Some Notes About Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail

I want to follow up on what I wrote about speed zones a week ago. The starting point is that I have a version 0 map on Google Earth, which is far from the best CAD system out there, one that realizes the following timetable:

Boston 0:00
Providence 0:23
New Haven 1:00
New York 1:40
Newark 1:51
Philadelphia 2:24
Wilmington 2:37
Baltimore 3:03
Washington 3:19

This is inclusive of schedule contingency, set at 7% on segments with heavy track sharing with regional rail, like New York-New Haven, and 4% on segment with little to no track haring, like New Haven-Providence. The purpose of this post is to go over some delicate future-proofing that this may entail, especially given that the cost of doing so is much lower than the agency officials and thinktank planners who make glossy proposals think it should.

What does this entail?

The infrastructure required for this line to be operational is obtrusive, but for the most part not particularly complex. I talked years ago about the I-95 route between New Haven and southern Rhode Island, the longest stretch of new track, 120 km long. It has some challenging river crossings, especially that of the Quinnipiac in New Haven, but a freeway bridge along the same alignment opened in 2015 at a cost of $500 million, and that’s a 10-lane bridge 55 meters wide, not a 2-track rail bridge 10 meters wide. Without any tunnels on the route, New Haven-Kingston should cost no more than about $3-3.5 billion in 2020 terms.

Elsewhere, there are small curve easements, even on generally straight portions like in New Jersey and South County, Rhode Island, both of which have curves that if you zoom in close enough and play with the Google Earth circle tool you’ll see are much tighter than 4 km in radius. For the most part this just means building the required structure, and then connecting the tracks to the new rather than old curve in a night’s heavy work; more complex movements of track have been done in Japan on commuter railroads, in a more constrained environment.

There’s a fair amount of taking required. The most difficult segment is New Rochelle-New Haven, with the most takings in Darien and the only tunneling in Bridgeport; the only other new tunnel required is in Baltimore, where it should follow the old Great Circle Tunnel proposal’s scope, not the four-track double-stack mechanically ventilated bundle the project turned into. The Baltimore tunnel was estimated at $750 million in 2008, maybe $1 billion today, and that’s high for a tunnel without stations – it’s almost as high per kilometer as Second Avenue Subway without stations. Bridgeport requires about 4 km of tunnel with a short water crossing, so figure $1-1.5 billion today even taking the underwater penalty and the insane unit costs of the New York region as a given.

A few other smaller deviations from the mainline are worth doing at-grade or elevated: a cutoff in Maryland near the Delaware border in the middle of what could be prime 360 km/h territory, a cutoff in Port Chester and Greenwich bypassing the worst curve on the Northeast Corridor outside major cities, the aforementioned takings-heavy segment through Darien continuing along I-95 in Norwalk and Westport, a short bypass of curves around Fairfield Station. These should cost a few hundred million dollars each, though the Darien-Westport bypass, about 15 km long, could go over $1 billion.

Finally, the variable-tension catenary south of New York needs to be replaced with constant-tension catenary. A small portion of the line, between New Brunswick and Trenton, is being so replaced at elevated cost. I don’t know why the cost is so high – constant-tension catenary is standard around the world and costs $1.5-2.5 million per km in countries other than the US, Canada, and the UK. The Northeast Corridor is four-track and my other examples are two-track, but then my other examples also include transformers and not just wires; in New Zealand, the cost of wires alone was around $800,000 per km. Even taking inflation and four tracks into account, this should be maybe $700 million between New York and Washington, working overnight to avoid disturbing daytime traffic.

The overall cost should be around $15 billion, with rolling stock and overheads. Higher costs reflect unnecessary scope, such as extra regional rail capacity in New York, four-tracking the entire Providence Line instead of building strategic overtakes and scheduling trains intelligently, the aforementioned four-track version of the Baltimore tunnel, etc.

The implications of cheap high-speed rail

I wrote about high-speed rail ridership in the context of Metcalfe’s law, making the point that once one line exists, extensions are very high-value as a short construction segment generates longer and more profitable trips. The cost estimate I gave for the Northeast Corridor is $13 billion, the difference with $15 billion being rolling stock, which in that post I bundled into operating costs. With that estimate, the line profits $1.7 billion a year, a 13% financial return. This incentivizes building more lines to take advantage of network effects: New Haven-Springfield, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Washington-Virginia-North Carolina-Atlanta, New York-Upstate.

The problem: building extensions does require the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor that I don’t think should be in the initial scope. Boston-Washington is good for around a 16-car train every 15 minutes all day, which is very intense by global standards but can still fit in the existing infrastructure where it is two-track. Even 10-minute service can sometimes fit on two tracks, for example having some high-speed trains stop at Trenton to cannibalize commuter rail traffic – but not always. Boston-Providence every 10 minutes requires extensive four-tracking, at least from Attleboro to beyond Sharon in addition to an overtake from Route 128 to Readville, the latter needed also for 15-minute service.

More fundamentally, once high-speed rail traffic grows beyond about 6 trains per hour, the value of a dedicated path through New York grows. This is not a cheap path – it means another Hudson tunnel, and a connection east to bypass the curves of the Hell Gate Bridge, which means 8 km of tunnel east and northeast of Penn Station and another 2 km above-ground around Randall’s Island, in addition to 5 km from Penn Station west across the river. The upshot is that this connection saves trains 3 minutes, and by freeing trains completely from regional rail traffic with four-tracking in the Bronx, it also permits using the lower 4% schedule pad, saving another 1 minute in the process.

