Modernizing Rail 2021 Announcement

We are happy to announce that on Sunday the 29th of August we will hold this year’s Modernizing Rail conference, on the heels of the success last year.

Please register using this form. And please give details on what you’d like to see, and if you’re willing to lead sessions – the schedule of the breakout sessions is still up in the air depending on popular demand. Even the number of breakouts depends on how many registrants we get, compared with the about 200 we had last year. Perhaps the news of the infrastructure bill will tilt the demand toward more political sessions regarding how to ensure what is built is good and less toward technical best practices.

Our keynote is certainly political: Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), who represents the northern suburbs of Boston (6th district) and for years has been pushing the North-South Rail Link. He will give brief remarks at 16:00 Eastern time, or 22:00 Central Europe Summer Time, to be followed by a Q&A; if you have a question that you’d like to hear an answer to, you can mention it in the registration form, or email the organizing committee at modernizingrail@gmail.com. We will be taking questions throughout the conference, which will start 11:00 Eastern, so if your questions depend on what you hear at the breakouts, you’re in luck.

Leisure Travel by Public Transit

I’ve written before about tourism by rail, but only in an intercity context, and it’s worthwhile talking about leisure travel by rail at more local and regional scale too. Most travel is local, and this includes leisure travel.

Local neighborhood travel

A trip to dinner in a neighborhood well-known for a specific kind of cuisine is a type of local leisure trip. Ethnic enclaves abound in diverse cities and people routinely go to other neighborhoods to enjoy food; this kind of trip is so common that it’s not even treated as a leisure trip, just as ordinary consumption.

This can be done by car or by public transportation. The advantage of cars is that such trips tend to happen outside rush hour, when there’s less traffic; that of public transport is that usually ethnic business districts are in busy areas, where there’s more traffic, even if they’re not at city center. The best example of a diverse auto-oriented city is Los Angeles, where getting from one region to another takes too long even off-peak, making it cumbersome for a Westsider to have Chinese food in San Gabriel Valley or Vietnamese food in Orange County regularly. New York and London do a lot better on access to such amenities, thanks to their greater centralization of destinations and public transport networks.

Regional travel

Regional travel starts including things people conceive of as leisure trips more regularly. These can include any of the following:

  • Museums, galleries, and other cultural amenities
  • Concerts, sports games, conventions, and other special events
  • Beaches
  • Non-urban outdoor recreation such as hiking and biking trails
  • Historic towns that have fallen into the orbit of a larger city

It is striking, in retrospect, how local such travel is. For example, when I LARPed at Intercon, in 2012-6, I was almost the only person flying in from another country, and a large majority of the attendees were local to the Boston area rather than flying in from far away – and the top locations people were coming in from otherwise were New York and Albany, not Chicago or California. This is equally true of conventions in general, except for a handful of international and national ones like Worldcon or Comic Con.

These are all regional rather than local destinations. If they’re not tethered to a geographic feature like a beach or a mountain, they try to locate based on the transportation network as far as possible, so that the biggest and richest conventions are in city center. New York Comic Con is on the Far West Side, but Dexcon is in Morristown. The upshot is that such events want to be close to public transportation and the issue is then about providing both good transit and sufficient event space in central areas.

The issue of TOD

Transit-oriented development is usually thought of as permitting more residential and commercial buildings near public transport. But this is equally true of leisure destinations. The term TOD did not exist then, but early urban renewal involved building event spaces in or near city centers, for example Lincoln Center.

This is equally true of outdoor places. Of course, TOD can’t create a beach or a suitable hilly region for hiking. But it can promote growth at particular places. Historically, New York had excursion railways to Coney Island, which then became much of the subway in Southern Brooklyn, and the same companies that owned the early railways also developed beachfront hotels. Later, amusement parks developed in the area, back when the main uses of other city waterfront were industrial.

Trails, too, can be served by public transportation if it is there. Germany has patches of forest, rehabilitated in the last 200 years, and some of these patches are near train stations so that people can walk through. The Appalachian Trail has segments accessible by commuter rail from New York, even if the weekend frequency leaves a lot to be desired.

Good transit practices

Leisure travel practically never takes place during commute hours. It peaks on weekends, to the point that in areas close to regional leisure destinations, like the Museum of Natural History or Yankee Stadium or Coney Island, trains have as many riders on weekends as on weekdays or even more.

The point of running regional rail on an all-day, everyday takt is that it facilitates such travel, and not just commuter travel. The same timetable can be used for work trips, errand trips, school trips, intercity trips, and leisure trips, each peaking at a different time. Some trains from Berlin to leisure destinations like the trolleyferry are filled with commuters, others with tourists; either way, they run every 20 minus to Strausberg.

