Outlying S-Bahn Tunnels

There’s a thread on Twitter by Stephen Smith bringing up Zurich’s S-Bahn as an alternative to extensive metro tunneling. It reminded me of something I’d been meaning to write about for a long time, about how S-Bahn tunnels, in Zurich and elsewhere, include not just the bare minimum for through-running but also strategic tunneling elsewhere to reach various destinations not on the mainline. Zurich’s S-Bahn includes about 19 km of tunnel built since the 1960s, which is similar per capita to the amount of tunneling built for the Washington Metro.

Such tunneling is important to ensure a regional rail network reaches destinations off the mainlines. Even cities with metro systems need to understand this as long as they have some mainline rail serving suburban destinations. For example, in the Center of Israel, Tel Aviv is getting a subway-surface light rail network, but outside the urban core rail transport will remain dominated by Israel Railways service; as Israel Railways avoids many city centers, such as Netanya, short strategic tunnels are critical.

Tunnels in Zurich

The core of the Zurich S-Bahn is three city center tunnels: the 2 km Käferberg Tunnel from Oerlikon to Hardbrücke, the 7 km combination of the Hirschengraben Tunnel and the Zürichberg Tunnel from Hauptbahnhof to the Right Bank of Lake Zurich and points northeast, and the 5 km Weinberg Tunnel from Hauptbahnhof to Oerlikon and points north. The Käferberg Tunnel is from the 1960s, the Hirschengraben and Zürichberg Tunnel opened in 1989-1990 as the core of the Zurich S-Bahn, and the Weinberg Tunnel opened in 2014 as a second S-Bahn route to add more capacity.

These 14 km of tunnel look like any standard picture of regional rail tunneling. However, Zurich has in addition built a 5 km tunnel for a loop to the airport. Without this tunnel, no regional or intercity rail service to the airport would have been possible, as the airport was at a distance from the mainline; only trams could have served the airport then.

In addition to these 19 km, there is some talk of building an additional tunnel of 7-10 km on the Zurich-Winterthur Line, called the Brüttener Tunnel, to speed up service between these two cities.

Tunnels on other regional rail systems

In Paris, the RER consists not just of legacy rail track and city center tunnels, but also outlying tunnels reaching new destinations. The RER B connection to Charles de Gaulle Airport is new construction, opening in 1976 as a commuter line just before the RER opened and incorporated it as a branch. It’s a mix of above- and underground construction, totaling 5.5 km of tunnel. Two more key RER lines, at both ends of the RER A, are new: the branch to Cergy, which opened between 1979 and 1994 and has 3 km of tunnel, and the branch to Marne-la-Vallée, which opened in stages starting on the same day as the RER A’s central tunnel and continuing until reaching its terminus in 1992.

All three new RER branches are busy. They have to be – if there weren’t so much demand for them, it would have been financially infeasible to build them and those areas would have had to make do with a bus connection to the existing mainlines. The Marne-la-Vallée branch carries about two thirds of the eastern branch ridership of the RER A, making it most likely the busiest single rail branch in Europe.

In London, the regional rail network is less modern than in Paris, Zurich, and other cities with extensive development of new tunnels. Nonetheless, the Crossrail plans do include a short outlying tunnel reaching Heathrow Airport. Moreover, one of the two eastern branches of the mainline has the characteristics of an outlying tunnel, namely the branch to Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf is only 5 km from the City of London and the tunnel connecting to it is contiguous with the central tunnel, but the branch is not really about improving connections to onward suburbs. Where La Défense was always on the way to western suburbs on the RER, Canary Wharf is only on the way to Abbey Wood. There are proposals among area railfans to extend this branch much farther to the east, but no official plans that I know of. In the currently planned paradigm for Crossrail, Canary Wharf is purely a destination.

In Munich, there is a new line toward the airport, with some tunneling on airport grounds as well as at two intermediate suburban stations. There is also a short above-ground spur connecting the airport to the western side of the S-Bahn, giving it two different routes to city center. Finally, there is a short tunnel slightly to the west of the main trunk tunnel to better connect S7 to the mainline.

Why are airports so prominent on this list?

The concept of using strategic tunnels to build new spurs and loops to connect mainlines to new destinations has nothing to do with airports. And yet, so many of these spurs connect to airports: Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow, Zurich, Munich. There are many more such examples, on regional or intercity lines: Schiphol, Arlanda, Ben-Gurion, soon-to-be Berlin-Brandenburg, Barajas. Why is that?

