S-Bahn and RegionalBahn

The American rail activist term regional rail refers to any mainline rail service short of intercity, which lumps two distinct service patterns. In some German cities, these patterns are called S-Bahn and RegionalBahn, with S-Bahn referring to urban rail running on mainline tracks and RegionalBahn to longer-range service in the 50-100 km range and sometimes even beyond. It’s useful to distinguish the two whenever a city wishes to invest in its regional rail network, because the key infrastructure for the two patterns is different.

As with many this-or-that posts of mine, the distinction is not always clear in practice. For one, in smaller cities, systems that are labeled S-Bahns often work more like RegionalBahn, for example in Hanover. Moreover, some systems have hybrid features, like the Zurich S-Bahn – and what I’ve advocated in American contexts is a hybrid as well. That said, it’s worth understanding the two different ends of this spectrum to figure out what the priority for rail service should be in each given city.

S-Bahn as urban rail

The key feature of the S-Bahn (or the Paris RER) is that it has a trunk that acts like a conventional urban rapid transit line. There are 6-14 stations on the trunks in the examples to keep in mind, often spaced toward the high end for rapid transit so as to provide express service through city center, and all trains make all stops, running every 3-5 minutes all day. Even if the individual branches run on a clockface schedule, people do not use the trunk as a scheduled railroad but rather show up and go continuously.

Moreover, the network layout is usually complementary with existing urban rail. The Munich S-Bahn was built simultaneously with the U-Bahn, and there is only one missed connection between them, The Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn were built separately as patchworks, but they too have one true missed connection and one possible miss that depends on which side of the station one considers the crossing point to be on. The RER has more missed connections with the Metro, especially on the RER B, but the RER A’s station choice was designed to maximize connections to the most important lines while maintaining the desired express stop spacing.

Urban rail lines rarely terminate at city center, and the same is true for S-Bahn lines. In cities whose rail stations are terminals, such as Paris, Munich, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart, there are dedicated tunnels for through-service; London is building such a tunnel in Crossrail, and built one for Thameslink, which has the characteristics of a hybrid. In Japan, too, the first priority for through-running is the most local S-Bahn-like lines – when there were only six tracks between Tokyo and Ueno, the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Lines ran through, as did the Shinkansen, whereas the longer-range regional lines terminated at the two ends until the recent through-line opened.

The difference between an S-Bahn and a subway is merely that the subway is self-contained, whereas the S-Bahn connects to suburban branches. In Tokyo even this distinction is blurred, as most subway lines connect to commuter rail lines at their ends, often branching out.

RegionalBahn as intercity rail

Many regional lines descend from intercity lines that retooled to serve local traffic. Nearly every trunk line entering London from the north was built as a long-range intercity line, most commuter rail mainlines in New York are inner segments of lines that go to other cities or used to (even the LIRR was originally built to go to Boston, with a ferry connection), and so on.

In Germany, it’s quite common for such lines to maintain an intercity characteristic. The metropolitan layout of Germany is different from that of the English-speaking world or France. Single-core metro regions are rather small, except for Berlin. Instead, there are networks of independent metropolitan cores, of which the largest, the Rhine-Ruhr, forms an urban complex almost as large as the built-up areas of Paris and London. Even nominally single-core metro regions often have significant independent centers with long separate histories. I blogged about the Rhine-Neckar six months ago as one such example; Frankfurt is another, as the city is ringed by old cities including Darmstadt and Mainz.

But this is not a purely German situation. Caltrain connects what used to be two independent urban areas in San Francisco and San Jose, and many outer ends of Northeastern American commuter lines are sizable cities, such as New Haven, Trenton, Providence, and Worcester.

The intercity characteristic of such lines means that there is less need to make them into useful urban rail; going express within the city is more justifiable if people are traveling from 100 km away, and through-running is a lower priority. Frequency can be lower as well, since the impact of frequency is less if the in-vehicle travel time is longer; an hourly or half-hourly takt can work.

S-Bahn and RegionalBahn combinations

The S-Bahn and RegionalBahn concepts are distinct in history and service plan, but they do not have to be distinct in branding. In Paris, the distinction between Transilien and the RER is about whether there is through-running, and thus some lines that are RegionalBahn-like are branded as RER, for example the entire RER C. Moreover, with future extension plans, the RER brand will eventually take over increasingly long-distance regional service, for example going east to Meaux. Building additional tunnels to relieve the worst bottlenecks in the city’s transport network could open the door to connecting every Transilien line to the RER.

Zurich maintains separate brands for the S-Bahn and longer-distance regional trains, but as in Paris, the distinction is largely about whether trains terminate on the surface or run through either of the tunnels underneath Hauptbahnhof. Individual S-Bahn branches run every half hour, making extensive use of interlining to provide high frequency to urban stations like Oerlikon, and many of these branches go quite far out of the city. It’s not the same as the RER A and B or most of the Berlin S-Bahn, with their 10- and 15-minute branch frequencies and focus on the city and innermost suburbs.

But perhaps the best example of a regional rail network that really takes on lines of both types is that of Tokyo. In branding, the JR East network is considered a single Kanto-area commuter rail network, without distinctions between shorter- and longer-range lines. And yet, the rapid transit services running on the Yamanote, Keihin-Tohoku, and Chuo-Sobu Lines are not the same as the highly-branched network of faster, longer-range lines like Chuo Rapid, Yokosuka, Sobu Rapid, and so on.

The upshot is that cities do not need to neatly separate their commuter rail networks into two separate brands as Berlin does. The distinction is not one of branding for passengers, but one of planning: should a specific piece of infrastructure be S-Bahn or RegionalBahn?

Highest and best use for infrastructure

Ordinarily, the two sides of the spectrum – an S-Bahn stopping every kilometer within the city, and a RegionalBahn connecting Berlin with Magdeburg or New York with New Haven – are so different that there’s no real tradeoff between them, just as there is no tradeoff between building subways and light rail in a city and building intercity rail. However, they have one key characteristic leading to conflict: they run on mainline track. This means that transportation planners have to decide whether to use existing mainline tracks for S-Bahn or RegionalBahn service.