This remains best practice even if there aren’t obvious leisure destinations nearby. A transit city like New York is full of transit users, and providing better suburban service is likely to gradually create transit-oriented leisure in the suburbs catering to these millions of carless city residents. Those can be beaches near convenient train stations, or hiking trails, or historic and cultural places like Sleepy Hollow. But the transit has to be there for any such development to happen.

The Leakage Problem

I’ve spent more than ten years talking about the cost of construction of physical infrastructure, starting with subways and then branching on to other things, most.

And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.

Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.

Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.

State of good repair

A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.

The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.

Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.

This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.

Betterments and other irrelevant projects

Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.

Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.

Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.

Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.

Bad expansion projects

Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.

For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.

In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.

The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.

The issue of roads

I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.

The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.

And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.

Leakage and consensus

It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.

It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.

Quick Note: PPP Adjustments

All construction cost figures that I sign my name to adjust currencies for purchasing power parity, or PPP. In other words, I convert currencies across countries in PPP terms, not exchange rate terms. This is not how everyone else does this; the World Bank analysis of global high-speed rail costs converts currencies by exchange rate, and, since the yuan is undervalued, concludes Chinese construction costs are below world average, whereas in fact they are above average.

Why PPP?

Because nearly all of the costs of the construction of infrastructure are local. Labor is almost entirely local, and materials are as well, since concrete is made locally rather than imported. Foreign expertise and machinery are internationally traded; in those cases, currency devaluations can lead to cost overruns, but the proportion of the cost that is traded remains low.

India: an indigenization plan from the 2000s was quoted as reducing costs by 10-15%. The rupee’s exchange rate value is lower than its PPP value by a factor of about 3.3; indigenization reducing costs by 10-15% is compatible with around 20% of the total value of the original contract being imported.

Philippines: I spoke with a DOTR planner, who said that 90% of the value of civil works is local, and only 10% is imported, such as foreign expertise and imported material; the planner said that rolling stock is imported, but our construction cost estimates exclude rolling stock when possible.

Why not wages?

Because while the bulk of costs are domestic, they are not labor in developing countries. In Turkey, which is not much poorer than Southern Europe, costs split as 20% labor (US: 55%), 40% permanent materials, 10% construction materials, 30% construction equipment. The 80% non-labor costs are mostly domestically-produced, at local wages, but also at local productivity. If Turkey could produce everything at the same productivity as a richer country, it would just be a richer country. This goes even more so for actually poor countries like India and the Philippines.

The impact of PPP

With PPP adjustment, GDP per capita ceases to be a significant correlate of construction cost per km, except through the tendency of poor countries to build more elevated and fewer subway lines. This was not the original intention of the adjustment, which was to smooth dollar-euro difference, but it’s suggestive that it’s correct and meaningful.

Commuter Rail Express Service Best Practices

After my last post on poor timetabling in the New York area, I got a lot of feedback comparing New York’s zonal system with existing high-quality commuter rail networks. Some of it was in comments, but most interesting was a post by the pseudonymous socialist Emil Seidel, who compares the situation in New York with that of Munich.

I’m going to go over some best practices here – this is not intended as a highlight of poor American practices. That said, because of the application to New York, I’m going to go over Paris and Tokyo, as they’re both very large cities, in addition to cleaner German examples, including Berlin (where I live), Nuremberg (where Herbert in comments lives and where a Twitter commenter pointed out express service), and finally Emil’s example of Munich.

The upshot is that yes, commuter trains do often have express service, and it’s common for the express service to run local on an outer segment and then express closer in. However, this is not really the New York zone theory. Most importantly, high-quality local service always comes first, and everything else is an overlay. This is common to all of the examples we will look at, and is the most fundamental fact of commuter rail: S-Bahn service is urban rail on mainline tracks.

Infrastructure for local trains

Local service always comes first, ahead of any longer-range regional service. This can be readily seen in infrastructure allocation: in all examples I know of in the German-speaking world, Paris, and Tokyo, when there’s scarce infrastructure built for through-service, local trains get it ahead of longer-range regional ones.

  • In Paris, the RER is defined as what runs through on newly-built tunnels, whereas Transilien service terminates at one of the historic terminals of Paris. This distinction is fundamental and precedes other distinctions, such as frequency – there are sections of Transilien H, J, and L that have higher frequency than some RER branches. And where the two systems run side-by-side, the RER is the more local one.
  • In Germany, newly-built tunnels are for S-Bahn service. For example, in Munich, the S-Bahn gets to use the tunnel, while other trains terminate on the surface; this is also the case in Frankfurt, Stuttgart (until the upcoming Stuttgart 21), and Berlin (until the North-South Main Line opened).
  • In Zurich, there are two through-tunnels under Hauptbahnhof. The older one is used principally by the S-Bahn; the newer one is used by the S-Bahn as well as longer-distance trains. But many long-distance trains stay on the surface.
  • In Tokyo, local commuter trains get preference in JR through-running. The original set of through-tracks at Tokyo Station was used for local trains on the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Line, while faster, longer-distance regional trains were demoted, and through-running ceased entirely when the Shinkansen took their space in the 1990s. Regional trains only resumed through-running when the Ueno-Tokyo Line opened in 2015. The Shinkansen’s use of space over regional train is justified because it serves large secondary cities in the Tohoku region and not just suburbs.

