Commuter rail systems are widely regarded as an effective transportation alternative to reduce energy consumption and emissions in large urban areas. Use of commuter rail systems in the United States is on the rise, with annual ridership increasing by 28 percent between 1997 and 2007 [1]. With growing concerns about the sustainability and environmental impacts of transportation, modal energy efficiency is increasingly considered amongst the metrics to evaluate the benefits and costs of transportation systems and justify future investment. To gauge the relative long-term efficiency trends for rail as an urban transportation mode, this study analyzes historic trends in energy efficiency metrics for US commuter rail systems. Commuter rail systems receiving, or benefiting from, Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants are required to report operations and energy consumption data on an annual basis to the National Transit Database (NTD). NTD data on energy consumption, operations, and services supplied from 1997 to 2011 are analyzed to determine historic trends in various energy efficiency metrics for the commuter rail mode as a whole. The data analysis and comparison of the results with the highway mode is complicated by the use of electric traction by some commuter rail operators. These operators report energy consumption in purchased electricity (kWh) instead of gallons of liquid fuel. The different approaches that can be employed to compare these two forms of propulsion and their intrinsic efficiencies and energy sources are discussed. Energy efficiency of each commuter rail system and its relationship to individual system characteristics during the study period are also analyzed. Finally, case studies of historic energy efficiency of individual commuter rail systems with longer operating histories and reporting data over the majority of the study period are contrasted against more recent start-up systems. While many systems outperform the energy efficiency of a typical light-duty vehicle, there are others that, due to a variety of system parameters and characteristics, fail to achieve a load factor great enough to make them more attractive than the highway mode on a gross average level. It is hoped that highlighting trends and variation in commuter rail energy efficiency will allow policymakers to make more informed decisions regarding the environmental benefits of rail as an urban transportation mode.

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