Construction Costs: Electrification

Continuing from last week’s post about signaling costs, here is what I’ve found about electrification costs.

Like signaling, electrification usually doesn’t make the industry press, and therefore there are fewer examples than I’d like. Moreover, the examples with concrete costs are all in countries where infrastructure costs are high: the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, New Zealand. However, a check using general reported French costs (as opposed to a specific project) suggests there is no premium in Israel and New Zealand over France, even though both countries’ urban rail tunneling projects are more expensive than Parisian Metro and RER extensions.

In the UK, the recent electrification project has stalled due to extreme cost overruns. Finding exact cost figures by segment is difficult in most of the country, but there are specific figures in the Great Western. Financial Times reports the cost of the Great Western project at £2.8 billion, covering 258 km of intercity mainline (mostly double-track, some four-track) and what I believe to be 141 km of commuter rail lines in South Wales, working from Wikipedia’s graphic and subtracting the canceled electrification to Swansea. In PPP dollars it’s around $10 million per km, but the cost may include items I exclude elsewhere in this post, such as rolling stock. For reference, in the late 2000s the project was estimated at £640 million, but costs then tripled, as the plan to automate wire installation turned out not to work. Taking the headline cost as that of the last link, £1.74 billion, the cost is $6.1 million per km, but there have been further overruns since (i.e. the Swansea cancellation).

In the US, there are three projects that I have numbers for. The most expensive of the three is Caltrain electrification, an 80 km project whose headline cost is $1.9 billion. But this includes rolling stock and signaling, and in particular, the CBOSS signaling system has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Electrification infrastructure alone is $697 million, or $8.5 million per km. The explanations I’ve read for this high figure include indifference to best practices (e.g. electrification masts are spaced 50 meters apart where 80 meters is more common) and generally poor contracting in the Bay Area.

The other two US projects are more remote, in two different ways. One is California High-Speed Rail: with the latest cost overrun, the projected electrification cost is $3.7 billion (table 4, PDF-p. 14). The length of route to be electrified is unclear: Phase 1, Los Angeles to San Francisco with a short branch up to Merced, is a little more than 700 km, but 80 km of that route is Caltrain, to which the high-speed rail fund is only contributing a partial amount. If the denominator is 700 km then the cost is $5.3 million per km.

The other remote US project is Amtrak’s electrification of the New Haven-Boston segment of the Northeast Corridor in the late 1990s. Back then, the 250-km double-track route was electrified for $600 million, which is $2.4 million per km, or about $3.5 million per km adjusted for inflation.

In Canada, Toronto is in the process of electrifying most of its regional rail network. The current project includes 262 route-km and has a headline cost of $13.5 billion, but according to rail consultant Michael Schabas, this includes new track, extensive junction modification, unnecessary noise walls (totaling $1 billion), and nearly 100% in contingency just because on the original budget the benefit-cost ratio seemed too good to be true. In a 2013 study, the infrastructure cost of full electrification was estimated at $2.37 billion for 450 route-km in 2010 Canadian dollars. In today’s American dollars it’s about $4.5 million per km.

In France, a report that I can no longer find stated that a kilometer of electrification cost a million euros, in the context of the electrification of a single-track legacy branch to Sables d’Olonne, used by some TGV services. While trying to find this report, I saw two different articles claiming the cost of electrification in France to be a million euros per double-track kilometer. The latter article is from 2006, so the cost in today’s money is a little higher, perhaps as high as $1.5 million per km; the article specifically says the cost includes bridge modification to permit sufficient clearances for catenary.

In Israel, the majority of the national network is currently being electrified, and I’ve argued elsewhere for a completist approach owing to the country’s small size, high density, and lack of rail connections with its neighbors. The project has been delayed due to litigation and possibly poor contractor selection, but a recent article on the subject mentions no cost overrun from the original budget of 3 billion shekels, about $750 million, for 600 km of double-track. This is $1.25 million per km and includes not just wire and substations but also 23 years’ worth of maintenance. This may be similar to the Danish ETCS project, which has been severely delayed but is actually coming in slightly under budget.

In New Zealand, the one electrification project recently undertaken, that of the Auckland regional rail network, cost $80 million in infrastructure. This is New Zealand dollars, so in US terms this is closer to $55 million. The total length of the network is about 80 route-km and 200 track-km, making the cost about $700,000 per km. But the project includes much more than wire: the maintenance facility, included in the Israeli figure, cost another NZ $100 million, and it is unclear whether bridge modifications were in the infrastructure contract or tendered separately.

The big takeaway from this dataset, taking French costs as the average (which they are when it comes to infrastructure), is that Israel and New Zealand, both small countries that use extensive foreign expertise, do not pay a premium, unlike the US, UK, and Canada. In the UK, there is a straightforward explanation: Network Rail attempted to automate the process to cut costs, and the automation failed, creating problems that blew up the budget. Premature automation is a general problem in industry: analysts have blamed it for Tesla’s production problems.

In the US and Canada, the construction cost problem is generally severe. However, it’s important to note that at NZ$2.8-3.4 billion for 3.4 km of tunnel, Auckland’s tunneling cost, around US$600 million per km, isn’t much lower than Toronto’s and is actually slightly higher than the Bay Area’s. My explanation for high costs in Israel, India, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong used to be their shared English common law heritage, but this is contradicted by the lack of any British premium over French costs in the middle of the 20th century. An alternative explanation, also covering some high-cost civil law third-world countries like Indonesia and Egypt, is that these countries all prefer outside consultants to developing public-sector expertise, which in the richer countries is ideologically associated with big government and in the poorer ones doesn’t exist due to problems with corruption. (China and Latin America are corrupt as well, but their heritages of inward-looking development did create local expertise; after the Sino-Soviet split, China had to figure out how to build subways on its own.)

