Megaregions, Redux

Remember how ten years ago the American urbanist conversation was all about carving the country up into megaregions? The America 2050 project drew some lines connecting metro areas into regions, designed to imitate the Boston-Washington corridor in concept, and asserted that this would be the future of American growth. The concept seems to have dropped off the discourse, and for good reason, but it may be useful to have a second look. The Boston-Washington megalopolis is a genuine megaregion, and it’s useful to see which regions elsewhere in the world share its characteristics.

The key takeaway is that rich cities do not have to be in megaregions. The Northeast Corridor is a rich megaregion, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago anchor smaller megaregions of their own; but in Europe, among the richest cities only Frankfurt and Amsterdam are in megaregions, while London, Paris, Hamburg, and Munich are not. Megaregions are areas of high population density and interlinked social networks. Their size may give them economic advantage, but it doesn’t have to; urbanists and urban geographers must avoid overselling their importance.

What is a megaregion?

The original Boston-Washington megalopolis was defined in the 1960s, as a linear region with continuous suburban sprawl. The core comes from New York and Philadelphia, which share some suburbs in Central Jersey, their regional rails meeting at Trenton. However, continuous sprawl goes north to New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, with only a few tens of km of separation from Providence and Worcester on the way to Boston; and southwest to Baltimore and Washington, with suburbs spaced closely together along the I-95 corridor.

There are extensive academic connections. Academics are generally hypermobile, but form especially thick metropolitan connections. Living in Boston and reverse-commuting to Brown is normal, and people at Brown would sometimes go up to Harvard or MIT for seminars when sufficiently important or interesting people gave talks. Connections up and down the central part of the corridor are extensive as well, stretching from Yale down to Penn. There is a gap between New Haven and Providence, as Hartford and Springfield aren’t academic centers; perhaps for academics the megaregion only stretches from New Haven to Washington, but even so, at least two-thirds of the megaregion remains intact.

Socially, there are strong connections along the corridor as well. They’re rarely end-to-end, but people in fandom routinely go a state or two over for conventions, so conventions in Connecticut and Rhode Island draw from New York and Boston, conventions in New Jersey draw from Philadelphia and New Haven, and conventions in Maryland draw from Philadelphia and Northern Virginia. On some stretches, weekend trips are normal, like the Columbia students who’d go back to visit parents in suburban Philadelphia every weekend, or people in New York who dated people in New Haven and didn’t even really think of it as a long-distance relationship.

Which regions qualify as megaregions?

Outside the Northeast, it is difficult for me to judge the extent of social connections, with a few key exceptions. However, I can judge how continuous urbanization is and, using American survey data on commuting, whether two adjacent core urban areas share suburbs. In Europe, I do not have commuting data, but it is easy to look at regional rail maps and see when S-Bahn networks touch.

Asymmetric megaregions

In the United States, the three largest core metropolitan areas outside the Northeast – Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco – all anchor megaregions. However, in all three cases, the big core metro area dominates the broader region. Los Angeles has continuous sprawl down the coast to San Diego, and the two metro areas’ commuter rail networks touch; Chicago similarly has continuous sprawl up to Milwaukee, and if Milwaukee bothered to run regional trains then they would probably go down to Kenosha and connect to Metra; the Bay Area’s high housing costs have driven many people to the San Joaquin Delta, most of the way to Sacramento, and the Amtrak route connecting San Jose and Oakland with Sacramento is largely planned as regional rail nowadays.

New York is of course much larger than the other core regions of the megalopolis, but its metro area has at most half the population of the region, and even that requires making the broadest assumptions on what counts as part of the metro area and the narrowest ones on what counts as part of the megalopolis. If metro New York excludes mostly economically independent areas like New Haven and Central Jersey, and the megalopolis includes some inland areas like Albany and Harrisburg, then New York is only one third of the megalopolis. In contrast, the five-county Los Angeles metro area has three quarters of Southern California’s population, the Bay Area has about two thirds of its megaregion’s population, and metro Chicago has about 85% of the combined population of Chicago and Milwaukee.

Suburb sharing in smaller megaregions

High population density and suburban sprawl can lead some core urban areas to share suburbs, forming a megaregion with much lower population than the megalopolis. Florida supplies at least one such example: out of 237,000 employed residents in Polk County, 26,000 commute to Orlando’s Orange County and 29,000 commute to Tampa’s Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg’s Pinellas County; the western parts of Polk County have a higher density of Tampa-bound commuters and the eastern parts have a higher density of Orlando-bound commuters, but there is a fair amount of mixing, as well as anywhere-to-anywhere commuting within the county. By all accounts, Orlando and Tampa should be placed into one megaregion.

South Florida is arguably a megaregion as well. It is treated as a metro area stretching from Miami or even Key West north to West Palm Beach, but its northern, central, and southern areas have distinct urban cores. Miami-Dade County has 982,000 employed residents, of whom only 28,000 work in Palm Beach County; in the other direction, 29,000 workers from Palm Beach commute to Miami-Dade out of 513,000. This megaregion stretches even further north – St. Lucie County has 13,000 out of 100,000 workers commuting to Palm Beach County – but there is a gap in both population density and commuting zones between Port St. Lucie and Space Coast. Socially, too, the people I know on Space Coast don’t have ties to South Florida, and barely have any to Orlando. So the bulk of Florida is really two linear megaregions, one north-south and one southwest-northeast, which may be close but do not merge.

