Rapid Transit in the Third World

Last month, I committed to producing a subway fantasy map for Lagos via a Twitter poll. I’m working on this, but before I go into Lagos itself, I want to talk about the third world in general. Good transportation in poor countries is of independent interest, but it also has some applications to thinking about solutions for rich countries, such as the countries my readers live in. The reason is that every principle of good transportation planning has edge cases, exceptions, and assumptions, and it is critical to evaluate these in the largest variety of situations. Understanding transportation in the United States can yield insights about Europe and vice versa; likewise, understanding the first world can yield insights about the third and vice versa.

The epistemological principle I use is that if I believe that a high concentration of factor A makes solution B work better, then a low concentration of factor A should make solution B work worse. I used that in a post about high-speed rail in Sweden, arguing against it due to the absence of factors that make it work better, namely, linear population distribution. Many good design principles formulated in rich countries depend on those countries’ high incomes, and are less relevant to countries that are only about as wealthy as the US and northwestern Europe were in 1900.

Everything is terrible

On nearly every indicator of technology or living standards, every poor country is worse than every rich country. There are some exceptions involving middle-income countries (for example, Russia and China have very good rail freight), but not in low-income countries. I wrote a piece in YIMBY recently describing the state of New York and Vienna in the early 20th century, which had very high crowding levels; much of the same story can describe many third-world cities today, especially in India, where tight zoning limits housing supply to the point of overcrowding. In Mumbai, the average residential floor space per person is 9 square meters, compared with 55 in Manhattan.

Pollution levels are very high as well, because of the combination of high population density and heavy industry (especially in North India), as well as the proliferation of cars. The amount of pollution caused by 50 or 100 cars per 1,000 people in a dense city where the cars don’t have catalytic converters can be many times worse than that caused by the 200 mostly diesel-powered cars per 1,000 people of Paris, or the 250 cars per 1,000 people of New York. The low motorization levels of lower-middle-income cities like Cairo, Lagos, or Mumbai aren’t a barrier to traffic, either: those cities routinely have traffic jams, just as the United States started having jams in the 1920s. These cities have centralized employment in the CBD, not a lot of road capacity coming in, and a culture in which the middle class drives (or is driven by chauffeurs).

This creates an urgency for improving public transportation in low-income countries that does not exist in the developed world. Third-world countries that build subways spend a much higher share of their GDPs on them than Europe and Japan do, and some, such as India and Bangladesh, spend more than the United States. If Paris hadn’t built the RER, Franciliens would drive or take the slower Metro; if Shanghai hadn’t built the Metro, Shanghainese would still be living in tiny apartments and riding buses in crawling traffic; if Lagos doesn’t build a metro, Lagosians will keep facing multi-hour commutes. The same situation also creates an urgency for improving other areas the government can invest in; good government, capable of making these investments at reasonable cost, without too much corruption, is crucial for economic and social development.

Concrete before electronics

The cost of advanced signaling systems, such as driverless technology, is approximately the same everywhere in the world, in exchange rate terms. The cost of civil infrastructure construction is approximately the same in PPP terms, and if anything may be a little lower in poor countries. The cost of labor that advanced technology avoids is proportional to wages. This means that the electronics-before-concrete principle is less valid in poorer countries, and is sometimes not valid at all. There are practically no driverless metros in developing countries; the only examples I can find of lines in operation include two lines in Sao Paulo and one in Manila, with a small handful more under construction. Brazil is middle-income, and the Philippines are lower-middle-income rather than poor.

This principle also extends to countries with existing rail lines that they could expand. Investments in concrete – additional tracks, grade separation, relief lines – are more valuable than in developed countries, while investments in electronics are less valuable. A city with a desperate transportation situation can expect that every rapid transit line it builds will fill quickly. Tunnels are in a way more future-proof than precise schedules and resignaling.

Regulate cars, not buses

A recurrent feature of transportation in poor cities without rapid transit or BRT is the minibus. It goes by various names; the most famous to the first-world reader is probably the Nairobi matatu, but it also exists in Lagos as the danfo, in the Philippines as the jeepney, and in Jakarta as the angkot. These vehicles are not popular with the segment of the population that the government listens to: they are typically noisy and dirty and the drivers are aggressive. The governor of Lagos State recently announced a plan to ban the danfos, saying they don’t meet the international standards of a great city and should be replaced with air-conditioned buses. This is while the city is still working on its first metro line.

In Delhi, attempts to give buses road priority met an intense backlash from high-income drivers. There was a failed lawsuit openly stating that car drivers’ time was more important. Eventually Delhi scrapped the system entirely.

In contrast, the most successful public transit in cities that were recently poor or low-income, such as Singapore or Seoul, is in an environment where state policy restrained cars and not buses. Singapore has had congestion pricing since in the 1970s, the first city in the world to implement this scheme, and levies high taxes on cars, as does Hong Kong. Seoul restrained domestic consumption, including of cars, in its period of early industrialization from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Nigeria has 60 cars per 1,000 people. Lagos has maybe 150. To a large majority of the city’s population, cars are traffic, not transportation. Numbers in other third-world megacities vary but are not too different: Cairo has about 200 as of 2011, Delhi about 170, Jakarta about 300. (Some car and population numbers are a few years out of date; caveat emptor.) Traffic restraint is the correct policy given massive traffic jams and growing pollution levels, and the sooner the city starts, the better it will look in a generation.