But Israel Railways clearly has no domestic expertise in electrification. The political system is so unused to this technology that earlier this decade I saw activists on the center-left express NIMBY opposition to catenary, citing bogus concerns over radiation, a line of attack I have never seen in California, let alone the Northeastern US. Nor is Israel Railways good at contracting: the constant delays, attributed to poor contractor choice, testify to that. The political hierarchy supports rail electrification as a form of modernization, but Transport Minister Israel Katz is generally hostile to public transit and runs for office with a poster of his face against a background of a freeway interchange.

What’s more likely in my view is that Israel and New Zealand, with no and very little preexisting electrification respectively, invited experts to design a system from scratch based on best industry practices. I’m unfamiliar with the culture of New Zealand, but Israel has extensive cultural cringe with respect to what Israelis call מדינה מתוקנת (“medina metukenet”), an unbroken country. The unbroken country is a pan-first-world mishmash of American, European, and sometimes even East Asian practices. Since the weakness of American rail is well-known to Israelis, Israel has just imported European technology, which in this case appears easy to install, without the more particular sensitivities of urban tunneling (the concrete side of the electronics before concrete maxim). In contrast, the US is solipsistic, insisting on using domestic ideas (designed by consultants, not civil servants). Canada, as far as I can tell, is as solipsistic as the US: its world extends to Canada and the US; Schabas himself had to introduce British ideas of frequent regional rail service to a bureaucracy that assumed regional rail must be run according to North American peak-only practices.

All of this is speculation based on a small number of cases, so caveat emptor. But it’s fairly consistent with infrastructure construction costs, so long as one remembers that the scope for local variation is smaller in electrification and systems than in civil infrastructure (for one, the scope for overbuilding is much more limited). It suggests that North America could reduce its electrification costs dramatically by expanding its worldview to incorporate the same European (or Asian) companies that build its trains and use European (or Asian) standards.


  1. Max Wyss

    FWIW, I did a quick try to find out the costs of the electrification part of the Neubaustrecke Mattstetten – Rothrist in Switzerland.

    There is a very nice technical description of “Bahntechnik” (essentially everything “electric” along and around the line, which includes power supply (substations etc.), power distribution (catenary, masts, etc., control systems, (fixed) signalling, and so on.
    According to that report, the “Bahntechnik” part ends up at a bit less than CHF 5 millions (2004) per km of double track line.

    Comparing to Caltrain, that report states the distance between masts is 60 m (and between support points in tunnels 51 m). One big issue about the Caltrain electrification is that it is horrendously overspecified, meaning that the placement of masts is already specified in the RFQ documentation. (for sure, such a practice just begs for change orders…).

  2. Andy

    Interesting piece. By what is your problem with consultants compared to civil servants? Consultants are much cheaper than civil servants. In the US for example whenever you factor in the generous leave allowances, index linked pensions, free or subsidized healthcare for life and the actual cost to host an in house design service is much much higher than hiring a consultant who can be terminated as needed and carries the design liability.

    • Nicolas Centa

      Consultants seem cheaper from this perspective but they render the project more expensive overall.

      Their first expertise have to be about how to sell themselves, and to do that they will often push spectacular yet unproven solutions.

      In-house teams are able to develop the required experience on making things work with adequate costs, precisely because they can concentrate on the job and not on searching for new clients.

      This is a very common problem in all businesses. There is friction and assymetry of information on the market, so that it is often better to internalize.

      It is true for companies as well as governments, though many right wingers do not recognize it.

  3. Witek

    Hi Alon! There are some electrification projects going on in Poland now- I hope this data will be helpful:–tarnobrzeg-86943.html
    The article is about the best offer in the tender for the electrification of 66.71km of single-track railway line. The budget was 57.5 million PLN (15.850 million USD), the best offer 71 million PLN (roughly 19.5 million USD). This would work out to ca. 300.000 USD/km for one track electrification, but this includes the design phase as well.
    Here is another one:–zgorzelec-84575.html
    This time it is 27 km of a double-track railway line, the contract was again design+build, and you can even find separate quotations for traction network itself (33.1 million PLN = 9 million USD) and the substations (13.6 million PLN = 3.75 million USD for two substations). Hope you’ll find that useful. Feel free to contact me if you need details.

  4. red dog

    the discussion is so broad that it nearly becomes meaningless. What would the costs be to extend electric Amtrak service to Maine? Would that include the total tunneling costs needed to connect stations in Boston, even if Amtrak would be a minor user of that tunnel. Would rolling stock be included, and so on. That would be a completely different picture from the costs of extending a SEPTA line outside of Philly for another X miles, where a base costs of just installing overhead wires might be enough for such service to start. Building a state wide inter-city system in Ohio would be yet another completely different story. The costs of these 3 possibilities hardly relate to each other and trying to compare costs per mile would be foolish.

    • Alon Levy

      No idea. Random guess: yards are set up in such a way that there’s catenary over where the locomotive goes but not over where the flatcars/well cars go.

          • The Economist

            Do you have any examples? If they exist there should be something on youtube of a train with an electric engine being loaded with containers or coal.

          • adirondacker12800

            They shove the train in on one end and a different locomotive pulls it out of the other.
            That part of the yard slopes gently downward and the cars drift out.
            There are diesel locomotives around some place. Wires get fouled, electricity goes off for hours….

        • The Economist

          You are correct. The freight yards in Europe are not electrified and are switched by diesels. The electrification is reserved only for the main lines and the passenger yards. There might be a few exceptions with facilities that handle box cars and similar, but anything that requires top loading such as gondolas and containers is handled with diesels with no catenary overhead.

    • Tonami

      I think container yards are not electrified. So most freight terminals switch to diesel locomotives before entering the terminal. Japan uses a mix of diesel and diesel battery hybrid locomotives at their various freight terminals. Also Ethiopia had to order diesel locomotives for the port of Djibouti, while the rest of the Ethiopia Djibouti line is electric with HDX1 electric locomotives.

