How Fast New York Regional Rail Could Be

A few years ago, when I started writing timetables for proposed regional rail lines, I realized how much faster they were than current schedules. This goes beyond the usual issues in Boston with electrification, which can cut the Boston-Providence trip from the current 1:10 or so to around 45 minutes. In New York the trains are already electrified, but trip times are slow, due to a combination of weak rolling stock, low platforms in New Jersey, poor maintenance in Connecticut, and obscene schedule padding in Long Island. This post collects a few before-and-after comparisons of how fast regional rail in New York could be.

Due to time constraints, not all lines are included in this post; by popular demand I can complete this and make it a two-part post. In this post I am going to focus on the New Haven and Harlem Lines and the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma and Hempstead Branches.

The LIRR and Metro-North both have reasonable if conservative equipment. Thus, it is valuable to look at the trip times that current equipment could achieve, that is the M-8s on the New Haven Line and the M-7s on the other lines. Future equipment should be higher-performance, and in particular both railroads should procure modular platforms based on proven European regional rail designs, rather than stick with overweight, overpriced equipment as in the upcoming capital plan. Thus the following tables include trip times with both current equipment and a notional regional electric multiple unit (EMU) with the specs of a Talent 2, FLIRT, Coradia Continental, DBAG Class 425, or similar train.

As a note of caution, these trip times are not achievable at zero cost, only at low cost. No curve needs to be straightened, but some curves need to be superelevated, and in some areas, particularly Connecticut, additional track work is required. All of this is quite cheap based on European maintenance regimes, though perhaps not based on American ones, but it is not literally a day one timetable – figure a few months’ worth of work systemwide. Schedules would also need to be simpler, with fewer creative express patterns, to facilitate low schedule padding, 7% as in Switzerland rather than the LIRR’s current 30% pad.

Much of this work comes from this post about the LIRR and this one about the New Haven Line, but here I’m covering the Harlem and Hudson Lines as well, and using more recent computations for acceleration.

New Haven Line

Locals to Stamford:

Station Current time Future M-8 time Future Euro time
Grand Central 0:00 0:00 0:00
Harlem-125th 0:10 0:06 0:06
Fordham 0:18 0:12 0:11
Mount Vernon East 0:27 0:18 0:16
Pelham 0:30 0:20 0:18
New Rochelle 0:33 0:23 0:21
Larchmont 0:37 0:26 0:24
Mamaroneck 0:40 0:29 0:27
Harrison 0:43 0:32 0:29
Rye 0:48 0:35 0:31
Port Chester 0:51 0:37 0:33
Greenwich 0:55 0:40 0:36
Cos Cob 0:59 0:43 0:39
Riverside 1:02 0:45 0:41
Old Greenwich 1:04 0:47 0:42
Stamford 1:15 0:50 0:45

Some of the numbers are interpolated, but the end-to-end times as well as those to New Rochelle, Port Chester, and Riverside are exact. No curve is straightened, but all non-geometric speed limits, including those on the Cos Cob Bridge, are removed; the Cos Cob Bridge is not straight enough for high-speed rail, but a regional train could squeeze 150 km/h out of it, or 160 if it is replaced.

Expresses to New Haven are faster, as detailed in my older post on the subject:

Station Current time Future M-8 time Future Euro time
Grand Central 0:00 0:00 0:00
Harlem-125th 0:10 0:06 0:06
New Rochelle 0:18 0:17
Stamford 0:51 0:31 0:30
Noroton Heights 0:56 0:35 0:34
Darien 1:00 0:38 0:36
Rowayton 1:03 0:40 0:38
South Norwalk 1:07 0:43 0:41
East Norwalk 1:10 0:46 0:43
Westport 1:14 0:49 0:46
Greens Farms 1:18 0:53 0:49
Southport 1:23 0:56 0:52
Fairfield 1:26 0:58 0:54
Fairfield Metro 1:30 1:01 0:57
Bridgeport 1:38 1:05 1:00
Stratford 1:45 1:10 1:04
Milford 1:52 1:14 1:08
West Haven 1:59 1:20 1:14
New Haven 2:09 1:24 1:18

Numbers differ from my older post by a minute to allow for slightly slower approaches to the Grand Central stub-end, at 50 km/h rather than 100 km/h as with any future through-running. This is still several minutes faster than the current 10 mph speed limit out to a mile out of the station. It doesn’t matter too much; at the end of the day, this is a difference of 1:18 vs. 2:09, with one extra station. I repeat: better track maintenance, less conservative terminal approach speeds, higher superelevation on curves, modern schedule padding, and (on the margin) higher-performance equipment could reduce trip times from 2:09 to 1:18, a cut of 40% in trip time, without straightening a single curve.

Harlem Line

The Harlem Line today runs local and express trains, but this involves a long stretch from north of Mount Vernon West to North White Plains with three and two rather than four tracks; trains just don’t run frequently enough today that it’s a problem, but in the future they will need to. Therefore, my timetable below is all-local. Nonetheless, trip times to White Plains on the local train are comparable to those of today’s express trains.

Station Current time (local) Current time (express) Future M-7 time Future Euro time
Grand Central 0:00 0:00 0:00 0:00
Harlem-125th 0:10 0:10 0:06 0:06
Melrose 0:14 0:09 0:09
Tremont 0:17 0:12 0:11
Fordham 0:20 0:14 0:13
Botanical Gardens 0:22 0:16 0:15
Williams Bridge 0:25 0:18 0:17
Woodlawn 0:28 0:21 0:19
Wakefield 0:30 0:23 0:21
Mount Vernon West 0:32 0:24 0:23
Fleetwood 0:35 0:27 0:25
Bronxville 0:37 0:29 0:27
Tuckahoe 0:39 0:31 0:28
Crestwood 0:42 0:33 0:30
Scarsdale 0:46 0:36 0:33
Hartsdale 0:49 0:38 0:35
White Plains 0:53 0:36 0:41 0:38
North White Plains 1:01 0:41 0:44 0:40
Valhalla 0:45 0:47 0:43
Hawthorne 0:49 0:50 0:46
Pleasantville 0:53 0:53 0:49
Chappaqua 0:56 0:56 0:52
Mount Kisco 1:02 1:00 0:55
Bedford Hills 1:06 1:04 0:59
Katonah 1:09 1:07 1:01
Goldens Bridge 1:13 1:10 1:04
Purdy’s 1:17 1:13 1:08
Croton Falls 1:20 1:16 1:10
Brewster 1:26 1:20 1:15
Southeast 1:37 1:22 1:16

Observe that the current schedule has very long trip times before the end station – 8 minutes from White Plains to North White Plains on the local, 11 from Brewster to Southeast on the express. Southbound, both segments are timetabled to take only 4 minutes each. This is additional padding used to artificially inflate on-time performance, in lieu of the better practice of spacing out the pad throughout the schedule, at 1 minute per 15 minutes.

LIRR Main Line

The LIRR has a highly-branched system, and I’m only going to portray the Main Line to Ronkonkoma among the long express lines. This is because in the long term, the South Side lines shouldn’t be going to Penn Station but to Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Port Jefferson Branch could benefit from a side-by-side comparison of trip times, but that is partly a matter of electrifying the outer part of the line, a project that is perennially on the LIRR’s wishlist.

Station Current time Future M-7 time Future Euro time
Penn Station 0:00 0:00 0:00
Sunnyside Junction 0:05 0:05
Woodside 0:10
Jamaica 0:20 0:12 0:12
Floral Park 0:17 0:17
New Hyde Park 0:20 0:19
Merillon Avenue 0:22 0:21
Mineola 0:37 0:24 0:23
Carle Place 0:28 0:26
Westbury 0:30 0:28
Hicksville 0:45 0:33 0:31
Bethpage 0:51 0:37 0:34
Farmingdale 0:55 0:40 0:37
Pinelawn 1:00 0:43 0:40
Wyandanch 1:02 0:46 0:43
Deer Park 1:06 0:50 0:47
Brentwood 1:11 0:54 0:50
Central Islip 1:15 0:57 0:53
Ronkonkoma 1:22 1:01 0:57

The fastest Main Line train of the day runs between Penn Station and Ronkonkoma stopping only at Hicksville, Brentwood, and Central Islip, not even stopping at Jamaica; it does the trip in 1:08, a few minutes worse than the M7 could with less schedule padding and small speedups at terminal zones (Penn Station throat slowdowns add 1-2 minutes, it’s not the mile-long slog of Grand Central).

Hempstead Branch

Finally, for local service supplementing the rapid Main Line, we can look at the Hempstead Branch, which under my regional rail maps should keep serving Penn Station along today’s alignment, continuing north along the Empire Connection to the Hudson Line. Today, only a handful of peak trains run between Penn Station and Hempstead – off-peak, Hempstead diverts to Atlantic Terminal. Here are side-by-side schedules, using the fastest peak train as a comparison:

Station Current time Future M-7 time Future Euro time
Penn Station 0:00 0:00 0:00
Sunnyside Junction 0:05 0:05
Woodside 0:11 0:08 0:07
Forest Hills 0:12 0:11
Kew Gardens 0:14 0:13
Jamaica 0:20 0:16 0:15
Hollis 0:28 0:19 0:18
Bellerose 0:31 0:22 0:20
Queens Village 0:33 0:24 0:22
Floral Park 0:35 0:26 0:24
Stewart Manor 0:38 0:28 0:26
Nassau Boulevard 0:41 0:30 0:28
Garden City 0:43 0:32 0:30
Country Life Press 0:47 0:34 0:32
Hempstead 0:51 0:36 0:33


Across the four lines examined – New Haven, Harlem, Main, Hempstead – trains could run about 50-66% faster, i.e. taking 33-40% less time. This is despite the fact that the rolling stock today is already EMUs: the vast majority of the speedup does not come from upgrading to higher-end trains, but rather from running faster on curves as all EMUs can, avoiding unnecessary slowdowns in station throats, and reducing schedule padding through more regular timetables.

The speedup is so great that the Harlem Line could achieve the same trip times of present-day nonstop trains on locals making 14 more stops between Manhattan and North White Plains, a distance of 38 km, and the LIRR could achieve substantially faster trip times than today’s nonstops on semi-rapid trains. In fact, the LIRR could even make additional local stops on the Main Line like Forest Hills and Hollis and roughly match the fastest peak trains, but expected traffic volumes are such that it’s best to leave the locals to the Hempstead Branch and put the Main Line on the express tracks.