Using different language, I talked about this dilemma in Boston’s context in 2012. The situation of Boston is instructive even in other cities, even outside the United States, purely because its commuter rail service is so bad that it can almost be viewed as blank slate service on existing infrastructure. On each of the different lines in Boston, it’s worth asking what the highest and best use for the line is. This really boils down to two questions:

  1. Would the line fill a service need for intra-urban travel?
  2. Does the line connect to important outlying destinations for which high speed would be especially beneficial?

In Boston, the answer to question 1 is for the most part no. Thirty to forty years ago the answer would have been yes for a number of lines, but since then the state has built subway lines in the same rights-of-way, ignorant of the development of the S-Bahn concept across the Pond. The biggest exceptions are the Fairmount Line through Dorchester and the inner Fitchburg Line through suburbs of Cambridge toward Brandeis.

On the Fairmount Line the answer to question 2 is negative as well, as the line terminates within Boston, which helps explain why the state is trying to invest in making it a useful S-Bahn with more stops, just without electrification, high frequency, fare integration, or through-service north of Downtown Boston. But on the Fitchburg Line the answer to question 2 is positive, as there is quite a lot of demand from suburbs farther northwest and a decent anchor in Fitchburg itself.

The opposite situation to that of Fairmount is that of the Providence Line. Downtown Providence is the largest job center served by the MBTA outside Boston; the city ranks third in New England in number of jobs, behind Boston and Cambridge and ahead of Worcester and Hartford. Fast service between Providence and Boston is obligatory. However, Providence benefits from lying on the Northeast Corridor, which can provide such service if the regional trains are somewhat slower; this is the main justification for adding a handful of infill stops on the Providence Line.

In New York, the situation is the most complicated, befitting the city’s large size and constrained location. On most lines, the answers to both questions is yes: there is an urban rail service need, either because there is no subway service (as in New Jersey) or because there is subway service and it’s overcrowded (as on the 4/5 trains paralleling the Metro-North trunk and on the Queens Boulevard trains paralleling the LIRR trunk); but at the same time, there are key stations located quite far from the dense city, which can be either suburban centers 40 km out or, in the case of New Haven, an independent city more than 100 km out.

Normally, in a situation like New York’s, the solution should be to interline the local lines and keep the express lines at surface terminals; London is implementing this approach line by line with the Crossrail concept. Unfortunately, New York’s surface terminals are all outside Manhattan, with the exception of Grand Central. Penn Station has the infrastructure for through-running because already in the 1880s and 90s, the ferry transfers out of New Jersey and Brooklyn were onerous, so the Pennsylvania Railroad invested in building a Manhattan station fed by east-west tunnels.

I call for complete through-running in New York, sometimes with the exception of East Side Access, because of the island geography, which makes terminating at the equivalent of Gare du Nord or Gare de Lyon too inconvenient. In other cities, I might come to different conclusions – for example, I don’t think through-running intercity trains in Chicago is a priority. But in New York, this is the only way to guarantee good regional rail service; anything else would involve short- and long-range trains getting in each other’s way at Penn Station.


  1. Martin

    I guess there is one other potential issue for overlap between regional and RER like trains, and that is if the regional trains should stop at major (though not all) RER-like stations. In many places they do not (e.g. Sweden), it is just assumed that regional trains go (only) to the central station, only but this I think is often a missed opportunity. In practice, if they share infrastructure integration is straightforward but pricing/organization often differs a lot discouraging these issues. In very monocentric cities it is perhaps obvious that the major stop is central in downtown, but in other cities perhaps less so. In particular when metro-areas become huge, such as Tokyo, being able to get off at an earlier stop than the classical central station can often save very much time.

    On the other hand, in some places such as Taiwan, the older legacy main rail system has basically been converted to a RER/S-Bahn like countrywide system (it seems as some legacy railways in Japan function in a similar away, e.g. the pre-shinkansen Tohoku), following a parallel HSR system (with a few express trains, that are mostly for people making 100 km trips, to speed up them a bit). In general, I think it is good practice to integrate all fare systems in a country to an as large extent as possible. I think blurring the boundaries between regional and more RER like trains probably usually is utility-maximizing (which typically is mostly about organization and culture). And if they exist on a continuum with integrated fares, having service that goes to exactly one station in a major urban area is probably usually a bad idea.

    • Sascha Claus

      If it often saves time to get off at an earlier stop, it’s likely to oftem save the same amount of time to get off a later stop, if origins and/or destinations are equally spread around the metro area. Another reason for through-running.

    • Herbert

      Combining fare systems and yield management on HSR is in something of a contradiction with each other

  2. Sascha Claus

    It seems to me that there is a small difference between London and New York: The latter one is in the middle of the NEC, while London is close to the end of the country. Through-running of intercity trains from Scotland or Wales to the Channel coast doesn’t look particularly useful nowadays.
    The one direction in London where it might make sense is already routed around to the north-east of the city, into St. Pancras Intl.

    • Herbert

      Through running from HS2 to the continent makes lots of sense. Just look at all those flights from Manchester to Paris and whatnot

      • Alon Levy

        Yes, but I feel uncomfortable about through-service in the other direction, like London-Frankfurt and such. You can slot TGVs into a takt with ICE and that’s fine – the TGVs are quite punctual when they stay on the LGVs, which the trains to both Strasbourg and Brussels do. But Eurostar can’t deal with summer crowds because of how it boards trains, so during the July travel peak the trains don’t really run on a timetable. Perhaps if Britain joins Schengen and stops demanding security theater on Eurostar things can get better, but until then, keep that shit to where it won’t mess up the takt.

        • herbert

          Britain joining Schengen would make a lot of things easier.

          But I really don’t understand why they can’t make a deal with Eurostar to send inads back on the next train out…

          • Eric

            Once you’re on British soil you can claim refugee status, I assume.