    • F-Line to Dudley

      Double-stacks are loaded the same way shipping cubes are stacked at container ship ports: with large overhead cranes at a dedicated terminal. Sometimes the cranes are stationary and only the cars are shunted underneath them, but big state-of-the-art container yards often do the same movable cranes that shipping ports have which can work whole rows of cubes stacked high to the side on the ground to plop them on the railcars. Example: By their very nature those towering crane structures preclude electrification in the loading pad area of the yard, though it is technically possible (if extremely impractical) to have an electrified switcher shoving cars to and fro under the cranes from a length of wire that goes at/near but not into the clearance envelope of the crane…then lashes up some spacer cars to cover the wire gap from a distance. Not much different in practice from how a pre-1981 Conrail all-electric road freight would’ve handled switching of an unpowered customer siding from the electric loco sitting some distance away under the mainline’s wire.

      Practically speaking, though, classification yards don’t do electrified switching…even in countries where the ACTUAL road freight that travels between destinations and accepts the cars assembled in said yard is itself hauled by an electric freight loco. In addition to overhead clearance concerns with intra-yard loading from overhead cranes or side-load trucks there’s too high a functional probability of a switcher snagging and taking down a wire with how many times per day it has to split switches to change tracks and quickly reverse for a few feet at a time. Also not that cost-effective on the vehicle side either because a switcher doing such endless short forward-and-reverse moves all day would chew through pantographs like Pez candy.

      Yard ops are an electrification revolution in-wait if you’re talking battery power, however. Switchers have already pushed the envelope on newfangled fuel technology for years because there’s such a premium on controlling emissions for vehicles that putter back and forth all day through static acreage. EPA limits for stagnant emissions hanging over a given area over a given length of time are a major constraint to profitability because they can limit allowable hours of yard operation. Batteries are thus very attractive for switchers and will get proactive investment from normally complacent freight carriers because any real killshot perma-solve for the whole emissions quandry is pretty much the holy grail. Low horsepower requirements for shunting, limited need to ever operate beyond yard limits (i.e. a switcher moving to a different yard is more likely to take a ride on the back of a faster road freight rather than slow-walk it over on its own power), and ease of installing a charging port inside yard limits keeps the required onboard battery bulk nice and svelte. Those fleets will be a cinch to go full-on Tesla in only a couple years, and you will thus get de facto all-electric yard ops all around the world at mission-critical yards even though there’s not an overhead wire in sight. And it’ll happen with switchers even though it’s still VERY far-fetched that passenger or freight road power (loco or MU) is going to be practically “Tesla-ized”…in spite of some Interwebs evangelists’ over-the-top claims to the contrary…for many, many decades if ever because of how off-scale the weight vs. performance penalties get from a train needing to carry such huge-ass onboard battery storage.

      • Max Wyss

        Battery powering is indeed coming up slowly. The most used concept, however, is a combination overhead electric plus batteries (instead of a diesel motor-generator group). Charging can happen when the unit is under wire. Bigger yard use is not yet reliable, but battery power has been in use for quite a long time in workshops, where other vehicles have to be moved within closed buildings. There are even specialized vehicles, consisting essentially of a battery, control electronics, two driven axles, regular buffers and couplers, and not even a control stand, which are used to move other vehicles in the workshops.

        For MUs, there is currently a bit of a race going on between battery powered units and fuel cell powered units. Alstom is quite a bit pushing fuel cells drives, and they did get some orders already. I am not aware of battery powered MUs, but if you talk to Stadler about a WINK (form-factor-wise successor of the GTW), or a short FLIRT, with a battery power pack, they would build it for you. If you look a category lighter to streetcar/light rail vehicles, there are several on the market, and CRRC is the leading supplier for them.

        The main issue with higher powered straight battery units is that charging takes, despite of all new technologies, its time, and during that time the unit can not be used (unless it is a combo unit with a regular electric equipment; in this case it can run under wire AND charge the batteries, AND use regenerative energy to also charge the batteries).

        • Eric

          Surely, rather than batteries, it would be cheaper to have catenary high enough that double stacked rail cars could go under it? Or else a third rail?

          • Max Wyss

            Third rail would be out of question because too much hassle.

            For loading/unloading containers, the common handling devices do need free air space above the rail car. That means that even considerably raised catenary would not do it.

    • Max Wyss

      Loading happens on non-electrified sections of the terminal.

      Trains can be handled with a local switcher, or a Last Mile Diesel electric locomotive. The former is more likely, because it is not economical that the road unit is idling around or doing light switching work at a terminal. It is better used for road duties.

      Besides loading/unloading containers etc. there are many other kind of freight which requires non-electrified tracks. In many such cases, those tracks are stub ended, and the electrification just ends at the border of the critical section. The electric locomotive runs around the train and then pushes it into the loading/unloading tracks. This has been common practice vor decades.

  5. johndmuller

    One hears that there is considerable discord between Amtrak and some of the commuter RRs along the NEC over the matter of electric rates charged by Amtrak. I believe that this is an issue particularly w/r Massachusetts, with Maryland and New Jersey close behind. In Massachusetts (and presumably in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut as well) I understand that Amtrak, when wiring the New Haven to Boston segment) built substations adequate for its needs and left equivalent empty space alongside their equipment for future use providing additional power, for additional demand and/or for future electrification of the commuter lines. According to this line of thinking, Amtrak is attempting to pressure the locals into anteing up to build out this additional substation capacity perhaps by charging them high rates.

    This does not seem to be an issue in MTA territory, where Amtrak is the tenant, presumably buying power from the MTA, but again in New Jersey and Maryland, there appears to be discontent with the cost of Amtrak power to the tune of some running of diesels under the wire in these states as well as in Massachusetts, where the MBTA is all diesel, including routes on the NEC. I am unaware what is going on in this regard in Delaware and Pennsylvania, where there is no doubt some commuter activity out of Philadelphia onto Amtrak (although I am also unsure who owns what infrastructure down there).

    I’d hate to think that Amtrak is just ripping off these captive commuter lines for the sake of their own bottom line; rather I would like to think that either they are actually selling at a cost-based price that just seems to be excessive, but is actually fair, or that Amtrak is pricing in the cost of adding electric capacity if the tenant RRs continue to avoid investing in some power themselves. Don’t know, of course, but since things would be better operationally and otherwise if everyone went electric as much as possible, you;d hate to see this issue getting in the way. Does anyone know the true score on this?

