What is Regional Rail?

Making trains easier to use, so more people will use them more often



Issue in Brief

Regional Rail uses frequent trains on memory schedules to serve many types of trips

The change from prioritizing commuter rail to regional rail is catching on throughout North America. What’s the difference? How can you get on board? Let’s break it down!

The Issues

Frequent trains on memory schedules make it easy to use the train whether you are traveling within a metro area or from small city to small city.

The Obstacles

Congress funds “commuter” trains, “state-supported” trains and “long distance” trains through three separate agencies, making innovative services types difficult to implement, but progress is being made.

People are exiting a regional train in Rome.

Like most Asian and European cities, Rome converted to regional rail decades ago. Photo: Rick Harnish

Regional rail is…

Regional Rail can take many forms depending upon the local needs and existing assets that can be improved.

Routes can be as short as the existing 50-mile Caltrain corridor or longer like the potential 300-mile Detroit – Chicago corridor.  But, they share key characteristics:


Regional rail is about more than commuting to and from the city during weekday rush hours. Work, shopping, games, concerts, and other events can all be served by regional rail. These trips can be from suburb to city, suburb to suburb, city to city, or within the city.


People getting on and off a reginoal train in Mountainview.  Several have bicycles.

The Caltrain corridor connects two major cities and large suburbs together.  It offers an intense mix of local and express trains.  Photo: Rick Harnish

A small portion of the Denver's A-Line schedule showing a train departure every 15-minutes.

The Denver A-Line offers a train every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes nights and early morning. 


This means frequent and consistent intervals between departures (ranging from every 15 minutes in the city to 2 hours on longer routes), and the option to buy a last-minute ticket on the train.


Effective regional rail is affordable for regular use for day or weekend trips. Proper investments lead to lower operating costs per passenger mile to keep walk up fares low.


A stand for tapping your credit or transit card for fare collection on Sunrail in Florida.

Many regional rail networks make it easy to pay by tapping your credit or debit card.

A map of integrated passenger rail routes in Northern California.

Several agencies are working together to create an integrated regional rail network in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley.


In a regional rail network, passengers can easily transfer to other lines within the system, citywide public transit, and even airports. Regular intervals and fare integration make these transfers possible.



Every region has different needs and different assets to build upon. A successful regional rail network allows for expansion, changes in frequency of service, and other improvements to keep up with changing needs. Existing commuter rail systems can be improved in phases.

A Sunrail train is in a station.

Orlando’s Sun Rail route launched with trains throughout the day and a lot of room to grow.

What is needed to make it happen?

A hydro powered trainset on display at the Berlin tradeshow.

High-acceleration trains

Lightweight trains that accelerate out of stations faster mean passengers can get to where they’re going faster and more efficiently.

A credit card reader mounted on the wall in the entrance of a Capitol Corridor train in California.

Easy, last minute tickets

To make regional rail an easy, convenient alternative to driving, buying a ticket needs to be easy and intuitive. App based and tap-on/tap off options are common options for existing regional rail.

A picture taken from the back of a train after crossing the bridge at Wilmington IL

More track

Running frequent, reliable regional rail is going to require building more tracks. Both passengers and shippers will benefit from more frequent and reliable service.

A conductor is waiving to the engineer that the train is ready to move.

More railroad laborers

More rail workers would also be important for coverage of a more frequent schedule. Regional rail systems make it work by hiring more employees but having fewer of them work per train.

Who is working on it?

Regional rail isn’t just a fantasy. Here are some areas in North America with actionable, realistic plans to make it happen.

A GO Transit train rounding a curve.


Toronto’s GO Expansion is an ambitious project to run electrified trains every 15 minutes in both directions all day on multiple routes.

An MBTA locomotive pulling into a station.


TransitMatters is pushing the MBTA to invest in systemwide electrification for all day service: every 15 minutes in dense neighborhoods and every 30 minutes in the suburbs

A woman is boarding an Amtrak Surfliner in Oceanside, CA


The California State Rail Plan is working towards a statewide network with pulsed schedules and integrated ticketing.

A N-Line train is arriving at a busy station in the Denver area.


Denver has opened three electrified regional lines since 2016.  The A-Line operates on memory schedules 22-hours a day, from 3:00 am to 1:00 am.

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