The answer is that the purpose of a spur or loop is to connect to a destination off the mainline. European cities for the most part developed around the railway or metro line. Virtually every important destination in London is on a legacy railway because during the city’s 19th and early 20th century growth period, the railway was the only way to get to Central London. Airports are consistent exceptions because they’re so land-intensive that it’s hard to site them near existing railways.

Where non-airport destinations somehow had to be developed away from the mainline, they’re attractive targets for spurs as well. Canary Wharf sits on the site of a disused dock, which generated some freight rail traffic but little demand for passenger rail. Cergy is one of several new towns built around Paris to act as suburban growth nodes, together with Marne-la-Vallée and Évry (served on a loop of the RER D).

In smaller cities than Paris and London, suburban growth often came together with a metro line. In Stockholm, the Metro was planned together with public housing projects, so many of the Million Program projects are right next to stations, facilitating high public transportation usage. There’s usually no need to build many new regional rail spurs, because such sites are close enough to the center for metro service to be quick enough.

The situation of regional rail in Israel

In Israel, urban development has ignored the railway almost entirely. The colonial network was weak and barely served the state’s travel needs. Investment was minimal, as the state’s political goals were population dispersal and Judaization of peripheral areas rather than efficient transportation. Towns were built around the road network, connected to one another by bus since people were too poor to afford cars.

Rail revival began in the early 1990s with the opening of the Ayalon Railway, providing through-service between points north and south of Tel Aviv. In the generation since, ridership has grown prodigiously, albeit from low initial levels, and the state has built new lines, with an ongoing project to electrify most of the passenger network. However, since the cities came first and the trains second, the new lines do not enter city centers, but rather serve them peripherally near the highway, often surrounded by parking.

Thus, Netanya’s train station is located to the east of the city’s built-up area, on the wrong side of the Route 2 freeway. Ashdod’s train station is on the periphery at a highway interchange, well to the east of city center. Ashkelon’s station is on the eastern margin. The under-construction line through Kfar Saba and Ra’anana passes just south of the built-up area.

In all of these cases, doing it right would require, or would have required, just short, strategic elevated or underground lines:

  • Netanya is at the northern end of the Tel Aviv commuter rail network, and so it can easily be served by a spur. The existing station can be retained as a junction for intercity rail service, but building a commuter rail spur would not compromise frequency. Such a spur would require no more than 2 km of tunnel.
  • In Ashdod and Ashkelon, there are north-south arterials that are so wide, 50-60 meters, that they could host cut-and-cover subways, effectively moving the line to the west to serve those cities better. In Ashdod there is a decision between going under B’nai Brith, which offers a more convenient through-route, and Herzl, which is more central but requires some boring at the southern end of the city.
  • In Kfar Saba and Ra’anana, about 8 km of tunnel under Weizmann and Ahuza are needed, and could potentially be done cut-and-cover as well, but these streets are 30 meters rather than 50 meters wide. Such a route would replace the under-construction combination of a freeway and railway.
  • In Rishon LeZion, a 6km route, not all underground, is needed to connect Rishonim with Moshe Dayan via city center and the College of Management rather than via the under construction freeway route avoiding these destinations.

Unfortunately, so far the state’s investment plans keep skirting city centers. It serves them with a cars-and-trains paradigm, which assumes the rail passenger is driving or riding a bus to the train station, never mind that in that case it’s more convenient to drive all the way to one’s destination. This suppresses ridership; not for nothing, the busiest station outside metropolitan centers is Rehovot, with 2.1 million annual entries, and not Ashdod, which is second with 1.9 million. Ashdod is a city of 220,000 and Rehovot one of 140,000, but Rehovot’s station is far more walkable. Were Ashdod not poor, few people would use the station at all – they’d all just drive.


  1. Nilo

    Christof Spieler in his book has several examples of these for 2nd half of the 20th century metro networks, which often paralleled freight or Highway ROWs and did tunnel off the mainline to hit outlying destinations. The three stop Sandy Springs-Dunwoody
    -Medical Center set seems like a good example. Pentagon on the Washington D.C. Yellow line might be the most successful example of this since it is one of the two busiest non-Central Business District stops if I remember correctly.