Finally, crossing the Pond, Northern England features a megaregion out of core metro areas of similar size to those of Central Florida. Liverpool and Manchester are two historic cores and are formally two distinct metro areas, but are so interlinked they are arguably a single metro area, and are certainly a single multicore megaregion. There is contiguous suburban sprawl connecting the two cities with small gaps, and were British regional rail services better, their frequent urban rail networks would have touched. There are even some ties crossing the Pennines to Leeds; Britain has attempted to improve infrastructure between historic Lancashire and Yorkshire, using the language of megaregions to argue that this would boost the area’s economic profile.

Leapfrog urban connections

Western Germany and the Netherlands do not have contiguous sprawl in the same way that most developed countries do. On a satellite photo, the commuting zone of New York, Paris, Madrid, Toronto, or any other major city in their respective countries looks largely as a single blob of gray. The population density of this gray blob is higher in France than in the United States, but in both countries, a metropolitan area is made out of a single contiguous built-up area plus a handful of surrounding low-density exurbs.

In contrast, in Germany and the Netherlands there are undeveloped areas between adjacent cities. Most definitions of metropolitan agglomeration in Europe recognize that Cologne and Bonn are one metro area, but the two cities’ built-up areas barely touch and have farmland in between. The metro area of Frankfurt similarly contains multiple core cities with recognizable centers and some rural gaps between them, such as Darmstadt and Mainz. Urban areas with slightly bigger gaps do not necessarily fall into one metro area, but certainly comprise a single megaregion, including Germany’s largest, the Rhine-Ruhr with its roughly 11 million people and extensive internal S-Bahn connections.

Randstad is likewise a megaregion. The Netherlands zealously protects its high-yield farmland from urban sprawl, so suburbs are usually not contiguous with the cities they serve as bedroom communities for. There are agricultural gaps between Amsterdam, the cities of Flevoland, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and the Hague, and not too much commuting between the southern and northern edges of the combined region, and yet intermediate commuting and tight economic links mean it must be viewed as more than two or three disparate metro areas.

More controversially, I claim that the lower reaches of the Upper Rhine, from Frankfurt and Mainz up to Karlsruhe, form a single megaregion, and may even stretch farther up all the way into Basel. The gaps in urbanization between Frankfurt and Mannheim are not large – there is a city every few kilometers on both rail lines connecting the two cities. Moreover, the Frankfurt and Rhine-Neckar regions’ S-Bahns touch at Mainz, the Mainz-Mannheim line having recently been designated as S-Bahn quality and appearing on the regional schedules. The Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn in turn serves Karlsruhe. South of Karlsruhe the population density is high but less so, and the gaps between the cities are larger. But even without Baden south of Karlsruhe, the combined region has nearly 10 million people, and certainly has the highest GDP in Germany, as it is much richer than the Rhine-Ruhr.

Remember the Blue Banana?

In 1989, a group of French geographers led by Roger Brunet coined the term blue banana for a European megalopolis. As defined, it stretched from London or even Liverpool and Manchester in the north, across the Channel to the Low Countries, up the Rhine to Switzerland, and then across the Alps to Milan. The original definition deliberately omitted Paris from this zone, arguing that French urban geography was dominated by internal national links centered around the capital rather than the polycentrism of the Low Countries, western Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

The last 30 years have not been kind to the Blue Banana. Much of Continental Europe was beset by a period of slow growth in the 1990s, sometimes called eurosclerosis; parts of it have slowly recovered in the 2000s and 2010s, most notably Germany, while others have stagnated, most notably Italy. In the 1990s, it was plausible to view Milan as more like Northern Europe than like Southern Italy. Today, it is no longer tenable. Before the 2008 crisis, Lombardy was as rich as Hamburg and southern Hesse and much richer than Stockholm and Copenhagen; today it is slightly behind Stockholm and slightly ahead of Copenhagen, and well behind Hamburg and southern Hesse.

The story of growth in the last generation has mostly been one of states, not regions. Northern Italy is much richer than Southern Italy, just as it has always been, but the entire country has equally stagnated. French growth has not been spectacular over this period, but it’s been better than Italian growth. Belgium, within the Blue Banana, has done better than France in the last generation, but not by much. In this entire period, the most notable subnational per capita income changes have been that London has pulled ahead while Northern England has stagnated, and that East Germany has grown faster than West Germany.

Megaregions and wealth

In the United States, the big megaregions have been loci of wealth, particularly the megalopolis. This has intensified in the current century. According to BEA data, since 2000, economic growth in the four core Northeast combined metro areas has exceeded the national average, gaining about 4 percentage points relative to the rest of the country in terms of both per capita income (from all sources) and net earnings (i.e. income from work). But even there, this is not the whole story, since Seattle, which is not in any megaregion, has had even faster growth.

Moreover, in Europe, there is no real correlation between megaregions and growth. The largest single megaregion in Europe, the Rhine-Ruhr, has slower economic growth than both the surging cities of southern Germany and the converging ones of the East. Paris and London are doing just fine as independent metro areas, Munich is still the richest city region in the EU, and Berlin is steadily converging to West German income levels.

Of course, no correlation and negative correlation are two different things. Just as the Rhine-Ruhr is slowly stagnating, the Frankfurt-Mannheim megaregion is growing, and Randstad has managed to recover from the recession alongside the rest of the Netherlands.

