before the Chatsworth accident in 2008, publicly-funded commuter railroads have been on the defensive. But the positive train control (PTC) mandate – which came as an immediate result of that accident – is a key example of why commuter railroads require a single-minded advocate.

The national conversation about positive train control has been taking place without the benefit of commuter railroads’ perspective. Most recently, the 3 March 60 Minutes piece on PTC was premised on safety implications of the industry missing the 2018 interim deadline.

Viewers were left without the benefit of knowing that commuter railroads are by far the safest form of surface transportation; that the railroads are committed to: continuous improvement and have introduced other features and programmes that have far-reaching impacts on safety; that Congress itself established an allowable extension to 2020; and that the Rail Safety Improvement Act had mandated an undeveloped, unfunded technology.

It is difficult to look at the federal embrace of the nascent self-driving car industry and the airplane manufacturers’ self-certification of safety systems and not feel commuter railroads, as public assets and far safer modes, were forced to risk other safety priorities and their financial viability in the way the PTC mandate rolled out. How could it have been different? At the time, individual agencies were asking Congress to fund a pilot project on one railroad, and to start the clock for everyone else once the concept had been proven.

SJ's AR navigation app for Stockholm Central Station. Credit: SJ Labs

JT: What are the key benefits that commuter rail offers compared with other modes of transport?

KG: Commuter rail is the safest form of transportation, according to the National Safety Council, and supports economic development and grows a tax base by providing access to metropolitan centres.

Commuter rail also facilitates the talent demands of employers through safe, environmentally sound transportation to jobs and provides a city’s workforce with access to more affordable housing beyond the city centre.

In terms of the environment, using commuter rail services can prevent the adverse health effects attributable to driving in rush hour traffic and, by removing cars from roadways, commuter railroads reduce the carbon footprint of riders and spare remaining drivers even worse roadway congestion.

JT: Is the current US administration supportive of commuter rail systems and what needs to be done to ensure that the US has a commuter rail network that is fit for purpose?

KG: The current administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration is well respected among the commuter rail CEOs. Our shared focus is on ensuring commuter railroads are safe and reliable for the 490 million passenger trips delivered annually.

However, the network needs to maintain a state of good repair and agencies need to renew their fleets while keeping pace with legislative and regulatory mandates – and all those cost money.

In the coming weeks we will be refining our specific proposals and delivering those to Congress as it begins to address reauthorisation of the FAST Act in 2020.