I ran a Patreon poll with three options for posts about design compromises: overbuilding for future capacity needs, building around compromises with unfixably bad operations, and where to build when it’s impossible to get transit-oriented development right. Overbuilding won with 16 votes to bad operations’ 10 and development’s 13.
It’s generally best to build infrastructure based exactly on expected use. Too little and it gets clogged, too much and the cost of construction is wasted. This means that when it comes to rail construction, especially mainline rail, infrastructure should be sized for the schedule the railroad intends to run in the coming years. The Swiss principle that the schedule comes first was just adopted in Germany; based on this principle, infrastructure construction is geared around making timed transfers and overtakes and shortening schedules to be an integer (or half-integer) multiple of the headway minus turnaround time for maximum equipment utilization.
And yet, things aren’t always this neat. This post’s topic is the issue of diachronic optimization. If I design the perfect rail network for services that come every 30 minutes, I will probably end up with a massive upgrade bill if ridership increases to the point of requiring a train every 20 minutes instead. (I chose these two illustrative numbers specifically because 30 is not a multiple of 20.) In some cases, it’s defensible to just build for higher capacity – full double-tracking even if current ridership only warrants a single track with passing sidings, train stations with more tracks in case more lines are built to connect to them, and so on. It’s a common enough situation that it’s worth discussing when what is technically overbuilding is desirable.
Expected growth rates
A fast-growing area can expect future rail traffic to rise, which implies that building for future capacity today is good. However, there are two important caveats. The first is that higher growth usually also means higher uncertainty: maybe our two-track commuter line designed around a peak of 8 trains per hour in each direction will need 32 trains per hour, or maybe it will stay at 8 for generations on end – we usually can’t guarantee it will rise steadily to 16.
The second caveat, applicable to fast-growing developing countries, is that high growth raises the cost of capital. Early British railroads were built to higher standard than American ones, and the explanation I’ve seen in the rail history literature is that the US had a much higher cost of capital (since growth rates were high and land was free). Thus mainlines in cities (like the Harlem) ran in the middle of the street in the US but on elevated structures in Britain.
But with that in mind, construction costs have a secular increase. Moreover, in constrained urban areas, the dominant cost of above-ground infrastructure cost is finding land for multiple tracks of railroad (or lanes of highway), and those are definitely trending up. The English working class spent 4-5% of its income on rent around 1800 (source, PDF-p. 12); today, spending one third of income on rent is more typical, implying housing costs have grown faster than incomes, let alone the general price index.
The upshot is that cities that can realistically expect large increases in population should overbuild more, and optimize the network around a specific level of traffic less. Switzerland and Germany, both of which are mature, low-population growth economies, can realistically predict traffic many decades hence. India, not so much.
The expected growth rate helps determine the future benefits of overbuilding now, including reduced overall costs from fronting construction when costs are expected to grow. Against these benefits, we must evaluate the costs of building more than necessary. These are highly idiosyncratic, and depend on precise locations of needed meets and overtakes, potential connection points, and the range of likely train frequencies.
On the Providence Line, the infrastructure today is good for an intercity train at current Amtrak speed every 15 minutes and a regional train making every stop every 15 minutes. There is one overtake segment at Attleboro, around three quarters of the way from Boston to Providence, and the line is otherwise double-track with only one flat junction, with the Stoughton branch. If intercity trains are sped up to the maximum speed permitted by right-of-way geometry, an additional overtake segment is required about a quarter of the way through, around Readville and Route 128. If the trains come every 10 minutes, in theory a mid-line overtake in Sharon is required, but in practice three overtakes would be so fragile that instead most of the line would need to be four-tracked (probably the entire segment from Sharon to Attleboro at least). This raises the incremental costs of providing infrastructure for 10-minute service – and conversely, all of this is in lightly developed areas, so it can be deferred without excessive future increase in costs.
An even starker example of high incremental costs is in London. Crossrail 2 consists of three pieces: the central tunnel between Clapham Junction and Euston-St. Pancras, the northern tunnel meandering east to the Lea Valley Lines and then back west to connect to the East Coast Main Line, and the southern tunnel providing two extra tracks alongside the four-track South West Main Line. The SWML is held to be at capacity, but it’s not actually at the capacity of an RER or S-Bahn system (as I understand it, it runs 32 trains per hour at the peak); the two extra tracks come from an expectation of future growth. However, the extreme cost of an urban tunnel with multiple new stations, even in relatively suburban South London, is such that the tunnel has to be deferred in favor of above-ground treatments until it becomes absolutely necessary.
In contrast, an example of low incremental costs is putting four tracks in a cut-and-cover subway tunnel. In absolute terms it’s more expensive than adding passing tracks in suburban Massachusetts, but the effect on capacity is much bigger (it’s an entire track pair, supporting a train every 2 minutes), and moreover, rebuilding a two-track tunnel to have four tracks in the future is expensive. Philadelphia most likely made the right choice to build the Broad Street Line four-track even though its ridership is far below the capacity of two – in the 1920s it seemed like ridership would keep growing. In developing countries building elevated or cut-and-cover metros, the same logic applies.
The two main aspects of every infrastructure decision are costs and benefits. But we can discern some patterns in when overbuilding is useful:
- Closing a pinch point in a network, such as a single- or double-track pinch point or a flat junction, is usually worth it.
- Cut-and-cover or elevated metro lines in cities that are as large as prewar New York (which had 7 million people plus maybe 2 million in the suburbs) or can expect to grow to that size class should have four tracks.
- On a piece of infrastructure that is likely to be profitable, like high-speed rail, deferring capacity increases until after operations start can be prudent, since the need to start up the profitable system quickly increase the cost of capital.
- Realistic future projections are imperative. Your mature first-world city is not going to triple its travel demand in the foreseeable future.
- Higher uncertainty raises the effective cost of capital, but it also makes precise planning to a specific schedule more difficult, which means that overbuilding to allow for more service options becomes reasonable.
- The electronics before concrete principle extends to overbuilding: it’s better to complete a system (such as ETCS signaling or electrification) even if some branches don’t merit it yet just because of the benefits of having a single streamlined class of service, and because of the relatively low cost of electronics.
Usually cities and countries should not try to build infrastructure ahead of demand – there are other public and private priorities competing for the same pool of money. But there are some exceptions, and I believe these principles can help agencies decide. As a matter of practice, I don’t think there are a lot of places in the developed world where I’d prescribe overbuilding, but in the developing world it’s more common due to higher future growth rates.