To the extent that there’s a link between megaregions and wealth, it’s that in developing countries, or even in midcentury America, poorer regions are mostly rural, and their cities tend to be small and less likely to interlink to form large metro areas. Thus, Eastern China has three megaregions with tens of millions of people each – Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangtze Delta, and the Pearl River Delta – underlying the wealth and urbanization of these regions; in contrast, the Indo-Gangetic Plain’s lower level of economic development means that even though population density from Bangladesh up the Ganges toward Delhi is as high as in southern Jiangsu, the cities are too small and too separated to form a Bangladeshi or West Bengali or Doabi megaregion.

But in a first-world context, the urbanization rate is about 100%. Even on-paper rural areas are within city regions and just happen to be small municipalities whose residents can drive in half an hour to a larger number of people than any premodern village pedestrian could interact with over a lifetime.

What this suggests is that the right way to think of first-world megaregions is not in terms of economic output, but in terms of density. In dense areas like the Netherlands, western Germany, England, and the Northeastern US, megaregions are likely to form out of links between adjacent cities. Not for nothing, the only part of the American Sunbelt where I’m comfortable describing metro areas as linking to form megaregions, Florida, also has the highest population density. The economies of Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston are a lot stronger than that of Central Florida, which is frankly a basket case, but cities in Texas and the Deep South are too far apart to function as megaregions.

Does high background density lead to higher incomes? Maybe. Strong urban networks really do allow for more economic specialization. But then these networks can be global, untethered from where one can travel by regional rail or urban highways. It’s an interesting question of economic geography, but on the level of a sanity check, some of the richest cities in Europe are doing just fine without the polycentric megaregional links going up and down the Rhine.


  1. Reedman Bassoon

    Do your comments about Polk County/Central Florida mean that you think a fast train (let’s not split hairs about the definition of “high speed” …) between Orlando and St. Petersburg would succeed?

    • adirondacker12800

      The median of the highway between them is designed to have the trains in it. It would be really cheap to build because the ROW is already there. The Federal Government offered them money to build it. But they turned it down. They can sit in traffic.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but not because of Polk County, the bulk of ridership would have been end-to-end-ish (=Tampa to any of the Orlando stations).

  2. Lukas

    A quick comment on this part: “there is no real correlation between megaregions and growth. The largest single megaregion in Europe, the Rhine-Ruhr, has slower economic growth than both the surging cities of southern Germany and the converging ones of the East”

    In this case, it’s mostly due to the industry and social composition of the region. Munich’s tech and car industry is booming while at the Ruhr, we are still dealing with the death of the German coal and steel industry. It looks to me as if this is a big exception to your argument. The northern Ruhr district (Duisburg to Dortmund) develloped because of coal and steel. German coal in that area is not economical anymore and steel demand is lower and there is a lot of international competition today. From this background, the Ruhr was very unatractive to the now booming industries and has ever since faced the problem that it lacks the skilled workforce for modern booming industries.

    To sum up: in order to grow, there need to be sustainable industries, if those do not exist in the necessary numbers, beeing in a megaregion will not solve these problems by itself.

  3. Hugh B

    What are your thoughts on Richmond as part of the Northeast mega region? Also, on a related note, what are your thoughts on extending VRE to Richmond, and what is the right point on the regional rail-american commuter train spectrum for this particular route?

    • adirondacker12800

      When you run out of people? If you are in a particularly masochistic mood you can take a commuter train from Wlimington Delaware to Manhattan, walk or use the subway to get from Penn Station to Grand Central and get all the way to Springfield Massachusetts. There’s people along the way. You can’t get from Wilmington to Baltimore using commuter trains because there is big chunk of “no people” in between.

      • Joshua Cranmer

        The Boston “gap” in the NEC is larger than the Baltimore “gap.” By subjective traffic counts, the traffic has also felt consistently higher on 95 in northern Maryland than it has in western Rhode Island (or on 84 en route to Worcester).

        Pushing the megaregion to Richmond is a bit of a stretch–the DC commute shed peters out around Fredericksburg, and Richmond is still at least an hour past that. Richmond’s as far away as Albany is from NYC or Harrisburg from Philly, though, so if Alon’s dropping those in the megaregion, then Richmond deserves its slot as well, particularly because there is definitely decent travel demand between Richmond and DC.

        • Brent

          I’d agree. I probably wouldn’t include them in the megaregion definition but rail links should be improved for all 3. Annapolis to DC and Baltimore too but I don’t think those ROWs exist anymore

          • adirondacker12800

            There aren’t very many people in Annapolis. The Naval Academy generates some demand and that it’s the state capital does too but ……there aren’t many people in Annapolis.

        • adirondacker12800

          There’s a bit of demand south of Richmond and the destinations aren’t just D.C. It’s all the way to Boston if it’s fast enough. And there is definitely a cohort of consultants, lobbyists and lawyers who are deeply interested in traveling between Richmond and Trenton. Or Hartford, Providence, Boston, Albany, Harrisburg. Raleigh, Atlanta, Columbia. Columbus…. Indianapolis-Harrisburg…

        • TassieTiger

          The NEC/Megalopolis connects Baltimore and Philly in two ways – direct, fast connections up 95/acela corridor (trains, buses, personal vehicles) and connected “suburbs” in Central PA that are much bigger than Albany or Richmond. Harrisburg, Lancaster, and York together are about 1.8 million people. Lancaster has the same number of people commuting from it to Harrisburg as it as people commuting to Philly. York has a similar ratio of Harrisburg vs. Baltimore. Harrisburg also has super commuters to Philly, DC, and NYC. Harrisburg’s southwestern suburbs (Franklin and Adams Counties) have strong connections directly to DC.