Plan for growth

Developing-world cities are going to be much larger and richer in 30 years than they are today. National population growth rates range from moderate in India and Bangladesh to explosive in Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. Moreover, all of these countries have low urbanization rates today and fast migration from the villages to the cities, setting up fast urban population growth even where national population growth isn’t so high. Economic growth projections are dicier, but at least one estimate through 2024 is quite optimistic about India and East Africa.

The high-density context of most cities in question rules out any auto-based development pattern. The population density of the eastern half of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, from Delhi downriver to Bangladesh, is about 1,000 people per km^2, comprising nearly 600 million people. Nowhere in the developed world is this density seen outside city regions. Lombardy has 400 people per km^2, and is as hemmed by mountains as North India, producing large-scale thermal inversions; with high levels of car traffic and heavy industry, it is one of the most polluted regions of Europe. Southern Nigeria is not so dense, but with fast population growth, it eventually will be. Egypt’s population density along the Nile is well into the four figures.

This also has implications for how rapid transit should be built. A metro line that passes through lightly-populated areas will soon sprout dense development around it, just as the early lines did in late-19th century London and early-20th century New York. Most New York railfans are familiar with the photo of farmland next to the 7 train in the 1910s; between 1900 and 1930, New York’s population doubled, while Queens’ population grew by a factor of 7. Such growth rates are realistic for some developing-world cities. For the same reason, it is worthwhile investing in grade-separated rights-of-way now, when they are cheap.

Another implication concerns capacity. Even Nairobi, which is not a megacity, can expect to become one soon, and requires many different rapid transit lines entering its center. Some of these can be accommodated on existing roads, as els or relatively easy subways under wide streets, but not all can. When the roads are wide enough, cities should consider four-track structures, since the relative construction cost of four-tracking is low for an el or a cut-and-cover subway.

Four-tracking has one additional benefit: local and express service, which is of critical importance in the very largest cities. In forums like Skyscraper City, Tokyo railfans often express concerns over China’s subways, which have no express tracks and little to no commuter rail, since they offer no path through the center faster than about 35 km/h (Tokyo’s express commuter lines, like Tokaido and Yokosuka, approach 60 km/h).

The final implication is that it’s fine to build a central business district from scratch. Shanghai is doing this in Lujiazui, but that is the wrong location, on the wrong side of a riverbend, with only one Metro line serving it, the overcrowded east-west Line 2; a north-south rail line would have to cross the river twice. A better location would have been People’s Square, served by Lines 1, 2, and 8. This is of especial relevance to cities whose traditional center is in a difficult location, especially Lagos but also Dar es Salaam.

BRT is not rapid transit

The failure of Delhi’s BRT line is in some sense atypical. The line was compromised from the start, and global pro-BRT thinktank ITDP expressed criticism from the start. However, other BRT projects draw cause for concern as well. Dar es Salaam’s BRT is instructive: the first phase cost about $8.5 million per km in exchange rate terms, or about $27 million per km in PPP terms, comparable to an average European light rail line or to an American BRT boondoggle. A hefty chunk of this cost comes from importing Chinese-made buses, which are priced in exchange-rate terms and not in PPP terms.

All else being equal, higher incomes strengthen the case for rail vs. BRT and lower incomes weaken it, since one of the major advantages of rail is fewer drivers per unit of passenger capacity. However, there is a countervailing force: the bulk of the cost of rail construction is local construction, priced in PPP terms, and not imported capital, priced in exchange rate terms. Trains still cost more than buses per unit capacity, but the bulk of the cost premium of rail over BRT is not the vehicles, and a weak currency reduces this premium.

And for all of the global marketing, by ITDP and by Jaime Lerner, the Curitiba mayor who invented modern BRT, BRT is not rapid transit. It is surface transit, which can achieve comparable speed to a tramway, but in a dense city with heavy traffic, this is not high speed. The busiest Parisian tramways, T1 and T3, average about 18 km/h. Modern rapid transit starts at 30 km/h and goes up as construction standards improve and stop spacing widens. BRT is still a useful solution for smaller cities, but in the larger ones, which need more speed, grade-separated rapid transit is irreplaceable.

Don’t neglect mainline rail

How are people going to travel between Jakarta and Surabaya, or between Lagos and Kano, or between Nairobi and Mombasa? They’re not going to fly; the capacity of air traffic is not high. They’re not going to take a vactrain. The only real solution is a high-speed rail network; Indonesia is already building HSR from Jakarta to Bandung, using Chinese technology, with plans for a further extension to Surabaya.

The most difficult part of building a new intercity rail network from scratch is serving the big cities. This is the big advantage of conventional rail over maglev or vactrains: it can run on legacy tracks for the last few kilometers. (In poorer countries, which import technology from richer ones, another advantage is that conventional rail isn’t vendor-locked.) Between this and the need to also accommodate medium-speed intercity rail to smaller cities, it’s important that developing-world cities ensure they have adequate right-of-way for any future system. Trunks should have a minimum of four tracks, with intensive commuter rail service on the local tracks, in a similar manner to Mumbai.

It is also important to build the metro to be mainline-compatible, in electrification and track gauge. It is wrong for India (and Pakistan) to build a single kilometer of standard-gauge metro; everything should be broad-gauge. Russia, where everything is on Russian gauge, does this better. African mainline rail networks are usually narrow-gauge and weak, and in some places (such as East Africa) are being rebuilt standard-gauge. Southeast Asia runs the gamut, with reasonable service in Jakarta, which is running frequent electric commuter rail using second-hand Japanese trains; this suggests future metro lines in Jakarta should be built narrow- rather than standard-gauge, to allow Tokyo-style through-service to commuter rail.