Good transit activists in and around New York should insist that the managers prioritize such speedups. If locals can match today’s express trip times, there is no need to run creative express stopping patterns that force trains into complex patterns of overtakes. Just run frequent local service, using the maxim that a line deserves express service if and only if it has four tracks, as the New Haven Line and shared Main Line-Hempstead Branch segment do. With the slowest speed zones sped up, curve speeds raised to the capabilities of modern EMUs (including the conservative M-7s and M-8s), and schedule padding shrunk to where it should be, the suburbs could be so much closer to Manhattan at rush hour as well as off-peak, stimulating tighter metropolitan connections.

High-Speed Rail in Small, Dense Countries

Four years ago I brought up the concept of the small, dense country to argue in favor of full electrification in Israel, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Right now I am going to dredge up this concept again, in the context of intercity trains. In a geographically small country, the value of very high speed is low, since trains do not have stretches of hundreds of kilometers over which 300 km/h has a big advantage over 200 km/h; if this country is dense, then furthermore there are likely to be significant cities are regular intervals, and stopping at them would eliminate whatever advantage high-speed rail had left.

Nonetheless, unlike with electrification, with high-speed rail there is a significant difference between Israel and the Low Countries. Israel does not have economic ties with its neighbors, even ones with which it does have diplomatic relationships, that are strong enough to justify international high-speed rail. Belgium and the Netherlands do – the high-speed rail they do have is already internationally-oriented – and their problem is that they have not quite completed their systems, leading to low average speeds.

The situation in Israel

Israel is a country of 20,000 square kilometers, with about 9 million people. Both figures exclude the entirety of the Territories, which are not served by intercity trains anyway, and have such geography that not even the most ardent annexationists propose to build any.

The country is long and narrow, and the maximum north-south distance is almost 500 km, but the cities at the ends are very small, and the population density in the South is exceptionally low. Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, is a city of 52,000, and is 170 km from the nearest Israeli city, Dimona. A low-speed line for freight may be appropriate for this geography, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal, but there is no real point in investing in high passenger rail speed. For purposes of fast intercity trains, the southern end of Israel is Beer Sheva, less than 100 km from Tel Aviv.

In the Galilee the situation is not quite as stark. The main barrier to intercity rail development is not low population density – on the contrary, the Galilee averages around 400 people per km^2, not counting the Golan Heights. Rather, the physical and urban geographies are formidable barriers: the mountainous topography forces all railroads that want to average reasonable speed to tunnel, and the cities are not aligned on linear corridors, nor are there very large agglomerations except Nazareth, which is about 100 km north of Tel Aviv. A low-speed rail network would be valuable, tunneling only under mountainous cities like Nazareth and Safed, but even 200 km/h in this region is a stretch, let alone 300. Thus, just as the southern limit of any fast intercity rail planning in Israel should be Beer Sheva, the northern limits should be Haifa and Nazareth.

The box formed by Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beer Sheva, less than 200 km on its long side, is not appropriate geography for high-speed rail. It is, however, perfect for medium-speed rail, topping at 160 or 200 km/h. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed line, built because the legacy line is so curvy that it is substantially slower than a bus, only runs at 160 km/h for this reason – the distance along the railway between the two cities is 57 km and there’s an intermediate airport stop, so the incremental benefit of running faster is small. The Tel Aviv-Haifa line, built in stages in the 1930s and 50s, runs in the Coastal Plain and is largely straight, capable of 160 km/h or even faster. The Tel Aviv-Beer Sheva line is slower, but it too can be upgraded. In all of these cases, the target average speed is about 120 km/h or perhaps a little faster. A high-speed train would do better, but reducing trip times from 40 minutes to 30 just isn’t worth the expense of a new line.

Nazareth is the odd one out among the major cities, lacking a rail connection. This is for both geographical and sociopolitical reasons: it is on a hill, and it is Arab. Reaching Nazareth from the south is eminently possible, on a line branching from the Coastal Railway in the vicinity of Pardes Hanna, continuing northeast along Route 65 through Kafr Qara and Umm al-Fahm, and entering the city via Afula. Modern EMUs can climb the grades around Umm al-Fahm with little trouble, and only about 4 km of tunnel are required to reach Nazareth, including a mined underground station for the city. Continuing onward requires perhaps 8 km of tunnel.

However, so far Israel Railways has been reticent to enter city centers on tunnels or els. Instead, it serves cities on the periphery of their built-up areas or in freeway medians. It would require little tunneling to enter the center of Netanya or Rishon LeTsiyon, and none to enter that of Ashdod or Ashkelon. This is the result of incompetence, as well as some NIMBYism in the case of Rishon. Nonetheless, such short tunnels are the right choice for regional and intercity rail in those cities as well as in Nazareth, which poor as it is remains the center of Israel’s fourth largest urban agglomeration.

What if there is peace?

In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is 300 km/h high-speed rail, justified by international connections to France and Germany. What if Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians that thaws its relationships with the rest of the Arab world, justifying international connections to present-day enemy states like Syria and Lebanon as well as to cold friends like Jordan and Egypt?

The answer is that the Levant writ large, too, is a relatively small, dense area. The Palestinian Territories have even higher population density than Israel, as does Lebanon. Jordan and Syria, on the desert side of the mountains, are less dense, but if one drops their low-density areas just as one would drop Israel south of Beer Sheva, the box within which to build intercity trains is not particularly large either.

Amman is 72 km from Jerusalem; it’s an attractive target for a continuation of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway at 160-200 km/h, the main difficulty being the grades down to and up from the Jordan Valley. Beirut and Damascus are both about 240 km from Tel Aviv on the most likely rail routes, via the coast up to Beirut and via Nazareth and Safed up to Damascus. The only connection at a truly compelling distance for 300 km/h rail is to Aleppo, which is not large enough and is unlikely to generate enough ridership across the language and political barrier to be worth it.

Egypt presents a more attractive case. Cairo is enormous, and there is a whole lot of nothing between it and the Gaza Strip, a perfect situation for high-speed rail. However, this is firmly in “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” territory, as none of the required construction really affects present-day Israeli intercity rail planning. It’s not like the Levantine Arab capitals, all of which lie along extensions of important domestic Israeli routes.

Integrated timed transfers

The Netherlands and Switzerland both have national rail networks based on the idea of an integrated timed transfer, in which trains from many destinations are designed to reach major nodes all at the same time, so that people can connect easily. In Switzerland, trains arrive at every major city just before :00 and :30 every hour and depart just after, and rail infrastructure construction is designed to enable trains to connect cities in integer multiples of half hours. For example, since trains connected Zurich and Basel with Bern in more than an hour, SBB built a 200 km/h line from Olten to Bern, shortening the trip time to just less than an hour to facilitate connections. Every half hour this line carries a burst of four trains in seven minutes in each direction, to ensure trains from many different destinations can connect at Bern at the right time.

I have argued against this approach in the context of Germany, proposing highspeed rail instead specifically on the grounds that Germany is a large country with many pairs of large cities 500 km apart. In the context of the Netherlands, the integrated timed transfer approach is far superior, which is why it is adopting this approach and refining it in ways that go beyond Switzerland’s decentralized planning. Belgium, too, had better adapt the Swiss and Dutch planning approach. What about Israel?

In Israel, timed transfers are essential to any intercity rail build-out. However, a fully integrated approach is more difficult, for three geographical and historical reasons. First, most intercity traffic flows through one two-track mainline, the Coastal Railway. Using advanced rail signaling to permit many trains to enter Tel Aviv at once is fine, but it would not be the everywhere-to-everywhere system of more polycentric countries like Switzerland.

Second, Israeli metro areas are really a mixture of the mostly-monocentric contiguous sprawl of France and the Anglosphere and the polycentric regions of distinct cities of the Netherlands and the German-speaking world. Jerusalem’s agglomeration is entirely Anglo-French in this typology, without significant independent cores, and Tel Aviv and Haifa both have substantial Anglo-French cores ringed by far less important secondary centers. The significant secondary centers around Tel Aviv and Haifa are edge cities within the built-up area that may be near a rail line, like Herzliya Pituah and the Kiryon, but are never independent town centers like the various Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr cities.

And third, Israel completely lacks the large railway terminals of Western countries that built their mainlines in the 19th century. Integrated pulses require one station track per branch coming out of the station, since the point of such timetables is to have trains from all branches arrive at the station at once. Within Germany there is criticism of the Stuttgart 21 project on the grounds that the new underground Stuttgart station will only have eight tracks, whereas there are about 14 planned branches coming out of the city.

So does this mean timed transfers are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Israel Railways must plan around timed transfers at junction stations like Lod, the closest thing the Tel Aviv region has to a German-style secondary core, as well as at future branch points. Entering secondary city centers like Netanya and Ashdod would involve tunnels and els, but more significantly to the national network, these would all be branches, and adding more branches to the mainline would require planning better transfers at the branch points and in the center.

Moreover, Israel still has significant intercity bus service, and most likely always will. Timed connections between buses and trains at outlying terminals like Ashdod are a must, and nationwide coordination of bus schedules to enable such connections is a must as well.

Intercity rail for a small, dense country

The situation in Israel – as in Belgium and the Netherlands – favors a different kind of rail development from that of larger countries like France and Japan. Short distances between major urban areas, frequent stops for intermediate cities, and cities that are not really located along easy lines call for the following design principles:

  1. The maximum speed should be 160-200 km/h – lines should not be designed for higher speed if that requires more tunneling or bypassing existing mainlines, unless there is a compelling international link.
  2. All trains should be electric, and run electric multiple units (EMUs) rather than locomotives, making use of EMUs’ fast acceleration to serve many stops.
  3. Significant cities that do not have rail links or have circuitous links should get new lines, using short tunnels or viaducts if necessary to reach their centers.
  4. Transfers at junction stations should be timed, as should transfers between buses and trains in cities with significant travel volumes to areas not served by the railway.
  5. The state should coordinate timetables and fares at the national level and engage in nationwide integrated planning, since a change in one city can propagate on the schedule 100-200 km away.

In Israel, public transportation planners understand some of these points but not others. Rail planning is based on medium rather than high speed; there are some calls for a high-speed train to Eilat, but so far what I’ve seen is at least partly about freight rather than passengers. The state is electrifying most (though not all) of its rail network – but it’s buying electric locomotives as well as EMUs. New rail lines go in freeway medians and on tangents to built-up areas, as if they were 300 km/h lines, rather than low-speed regional lines for which if people have to drive 5 km they may as well drive the remaining 50 to their destination. Schedule coordination is a mess, especially when buses are involved.

Going forward, Israel should aim to have what the Netherlands has, and even more, since the Netherlands has not fully electrified its network, unlike Switzerland. Israel should aim for very high traffic density, connecting the major cities at a top speed of 160-200 km/h and average speed of about 120 km/h, with easy transfers to slightly slower regional lines and to buses. Its cities may not be Tokyo or Paris, but they’re large enough to generate heavy intercity traffic by public transportation, provided the rail network is there.