Timetabling for local trains

Local trains are also the most important priority for high frequency. In all of the five example cities for this post, local frequency is high, even on branches. In Tokyo and Paris, the trunks don’t really run on takts; Japan and France overall have less rigid takts than Germany but do have off-peak takt patterns, it’s just not very important to passengers when a train on the RER A or the Chuo Line comes every 4-5 minutes off-peak.

Elsewhere, there are takts. There are also takts on the branches in Paris. Typical frequencies are a train every 10, 15, or 20 minutes; they may be lower on outer branches, especially ones that are operationally half-branches, i.e. branches of branches like the two halves of S1 and S2 in Munich. All of this depends on city size; Berlin is bigger than Munich, which is bigger than Nuremberg.

  • In Berlin, S-Bahn branches run every 10 or 20 minutes, but the ones running every 10 usually have short-turning variants, so the outer portions only get 20-minute service. The outer ends of 10-minute service – Spandau, Buch, Frohnau, Friedrichshagen, Teltow Stadt, Grünau – tend to be 15-18 km from the center, but one, Potsdam, is almost 30 km out.
  • In Munich, S-Bahn branches likewise run every 10 or 20 minutes at rush hour, with some tails that have ugly 40-minute headways. Off-peak, the numbered branches run every 20 minutes.
  • In Nuremberg, frequency is weaker, as it is a small city. But S2 has a 20-minute takt up to Schwabach, about 15 km out.

Let us now compare larger cities. Just as Berlin has higher frequency at a given radius than Munich and Nuremberg, so does Paris have even higher frequency, and Tokyo yet higher. On the RER A, branches run every 10 minutes all day; Marne-la-Vallée, home to Disneyland Paris as well as a suburban office park, sees trains every 10 minutes off-peak, 37 km outside city center. At the other end, Cergy sees a train every 10 minutes all day at similar distance, and at rush hour this rises to 5 minutes, but half the trains run on Transilien L rather than the RER.

Some of these Parisian RER trains run express. The RER B, off-peak, has a pattern with three services, each running every 15 minutes: at each end these go minor branch (Robinson or Mitry-Claye), major branch express (major stops to Massy and then local to Saint-Rémy or nonstop to CDG), major branch local (local to Massy or CDG). So yes, nonstop trains exist, in the special context of an airport, but local trains still run every 15 minutes as far as 20-30 km from city center. At rush hour, frequencies rise and there’s no more room for express trains to the north, so trains run every 6 minutes to each of CDG or Mitry, all local: local service always comes first.

Tokyo has even higher local frequency. Rapid lines tend to have their own dedicated pair of tracks, there is so much traffic. For example, the Chuo Line has four tracks to Mitaka: the local tracks carry the Chuo-Sobu Line, and the express tracks carry the Chuo Rapid Line farther out. Both patterns are very frequent.

What Tokyo does have is a melange of express services with names like Special Rapid, Limited Express, or Liner. However, they are timetabled around the local services, or the regular rapid ones if there’s a rapid track pair as on Chuo, even in environments with competition between private railways for commuter traffic. The Chuo Rapid Line’s basic pattern, the vanilla rapid, runs irregularly every 3-8 minutes off-peak, with Special Rapid trains making limited stops timetabled around those, with timed overtakes at major stations. Thus frequency stays very high even as far out as Tachikawa, 37.5 km from Tokyo Station. Moreover, at rush hour, where frequency is denser, there is less, sometimes no, special express service.

Timetabling for express trains

All of our five example cities have express trains. In Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg, they’re branded as RegionalBahn, distinct from the S-Bahn. In Paris, some RER trains run express, but mostly Transilien provides extra express service. In Tokyo, it’s all branded as part of the Kanto area commuter rail network. This is the core of Emil’s argument: express service exists in Germany, but has separate branding.

Nonetheless, there are best practices for how to do this. In Jarrett Walker’s bus-based terminology, it is better to run limited, that is make major stops, than to run express, that is have long nonstop sections from outer areas to city center. Sometimes patterns are somewhat of a hybrid, like on some New York subway lines, but the basic principle is that regional trains never skip major stations.