    There is also the matter of differing electrical distribution specs, particularly in NYC and south to DC, where I believe that there are 3 or 4 different voltage/frequency pairs in overhead installations, not to mention several different 3rd rail offerings. This also discourages better practices both by discouraging electric in general and also by discouraging through running between different electric regions (not that they needed additional disincentives). I understand that improvements in power-handling electronics are making some of these problems more solvable, but there still needs to be at least some fund allotments and of course – the will. In the meanwhile, the lack of resolution of some of this stuff can be used as an excuse to continue dawdling.

    • Max Wyss

      For some time already, it is possible to order the locomotive with an electricity counter, which can be read out, and be used as a base for the consumption. And, yes, it can also take into account regenerative braking. So, a simple solution would be equipping all rolling stock with counters, and charge based on actual consumption (plus maybe some fixed amount for fixed costs). Not really a big deal at all…

      Third rail is a bit of an issue, because of the type and position of the pickup shoes. But with overhead electrification, multisystem locomotives are pretty much standard nowadays. You almost have to twist arms with Siemens if you want to buy a single-system Vectron… The multisystem locomotives may be a little bit less powerful under the lower frequency, but that’s about it.

      • Max Wyss

        I just stumbled over Siemens single system, Germany only version of the Vectron. This unit is called “Smartron”, and comes, as stated equipped only for Germany. It is intended at Freight operators, and its biggest advantage is that it is delivered approved for operation (in other situation a rather tedious and expensive procedure). To some extent, it is the revival of the “all you specify how many you want” philosophy by EMD, which got the E- and F-types so popular (standard color of the Smartron is “capriblau”).

    • F-Line to Dudley

      Amtrak electric rates are thorniest on the New York-to-Washington section of the NEC single-sourced from Safe Harbor Dam, because Amtrak has monopoly control over all distribution infrastructure. So it’s MARC, SEPTA, and NJT that feel the most pain from rate gouging and have the least leverage of their own to counteract an AMTK rate hike. This is why NJT’s upcoming new EMU fleet, if it proves successful, is probably going to fan out under the self-owned North Jersey Coast Line and Morris & Essex Lines wires almost exclusively FIRST and relegate Trenton + intra-NEC short-turns as the dumping ground for ALP-46 push-pulls. It’s not that they don’t see the duh-obvious benefits of deploying EMU’s on their busiest-by-far schedules, but because the longest rush-hour MU sets draw considerably more power on-average than a single loco-pulled set of equally long length they’d need a rate adjustment from Amtrak to control some of the creeping ops cost bleed under load from NEC fleet displacement. And Amtrak isn’t about to cut them that deal, even though it would greatly decongest their own rails to have Trenton sardine cans accelerating with a snotload more zip. The transmission monopoly is that lucrative to them, and any big opportunity like a wholesale flip to EMU’s on NJT is a chance to open up a new front in the rate war.

      This is a major political-structural inequity between fed and state interests on the lower NEC inhibiting progress, and unfortunately it’s going to persist like this as long as the transmission monopoly continues being a key linchpin for the NEC business unit’s supposed profitability. The NEC business unit’s reporting profitability is what now neutralizes the ever-present Congressional threats to Amtrak’s very existence, as the recurring attempts to slash service on every subsidized-loss route don’t stick like they used to when the NEC unit can report such good (if heavily gerrymandered) numbers. It’ll basically take a revolution in attitudes towards transpo subsidy to remove that threat enough that Amtrak no longer needs the transmission monopoly to cook its books as a wedge against knife-wielding Congressgrifters. Right now they really can’t adopt the attitude of “rising tide lifts all boats” w.r.t. fairer rate structure with commuter rail tenants, or even jibe with their own utopian visions of a denser shared corridor because they…must…show annual Acela + Northeast Regional profitability to their most lizard-brained Congressional detractors. The transmission monopoly carries too much of the water for that financial reportage pretzel logic, so unfortunately nothing’s going to substantially change with the commuter rail electricity leverage games until change starts at the very top with elected officials and their leverage games with Amtrak’s hide.

      North of Sunnyside phase break to Boston it’s all local grid-sourced from Eversource, National Grid, et al. so electric usage costs hew much more closely to true market rate as a structural reality. The only real leverage games MNRR can play with Amtrak on the New Haven Line, and Amtrak with ConnDOT and the MBTA on the Shoreline, are with annual maintenance fees for use of the actual lineside electrification hardware. And that doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of hostage-taking games because electric schedules from tenant RR’s are pretty year-to-year static and (now that the MNRR constant-tension overhead project is finally wrapping this year) there’s no electrification state-of-repair megaprojects left to fundraise for north of NYP. Severely cash-constrained ConnDOT is pretty much picking up a vanilla market-rate deal on the Shoreline for introducing M8’s to Shore Line East, using the basic negotiating framework Amtrak provided 20 years ago when it built the NHV-BOS electrification. Accomplished quiet and sleepy, with no arm-twisting required. MBTA and Amtrak got a little punchy last year over fees power sharing on the split ownership (state) vs. track maint (all-AMTK administered) in Massachusetts, but that’ll all be water under the bridge by the time any commuter rail electrification would need to be hashed out. Shore Line East’s easy negotiation sets that precedent. As long as wires don’t become a proxy for some other actively ongoing spat (likeliest candidate for a flare-up: storage congestion near Boston’s Southampton Yard) the logistics are too cut-and-dried for anyone’s negotiating world to be turned upside down.