    I’m sure other people will have more insight, but a couple of destination types that in Europe are invariably on mainlines or metros, but aren’t in the US. First Universities are obvious ones. UC-Berkeley, San Jose State, and UCLA are all not particularly near rail mainlines as are quite a few Cal States in Los Angeles I think. Infamously this also holds for Georgetown, both before Stephen’s theoretical S-Bahn for DC is built, and now. The same often holds for newer Hospitals which were built with respect to the road network. These especially when combined I’d guess would probably generate enough ridership to make them very worthwhile transit targets.

    Chicago’s branch of the University of Illinois combines a hospital in a linear corridor, and is not far off the BNSF mainline, but is also served by metro. If one imagines a S-Bahnification of Metra perhaps tunneling off the mainline along Roosevelt Avenue for around 3 km to provide outlying stops for big destinations between the Central Business district and the residences on its busiest line. This only serves the southern edge of the campuses, but the other option, Taylor, is a far narrower street.

    Though I should add I don’t know if this qualifies in your mind as an “outlying tunnel.”

    (Alon I reworked the comment could you delete my previous one and keep this one?

    • Alon Levy

      Berkeley is a nice example of an outlying tunnel on BART, a.k.a. S-Bahn done wrong – the original plan was to run in a freeway median, but after Berkeley residents complained and agreed to pay the cost difference, they got a tunnel with a station at city center close to the entrance to the main campus.

      The Pentagon and National Airport are the DC examples of this, as you note, although generally the tunneling in DC is a lot more metro-like than S-Bahn-like. (And is also more limited relative to the region’s size today, though not relative to its size when the system was planned in the 1970s.)

      I don’t have a lot of good examples of where this should be done on American mainline rail, to be honest. In Boston I can sort of see a spur off the Fitchburg Line hitting some Route 128 office parks to the north, branching off just past Brandeis, where population density craters. In New York I can’t think of anything – maaaaaaaaaaaybe spurs to the three airports, but that’s like on regional rail mainlines #8 and 9. The problem in an American context is that office parks are way too low-density to justify a spur; a spur only works if you’re going to a big place, like an airport, a city center like Netanya or Ashdod, a university, or a high-density edge city like Tysons or Herzliya Pituah.

      The Metra example you give is a definite maybe – UIC is already on the Blue Line, and the walk distance to BNSF is not awful (although the presence of the freeway in the middle is). It might be a useful continuation of an east-west tunnel from BNSF to the Loop, but that depends a lot on which line connects to which line and which direction each line enters the Loop from.

      • Eric

        Do you know of any other cases in transit where local residents paid the cost difference in order to get a stop or tunnel that wasn’t in the original plans?

        • Nilo

          As far as I know Berkeley is unique in this. Though I seem to remember it was supposed to be el in Berkeley, but they weren’t even going to bother with the city center/UC-B stop.

          • Henry

            The city of Bellevue in the Seattle area also paid to underground part of its light rail as well, because they didn’t want the surface alignment.

          • FDW

            Actually, UCB was most certainly in the original plans. The corridor that BART was going to build an EL over was a really wide Stroad built that because it was the was part of the route Interurban services used to get to and from the Moles.

          • Robert S.

            Nilo, you missed the mother-of-all-infill-stations – SF’s Embarcadero station. The city dug up the money for it and got the second busiest station in the BART system as a result. That revision to the original plans paid off handsomely.

        • rossbleakney

          In Seattle they did something similar. The original plans for the Roosevelt Station were to put it here, underneath the freeway: https://goo.gl/maps/dLF2CoooE1FEbwzv9. The train would have exited the tunnel south of there, then follow the freeway right-of-way north. Residents of the neighborhood to the east, on the hand, wanted the station to the east a little ways: https://goo.gl/maps/mVPFzSSDQW2U2gDNA. This meant extending the tunnel, which cost a few hundred million. Since each city pays for their own share of the cost, Seattle paid for that.

          There are similar efforts for digging tunnels in West Seattle and Ballard, but it isn’t clear whether that will happen, especially since none of the remaining proposals actually improve things from a transit perspective. There was a proposal to move the station to the heart of Ballard (which would have required tunneling) but for some reason it was rejected, and there won’t be further study.

        • Matthias Wiesmann

          For what I heard, this was kind of the case for Zürich. It was a dead-end station (with reversing), and one of the ideas of the federal railways was to avoid through traffic in the main station for intercity trains going to/from the airport and the nord-east of the country (Winterthur, St-Gallen). The stop for these trains was to be moved to a less central station (I think Zürich Hardbrücke).