          • IAN! Mitchell

            Yeah, aren’t international airports not technically in the country they’re in?

      • rational plan

        I’ve ran these numbers a while go the total numbers of passenger between Manchester and Paris would not fill 3 trains a day. If you added in Birmingham to the mix you get maybe a total of 5 trains a day to Paris. Only problem is the massive cost of new high speed tunnel either under or around London for not that many trains. Balance this against the number of passengers that could be carried on those train paths on domestic routes into London, and well the money will never add up.

        There will always be better value mega projects. Actually fully building Hs2 first, new express lines Across the North and new regional lines across the South East, plus Crossrail 2 plus many schemes to increase commuting capacity into the big 8 regional cities. Tens of billions of projects all competing for the same pot of money. Besides if Hs2 is ever built, the politics will shift to extending it further North to Newcastle and Scotland up the West Coast and then the long range studies calling for a new mainline to South West to relieve the SW and GreatWestern Mainlines.

  3. Gok (@Gok)

    It’s interesting you don’t mention what I’ve thought of as the one RER/S-Bahn like train in the US: BART. It’s rapid transit inside San Francisco/Oakland and more of a commuter system for the ends.

    >I don’t think through-running intercity trains in Chicago is a priority

    Metra isn’t really intercity but merging the north and south Metra lines always seemed like a no-brainer to me. Would be great to open more north-south routes. At the very least, have trains pass through Union Station rather than have them sitting idle all day long.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, because while BART has the service plan of an S-Bahn, it misses one key feature: it does not run on mainline tracks, but rather on segregated tracks with no mainline compatibility, driving up construction costs.

      • adirondacker12800

        If the frequency is high it can’t share. It has something to do with the way trains in New York, Philadelphia and Boston get blown off the bridges so they wanted tracks that were wider apart.

        • Nilo

          Yeah but it would have made reappropriating very lightly used tracks in the east bay or on the Peninsula much easier. Anyways the only place where the wind thing would have matter would be across the Golden gate to Marin. But Marin pulled out years before they ever laid any track.

          • yuuka

            I guess a bigger question is, are these “very lightly used tracks” single or double track?

            Given that a BART car has about the same loading gauge as an Amtrak car, doing what Vancouver did and attempting to squeeze two tracks into a single track ROW is pretty much impossible. So unless they were already double track (or triple, retaining one for freight), it’s highly unlikely that BART could use them anyway, if the cost of upgrading the infrastructure to BART standards was the same as building a whole new line for BART.

          • Henry

            IIRC they’re currently single track, but there is a plan to electrify double track and segregate from freight the Capital Corridor entirely. So a standard-gauge BART that bought out freight railroads outright in the 1960s (while they were declining) could easily be a decent regional/intercity system linking Stockton and Sacramento to the Bay Area, and even with BART existing it’s a good enough idea that we’re going to do it anyways in 2019. And if that was a major concern then BART wouldn’t keep operating under the assumption that it will eventually gobble up Caltrain and run it as a BART line. Or attempt to open standard-gauge DMU extensions down freight corridors because BART technology is too expensive.

            Here’s a map of lines in the Bay Area (BART, commuter rail, freight): http://www.bayrailalliance.org/rail_101/

        • Paul

          The main reason for using broad gauge was stability and ride comfort at high speeds (BART does get up to 110 km/h on some of the suburban segments). And it’s true, there are benefits to using different gauges for different purposes but it’s led to problems today with ordering rolling stock and expansion plans. The outer branches only run every 15-20 minutes, so as Nilo says it would definitely be possible to share those with other trains.

          • adirondacker12800

            The trains not getting blown off bridges in Japan and the Northeastern U.S. were going faster than 110 kph by that time, on standard gauge, without the passengers arriving bruised and battered.

      • EJ

        Several German S-Bahns have little or no interlining with mainline trains, so this is really a distinction without a difference. There’s only one commuter line in the Bay Area BART could realistically utilize, and that’s the current Caltrain line. The Ex-SP line up the East Bay, given its freight traffic, couldn’t realistically support a much greater frequency of passenger trains than it currently does, even if it were electrified. The lines through the San Bruno mountains are twisty and slow – the only reason ACE gets the ridership it does is because traffic on the parallel freeways is so god-awful.

        Now, BART construction costs are obscene, no question there, but the reasons have less to do with its incompatible technology to mainline rail and more to do with incompetence and corruption. If anything, BART, with its low-profile, lightweight trains and low axle-loading, should be cheaper than mainline rail to construct.

        • Henry

          This is true now, but presumably in the 1960s when railroads were at their weakest, BART could’ve just bought the freight railroads outright and saved a lot of money not reinventing the wheel.

          • Henry

            That would certainly have been interesting, though in 1990 the trend was deregulate, deregulate, deregulate (to the point where California had the completely preventable rolling blackouts courtesy of Enron).

            That being said, (some of) the California authorities are now making the right sounds, planning for double-tracking, separation from freight, through-running, all-day service (even if it is meh at about half-hourly); California is not ossifying the way New York’s railroads have. Heck, the LIRR doesn’t even meet its *current* service guidelines in diesel territory, and electrification beyond the current eastern limits is effectively dead.

    • Hugh

      Union Station consists of 2 terminals: one for trains going north, the other for trains going south, so through running would need a lot of new infrastructure.

      • Nilo

        Though long term I don’t think Union through running is the answer, there are two non-revenue through running tracks right now, as the Midwest HSR association and Sandy Johnston have pointed out. Rehabbing those is probably much cheaper than any other option, and could allow through running BNSF trains into Milwaukee subdivision tracks. Just switch crews at Union like the Japanese do.

  4. Henry

    Would you have S-Bahn style trains in New York continue to another suburb? Berlin S-Bahn’s longest line that I could imagine (a hypothetical long S1 from Potsdam to Oranienburg) is only about 38 route-miles. Huntington to Penn is 34 route-miles, Ronkonkoma to Penn is 48 miles, a hypothetical electrified service to Port Jefferson would be 58 miles, as is Trenton to Penn.