The biggest developing-world cities have problems with air pollution, traffic, overcrowding, and long commutes – precisely the problems that rapid transit is good at solving. They have equally great problems with infrastructure for electricity, running water, and sewage, and with access to health care, education, and such basic consumer goods as refrigerators. And they have limited tax capacity to pay for it all.

This makes building good transit – cost-effective, future-proof, and convenient enough to get high ridership – all the more critical. The smallest cities today may be able to get away with looking like smog-ridden midcentury Los Angeles, but even medium-size ones need to plan on models starting from New York or London or Tokyo, and the biggest ones, especially Lagos, should plan on looking like something that doesn’t really exist today.

To that effect, third-world governments need to absorb massive amounts of knowledge of good practices developed in Western Europe and high-income East Asia (and to a lesser extent Russia and China). But they cannot implement them blindly, but have to learn how to adapt them to local conditions: chiefly low incomes, but also weak currencies, import-dependence in technology, high expected future growth, and (in many cases) high expected population density. Nothing prevents a poor country from doing transit well: China, still a middle-income country, has more high-speed rail ridership than the rest of the world combined, and subway ridership per capita in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou is healthy. But India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other poor countries with big cities have their work cut out for them if they want to solve their transportation problems.


  1. Benjamin Turon

    Interesting post, this century the most exciting rail developments are likely to be in the developing world because the combination of underdeveloped transport infrastructure and rapidly growing populations and economies there is the very real need to “think big” and to do “big things”. The rapid growth of rapid transit systems you saw in the USA around 1900 for example in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles is not just possible, but necessary outside developed nations. And it can be done faster and cheaper, compare what it took to build the Pacific Electric Railway in LA hundred years ago to building rail transit in LA today! Concerning automobiles, the sooner you regulate them the better, once you get to widespread ownership it becomes harder politically to place limits on them to encourage higher usage of transit. What is not mention in this post is global warming (pollution is mention), creating a urban society utilizing electric trains is one big thing that could be done to address that issue, and should be easier to accomplish when your building cities from the ground up for people who have not yet developed the incomes necessary for widespread auto ownership and low density development.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s the thing, though. It can’t be done cheaper. The construction costs of the subways built around 1900 were in the $20-40 million per km range, in today’s money. Nobody builds that cheaply anymore. (For that matter, even in the 1910s costs were higher – the Dual Contracts averaged maybe $80 million per km of tunnel. The Paris Metro remained cheap into the 1930s, though.) Spain has a few 8-figure projects starting with a 4, but the average is way higher. Developing countries today do not, as a group, have low construction costs. A few middle-income ones do, like Turkey and Iran; but India, Egypt, Nigeria, and Indonesia are all expensive by European and Japanese standards, and Bangladesh is bad even by American ones. Lagos’s construction cost is $165 million per km, on what appears to be an entirely above-ground system; this is unheard of in Europe, and only exists in Japan for the el-over-el Tokyo-Ueno Line.

      You’re right to note that I’m ignoring climate change in my post. This is on purpose. Virtually all emissions come from rich and middle-income countries. Other than India (which is middle-income-ish), which has a legacy of failed socialist industrialization, all low-income countries also have low emissions relative to their GDP per capita; many are comparable to the rates of the most emissions-efficient European countries, like Switzerland. Lagos and Dhaka especially are victims of climate change than perpetrators, and there is nothing they can do to adapt since they’re too poor to build floodwalls. The most they can do is build good enough urban infrastructure to give rural climate refugees a local economy to come to, but that can’t possibly be enough (both are looking at multiple tens of millions of refugees from even a small sea level rise).

      • Benjamin Turon

        Well, building out new urban transit systems would seem be cheaper than the United States (perhaps not Europe as you have said) as long as they are not gold plated, the most important thing is reserving sufficient surplus ROW for the future. Systems technologically could be pretty basic. I would aim for something like a US or Japanese “interurban”, build cheaply, expand incrementally, and improve later with upgrade service and infrastructure.

        Of course you do have to look at a projects costs in terms of the financial resources of the country, the new Chinese railway in Kenya seems very cheap in dollars to US standards, but its very expensive in terms of GDP and debt load of that African nation. One other factor in construction costs is corruption, the NY Times at a article in today’s paper about how corruption in China has added considerably to the costs of projects including bridges and highways.

      • BDawe

        So, have you ever figured out why countries-as-rich-as-the-west-in-1900 don’t have said-countries’ construction costs? Could it be the deployment of capital intensive construction technologies that foreign consultants are familiar with that could be substituted with labour? Should the NY sandhogs union be showing Cairo how to build subways rather than the the Spanish?

        • Ian Mitchell

          By and large, the third world in 2017 isn’t building things like the WPA did in 1937.
          It was a massive upset from how things are generally done (very expensive labor-saving machinery, financed in foreign currency by foreign debtors), for Dakar to repave many of their streets by hand- but a much better decision.

          Probably these places should be building subways like they were built in NYC- massively disruptive, labor-intensive cut-and-cover projects under major streets. But they’ll likely be pushed by “consultants” who have built no other way, to use the most expensive labor-saving technology available.

          • Alon Levy

            India’s building subways without foreign consultants nowadays, and the construction costs remain incredibly high. And China learned how to build subway from midcentury Soviet experts, and still only builds at the same cost range as Western Europe and Japan despite way lower wages.