          So the “gap” between Baltimore and Philly only exists if you’re looking at the 95 corridor and Central PA is far more integral to the megaregion than Albany or Richmond (though I agree that an argument for one of them is an argument for both).

  4. Herbert

    I’d argue that Paris and London share links not unlike those created between southern Sweden and the Copenhagen region through the fixed link.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know how closely linked Copenhagen and Malmö are, but I saw more professors from Gothenburg and Copenhagen in Stockholm than I saw any from the UK in my few months in Parisian math academia.

      • Herbert

        Well the Eurostar sells mute tickets than its absurd prices would make one expect…

    • michaelrjames

      Alon’s argument is that a megaregion must link independent cities and that this definition eliminates the likes of London, Paris and in fact Tokyo though the reality is they are the endpoint of megaregion evolution, ie. have merged into a single geographic and economic entity. Notwithstanding your argument about green barriers between their parts. These three are of course among the top 6 economic entities globally (unless Shanghai and/or Beijing have overtaken them already). Randstad is similar to the area of Paris-Ile-de-France (8,000km2 versus 12,000km2) with proportional populations (8.2m versus 12.4m) but has only about one third (1/2.7) the economic weight. Arguably Paris-Ile-de-France is the centre of an even bigger megaregion via its HSR network; for example the first two HSR lines in Europe linked Paris to France’s two other top economic entities of Lyon and Lille (itself a mini-megaregion of cities), and of course links London, Brussels and now Amsterdam. Come to think of it, a very big chunk of my career has been spent in that mega-triangle, between Paris and two satellites of London (Brighton & Oxford) and Rotterdam-Rijsvik (ok, only a few months on a work exchange sponsored by Euratom, something Brexit might kill). London is really at the centre of all of South-East England. Both those cities I lived in (Brighton-Hove to the south, Oxford to NW) are both commuter suburbs of London being within an hour on the train. Likewise Cambridge (north) and many, many others. I can attest that many academics regularly do day trips from these places (Oxford, Cambridge, Sussex, Surrey, Norwich etc) to London for meetings, or significant lectures etc. and the reverse would have been true too (at least to Oxford & Cambridge).

      I see that Richard Florida has Paris in a megaregion that includes Brussels, Amsterdam and Munich for the world’s #2 with a GDP of US$2.5 trillion (cf. #1 Bos-Wash of $3.5tn) . That really just proves that some of these entities are more in the imagination of some urbanists. However, at least I think he has captured the spirit. Europe’s expanding HSR network should stand them in good stead. Arguably that network will embrace Milan (whose megaregion is at #3 in Europe) via the Swiss Gotthard Base Tunnel HSR freight + car + passenger, Zurich to Milan link.
      Feasibly it might even allow London to withstand the headwinds created by Brexit. Alternatively it might allow the others to steadily poach some of London’s business and mojo.

      • Alon Levy

        A couple points:

        1. I genuinely don’t think Paris-Brussels is a serious megaregion. Not only is the gap in urbanization between Paris and Lille too big, but also the economic links are evidently not strong enough to lift Nord-Pas-de-Calais up from its deep poverty. Compare this with the Northeastern US, where Philadelphia’s per capita income growth is comparable to New York’s.

        2. Zurich-Milan is a nice freight link. As a passenger link, the current average speed is 69 km/h; it’s 246 km and 3:50. When the Ceneri Base Tunnel opens the average speed should increase to maybe 78 km/h, with a few km shaven from the line as the tunnel is more direct. Getting it down to maybe 230 km/h and 1:50 with the Zimmerberg Base Tunnel and a lot of surface bypasses would be a minor miracle.

        3. The best way for London to withstand its current headwinds is for Parliament to revoke Article 50. Domestic infrastructure would do nothing, London is already by far the richest part of the UK, and frankly the intercity trains in Britain aren’t any slower than in Germany, Belgium, or Sweden. Most of Europe isn’t France.

        4. Urban area GDP numbers are fake news, because of corporate HQs and commuting artifacts. This also affects very small countries sometimes. Ireland is not richer than the UK, Singapore is not richer than the US, Brussels isn’t richer than its suburbs, etc.

        • Herbert

          Will transalpine links see a real game-changing moment with the construction of new base tunnels e.g. Brenner, Semmering and so on?

        • TassieTiger

          On #2 – The growth of Ticino with its own economy will tie Milan and Zurich more closely together economically. Ticino’s industries increasingly draw commuters from Milan’s suburbs and its economy is increasingly anchored by Swiss higher ed institutions (USI and SUPSI, particularly SUPSI’s AI lab) that have strong connections in Zurich and other parts of the Swiss high-tech world. While travel times will always be a challenge, Ticino’s Swiss connections will play a pivotal role in bridging that gap socially and economically.

      • Nilo

        Not to get too into the muck of what’s what, but what are you six top economic entities globally Michael?

