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.