    I know that RER E’s future service plan will have eastbound trains terminating at Rosa Parks and westbound trains terminating at Nanterre-La Folie, so in that case trains don’t really enter the suburbs on the other side.

  5. Max Wyss

    As you mention, in Germany and Switzerland, “Regional” may mean inter-city.

    In Switzerland, you find the following train categories: IC/ICN/EC, IR, RE, R, S. S is S-Bahn, and essentially a local within a Verkehrs/Tarifverbund. Outside of a Verkehrsverbund, a local is an R. RE is “Regional-Express”, meaning that it stops only at regional centers. IR is Interregio, and it stops only at regional centers. Finally IC/ICN/EC are expresses, stopping only at major centers.

    Now, what is the difference between an IR and an RE? IR is “Fernverkehr” (long distance services), which is run at full responsibility (including financial responsibility) of the operator (essentially SBB). RE is “Regionalverkehr” (local services), ordered (and subsidized) by the Cantons. If I am not mistaken, a certain path between Zürich and Chur is IR during the day, but RE in the evening.

    In Germany, the situation is similar. S-Bahn is within a Verkehrsverbund, and following its rules. RB (RegionalBahn) is any other local. RE is RegionalExpress (your inter-city service), ordered and subsidized by the Land. And then there is the Fernverkehr (essentially IC/ICE etc.), which, as in Switzerland, is under full responsibility of DB.

    • Oreg

      Great summary.

      Arguably, a Regionalexpress stops not just at regional centers but at any station with significant traffic—less stops than a local, more stops than IR/IRE.

      The distinction between S and R/RB is fuzzy. S is mostly restricted to metropolitan areas (typically, as you say, run by a transit authority) and its rolling stock is often optimized for fast acceleration and short dwell times. R/RB, in contrast, is prevalent in less densely populated regions with longer distances between towns. Accordingly, acceleration and dwell times are of lesser concern which is reflected in the rolling stock used. But there are exceptions such as the RB75 between Wiesbaden and Darmstadt, or the S6 between Mannheim and Mainz.

    • Chris

      The ICN has disappeared in Switzerland, having been folded into the IC a while ago. A lot of REs are being upgraded to IRs as the already were ordered by the federal government, and many R/RE are folding into S-Bahn networks with line numbers. So it really is converging to:

      – fast long distance: IC with EC/ICE/TGV/RJ filling in for transborder service
      – slower long distance IR (with a few RE leftovers)
      – commuter (even sometimes stopping): S (with some R leftovers)

      for SBB. Some of the other companies use different schemes.

  6. Encathol Epistemia

    Because you can’t mention S-Bahnen and American rail activists without summoning the spectre of Philadelphia…

    SEPTA’s RRD manages to stay mostly within S-Bahn range, even if it falls frustratingly short of its operational characteristics, although the Wilmington/Newark and Paoli/Thorndale lines creep just into RegionalBahn length while the Trenton and West Trenton lines come close to that. (Paoli/Thorndale would be even moreso if Atglen ever gets its wish) The first three are all shared with Amtrak intercity lines and the West Trenton line is the electrified remnant of the Reading Railroad’s route to New York City. The Lansdale/Doylestown and Manayunk/Norristown lines are the remnants of the Reading’s routes to the Lehigh Valley and Pottsville (via Reading), respectively.

    Philadelphia does have a sort of RegionalBahn line in the form of the Atlantic City Line, which has achingly poor frequencies is pretty troubled on balance.

    Weirdly, through the end of the last decade, SEPTA was pursuing restoration of service to Reading through its Schuylkill Valley Metro projects, but in the form of a light rail system that in some iterations would have been street-running in Center City. (This project is now dead, but its vestigial funding is being used to support the proposed extension of the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia) Almost as weird, or perhaps weirder, was the Cross County Metro, which would’ve run over a mix of trackage from Trenton to Downingtown, although I’m not sure if it would’ve used electrical multiple units or the same light rail vehicles as the Schuykill Valley Metro.

    The RRD and subway-elevated lines don’t do too badly on connections; the Market-Frankford Subway-Elevated has concourse access from 15th Street Station to Suburban Station and from 11th Street Station to Market East (Jefferson, for the moment) station, albeit somewhat inconvenient and unintuitive. There was formerly and supposedly again will be a direct passage from the 30th Street MFSE station to the like-named mainline station. The RRD connects to the Broad Street Subway at Fern Rock, which was the impetus for installing the full express tracks during the railworks project, which took the SEPTA mainline out of service for reconstruction (Notionally, suburban riders would change to the BSL express there). This connection did not exist when the line first opened as Fern Rock was originally only a yard; connections that did exist at North Philadelphia and Logan are gone due to the closure of the passage from the RRD North Broad Station to the BSL North Philadelphia Station and closure of the Logan RRD station. (The Trolleys connect to the RRD too in their subway via the concourses at 15th Street with the same once and perhaps future connection at 30th Street Station; there are also surface connections) The NHSL also connects to the RRD at Norristown

  7. adirondacker12800

    I call for complete through-running in New York, sometimes with the exception of East Side Access

    All of NJTransit runs through to the LIRR it means 9 times out of 10 the train I’m on doesn’t go to where I want to go and I have to change trains anyway. Even less than 9 out 10, someday in the future, if I’m on a Wall Street branch and want to go to a Penn Station branch. Meh. If Sunnyside Yards and the Westside Yards didn’t exist it might make more sense but they do. Meh. Running local from New Haven to Trenton would take almost four hours. Train crews bring their bladders, bowels and stomach along with them to work. So do passengers. Meh. And there will be those pesky pesky Metro North and Amtrak trains too. All so untidy. And that pesky pesky that NJTransit is aiming for 40 trains an hour to Penn Station and the LIRR is aiming for 30. So so untidy.