        • michaelrjames

          Not “mine”. It is all the usual suspects on the World Cities list. In no given order, NYC, LA, Tokyo, London, Paris and …. I forget, but one suspects Shanghai must be gaining, though HK might also be on the list for the reasons/artefact that Alon mentions: corporate HQ. (Alibaba is one of China’s biggest companies and has just postponed its listing on HK’s Hang Seng due to the protests.) So I agree with Alon that some of this is a bit fake and no accident that all these are also top cities for Fortune 500 HQ. Paris is actually third after NYC and Tokyo and well ahead of Frankfurt and London.

  5. sg

    If we’re allowing for the Bos-Wash corridor to be a single megaregion, isn’t there a case for being more aggressive with your upper Rhine mega-region and including Stuttgart and maybe even Munich? (As an academic I am a little biased but to me the map of southern Germany looks like a more or less evenly spaced string of major universities from Munich to Ulm and Augsburg to Stuttgart and Karlsruhe and Heidelberg and Mainz.)

    • Alon Levy

      I can see a case for Stuttgart, but farther east, it’s a stretch. The population density in Bavaria isn’t high, and the regional rail networks separate neatly into Stuttgart and Munich S-Bahns. Next time at game night I can ask one of the organizers, who went to uni in Karlsruhe, how often they even visited Munich – they never mentioned visiting it in uni, but did talk about frequent weekend trips to Paris.

      • michaelrjames

        FWIW, when doing my PhD in U Sussex, we had Euratom research grants with Karlsruhe as one of the partners. I think it was a nuclear centre there (I remember going to a big compound deep in forest outside Karlsruhe). Just like in the US where 0.1% of the DOE research budget on nuclear tech funded/kickstarted the Human Genome Project, so the trickle of funding from those same interests in EU could help fund all radiobiological (DNA) research. These pan-European programs really do do as they advertise. They cross-fertilise people and tech and ideas.

  6. michael

    Milwaukee & Chicago had much stronger connections during their period of urban growth than they do now. In 1945, there were 80 round trips per day between the cities across the north shore line (an electrified interurban rail, now mostly under the I-94 interstate highway), the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha 400 (fastest train in the world before WW2, now Amtrak and 15 minutes slower than it was 80 years ago), and Chicago & North Western (now metra until Kenosha. Freight rail only north to Milwaukee).

    Obviously, almost all of that went out of service in the two decades after WW2. Today, there’s about 35 coach buses/day between the cities (20 to downtown, 15 to O’Hare) & 7 amtrak round trips – 89 minutes end-to-end.

    While the social connection isn’t as strong, I do think that to the average Milwaukeean, Chicago represents the definition of urbanism, so Chicago has a big place in the local dialog, something i am sure is asymmetric. There is weird preoccupation about skylines & such. The north shore of Chicago is also the “chosen quandrant” and has a lot of high skilled pharma & insurance jobs, etc. It’s fairly common to live in parts of southern MKE metro and commute to those for COL reasons. That hasn’t resulted in those corporations opening outposts in Milwaukee, though. I’ll all, it’s a pretty weak connection.

  7. adirondacker12800

    …two decades after WW2….

    When people went out and bought cars that were capable of driving on the new highways being built. That genie isn’t going to be put back in the bottle.

    it’s a pretty weak connection.

    Which is why Chicago is at the center of it’s metropolitan region and the center of it’s combined statistical area and Milwaukee is at the center of it’s own combined statistical area. Like Philadelphia and New York, which are more or less the same distance apart as Chicago and Milwaukee.

    • Michael

      A better comparison of Milwaukee to Chicago than Philadelphia to New York (scale is much more massive), would be Sacramento to the Bay Area.

      The combined Bay Area is actually fairly close in population, density, scale as massive chicagoland. Similar Milwaukee to Sacramento.

      Obvious northern CA is growing, while the great lakes region is not.

      • Michael

        Yep. Many of the rail right of ways are miraculously still in existence, which makes it frustrating to see us doing nothing with them.

        The Amtrak Hiawatha tracks supported 110 MPH trains in 1938 – it’s just a really good ROW. There’s basically 1 by-pass in WI & 2 sidings in IL that need to be built to have restore hourly service to Chicago Union. The muskego yard by-pass in Milwaukee (which should be a priority regardless of passenger rail plans because right now 10,000 ft long double decker freight trains cross Milwaukee downtown streets at grade) and sidings in Glenview & Lake Forest IL. Total cost is about $240M. For perspective, we’re currently adding 7th & 8th travel lanes to 1-94 from Kenosha to Milwaukee Mitchell for $1.7B.

        Restoring regional rail is even more frustrating. About every 10 years the area dusts off some plans to reactivate it. If you look at the north shore rail burbs of IL, and they are all pretty vibrant, while SE Wisconsin communities are comparatively down & out. Seems self-evident that extending metra is a no-brainer. In the 2009 plan, it would be $230M to run half-hourly weekday headways from Milwaukee downtown to Kenosha Metra.

        And there’s a good rail ROWs going west too. The only place it’s totally ripped out is heading north. Anyway, having a really good connection to Chicago plus a couple decent regional rail lines would be chump change.

  8. DL

    What about Japan? I don’t have any friends in Mainland Japan, but the HSR link is *so* fast that I would almost feel comfortable saying everything Osaka-Tokyo is one megaregion. I mean, for crying out loud, some of the train links to Narita take just as long as the HSR to Osaka.

