Philadelphia Link, or Organization Before Concrete

Pedestrian Observations commenter Steve Stofka has a blog post treating Amtrak’s $117 billion high-speed rail proposal for the Northeast Corridor with all the criticism for extravagance it deserves. Focusing on his hometown of Philadelphia, he explains how Amtrak’s proposal for new urban tunnels under the city and a new stop at Market East is insane, and how using mostly existing rights-of-way and stopping at the existing 30th Street Station is a vastly cheaper alternative.

Criticizing Amtrak’s plan is like shooting fish in a barrel. The reason I’m linking to Steve’s post is that it underscores a general theme in transit cost overruns. He explains the reasoning behind Amtrak’s choice of new tunnels:

How expensive is freaking expensive? The kind of bore being proposed is the single most expensive type of tunnel possible: it runs through a soft geological environment with zero tolerance for surface subsidence. It would cost more, mile by mile, than even the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The expense of this tunnel is so great that it amounts to about a tenth of the total budget of the plan (about $10 billion, or a billion a mile, out of a budget of roughly a hundred billion). When a single budgetary item commands that much expense, one must analyze and ask why: why do we need to spend a ludicrous amount of money in Philadelphia for what amounts to marginal access improvements? Knowing SEPTA, politics–and SEPTA’s “get-off-my-lawn” attitude–is most likely to blame.

The relevant answer is the slogan Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton: organization before electronics before concrete. Getting agencies to cooperate is hard on the managers, but cheap. Electronics, for example modern signaling to increase train capacity, costs more, but is affordable in a rich country. Concrete requires labor-intensive construction and is expensive.

The existing right-of-way in Philadelphia has no capacity constraint. It has four tracks, and a peak commuter rail frequency of six trains per hour. In contrast, the S-Bahn tunnel in Munich has two tracks and 24 30 trains per hour (thanks to ant6n for the correction); the above German link is concerned with cost overruns on a project to construct a second S-Bahn tunnel, currently estimated at half the per-km cost of the Philadelphia extravaganza. And Munich is far more advanced on organization than Philadelphia, where Amtrak and SEPTA have separate tickets, station staff, and schedules.

The same could be said about the LIRR/Amtrak grade separation. From a technical perspective, it is unnecessary. From a political one, it requires Amtrak trains to use the Penn Station’s lower concourse, currently monopolized by the LIRR; said concourse has better passenger flow and has station staff and ticket vending machines, but because of artificial separation into LIRR and Amtrak turf, New York State has to fork over $300 million for concrete.


  1. Steve

    Another nitpick: NEC capacity between Zoo Interlocking and Frankford Jct. was historically 6 tracks. You can see it yourself on Google Maps. It was still 4 tracks north of Frankford Jct. and south of the junction where the West Chester Branch (today the Media/Elwyn Line) diverged from the NEC main, though. Either way, with proper signaling (ERMTS?) capacity on the NEC is essentially unlimited, and historical freight easements offer excellent airport access. There is no reason whatsoever to attempt to enforce intercity curvature near the urban core, especially one (like Philadelphia) where every train would be stopping anyway.

  2. Nathanael

    Good philosophy, but really, do *not* underestimate the difficulty of changing institutional culture. A lot of techies underestimate it by many, many orders of magnitude.

    It often requires shutting an organization down completely.

    Amtrak’s institutional culture isn’t that bad, really, as institutional cultures go: it’s willing to change, it’s very friendly to customers, it’s understanding about cost-cutting, it’s responsive to criticism. You could do a LOT worse. Perhaps it’s too easy-going, too ready to cave in to bizarre desires of other agencies.

    LIRR’s institutional culture…. eeewww. Never heard anything I like about it.

    And yet, is it worth pulling the plug on LIRR completely and leaving people without LIRR for a few days or weeks or months or years, and possibly never getting some lines back? Because that might be what it takes to change the institutional culture there, at the railroad which never merged with its owner (the Pennsylvania Railroad), which maintained separate, incompatible, and technologically obsolete electrification even when its parent railroad changed their system, which has the most retrogressive railroad unions in the country (fighting to keep firemen!), which prevented the merger of the FRA-regulated rail agencies within MTA, which simply doesn’t want to play with anyone else if it can help it, and likes being very, very outdated.

    Maybe it’s worth it. Or maybe that would cost more than $300 million. I haven’t run the numbers.

    • Steve

      LIRR, SEPTA. Pot, meet kettle.

      SEPTA has an institutional culture which cut the Fox Chase line to one track to maintain track separation between it and the CSX line that also happens to use the same ROW, it’s the same organization whose dispatch is so unbelievably incompetent that it manages to not just have piss-poor on-time performance itself, but also back everything else up that happens to use the same tracks, the culture which has cut about a quarter of Philadelphia’s suburban routes in the past 30 years with the only actual extensions being along the never-abandoned Main Line…it’s the only institutional culture I know of which could try to kick its own superior out of 30th Street Station. SEPTA has a “can’t do it” culture–they can’t even properly manage an elevated railroad upgrade.

      Since SEPTA, not infrequently, is the problem in Philadelphia mass transit, a huge issue for anybody who wants to do even the most rudimentary transportation planning in the Philadelphia area is how to get SEPTA out of the way. And the current proposal is more just that than any other. It should say something about SEPTA’s dysfunction when Amtrak would rather spend $10 billion on a 10-mile long tunnel than deal with them.

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