The Hazards of Federal Subsidies for Operations

There’s an interesting discussion on Twitter, courtesy of Adam Batlan, about federal subsidies for capital funding versus operations. It’s become a popular reform proposal among American public transport advocates, who are frustrated with the status quo of federal funding for capital but not for operations. Unfortunately, the proposed change to the status quo – federal funding of operations and maintenance – is even worse than the status quo. The hazards of outside funding sources for operations are considerable and unavoidable, whereas those of outside funding for capital expansion can be mitigated by defining expansion appropriately, to the exclusion of ongoing maintenance.

Why federal funding should only go to expansion

Public transportation has ongoing operating expenses, and capital funding. Ongoing expenses can only change gradually – rail service in particular is dominated by fixed costs, like maintenance, and service changes have little effect on operating costs. This argues in favor of steady funding for operations.

Can federal funding be this steady? The answer is no. The federal government is where politics is. People with serious differences in opinion over issues including the overall size of federal spending, spending priorities, and how sensitive spending should be to economic conditions contest elections, and if one side has a majority, that side will get its legislative way. Nor is this some artifact of two-party majoritarianism. In consensus democracies the salience of a majority is if anything higher – there are big differences in policy, including transportation policy, between the various parties of Switzerland or the Netherlands, as the parties have to deliver results to attract voters rather than relying on polarization and partisan identity.

This kind of politics is very good when it comes to debating one-time capital projects. A center-right government committed to austerity with little attention to climate change, for example Germany since 2005, will not spend much money on rail expansion, and railroads will formulate their plans accordingly. The key here is that planning around maintaining current operations without expansion is not difficult, whereas planning around sudden cuts in operating funding is.

The issue of ongoing capital expenses

Current US policy is for the federal government to fund capital expenses, but not necessarily expansion. Normal replacement of equipment and long-term maintenance both receive federal funding. This is bad policy, because the way agencies respond to changes in funding levels is to defer maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then cry poverty when the federal government is generous.

The most extreme case of this is the state of good repair (SOGR) scam. The origins of SOGR are honest: New York City Transit deferred maintenance for decades, until the system collapsed in the 1970s, leading to a shift in priorities away from expansion and toward SOGR in the 1980s and 90s. There were tangible improvements in the last era, raising the mean distance between failures on the subway from about 10,000 km in 1980 to 250,000 in the 2000s. But this process led to a trend in which agencies would deliberately defer maintenance, knowing they could ask for SOGR funding letting them spend money without having anything to show for it.

By the 21st century, New York’s SOGR program turned into such a scam. The MTA capital plans keep having line items for achieving SOGR, but there are no improvements, nor does the backlog appear to shrink. If anything, throughout the 2010s service deteriorated due to slowdowns, until Andy Byford began the Saving Precious Seconds campaign. The same scam appears elsewhere, too: Amtrak deferred maintenance in the 2000s under political pressure to look profitable for privatization, a Bush administration priority, and when Obama was elected and announced the stimulus, Bush-installed CEO Joe Boardman began to talk about SOGR on the Northeast Corridor as a way of hogging billions of dollars without having to show increases in speed.

The forward solution to this problem is to credibly commit not to fund maintenance, ever. The fix-it-first maxim is for local governments only. The maxim for outside funding should be that any request for funding for maintenance or replacement is a tacit admission the agency cannot govern itself and requires an outside takeover as well.

The issue of frequency

The problem the thread linked to at the beginning of this post sets to solve is that some cities get money to build a light rail line but then only run it every 20 minutes. This, however, is a problem of incompetence rather than one inherent to the incentives.

A long-term revenue-maximizing agency, confronted with an urban rail line that runs every 20 minutes, will increase its frequency to at worst every 10 minutes, secure in the knowledge that the long run elasticity of ridership with respect to frequency in this range is high enough that it will make more money this way. This remains true even for a dishonest agency, which has no trouble maximizing long-term revenue by deferring maintenance and then asking for SOGR money when funding is available.

This fact regarding frequency is doubly true if the trains already run frequently at rush hour and only drop to 20-minute frequency off-peak. Fleet costs are determined by the peak, and large peak-to-base service ratios require expensive split shifts for crews. Therefore, a bump in off-peak frequency, especially from such a low base as 20 minutes, will increase ridership for very little increase in operating cost.

The thread does not mention the issue of connecting bus service much – I got yelled at for proposing half-hourly local buses timed with commuter trains – but there, too, the rule of only subsidizing expansion rather than maintenance or operation leads to good enough incentives. In Seattle, light rail expansion has led to bus service changes designed to feed the trains, increasing bus ridership even as rail service replaces the most crowded corridors.

The bus cuts of (for example) San Mateo County in response to rail expansion should then be put in the same basket of pure incompetence with the light rail line that runs every 20 minutes off-peak. The incentives line up in one direction, but due to such factors as unfamiliarity with best practices and managers who do not ride the trains they run, management goes in the other direction.

The forward solution here is to stick to funding by expected ridership. If the service plan involves low frequency, this should show up in the ridership screen and penalize the project in question, while urban rail lines that run every 5 minutes get funded.

How Come Carbon Taxes are Good for the Economy?

Two of the cities I have lived in are in areas with a carbon tax regime: Vancouver and Stockholm. British Columbia implemented a carbon tax starting in 2008, at a level reaching C$30 per metric ton of CO2, under the right-wing BC Liberals, who favored the carbon tax as a market-friendlier approach than the left-wing NDP’s proposal for cap-and-trade. The tax was revenue-neutral, offsetting other taxes, and is seen as a success; the NDP has since won power and announced a hike in the tax to C$50/t by 2021.

Sweden’s carbon tax is higher and older. It was implemented by the Social Democrats in 1991, at a rate of 24/t for home use, such as fuel, and 6/t for industrial use; it has been subsequently hiked multiple times, reaching 88/t for home use by 2004, and Löfven’s coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has increased it to 114/t for both home and industrial use. Our World in Data cites it as a success too, linking it to high levels of political trust and low corruption levels in Sweden as well as in other European countries with carbon taxes, such as Switzerland.

The question of interest is, how come these carbon taxes are good not just for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also for the economy? British Columbia’s economy has grown somewhat faster than that of the rest of Canada. Sweden has had high economic growth since the 1990s as well – see for example World Bank data from 1990 to 2018, in which Sweden’s growth in GDP per capita only behind that of Norway and the Netherlands, both by very small margins. What gives? How come this is apparently good for raw economic growth, when it’s supposed to be an economic distortion that reduces living standards if one ignores long-term environmental benefits?

Negative carbon taxes

There is an array of policies that act as negative carbon taxes – that is, taxes on green activity, or subsidies to polluting activity. The construction of highways is one example – the negative effects of cars include not just climate change but also local air pollution, noise, and car accidents. There are various policies counteracting these effects, such as fuel taxes and mandatory insurance, but they are not enough. For example, in British Columbia the minimum insurance requirement is $200,000 in personal injury plus $300,000 in medical expenses and smaller sums for related torts like funeral costs, but the insurance value of human life is measured in the millions.

To the extent non-carbon taxes on cars are too low, the addition of a carbon tax should move the tax level closer to the true level of the negative externality even ignoring long-term climate change. Carbon taxes should not by themselves improve economic growth on a 30-year horizon, let alone a 10-year one, but lower levels of air pollution, fewer car crashes, and less traffic congestion would.

Another aspect is development. Various zoning laws, such as single-family residential zones in much of Vancouver and restrictions on high-rises in Central Stockholm, encourage people to live and work in lower-density areas. This is simultaneously a negative carbon tax of a sort and a drag on economic productivity. A carbon tax is no substitute for reforms making it easier to add housing – and thankfully, both Stockholm and Vancouver already have fast housing construction, unlike (say) New York – but it does help countermand the subsidies to suburbanization implicit in restrictive zoning.

Climate science vs. arbitrary rule

The economic reasoning behind why special fees on various activities are inferior to broad taxes on income, property, and consumption has to do with incentives and rule of law. Taxing a specific activity incentivizes people and corporations to find creative ways to shift apparent activity elsewhere, creating economic distortions. It also sends everyone a message, “spend more money on lobbying politicians to keep your sector’s taxes lower than those of other sectors.” Broad-based taxes don’t do that, first because the only way to avoid an income tax is to be poorer, and second because there are fewer moving parts to an income or sales tax.

However, carbon taxes are not your run-of-the-mill tax on an activity some politician does not like. Yes, there is a definitive political movement calling for restraining greenhouse gas emissions, but the reasoning behind it is telegraphed years and even decades in advance, and is based on a scientific consensus. Lobbyists can try to fight for exemptions, as they can from income taxes, but the tax itself is based on a process that is transparent to informed economic actors.

In green democracy as in social democracy, the role of the state is not to side with the interest groups that voted for the party in power, unlike in populism. Social democracy holds that the state has an expansive role to play in the economy, but this role is not based on arbitrary exceptions but rather on budgetary and regulatory priorities that have been largely stable for generations: income compression, labor unions, health care, education, child care, infrastructure, housing. It’s not a coincidence that the part of the world with the strongest social-democratic institutions, the Nordic countries, also has more or less the lowest corruption levels.

Green democracy has a different set of priorities from social democracy, but they too are well-known, especially when it comes to the transition away from greenhouse gases. There’s a lot of lobbying concerning specific spending priorities, but the point of a carbon tax is that it adjudicates how to prioritize different aspects of the transition apolitically.

Carbon taxes and good government

The World in Data’s praise of Sweden’s carbon tax regime talks about the necessity for low corruption and high trust levels for a carbon tax to work. But does the causation really run in that direction? What if the causation is different? It’s likely that a carbon tax could politically work in a wide variety of countries, but only in states with high levels of political transparency do politicians prefer it to opaque schemes that reward cronies and favored interest groups.

In other words, once British Columbia enacted its carbon tax the results were positive even without unusually low corruption for a rich country. But for the most part, governments without much transparency or rule of law such as much of the United States do not like the simplicity of a carbon tax. Politicians who call themselves green prefer schemes that either directly subsidize favored groups or at least politically empower them (“Green New Deal”), and that specifically ream difficulties on groups they do not favor (real estate developers, the nuclear industry, etc.).

But that American politicians do not like carbon taxation does not mean carbon taxation could not work in an American context. It does in a Canadian one, without any of the negative economic effects that people who take perverse joy in environmental destruction predicted. The private economy can and does adapt to changes in relative prices, as fuel becomes much more expensive and other products become cheaper to compensate – and judging by the experience of Sweden in particular, even a fairly high tax is compatible with fast economic growth for a mature economy. All it takes is someone willing to spend short-term political capital on the long-term green transition.