      • adirondacker12800

        I’m sure there was a big splatter of foam on railroad,net when Connecticut opened CTRail. You can get from Delaware to Massachusetts, with a long walk or two subway trains in Manhattan, on commuter trains. It’s one big blob of suburb studded with cities.
        The distinct metro areas are a conceit of the Census Bureau. New York and Hartford or New York and Albany border each other too. Wikipedia says Trenton has it’s very own MSA, Mercer County. Mercer County was part of Philadelphia’s CSA until 2000. The Census Bureau changes definitions and who knows what it was in 1950. It is is own MSA because people commute in for the state offices and the constellation around Princeton. And likely swapped from Phildelphia CSA to New York CSA because Merrill Lynch opened a big campus in Hopewell Township. Other side of the highway from the Trenton Airport. Which is Ewing. Where the train station is called West Trenton.
        The Census Bureau uses whole counties or their equivalent and real people don’t pay much attention to it. … Waterbury has train service to Bridgeport and bus service to Hartford. People in Waterbury and it’s suburbs probably consider it metro Waterbury. But the Census does whole counties and they commute to Bridgeport and Stamford so they are the far reaches of the NY CSA. South Glens Falls is intimately tied to Glens Falls. Walk five minutes from your home South Glens Falls to your job in Glens Falls you’ve crossed the Hudson, the border between Warren County and Saratoga County and the border between the Albany MSA and the Glens Falls MSA. But you live in the Albany MSA because there are a lot of people in the south end of the county right across the Mohawk River from Albany County and they commute there. And you are one of the people who make it a CSA. It’s a conceit of the Census Bureau. They have to have a method to it and doing whole counties works. Sorta. And just because there is a line doesn’t mean people pay attention to it.
        ….if the MBTA ever gets to Springfield, there’s gonna be an even bigger wad of foam splattered on railroad,net. Or New London. And a smaller one, any decade, soon, when East Side Access frees up capacity so Metro North can run New Haven line trains to Penn Station. No more long walk to get from Delaware to Massachusetts.

        • Michael Whelan

          Specifically on the Waterbury point, the Census also has New England City and Town Areas, which use towns rather than counties. This is good geographically because New England counties tend to be very big. It is also good socio-politically since Connecticut, Rhode Island, and most of Massachusetts have abolished county governments. I grew up in Southwestern CT and can confirm that aside from occasional high-level conversations about state politics or a few organizations (e.g. Fairfield County Chorale), people don’t think much about the county they live in.

          Waterbury, by the way, gets its own NECTA, confirming your suspicion that people there think of themselves as distinct from either the Hartford or Bridgeport areas.

          New York and New Jersey also have large counties and contain no unincorporated land, so I wish the Census would extend NECTAs to NY/NJ townships to give us a better picture of how people actually live.

          • Reedman Bassoon

            Large counties ????
            San Bernardino County (California) is 20,105 square miles. It is more than twice the size of the entire state of New Jersey.

          • adirondacker12800

            They are compared to Rhode Island’s. Rhode Island is a quarter of the size of Los Angeles County. Which is a lot smaller than San Bernardino County.

      • anonymouse observer

        > I have heard people call the entire chain of cities facing the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Fukuoka a megaregion.

        People over there consider a chain of cities along Tokaido Corridor (the Pacific coast between Greater Tokyo region Keihanshin region) as a megaregion.

        However, if uninterrupted regional train service is one of the factors for the megaregion, I would not be surprised the entire Taiheiyo Belt between Tokyo and Fukuoka is considered a megaregion because you can travel from Tokyo Station to Hakata Station (the central station in Fukuoka for JR service) by regional trains only ( with a lot of transfers and time.

      • Alon Levy

        Because 35 million people live in Kanto and 18 million live in Keihanshin. The air/rail modal split is 20/80, and on a city pair that thick, that equates to a lot of planes.

          • Andrew in Ezo

            This is a common topic on Japanese blogs- typically the reasons given is that if purchased in advance, airline tickets can a bit cheaper than shinkansen fares (often packaged with a hotel stay), mileage and bonus points for upgrades can be accumulated, and some just people like the atmosphere of flying (Japanese domestic airline travel is still relatively pleasant, and the airports clean and efficient).

          • yuuka

            You can earn United miles on Amtrak.

            As for transfers to international flights, I guess the answer is that the shinkansen really isn’t there yet. Narita has trash rail connectivity to anywhere but Tokyo, and if flying into Haneda International and going to the northern areas, it’s better to catch a flight from Haneda Domestic compared to getting a train to Tokyo Station (since only westbound trains stop at Shinagawa)

          • adirondacker12800

            You earning Amtrak Plaid Stamps or United Green Stamps isn’t a goal the Department of Transportation, Federal or state, should be concerned about. Any employer I’ve had, that had a travel budget big enough to worry about, had someone that booked everything for me. I didn’t get to keep the Plaid Stamps, they did. They were delighted to book my personal travel. At corporate rates, I didn’t care that the corporation got to keep the Plaid Stamps because the deal was better than what I could get.
            Osaka has international destinations on non-stops. I suspect the people in Osaka do that except for the really obscure destinations only available at Narita. Probably on a domestic airline that has the same Plaid Stamps as the international flight.