    Trying to give everybody beyond the city limits one seat rides to Grand Central, Penn Station and Wall Street is too much capacity. The dirty little secret of NJTransit to Grand Central is that people will have to change trains, all of the trains can’t all go to Grand Central. Instead send East Side Access trains to Secaucus, change trains for Grand Central. To keep the arithmetic simple, 18 an hour is 12 an hour at Penn Station Newark and 6 an hour at Newark Broad Street. All of it moderately cheap to build because it doesn’t require Son-Of-East-Side-Access under Madison Ave at Grand Central and the stuff in New Jersey is above ground. I don’t notice that it isn’t quite that precise at Penn Station or Broad Street because the train loiters on it’s dedicated platform.

    18 an hour between Grand Central and Jamaica is 6 an hour at Floral Park, 6 an hour at Valley Stream via Locust Manor and 6 an hour via St.Albans. Into every life some rain must fall, if you want to go to Grand Central, change trains. one is coming every 3 and a third minutes. Make it 21 an hour one is coming every three or slightly less. Swap one of the southern LIRR branches for the Port Washington line, the southern one gets Wall Street or Penn Station instead, the Port Washington can have every ten minutes to Wall Street, a good thing because all the people in northeastern Queens who are schleping on the Flushing line and clogging Grand Central or Times Square so they can go downtown won’t. Alternating with every ten minutes to Midtown.. change at Woodside for Grand Central would likely work best.

    Ya wanna get to Elmhurst change trains in Flushing. Or just take the bus there. The bus is still going to go to Flushing. The subway is overcrowded in Western Queens because people in Eastern Queens and Western Nassau are using it. The solution is to get people in Eastern Queens and Western Nassau off the subway. Not try to put people who want Western Queens on a train that is going to Suffolk County. Or people who want Tremont on a train that is going to New Haven.

    You are getting the scale wrong. It’s not two tracks of U-Bahn and two tracks of S-Bahn that schedules itself around twice an hour intercity.

    • newtonmarunner

      I have Staten Island getting East Side Access on my fantasy map. Easiest to deal with the clearances on the 63rd St. Tunnel that way

      My NYC map has this for regional rail:

      Line 1: New Jersey to Penn to Port Washington/Penn Station Access
      Line 2: New Jersey to ARC Alt + Grand Central to Highbridge/New Haven
      Line 3: Empire to West Hempstead
      Line 4: Harlem to Grand Central to Union Sq., Fulton Transit Center, Borough Hall, and Atlantic. to Long Beach/Far Rockaway/Babylon
      Line 5: Erie Lines to Hoboken to West 4th, Union Sq., to Grand Central to Main Line SuperExpress to Babylon
      Line 6: Ronkonkoma/Huntington to Main Line Express to East Side Access to Union Sq. to Fulton Transit Center to Staten Island
      Line 7: Ronkonkoma or Huntington to Floral Park Express to Lower Montauk to GCT to Times Sq. to 10th Ave. to North Shore/West Shore
      Line 8: New Haven to Penn Station Access (4-tracked) to NYP to Newark Broad St. to prune a branch from Montclair/Morristown/Gladstone.
      Line 9: Highbridge takes over Harlem in Line 4, and Harlem to a 6-tracked GCT to Union Sq. to West 4th to Hoboken to de-interline and prune a branch from Raritan Valley/NEC/North Jersey Coast.

      Those lines 8 and 9 have extraordinarily high capital costs. And still an awful lot of trains going out 50-100 km. Babylon, for example, will get at least 18 trains per hour at 50 km out. [Currently, Babylon gets 14 tph at peak.] And very small amount of S-Bahn.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s too much capacity in the wrong places. If there is enough demand to need 4 four tracks between New Rochelle and Penn Station there’s no capacity between New Rochelle and New Haven for the trains to Grand Central. Or it’s six tracked to Stamford and beyond. The people on Long Island already using the existing tunnels wouldn’t be happy about giving up the existing tunnels or the platforms they use. What kind of dytopian future does one branch of the Morris and Essex lines need four tracks? And things south/west of Penn Station Newark get West 4th Street but not Wall Street. I don’t see anything in New Jersey that gets Wall Street. You want to rearrange this so people get Wall Street, not 10th and 42nd or Hoboken.

  8. yuuka

    >In Japan, too, the first priority for through-running is the most local S-Bahn-like lines – when there were only six tracks between Tokyo and Ueno, the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Lines ran through, as did the Shinkansen, whereas the longer-range regional lines terminated at the two ends until the recent through-line opened.

    I seem to recall that on the “private” railways (like Tobu, Seibu, Tokyu, Odakyu, etc) this resulted in massive congestion at the subway’s actual “terminal” where passengers on the express were changing to already crowded locals since they wanted to go to where the subway went. That’s why in recent years the private lines have gone to great lengths to bring some express trains onto the subway (see Odakyu’s 4 tracking program, the F-Liner service on the Fukutoshin Line). The most recent example I can think of was only local trains on the Tobu Tojo line going into the Tokyo Metro system before the launch of the F-Liner.

    This isn’t so much of a problem for JR East, since the Joban Local is a de facto extension of the Chiyoda line, and on the Chuo-Sobu line there are Nakano terminators running solely within the JR section to allow for Tozai line trains to use the line. These mostly aren’t luxuries that private railways have – not even Odakyu with their 4 track section.

    And in the case of Tokyu, they’ve gone all in – nearly every train on the Toyoko, Meguro and Den-en-toshi lines run through to the subway. JR East and the Ueno-Tokyo Line is just keeping up with the Kardashians here (plus most JR East commuter vehicles have a wider loading gauge and no end doors so they’re not permitted on the subway network anyway)

    • yuuka

      >These mostly aren’t luxuries that private railways have – not even Odakyu with their 4 track section.

      I stand corrected – Seibu does run a 4tph all-local service from Ikebukuro to Toshimaen (on a branch line one stop from Nerima where the subway merges with the Seibu line), but that’s not really useful, is it, given that a lot more capacity comes from the subway than is freed up by trains taking the Toshimaen branch?