      The reason why Amtrak only built NHV-BOS transmission capability up to its own usage projections is that circa-1995 when the electrification was put into design there was no future-needs data supplied from ConnDOT or the MBTA whatsoever on sharing the wires. The T was uninterested, and the CT gov’t was actively trying to kill off SLE service (which upon 1990 launch was only supposed to be “temporary” during a major I-95 reconstruction project) until it kept getting spared execution time and again via rider petitions. So commuter capacity projections were a voluntary “Not Applicable”, while Amtrak had a good 30 years worth of plotted-out growth metrics to future-proof its build around. Thankfully, the land acquisition and layout on each NHV-BOS substation zoned more than twice the necessary space for sub equipment, all trackside circuit breaker bungalows were graded for 4-track expansion, and deals were pre-cut with the utilities to ensure that the transmission feeders had enough slack capacity to pipe maximal future expansion. Therefore, the “AMTK-only” build ended up more feature-than-bug because all necessary expansion capability was baked-in without the states–who were nowhere near ready to crunch the math in 1995–needing to guesstimate their needs decades in advance. ConnDOT quietly added their substation capacity for SLE M8’s already and can keep adding piecemeal at controlled cost if those schedules ever need to step up to some whole other gear of frequencies. And the MBTA has a simple, one-piece decision to make for covering all needs: expand 1 sub at Sharon. They’re good so long as that 1 single sub is expanded commensurate with all plans for terminal-district capacity boosts (South Station Expansion + storage yards, and the southside hook-in to a future North-South Rail Link), electrics on the Providence Line wire, Fairmount Line electrification, and electrification of up to 1 more schedule terminating inside Route 128 within roaming distance of Sharon sub (e.g. Worcester Line to Riverside). And if any of those future plans are fuzzy, like how much SS and storage will end up expanding, then they can just hedge on the full buildout at Sharon and be done with any future Amtrak haggling no matter what they end up doing for themselves.

      South-of-NYP and north-of-NYP are two totally different negotiating worlds. The MBTA and RIDOT have a clear path for pursuing all the frequencies they’d ever want between Boston and Westerly running Purple Line all-electric equipment. If they want it, it’s theirs up to the limit at which they want it. But MARC extending north to Wilmington with DelDOT subsidy, any >10% Penn Line frequency increase, and/or buying a parasitic order of those new NJT MultiLevel EMU’s?…they’d lose their shirts to Amtrak with how badly the transmission rates are stacked against them.

  6. MordyK

    I remember seeing numbers for a US project where electrification was broken out on a project in the northeast. I can’t find the document and i’m not sure which project it was, but it’s either related to Amtrak’s High Speed proposal, LIRR third track or Ronkonkoma branch electrification, or the high speed study for Albany Buffalo. I remember using that document as a way to estimate what something would cost.

    The document had breakdowns for catenary, viaducts, bridges, tunnels, embankments, etc.

  7. yorksranter

    If there is a 5x difference, I think it’s a reasonable heuristic to assume there is a difference in the definition unless you have very strong evidence to the contrary.

    • Alon Levy

      I have some evidence in the two most expensive cases, Caltrain and Great Western. In the Great Western case, the original budget was pretty reasonable, but then costs blew up as the plans to automate electrification with a special train for wiring the tracks failed. In the Caltrain case, there are documented problems with procurement in California plus a lot of overbuilding (e.g. the mast spacing), and also some special American rules about work zones that make it difficult to wire active track (to speed up the wiring, Caltrain is reducing its weekend frequency from hourly to every 1.5 hours).

      In the cheap examples I’ve tried to include wires, substations, maintenance, and clearance modification. In France the figure I have explicitly includes clearances, but I’m not sure about the maintenance facility; in Israel it includes maintenance but no clearances (but there are so few road overpasses over railroads that it can’t be a big deal); in New Zealand the headline number is wires and (I think) substations and there’s also extra for maintenance.

      The overall difference in costs is actually smaller than in infrastructure costs. The Battersea extension (which passes under one Underground line without a transfer) and the Bakerloo Line extension to Lewisham (which passes under no Underground lines) both cost a large multiple of subway extensions in cheaper countries like Sweden, Italy, Greece, and especially Spain.

    • Richard

      If there is a 5x difference, I think it’s a reasonable heuristic to assume there is

      … massive, overwhelming, soul-crushing rent-seeking, agency/contractor collusion, over-specification, single-sourcing, vendor capture, contractor capture, bid rigging, and systematic exclusion of competition.

      The obvious explanation is often the correct one. Besides, you’re still going to be off by a factor of two or far more, no matter how much you may hope you can wish away similar-project cost differentials by the most outlandish attempts at scope “difference”.

  8. Mike

    One factor for the electrification costs in the U.K. being so high for the recent failed efforts to the West Country and the East Midlands has apparently been a slavish adherence to unnecessary European standards. Essentially these standards set minimum clearances between the new electric equipment and wiring and other stuff. Earlier electrification in the U.K. doesn’t meet these standards and gets a pass and operates without problems. It is also however far harder to meet these standards for new works in the U.K. due to the smaller loading guage found in the U.K. This stems from the U.K. being the first rail nation in the world. The width between embankment edges is smaller, bridges are lower that sort of thing. So vast amounts of money have been spent raising innumerable small bridges in remote rural areas even though the wires would go under them and meet the previous standards from British Rail days. The rational approach would have been to seek a waiver and just do what has always worked in the U.K. For more on this I recommend the excellent work of independent rail journalist Roger Ford who works for Modern Railway magazine.

    • Alon Levy

      In Boston, I’ve advocated for leaving difficult bridges unpowered and letting trains coast under them. Was it not an option in the UK?

      • adirondacker12800

        If it’s to avoid tearing out a 115 year old bridge that is past it’s end of life, structurally deficient and poorly laid out it probably makes sense to bite the bullet instead of having to redo the electrification in 6 years when the bridge gets replaced.

        • Alon Levy

          The overpasses in Boston aren’t structurally deficient and aren’t slated for replacement. These are road overpasses (otherwise train clearance wouldn’t be a problem) and replacing them is such a chore that freight railroads that want to raise the loading gauge to permit double-stacks prefer undercutting the tracks.