          • anonymouse observer

            > Japanese domestic airline travel is still relatively pleasant, and the airports clean and efficient

            Along with very good customer service on-board, Japanese airlines flying wide-body aircrafts (B777 or B787) in domestic service offers some sort of additional comfort to passengers. Some people do get attracted to this.

            Airport operation over there is so efficient that you don’t have to spend a lot of time at the airport when you fly domestically in Japan. You can catch the flight as long as:
            – You check in your luggage 20 minutes before to the departure time;
            – You are at the security 15 minutes (20 at Haneda) before the departure time, and;
            – You are at the gate and go through the “fare gate” (it actually look like fare gate at station) 10 minutes before the departure time.
            They offer an opportunity to “catch up” even if you are a bit behind of schedule. You can actually get prioritized on the security screening in most cases when you show up at the security right around the 15-minute cut-off time.

            This is a part of answer to Herbert’s question:
            > Why is there still significant flying from Tokyo to Osaka?

            Because you can almost do “show up and go” at the airport in Japan, you don’t save that much time by taking Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka in door-to-door, especially if you are flying between Haneda and Itami or going from/to the western side of the Tokyo. These other factors could be also a part of the potential reasons:
            – Location of the Tokaido Shinkansen stations in Tokyo and Osaka (Shin-Osaka), relative to cores of each city (both Tokyo and Shinagawa is sort of far from Shinjuku; Shin-Osaka is north of “Kita” and far from “Minami”)
            – Distance and access from/to the main domestic airport in Tokyo (Haneda) and Osaka (Itami) from key locations in Tokyo and Osaka (There are very convenient and reliable “airport limousine bus” service from large train stations and neighborhoods throughout Tokyo and Osaka).

            Relatively high share of flying between Tokyo and Osaka is an interesting phenomenon given that:
            – Service level of Nozomi trains on Tokaido Shinkansen is so high (at least 4 per hour per direction and up to 10 tph);
            – Shinkansen offers a lot of flexibility in terms of scheduling (you can change the reservation for free at least once [unlimited number of free reservation change if you are an EX-IC member]; there are also 3 cars of non-reserved seats on all Nozomi trains);
            – Japanese travelers do not typically book Shinkansen a way ahead of time thanks to the high Shinkansen service level (seats are usually available), fare/pricing (no yield management or dynamic pricing; the same price no matter how empty/full the train is), and capacity planning practice (JR companies insert “shadow” slots to run extra “seasonal” trains built into the timetable for high-demand periods/days/seasons).

            The last one does not favor flying, which typically requires booking the ticket ahead of time due to limited capacity and dynamic pricing/yield management.

  9. Herbert

    I’d like you to make a post on high speed sleepers or the seeking contradiction between sleeper trains and high speed trains.

    Is there a market for going two thousand kilometers in one night? And if so, who is that market?

    • michaelrjames

      Is there a market for going two thousand kilometers in one night? And if so, who is that market?

      Isn’t it the same market that flies the red-eye coast-to-coast? Australia has similar east-to-west flight though these are closer to 4,000 km …and Russia’s is even longer … And yes, if you could sleep in a real bed on a HSR at broadly comparable prices, then why wouldn’t you do it?

      I have done Paris to Madrid on the night-train but that is about 1,000km. Today the HSR route does it in about 6 hours, in daytime, so not really competing with flying. There are special summer Eurostars that do St Pancras to Avignon, 1200km, that takes 7 hours and it is popular. Of course Shanghai to Beijing is 1300km and takes under 5h, and must have carried a billion pax by now or soon (it had carried 100m by its second year). There are a few Chinese lines of about 2,000 km though I don’t know if many people travel them end-to-end.

    • Eric

      Miami to 1) northeast US, 2) Texas, 3) Chicago?
      Spain/Italy to northern Europe?

      It would never compare to flying in terms of travel time. But if you got to sleep in a nice bed, it could be more attractive. Take the metro downtown in the evening, get on the train and go to sleep, and wake up the next morning at your business or vacation destination. Much nicer than a 3 hour flight plus all the inconvenience surrounding the flight.

      The problem is these beds would only be useful at night, and your sleeper-train would be sitting empty for the ~14 hours of daytime. Unless you figured out a way to switch the beds for chairs, which seems complicated. The limited operating hours would make profitability difficult, though on the plus side you wouldn’t need to pay for the infrastructure, which was already built with shorter trips in mind.

      I suppose if there were a high carbon tax on plane fuel, it would become a popular option.

      • Herbert

        Historically sleepers (including current Amtrak) have/had a “day mode”. Problem is, they are compartment only trains in day mode and compartments aren’t popular with railroads as they take up lots and lots of space

    • Mikel

      Sleeper trains are a good example of trains that run “as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible”. The Hendaye-Paris “Palombe Bleue”, while slower than the TGV, used to be pretty popular among students and workers who spent the weekend at their parents’ and arrived in Paris shortly after dawn on Monday. I took it a few times (as a tourist) and I still remember the smell of croissants at Gare d’Austerlitz at 7AM…

      Anyway, in Europe if you want to travel 2000 km you’re gonna come across a variety of track gauges and voltages, so you need specialised rolling stock. Also, one of the advantages of sleepers is that cars can be decoupled en route so that the same train can serve different destinations without transfers at 3AM. Does this kind of rolling stock even exist that can do 300+ km/h?

      Still, there might be a few routes where “run as fast as possible” on high-speed track might make sense: Moscow-Ekaterinburg-Novosibirsk, Berlin-Istanbul, perhaps Paris-Algeciras?