      • anonymouse observer

        Seibu runs Ikebukuro-Toshimaen local shuttle to compensate loss of local service to Seibu Ikebukuro from the local through-running trains from/to Tokyo Metro territory via Seibu Yurakucho Line. Like other major private railway lines in Tokyo (except Seibu Shinjuku Line and Keio Line), they maintain 8tph local service on the main line in inner suburb.

        • yuuka

          Yeah I was looking at it from a track capacity perspective.

          4tph goes out to Toshimaen but 8tph come in from the Yurakucho Line, so you’ve basically added 4tph outbound from Nerima. I seem to recall this was a big driver for Odakyu’s 4 tracking project.

    • Alon Levy

      This crunch exists whenever commuter trains dump commuters just outside city center. In Tokyo, before Ueno-Tokyo opened, the most crowded rail segment was on the Yaanote + Keihin-Tohoku Lines from Ueno to the south. In London, two of the three busiest Underground segments in the morning are Waterloo -> Bank and Victoria -> Green Park, both taking passengers from a giant rail terminal to city center (the third is Bethnal Green -> Liverpool Street). In Paris I don’t know what’s the busiest segment, but the crunch from Gare du Nord south to Les Halles has to be either at the top or near it.

      All of this is suggesting that Tokyo should try building more subway lines to connect the express trains and not just the locals. In London there’s so little through-running that it’s justifiable to prioritize the locals, but Tokyo, New York, and Paris should go for full through-running.

      • anonymouse observer

        > …suggesting that Tokyo should try building more subway lines to connect the express trains and not just the locals.

        It might be challenging because of the way Japanese private railways operate as business. They make large investments to draw large volume of non-work passenger traffic from their service areas to their flagship downtown-side terminal stations while making their service area attractive (to increase the population within railway’s service area). Their non-rail businesses (vertical shopping malls and department stores) generates significant amount of revenue (though the fare revenue generates profit by itself).

        With through-running, those non-work-bound passengers could stay on the trains entering to the subway section and go to the flagship terminal stations of other railways. Through-running would still generates revenue for the railways, but revenue from non-rail businesses could be affected significantly. For instance, Fukutoshin Line made Shinjuku more easily accessible for people living along Seibu Ikebukuro, Tobu Tojo, and Tokyu Toyoko Lines, they pass through Ikebukuro (end-line of Tojo and Ikebukuro Lines) or Shibuya and head to Shinjuku for shopping even though all three railways put major efforts to their flagship terminal station area (Tokyu lead redevelopment of the Shibuya Station area, and Seibu spent more than $250M to renovate the flagship store of Seibu Department Store at Ikebukuro Station according to a Toyokeizai article [https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/1494]):
        – Isetan Department Store in drew 120 percent more customers after Fukutoshin-Tokyu Toyoko through running began (https://www.j-cast.com/tv/2013/04/26174019.html?p=all).
        – Daily volume of passengers using Tokyu Shibuya Station decreased by 30,000 (http://economic.jp/?p=37371)

        • yuuka

          I guess it makes sense if you’re a regional transport authority with the power and budget to consolidate/split lines at will, but that’s clearly not the case in Tokyo.

          Alon would probably love to split the Ueno-Tokyo Line and Shonan-Shinjuku/Saikyo Line networks, but I can imagine, for example, a mass exodus to Keikyu if the Yokosuka Line lost its through trains to Tokyo Station, which may not make him popular in JR East Towers…

      • yuuka

        For some reason Tokyo Metro has a moratorium on new subway lines in place, and Toei’s financials are pretty bad, so you won’t really see that happening.

        The only through-running project I know of being planned is the so-called Asakusa Line bypass, where Keikyu and Keisei extend their lines from Shinagawa and Ueno respectively to Tokyo Station (they’re standard gauge overhead line so no subway access). There’s also the Sotetsu Link project, but that won’t really help city center since it just allows passengers to bypass the outer suburban transfer nodes but still dumps them at Shinjuku and Shibuya.

        MLIT’s statistics here (in Japanese though): http://www.mlit.go.jp/common/001299668.pdf (I estimate 100% crowding to be 2-3pax/m2, while 200% should be 6-7pax/m2). Interestingly, by the cars/TPH shown, there’s still plenty of unused capacity on the subway lines (the Shinjuku, Namboku and Fukutoshin lines have <20tph in peak!)

        • Eric

          “the Shinjuku, Namboku and Fukutoshin lines have <20tph in peak!"

          Not coincidentally, those three lines are semi-circumferential.

          • yuuka

            Looks like the MLIT folks didn’t count Shonan Shinjuku Line trains, of which there are 6 during the survey period. So total 16tph, 10 go to Tokyo Station and 6 to Shinjuku.

          • Alon Levy

            Still kind of disappointing for how crowded the line is, cf. Chuo Rapid or Sobu… is it just a reverse-branching-ruins-everything artifact limiting capacity?

          • yuuka

            You could say that I guess.

            I forgot to mention that there’s also a flat junction at where the Shonan Shinjuku and Yokosuka lines split near Osaki station, that causes plenty of headaches and AFAIK there’s no plan for now to grade separate it.

            A fix for now would probably be to run more 15-car trains, though I wonder what’s stopping them. Short platforms out in the sticks can’t be an issue since the extra 4/5 are usually added by the time the train reaches Ofuna.

          • anonymouse observer

            One of the reasons why Yokosuka Line service is not so frequent during the morning peak hour is because all-reserved trains operating through Hinkaku Line segment of the Yokosuka Line, like Shonan Liner, Ohayo-Liner Shinjuku, and Narita Express (https://tetsudoulab.com/yokosuka-konzstsu-asa/). I don’t think those are counted in the capacity statistics.