  • In Berlin, the Stadtbahn, built in the 1880s, has four tracks, two dedicated to local S-Bahn trains and two to everything else. Intercity trains on the Stadtbahn only stop at Hauptbahnhof and Ostbahnhof, but regional trains make roughly every other S-Bahn stop. Elsewhere, some stations are never missed, like Lichtenberg and Wannsee. Note also that as in Paris, Berlin likes its airport express service, branded FEX, which skips the RegionalBahn station and S-Bahn branch point Schöneweide.
  • In Munich, some RegionalBahn services express from the S-Bahn terminal, where they always stop, to Hauptbahnhof; some also make a few stops on the way. It depends on the line – Dachau and Laim are both popular RegionalBahn stops.
  • In Nuremberg, I encourage people to look at the map. Express trains abound, at fairly high frequency, each named service running hourly, and they always make certain major stations like Erlangen and Fürth.

The stopping pattern can be more local once there’s no S-Bahn, but it’s not really local. For example, at both ends of Berlin’s RE 1, a half-hourly regional line between Brandenburg an der Havel and Frankfurt an der Oder with half the trains continuing west to Magdeburg and south awkwardly to Cottbus, there are stops spaced 7-10 km apart between the built-up area of Berlin-Potsdam and those of Brandenburg and Frankfurt.

In Paris and Tokyo, similarly, express trains stop at major stations. The RER B’s express pattern does run nonstop between Gare du Nord and CDG, but to the south of Paris, it makes major stops like Bourg-la-Reine rather than trying to run nonstop from Massy to Paris; moreover, the RER trains make all stops within the city core, even neighborhood stops like Cité-Universitaire or Nation. Tokyo’s Special Rapids likewise stop at major stations like Kokubunji, and don’t run nonstop from outer suburban branches to Shinjuku and Tokyo.

What this means for New York

New York does not run its commuter rail in the above way. Not even close. First, local frequency is weak. The pre-corona timetables of the New Haven and Harlem Lines have 30-40 minute gaps at rush hour at radii where Berlin still has some 10-minute service. Off-peak the schedule is more regular but still only half-hourly. Hourly S-Bahn systems exist, for example in Mannheim, but those are mocked by German railfans as not real S-Bahns but barely upgraded regional rail systems using the term S-Bahn for marketing.

And second, express trains are not designed to provide an express overlay on top of local trains with transfers where appropriate. When they’re zoned, they only make a handful of stops at rush hour and then express, often without overlapping the next zone for a transfer. This is the case even where the infrastructure is a four-track line set up for more normal express service: the Hudson Line is set up so that Ossining, Tarrytown, and Yonkers have express platforms, but its timetable largely ignores that in favor of long nonstops, with 20-minute gaps at Yonkers.

In the future, it is critical to focus on a high-quality local takt, with frequency depending on city size. In Boston, a Berlin-size city, the TransitMatters plan calls for a 15-minute takt, sometimes 10 minutes, generally as far out as 20-30 km. But New York is a larger city, and needs 5 minutes within the city and 10 well into suburbia, with a strong local schedule that express trains can go around if appropriate. S-Bahn service, by whatever name or brand it has, is always about using mainline infrastructure to operate urban rail and extend the city into the suburbs.

The Invention of Bad Railroad Timetables

The rail advocate Shaul Picker has uploaded a fascinating potpourri of studies regarding commuter rail operations. Among them, two deserve highlight, because they cover the invention of bad timetable practices in New York, and, unfortunately, not only think those practices are good, but also view their goodness as self-evident. They are both by Donald Eisele, who was working for the New York Central and implemented this system on the lines that are now Metro-North, first introducing the concept to the literature in 1968, and then in 1978 asserting, on flimsy evidence, that it worked. Having implemented it in 1964 based on a similar implementation a few years earlier in the Bay Area, Eisele must be viewed as one of the people most responsible for the poor quality of American mainline service, and his idea of zone theory or zonal operations must be discarded in favor of the S-Bahn takt.

Zone theory

Eisele’s starting point is that commuter rail service should be exclusively about connecting the suburbs with city center. He contrasts his approach with urban transit, which is about service from everywhere to everywhere; trips short of Manhattan were 20% of single-trip ticket revenue for New York Central suburban operations and 5% of multi-ride pass revenue, and the railroad wanted to eliminate this traffic and focus on suburb-to-city commuters. From this inauspicious starting point, he implemented a timetable in which suburban stations are grouped into zones of a few contiguous stations each, typically 2-4 stations. At rush hour, a train only stops within one zone, and then expresses to city center, which in the original case means Grand Central.

The idea behind zone theory is that, since all that matters is a rapid connection to city center, trains should make as few stops as possible. Instead of trying to run frequently, it’s sufficient to run every 20 or 30 minutes, and then once a train fills with seats it should run express. This is accompanied by a view that longer-haul commuters are more important because they pay higher fares, and therefore their trips should not be slowed by the addition of stops closer in.