If the United States is willing to spend close to $100 billion high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor – it isn’t, but something like $40-50 billion may actually pass some congressional stimulus – then it should spend $15 billion and then use the other $85 billion for other stuff. This include high-speed tie-ins as detailed above, as well as low-speed regional lines in the Northeast: new Hudson tunnels for regional traffic, the North-South Rail Link, RegionalBahn-grade links around Providence and other secondary cities, completion of electrification everywhere a Northeastern passenger train runs

Incremental investment

I hate the term “incremental” when it comes to infrastructure, not because it’s inherently bad, but because do-nothing politicians (e.g. just about every American elected official) use it as an excuse to implement quarter-measures, spending money without having to show anything for it.

So for the purpose of this post, “incremental” means “start with $15 billion to get Boston-Washington down to 3:20 and only later spend the rest.” It doesn’t mean “spend $2 billion on replacing a bridge that doesn’t really need replacement.”

With that in mind, the capacity increases required to get from bare Northeast Corridor high-speed rail to a more expansive system can all be done later. The overtakes on Baltimore-Washington would get filled in to form four continuous tracks all the way, the ones on Boston-Providence would be extended as outlined above, the bypasses on New York-New Haven would get linked to new tracks in the existing right-of-way where needed, the four-track narrows between Newark and Elizabeth would be expanded to six in an already existing right-of-way. Elizabeth Station has four tracks but the only building in the way of expanding it to six is a parking garage that needs to be removed anyway to ease the S-curve to the south of the platforms.

However, one capacity increase is difficult to retrofit: new tracks through New York. The most natural way to organize Penn Station is as a three-line system, with Line 1 carrying the existing Hudson tunnel and the southern East River tunnels, including high-speed traffic; Line 2 using new tunnels and a Grand Central link; and Line 3 using a realigned Empire Connection and the northern East River tunnels. The station is already centered on 32nd Street extending a block each way; existing tunnels going east go under 33rd and 32nd, and all plans for new tunnels continuing east to Grand Central or across the East River go under 31st.

But if it’s a 3-line system and high-speed trains need dedicated tracks, then regional trains don’t get to use the Hell Gate Line. (They don’t today, but the state is spending very large sums of money on changing this.) Given the expansion in regional service from the kind of spending that would justify so much extra intercity rail, a 4-line system may be needed. This is feasible, but not if Penn Station is remodeled for 3 lines; finding new space for a fourth tunnel is problematic to say the least.

Future-proofing

The point of integrated timetable planning is to figure out what timetable one want to run in the future and then building the requisite infrastructure. Thus, in the 1990s Switzerland built the tunnels and extra tracks for the connections planned in Bahn 2000, and right now it’s doing the same for the next generation. This can work incrementally, but only if one knows all the phases in advance. If timetable plans radically change, for example because the politicians make big changes overruling the civil service to remind the public that they exist, then this system does not work.

If the United States remains uninterested in high-speed rail, then it’s fine to go ahead with a bare-bones $15 billion system. It’s good, it would generate good profits for Amtrak, it would also help somewhat with regional-intercity rail connectivity. Much of the rest of the system can be grafted on top without big changes.

But then it comes to Penn Station. It’s frustrating, because anything that brings it into focus attracts architects and architecture critics who think function should follow form. But it’s really important to make decisions soon, get to work demolishing the above-ground structures starting when the Madison Square Garden lease runs out, and move the tracks in the now-exposed stations as needed based on the design timetable.

As with everything else, it’s possible not to do it – to do one design and then change to another – but it costs extra, to the tune of multiple billions in unnecessary station reconstruction. If the point is to build high-speed rail cost-effectively, spending the same budget on more infrastructure instead of on a few gold-plated items, then this is not acceptable. Prior planning of how much service is intended is critical if costs are to stay down.

71 comments

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, that’s probably the biggest easement (as opposed to bypass), unless you count New Rochelle, technically a combination of curve straightening with a grade separation.

  1. Car(e)-Free LA

    Regarding a new path through New York, there might be an easier solution: East Side Access. A new 8-track terminus station is being built below Grand Central Terminal with tracks from Sunnyside Yards, and it doesn’t fit in well with any run-through New York Regional Rail plan. However, it’s perfect as an intercity rail station, and would require just 6 km of new tunneling to link it into the existing rail lines at Hoboken. So far as I’m concerned, this compares quite well against the 9 km of new tunneling+Penn Station work that would be required to six-track the route from Tonelle Ave to Long Island City. Plus GCT is, IMO, a better spot for a station in New York anyway.

    • Benjamin Turon

      My question is: does every train have to go through Penn Station? Could a new line be built that serves a different terminal? Could some NYC-Boston trains start from GCT, and NYC-DC trains start from Hoboken?

      • Car(e)-Free LA

        They could, but why complicate service patterns and gum up regional rail lines? At some point, you run out of capacity, so you may as well just do it right and build a singly high-speed mainline through New York. Also, Manhattan has an enormous share of NY-bound traffic so by terminating in Hoboken, you just force more trips onto congested local trains. Finally, the demand into NY is much higher from the west and south than north and east, so adding Boston-GCT runs doesn’t fix the capacity crunch that is NY-Philadelphia.

      • Alon Levy

        Every train should serve the same station. New York has the infrastructure for through-service, and a big chunk of trips are through-New York once Boston-Washington is sped up; don’t break this infrastructure just because some cities with terminal stations only (i.e. London and Paris) have made adaptations to terminal operations.

        • Herbert

          Terminal stations are a relic of bygone days (and were often a cost-cutting measure back then) which should not be deliberately replicated today but removed wherever possible for acceptable costs…

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Hoboken’s so over-capacity they don’t meaningfully have the option to do that now in a service disruption. It’s been explored as a means of buying bigger work windows for rehabbing the North River tubes so the feds can continue their staring contest over not-advancing Gateway, and proves to be an infeasible load-shifting whether it’s offloaded AMTK traffic doing the shifting or booting NJT temporarily out of Penn. They always come back to squinting at this Hobeken scenario when grasping at straws over Gateway, but no amount of squinting-harder ever makes it look more feasible in the end.