          The city of Zürich was against that plan and financed the Durchmesserlinie Altstetten–Zürich HB–Oerlikon, additional non reversing underground tracks with a tunnel to connect to the airport and Winterthur (via Oerlikon). So here you had the city paying to keep some stops…

          • Max Wyss

            The Durchmesserlinie was part of the investment packages. However, the Canton of Zürich (not the city) did pre-finance the Federal part for the DML, in order to get it done quicker. Normal waiting for the federal money would have delayed the project some 10 years or so.

            There actually is a bypass between Altstetten and Oerlikon; it is single tracked, and gets into the Käferberg tunnel line (coming from Hardbrücke). Until the Durchmesserlinie, one train per hour used it (the (in)famous Flugzug Basel – Zürich Airport. Besides that one train pair, that bypass is used for freight.

      • adirondacker12800

        maaaaaaaaaaaybe spurs to the three airports, but that’s like on regional rail mainlines #8 and 9.

        All three of them have multiple terminals and will still need a people mover for all the other trips within the airport, parking, rental cars and hotel shuttles. A people mover trip from the edge of the airport is good enough.

        • Alon Levy

          LGA’s mainline terminals can plausibly be served by a single station, and Newark is supposed to be undergoing reconstruction and could plausibly consolidate at one landside terminal if PA cared (which it doesn’t). JFK is the hard one, yeah, but even there the number of terminals is decreasing (it’s down to 1, 4, 5, 8, I think?) and most of it can be served by 2 train stations.

          • Henry

            JFK is decreasing to two terminals on the north and south side. LGA is turning into one massive terminal. At least, that’s what I remember.

          • adirondacker12800

            You still need the people mover for the parking lots, car rental and all the other shuttle buses. And going to Jamaica or Howard Beach because all the travelers aren’t going to and from Manhattan. The people mover is good enough.

      • Henry

        In the New York region, the only place I can think of off the top of my head is maybe the (poorly named) Nassau Hub area consisting of Roosevelt Field (largest mall in the state), Nassau Community College and the surrounding commercial/office area. It’s technically on the old surface alignment of the former Central Branch of the LIRR, but past the Hub area it’s a park, so if you’d want to run it east and have it, say, take over the Port Jefferson Branch at Hicksville you’d need a tunnel.

        Today it’s far enough from Mineola station that a good chunk of buses in the county spend a portion of their routes just shuttling between the three destinations today.

        • Alon Levy

          The fact that it’s on a legacy branch is precisely why I’m not counting it as an outlying tunnel… ROW for the required spur already exists.

          • Henry

            I don’t think you could reuse the ROW east of the Meadowbrook State Parkway.

            – Part of the ROW runs through Eisenhower Park. Under current state law, you can’t take parkland for non-park purposes without providing alternative replacement parkland within the locality. The Town of Hempstead is already fully built out, so finding replacement parkland would be hard.

            – The rest of the ROW, at least from Google Satellite and Streetview, seems to currently be in use for high-voltage transmission lines. So you’d either need to widen the ROW into peoples’ backyards, or underground them at great expense.

            And this is to say nothing of how unpopular it would be.

            The legacy ROW is nothing to write home about either; no towns or commercial developments ever developed around it, so it mostly runs behind subdivisions. IMO you could achieve better results by, after the park, using Stewart, Carman and Duffy to take over the Port Jefferson Line at Hicksville, to provide better connections between the North Shore and Nassau Hub.

          • adirondacker12800

            If you are digging a hole for the 225 MPH train to New Haven putting the HVDC line next to it isn’t very expensive. It gets the transmission towers out of their backyards. Two separate tracks for the Suffolk County expresses would be pricey but the alternative is double decking the Long Island Expressway which wouldn’t be cheap. And there is no place to park in Manhattan or Queens. From the satellite views there is nothing on the former ROW, you’d have to dig deep into the property records to see if it is part of the park or the MTA or LIPA or NYSDOT is graciously letting the DEC mow it. Even if it is parkland, the replacement park can be on top of the tunnel.

    • rossbleakney

      In the same book, the author has a pretty scathing review of DART.

      When success is measured in miles of track, the logical approach is to find easy rights of way. DART purchased 125 miles of railroad right of way, and built its lines straight down those pre-cleared paths. DART light-rail lines skirt the medical center, stop on the opposite side of the freeway from both SMU and University of Dallas and miss the densest neighborhoods in Dallas.