          • adirondacker12800

            Works that way to put wire under it too. It’s 2018, as Max Wyss pointed out there is plastic. They slap 25kV and higher, underground, all over the place.

      • johndmuller

        What kind of smarts (if any) do pantographs have when it comes to gaps in the wire? One assumes that a pantograph would rise at least a bit looking for the wire (at least some of them use a spring mechanism to make/keep contact); at the end of the gap it would be too high and &^$&^!!

        I suppose that one could leave the wire in place through this temporarily unpowered section with just a small air gap at the ends to deal with the hypothetically bad bridge, but I’m curious if there is any sensor/mechanism to deal with the loss of overhead lines or is it every pantograph for itself?

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t know. All I know is that trains with pans go through restricted sections without wire all the time, like the overhead third rail of some tunnels this side of the Pond.

        • Max Wyss

          A pantograph is designed that it attempts to press against the wire with a certain force. When there is no wire, the pantograph will rise, but if it gets beyond a certain level, something gets triggered (for example, the spring creating the force gets unhooked), and the pantograph falls down in its low position.

          If there is indeed no other way to get enough clearance, there would be the possibility to keep a wire, but to double separate it from the grid. As this piece of wire no longer has any voltage, you don’t need any insulators, and you can lower the pantograph just to its minimum raised height.

          However, by lowering the tracks under such an underpass (and, if needed to use slab track instead of ballast), you can get sufficient clearance, even for 25 kV.

          In the Wikipedia article mentioned by adirondacker12800, the photo with the “multiple overhead lines” section shows the already mentioned power rails.

        • Robbie

          On the Queensland coal lines—the only place in Australia where you’ll see electric locomotives these days—they use air-gaps at a few level crossings used by dump trucks taller than the maximum reach of the pantograph. The trains just coast through:

      • F-Line to Dudley

        The bridges in Boston do not pose anywhere near enough issue to ever introduce something as ham-fisted as coasting under mass-exempted insulated sections and spraying a confetti cannon’s worth of gap-protection asterisks in the ops bulletin similar to the bane of LIRR’s existence around grade crossing gaps. That’s overthinking it to an extreme, and overthinking isn’t a good thing when it takes maintaining annual qualifications on 9 different routes to be a T southside engineer or lead conductor. In the real world they’re not going to go full-custom with approach speeds for insulated under-bridge section X that lies 50 ft. away from the nearest platform vs. section Y that’s 150 ft. from the platform vs. section Z that’s 250 ft. from the platform. They’ll pick some punitive lowest-common denominator and make the platform-approach dead section that’s 250 ft. away obey the same cautionary restriction as the one that’s 50 ft. away because it chews too much FRA-mandated annual classroom time to have a different bulletin for each individual case. They don’t have control over what triggers qualification overhead because that’s all fed-decided, so they’re not going to voluntarily and wholesale invite the same kind of qualification time-chew that LIRR physically can’t avoid with its grade crossing gaps. It’s one thing when a bored tunnel has to do that as a one-time exemption…another thing to apply it as a system-wide kludge. In cases of near-miss, it’ll almost always be less painful to just mod the bridge and be done with it than wage a battle of attrition with the time-chewing FRA. The T actually has control over its destiny that way.


        Official FRA clearance maps for the T are readily available from CSX ( by clicking on “Plate Restriction” on their interactive map and zooming in on the southside, or referencing Pan Am’s static map ( of the northside. Anything “Plate C” (15’6″) or higher exceeds the height of an MBTA bi-level, the tallest passenger car running anywhere east of the New York tunnels. Anything “Plate F” (17′) or higher exceeds the height of the same MBTA bi-level under live 25 kV wires.

        The only places on the system where there are known physical restrictions that will not allow passage of existing T equipment under 25 kV electrification are:

        — WORCESTER LINE: Beacon St. overpass, Back Bay. Plate C restriction, 0-2.5 ft. shy of electrification clearance over a T bi-level (actual miss trends to lower end). Not fixable with trackbed undercuts because of proximity to adjacent Muddy River overpass and Yawkey Station platform. Bridge is decayed and due for full superstructure replacement in next decade, so easily solvable with intra-MassDOT planning coordination.

        — GRAND JUNCTION BRANCH: Memorial Drive overpass, Cambridge. System-tightest Plate B restriction, takes a T bi-level with zero room to spare. 2-2.5 ft. shy of minimal electrification clearance for moving existing T equipment. No fix possible because of proximity to river (not nearly enough to undercut), roadway violating design standards with size of ‘hump’ over bridge (not nearly enough to raise). You won’t ever have a West Station-North Station EMU so long as this branch is needed for equipment transfers, but you also don’t need to commit to building the North-South Rail Link as any prerequisite for taking this branch off the RR network and making a light rail line out of it instead. You only need to A) upgrade the Worcester-Ayer freight branch to Class 3 speed (needed anyway for strengthening the lucrative Portland freight franchise), and B) beef up southside equipment independence such that 1-2x daily @ 6 days/wk. swaps over the Grand Junction slim down to 2-3x/wk. swaps via Worcester County for near-parity in ops costs (accomplished by electrifying the south’s equipment-hungriest schedules to south-captive electric fleet, and building bigger/better southside maint and MOW facilities).

        — (*maybe*) EASTERN ROUTE: 2 Sullivan Sq. overpasses, Charlestown. Plate E (15’9″), inches shy of Plate F (17′). Solvable by cheap trackbed undercut if anything required at all. Chances are if they had to make any touches they’d go whole-hog and shave it a few feet so the port at Everett Terminal could take taller F freight cars wires and all.

