Last week, I wrote about which regional rail lines should run local and express trains and which should only run locals. I gave various guidelines, specific to that mode of transportation. The same question makes a lot of sense for subways (or elevated lines), and is especially important for large cities building new metro networks, typically in developing countries. The key difference is that subway trains almost always run so frequently that the only way to have local and express services is to build four-track mainlines, like in New York. So really, this is a question about when it’s useful to build four-track subways instead of two-track subways.
The cost of a four-track subway is higher than that of a two-track subway. However, the difference depends on the method of construction. Cut-and-cover four-track subways do not appear to be much more expensive than two-track subways; in the 1900s, New York had little to no cost premium over London or Paris. The First Subway’s underground segments, slightly less than half of which are four-track, cost $39 million per km in today’s money, compared with about $29 million per km in Paris in the same era (see sources in this post). The Metropolitan line in London cost about the same: £1.3 million for 6 km in the early 1860s, or about $30 million per km.
In contrast, boring four tracks appears to cost twice as much as boring two. It’s hard to find examples, since four-track bores are extremely rare; the examples I do know, such as the East River Tunnels and the tunnel carrying the Lexington Avenue Line under the Harlem River, are short. There are bound to be efficiencies in engineering and sitework reducing the cost of boring, just as there are with cut-and-cover, but the majority of the cost of tunneling is the boring and the systems. The majority of the rest is stations, and the local stations can be built for not much of a premium over stations on a two-track line, but the express stations require considerably more excavation.
What this means is that cities that build cut-and-cover should probably aim to build four tracks rather than two. In retrospect, Paris should have built Metro Line 1 with four tracks: the narrowest street segment, Rue de Rivoli, runs for 3 km and is about 20-23 meters wide, which can take four tracks if there are only local platforms, and everything else is at least 30 meters and could take four tracks and express platforms. The only express station under Rivoli would probably be Chatelet, where there is a wide square where the station footprint could expand.
The question of whether to use cut-and-cover today is a separate issue. It’s easier for the first few lines than for subsequent lines, which have to cross under the old lines. Nonetheless, it’s still in use, for example in China; the lack of express tracks on Chinese subways has led to criticism on some railfan forums, particularly by Japanese railfans, who are used to the fast express trains of the JRs through urban areas. But in India, the longest underground segment in Delhi, on the Yellow Line, appears to be bored, running deep under Old Delhi. The one potential pitfall is that bored tunnels, while generally more expensive to construct than cut-and-cover tunnels if wide streets are available, are nimbler, making it easier to build lines to high standards, with wide curves.
The two obvious benefits of express subways are speed and capacity. New York averages a decent speed, just under 30 km/h, buoyed by express trains that average about 36 km/h. When frequency on both the local and express tracks is adequate, which it regrettably isn’t most of the time in New York, it’s possible to use cross-platform local/express transfers to improve trip times even for people on the local stations.
The capacity benefits are sometimes compromised by transfers. In New York, the express tracks are consistently more crowded than the local tracks on the main lines, and the Upper West Side in particular sees the city’s most overcrowded trains on the express tracks run alongside the second least crowded on the local tracks. However, on the East Side, the local and express trains under Lexington are both quite full. The number of passengers they carry would overwhelm any two-track line: to carry the same number of passengers on just two tracks at the current peak frequency, each train would need about 2,100 passengers, more per unit of train floor area than the most crowded Tokyo Metro lines.
There are also indirect effect of four-tracking. The most distant stations are presumably express-only, or, if not, passengers will transfer to an express train at the first opportunity. This means that adding local stops does not increase trip times for passengers far out, which in turn argues in favor of tighter stop spacing on local trains, to provide more coverage. Evidently, New York has one of the smallest interstations (on local trains) of any major metro network in the world, surpassed only by Paris, which built the Metro without regard for the suburbs. Second Avenue Subway, built with just two tracks, has wider stop spacing than other Manhattan north-south mainlines, missing 79th Street, with the planned phase 2 stopping at 106th instead of 103rd and 110th.