      Freeways sometimes follow railroad lines, which complicate their use for transit. I don’t know enough about the geography of Dallas to know what the best approach would have been. It is quite possible that an elevated line could have gotten it close enough to the two campuses. Then again, maybe it would have been better if the blue line initially started out to the west, then went through a small tunnel underneath the freeway. That way it could connect to the SMU campus as well as several of the buildings west of the freeway.

    • Lee Ratner

      The UC-Berkeley campus is within easy walking distance BART, which should be seen as a high frequency computer rail network rather than a subway.

      • Nilo

        I’m aware. I’ve ridden it, but the city of Berkeley tunnel certainly doesn’t follow any extant railroad ROW.

    • Herbert

      Germany’s tenth largest university FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg has most of its sites not near rail. The TechFak was built probably at the point in both cities furthest from rail and even the new planned tram line will only pass by that campus…

      By contrast the planned TU Nürnberg is to get a new tram line and an infill subway stop…

      • Alon Levy

        I went to Google to look it up, and apparently they name streets after Erwin Rommel in this country? Is that like when they name stuff for Robert E. Lee all over the American South?

  2. Eric

    In your regional rail for Israel section, you suggest cut-and-cover tunnels for regional rail under major streets. However, cut-and-cover is best when many stations are required, but the context here seems to be just one station per city on a long stretch of tunnel. In that case, wouldn’t a TBM be better, as there is zero disruption except at one station site, and the high cost of TBM stations is not an issue because there’s just one such station?

    • Alon Levy

      I think there’s a case for multiple stops in each of these cities, to be honest. These are not long-distance lines – the Kfar Saba-Ra’anana line is on a spur, and the line through Ashdod and Ashkelon is a regional line paralleling the faster line to Be’er Sheva. So it’s appropriate to have a bunch of stops 1-3 km apart. In Netanya I can see one or two stops, and a TBM is more appropriate, sure.

  3. Max Wyss

    There are even more rail tunnels within the Zürich city limits, which are used by the S-Bahn. They are “legacy” tunnels, but add to the picture:

    • Wipkinger tunnel connecting Oerlikon with Wipkingen (and then over the viaduct to Hauptbahnhof), about 1 km long; original connection towards Oerlikon

    • Ulmbergtunnel between Wiedikon and Enge (850 m) plus Engetunnel between Enge and Wollishofen (900 m), originally mainline towards the right bank of Lake Zürich; nowadays used only by S-Bahn plus some freight; mainline services bypass them via the 9.4 km long Zimmerbergtunnel towards Thalwil.

    • Sihltunnel (approx 1 km) between the original terminal of the SZU (Sihltalbahn, Uetlibergbahn) in Selnau and Zürich HB, under the Sihl river, 2 stations.

    The airport loop is actually two tunnels connected by the underground Airport station. Its intention was not primarily for the regional traffic, but get the mainline trains to the airport, allowing a direct connection to the tourist areas around Luzern, and the Bernese Oberland, as well as the Eastern Switzerland places.

    Finally, the mentioned Brüttener Tunnel is not primarily intended for speeding up, but to provide more capacity between Zürich and Winterthur.

    Yeah, the Zürcher love their tunnels… well, Zürich has the Gnomes under the Bahnhofstrasse, and they know how to dig…

    • wiesmann

      In Zürich, there is also the 2035 project to add another tunnel behind Stadelhofen to add a fourth track to the station that connects to Züriberg tunnel and a second Riesbach tunnel to Tiefenbrunnen.

      Geneva is another example of a spur built to connect an airport. Not sure if CEVA, which is a lot of tunnel, counts as “Outlying S-Bahn Tunnels”.

      • Max Wyss

        Correct about the 4th track for Stadelhofen.

        Genève Airport is actually the terminal for most mainline trains serving Genève. The line runs parallel to the line towards Bellegarde (but is not connected to it) and deviates in the proximity of the airport. The airport station is a stub end, and I don’t think that the line could even theoretically be expanded beyond.

        CEVA would count as, IMHO.

  4. Iain

    Apologies if I’ve misinterpreted what you’ve written, but the Heathrow tunnel isn’t new for Crossrail, it’s been around since the 1990s, and was built primarily for the Heathrow Express service.