          • Ian Mitchell

            What do you reckon the culprit is? Who is building the cheapest subways?

  2. Ian Mitchell

    So it seems to me like your conclusion is a bit like this:
    Cities with similar incomes and densities to 1910 manhattan should build the same kind of subways (4-track, local and express), the same way (cut-and-cover under wide streets in the core, elevated outside of the core), at the same kind of speed, as 1910 manhattan did?

    • Ian Mitchell

      Perhaps, given the issues of safe after-dark transportation, precious space in cities, that these subways should, like NYC’s, run 24/7?

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, with one big exception: the stop spacing should be wider than in New York, and the engineering standards should allow higher speeds – no 40-meter curves. This is because we now know that the subway in New York is too slow for the metro area’s size (travel times to city line in Far Rockaway and Wakefield are too long). In India and Pakistan cities can get away with this and use commuter rail for longer-range urban transit, but in Bangladesh and every African country between the Sahara and South Africa the legacy rail network is too sparse for that.

      Two more mistakes New York made that it’s important not to repeat: reverse-branching (which very few cities do), and the lack of four-track routes across any of the rivers except for Manhattan Bridge. The latter mistake is related to what Lagos is doing right now: it’s funded two metro lines, one under construction and one still in planning, but they appear to be sharing tracks on the bridge to and within Lagos Island. Water crossing costs are mostly linear in the number of tracks, but given that this is just a short proportion of the line, it’s critical to do it right and provide maximum capacity.

      • adirondacker12800

        The Far Rockaway LIRR station is a block away from the A train. It’s not any faster than taking the A to Penn Station. Not that going to Penn Station is particularly useful for many of the people in Far Rockaway. The people in the Bronx could use Metro North, they don’t. Partly because most of them are going someplace other than Grand Central.
        S’kay the six tracks under Flatbush Avenue or Sixth Ave don’t have trains from thither or yon running on them. The people who decided to live out there can change trains. Especially since the trains from North Thither or West Yon are on a different suburban line.

        • Alon Levy

          The people in the Bronx could use Metro North, they don’t. Partly because most of them are going someplace other than Grand Central.

          Also because Metro-North costs several times as much as the subway ;).

          (Also, the LIRR does Far Rockaway-Penn Station in 56 minutes, the A in 67.)

      • adirondacker12800

        There are four tracks for Metro North and there was four across the Hell Gate bridge.
        There’s four trackways under Roosevelt Island. But cutting taxes on rich people was more important so two of them are gently aging without any trains. We could be wrapping up two more tracks to Penn Station, under the Hudson, but cutting taxes on rich people was more important. With a dose of lying about how the money could be reallocated to roads. They went and re-elected him. They can sit in traffic.

        • Alon Levy

          *Cutting taxes on drivers, not on rich people. Christie diverted the ARC money to the Turnpike to avoid a gas tax hike; he didn’t divert it to income tax cuts.

          • adirondacker12800

            The Turnpike told him the Pulaski Skyway is the NJDOT’s problem. It was the Port Authority got snookered and fined by the SEC for finagling things. Claimed that the rebuilding was for Lincoln Tunnel access. … So that he could cut taxes on rich people…
            People who drive into Manhattan from New Jersey have lots of disposable income. The toll is $10.50 off peak with EZPass, $12.50 on peak with EZPass or $15 cash at all times. At least the Port Authority will have the money when Amtrak comes calling… for the project that will cost twice as much, have slightly lower capacity and be on the “wrong” side of the station. With all the competition for pedestrian space too!!

  3. Eric

    Another issue with BRT in dense third world cities is that drivers are much more prone to ignore traffic laws and drive in the bus lanes. Bus lanes can be clogged with private vehicles unless they are grade separated (and if you’re already doing that, why not run a metro line on it for higher capacity?)

  4. adirondacker12800

    It is also important to build the metro to be mainline-compatible

    No it’s not. If you have enough traffic that building tunnels makes sense you have enough traffic that there isn’t enough capacity to clog it up with long distance trains.


    Then there is IRT versus BMT. In theory one can run LIRR trains on BMT tracks. They don’t. There’s too much subway traffic on the lines. I’m not in the mood to find sources. The Broad Street Line in Philadelphia is “Philadelphia gauge” and the Market Frankford is standard gauge. There is a point where the fleet is big enough that it can be dedicated.

    ….and trainloads of people coming in from distant suburbs don’t need to stop every ten blocks when they are passing through the inner suburbs.

    When New York decides it’s time to put 6 or 8 tracks under Atlantic Avenue the express trains to and from the Jamaica El won’t be mixing with the LIRR trains to Wall Street. They may want to sneak a Kodama to Boston or Washington every half hour onto the LIRR tracks. It doesn’t matter that they can’t go up Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. It’s already filled with trains to the Bronx. . . and the Second Avenue trains aren’t going to be taking over Metro North tracks. They are already filled with Metro North trains.

    • Alon Levy

      1. In some of these cities (Lagos more so than the others), there are some useful intercity routes that could be built along the same alignments as subway lines, and having four tracks with some medium-speed intercity trains in the fast tracks isn’t going to clog anything. If that offends you, then consider the fact that until the Interconnexion Est opened, the TGVs going to Lyon shared tracks with commuter rail for 30 km, on a four-track line whose local tracks had RER D trains.

      2. The LIRR’s loading gauge is no longer compatible with the BMT’s. There were through-trains until the ICC banned it, but they didn’t have high platforms on the LIRR then, so they just ran narrower trains and it didn’t really matter as much.