Paint the Trains in Themes

Most urban rail networks in the world use color to distinguish lines, either alone or in combination with line names or numbers. Moreover, most of these networks have different train fleets for different metro lines – for examples, the trains on the Northern line are used only on the Northern line, and the trains on Paris Metro Line 1 are used only on Line 1. The interiors of these trains have static line maps dedicated to the lines they serve. Occasionally, the trains are also painted in their thematic colors, as in Boston. So, why not extend this and not only paint trains in their thematic colors, but also have different art on each trainset, using the thematic color?

A blue line, like the Piccadilly line or the RER B, would use drawings that incorporate the color blue in some essential way. For example, one trainset could depict an endless ocean, one could depict the sky, one could depict glass-clad skyscrapers that appear blue, and so on.


The key here is to make each trainset visually distinct and recognizable. Part of the reason is pure art: it introduces more interesting variability to a mundane activity, serving the same purpose as street sculptures. This exists in Japan to some extent, with public mascots and Hello Kitty trainsets, but this could generalize to every trainset. In a large city, this would require finding several dozen different paint schemes per color, ideally each by a different artist using a variety of styles.

But there’s another reason for this scheme: it makes it easier for passengers to remember which train they were on if they lost something or wish to report a crime. Right now, trains are tracked by model number, which passengers have no reason to remember after getting off the train. In contrast, a heraldic system is easier for passengers to retain, especially if the art covers both the exterior and the interior of the vehicle.

For the latter reason, it’s fine to be repetitive and paint every car in a trainset with the same scheme: passengers can roughly remember if they were near the front or back of the train, so if they lost something on the train, they can give enough information to reduce the search space to maybe two cars. Trainsets on modern urban rail systems are almost always permanently coupled, often in open gangways – even New York permanently couples cars into half-trains and joins two sets at a time to form a train, making it feasible to associate paint schemes with entire sets rather than individual cars.


The choice of art should rely on local history, geography, mythology, and culture whenever possible. For example, in the Eastern United States, one red trainset could depict brilliant fall foliage, but in Europe, trees do not turn red in the autumn so the reference would not be easily understood. In Japan, trees turn red in the spring and not the fall, so a red trainset could be painted with the cherry blossom. While Paris does not associate red with the color of leaves in any season, it was historically a center for impressionist art, so one blue trainset could have an impressionistic painting of foliage depicting it in blue.

Iconic food may be another intensely local element to paint in some cities. Everyone in New York knows what a bagel, a New York-style pizza, and a hero sandwich are, and New Yorkers of all ethnic and social groups eat them. At the deli, the professor and the security guard may well order the same pastrami hero. The same is true of döner and currywurst in Berlin, and bento boxes and yakitori in Tokyo.

Mythology and history add more recognizable symbols that are specific to the region or country. London and Paris may each find famous battles to commemorate, just as London names one of its intercity train stations after Waterloo and Paris names one of its after Austerlitz. An American city, especially Washington, may depict Union troops in the Civil War or the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Every major city can find an episode of its labor history to paint on one of its trainsets, in red of course. Mythology can add recognizable elements, such as fire-breathing dragons in red, Poseidon in blue, and pots of gold in yellow. Those elements would naturally look differently in a non-Western city like Tel Aviv or Singapore, but the principle is the same.

Diverse cities especially benefit from being able to depict their various cultural backgrounds, making different trainsets more visually distinct. Paris can paint some of its green and black trains with Arabic calligraphy, New York and Chicago can depict black Union troops with blue uniforms, Washington can depict the March on Washington with a blue sky or green lawn background, London can depict the Windrush and lotus art and Muslim South Asian architecture. These cities are all predominantly Western, but have large and growing minorities from non-Western backgrounds or from backgrounds with different takes on Western cultural production (such as black and Hispanic Americans), and should reflect the majority culture as well as the minorities, treating the transit network as a microcosm of the entire population.

Commercial culture and advertising

The plan should be to keep each design for a long time, potentially the entire life of the trainset, or at least through a midlife refurbishment. History, mythology, and geography all provide themes that are sufficiently long-run to remain relevant over the long life of a train.

In some cases, commercial properties can both be expected to exist for a long time and have well-known thematic colors. Examples include Star Wars and the iconic light saber colors, the best-known Pokemon, Hello Kitty, many superheroes, and the Smurfs. Transit agencies could enter long-term advertising contracts with Disney, Nintendo, and other long-lived corporations producing popular culture, and paint their properties on trainsets.

Advertising on the subway has a long history, and can coexist with painting the train if the regular ads are contained to the usual posters. It’s already spilling into painting an entire train: the Hello Kitty train is one example, but negative examples exist as well, when New York wraps an entire subway trainset in an ad for a television show that will be forgotten in a few years.

This kind of long-term advertising, in contrast, reinforces the recognizability of individual trainsets as no two trainsets should ever be painted with the same property (though trains of different colors may be painted with different Pokemon, or one with Jedi and one with Sith, etc.). Moreover, the paint scheme should be stable over 20 years – temporary modifications to help advertise a new film, video game, TV series, or book in the franchise should cost extra, and potentially be treated as regular ad posters.

However, there should be a limit to commercialization: the majority of subway paint schemes should not be based on global brands, but on local factors. Pokemon is everywhere, but the cherry blossom, recognizable skylines, picturesque mountains, and historical battles are specific to a country or region.


Just as cities often have art exhibits at subway stations, and just as they sometimes paint the trains on each color line with the color it’s named after, subway and regional rail networks can paint trains individually in thematic colors. In the largest cities, like New York and London, this could well involve more than a thousand distinct paint schemes; this is fine – those cities have enough artists and enough inspiration for a thousand trainsets.

Overall, the combination of some commercial properties with various aspects of history, geography, tourism, food, and mythology, curated from the majority group as well as from various ethnic and religious minorities, is exactly the mosaic that makes the city’s culture. One of the two prime reasons to do this is as a tool to help passengers remember what train they were on. But the other one is art, which simultaneously is aesthetic and sends a message: on the train we are all New Yorkers, or Londoners, or Parisians, or Berliners.

High-Speed Rail for Germany and Capacity Issues

After feedback regarding the post I wrote last month about high-speed rail in Germany, here is an updated proposal:

Blue indicates lines that already exist or are under-construction, the latter category including Stuttgart-Ulm and Karlsruhe-Basel. Red indicates lines that are not; some are officially proposed, like Frankfurt-Mannheim and the Hanover-Hamburg-Bremen Y, others are not but should be.

Würzburg and capacity

The primary difference with the older map is that there’s more service to Würzburg, connecting it to Nuremberg, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart, in addition to the already existing line north toward Hamburg.

The reason for the added connections is not so much that they are by themselves great. Würzburg is not a large city. The through-services have some value, but the Stuttgart-Würzburg line saves travelers from Stuttgart or Zurich to Hamburg or Berlin half an hour, which is nice but not a big game-changer. The Frankfurt-Nuremberg connection is likewise of noticeable but not amazing value: Munich-Frankfurt and Munich-Cologne are shortened by about 15 minutes, and Nuremberg itself gets direct service to Frankfurt and points northwest but is only a medium-size city.

Rather, the most important reason for these connections is capacity. Today, the Frankfurt-Mannheim railway is the busiest in Germany; a high-speed line between the two cities is proposed for capacity more than for speed. However, under a more expansive high-speed rail program, this line would soon reach capacity as well. The demand for trains connecting Frankfurt to Basel, Zurich, and Munich in two hours is likely to be high, at least a train every half hour to each. Moreover, all of these cities would be connected with Cologne in three hours, and Stuttgart would be three hours from Berlin and three and a half from Hamburg. Raw demand may turn the Frankfurt-Mannheim trunk into the busiest high-speed rail trunk in the world off-peak, even ahead of the Tokaido Shinkansen and its six off-peak trains per hour in each direction. Moreover, this trunk would exhibit complex branching, in particular entering Frankfurt from either direction for through-service to either Cologne or Berlin and Hamburg.

The Würzburg connections change this situation. Trains from Stuttgart to Hamburg and Berlin do not need to pass through Mannheim and Frankfurt, and trains from Munich to Frankfurt do not need to pass through Stuttgart and Mannheim.

Half-hourly frequencies

Paris-Marseille fills about two trains per hour most of the day, Paris-Lyon counting both Part-Dieu and the airport fills around 1.5 trains per hour off-peak and 4 per hour at the peak. The TGV averages higher seat occupancy than the ICE, about 70% vs. 50%, because it varies service by time of day and has practically no seat turnover. It also runs trains with more seats, about 1,100 on a TGV Duplex vs. 900 on a single-level Velaro. This means that for the same ridership, German needs to run about two-thirds more frequency than France, which for the most part means matching the frequency France runs at the peak all day.

The largest metro region in Germany is the Rhine-Ruhr, with around 10 million people, not many fewer than Paris. It is polycentric, which normally works against a region – passengers are more likely to be traveling to a destination far from the central train station – but in this case works in favor of it, since the east-west network branches and makes stops at all major cities in the region. The second largest region is Berlin, with around 5 million people, twice as many as Lyon and three times as many as Marseille. Comparing this with Paris-Lyon and Paris-Marseille, an all-day frequency of six trains every hour is reasonable, two connecting Berlin to each of Cologne, Wuppertal-Dusseldorf, and the Ruhr proper from Dortmund to Duisburg.

In general, it’s best to think of this system as a series of city pairs each connected every half hour. The following list looks reasonable:

  1. Hamburg-Berlin-Dresden-Prague
  2. Berlin-Duisburg
  3. Berlin-Dusseldorf-Amsterdam
  4. Berlin-Cologne-Aachen-Brussels
  5. Berlin-Bremen
  6. Hamburg-Bremen
  7. Berlin-Frankfurt-Saarbrücken-Paris
  8. Berlin-Munich
  9. Berlin-Stuttgart-Zurich
  10. Berlin-Leipzig
  11. Hamburg-Munich
  12. Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel
  13. Amsterdam-Cologne-Frankfurt-Nuremberg-Munich
  14. Duisburg-Cologne-Frankfurt-Basel
  15. Duisburg-Cologne-Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Zurich
  16. Cologne-Frankfurt-Leipzig-Dresden-Prague
  17. Paris-Strasbourg-Karlsruhe-Munich
  18. Munich-Vienna
  19. Hamburg-Copenhagen

Not counting international tie-ins like Dresden-Prague, Munich-Vienna, or Aachen-Brussels, these lines total around 9,000 km with repetition, so the total service provision over 15 daily hours of full service is to be 540,000 train-km, maybe somewhat less if the weaker lines (especially Berlin-Leipzig) are served with single 200-meter trainsets rather than double trainsets. Filling seats at today’s rate, say with an average trip length of 350 km, requires ridership to be on the order of 250 million a year, which is about twice what it is today, and around two-thirds that of the Shinkansen. Germany has two-thirds Japan’s population, and the proposed network nearly doubles the average speed on a number of key city pairs, so at least on the level of a sanity check, this ridership level looks reasonable.