        GCT you’ve got the primary impediment of the DC third rail to AC overhead power switch being incompatible with all Amtrak power and the numbers game of the extra inputs being a painful procurement premium not justified by enough alt-flavor GCT vs. Penn frequencies to shoot for. But beyond that, GCT’s also cresting near capacity as a commuter terminal and can’t take much extra. It was one thing when only the Empire Corridor–at anemic pre-1991 service levels–was originating out of there. It’s quite a different thing to have any halfway-robust NEC service fileted out of there, because NYNH&H didn’t even do that to any significant degree during “peak train” era. It used Penn for nearly all intercity and I think only kept ‘a’ regular Boston-GCT train on the schedule as a rounding error for strict variety’s sake.

        Splitting Corridor service by terminal has basically never been tried to any significant degree before, in addition to terminal fragmentation just being a lousy idea on-spec.

          • Herbert

            Track count doesn’t equal capacity. Otherwise Berlin main station would be overburdened, not Munich main station…

          • F-Line to Dudley

            GCT’s crowding is more a problem with the long platforms being a premium. The shorties on the lower-level used by diesel territory run-thrus have slots to give, and have a medium-term punt coming on extra slack capacity in MNRR’s upcoming MultiLevel coach procurement displacing all Shoreliner flats. But those aren’t where the growth is feasting. The 10+ car platforms are where all current and projected growth is laser-like focused, and the terminal only has 5 platform tracks connected to the upper-level loop for quickly turning trains without an on-platform reverse. NE Regionals being uniformly pull-only means they’d be consigned to the loop tracks only in a crowded street brawl for slots, since the cab car pool is only dipped into by purely state-sponsored routes like the Keystone/Pennsylvanian and Springfield Shuttles.

            Right now New Haven Line is in process of having all remaining sub- 10-car platforms upgraded so that can be the default EMU consist length–fed by the ongoing 60-car (+34 options) M8 supplemental order–for all services except for the New Caanan locals at all daily time slots. Cos Cob, Riverside, and Old Greenwich are the last shortie platforms left on the Stamford locals, all first priorities expected to get lengthened to 10-car before Penn Station Access service initiates. Rowayton, East Norwalk, Green’s Farms, Southport, Fairfield, and Stratford are the last remainders for the New Haven long runs. Uniform consist length w/ less yard downtime for splitting/combining sets on shift changes is part of the overall growth strategy behind executing former Gov. Malloy’s 30-30-30 scheme, so all that supercharged growth is going to be hitting the upper-level long platforms with fewer opportunities to hide a 6- or 8-car short set of M8’s down on the lower level.

            Harlem Line can run up to 12 cars for North White Plains turns, albeit with half-assed execution today because there’s such a large backlog of short intermediate-stop platforms the MTA has been delinquent in upgrading (mostly because those same stations need lots of work for ADA compliance and the MTA just doesn’t give a shit about accessibility). Pulsing NWP service levels up to near- rapid-transit frequency is contingent on them picking off the shortie remainders and likewise moving to uniform all-day consist lengths, so for everything New Haven is moving to with 30-30-30 Harlem NWP rapid service will arguably will have an even more voracious appetite for.

            Hudson is lower priority with relative 8-car uniformity pre-existing across electric territory, and more of its mid-term capacity bucket list tilting to diesel territory platforms. But with 30-30-30 New Haven and supersized NWP rapid service prioritizing the long platforms and the fastest-turn loop platforms, Hudson’s got its work cut out for it defending the middle ground in the terminal. Which again consigns most of the readily exploitable slack space for growth to the diesel branch platforms. Hartford Line super-expresses elbowing their way into the nooks-and-crannies someday?…maybe, that’s not unrealistic at all if the demand bona are legit. But Amtrak?…no way, totally inappropriate accommodations for fitting an average-length Regional.

          • adirondacker12800

            It would be someday far far in the future and very unlikely to using today’s rolling stock. I’m seeing M14s with 2 x 2 first class airplane style seats. It’s not a huge market. The people in Connecticut can fight it out, swapping a New Haven Express for a Hartford line train and a Stamford Express for a SLE train. Like either of them could also automagically become the Penn Acesss train. When that opens in 2031.

    • adirondacker12800

      East Access doesn’t connect well with the Hell Gate Bridge. And why you do that when the existing Grand Central connects with the tracks to Boston since there has been tracks to Boston?

      • Car(e)-Free LA

        That’s easy enough to change, and existing tracks under Park Avenue are needed for regional rail.

        • adirondacker12800

          No it’s not, the tunnel under Sunnyside Yard that East Side Access trains will be using is east of the ramps coming down from the viaduct to the Hell Gate Bridge. Pesky three dimensions. and those pesky pesky Long Islanders expecting to use East Side Access for Long Island Railroad trains. The nerve of them.

          • Car(e)-Free LA

            I’m familiar with the layout. It can be addressed with a new viaduct crossing from the Hells Gate tracks over the LIRR tracks to the south side of the yard. Not complicated. And Long Island gets much better throughput with 4 run-through tracks under the East River into Penn plus 2 tracks from Atlantic through WTC into Jersey City.

          • adirondacker12800

            Except that Long Islanders are not going to be very pleased with you cluelessness. Pesky passenger railroads catering to passengers not mindless sending trains places.