It’s important to note that what zone theory replaced was not an S-Bahn-style schedule in which all trains make all stops, and if there’s more demand in the inner area than the outer area then some trains should short-turn at a major station in the middle. American railroads had accumulated a cruft of timetables; Eisele goes over how haphazard the traditional schedules were, with short but irregular rush-hour intervals as some trains skipped some stations, never in any systematic way.

The first paper goes over various implementation details. For example, ideally a major station should be the innermost station within its zone, to guarantee passengers there a nonstop trip to city center. Moreover, considerable attention goes to fare collection: fares are realigned away from a purely distance-based system to one in which all stations in a zone have the same fare to city center, simplifying the conductors’ job. The followup paper speaks of the success of this realignment in reducing fare collection mistakes.

The failure of zone theory

We can see today that zone theory is a complete failure. Trains do not meaningfully serve anyone except 9-to-5 suburban commuters to the city, a class that is steadily shrinking due to job sprawl and a change in middle-class working hours. Ridership is horrendous: all three New York commuter railroads combined have less ridership than the Munich S-Bahn, a single-trunk, seven-branch system in a metropolitan area of 3 million. Metro-North would brag about having an 80% market share among rush hour commuters from its suburban shed to Manhattan, but that only amounts to about 90 million annual riders. In contrast, the modal split of rail at major suburban job centers, even ones that are adjacent to the train station like White Plains and Stamford, is single-digit percent – and Metro-North is the least bad of New York’s three railroads in this category.

Even on the original idea of providing fast service from the suburbs to city center, zone theory is a failure. The timetables are not robust to small disturbances, and once the line gets busy enough, the schedules have to be padded considerably. I do not have precise present-day speed zones for Metro-North, but I do have them for the LIRR courtesy of Patrick O’Hara, and LIRR Main Line service is padded 30% over the technical travel time of present-day equipment on present-day tracks. A textbook I have recently read about scheduling best practices cites a range of different padding factors, all single-digit percent; Switzerland uses 7%, on a complex, interlined network where reliability matters above all other concerns. With 30% padding, the LIRR’s nonstop trains between Ronkonkoma and Penn Station, a distance of 80 km, take about as long as local trains would with 7% padding.

Eisele is right in the papers when he complains about the institutional inertia leading to haphazard schedules. But his solution was destructive, especially in contrast with contemporary advances in scheduling in Europe, which implemented the all-day clockface schedule, starting with Spoorslag ’70 and then the Munich S-Bahn takt in 1972.

Zone theory and reliability

The first paper claims as self-evident that zonal timetables are reliable. The argument offered is that if there is a short delay, it only affects trains within that zone, and thus only affects the stations within the zone and does not propagate further. There is no attempt at modeling this, just claims based on common sense – and transport is a field where intuition often fails and scientific analysis is required.

The problem is that zone theory does not actually make trains in different zones independent of one another. The second paper has a sample timetable on PDF-p. 4 for the evening rush hour, and this can also be reversed for the morning. In the morning, trains from outer zones arrive in city center just after trains from inner zones; in the afternoon, trains serving outer zone stations depart city center first, always with a gap of just a few minutes between successive trains. In the morning, a delay in a suburban zone means that the trains in the zones behind it are delayed as well, because otherwise they would clash and arrive city center at literally the same minute, which is impossible.

This isn’t purely an artifact of short headways between running trains. Subway systems routinely have to deal with this issue. The key is that on a subway system, trains do not have much of their own identity; if a train is delayed, the next train can perfectly substitute for it, and cascading delays just mean that trains run slightly slower and (because the equipment pool is fixed) are slightly more crowded. The principle that individual suburban stations should only be served every 20-30 minutes means no such substitution is possible. S-Bahn trains are not as interchangeable as subway trains, which is why they cannot run as frequently, but they still manage to run every 2-3 minutes with 7% padding, even if they can’t reach the limit values of a train very roughly 1.5 minutes achieved by some big city subways.

Eisele did not think this through and therefore made an assertion based on intuition that failed: reliability did not improve, and with long-term deterioration of speed and lack of reduction in operating expenses, the express timetables at this point are slower than an all-stops S-Bahn would be.

Infrastructure, Stimulus, and Jobs

I’ve talked before on the subject of infrastructure as stimulus, arguing that it’s ideally used for projects with one-time costs and ongoing benefits. Tonight I want to discuss a specific aspect of this: jobs. American infrastructure projects always talk about how many jobs they will create as a benefit rather than as a cost, and even in Europe, the purpose of the Green Deal investment package is to create jobs. In contrast with this view, I believe it is more correct to view infrastructure stimulus as an unusually bad way of creating jobs to deal with unemployment. The ideal infrastructure package really has to be about the benefits of the projects to users, and not about temporary or permanent employment.