  5. Tonami Playman

    BART has two outlying tunnels in the east bay portion, The 5km Berkeley hills tunnel between Rockridge station and Orinda station and the tunnel 1.4km Fremont park tunnel under Lake Elizabeth. Also the planned extension to San Jose will have an 8km tunnel. The Berkeley hills tunnel was built to avoid the twists and turns of Grove Shafter Freeway as it crosses Berkeley hills towards Concord.

    • Nilo

      Geographic tunnels seem like good diversions swell. Also in the Bay Area Southern Pacific tunneled through San Bruno mountain with four tunnels. The only issue with that example, is that tunnel was so much better than the old ROW (now used by BART to Daly City, Colma, and San Bruno) that the new tunnel became the mainline to SF.

  6. Lee Ratner

    Most post-car built rail systems seem to make the mistake of including too much parking around their stations. BART does this and the Israel Railways seem to do this based on your descriptions. The DC metro and MARTA are two other offenders. This seems to be a mistake because parking lots near rail stations can never be big enough to hold all potential people that want to park and ride, and I’m going to assume it is going to be one car per person. Making parking lots and garages big enough to accompany everybody is really going to make the rail service somewhat to very useless because as you point out, driving directly to the destination if often faster. It’s only when parking is a pain at the destination, like a downtown area or an airport, will people drive their cars to a station and transfer.

    Building parking lots at any of the Berkeley or Oakland BART stations, accept maybe the Coliseum because people were going to come see games from areas far from a BART stop, seems like a real dumb idea now. The Berkeley and Oakland BART stations should have been used for urban development. So should have the other non-SF BART stations but Berkeley and Oakland would have been the best testing grounds since they were already built up when BART opened. The area around Lake Merritt station is really misused.

    I really don’t understand what happened in the mid-20th century that caused so many people in so many places to get some really bad ideas about urbanism and transit. Any good thing that happened seemed more like an accident than a genuine good idea properly implemented. Even today, the best ideas seem to come from hobbyists rather than professionals. My somewhat pessimistic view is that democracies tend to be bad at urbanism/transit because what people want as a whole tends to be contrary to it. There is little patience for the organic city built over decades or centuries with randomness everywhere, so people use zoning to try to freeze things in amber as they like it and prevent change and buildings they don’t like. Attempts to impose from above are obviously a lot harder in a democracy than a non-democracy, which was why BART and MARTA were scaled back and the attempts of the CA government to deal with NIMBYism fail often. At the few times it was possible, they failed hard more than they exceeded.

    • Henry

      People mistake parking lots as an attempt at good urbanism. They are not. They’re a political expense, to get people to vote for taxes.

      Bob living ten miles away from the rail stop is not going to up and move his wife and two kids into a tinier two-bedroom in a TOD. This is a social engineering fantasy. But you need his vote to get the tax approved so that you can issue the bonds to build the rail. So you say that there will be parking and he might think, “Oh, when there’s a baseball game running late I can just park my car and drive in”, and based on that newfound utility he might change his vote to say yes to the tax.

    • Henry

      I also wouldn’t say that democracies are bad at urbanism, because France, Germany, Switzerland, etc. are all democracies.
      Rather, the US’s localism-heavy brand of democracy, particularly the combination of the insistence that projects need to have local skin in the game and many states’ requirements to referenda for local governments to raise taxes, is what is bad for transit. The northeast has better urbanism than the west partially because a lot of it is old-growth, but also even newer things like TOD around existing stations is much better in, say, New Jersey’s transit villages or in the Metro-North service area, because the politicians are not cowed by the need to grovel every single time they want to do something.

      • Lee Ratner

        I can agree with this. There are lots of veto points in American democracy, so it makes doing grand projects a lot harder and allows all sorts of spoilers to say no. And yes, the North East is better because it has better bones since a lot of the towns and suburbs go back way before cars even existed.

      • rossbleakney

        Yeah, that is a huge part of it. From San Fransisco to Dallas to Seattle, it is very common to “think big”, which means dealing with various agencies outside the big city, and asking them what they want. That is all good and well in say, Brookline, which lies right outside of Boston, and has plenty of history and old density. But when you ask your average suburb what they want (especially fifty years ago) the answer typically was “rail, but with a big parking lot, and keep the costs down, please”. It is rare that large, multi-governmental agencies actually focus on what makes sense for the big city, because often times they don’t care. They just want to be on the map, or provide a fast route in to the city for the folks willing to park and ride. The big exception, of course, is D. C., which clearly has the best postwar system, which was probably the result of a federal effort. It is pretty easy to imagine an alternative history, with the various suburbs of D. C. — with more money and a lot more political clout — overwhelming the largely African American, low income city. The result would have been crap, of course — a couple lines into the city, along with big extensions into every suburb. That didn’t happen, and the region is much better for it. Most of the problems now are due to lack of maintenance — a problem that just every U. S. system has.