        These restrictions still showing on the CSX + Pan Am clearance maps are known phantoms:
        — CSX, Cambridge-Chelsea. Plate B because it’s routed through the Memorial Drive pinch, but all northside territory of theirs is real-world Plate E or F.
        — Pan Am, Everett-Peabody. Plate E on the Eastern Route because of the routing under the Sullivan overpasses, but mainline used to be all- Plate F East Boston and all points north before all other bypass branchlines to Lynn and Salem were abandoned by early-2000’s. No Newburyport/Rockport electrification restrictions at all except @ Sullivan.
        — CSX Fairmount Line. Plate C restriction lifted with rapid bridge replacements in last 5 years. Clear for electrification. CSX did not update map because no South Boston customers present/future will ever require taller-than-C cars.
        — CSX, South Boston-Dorchester. Plate C restriction lifted inclusive with Fairmount routing fix…similarly not updated on map. Old Colony service restoration was pre-built for electrification.
        — Pan Am, Somerville-Waltham. Fitchburg Line was Plate F from former West Cambridge/Alewife Yards and points-west, ruling restriction to east went away when the former “Red Bridge” to the long-gone Northpoint freight yards was removed in 2004. Dividing line for Plate E was based on whether freights originated from Ayer or Boston. Map never updated since no freight of any kind runs inbound of I-495 any longer.

        Other: Walpole to Forge Park/Milford portion of Franklin Line shows on CSX as Plate E, but NBI bridge search doesn’t give any clues why there’s any sub-F height restriction on that whole stretch. Needs further investigation, but unlikely that there’s more than 1 offending structure causing a pinch and since it’s a Plate E it might still be OK for T equipment if it’s a few inches shy.


        On those clearance maps, only these places have federally PROTECTED clearance preemptions for mission-critical freights that electrification cannot chop down. Southside. . .

        — WORCESTER LINE — Framingham Jct. to Westborough Yard: Plate F (17′). Westborough Yard to Schodack, NY: double-stack (20’6″). Per CSX’s 2008 line sale to the state and relocation of freight ops out of Beacon Park, the Plate F exemption from Framingham Jct. to Beacon Park expires 7/31/2018…meaning clearances can now be chopped by wires down to that of a T bi-level and zero structures between Beacon St. and Framingham need mods. The autorack (19’6″) exemption from Framingham to Westborough has been unused since CSX’s autoport relocated from Framingham out west to East Brookfield in 2004; it’s still nominally on the books, but the ’08 line sale can paper-bust it down to Plate F (17′) by mutual sign-off. No clearance mods needed Framingham-Westborough for wires over tallest remaining Plate F cars. Double-stack territory from Westborough to Worcester Union Station only has 6 overhead structures to check; UglyBridges NBI search rules out at least half for any mods, any others to Worcester can be solved by minor trackbed undercuts. 35 more structures to check between Worcester & Springfield, so way premature to be talking all-electric Amtrak Inland service (you have to wire up the Springfield Line first to even think about it). Worcester Line is pretty much a gimme if you fix Beacon St.

        — FRANKLIN LINE + FRAMINGHAM SECONDARY — Readville Yard to Walpole Jct. + Framingham-Walpole-Mansfield (inclusive of Walpole-Foxboro passenger service): Plate F (17′). 7 overhead bridges Readville-Foxboro; NBI check shows 1 in Dedham *potentially* needing structural mods, 1-2 in Walpole potentially needing simple trackbed undercuts. No major cost issues.

        — NORTHEAST CORRIDOR — Mansfield industrial spur (1 mi. north of Mansfield Jct.) to Attleboro Jct.: Plate F (17′ under existing electrification). Atwells Interlocking, Providence to West Davisville: autorack (19’6″ under existing electrification). N/A…RIDOT to install gauntlet track at T.F. Green station as required clearance fix for wiring up the unpowered platform track used by P&W, but otherwise all set.

        — MIDDLEBORO SECONDARY — Attleboro Jct.-Taunton-Middleboro Jct.: Plate F (17′). Former route of Amtrak Cape Codder, small sliver of South Coast Rail encompassing proposed Taunton Depot station. N/A…no overhead structures on South Coast Rail overlap, rest an extremely unlikely electrification candidate.

        — PROVIDENCE & WORCESTER MAINLINE — Atwells Interlocking, Providence (outer NEC FRIP track) to Worcester Union Station: autorack (19’6). Proposed route for MBTA-contracted RIDOT intrastate service to Woonsocket from Providence/Wickford Jct. N/A…too low-rent to rate on any electrification bucket list.

        Northside. . .
        — LOWELL LINE/NEW HAMPSHIRE MAINLINE — Somerville, MA to Concord, NH: Plate F (17′). Biggest systemwide pain for sheer quantity of 0-2.5 ft. bridge and trackbed mods. Sheer quantity also the reason why mass-gapping wouldn’t work well in-practice underneath so many bridges, This is the highest-priority northside electrification and the geographical pairing for NEC thru-routing if the North-South Rail Link gets built.

        — HAVERHILL LINE/WESTERN ROUTE + WILDCAT BRANCH — Lowell Line in Wilmington to Wilmington Jct. to Portland, ME: Plate F (17′). Double-stack (20’6″) proposed for mid-2020’s everywhere except Wilmington-Andover. Reliable assumption despite proposed nature is that clearances will have already been physically maxed out well before first stab at comprehensive northside electrification gains traction. Hardest clearance blocker on entire T is four-deck I-495 Merrimack River overpass in North Andover. Would by-logic be a candidate for a one-time gapping exemption, except at >350 ft. under the decks with an adjacent grade crossing the gap would be far too long to physically coast across. Other significant and very expensive (but not quite as hard-blocked) problems abound under the downtown Lawrence street grid. Probably last northside schedule to be electrified because of extra time/expense needed for design. Downeaster extremely unlikely to ever run electric on this routing because periodic tough restrictions continue through NH. Reconnection of Eastern Route Newburyport-Portsmouth then Newington-Dover or Kittery-North Berwick provides better/faster Portland electric solution for the far long-term future.

        — FITCHBURG LINE — Willows Jct. (halfway between Littleton & Ayer stations) to Wachusett: autorack (19’6) w/ imminent pending double-stack (20’6) uprate. Handful of light/medium $$$ clearance mods…but mostly cheap trackbed undercuts. No hard blockers. System-longest length of Fitchburg Line requires 2 substation builds, so electrification likely to be chunked out Boston-Littleton (zero freight) and Littleton-Wachusett in separate funding phases, spreading out clearance mods w/ extra time to defray costs. Probably next-to-last northside line to be 100% end-to-end completed because of the extra outer sub.