            Increasing 15-car operations in the JR East’s mainline services beyond what is currently offered is also difficult because the demand drops noticeably once trains pass Tokyo CBD, but the first location where they can drop 4 cars are far out of the Tokyo CBD (Kagohara, Koganei, Zushi, etc.). Frequent split/joint at Zushi sounds like very tricky due to the track layout.

        • anonymouse observer

          By the way, the reason why Tokyo Metro went into moratorium in line construction or extension is the privatization (happened already) and future IPO. I guess they need to get their balance sheet right before making their stocks available at Tokyo Stock Exchange.

          No matter who is trying to build, subway construction is getting more and more difficult. Even Toei Subway and Metropolitan Government of Tokyo used special purpose company (Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Construction Co.,Ltd) to build the Oedo Line, and Toei Subway purchased rolling stock and infrastructure using very long-range “installment loan”. Majority of recent urban rail and subway extension used the similar strategy to cover the construction cost without affecting the finance of private passenger rail operators (they lease the infrastructure from the special purpose company).

          One of the craziest examples was Hanshin’s Sannomiya Station and Koshien Station project; Hanshin Electric Railway ended up with selling both stations to Kobe Rapid Transit Railway (public-private joint enterprise) so that they can apply for the rail infrastructure improvement grant (for-profit private railway generating operating profit cannot apply for the grant).

  9. df1982

    Berlin’s S-Bahn often runs along mainline alignments, but it has exclusive tracks. It has to, since it runs on third rail instead of overhead wires. The Regionalbahn runs on mainline tracks, shared with intercity trains, so this is the big difference between the two in my mind. Also there is no attempt at creating regular headways on the trunks of Regionalbahn lines, which is actually an impediment for some journeys. For instance, Hauptbahnhof to Gesundbrunnen is a single-seat journey on the Regionalbahn (but not on anything else), but the frequencies are never reliable enough for it to be used as a transit connection.

    Sydney now mirrors the German model in some ways, as it has a metro (since May this year), an S-Bahn (Sydney Trains, confined to the Sydney metropolitan area), a Regionalbahn (NSW Trainlink Intercity, with services to the surrounding region up to about 150-200km from Sydney) and an intercity service (confusingly called NSW Trainlink Regional). The single metro line is fully segregated, and there is some segregation between S-Bahn and longer-distance services, but this is far from complete. The same distance-based smartcard ticketing system is used for everything except the Regional (i.e. intercity) trains.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, so Berlin’s S-Bahn incompatibility with mainline electrification is definitely a distinguishing feature, as is Hamburg’s, and as is the Watford DC Line. But other S-Bahn systems are more compatible, and sometimes do share tracks in outer areas, like in Munich and Paris or in the future on Crossrail. Track-sharing is usually not great practice because of the impact of reverse-branching on schedule reliability, but it can happen, and on some low-frequency outer branches it may not be justified to fully segregate the tracks.

      But you’re absolutely right about the issue of reliable frequency, and I wish I’d expressed this more clearly. Gesundbrunnen-Hbf isn’t really a reliable transit trip for the reason you mention, and Berlin’s attempt to fix that with S21 is running into all the usual problems of German infrastructure, including delays and a questionable service plan (there’s an east-west capacity crunch, not a north-south one).

          • df1982

            The danger would be blowing out the dwell times in Berlin if loads of passengers for intra-city trips decide to board. And it could make life hell for long-distance passengers. I think the better solution is to have even headways on the trunks of the Regionalbahn, so you could at least know that there’s a train coming every 10 minutes on that part of the line that you can board for your short hop.

          • adirondacker12800

            Not to mention sitting in the seat you were expecting to sit in….

          • Alon Levy

            FWIW, Switzerland lets you do that between Zurich Hbf and the airport if you have a city-airport ticket and it’s fine, the dwell times don’t suffer for it and a normal city ticket doesn’t give you a seat reservation if no seats are available.

          • EJ

            Vienna is somewhat similar in that they run a lot of Railjet express trains through to the airport. The airport is the terminus though, so in most cases long distance passengers disembark at Wien Hbf and then the train effectively becomes an airport express for travelers from Vienna.

          • Max Wyss

            And it is the same in Genève. If you have a valid ticket, you can take any train between Genève Aéroport and Genève Cornavin.

          • Oreg

            @Alon: In the Zurich transit district (and presumably all over Switzerland?) you can take any train, tram, bus or boat in a Verkehrsverbund ticket’s zones (SBB tickets are only valid on trains)—the airport is not special in this context. Seat reservations are not very common in Switzerland (except for groups). A regular train ticket does not come with a seat either.

            It’s hard to argue the counterfactual how the dwell times in Zurich would change without the city–airport travelers. Many passengers take the S2 which also stops only once on the way (Oerlikon) which makes any insights hard to transfer to other cities.

  10. Herbert

    Should an S-Bahn have lavatories?

    On the one hand Berlin S-Bahn didn’t and it would limit capacity for no appreciable gain to install them, on the other hand some S-Bahn systems are hundreds of kilometers long

    • Andrew in Ezo

      I would say that it depends on the frequency of service as well as the lavatory facilities available at stations. Based solely on my experience here in Japan, all suburban stations (and actually basically any station other than some unstaffed halts) have restrooms, so on-board lavatories are not really necessary. However, if the suburban service has low frequencies, say less than 4 tph, lavatories should be provided. Also, if the time between station stops on a given service is greater than 10 min (possible in the outer reaches of a suburban network), there may be a case for having lavatories. Thus JR East outer suburban rolling stock typically are fitted with them.

      • anonymouse observer

        I believe it is depends. It is typically based on the end-to-end distance (Kintetsu’s standard-gauge commuter rolling stock is a good example), but there is no set standard or commonality on on-board bathroom in Japanese regional trains because:
        – Meitetsu did not have any EMU with on-board bathroom even on the “white-band” Panorama Car trainsets for the limited express service (Meitetsu limited express trains don’t stop for 15 to 20 minutes due to very limited number of stops they make).
        – JR East is currently adding on-board bathroom on existing Series E233 EMU trainsets for Chuo Line (trains stops once every 3 to 5 minutes if the train is in “Rapid”).
        – Majority of Tokaido Main Line trains in Shizuoka region and local trains in Nagoya region within JR Central had no bathroom in 90s (some trains used to run from Atami to Hamamatsu or Toyohashi, very long distance).

