Rhode Island’s commuter rail service as currently conceived may not be conducive to encouraging ridership. Distances between existing and proposed stations are too far. Much of the focus has been on extending the system further into low-density suburbs. For Rhode Island commuter rail to succeed, more needs to be done to take advantage of existing walkable urban neighborhoods that have a high potential for passengers. Some of these areas have large amounts of commercial/industrial space or development opportunities. Due to Downtown Providence expansion, the rail system will be challenged, as long as there’s no internal downtown high-frequency transit, such as the proposed Core Connector, to directly link rail passengers to the far reaches of downtown.
Rhode Island’s commuter rail doesn’t capitalize on density variations and neighborhood assets of the Providence area. If Rhode Island’s commuter rail functioned as a rapid mass-transit system, besides increasing the number of passengers, it would help to revitalize and expand development opportunities for neighborhoods along the rail line. The implementation of medium frequency shuttle train service within the Rhode Island instate rail corridor would offer predictable headway times at regular intervals that could operate in addition to MBTA commuter and Amtrak trains. Air and intercity train travelers, commuters, and the general public would greatly benefit from this level of service.
A variation to a commuter rail or shuttle train is the German S-bahn or French RER or San Francisco’s BART. An S-bahn type system is usually the same as commuter rail in suburban areas, but differs when it’s within the central urban core, where it has characteristics of a subway or metro. Usually stations within the core zone are located close together at quarter- to half-mile subway station distances and schedule headway times typically fall somewhere in the middle of commuter rail and subway schedules. Depending on the city, central core rail infrastructure can be underground or at grade utilizing existing rail corridors. A hybrid of a shuttle train and an S-bahn might be best for Rhode Island.