        — PAN AM WORCESTER BRANCH + STONY BROOK BRANCH + LOWELL BRANCH — Freight main connectors spanning Worcester-Ayer-Lowell-Andover: Plate F (17′) w/ proposed double-stack (20’6″) by mid-2020’s. N/A…no quantifiable need for passenger service here in foreseeable future.

        Everywhere else the listed clearances are non-exempted and can be chopped to that of a T bi-level under wires because there’s: A) no scheduled freight traffic at all only unused paper rights; or B) barest-minimal freight traffic with zero customer potential for using the full available clearance envelope. Needham, Plymouth, Greenbush (Weymouth Landing-east), and Newburyport/Rockport (north of Salem) no longer have any freight trackage rights whatsoever and thus don’t appear on the CSX or Pan Am clearance maps. Needham and Rockburyport were all Plate F’s until the end of freight and the Old Colony branches were rebuilt to electrification clearances when passenger service resumed, so all are set.


        Given that northside’s coming last in any electrification sequence, and in linear time SOME mainline has to be the last of the whole lot to get wired…I don’t see how gapping exemptions have to come into play at all. Southside simply doesn’t have any relevant examples where that would/could/should be a considered solve, or where that kind of kludge would be a difference-maker for electrifying at all or not at all. The hardest blocker on the whole system @ I-495 on the Haverhill Line is physically too big to solve with a wire gap and wouldn’t be a candidate for that to begin with. And the other time/money chewers like the NH Main or second-substation territory on the outer Fitchburg are ones where a proactive early start on clearance work with slow/steady progression can get the job done well before that line’s number gets called for stringing up cat.

    • Richard

      slavish adherence to unnecessary European standards.

      Excellent to hear!

      So British, and especially English, costs will plummet down from the uniquely-Anglosphere stratosphere, in just a couple short years from now? The world will be watching!

      Dear God is there no limit to the glory of Brexit?

      Perhaps eventually even US rail engineering consultants will eventually be freed, perhaps using well-armed militias, from their vassal-state thrall to all standards and precedents Yurrpeen.

    • Max Wyss

      There are really reasonable standards, which are not created by “legislators” but by simple physics. In order to create a safe environment, you will need a certain distance between the active wire and some grounded parts. Considering the british weather, it would be foolish to force your luck in such situations.
      Actually, there are ways to reduce vertical clearances compared to a conventional catenary. One example are power rails, where the live wire is clamped into an aluminium profile, which then can be mounted directly onto insulators. If I remember correctly, Kummler&Matter invented it, and it has been successfully used for reasonably high speeds. In a 15 kV environment, they can save something around 20 cm of clearance.

      One thing I noticed with current British electrification are those humunguous gantries. Anywhere else in Europe, such gantries are lighter, and individual masts (preferrably just an double-T beam) with supports are used. This is way cheaper, and quicker to build.

      So, this “adherence to unnecessary European standards” must be considered propaganda.

  9. Korakys

    As a Kiwi I think I can provide some insight into the New Zealand cultural psyche here. NZ’ers are very sensitive to comparisons with other countries and especially what other countries write about us. This makes us the opposite of the solipsistic United States, I think even a bit to our detriment. Oversees experts are valued, so much so that they are often valued above native experts, even when these foreign experts lack specific knowledge of New Zealand conditions.

    It is common to Britons in the civil service (and the military service) as well as around in private businesses too. Even more common is Kiwis who have spent some time working in Britain. Aussies, and to a lesser extent, Canadians are also common here too, taking no reputational penalties from being new to NZ in their jobs. Kiwis tend to be ready to be a little bit weary that Americans will be arrogant, while Caucasian Africans (quite a few here now) are expected to be a bit racist.

    New Zealand is good at jury-rigging things together and quite proud of it, but it also tends to hold foreign expertise in reverence, disdaining native intellectualism.

    Interestingly New Zealand is about to experience the de-electrification of a large chunk of the main North Trunk Line. This is apparently due to the line having only being partly electrified in the 80s following the oil shocks and it being too much of a pain to switch between diesel and electric engines for the middle third of the route (or something like that).

    • Max Wyss

      With all due respect, but de-electrification is among the most stupid things a railroad can do (IMHO).

      • Andrew in Ezo

        I wonder how much freight moves by rail in a small, island country like NZ. Unless it’s something like coal, cement, or ag- related bulk products, I reckon most of it moves by truck.

        • Korakys

          I’ve never heard of anything that isn’t bulk cargo being transported by train in NZ. That said, as a primary industry focused economy, NZ does have a lot of bulk cargo. I hear that the transalpine route that carries coal is especially profitable (for a train anyway).

          • Max Wyss

            And that makes it even more stupid to de-electrify. The operator looks to me to be a victim of propaganda… investment is smaller for diesel units, but operation cost, and loss of capacity cancels that out quickly.

          • Korakys

            Yeah, it is really dumb. If it were up to me the whole North Island network would be electrified. It has to be done eventually so why not now?

          • Max Wyss

            From the Swiss experience (not fully build the Lötschberg Base Tunnel): Save money, no matter how much it costs…

  10. Pingback: Massachusetts Sandbags the North-South Rail Link | Pedestrian Observations
  11. Pingback: High-Speed Rail in India | Pedestrian Observations
  12. Pingback: The British Way of Building Rapid Transit | Pedestrian Observations
  13. Pingback: 30-30-30 is Feasible | Pedestrian Observations
  14. Pingback: Costs are Rising, US Highway Edition | Pedestrian Observations
  15. Pingback: What is the Anglosphere, Anyway? | Pedestrian Observations
  16. Pingback: New England High- and Low-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations
  17. Pingback: Some Notes About Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations
  18. Pingback: Starting A National Rail Electrification Plan – Liam O'Connell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.