          • Car(e)-Free LA

            Other than your overuse of the word “pesky,” what are you trying to get across? Terminating LIRR trains in GCT while clogging up the East River Tunnels with intercity trains is bad for Long Islanders. The East River Tunnels, allowed exclusive run-through regional rail services, would be able to support 60 TPH plus another 30TPH into Lowe Manhattan via Atlantic. That is way better than you can get out of the current set-up. And guess what, sending trains from places into and across Manhattan is good for passengers. Sure, some might not get one-seat service to GCT, but from a utilitarian perspective, passengers would be better off with what I’m proposing. If even more traffic needs to get from Long Island into Manhattan, than building another LIRR route that runs through GCT instead of terminating 10 stories underground makes sense, but no train should end it’s journey in Manhattan. It’s bad for everybody.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s great for Long Islanders, It’s expected to get them 150,000 or so of them a day to work 20 minutes faster. And home 20 minutes faster. Passengers not in Penn Station leaves more room for people who want Penn Station, to go there. 20 per hour is what you can consistently get if there is a lot of branching on the far ends. There’s a lot of branching on the far ends. Unless you want everybody to take a bus to Jamaica or Secaucus. On gridlocked roads.

        • Nilo

          The real reason this is crazy is the ESA tunnel would be horrendously expensive to retrofit for centenary since unlike Park Ave, its definitely only designed for third rail. So if you’re doing that you’re probably taking the tube out of commission and rebuilding the entire tunnel. Buying HSR rolling stock that can deal with 750 DC, as well as the extant 12kV 25 Hz, 25 kV 60 Hz, and 12kV 60 Hz electrification standards seems like a great way to add weight and degrade performance of your trains. All of this to dig a tunnel from Hoboken. Keep it simple. Going under the Hudson is probably harder than any new tunnels under the East River. Keep Penn as the intercity station, future proof it for four Trans-Hudson tunnels, but don’t try to remake Hoboken and Grand Central as the new Inter-city stations.

        • Mike Whelan

          The East Side Access cavern is better for through-running regional rail though. Build a tunnel from the cavern to Hoboken and run the LIRR trains through to the Newark Broad Street lines. Also, HSR passengers are much more likely to have heavy luggage than regional rail riders, so if somebody has to go in the deep cavern, it should be regional passengers. Finally, as Alon wrote, all intercity traffic should serve the same station.

          • adirondacker12800

            The demand is at Penn Station Newark. There are more people and more train stations in that direction. PATH is overcrowded you want to do something that relieves that. East Side Access is forever third rail. Terminate it at Secaucus or perhaps run most of the them to Penn Station Newark with some of them to Broad Street.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Not the feeder tunnels. The East River-crossing 63rd St. tunnel built 1969-73 as a double-decker with lower-level bore set aside for LIRR is the ruling constraint. The M1 EMU design was initially predicated on the maximum clearances for it, and so nothing an inch bigger than a 13 ft. tall M1/3/7/9 without similar rounding at the corners can use the alignment. You could pull an Amfleet coach in there because those claustrophobic cans are an unusually undersized 12’8″ and the smallest in-service on the continent, but literally every Comet-clone commuter car that ever lived was too big around its boxy edges and the M2/4/6/8 EMU’s won’t clear because of their roof mounts. Ditto all other world EMU’s that so much as reserve the carbody space for a made-to-order pantograph mount. And I don’t think there’s any electric loco in existence that’s both small enough to fit and has sufficient enough hauling power for revenue service; the ESA construction project uses the same make of wimpy miniaturized genset switchers that the Subway uses for the work shift.

        The modern-construction tunnels for ESA are slightly more generous, defaulting to more or less same clearances as the Park Ave. Tunnel. But retrofitting the pinch point is going to be nigh impossible, because that’s the primary water crossing made out of sunken precast tubes assembled in Maryland and barged to NYC 50 years ago for placement in the river. I don’t even think the floor divider between upper-level IND Queens Blvd. and lower-level LIRR is changeable to any clearance-meaningful modification because of the metal precasting involved.

        MNRR Park Ave.’s restriction is solely for safe electrical clearance over the roof from standard 12.5 kV or 25 kV voltage overhead. It already takes 14’6″ tall NJT MultiLevel cars, all intercity bag/sleeper/diner cars NY Central past & Amtrak East Coast present rosters, Great Dome single-level excursion cars, and any locomotive that meets Amtrak clearances for Penn (anything GE Genesis or Siemens Sprinter/Charger size..including diesels if they use the lone ventilated platform on low-idle). Pretty much the only stuff in any widespread use that won’t fit via Park Ave. are MBTA/MARC “K-car” bi-levels which at 15’6″ are a foot taller than the MLV’s, 8-inch only platform boarding bi-levels (BLV’s, gallery cars, Superliners) which are moot to begin with for any Northeastern high platforms, and passenger locos like the F40PH and derivatives (F59PH, MPXpress, etc.) whose carbody designs pre-date the codifying of ‘universal’ Penn-or-better clearance standards ~25 years ago. Park Ave. can physically take mounted overhead wire and pantographs, but it would have to be at non-usefully nonstandard gimp voltage like 750V that overcomplicates multiple-input car design even more. Actually doing it at 12.5 kV or 25 kV to simplify equipment *might* be physically possible, but would take a megaproject’s wad of money and no-holds-barred disruption to utterly empty the cache of ceiling and floor -shaving tricks, including at the maximal pinch points areas where it passes over other subway tunnels. Something that could be readily justified if Penn & GCT were ever direct-connected, but probably not via any other foreseeable threshold for what it would chew in resources.