      3. You’re giving Japanese examples, but Japan is exactly the test case of mainline-compatible subways. The situation there in the 1950s was, lots of commuter branches ending in outlying stations like Shinjuku or Asakusa, not enough core capacity; so the subway lines added core capacity with commuter rail through-running. In the third world, Jakarta is in a comparable situation (and is already running frequent electric commuter rail using second-hand Japanese equipment), and so is Kolkata, which has an obvious S-Bahn tunnel corridor where the city is building a standard-gauge metro instead.

      4. A dedicated fleet is useful, and there are a lot of lines where it’s not a big deal how compatible they are with the rest of the system. But that’s not every line. It really depends on what lies beyond the end of the line.

      • Eric

        After seeing the videos of professional “people packers” who force passengers into Tokyo trains, I can no longer see Tokyo as any sort of ideal. Not only is this situation super-uncomfortable and inevitably leads to high levels of groping onboard (which really should not be acceptable in a civilized country), but it makes the train dwell times so long that I wonder if it actually increases capacity. Perhaps it would be better to close the doors when there’s still a little standing room inside, so that the next train can enter the platform sooner. If this is impossible because mainline trains share the subway tracks and people can’t be allowed to miss their mainline train, then that’s just another argument for separating local and mainline trains.

        • Alon Levy

          The pushers in Tokyo are decreasingly common, and are at any rate only present at the few busiest stations. It’s also not the pushers who caused the groping crisis, which is being resolved now with better enforcement. Groping is also an epidemic in a number of poorer countries, like Egypt, where the authorities try the same trick of women-only cars as in Japan, a.k.a. the “she was asking for it by riding in a mixed car” non-solution.

          The pushers are also not a feature of mainline-subway integration. Shanghai started employing them at key stations in 2009, on lines without any track-sharing or branching (namely, Line 1). They’re strictly a feature of high crowding levels; it’s a system that reduces dwell time relative to DIY pushing. If the pushers are anything like the platform attendants that the RER has at the peak at Les Halles and Gare du Nord, then they occasionally tell people not to get on the train because it’s too full. Ultimately, though, peak throughput occurs at very high levels of crowding, even if on the margin they mean slightly fewer trains (e.g. 23 tph on the 4 and 5 in New York vs. a desired 25 tph).

          • Eric

            Looking at this video, they spend a whole minute pushing a few extra people into the train. Trains should be running every 2 minutes (or slightly more frequently). Did they really gain half a train’s worth of ridership by pushing?

            Not to mention the labor costs of having a pusher for every door at every station – at what point is it more affordable to just dig another tunnel?

          • andrew in ezo

            Eric- first of all, it’s already an old video (8 years ago). Nowadays any pushers are typically contract workers (mainly from security companies) to keep labor costs down for a job that essentially is needed for only 90 minutes during the weekday AM commute. Also most of these videos are taken in winter, when everyone is wearing heavy clothing but are trying to fill the same space regardless of season. The situation has improved over the last ten years, with introduction of rolling stock with wider doors, railway companies using more security staff to direct passengers to less crowded portions of the trains, as well as tweaking the working timetable to minimize delays due to crowding. I highly recommend this documentary that details Tokyo Metro’s efforts to reduce timetable disruptions due to overcrowding:

      • adirondacker12800

        Since they essentially don’t have anything, a single standard for everything makes sense. But it’s not the worst thing in the world if they decide they want one of those nice quiet rubber tired things like Paris or Montreal for the subway and Shinkansen for the intercity trains. The French didn’t try to soup up Metro cars to get people to Lyon. The Japanese decided that they had enough traffic that it didn’t matter if the high speed trains couldn’t go to traditional stations. It’s not the worst thing in the world if they decide low floor trolley cars are a better choice to replace a suburban bus line instead of a single main line car with a high floor…. there will be places that don’t have enough demand for anything more than a short bus on a low frequency schedule…. I’m not in the mood to go try to figure out everything Philadelphia runs. Silverliners aren’t a good choice for some of the routes….

        • kclo3

          I’d say it was crucially fortunate that PRR and Reading decided to use the same electrification scheme and loading gauge for the CCCT to be a straightforward project. Also fortunate that the BSL is BMT-standard should the time come that SEPTA wants to piggyback an MTA order or use secondhand cars.

    • Gary

      Hate to be a dick, but in Philly, it’s actually the other way around. The Market-Frankford Line was (stupidly) build with Pennsylvania Broad Gauge – and I think IRT loading. The Broad Street Line (and the Locust Street tunnel currently used by PATCO) is standard track gauge and IND loading.

      • BDawe

        Why is it so stupid though? Like Toronto, it was built for compatibility with what was at the time a dramatically more extensive light rail network

        • Ian Mitchell

          What I don’t understand is why Philly doesn’t just adopt NYC’s MetroCard.

          • Alon Levy

            Vendor lock, obsolete technology (New York has been meaning to replace it for 6 years, it’s just doing so incompetently).

          • adirondacker12800

            Because it is so hopelessly obsolete even New York wants to get rid of it?

          • Ian Mitchell

            So why don’t they both upgrade to the same new thing at the same time, then?

        • kclo3

          It wasn’t built for that reason though; the subway has no compatibility with the streetcars. Because the Market St subway was a completely private project, owners used the broad gauge to dissuade the Pennsylvania Railroad from buying it up and running mainline trains instead. We would have a far more novel system if that had happened though.