The key question when designing stimulus is, unemployment for whomst?. Unemployment is predominantly a problem of unskilled workers. The OECD has a chart of unemployment by education level, and the rates for people with tertiary education are very low: in 2019, the US and Germany were at 2%, France at 5%, and even Spain only at 8%, all standing around half the overall national unemployment rates.

In theory, this makes infrastructure a good solution, because it employs people in the building trades, who are not university graduates and who have swings in employment rates based on private residential construction. In practice, it is not the case, for two reasons.

First, infrastructure projects have a long lead time, and therefore by the time physical construction happens, the recession has ended: the Green Line Extension in Boston, funded by the Obama-era stimulus, has mostly been under construction at the peak of the current business cycle, with such a shortage of labor that the contractors had to offer workers a full day’s pay with overtime for just five hours of nighttime work to get people to come in.

And second, while the building trades have large swings in employment, they are not good targets for absorbing the mass of laid off workers in recession. It takes years to get certified. This is not the 1930s, when construction was more labor-intensive and less skilled, so that armies of unemployed workers could be put to work building bridges and hydroelectric dams. Construction today is more capital-intensive (how capital-intensive, I can’t tell, since the full capital-labor ratios for the projects we’ve delved into are buried beneath layers of subcontracting), and the workers, while not university-educated, are much higher-skill.

Swings in employment are the most common among unskilled workers who do not have a special qualification. Those are workers in retail, restaurants, sundry small non-essential businesses that depend on the state of the economy for sales. The public sector is rather bad at absorbing them, because the stuff the public sector is or should be doing – the military, police, health care, education, social work, transportation, infrastructure – employs workers who are not so interchangeable. Health care, education, and social work involve massive numbers of people in intermediate professions; the military requires long training and a long commitment and countries that use soldiers as cheap labor for civil infrastructure projects end up weak in both infrastructure and defense; infrastructure uses workers in trades that usually involve years of apprenticeship. The main employers of the workers most at risk of unemployment are private, doing things the state would not be able to provide well.

So if the point is to limit unemployment, it’s best to stimulate private-sector spending through direct cash aid, and not through large state-directed development programs. Those have their place, but in the economic conditions of the 2020s rather than the unfairly romanticized middle of the 20th century, they are not good tools for reducing the impact of business cycle on workers.

And if the point is to build infrastructure, then an infrastructure package is a great tool for this, but it must be built based on maximum value and long-term savings. The number of jobs created should under no circumstances appear in any public communications, to deter groups from extracting surplus by claiming that they provide jobs, and to deter false advertising when in reality the jobs created by public-sector construction tend to be created when the recession is over among groups that do not need stimulus by the. Instead, infrastructure should center the benefits to the public, to be provided at the lowest reasonable price; labor, like concrete and lumber, is in that case a cost, and not a benefit.

Convert Street Parking to Outdoor Seating

It’s in the public interest for cities to convert the parking lanes of their major streets to outdoor seating, with chairs and tables. On the commercial avenue of the modern city, land use at street level is in large part restaurants, bars, and cafes, and some of the remainder of the storefronts could use outdoor seating as well, for example bakeries. In contrast, street parking is of little value – it creates more car traffic.

The main benefit here is that it turns the street into an open-air food court. This has the usual benefits of shopping centers, which at any rate were invented to simulate commercial streets, without the interference of cars. But it has an additional benefit that I have not seen mentioned by urbanists: it pools seating between different cafes and restaurants, in contrast with today’s outdoor seating, where each place has its own few tables according to the width of its storefront.

Pooling seats this way means that people who buy from in-demand establishments can take adjacent seats. I saw this, by chance, during the corona lockdown, in which outdoor dining was technically banned as well as indoor dining, but some restaurants in Mitte near Alexanderplatz had permanent outdoor seating, and people would go there with food from anywhere. Even before the lockdown, when one such place was closed, some people, including myself, would colonize its seating with food from elsewhere. In effect, it reduces the rental costs of the places that make the most in-demand food and drinks, or other products.

This system of pooled seating, at the expense of parking, also has other benefits. It means people can eat different foods together. It distributes demand, which may differ by time of day or day of week, with restaurants most popular at typical lunch and dinner times (and sometimes different restaurants have different peaks), bars at night, and cafes in between. These both increase efficiency, but even at a fixed peak, this has benefits, in letting restaurants compete on food quality.

Taxes, in general, are progressive: the rich pay more than the poor as a proportion of their income. But trying to apply the same logic to small and medium enterprise regulations is wrong. It doesn’t produce any income redistribution to speak of – the redistribution occurs only among the class of business owners, who already skew wealthy, to the detriment of the customers. In the case of storefronts, letting restaurant and cafe patrons sit outside wherever they’d like means not forcing the most desirable businesses to pay more in rent to acquire more seating space; the redistribution involved in the implicit rental tax under the present-day situation is entirely among owners, and to some extent from business owners to landlords. It’s not the same as when I pay higher taxes than a minimum-wage Aldi cashier and lower taxes than a CEO who doesn’t receive lower-taxed stock options.