        • Car(e)-Free LA

          Well, if the 63rd street tunnel is the choke point and not the tunnels into the cavern itself, that opens up some interesting possibilities. Namely, a 5 km tunnel could be constructed from 63rd street to Wards Island. This certainly wouldn’t come cheap, but it could cut GCT-New Haven down to maybe 33 minutes from 40 minutes on NYP-New Haven. Then you can connect the 63rd street tunnels into the lower level tracks of GCT (where there’s obviously enough capacity for terminating trains) until it makes sense to run through to Lower Manhattan. If you do Gateway, Hoboken-GCT-Wards Island, and fix 63rd, you can run 60TPH of regional rail from Secaucus-NYP-Long Island City, 60 TPH MNR into GCT, 30 TPH LIRR into GCT, and have an intercity-only route that can do Newark-New Haven in 40 minutes instead of 51.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Unfortunately it’s not known *HOW MUCH* more clearance is in the approach tunnels for determining if this is truly a single-point constriction vs. systemic across ESA. Project documentation is sorely lacking on exactly what clearances each of the new segments has (I’ve tried…it’s simply not posted anywhere). All that’s been made clear is that the 63rd St. double-decker under the East River is the ruling limit, and is so exactingly tight it’s capped dimensions on 50 years of MTA third-rail EMU design. And it’s been made clear that they did NOT go with the published Amtrak-Penn equipment design guidelines for the rest of the project (AMTK specs also covering MNRR-Park Ave./GCT, SEPTA Center City, and Montreal Mt. Royal Tunnel clearances inclusive to the continental ‘universal’ minimums). That was an explicit choice of ESA’s because of the hardness of the 63rd St. constriction and the flex that going under the Amtrak minimums would potentially afford for cost savings in other tight spots.

            Since ESA writ-large makes a complete mockery of any form of cost control, I guess in a coulda/shoulda universe they would’ve been better off obeying the letter of the ‘universal’ clearance minimums for 100-year considerations everywhere outside that 1970 precast tube. They certainly couldn’t have done any worse on cost control obeying a clearly-defined dimensional standard than whatever Sandhog math they ultimately went with. But until each individual tunnel segment has archived schematics stored somewhere that we can reference, we won’t know exactly to what degree the substandard clearances are limited to just the 63rd St. tube vs. all else. The least they could do is archive the docs sooner than later to put this question to rest once and for all.

        • johndmuller

          Is it really true that the M8s can’t run thru the 63rd St. tunnels, even in 3rd rail mode?

          If so, are we supposed to be connecting the GCT-ESA level to Penn in order to facilitate thru-running of 3rd rail capable equipment between the LIRR and New Jersey? That’s what seems to be suggested if we are to avoid gumming up the Sunnyside tunnels with too much commuter traffic and otherwise getting the most out of the ESA tunnels.

          Being able to run the M8s thru that tunnel would at least allow for the possibility of thru-running Metro North from either the Hudson or New Haven divisions (given some gap filling of 3rd rail sections). Can the 3rd rail equipment from NJT run thru the 63rd street tunnels?

          Assuming that there is somewhere for LIRR 3rd rail equipment to go beyond Penn, what is required to extend the excess track south of ESA to go across to Penn? Last I heard, the tunnels were plugged with cement with at least 1 TBM also entombed in there. Also there was some issue with the Water Tunnels (I think that Tunnel #1 or #2 was close enough to the necessary path to Penn that the Water People were loath to give their blessings until Tunnel #3 was finished enough to act as backup in case of trouble). Well, the issue of the plugged tunnels doesn’t sound like a real problem and I think that Water Tunnel #3 has meanwhile finished enough to address that issue as well, so does that mean that one could connect GCT-ESA to Penn now?

          Is that something we want to do? I had always imagined that the 31st street tunnel would, if built be for running the high speed line (or maybe all/most of Amtrak through Manhattan and on under the East River in another new tunnel, but I guess it is possible to do both, perhaps with a double layer of tracks under 31st St. As long as they keep dorking around w/r the Hudson tunnel, no options are closed on the Manhattan end.

          • adirondacker12800

            NJTransit doesn’t have any third rail. PATH and PATCO do but not NJTransit.

          • johndmuller

            I thought I’d heard that there was 3rd rail in the tunnel; if so what is it for then?

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Correct. M8’s (and their predecessor M2/4/6’s) are physically taller than third-rail only M1/3/7/9’s because of the roof mounts and will not fit. Literally nothing an inch bigger than an M9 can fit through there, as the original M1 design dimensions were set in stone by the segment of double-decker precast tube under the river that’s been in place since 1970 in anticipation for ESA. No other EMU’s in-use on the continent will fit, as well as majority of importable world EMU’s. Amfleets–which will be on active phase-out by the time ESA opens–are the only coach make running in North America that can fit, and there is no known electric locomotive of sufficient power in the world that’ll fit. The literal only connecting services that could use it if additional connecting tunnels are built are the MNRR Harlem & Hudson Lines…for now. NYSHSR Albany electrification will eventually tear out the third rail on the Hudson Line all points north of Spuyten Duyvil Jct. in favor of AC overhead and New Haven Line-clone rolling stock, so by the time you ever could fashion a buildable connection to the Park Ave. tunnel the further routing variety will probably have already been whittled down to Harlem-only. Any far-future GCT-Penn connection is thus unlikely to bother at all with the LIRR cavern and simply focus its attention on the MNRR levels.