The half-hourly connections should be timed so that passengers have easy transfers on city pairs that do not have direct trains. For example, there are no direct Berlin-Karlsruhe-Basel or Hamburg-Stuttgart-Zurich trains, so the Berlin-Zurich and Hamburg-Basel trains should have a timed transfer at Fulda. A wrong-way timed connection between one of the Zurich-Stuttgart lines and the Munich-Stuttgart line toward Strasbourg should speed up Zurich-Munich travel, replacing the current slog through Austria.

Frankfurt, the center of the universe

Frankfurt is the most served station in this scheme, making it the key bottleneck: it has six connections in each direction, for a total of 12 trains per hour in each direction through the central tunnel. Berlin, in contrast, is the terminus on eight out of nine connections, so it only gets 10 trains per hour through the North-South Main Line (not counting Gesundbrunnen stub-ends), which has four tracks at any case.

The implication is that the Frankfurt tunnel should be used exclusively by high-speed trains, and regional trains should terminate on the surface. There may be capacity for a few regional connections in the tunnel, but unless they are extremely punctual, one delay would propagate to the entire country. An ICE network running largely on dedicated tracks would not have this problems – delays would be uncommon to begin with. In Berlin, the same is true in two tracks of the North-South Main Line; some regional trains can mix in the other two tracks, as well as on the express tracks of the Stadtbahn.

West of Frankfurt, eight trains per hour travel up the existing high-speed tracks to Cologne. This may be excessive, but six is not excessive given the sizes of the cities so connected. Passengers from all over central and southern Germany would have regular train access to Frankfurt itself as well as to the airport and some of the major cities of the Rhine-Ruhr. This is likely to be one of the two biggest long-distance bottlenecks, alongside Frankfurt-Mannheim, which is to get six trains per hour, two entering Frankfurt from the west to continue to Hamburg and four from the east to continue to Cologne.

Frankfurt’s position is not surprising given its geography. It’s near the center of western Germany’s north-south spine, right between the Rhine-Ruhr and the major cities of southern Germany and Switzerland. To its west lies Paris, two and a half hours away once a high-speed line to the French border opens. Berlin may be the larger city center, but it is located in Germany’s eastern margin, the capital of one historic state rooted in the east; Frankfurt is in a region that has always been denser and more economically developed, and high-speed rail is likely to strengthen its role as its distance from Paris and northern Switzerland is especially convenient by fast trains.

Additional connections

An environmental activist who saw the map asked why it was so thin in northwest Germany, mentioning a continuation of the line from Bremen to Oldenburg and even west to Groningen and Amsterdam as a possibility, as it has proven demand for intercity bus service. This connection may be prudent, I am not sure. My skepticism comes from the fact that northwest Germany does not have very big cities other than Hanover and Bremen, and medium-size cities like Oldenburg, Osnabrück, and Münster do not lie on convenient linear corridors.

Nonetheless, Oldenburg itself could be usefully served by a continuation of Berlin-Bremen or Hamburg-Bremen trains on legacy track. The same is true of a number of lines not indicated on the map, for example Hamburg-Kiel, or potentially some connections from Berlin and Hamburg to cities in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern branching off of the Berlin-Hamburg line. Moreover, among the four lines running on Frankfurt-Cologne, the one that does not run through to either Duisburg or the Netherlands could turn west to serve Aachen and maybe even continue to Brussels. Connections beyond Brussels are undesirable as Paris gets a faster direct link to Frankfurt, and London is a morass of delays due to border controls and Eurostar boarding slowness.

At the other end of the country, tie-ins to proposed tunnels across the Alps may be desirable. The problem is that these tunnels still leave the tracks with tens of kilometers of slow approaches that are not fixable without extensive tunneling. The air line distance between Zurich and Milan is 216 kilometers. The idea that a train could ever connect the two cities in an hour is complete fantasy, and even two hours is a stretch; Switzerland’s plans for the Ceneri and Zimmerberg base tunnels go down to about three hours. Farther east, the Brenner Base Tunnel’s northern portal is deceptively about a hundred kilometers by air from Munich, but half of that distance is across the Karwendel Alps and fast trains would require an entirely new route of complexity approaching that of the under-construction base tunnel.

Whither the Deutschlandtakt?

The Deutschlandtakt plan was meticulously developed over the years with the input of technical rail activists aiming to imitate Europe’s two best intercity rail networks, those of Switzerland and the Netherlands. Detailed maps of service in each region as well as nationwide for intercity trains are available, aiming to have timed connections between medium-speed trains wherever possible. But it is not the right way forward for a large country. With so many city pairs that high-speed trains could connect in two to four hours, Germany can and should build a network allowing trains to run largely on dedicated tracks, interlining so that most lines would see four to six trains per hour in each direction to ensure high utilization and return on investment.

At high service levels, trying to design lines to be utilized in bursts every half hour is not feasible or desirable. It’s more useful to space trains on intermediate connections like Berlin-Hanover to overlie to provide walk-up frequency, as high frequency is useful on short trips and encourages higher ridership. Moreover, key links like a tunnel through Frankfurt can’t really be used in bursts, as activists are pointing out in connection with Stuttgart 21. This is fine: Switzerland’s design methodology works well for a small country whose largest city would be Germany’s 16th largest, and Germany ought to see what France and Japan do that works and not just what Switzerland and the Netherlands do.

Is this feasible?

This high-speed plan does require high investment levels. But this is not outlandish. After fourteen years of stonewalling on climate change, with a flat fuel tax and more concern for closing nuclear plants than for closing coal plants, Angela Merkel has begun showing flexibility in face of massive climate change protests and announced a plan for a carbon tax.

Millennial and postmillennial Green voters lack the small-is-beautiful mentality of aging hippies. I did not see references to high-speed trains at the climate march a week ago (see selected signs on my Twitter feed), but I did see many calls for replacing cars with trains, and few small-is-beautiful signs, just one NIMBY sign against tall building and one anti-nuclear sign held by someone who looked 35-40 and someone who looked 60-70. Felix Thoma pointed out to me that as the Greens’ voter base is increasingly weighted in favor of educated millennials who travel often between cities, the next generation of the German center-left is likely to be warm to a national and international high-speed rail program.

The barrier, as always, is money. But Germany is not the United States. Costs here are higher than they should be, but they’re rarely outrageous – even Stuttgart 21 costs mostly in line with what one would expect such extensive regional rail tunnels to amount to. The core domestic network I’m proposing, that is excluding lines within Germany that are only useful for international connections like Stuttgart-Singen toward Zurich, adds 1,900 km of new high-speed rail, of which maybe 100 km is in tunnel. An investment of 60 billion euros would do it with some error margin.

A green future for Germany requires a network like the one I’m proposing. A green future can’t be one exclusively based around slow travel and return to the living standards of the early 20th century. It must, whenever possible, provide carbon-neutral alternatives to the usual habits that define modern prosperity. Trans-Atlantic travel may be too hard, but domestic travel within Germany is not, and neither is travel to adjacent countries: high-speed trains are an essential tool to permit people to travel conveniently between the major and medium-size cities of the country.

Small is not Resilient

I wrote about how the future is not retro, and Daniel Herriges Strong Towns just responded, saying that traditional development is timeless. I urge all readers to click the last link and read the article, which makes some good points about how cars hollowed out what both Daniel and I call the traditional prewar Midwestern town. There are really two big flaws in the piece. First, it makes some claims about inequality and segregation that are true in American cities but false in the example I give for spiky development, Vancouver. And second, it brings up the resilience of the traditional small town. It’s the second point that I wish to contest: small is not resilient, and moreover, as the economy and society evolve, the minimum size required for resilience rises.

Small cities in the 2010s

In the premodern era, a city of 50,000 was a bustling metropolis. In 1900, it was still a sizable city. In 2019, it is small. The difference is partly relative: a migrant to the big city had the option of moving to a few 200,000 cities in 1900 and one of about ten 1,000,000+ cities, whereas today the same migrant can move to many metro areas with millions of people. But part of it has to do with changes in the economy.

In Adam Smith’s day, big businesses were rare. If you had five employees, you were a big employer. Then came the factory system and firm size grew, but even then companies were small by the standards of today’s specialized economy. A city of 50,000 might well specialize in a single product, as was common in the American manufacturing belt (Krugman mentions this on pp. 11-12 here), but there would be many factories each with a few hundred employees.

But as the economy grows more complex, firm size grows, and so does the interdependence between different firms in the same supply chain. Moreover, the support functions within a city grow in complexity: schools, a hospital, logistics, retail, and so on. The proportion of the population employed in the core factory is lower, as the factory’s high productivity supports more non-manufacturing employees. The upshot is that it’s easy for a town of 50,000 to live off of a single firm and its supply chain. This is not resilient: if the firm fails, the town dies.

Occasionally, cities of that size can have more resilience. Perhaps they’re suburbs of a larger city, in which case they live off of commuting to a more diverse economic center. Perhaps they happen to live off of an industry that cannot die so easily, such as a state capital or a university. On social media one of my followers brought up farming as an example of an activity whose towns have held up in the Midwest better than manufacturing towns; farming is in fact extremely risky, but it has been subsidized since the 1930s, so it has some resilience thanks to subsidies from more internally resilient parts of the country.

Large cities and resilience

I read Ed Glaeser not so much for his observations about the housing market – he’s a lot of things but he’s not a housing economist – as for his economic history. He has a pair of excellent papers describing the economic histories of Boston and New York respectively. Boston, he argues, has reinvented itself three times in the last 200 years after declining, using its high education levels to move up the value chain. New York was never in decline except in the 1970s, and has resiled from its 1980 low as well.

These as well as other large cities have economic diversity that small cities could never hope to have. At the time Glaeser wrote his paper about New York, in 2005, the city seemed dominated by finance and related industries. And yet in the 2007-9 recession, which disproportionately hit finance, the metro area’s per capita income relative to the national average barely budged, falling from 135.3% to 133.8%; in 2017 it was up to 137.5%. The New York region is a center of finance, yes, but it’s also a center of media, academic research, biotech, and increasingly software.

New York is extremely large, and has large clusters in many industries, as do London, Paris, Tokyo, and other megacities. But even medium-size cities often have several clusters, if not so many. This is especially evident in Germany, where Munich, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt are not particularly large. Munich is the center of conglomerates in a variety of industries, including cars (BMW, far and away the largest employer, but also MAN), general industry (Siemens), chemicals (Linde), and finance (Allianz).