        Speaking of on-board bathroom, there are some rural lines in JR West territory where there are scheduled “bathroom break” for passengers at some station stops built into the timetable.

        Adding on-board bathroom requires more than adding bathrooms on trains. There needs to be proper toilet-dumping facility at the maintenance yard, and the facility needs to be designed for the proper capacity.

        • wiesmann

          The toilet dumping facilities can be a complicated problem, the new Geneva RER (CEVA) will cross the border between France and Switzerland and be served by two types of rolling stock: Stadler FLIRT for the Swiss (SBB/CFF/FFS) side and Alstom Régiolis from the French (SNCF) side. The Swiss trains won’t be able to do toilet dumping on the French terminus station (Annemasse).

  11. anonymouse observer

    Thank you Alon for putting this together!

    I relate this with your recent post about “stroads” and “strails” concept. If a double-track railway line can accommodate subway-level short distance service, local traffic (S-bahn or “urban rail”), regional service (Regionalbahn, “Kaisoku”, or regional rail), and intercity service, and each service can complement each other, there is no need for duplicate infrastructure running parallel from each other, and instead of wasting money to building duplicate purpose-build infrastructure, the funding and resources can be allocated for new rail lines for better area coverage.

    Also, if one can bunch up and interline all rail traffic on one corridor and make all trains run on a double-track rail line, both passenger volume and train traffic density would stay high, it would increases not only utilization of the track capacity and infrastructure significantly but also the potential of the rail line. By bunching up such way, investments to passenger rail infrastructure could be easily justified even in smaller markets.

    I guess your Boston example of building subways parallel to the heavy rail lines and its impacts to heavy rail potential covers both of these points above. The way Kintetsu operates their passenger rail service could be one of the best example of “strail” of the world.

    (In order to accommodate trains with vast difference in average speed [e.g. trains stopping every 1 km, 5 km, 10 km, and 50 km], there needs to be overtake facilities at strategic locations, but with standing overtakes, all of these can be a platform-length sidings, which cost significantly less than continuous triple/quad-track section).

    To make the ultimate “strails” happen, I believe integration of service and fare structure between services catering different travel markets (intra-city, regional, and intercity) is absolutely necessary. If passengers can choose any of those trains operating on the same rail corridor only depending on the travel purpose and distance traveling but without getting forced to pay completely different fare, actual frequency of the service could be potentially increased (without running too many trains) compared to doing without service or fare integration. JR East network in Kanto/Greater Tokyo Region is a good example of this as you mentioned.

    JR East’s example also shows that the service and fare integration done right can help establishing the web of passenger rail service connecting multiple regions. As you mentioned, there is no distinctions between shorter and longer-distance service in Kanto area, but the network extends further than the end of the Kanto Area. For example, their Kanto area service is loosely mashed into Fukushima area service at the northern end of the Kanto and into Tokaido corridor service in Shizuoka region operated by JR Central at the southeastern end of the Kanto, and the Shizuoka region service is interlined with Nagoya region service. JR Group’s fare structure, making such integration between rail service in different urbanized areas and less populated in between, is something others can learn from although it is challenging to establish (English translation is done by Desktop Tetsu: http://www.desktoptetsu.com/rule.htm).

  12. Fbfree

    On the Hamburg-Hannover line, is it the freight interference or the curves (notably at Lünebourg and Uelzen) that limit the line speed?

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know.

      One problem around Hanover is that freight trains go through the city, there’s no freight bypass. But I don’t know to what extent this impacts Hamburg-Hanover specifically.

      • Herbert

        NIMBYs have made the new Hamburg Hanover line a nigh impossibility…

        I mean it’s only one of the biggest ports in the world, no biggie

  13. adirondacker12800

    The LIRR instead of endlessly talking about double tracking completed a project last year. Ahead of schedule and budget. With electric trains and level boarding. It’s just awful the way Manhattan has had that for over a century. Terrible. The upgrade between New Brunswick and Trenton slogs along, It didn’t involve any double tracking because it’s been four tracks for a long time. With electricity since the 30s. That has been grade separated for a long time too. And anything new gets level boarding if it hasn’t had it since forever. It’s awful that trains will be clipping along at 160 mph on the express tracks, once they are delivered and accepted. And the creaky commuter trains only hit 105 or so on the local tracks. Terrible. Awful.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, there’s one sense in which this distinction gets weird in very large cities: the branch points are really far out, like Hicksville or Tachikawa, so you can have a long trunk like an S-Bahn but then the branching and overall range of a RegionalBahn.

  14. Oreg

    A few niggles, if you allow.

    “smaller cities, […] for example […] Hanover”
    That’s the 13th largest city in the country with a population of more than half a million. What is your threshold for calling a city large? 😉

    “Frankfurt is another, as the city is ringed by old cities including Darmstadt and Mainz.” — And, most notably, Wiesbaden, the state capital and largest of the three. Anyway, your point stands that Rhine-Main is a multicentered metropolitan region with a total population of 5.8 million.

    Zurich is not a good example of your S-Bahn definition: There is no trunk. There is a short, busy stretch from Hardbrücke via HB to Stadelhofen but it is used by only half the lines.

    “Zurich maintains separate brands for the S-Bahn and longer-distance regional trains, but as in Paris, the distinction is largely about whether trains terminate on the surface or run through either of the tunnels underneath Hauptbahnhof.”
    Not really. The HB has three tunnels. One to Oerlikon which is used by most trains in that direction, S-Bahn and long-distance—except S24. One is used by S4 and S10, both of which terminate at the HB (the tunnel is a dead end). And only one exclusively for S-Bahn throughrunning, used by half the lines. Also, there are no other regional trains, only Interregios and above.

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