            The North River tubes have active third rail for work equipment and also so third rail dual-mode locos like the Genesis P32AC-DM’s can pass into Jersey on non-revenue moves. It’s actually 88-year-old residue from back before the NEC was overhead-electrified and all steam service stopped at giant Manhattan Transfer station in Secaucus to switch to run-thru LIRR EMU’s for the trip into Penn (with some top-priority one-seat intercity trains getting the steam engine swapped out for an electric boxcab for the slow tow in/out of Penn). When Manhattan Transfer was abolished in 1943 LIRR retreated to terminating at Penn and the third rail was cut back to the portal. Theoretically it’s revenue-usable for LIRR dual-modes to run any Penn push-pull trains into Jersey, like a weekender beach special. That may have been an actual thing back before the 1960’s, and could easily be staged again after the MTA’s big upcoming triple-order for LIRR + MNRR + Empire Corridor third rail dual-modes buffs out the currently threadbare duals rosters with enough units to explore alternate routings.

            But for stuff like M8’s running thru it’s always going to be way cheaper to just re-power the overhead from North Jersey to Sunnyside from 25 Hz 12.5 kV AC to 60 Hz 12.5 kV AC rather than lay more third rail or try to equip the already grossly overweight New Haven stock with a very heavy extra 25 Hz transformer core. Once the NJT Arrows and SEPTA Silverliner IV’s are retired there’ll be no other electrics on the southern NEC that can’t switch on-the-fly between 25 Hz and 60 Hz, so they’ll be free to start piecemeal-fragmenting the old transmission system at-will south of Sunnyside to gradual 60 Hz conversion for the sake of extending the range of the 25 Hz-incapable M8’s at no demerits to anything else.

          • fjod

            F-Line to Dudley: Just on this one point (I don’t personally take issue with any of the rest of your comment): there are definitely electric locomotives shorter than 13ft. The UK’s class 91 is 12’5″ tall and has 6480hp. I can’t find good height data on the few locomotives they use in Japan, but there might be some there too.

          • johndmuller

            So thru running via ESA would need a bunch of Amfleet coaches powered by new slightly undersized custom designed dual mode locos at both ends of the consists; if they are not too powerful, we could call them Decelas. Maybe to be even more flexible, we have modular power units in three flavors (diesel, 3rd rail, cat) so that each end’s power car would be more like three articulated units, each with a different power source to power its own and the other two units’ traction motors. Just what we need in the upcoming era of more money than we know what to do with.

            What about finding additional good uses for the ESA terminal? Trains from the north (i.e. Park Ave or some additional ROW) could probably make it down to ESA level in time to either go thru the 63rd St. tunnel or to go to/from the ESA terminal. The tunnels south of ESA could probably be opened/extended to Penn and/or more south to Wall Street, perhaps in conjunction with trains from GCT proper. Perhaps the size constraints could be eased in these new sections to allow for greater variety of rolling stock. Still wondering if the issues with the water tunnels are persisting. If there were a viable thru running scenario between Penn and GCT, commuters would have a choice of those two in town destinations at least. Of course other propositions regarding a lower Manhattan station and possible connections to Atlantic terminal and other routes into NJ have also been floated, not to mention Staten Island.

          • adirondacker12800

            Why would you send a train from the Bronx to Manhattan, turn it around and then send it to Queens when it could just go to Queens from the Bronx over the existing bridge?

          • F-Line to Dudley

            johndmuller:

            It’s more like “order a bunch of new custom undersized” coaches because the RFP for replacing all Amfleets issues later this year, and as indestructible as those tubes are the metal fatigue from 44 years of continuous service is starting to take a serious toll on them. The vestibules leak like crazy now after 4 decades of vibration loosening up all manner of fittings, so while plentiful pickins’ at 500 units they are a very pricey proposition for anyone to rebuild for commuter service. And being a lineage that went defunct when Budd exited the railcar business, there’s no real third-party Amfleet parts supply chain to speak of. When they last were substantially overhauled AMTK went the vertical integration route using their Beech Grove Shops’ self-fabrication facilities to self-absorb the non-universal components in the parts supply chain, which works on value at their enormous fleet sizes but would clobber a commuter road that only tried to maintain up to a few dozen AmCans for specialty use. In commuter land all of the 8-inch boarding non-Eastern systems have continuously refreshed aftermarkets of BLV’s and gallery cars to choose from, and won’t so much as sniff at the Amfleets And for Northeastern high-level territory AMTK’s 92-car Horizon fleet up for retirement soonest on the roster are more attractive pickings than any Amfleets because they are straight Comet II clones most mechanically similar to 700+ flats in active service on on a half-dozen current systems.

            So the coaches still rate as Unicorn #1 for broader ESA routings because, as ^above^, superficial present availability doesn’t correlate to any medium- or long-term sustainability that LIRR can tap. Unicorn #2 is the locos themselves. It’s hard enough to find a third-rail only “Decela” to fit in the dimensions, but the only routes in question that could make hay with ESA push-pull routings either come from AC overhead territory in Jersey or diesel territory on the East End. Either the extra AC transformers and roof mounts for running off of overhead electrification are no-go the same way the only mildly clearance-dissimilar M8 EMU’s are no-go because of the roofs, or the effort at squeezing blood from stone slashes the power output down too low to keep the multi-input beasts from clogging the schedules to overall demerit. Modern-day dual-modes like NJT’s ALP-45DP and many more less-slovenly foreign makes achieve their component size reductions for fitting equal-power diesel and E-mode inside a Penn-compatible ‘universal’ clearance carbody by using smaller genset diesel engines instead of a conventional prime mover…usually 2 gensets working in-tandem with precise computer coordination. Both gensets crank to the max on acceleration so a 45DP ends up rating very favorably with the brawniest available straight-diesels on takeoff, while at idle or cruising speed one of the gensets will shut down to manage fuel consumption (otherwise gensets are total fuel pigs compared to way more miserly prime movers). The modern-era electronic trickery to substitute gensets for space savings in a crowded dual-mode carbody and finely-tune the performance specs goes out the window when you try to squeeze the difference between a Penn-sized body and an ESA-sized body. There’s the same E-mode multi-input constraints with the roofs that plague the M8’s, but even at third-rail only make for the East End beaches there’s no way you’d be able to fit two fully-powered gensets in that packaging for ‘good enough’ acceleration or enough HEP power to do more than a 4-5 coach short set. You’d either have one genset engine only, which would be a fuel consumption outlier in addition to being a total gimp that struggles to get the shortest consists going from a dead stop…or 2 gensets extra-miniaturized than usual which maybe can pull fuel consumption back to scale but still end up way inappropriately underpowered on acceleration to be schedule-useful.