What’s true is that these large cities have much more knowledge work than menial work – yes, even Munich, much more a center of engineering than of menial production. But the future is not retro in the mix of jobs any more than it is in its urban layout. The nostalgics of the middle of the 20th century taxed productive industrial cities to subsidize farmers, treating industrial work as the domain of socialists, Jews, immigrants, and other weirdos; the nostalgics of the early 21st century propose to tax productive knowledge economies to subsidize menial workers, and in some specific cases, like American protection of its auto industry, this has been the case for decades.

Small cities as suburbs

In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, unlike in the United States or France, there is a vigorous tradition of historic small cities becoming suburbs of larger cities while retaining their identity. This doesn’t really involve any of Strong Towns’ bêtes noires about roads and streets – in fact pretty much all of these cities have extensive sprawl with big box retail and near-universal car ownership. Rather, they have tight links with larger urban cores via regional rail networks, and German zoning is less strict about commercialization of near-center residential areas than American zoning. There was also no history of white flight in these areas – the white flight in Germany is in the cores of very large cities, like Berlin, which can replace fleeing whites one to one with immigrants.

In this sense, various Rhineland cities like Worms and Speyer do better than Midwestern cities of the same size. But even though they maintain their historic identities, they are not truly economically independent. In that sense, a better American analogy would be various cities in New England and the mid-Atlantic that have fallen into the megalopolis’s orbit, such as Salem, Worcester, Providence, Worcester, New Brunswick, and Wilmington. Many of these are poor because of the legacy of suburbanization and white flight, but their built-up areas aren’t so poor.

However, the most important link between such small cities and larger urban core, the regional railway, heavily encourages spiky development. In Providence, developers readily build mid-rise housing right next to Providence Station. If the quality of regional rail to Boston improves, they will presumably be willing to build even more, potentially going taller, or slightly farther from the station. Elsewhere in the city, rents are not high enough to justify much new construction, and Downcity is so weak that the tallest building, the Superman Building, is empty. In effect, Providence’s future economic value is as part of the Boston region.

The relatively even development of past generations is of less use in such a city. The economy of a Providence or a Wilmington is not strong enough that everyone can work in the city and earn a good wage. If the most important destination is a distant core like Boston or Philadelphia, then people will seek locations right near the train station. Driving is not by itself useful – why drive an hour from Rhode Island when cheaper suburbs are available within half an hour? Connecting from local transit would be feasible if the interchange were as tightly timed and integrated as in Germany, but even then this system would be oriented around one dot – the train station – rather than a larger walkable downtown area.

A bigger city is a better city

Resilience in the sense of being able to withstand economic shocks requires a measure of economic diversity. This has always been easier in larger cities than in smaller ones. Moreover, over time there is size category creep: the size that would classify a city a hundred years ago as large barely qualifies it to be medium-size today, especially in a large continental superpower like the US. As global economic complexity increases, the size of businesses and their dedicated supply chains as well as local multipliers rises. The city size that was perfectly resilient in an economy with a GDP per capita of $15,000 is fragile in an economy with a GDP per capita of $60,000.

Usually, the absolute richest or more successful places may not be so big. There are hundreds of American metro areas, so a priori there is no reason for New York to be at the top, just as there is no reason for it to be at the bottom. Nonetheless, the fact that larger cities are consistently richer as well as at less risk of decline than smaller cities – New York is one of the richest metro areas, just not the single richest – should give people who think small is beautiful pause.

Whatever one’s aesthetic judgment about the beauty of the upper Mississippi versus that of the lower Hudson, the economic and social system of very large places weathers crises better, and produces more consistent prosperity. Economically and socially, a bigger city is a better city, and national development policy should reject nostalgia and make it possible for developers to build where there is demand – that is, in the richest, most populated metro areas, enabling these regions to grow further by infill as well as accretion. Just as 50,000 was fine in 1900 but isn’t today, a million is fine today but may not be in 2100, and it’s important to enable larger cities to form where people want to live and open businesses.

New York Rolling Stock Costs are Skyrocketing

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has just released its capital plan for 2020-4. The cost is very high and the benefits substantial but limited, and I urge people to look over criticism by Henry Grabar at Slate about elevators and Ben Kabak’s overview at Second Avenue Sagas. Here I am going to focus on one worrying element: the cost of the trains themselves, on both the subway and commuter rail.

I started comparing subway construction costs nearly ten years ago. Here’s an early post on Second Avenue Sagas, hoisting something I wrote in comments. Over here I started writing about this in 2011. Early on, I was asked about the costs of the trains themselves rather than the tunnels, and said that no, there’s no New York premium there. At the time the most recent rolling stock order for the subway was the R160, for which the base order cost was $1.25 billion for 620 cars (source, PDF-p. 34), or about $110,000 per meter of length. Commuter rail was similar, about $2 million per 25-meter-long M7 in the early 2000s and $760 million for 300 M8s of the same length in the mid-2000s. London’s then-current order, the S Stock, cost £1.5 billion for 191 trains and 1,395 cars, around $90,000 per meter of length for narrower trains; Paris’s MP 05, a driverless rubber-tired train, cost €474 million for 49 trainsets, around $140,000 per meter.

But since then, costs have rapidly risen. The gap is still far smaller than that for infrastructure, which New York builds for an order of magnitude higher cost than the rest-of-world median. But it’s no longer a rounding error. Subway rolling stock costs are rising, and commuter rail rolling stock are rising even faster. The latest subway order, the R211, costs $1.45 billion for 535 cars, or $150,000 per meter, for the base order, and $3.69 billion for 1,612 cars, or $130,000 per meter, including options. Commuter rail equipment costs, once about $100,000 per meter of train length, inched up to $2.7 million per car in 2013, or $110,000 per meter, and then rose to $150,000 per meter for the M9 order.

Construction costs: subway trains

The 2020-4 capital plan has showcased even further rolling stock cost escalation. Go to the link for the MTA capital plan again. On PDF-p. 23 there’s a breakdown of different items on the subway, and rolling stock is $6.057 billion for a total of 1,977 cars, of which 900 are 15 meters long and the rest (I believe) 18, for a total of $185,000 per linear meter.

I’ve blogged before about comparative costs of light rail and regional rail rolling stock. In Europe, both still cluster around $100,000 per linear meter for single-level, non-high-speed equipment. There is no apparent premium over early- and mid-2000s cost even without adjusting for inflation, which is not surprising, as the real prices of manufactured goods tend to fall over time. But what about metros? Here, too, we can look at first-world world comparisons.

In London, a recent Piccadilly line order is, in exchange rate terms, $190,000/meter (the trains are 103 m long) – but it includes 40 years of maintenance and spare parts. In Singapore, a recent order is S$2.1 million per car, which is about $70,000 per meter in exchange rate terms. Grand Paris Express’s first tranche of orders costs €1.3 billion for 183 trains totaling 948 cars, each (I believe) 15 meters long, around $120,000 per meter. Metro Report states Busan’s recent order as 55.6 billion for 48 trainsets (replacing 140-meter long trains), which is almost certainly an error; assuming the actual cost is 556 billion, this is $70,000/meter in exchange rate terms and $90,000/meter in PPP terms (PPP is relevant as this is an entirely domestic order).

In Berlin, the situation is the diciest, with the highest costs outside New York (not counting London’s maintenance-heavy contracts). An emergency order of 20 52-meter trains, tendered because cracks were discovered in the existing trains, cost €120 million, around $150,000 per linear meter. A longer-term contract to supply 1,500 cars (some 13 meters long, most 16.5 meters long) for €3 billion by 2035 is on hold due to litigation: Siemens had already sued over the emergency order of Stadler cars, but now Alstom made its own challenge. But even here, costs are well below the levels of New York, even before we adjust for inflation since Berlin’s future contract is in 2020-35 prices and New York’s is in in 2020-24 prices.

Construction costs: New York-area commuter rail

Commuter rail is faring even worse. On PDF-p. 27 the LIRR is listed as spending $242 million on 17 coaches and 12 locomotives, and on PDF-p. 29 Metro-North is listed as spending $853 million on 80 EMU cars and 30 locomotives.

Figuring out exact comparisons is not easy, because locomotives do cost more than multiple-units and unpowered coaches, and there is a range of locomotive costs, with uncertainty due to currency conversions, as most information I can find about European locomotives is in Eastern Europe with its weak currencies, since Western Europe mostly uses multiple-units. Railway Gazette’s pages on the world rolling stock market suggest that a European locomotive is around €5 million (e.g. the PKP Vectron order), or $6.5 million; PKP’s domestic order (including some dual-modes) is around $4.2 million per unit measured in exchange rate terms, but twice as much in PPP terms; Bombardier has a sale to an undisclosed customer for about $4.8 million. Siemens claims the Vectron costs €2.5 million per unit, although all the contracts for which I can find prices are substantially more expensive.

For what it’s worth, in the US dual-mode locomotives for New Jersey Transit cost around $9.5 million apiece, which is still evidently lower than what the LIRR and Metro-North plan on spending. 242 – 9.5*12 = 128, and 128/17 = 7.5, or $300,000 per linear meter of unpowered coach; similarly, 853 – 9.5*30 = 568, and 568/80 = 7.1, or $280,000 per linear meter of new Metro-North EMU. If we take the normal-world cost of a locomotive at $6 million and that of an EMU or coach at $2.5 million per US-length car, then the LIRR has a factor-of-2.1 cost premium and Metro-North a factor-of-2.2 premium.

The equipment is conservative

The FRA recently realigned its regulations to permit lightly-modified European mainline trains to run on American tracks. Nonetheless, no American commuter rail operator has taken advantage of the new rules – the only ones buying European equipment had plans to do so even before the revision, going through costly waiver process that increased costs. At a public meeting last month, Metro-North’s vice president of engineering did not even know FRA rules had changed. The LIRR and Metro-North are buying the same equipment, to the same standards, as they have for decades.

The subway, likewise, is conservative. It is a laggard in adopting open gangways: the R211 order is the first one to include any, but that is just two test trainsets, the rest having doors between cars like all other older New York trainsets. It is not buying any of the modular products of the global vendors, like Bombardier’s Movia platform or the Alstom Metropolis. It is buying largely the same kind of equipment it has bought since the 1990s.

Despite this conservatism, costs are very high, consistent with a factor somewhat higher than 2 on commuter rail and somewhat lower than 2 on the subway.

But perhaps the conservatism is what increases costs in the first place? Perhaps the reason costs are high is that the world market has moved on and the MTA and some other American operators have not noticed. In Chicago, Metra found itself trying to order a type of gallery car that nobody makes any longer, using parts that are no longer available. Perhaps the same kind of outmoded thinking is present at the MTA, and this is why costs have exploded in the last 10 years.