        To be fair to BART, it really was designed around the car. The early advertisements were all about how you could drive in to a station, then take the train into town. It was designed to be a park and ride system. My biggest complaint is that they doubled down on their failed experiment. Rather than realize that what they needed were a lot more stops (and lines) in San Fransisco and Oakland, they simply extended it, to please the suburban cities. The result is a much longer line, with very few riders on the extremities, while folks in the city slog their way around.

        • Joshua Cranmer

          The main effect the federal government had on WMATA was killing the remaining highways (I-270 and I-95 inside the beltway, as well as a lot more roads around the downtown area of rather questionable value) and diverting all that money to WMATA instead. The bigger success was Arlington pushing to route the orange line away from I-66 and into a corridor that is the poster child for TOD in the US (it’s literally the picture on Wikipedia’s article). Fairfax is trying to replicate that success with the silver line in Tysons, but I’m skeptical it will be near as successful. The blue line south of National Airport represents wasted potential (it follows the rail line, limiting densification efforts), although much of that area was a rail yard when it was built.

          Probably another factor that helped WMATA is Virginia’s incorporation policy that makes cities independent of counties, which severely throttles the number of polities that are involved in the transit negotiations.

          • rossbleakney

            My understanding is that the federal government had a huge role in the creation of the WMATA as well as the “core” system that they created. The federal government also paid for most of it. Without a doubt the various local agencies deserve credit for building it right, but I have a feeling that if left completely to their own devices, it would have been crap. Washington DC was poor and black. What little power they had lied with the federal government. In contrast, consider what a large mass transit system would look like in, say, Detroit, if they got all the various cities and suburbs together. You would have very little in the inner city (because the inner city couldn’t afford it). It wouldn’t matter if the suburban stations were stellar examples of TOD, or BART style gigantic park and rides by the freeway. A suburban station — whether it is part of a subway, a commuter rail line, or something in between (like BART) — needs to connect to a good urban network to be successful.

            To be clear, I give Arlington a lot of credit for building around the transit station(s). I give them even more credit for steering the region away from new freeways or a BART style system. But I think the federal government deserves a lot of credit for its help in building a good system. The same government, of course, deserves blame for letting it fall apart.

          • Nilo

            I’d point out that Arlington basically is Urban core, though it might not quite have been that at the time. The choice to put the orange line underground on a city street though certainly cemented the fact it’s as much a part of the city center as the District itself.

          • rossbleakney

            It is a judgment call, obviously, but yeah, I would call it part of the urban core (from what I know about the area). It is very close to downtown, and is home to the Pentagon, as well as plenty of other government employers. In that sense, it really is part of D. C. While parts of it sure look like a low density suburb, much of it isn’t. It was largely built up by the 1970s, which is why there is still a fair amount of density outside the new TOD surrounding the stations. If anything, it is more a part of the city than parts of DC served by the train, like Deanwood (https://goo.gl/maps/ovhD7BmtJGvvwe8m7) or Minnesota Avenue (https://goo.gl/maps/FDYknji6pC7449vH8) which have very low ridership. The decision to treat Arlington like part of the city — pretty good stop spacing, stations away from the freeway, etc. — was very wise, and has paid huge dividends.

            Again, the contrast with BART is huge. D. C. itself has about fifty stations. San Fransisco has eight BART stations. Arlington has eleven, Oakland has nine. That doesn’t sound that bad until you look at how much bigger Oakland is. Some of that is very low density, suburbia (up in the hills). But still, it is clear that Oakland just doesn’t have enough stations.

        • Lee Ratner

          BART was supposed to be a commuter rail system and I’m not exactly in it because having tens of thousands of people commute by car into San Francisco would have been hell. It might have killed the city, resulting in a much bigger job sprawl like other old cities rather than San Francisco surviving as a city relatively well compared to say Cleveland or St. Louis. What they should have done is not allow Marin and San Mateo to back out of BART. They should also have built a BART line down Geary. with the Marin branch.