          • BDawe

            Why would they as a private project wish to diminish the value of their investment? I could see the City insisting on that, but why private owners? Especially when the outer tracks are definitely for streetcars

            Further, is it truly incompatible, or could streetcars (perhaps at one time) have run through the system by bolting on some third rail shoes?

          • threestationsquare

            LIRR through running over the Williamsburg Bridge to Chambers St BMT lasted until September 3, 1917. The Philadelphia Market St subway began construction in 1903. So if there were a desire to precommit not to allow through-running from mainlines (either because of local political pressure, or to avoid becoming a pawn in PRR vs Reading battles that could lead to either side trying to block construction) they couldn’t yet rely on the federal government to enforce it for them.

            Also apparently when it first opened in 1907 the Market St subway/el terminated at the City Hall/Juniper loop. That’s a single track loop today so possibly trolleys and el trains shared it back then?

        • threestationsquare

          Indeed it shares a four-track subway with light rail; a subway with two incompatible pairs of tracks would seem even dumber.
          (I don’t know if they ever considered track-sharing between subway trains and trolleys given the different electrification systems, but using the same gauge would at least allow them to share some maintenance equipment etc.) Of course the fact that Pennsylvania had a nonstandard trolley gauge in the first place was unfortunate (as I understand it, such gauges were usually motivated by a political desire to ensure that freight trains would never run in the street; it’s possible that the regulations mandating this also applied to the MFL subway).

  5. Eric

    I’ve been thinking about the best (cheapest) way to build rapid transit in places with super high demand. The best I can come with is as follows:

    – Rubber tyred metro, to reduce braking distances and headways
    – “Spanish solution” platforms (3 platforms for a 2-track station, you enter on one side of the train and exit on the other) at all busy stations, possibly all stations
    – Doors staggered on each side of the train. For example, if the right side of the car has doors at 2, 6, 10, and 14 meters from the car end, the left side will have doors at 4, 8, 12, and 16 meters. Combined with the Spanish solution, this means there would be a steady one-directional flow of passengers from certain doors to other doors, with no “traffic jams” between people trying to go opposite directions within the subway car.

    While I haven’t precisely calculated it, I think a system with these qualities should be able to achieve headways of under one minute. This would provide the same ridership as a “traditional” 4-track metro, while using a lot less space, and hopefully expense. In Western countries this extra ridership is unnecessary – better to build two simple traditional metros in different places to serve more locations. But for the core routes in megacities, every bit of capacity in such a system will end up being used.

    There will be extra expense in building stations with three platforms – but for elevated stations this expense will be minimal. And in third world megacities, it is advisable to make most of the system elevated, because quality of life will be so much improved even for the people in its shadow.

    • Alon Levy

      Rubber-tired metros have the same deceleration rate as high-end steel-wheeled metros, about 1.3 m/s^2. The limit is more about safety and comfort of standees in a crowded trains than about how fast the wheels can stop spinning. Staggered doors are already practiced on some lines – New York occasionally has them on the subway, and the capacity gains seem to be at best second-order; pedestrian capacity per unit of passageway width isn’t very sensitive to whether it’s a one-way or multiway flow. Spanish platforms have a second-order effect, too. In Boston the effect is actually negative: at Park Street the driver has to close two sets of doors, and move within the cab to check that there are no passengers stuck in the doors, and this makes dwells longer rather than shorter.

      The lowest headway I know of that a subway can support is 75 seconds, on driverless systems like SkyTrain and Paris M14. On a system driven by a human, the maximum capacity I know is 39 tph, in Moscow, with headway management involving time-since-last-train clocks and no branching allowed; 32-33 tph is more typical, using high-end signaling like in London. 60-second headways are just not happening.

      • Eric

        “Rubber-tired metros have the same deceleration rate as high-end steel-wheeled metros, about 1.3 m/s^2. The limit is more about safety and comfort of standees in a crowded trains than about how fast the wheels can stop spinning.”

        In normal operation, you are limited by the comfort of standees. But signalling depends on the minimum stopping distance in order to avoid collisions. In order to avoid collisions you can apply more drastic acceleration, which is uncomfortable but not lethal. Rubber tyres are needed to apply this acceleration. For exactly this reason, Paris lines 1 and 4 were converted to rubber tyres!

        “pedestrian capacity per unit of passageway width isn’t very sensitive to whether it’s a one-way or multiway flow. Spanish platforms have a second-order effect, too.”

        But Spanish platforms automatically mean twice the passageway width (both sides of the train)!

        Looking at Paris line 1 again, it is planned to reach 85 second headways, and that headway includes a 50 second dwell time! Cut that dwell time in half by doubling the number of doors, and you are right at 60 seconds overall.

        • Alon Levy

          1. I don’t think it’s 50 seconds of actual dwell; it’s more likely 50 seconds including deceleration and acceleration time. The more crowded RER, with fewer doors per unit of train length and more concentration of ridership at a few stations like Les Halles and Gare du Nord, tops at 50-60.

          2. You are not actually halving dwell by doubling the number of platforms. Certain aspects, like door opening and closing, end up taking longer rather than shorter. The separate platforms for getting on and off are also less useful in CBD stations, where nearly everyone gets off in the morning and on in the afternoon. (Passengers transfer, but it’s not the dominant traffic flow at the peak, especially in monocentric cities.)