And then there’s the positive impact on urban transport. City boulevards as a rule have too much car traffic and this includes ones in Berlin or Paris that Americans hold up as positive examples that they compare with noisier American arterial roads. The abundance of parking especially encourages people to drive to errands rather than walking, biking, or using public transportation; the present-day situation is that restaurants sometimes put out seats, reducing sidewalk width and with it the available space for cyclists to use the streets.

So instead, public seating, in lieu of on-street car storage, has the positive effects of distributing seats better as outlined above, while also reducing the space available for people to use cars in a city that needs more quiet and cleaner air.

Stimulus and Non-Critical Projects

The ideal use of a politically-determined, external infusion of funds into public transit is for a capital expansion that is not critical. The service provided should be of great usefulness – otherwise, why fund it? – but it should fundamentally be not a safety-critical package, which should be funded locally on an ongoing basis. The best kind of project is one with a high one-time capital cost and long-term benefits, since a debt-issuing sovereign state can borrow cheaply and obtain the financial and social return on investment without much constraint.

Positive examples

Outside infusions, such as from a stimulus bill or an infrastructure package, are best used on expansion with short-term costs and long-term benefits. This includes visible projects that extend systems but also ones that reduce long-term operating and maintenance costs. For examples:

  • High-speed rail: it’s operationally profitable anywhere I know of, and then the question is whether the ROI justifies the debt. Because a one-time cost turns into a long-term financially sustainable source of revenue, it is attractive for outside investment.
  • Railstitution of a busy bus route, or burial of a busy tramway. This produces a combination of lower operating expenses and better service for passengers. The only reason not to replace every high-ridership city bus with a subway is that subways cost money to build, but once the outside infusion of money comes, it costs less to run a modern rapid transit system, or even a not so modern one, than a bus system with its brigades of drivers.
  • Rail automation.
  • Speed-up of a rail route to higher standards and lower maintenance costs.

The importance of non-critical projects

Critical projects are not good for a stimulus bill. The reason is that they have to be done anyway, and the process of stimulus may delay them unacceptably, as a local government assumes it will get an infusion of funds and does not appropriate its own money for it. The upshot is that a rational federal funding agency should be suspicious of a local or state agency that requests money for critical projects, especially safety-critical ones.

The point here is that the stimulus process is inherently political. It does not involve technical decisions of what the optimal kind of public transportation policy should be. It instead pits infrastructure investments against other budget priorities, like the military, holding down tax rates, or health care. It’s not meant to be predictable to the transportation expert, and only barely to the political insider. It depends on political vagaries, the state of the economy, and petty personal decisions about priorities.

Thus, an agency that asks for stimulus funds for a project sends (at least) one of two messages: “we think this project is great but if it’s not built people aren’t going to literally die,” or “we are run by incompetent hacks.” In the former case, the point of a benefit-cost analysis is that neither the costs nor the benefits are existential: the project is not safety-critical nor critical to the basic existence of the system, but the budget is not existential to the budget either and if it is wasted then the government will not go bankrupt.

Meme Weeding: Polycentricity and High-Speed Rail

There is a common line among German rail advocates that high-speed rail is not a good fit for Germany’s urban geography because the country is more polycentric than Japan or France. Per such advocates, it’s more important to connect small cities to a national network of trains averaging 120 km/h. It’s based on a wrong understanding of what polycentrism really means in the context of an entire country, and I’d like to explain why. A correct understanding would lead to a national effort to complete a high-speed rail program connecting all of the major cities at higher average speeds than 200 km/h, potentially going up to the 230-250 km/h range typical of France.

How Germany and France differ

When Germans speak of the superiority of the German InterCity concept to high-speed rail, the main comparison is France, which Germans are primed to think of as a nation of lazy spendthrifts. So it’s most valuable to compare the urban geographies of these two countries, and only secondarily rely on either other European countries or on Asian examples.

The most glaring difference is that there is no Paris in Germany. Ile-de-France has about 20% of France’s population, and is far and away the richest region, concentrating all the important corporate headquarters, basing its economy not on a specific industry but on its status as France’s primate city. Germany has nothing like this. The largest single-core metropolitan region here is Berlin, which at 5 million people is around 6% of national population. Moreover, cities are somewhat economically specialized, so the wealth of the richest cities is split across Munich’s heavy industry, Frankfurt’s finance, and so on.

Supposedly, this makes high-speed rail a poorer fit for Germany – there’s no Paris to just connect to every other city. But in reality, a high-speed rail network would still connect all the major cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, the Rhine-Ruhr complex, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Mannheim, Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe. Some of the smaller cities, like Erfurt and Fulda, happen to lie on lines between larger cities and are already connected, just not at as high a speed since German high-speed lines almost always have long legacy segments with a top speed of 160 km/h or even less.