          • Eric

            Disagree. Marin County has very little buildable (flat) area except in the far northeast around Novato which is very far from San Francisco. It should have been developed as little as possible, while the development should have been concentrated in the Peninsula and East Bay. BART on Geary would have been great, but from there it should have turned south to the Sunset District.

            San Mateo should certainly have been included though. Though in retrospect, it may be a blessing that BART did not take over the Caltrain tracks (which can now be used for intercity rail).

          • rossbleakney

            BART was supposed to be a commuter rail system

            Yes, and that was part of the problem. Without a doubt you needed to cross the bay — any reasonable subway would. Building good suburban stations in places like Daly City, El Cerrito, and San Leandro is quite reasonable. Build those suburban stations with good intercepts for the suburban commuter buses and you really can’t go too wrong. Whether those stations are gigantic park and ride lots or new developments makes little difference — the bulk of the ridership arrives at those stations by bus.

            But adding on a handful of stations and so few lines in the urban core is inexcusable. You need to build a good urban transit system before you spend a fortune building a commuter rail system from scratch. If anything, the suburban riders would be better off. That is the crazy part about building systems like that — they aren’t a great value for the folks they are supposed to be serving (the suburban rider). Either way, a typical trips take three seats: Getting to the suburban train station, riding the train to the inner city, then taking transit to the final destination. If the first step (getting to the suburban train station) involves more miles on the bus, it really doesn’t matter. If the last step (getting to the final destination in the city) is spent riding the slowest system in the U. S., then the trip sucks. Your trip only makes sense during rush hour (and even that is questionable). Even if you are literally right at the suburban station it is often faster to drive. Here is an example: https://goo.gl/maps/NUduLvFyzpycCwXt9. This is a trip from the Hayward train station to Kaiser Permamente, one of the biggest employment regions in San Fransisco outside downtown, and an all day destination in its own right. This takes full advantage of BART’s very high average speed, gained by skipping over tens of thousands of potential customers. But the whole thing takes over an hour, mainly because that last leg — extremely fast by Muni standards — still takes over 20 minutes. Driving is faster, by a good 15 minutes. Remember, this is for a trip *right by the station*. Now imagine someone driving to that station, past the freeway, to park in the lot. It doesn’t make any sense, really. They drive.

          • Lee Ratner

            The way I see it is that most of the municipalities in Marin County and San Marino County are in relatively straight line. This makes building a BART line up Marin and down the Peninsula really convenient for urban development.

          • Lee Ratner

            My fantasy solution to transit in the Bay Area, i.e. what I would do is if I were Robert Moses with a much more transit friendly focus, was turn the Muni system into a true subway for San Francisco by extending it and putting it underground in various ways, and turning the Key systems into something similar for Oakland-Berkeley rather than destroying it. Then use BART as the high frequency S-Bahn, with maybe a line down Geary as an additional urban line plus up to Marin and down the Peninsula to Palo Alto.

            I would not use BART as a subway system for San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley because the Bay is a lot bigger of a distance than the East River is in NYC, so having multiple lines cross the Bay would be much more expensive than the tunnels and elevated lines that go between Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. This was not going to happen in the mid-20th century. Having two different subway, well really something more like a Stadtbahn system for San Francisco/Daly City and Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville/Albany/maybe Alameda makes more sense than one subway system.

  7. Reedman Bassoon

    One reason for BART’s success is it shares NOTHING. It uses a unique gauge, uses unique hardware, and its tracks are completely isolated from the rest of the transportation system and the rest of the world. This is the same reason why BART is so expensive to build and operate. Caltrain isn’t grade-separated (kills about 12 people per year, hits a car/truck about once per year). SFO is owned by SF, but is in San Mateo County. The SFO BART extension functions marginally OK, but has been a money pit from day one of construction (so, maybe San Mateo County was smart about not buying-into the original BART plan). The big BART question for the future is tying into California High Speed Rail. Downtown San Jose is beckoning underground ….

    • Nilo

      I would not call BART, which before WMATA self destructed carried half the riders on the same miles of track, a “success”

  8. Greyson Forster

    Atlanta has, in my own opinion, a good example of this. On the east-west blue line, MARTA follows a rail right of way on a viaduct, and deviates via a tunnel in order to access middle of Decatur’s town center. https://imgur.com/a/qLofHd1

  9. Pingback: Tram-Trains | Pedestrian Observations

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