          3. Rubber-tired metros don’t actually accelerate faster, though. Everything has initial acceleration in the 1.2 m/s^2 area and deceleration in the 1.3 m/s^2 area. Going beyond 1.5 may be an actual danger to standees in a crowded environment. Paris converted the top lines to rubber tires in an era when steel-wheeled train specs were less advanced than today, and also part of the reason was reducing noise – that’s why mostly-elevated M6 uses rubber tires.

          • Ian Mitchell

            I thought rubber tires in paris were just the fastest-applicable solution to the maintenance backlog brought about due to neglect during wartime occupation? Is that a myth?

          • Michael James

            Yes, it is perhaps that rubber tyres had advantages at the time they were introduced which largely don’t exist today. However the modern M14 uses rubber tyres too (which is a bit strange as it uses deeper, straighter track and higher speeds, fewer stations) and the new M1 trains have kept their rubber tyres too. Though in Montreal the reasons were related to steep climbs that steel has trouble with.
            Incidentally AFAIK all these rubber-tyred metros still have steel wheels, presumably for guidance? They all still tend to squeal when going round those tight bends in Paris. On many trains this is due to fixed wheel on solid axles but I am not sure if that is the case for these metro trains (the steel wheels share the same axles with the rubber tyres, and presumably slippage of rubber tyres is more problematic than steel, so maybe they have bearings?) They also have four horizontal (rubber) guide wheels (and guideways on the track), so altogether a fairly complex arrangement. I presume this might be necessary on these old lines to be able to maintain speed thru these tight turns (and double, ie. S-bends as at Concorde and Bastille; and maybe at Gare de Lyon? Also the trains are quite cantered doing these long “painful” turns, IIRC.) It is also possible that they retained this design for the modernisation of M1 simply to avoid major interruption; the changeover to the new trains took several years and involved mixed new and old operating together.
            I can’t remember if the elevated M6 is quieter; maybe.

  6. Benjamin Turon

    One choice I think as to be made if you’re a mega city in a developing country is quality vs. quantity. With only so much money available do you build transit lines to the highest standard with the best technology? Or do you build on the cheap, so you can construct more miles of line?

    Basically, do you build like the British advised the Japanese in Honshu during the 1870s, to the highest standards from the start? Or do you build cheaply like the Americans advise in Hokkaido? Famously the American advisor was so pragmatic he sold the Japanese American steam locomotives because while not as good in quality as the British they were cheaper and much easier to repair than the more complex British machines, yet for this “American” railroad he ordered steel rails from Britain because they had the best price. He got a metal for his economy and honestest, and on his return to the US became a trusted purchasing agent for the Japanese. Once the British advisers had departed the Japanese started building much cheaply, you see it in station architecture.

    From my perspective, you shouldn’t compromise on gauge (Japanese regretted adopting the Cape Gauge instead of Standard Gauge by 1900) and ROW whose width should be wide enough for four tracks in the future, you actually see this in California where in the 19th Century the railroads bought 100-ft wide ROWs. However, to make money stretch as far as possible you might outside the city core initially build double-track lines at grade (within a 4-track ROW) like many private interurbans today in Japan, saving elevated or subway sections for the city core where congestion would be the greatest. I could imagine the public sector building the core central segment as a subway, and then the private sector building branch lines that feed services into the trunk line. Like in Japan.

    I think it’s an interesting choice, do you try to build as a large a system as possible by compromising on standards, for example building at grade, or build a few lines to the highest standard?

  7. Damien Smith (@indysmith)

    Regarding Curitiba, aren’t the main arteries BRT-only? That does not go against your point but I wonder if grade-separated BRT would be viable. I’ve used the Metrobús in Mexico City and it slow because of the cross streets. The Transolimpica in Rio de Janeiro, which I’ve also used, has some grade separation and signal priority at junctions but is slow because of the distances involved.

    • Alon Levy

      There exists grade-separated BRT today, in Brisbane. The problem is that a grade-separated busway is a highway, and has the same desirability as a regular highway for cars. The result is that it’s harder to develop the stations, so in practice service on the busway is like an express bus rather than like rapid transit.

      I think Curitiba’s BRT runs partly in bus-only streets and partly in shared streets in dedicated lanes, but nothing is grade-separated.

      • Michael James

        Reply to Alon Levy 2017/06/12 – 17:58

        There exists grade-separated BRT today, in Brisbane. The problem is that a grade-separated busway is a highway, and has the same desirability as a regular highway for cars.

        As I write this from Brisbane, I can confirm most of what Alon wrote. The BRT backbone was built on the free land at the sides of the major SE Expressway that leads into the heart of the city. However in typical half-arsed fashion it was not entirely grade-separated particularly at the city end where it shares road and traffic lights and bridges with regular traffic which results in:

        That picture (of a 30-bus traffic jam) is not contrived. It happens every single peak hour (ie. at least twice a day), every day. The weird thing is that if you could digitally enhance and zoom in on that photo, you’d see that at least half of those buses in the jam are empty or near-empty, because they have routes that originate in the far southern exurbs, proceed thru the centre to the far northern exurbs. Hence most commuters get off the buses on the northern (CBD) side or south of the river and walk across into the CBD.