And once all the cities are included, Germany turns into better geography for high-speed rail than France. Precise numbers depend on definitions, but around half of the German population lives in the above-listed 13 metropolitan areas of at least 1 million. In France, it’s only one third, and the median French person lives in a metro area of about 350,000; TGVs are thus forced to spend much of their running time on classical lines at low speed to reach cities like Grenoble and Saint-Etienne, and even some larger cities including Nantes, Toulon, Nice, and Toulouse are not on LGVs.

High-speed rail and connectivity

Blue lines preexist or are under construction, red lines should be built new

In the above map, the trip times are very aggressive – Berlin-Hanover in an hour is doable nonstop but barely and the sort of advocates who think train performance levels are still stuck in the 1990s may think it is impossible to do better than 1:30. But the 2020s are not the 1990s, thankfully.

The important thing to note is that not only does it connect all major city pairs, but also there is no alternative that has that feature. The Deutschlandtakt without further investments in speed connects Berlin and Munich in 4 hours, which is borderline for high-speed rail; in Cascetta-Coppola, the elasticity of ridership with respect to travel time in Italy ranges between -2.2 and -1.6, so going from 4 hours to 2.5 more than doubles ridership, for less cost than it’s taken to get to 4 hours so far since Germany has built the hardest segment first and much of what remains is in the pancake-flat North German Plain. With high-speed rail, the longest distance between two major cities, Hamburg-Munich, is 3:45, compared with 5:20 in the D-takt.

This also cascades to the roughly half of Germany that lives outside the metropolitan areas. A smaller city like Rostock, Münster, Regensburg, or Halle gets a connection to the national network either way; the D-takt actually only gives Rostock and Regensburg two-hourly rather than hourly connections to the nearest major node. It takes an hour under the D-takt to get between Regensburg and Nuremberg; the connections between Regensburg and the rest of the country depend primarily on how fast trains are between Nuremberg and the other million-plus urban areas.

Germany benefits from having centrally-located train stations everywhere, making transfers already easier than in France, where Paris has four distinct TGV terminals. Getting between two Parisian stations’ lines requires using a bypass, on which trains run at low frequency, at best stopping at Marne-la-Vallée and CDG, both 30 km from city center. In contrast, Germany train stations are set up for through service except Frankfurt, which is about to get an announcement for a through-service tunnel. To the extent that any bypasses are needed here, they’re because a station’s tracks point the wrong way for some through-service, as in Cologne and (even after through-service opens) Frankfurt; in both cases there’s a convenient near-center station, that is Deutz within walking distance of Cologne Hbf and Frankfurt Airport 10 km from Hbf, and at any rate the lines would have far more demand if speeds between major cities rose to French levels, so the frequency wouldn’t suffer.

Polycentricity and high-speed rail

Polycentricity does not make high-speed rail an inappropriate choice for intercity transportation. It’s neutral, and the urban geography of Germany, in terms of density and city size, is conducive to such a network. The question at this point is not about building a single line like Paris-Lyon, but about completing the half-built system that Germany has, and at that scale, having many major cities is not a problem at all.

So why do German activists keep bringing up polycentricity? I have a few explanations, none legitimate:

  • Germans look down on France, and bring up the most glaring differences to justify not learning. I’ve spent more than a decade watching Americans make up the silliest reasons why they can’t learn from Europe, reasons that are often unrecognizable to a European (“American cities weren’t bombed in WW2” – but neither was Paris). The same is visible internally to Europe, where Germany will not learn from France or Southern Europe.
  • Polycentricity is a convenient excuse to morally elevate rural and pretend-rural life over the big city, a common romantic trope in an arc from 19th-century nationalism to the modern New Left. High-speed rail breaks this pretense: it centers the largest cities, and tells the rest that their participation in national transport comes from their connections to large cities, which the romantics find deeply immoral. For the same reason, the German New Left finds subways less moral than streetcars.
  • Older activists are stuck in the past, when they were younger. In the 1980s, European high-speed rail meant Paris-Lyon, and not the national TGV network. At the scale of Paris-Lyon, Germany’s lack of a Paris indeed weakens high-speed rail. But it’s not the 1980s anymore; at this point the question is about completing fast links like Hamburg-Hanover and Erfurt-Frankfurt, not building the first link. My impression is that younger Greens support high-speed rail more than older ones, who joined the party to express opposition to nuclear power rather than support for immigration.

Looking forward rather than backward, nothing in Germany’s urban geography is an obstacle to a connected high-speed rail network. With central stations and less of the population living in truly isolated rural and small-city communities, Germany can expect to greatly surpass any other Western intercity rail network if it builds high-speed rail, more than reaching DB’s pre-corona 250 million ridership target.