            These are big intractable problems, because component shrinkage isn’t advancing fast enough to foresee some major gap-closing advance coming along in the next couple decades that neutralizes these killer tradeoffs. You also can’t help it when HEP electricity to the coaches is such a large share of the train’s total power budget, and increases on top-line utilization faster than the bottom-line efficiency gains because of how HVAC loads increase the busier service gets (e.g. HVAC cycles vs. boarding/alighting, stop spacing, crowding rates, etc.). So you’re sitting at an incumbent position where “finding good uses for the ESA terminal” is an exercise in grasping at straws, where some of the alternatives (over-compromised acceleration, gumming up traffic for other trains) are too fugly on performance degradation to overtop with bona fides. All wrapped up in wretched scale for this being a very small and specialized fleet for one purpose only, where LIRR wouldn’t ever consider sticking the Penn push-pull schedules with such compromises when broad shopping options for bi-levels and wholly conventional multi-input power are readily available for there. I mean, does it really matter the whole world if the summertime Cannonball has to stick permanently to Penn if in 5 years there’ll be enough expansion of the existing dual-mode fleet to goose its top-line revenue with run-thru service from North Jersey using anyone’s borrowed/blue coaches? I doubt it. And there are enough small augmentations to try just with systemwide better ops practices to get meaningful quantities of Jersey or Hell Gate run-thrus pinging into Jamaica or between each other. Including M8’s to Jersey with just that first-off frequency change from 25 Hz to 60 Hz if you picked off Sunnyside phase break to Mattawan phase break (~25 miles or circuit breaker change-outs, inclusive of NEC to Rahway and NJCL to Mattawan), and M8’s on Penn Station Access to Jamaica if the TBD Sunnyside Station siting is positioned in range of a turnout for banging out onto LIRR.

            Deep future the only Penn-GCT connection that matters is going to be the tunnel megaproject that thru-routes into the MNRR caverns. ESA intersects at such an odd angle below to begin with that it doesn’t make for much in the way of coherent thru-routes to begin with, and certainly nothing worth over-kludging a megaproject-cost tunnel for. All of those thru-routes from Jersey to LI and Connecticut to LI can be staged way more directly from Penn or Sunnyside anyway. So GCT-ESA has no future thunder to shake for being the single-point meet for everything under the sun. You might be able to do up a claustrophobic ladder track between the ESA cavern and some point well out in the Park Ave. tunnel for interlining with the Harlem Line (as before, if electrification goes to Albany the Hudson Line third rail is getting displaced by 25kV AC overhead all points north of Spuyten Duyvil with adoption of New Haven Line-clone M[evens] that won’t clear ESA). But that Park Ave. touch for Harlem-only is really the only head-and-shoulders value-added to trench from the ESA level because of the eminently functional alternatives spread around elsewhere. Any future connecting tunnels have way bigger fish to fry than this at what new forms of access they try to open up.

          • johndmuller

            F-Line, I get that it appears that ESA seems to be future-proofed against practically any higher additional purposes beyond the dead-end LIRR commuter terminal it was designed to be. That’s way too bad, especially considering how much time and money it is costing and the pall it is casting over future mega-projects. Perhaps it will want to become part of a subway line when it grows up.

            I thought turning ESA-GCT into part of a commuter thru-running line was part of the plan to get some of the commuter traffic out of the way of the long distance traffic and might consequently be worth some amount of kludging; that’s why the effort to grasp at these straws.

            On the subject of the Decela power cars, I don’t see why one couldn’t get sufficiently powerful locomotives simply by making them longer to make up for them needing to be smaller in cross section. Since ESA-GCT is, in this scenario a thru station, having extra long power cars hanging out beyond the ends of the platforms wouldn’t necessarily be a problem; if they got to be longer than the coaches, they could be articulated. Stupid idea probably, but feasible, also probably.

          • Alon Levy

            For everyone’s information… 13′ 6″ is restrictive by US standards, but it’s 4.115 meters and e.g. Shinkansen trains without the rooftop equipment are 3.6, and this is with about the same boarding height as on the LIRR, 1,250 mm. It’s not enough space for catenary on top of such a train, but there is space for a pantograph and then trains through the ESA tunnel can be dual-voltage.

          • adirondacker12800

            Perhaps it will want to become part of a subway line when it grows up.
            It’s projected to have 20 12 car trains an hour, at peak, someday. Probably soon after it opens. It would be the 8th or 9th largest mass transit system in the U.S. You have no concept of the scale. People who will be using it aren’t on the Flushing line or on the Queens Blvd line. Or attempting to get from Penn Station to East Side. It’s an express subway line from Jamaica to Grand Central.

  2. Hugh B

    A couple of questions.
    1. In the same vein as the “how fast New York regional rail could be” posts, how much faster could Acela trains go on the current line, assuming good maintenance, superelevation, and a 7% pad?
    2. What is the acceleration penalty difference between the N700 and the new Acela?
    3. What specific future tie-ins are you talking about?