        The BRT has been considerably extended over the past decade, to the north and south-east, but again despite some expensive tunnels, at critical points it has to compete with regular roads, and for example sit at traffic lights to cross a 8-lane major road (and no, it doesn’t get priority). (These BRT tunnels were an add-on to the Airport Link road tunnel which went spectacularly bust almost as soon as it opened because the traffic predictions had been made to fit the financing. Various court cases are underway as to who is responsible. It burnt $1 billion of state-employee pension money that had been unwisely “invested” in it by its chairman, who in terrific banana-republic fashion, happened to also be the chairman of the road tunnel company! I’m not making any of this up. Instead of being thrown in jail or at least vilified this bloke was made chairman of the Future Fund which is the federal pension investment fund!)

        This BRT is not a disaster and one would rather have it than nothing, but it shows the essential weaknesses of any developed-world city BRT: only built because it is “cheaper” to build than a proper Metro but in the end it cannot cope with the pax load, and because cheapness was the driving factor its design has some fatal flaws that are “too expensive” to fix (hence those bus traffic jams and other weak spots), and in the end it has made building a real fully grade-separated system eye-wateringly expensive. For example for years now, successive governments have been trying to squeeze the lions share of the $16bn cost of a 10km mega-tunnel that goes under the CBD, from the feds. Naturally without any success. They keep downgrading the plan of this mega-tunnel to finagle its cost to seem more affordable …

        Also, when one says BRT is “cheaper”, that is not true for its operation where it becomes the most expensive; some 80% of its operational cost is driver’s wages, and worse than LRT or Metro.

        Note that Curitba’s BRT has suffered similarly to those in developed-world cities (such as Ottawa & Brisbane): as its popularity grew its performance declined, and simultaneously in a paradox, as Curitiba became more prosperous more people grew weary of using it and turned back to cars. Thus the city has been trying for a decade or more to convert the BRTs busiest routes into full Metro (ie. underground) but of course the cost keeps delaying it: (wiki) “in 2014 announced opened tenders for a 35-year public private partnership contract to build and operate a 17.6-kilometre (10.9-mile), 14-station north-south line. The cost is estimated at 4.62 billion reais.”

        Curitiba was not rich enough to build proper Metro to begin with, but Brisbane and Ottawa and Seattle were, and all they have achieved by building BRT was to make it even more difficult (expensive and politically) to build a sustainable solution.

        • Ian Mitchell

          BRT really only works with low wages. Perhaps it’ll work with automation, but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. Fredrik Staxäng

    Last time I was in Singapore I rented a car. Driving in Singapore was very easy and pleasant. Expensive, yes, but you get something for it. One thing they should do, is to create a separate certificate-of-entitlement category for electric cars.

  9. AC

    The only way mass transit systems are getting built in many low income or lower middle income countries is if you pay the Chinese to come in and build it for you, like the light rail system in Abuja. Speaking very broadly and having worked in 5 countries in West Africa, the challenges with supply chain, project management, financing, budget management for even small projects are daunting. Even if a system gets built the ongoing management and maintenance will also be a strain in many countries. Land use is a big problem too, aside from colonial cores of cities and the super dense but also super squalid shanty towns, land use by middle and higher income families is more like an American exurb with one off housing strung along roads for mile after mile and very little mixed use development. In Monrovia, for example, commute times can be 2-3 hours, either walking for miles or crawling along in heavy traffic. In relatively flat cities like Dakar and Abidjan, more density, restrictions on car use, and bikes would be a much more realistic approach than a transit system.

    • Alon Levy

      Okay, but China’s GDP per capita ten years ago was about the same as Nigeria’s today, and it built its subway networks internally.

        • AC

          No, not at all, operational dysfunction and corruption are way more important. Nigeria is an almost unbelievably unequal society, with massive wealth differences between the south and the north so GDP per capita doesn’t tell you much.. Not that these issues don’t exist in China of course! You can do a PhD on this subject but there’s host of factors that would get in the way of these projects: looting by corrupt insiders and expats, grinding bureaucracy, inability to manage payment to contractors and staff, construction and supply chain businesses controlled by cartels that reduce the quality of work and increase the costs, best and brightest working abroad because of massive pay differentials between employment at home vs being an expat. I can only speak for the places I’ve worked but definitely it is potentially faster to bring in an outside group to do a project a to z. That has its own set of risks also as you see the world over with PPPs and privatized infrastructure.

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  13. smooth indian

    Interesting that you suggest that India build its subway trains with broad gauge for possible integration with the legacy network. I agree with that suggestion. The first metro lines in India in Kolkata and lines 1 and 2 of Delhi were built using broad gauge. Subsequently standard gauge was adopted for the following metro lines in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other cities. The reason cited was the ease and economy of procuring rolling stock, but the underlying fear was that of takeover of these metro lines by the Indian Railways behemoth (which bring its own inadequacies to the table). On there other hand developing good functional suburban and regional systems has been neglected and much of the blame goes to the archaic mentality within Indian Railways. The busiest suburban train systems in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have been legacies of colonial times. Delhi, Pune and Hyderabad have some suburban trains, but they aren’t comprehensive enough although Hyderabad’ MMTS might see better days. Bengaluru (ongoing efforts), Ahmedabad and Lucknow-Kanpur have been left high and dry even though these cities have considerable amount of mainline railways running through their expanse. Pretty much the public and even many of the authorities see the shiny metro as the object of desire and the dull suburban train as an embarrassment even though both are electric driven steel wheels on rails technology. Some much so that the new proposals for rapid regional rail are also being made with standard gauge in mind. The Mumbai Ahmedabad high speed rail project initially touted broad gauge as its gauge of choice before the Indian authorities quietly acquiesced to Japan and accepted standard gauge. All in all it seems short term decision making by bureaucrats and politicians may cause more issues in the future.

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