A secular increase in costs of infrastructure construction is nearly universal. No such trend can be seen in rolling stock: nominal costs in Paris are 15% lower than they were 15 years ago, and real costs are about 30% lower, whereas in New York nominal costs are 70% higher than 10 years ago and real costs about 40% higher. Paris keeps innovating – M1 and M14 have the highest frequency of any metro system in the world, a train every 85 seconds at the peak, and M1 is the first driverless line converted from earlier manual operations rather than built from scratch. In contrast, New York is stuck in the 1990s, but far from keeping a lid on costs, it has seen rolling stock cost explosion.

Update 9/24: I just saw a new commuter rail coach order in Boston. These are bilevels so some cost premium is to be expected, but $345 million for 80 unpowered coaches, or $170,000 per meter, is excessive, and TransitMatters tried hard to fight against this order, arguing in favor of EMUs on the already-electrified Providence Line.

Cars-and-Trains Urbanism

For all of the rhetoric about banning cars and the inherent conflict between public transportation and private automobiles, the dominant political view of urbanism in large chunks of the world is the cars-and-trains approach. Under this approach, cities build extensive infrastructure for cars, such as parking, wide arterials, and some motorways, as well as for trains, which are as a rule always rapid transit, never streetcars. In the midcentury developed world this was the unanimous view of urban development, and this remains the preference of mainline center-right parties like CDU, the French Republicans, and the British and Canadian Tories; various 1960s urbanist movements with roots in the New Left arose in specific opposition to much of that mentality, which is why those movements are usually NIMBY in general.

In the post-consensus environment of political conflict in most issues, in this case between auto- and transit-oriented urbanism, it’s tempting to go back to the midcentury elite consensus as a compromise, and call for making cities friendly to both transit users and drivers. This is attractive especially to people who hope to defuse culture war issues, either because they identify as political moderates or because they identify as socialists and have some nostalgia for the Old Left. However, this kind of urbanism does not really work. While a destination can sometimes be friendly to both drivers and transit users, the city overall cannot be; the majority of the points of interest in a successful transit city are hostile to cars and vice versa.

Moreover, this cars-and-transit failure is not just historical. It keeps going on today. Middle-income countries waste vast sums of money on building two separate transportation networks that do not work well together. The United States, too, has adopted this mentality in the cities that are building new light rail lines, resulting in large urban rail systems whose ridership is a rounding error since most of the city isn’t oriented around public transportation.

What is cars-and-trains urbanism?

Postwar West Germany built a number of subway networks in its large cities, such as Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dortmund, Essen, and Hanover. With the exception of Munich and Nuremberg, these are subway-surface systems, in which the trains are underground in city center but run in streetcar mode farther out. For the most part, these systems were built with the support of the driver lobby, which wanted the streetcars out of city center in order to be able to drive more easily, and once those systems opened, the cities dismantled the streetcars. Most of West Germany thus eliminated the streetcars that did not feed into the tunnels, just as the US eliminated nearly all of its streetcars except the ones that were part of a subway-surface system in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

In the United States, such development only happened in San Francisco, where Muni buried the main streetcar trunk in conjunction with the construction of BART along the same alignment on Market Street. More commonly, cars-and-trains urbanism led to the development of park-and-rides in the suburbs. An early example is the Green Line D branch in Boston, designed for suburban commuters rather than urban residents using the line for all purposes and not just work. Subsequently, light rail lines have been built with park-and-rides, as have full rapid transit systems in the suburb of Atlanta, Washington, and San Francisco. In the same period, American mainline rail networks evolved to be car-oriented, replacing city center stations with park-and-rides for commuter as well as intercity rail uses.

American cars-and-trains development was not without conflict. The auto lobby opposed trains, believing buses were cheaper; top civil servants in what is now the Federal Highway Administration advocated for bus lanes to create more capacity at the peak into city centers such as Washington’s. However, the trains that were built in this era followed the same mentality of creating more peak capacity in areas where widening roads was too expensive because of high city center land prices.

In the US as well as in Europe, and nowadays in developing countries, construction of rapid transit in the biggest cities and high-speed rail between them is paired with large highway systems for everything else. When the Tories won the 2010 election, they proclaimed the end of Labour’s so-called war on motorists, but maintained their support for Crossrail in London and High Speed 2 from London to the major provincial cities. And in Toronto, even Rob and Doug Ford, for all their anti-walkability demagogy, support subways, just not at-grade streetcars that would take lanes away from cars.

How does cars-and-trains transportation fail?

In the United States, public transportation is divided into three groups. There is transit-oriented urbanism, which covers about half to two thirds of New York, and very small segments of Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, and Philadelphia. There are people riding public transportation out of poverty. And there is cars-and-trains behavior, common in the outer parts and suburbs of cities with urban rail networks. In the major American metropolitan areas with urban rail other than New York, people who commute by public transport actually outearn people who drive alone, because so much transit ridership consists of rich suburban commuters. Because of the weight of those commuters and because American metro areas with public transportation are richer than the rest of the country, the national gap in income between drivers and transit commuters is small and shrinking. And yet, fuel consumption as a proportion of overall consumption is constant around 3.5% in the bottom nine deciles.

In other words: the United States has spent a lot of money on attracting the rich to public transportation, and has succeeded in the sense that transit commuters earn about the same as car commuters, but the rich still drive so much that they consume as much fuel as the poor relative to their total spending. This is not because rich people inherently like driving – rich Manhattanites don’t drive much. This is because the postwar American transportation network does not provide adequate public transportation for non-commute trips. Off-peak frequencies are low, and service to destinations outside city centers is weak.

In Germany, the politics of cars-and-trains infrastructure is still around. A few months ago, when some Berlin Greens proposed congestion pricing, CDU came out in opposition, saying that without park-and-rides, how can people be expected to use the U- and S-Bahn? Walking or biking to the station is apparently not possible in outer Berlin, per CDU.

How does cars-and-trains urbanism fail?

The problem with cars-and-trains urbanism is not just about lack of frequency. The off-peak frequency on some of the American light and heavy rail systems serving park-and-rides is not terrible for regional rail – trains come every 10 or 12 or 15 minutes. But the development repels non-commuter uses of the system. The stations are surrounded by parking rather than high-density office or residential development. People who already own cars will drive them wherever it’s convenient: they’ll shop by car since retail has no reason to cluster in the central business district, and they’ll probably drive to jobs that do not have such agglomeration benefits as to have to be in city center.

That is not just an American problem. Western Europe, too, has built extensive infrastructure to extend auto-oriented postwar suburbia into older city centers, including motorways and parking garages. If the streets are narrow, then the sidewalks may be extremely narrow, down to maybe a meter in Florence. This encourages anyone who can afford to do so to drive rather than walk.

If there is no transit-oriented core to the city, then the result is a standard auto-oriented city. Examples include Los Angeles and Dallas, both of which have large urban rail networks with approximately no ridership. In the three-way division of American transit ridership – New York (and to a small extent a handful of other city cores), suburban commuters, very poor people – Los Angeles’s transit ridership is mostly very poor, averaging half the income of solo drivers. Public transit construction in this case has been a complete waste without policies that create a transit city, which must include both liberalization (namely, zoning liberalization near stations) and coercion (such as higher car and fuel taxes and removal of parking).

If there is a transit-oriented core, then the result cleaves the metro area in two. To people who live in the transit zone, the auto-oriented parts are inaccessible, and vice versa. A few places at the boundary can be crosshatched, but the city itself cannot be entirely crosshatched – the sea of single-family houses in the suburbs is not accessible except by car, and transit-oriented cities have no room for the amount of parking or road capacity required for auto-centric density.

Does rapid transit mean cars-and-trains?

No. In opposition to the postwar elite consensus and the center-right’s support of cars-and-trains urbanism, the New Left tends to be hostile to rapid transit, on the theory that it’s only good for cars and that tramways with dedicated lanes are as good as subways. This theory is hogwash – enough cities built metros before mass motorization in order to avoid streetcar and horsecar traffic jams – but it’s attractive to people who associate subways with the failings of CDU and its equivalents in other countries.

Paris provides a positive example of rejecting cars-and-trains urbanism while building rapid transit. Postwar France was thoroughly cars-and-trains in its mentality, but 21st-century Paris is the opposite. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has narrowed roadways and removed freeways in order to make the city pedestrian-friendlier. Ile-de-France is expanding its tramway network, but it’s at the same time investing enormous amounts of money in expanding the Metro and RER. I do not think there is any city outside China with more underground route-km built than Paris in 2000-30 – Indian metros are mostly above-ground. In my under-construction database, which largely omits China and Russia due to difficulties of finding information in English, Grand Paris Express is 10% of the total route-length.

Postwar Japan is another example of rapid transit without cars-and-trains typology. Unlike present-day Paris, which is ideologically leftist and green, Japanese development has been in an ideological environment similar to the center-right elite consensus, called dirigism in France. Nonetheless, Tokyo’s motorway network is not large relative to the city’s population, and suburban development has been quite dense and rail-oriented. The private rail operators have preferred to build high-density housing at their suburban stations to encourage more ridership, rather than park-and-rides.

It’s one or the other

Drivers are most comfortable on high-speed arterial streets with generous shoulders and setbacks, with parking right next to their destinations. This encourages dispersal – just try building parking for all the jobs of Midtown Manhattan or Central Tokyo on-site. Pedestrians would need to walk long distances along noisy, polluted streets and cross them at inconvenient signal times or places or risk being run over. Public transit users fare little better, as they turn into pedestrians at their destination – and what’s more, public transportation requires destinations to cluster at a certain density to fill a train at a usable frequency.

This situation works in reverse in a transit city. On a robust public transportation network, the most desirable locations are in the very center of the city, or at key interchanges. Usually the density at those nodes grows so high that drivers have to contend with heavy traffic. Widening roads is not possible at reasonable cost in dense centers of economic production; the very reason for cars-and-trains urbanism as opposed to just 100% cars is that it was never economic to build 20-lane highways in city centers.

On the street, too, conflict is inevitable. A lane can be shared, which means dominated by cars so long as a car with one person inside it gets the same priority as a bus or tram with 40; or it can be dedicated to buses and trams, which means cars have less space. And then there are pedestrians, who need adequate sidewalks even in historic city centers where the street width from building to building is 10 meters rather than the more modern 30.

Defusing conflict is attractive, but this is not possible. A city cannot be friendly to drivers and to non-drivers at the same time. The urban designs for the two groups are too different, and for the most part what most appeals to one repels the other. Trying to build two redundant transportation networks may be attractive to people who just like the idea of visible development with its construction jobs, but both will end up underused and overly costly. Good transit has to convert drivers into non-drivers – sometimes-drivers are too expensive to serve, because the urbanism for them is too peaky and expensive.