      • Eric

        Madrid-London is a very popular route (~3 million passengers/year). The current fastest London-Paris, Paris-Barcelona, Barcelona-Madrid trains combine for about 8 hours total travel time. So HSR really is necessary to make it viable. On normal speed track it would probably take 16 hours – totally unviable, nobody wants to spend a night AND a day on the train.

        The same is true for pretty much any other trip between northern and southern Europe. “Run as fast as possible” might not be literally true, but HSR is needed.

        • Mikel

          I hadn’t really thought of cross-Channel routes because of British security theater, but planes also have it so Madrid-London is indeed attractive, since it would could draw a very diverse ridership – business, tourists, immigrants from both sides who visit their families, etc. You could cut maybe ~300 kilometres by using the Madrid-Hendaye-Bordeaux route instead of Madrid-Barcelona-Lyon, but that would still require finishing the Valladolid-Hendaye HSL on the Spanish side (which is like 10 years behind schedule) and at least some improvements on the Hendaye-Bordeaux French side (which is not a priority for them).

          • Herbert

            There is talk in Spain about a Pyrenees base tunnel roughly where the old Canfranc line used to laboriously snake its way through the mountains

          • Mikel

            There are currently 3 rail links on either end of the Pyrinees and none of them is anywhere near capacity –and also I doubt anyone at Adif is in the mood for another base tunnel after the Pajares Bypass clusterf***k– so I’m afraid that’s just crayon for the foreseeable future. (A reopening of the old line is more likely.)

          • Mikel

            In the high-speed rail frenzy of the 2000’s when politicians crayoned lines to everywhere to the dismay of serious planners, the government went ahead with a 25 km base tunnel without a proper geological survey. One of the tubes suffered big water leaks which caused the budget to explode from 1,800M € to 3,500M € (and counting), plus significant environmental damage to the ecosystems that depended on the water that now flows through the tunnel.

            The geological problems seem to have been sorted out but they didn’t have a serious operations plan (only passengers? only freight? each in one track? mix both?) — the bypass connects to a classic line (1,668 gauge, 5kV, mixed use) on both ends but also to a high speed line on the southern one (1,435 gauge, 25kV, passenger only). So the tunnel sits unused (14 years after construction began) until they figure out which track they should lay down. I think if Alon reads this he might be tempted to yell “Organization Before Concrete” at everyone involved.

      • michaelrjames

        I took it a few times (as a tourist) and I still remember the smell of croissants at Gare d’Austerlitz at 7AM…

        Yes, there is something very special about arriving at the heart of a city early morning on the train. Totally unlike arriving at an airport then still having to cope with those last tedious steps of clearing customs etc then getting transport into the city.
        I did Paris-Hendaye (it was part of the Paris-Madrid night-train, now discontinued) and I believe they change the powercars in Hendaye (or Irun?) for the Spanish part.

        It’s the HSR that has killed the night-trains in Europe. I also took the night-train Madrid to Lisbon but I think that is being upgraded to HSR and that too will kill the overnight train (in this case for good reason).

          • michaelrjames

            But what if we run night trains at double the speed across double the distance?

            I would be a customer but then I was more than a decade ahead of Greta Thunberg in avoiding flying within Europe. But for Europe not too many city-pairs would fit your formula. Berlin to Marseille might qualify since it currently takes 12 to 15h. But the main thing is that today people aren’t interested in overnight journeys so even when it reduces to, say 6 hours they would rather do it during the day. In France and Eurostar all HSR departures finish about 1900h which is a bore. I wonder if Oui or other new entrants due to the EC competition directive might try to fill these niches.

            Oh, and I’d be ok with a deep-recline seat instead of a bed which would make the cars more flexible for daytime use. However I am resigned to none of this coming to pass.

          • Herbert

            The Austrian Nightjet is doing okay for itself. And even though DB has abandoned classical night trains their ICEs now have nighttime departures introducing the “red eye train”. Apparently they’re booked well enough to make back marginal costs of running them

      • Herbert

        I think we should look into “self shunting trains” of self driving trains are not economically viable. Because shunting is the most expensive part in both freight (making many railroads abandon single car load and less than car load deliveries) and passenger service (being cited as one reason against night trains and in favor of multiple units)

    • yuuka

      There are some high speed sleepers in China – apparently it’s the choice of a 350kph daytime train, or a 250kph night train, because distances are that vast.

      • Herbert

        Distances in China are not vaster than in Europe (or the U.S.) they’re just one time zone one jurisdiction one voltage one gauge one railroad

    • Sascha Claus

      HSR lines have the nasty habit of shutting down whole nights for maintenance. This might pose some difficulty for the scheduling.
      Then you need cars suitable for 350km, and these cars are probably more expensive, which doesn’t sound good for a low-martin business like night trains.

  10. Corey

    The big difference appears to me to be that beyond Fredericksburg the rail frequency drops off a cliff. Fredericksburg-DC runs every ~15min in peak direction at rush hour. Richmond-Fredericksburg commuter rail is essentially non-existent.

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  12. Stephen Edwards

    With staggering growth continuing unabated the Raleigh, Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg is almost a megaregion, and certainly one of the most important industrial corridors already.

    • Stephen Edwards

      I forgot to include Atlanta from which to Raleigh there are about 15 million or more people.

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