I have hammered repeatedly that metro systems need to avoid three pitfalls of network planning:
- Tangential lines, starting as radial farther out but becoming circumferential closer in rather than staying radial and serving city center.
- Reverse-branching: a common trunk in an outlying area splitting into branches in city center, the opposite of the more normal branching arrangement.
- Missed connections, in which two lines intersect without a transfer.
It is easier to miss connections when the stop spacing is wider, because city centers are so small that line 1 can easily miss the road that line 6 will later run under. The Paris Metro has just one missed connection (M5/M14), and the city made a failed effort in the 1900s to bring Line 5 to what would be the transfer station, Gare de Lyon. New York has only two missed connections among the lines built from 1900 to the 1920s (Junius/Livonia on the 3/L, Bowling Green/Whitehall on the 4-5/RW), both of which are easy to fix; the city’s tens of misses come from a deliberate decision to avoid transfers in the lines built in the 1930s. Systems with wider stop spacing have more opportunities for missed connections, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, and Moscow.
Four-track mainlines short-circuit this problem doubly. First, fewer lines are required to provide the same coverage and capacity. On the eve of the Great Depression, New York had six subway mainlines, three with four tracks and three with two, and 2 billion annual riders. Even if a city insists that all transfer stations be express (which is the case in New York among lines built before the 1930s, though at one station express platforms were only retrofitted decades later), there are fewer potential intersections; at city center, even the express lines are unlikely to have very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, it’s fine to miss transfers on express lines. The reason missed connections are so bad is that the alternative option typically requires a three-seat ride. For example, the 1 passes between Columbus Circle-59th Street and 50th Street without a connection to the E train, leaving connecting passengers with one of two options: ride to Times Square and transfer there, which is both a detour and a very long walk between the platforms, or change to the B or D at 59th and then again to the E at 53rd; the latter option is the faster one, saving about 5 minutes of in-vehicle time and 3 minutes of transfer time.
But if one of the transfers is cross-platform, then a three-seat ride is less onerous. This is especially true if this transfer is local/express on a long shared trunk line, where the transfer stations usually don’t get as crowded as between two separate trunks. This means that it’s possible, if there is no better option, to have local-only transfers. Two of the top stations in New York, 53rd/Lex and Columbus Circle, are local-only transfers.
Small cities don’t need to think about express trains very much. Transit cities with about 2 million people in their metro areas, such as Vienna, Stockholm, Prague, Budapest, and Hamburg, make do with a handful of metro lines, sometimes supplemented by regional rail. But as they grow, the number of urban rail lines they need grows to the point that a coherent two-track network is too difficult, not to mention too slow. Paris manages to make do with the RER acting as the express layer, but outside India and Pakistan, cities that are just beginning to build their metro networks don’t have large legacy commuter rail networks to leverage for express service. In Africa between the Sahara and South Africa, nearly everything has to be built from scratch, and the same is true of Bangladesh and much of Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Moreover, in developing countries, a large number of cities either are megacities or can expect to grow to that size class soon. This is less true in Latin America, nearly all of which has at- or below-replacement birth rates, already high urbanization rates, and negative net migration (thus, the main case for four-track subways in Bogota hinges on the fact that the city has absurdly wide roads for cut-and-cover, not on future scale). However, in poor countries with high birth rates and low urbanization rates, cities can expect to increase their population many times over in the next few decades. Lagos and Dhaka are already huge, and midsize cities such as Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Accra, Abidjan, Douala, and Sanaa can expect to grow to that size class within a generation, as can midsize cities in countries with lower birth rates, such as Chittagong, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. In such cities, transportation planning should presume much greater scale than may seem warranted today.
A smaller-scale version of this principle can be found in cities that are growing rapidly due to immigration, especially Singapore but also Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver, and Stockholm. Such cities might want to consider infrastructure investments based not on their present-day population levels, but on those that they can expect after 30 more years of high migration rates. Vancouver and Stockholm are too small for express subways no matter what, and Toronto has already built its central spines with two tracks (and is upgrading its regional rail network to act as an express layer), but Singapore, Sydney, and Melbourne should all think about how to plan for the possibility that they will have 10 million people within 50 years.