As a corollary of this, political structures that have to give something to drivers too have to be eliminated if public transportation is to succeed. For example, infrastructure funding formulas that give set amounts of money to the two modes, like the 80% cars, 20% transit split of American federal funding, are bad and should ideally be reduced to 0 if the formula itself cannot be changed; the investment in highways is making public transportation less useful, both through direct competition and through incentives for auto-oriented development. The same is true of schemes that are really fronts for highway widening, like some bus rapid transit in the US and India. Good transit activists have to oppose these, even if it means less money in overall spending, even if it means less money in spending specific for some public transit programs. The cost of highways is just too high to try to maintain a culture truce.

Circumferential Lines and Express Service

In a number of large cities with both radial and circumferential urban rail service, there is a curious observation: there is express service on the radial lines, but not the circumferential ones. These cities include New York, Paris, and Berlin, and to some extent London and Seoul. Understanding why this is the case is useful in general: it highlights guidelines for urban public transport design that have implications even outside the distinction between radial and circumferential service. In brief, circumferential lines are used for shorter trips than radial lines, and in large cities connect many different spokes so that an express trip would either skip important stations or not save much time.

The situation

Berlin has three S-Bahn trunk lines: the Ringbahn, the east-west Stadtbahn, and the North-South Tunnel. The first two have four tracks. The last is a two-track tunnel, but has recently been supplemented with a parallel four-track North-South Main Line tunnel, used by regional and intercity trains.

The Stadtbahn has a straightforward local-express arrangement: the S-Bahn uses the local tracks at very high frequency, whereas the express tracks host less frequent regional trains making about half as many stops as well as a few intercity trains only making two stops. The north-south system likewise features very frequent local trains on the S-Bahn, and a combination of somewhat less frequent regional trains making a few stops on the main line and many intercity trains making fewer stops. In contrast, the Ringbahn has no systemic express service: the S-Bahn includes trains running on the entire Ring frequently as well as trains running along segments of it stopping at every station on the way, but the only express services are regional trains that only serve small slivers on their way somewhere else and only come once or twice an hour.

This arrangement is mirrored in other cities. In Paris, the entire Metro network except Line 14 is very local, with the shortest interstations and lowest average speeds among major world metro systems. For faster service, there is Line 14 as well as the RER system, tying the suburbs together with the city. Those lines are exclusively radial. The busiest single RER line, the RER A, was from the start designed as an express line parallel to Line 1, the Metro’s busiest, and the second busiest, the RER B, is to a large extent an express version of the Metro’s second busiest line, Line 4. However, there is no RER version of the next busiest local lines, the ring formed by Lines 2 and 6. For non-Metro circumferential service, the region went down the speed/cost tradeoff and built tramways, which have been a total success and have high ridership even though they’re slow.

In New York, the subway was built with four-track main lines from the start to enable express service. Five four-track lines run north-south in Manhattan, providing local and express service. Outside the Manhattan core, they branch and recombine into a number of three- and four-track lines in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Not every radial line in New York has express service, but most do. In contrast, the circumferential Crosstown Line, carrying the G train, is entirely local.

In Seoul, most lines have no express service. However, Lines 1, 3, and 4 interline with longer-range commuter rail services, and Lines 1 and 4 have express trains on the commuter rail segments. They are all radial; the circumferential Line 2 has no express trains.

Finally, in London, the Underground has few express segments (all radial), but in addition to the Underground the city has or will soon have express commuter lines, including Thameslink and Crossrail. There are no plans for express service parallel to the Overground.

Is Tokyo really an exception?

Tokyo has express trains on many lines. On the JR East network, there are lines with four or six tracks all the way to Central Tokyo, with local and express service. The private railroads usually have local and express services on their own lines, which feed into the local Tokyo subway. But not all express services go through the primary city center: the Ikebukuro-Shibuya corridor has the four-track JR Yamanote Line, with both local services (called the Yamanote Line too, running as a ring to Tokyo Station) and express services (called the Saikyo or Shonan-Shinjuku Line, continuing north and south of the city); Tokyo Metro’s Fukutoshin Line, serving the same corridor, has a timed passing segment for express trains as well.

However, in three ways, the area around Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya behaves as a secondary city center rather than a circumferential corridor. The job density around all three stations is very high, for one. They have extensive retail as well, as the private railroads that terminated there before they interlined with the subway developed the areas to encourage more people to use their trains. This situation is also true of some secondary clusters elsewhere in Tokyo, like Tobu’s Asakusa terminal, but Asakusa is in a historically working-class area, whereas the Yamanote area was historically and still is wealthier, making it easier for it to attract corporate jobs.

Second, from the perspective of the transportation network, they are central enough that railroads that have the option to serve them do so, even at the expense of service to Central Tokyo. When the Fukutoshin Line opened, Tokyu shifted one of its two mainlines, the Toyoko Line, to connect to it and serve this secondary center, where it previously interlined with the Hibiya Line to Central Tokyo; Tokyu serves Central Tokyo via its other line, the Den-en-Toshi Line, which connects to the Hanzomon Line of the subway. JR East, too, prioritizes serving Shinjuku from the northern and southern suburbs: the Shonan-Shinjuku Line is a reverse-branch of core commuter rail lines both north and south, as direct fast service from the suburbs to Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro is important enough to JR East that it will sacrifice some reliability and capacity to Tokyo Station for it.

Third, as we will discuss below, the Yamanote Line has a special feature missing from circumferential corridors in Berlin and Paris: it has distinguished stations. A foreigner looking at satellite photos of land use and at a map of the region’s rail network without the stations labeled would have an easy time deciding where an express train on the line should stop: Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya eclipse other stations along the line, like Yoyogi and Takadanobaba. Moreover, since these three centers were established to some extent before the subway was built, the subway lines were routed to serve them; there are 11 subway lines coming from the east as well as the east-west Chuo Line, and of these, all but the Tozai and Chiyoda Lines intersect it at one of the three main stations.

Interstations and trip length

The optimal stop spacing depends on how long passenger trips are on the line: keeping all else equal, it is proportional to the square root of the average unlinked trip. The best formula is somewhat more delicate: widening the stop spacing encourages people to take longer trips as they become faster with fewer intermediate stops and discourages people from taking shorter ones as they become slower with longer walk distances to the station. However, to a first-order approximation, the square root rule remains valid.

The relevance is that not all lines have the same average trip length. Longer lines have longer trips than short lines. Moreover, circular lines have shorter average trips than straight lines of the same length, because people have no reason to ride the entire way. The Ringbahn is a 37-kilometer line on which trains take an hour to complete the circuit. But nobody has a reason to ride more than half the circle – they can just as well ride the shorter way in the other direction. Nor do passengers really have a reason to ride over exactly half the circle, because they can often take the Stadtbahn, North-South Tunnel, or U-Bahn and be at their destinations faster.

Circumferential lines are frequently used to connect to radial lines if the radial-radial connection in city center is inconvenient – maybe it’s missing entirely, maybe it’s congested, maybe it involves too much walking between platforms, maybe happens to be on the far side of city center. In all such cases, people are more likely to use the circumferential line for shorter trips than for longer ones: the more acute the angle, the more direct and thus more valuable the circle is for travel.

The relevance of this discussion to express service is that there’s more demand for express service in situations with longer optimum stop spacing. For example, the optimum stop spacing for the subway in New York based on current travel patterns is the same as that proposed for Second Avenue Subway, to within measurement error of parameters like walking speed; on the other trunk lines, the local trains have denser stop spacing and the express trains have wider stop spacing. On a line with very short optimum spacing, there is not much of a case for express service at all.

Distinguished stops versus isotropy

The formula for optimal stop spacing depends on the isotropy of travel demand. If origins and destinations are distributed uniformly along the line, then the optimal stop spacing is minimized: passengers are equally likely to live and work right on top of a station, which eliminates walk time, as they are to live and work exactly in the middle between two stations, which maximizes walk time. If the densities of origins and destinations are spiky around distinguished nodes, then the optimal stop spacing widens, because planners can place stations at key locations to minimize the number of passengers who have to walk longer. If origins are assumed to be perfectly isotropic but destinations are assumed to be perfectly clustered at such distinguished locations as city center, the optimum stop spacing is larger than if both are perfectly isotropic by a factor of \sqrt{2}.

Circumferential lines in large cities do not have isotropic demand. However, they have a great many distinguished stops, one at every intersection with a radial rail service. Out of 27 Ringbahn stops, 21 have a connection to the U-Bahn, a tramway, or a radial S-Bahn line. Express service would be pointless – the money would be better spent increasing local frequency, as ridership on short-hop trips like the Ringbahn’s is especially sensitive to wait time.

On the M2/M6 ring in Paris, there are 49 stops, of which 21 have connections to other Metro lines or the RER, one more doesn’t but really should (Rome, with a missed connection to an M14 extension), and one may connect to a future extension of M10. Express service is not completely pointless parallel to M2/M6, but still not too valuable. Even farther out, where the Paris region is building the M15 ring of Grand Paris Express, there are 35 stops in 69 kilometers of the main ring, practically all connecting to a radial line or located at a dense suburban city center.

The situation in New York is dicier, because the G train does have a distinguished stop location between Long Island City and Downtown Brooklyn, namely the connection to the L train at Bedford Avenue. However, the average trip length remains very short – the G misses so many transfers at both ends that end-to-end riders mostly stay on the radials and go through Manhattan, so the main use case is taking it a few stops to the connection to the L or to the Long Island City end.


A large urban rail network should be predominantly radial, with circumferential lines in dense areas providing additional connectivity between inner neighborhoods and decongesting the central transfer points. However, that the radial and circumferential lines are depicted together on the same metro or regional rail map does not mean that people use them in the same way. City center lies ideally on all radials but not on the circumferentials, so the tidal wave of morning commuters going from far away to the center is relevant only to the radials.

This difference between radials and circumferentials is not just about service planning, but also about infrastructure planning. Passengers make longer trips on radial lines, and disproportionately travel to one of not many distinguished central locations; this encourages longer stop spacing, which may include express service in the largest cities. On circumferential lines, they make shorter trips to one of many different connection points; this encourages shorter stop spacing and no express service, but rather higher local frequency whenever possible.

Different countries build rapid transit in radically different ways, and yet big cities in a number of different countries have converged on the same pattern: express service on the strongest radial corridors, local-only service on circumferential ones no matter how busy they are. There is a reason. Transportation planners in poorer cities that are just starting to build their rapid transit networks as well in mature cities that are adding to their existing service should take heed and design infrastructure accordingly.