    • Alon Levy

      1. NY-New Haven is about an hour. New Haven-Providence isn’t thaaaaaaaat much faster than today, superelevation and cant deficiency there are already pretty high; my guess is that it can be done in an hour and a bit. Providence-Boston is probably 25-ish minutes at Acela speeds. It’s maybe 2:40 altogether.

      2. I haven’t seen full technical specs for the new Acela, but having power cars by itself caps initial acceleration at 0.4 m/s^2 or so, whereas the New Velaro is 0.7 and the N700-I scratches 0.9. What I think is the Avelia Liberty’s power-to-weight ratio, 20, make the acceleration penalty to 300 km/h equal to 218 seconds, vs. 151 for the New Velaro and 118 for the N700-I.

      3. Various extensions detailed in my Metcalfe’s law post, which generate additional ridership on the mainline as well as on the extensions and branches. For example, New Haven-Springfield isn’t mostly about New Haven-Springfield trips but about New York-Hartford and New York-Springfield ones, so more frequency is needed on New York-New Haven to allow for higher ridership; likewise, extensions west of Philadelphia and south of Washington create more ridership on New York-Philadelphia, requiring more capacity there.

      • df1982

        Metcalfe’s law produces good ROI for HSR branches if the point of comparison is with nothing, but what about when there are existing legacy branches? Hartford is a good example. If New York-New Haven is reduced to 40min, and the existing line can get you to Hartford in another 30min (under the Lamont plan, which involves improvements to the line but not new alignments), then you have a 1:10 journey for New York-Hartford, which is actually pretty good. If you build a brand new HSR line on the ca. 40 miles from New Haven to Hartford you could that stretch down to 15-20min. But is the expense worth it to reduce the Hartford-New York time from 1:10 to 55-60min, which is a marginal improvement at best?

        • Alon Levy

          You can do it either way as long as everything fit into an integrated schedule. So you set up knots at New Haven and Springfield and either get trains to connect them in about 53 minutes (an hour minus half a turnaround at Springfield) or 38 (45 minutes minus half a turnaround). The faster version offers a small improvement for passengers as well as lower operating costs – half-hourly service requires one fewer trainset.

  3. Jonathan Stone

    Alon, you say you hate ‘incremental”. But as you say, most politicians do “incremental”.

    Couldn’t all your proposed curve easements within the existing ROW, be done incrementally? And sections of variable-tension catenary be upgraded to constant-tension, “incrementally”? That avoids having to get the entire $15bn up front. For example, if the Cos Cob bridge needs to be replaced anyway, can it be done as an “incremental” project — or is that a dumb question?

    Have you considered calculating the time saved by various steps in this proposal — curve easements, rebuilding Shell Interlocking into a flying junction(from your 2018 post) — and dividing by cost, to get a ranking of seconds-saved-per-$100m? Time saved goes as the square of the speed difference (per Clem Tillier, https://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/01/top-10-worst-curves.html). If you compare those numbers to the same metric for the NEC Future Vision plans, you’d have a pretty powerful argument for where to prioritize any available funds. And in pieces doable in chunks of few hundreds of millions of dollars, too.

    • Alon Levy

      Americans are talking about a multi-trillion dollar stimulus. Even in 2009, when the Obama administration took great pains to stay under $1 trillion even though Larry Summers was trying to recommend $1.2 trillion, Amtrak was asking for $10 billion for minor improvements, including the SOGR black hole (Amtrak’s chair at the time, Joe Boardman, had been appointed in the Bush era because he was willing to defer maintenance to look more profitable on paper, which his predecessor David Gunn wasn’t).

      There’s more step-skipping here than is obvious. For example, Boston-Washington in 3:19 means that trains can run every 15 minutes, at which point the value of untimed transfers is pretty good. Hence, no need to run as fast as necessary on the mainline, only on connecting regional lines. The lowest-hanging fruit is cutting about 40-45 minutes from New York-New Haven through better operations, but then the bridge on the Connecticut imposes a capacity limit. Replacing the bridge along the current alignment is stupid, which leads to the I-95 bypass; the bypass can be phased, but doing it in phases as the NEC Future concept proposes introduces new problems regarding the transition between the old and new line. South of New York, the value of constant-tension catenary on short segments is pretty low – the point of running 300+ km/h is that you do it on long stretches, not short ones. You can again improve operations in various ways, and do the difficult curve fixes, but a lot of these things interact, e.g. getting Elizabeth and Frankford Junction in working order means you can hit the limit of variable-tension catenary so much sooner.

      • adirondacker12800

        State of good repair is a never task because there is this thing called “time” in this universe and things that don’t need repair “now” will need it in the “future”. as they “wear out”.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        RE: The bridges…Cos Cob currently accounts by its lonesome for 50% of the openings on of any of the 5 movables between state line and New Haven. And it’s all small pleasure boat traffic from the marina, with seasonal spike in summertime. If any needs maximum attention at a bypass, that’s the one. The only thing the speculated replacement with a lift span is going to do is improve the speed of openings (since lifts are variable-height), and greatly improve the reliability. The replacement will still be opening at the same outsized rates because clearance in the closed position isn’t going to be meaningfully different vs. all the boat masts in the marinas. And with all remaining movables to the south except for nothingburger DOCK in NJ (which recently went 10 years between requested openings) scheduled for elimination, it’s a forever irritant that will always exert outsized traffic restriction across the corridor.

        WALK in Norwalk is #2 at 25% of total openings amongst the Western CT Five…but nearly all of that is barge traffic to the cement plant 1.2 miles up the Danbury Branch. The 4 marinas on the navigable portion of river are negligible factor, being extremely small and low-capacity with boats that mostly fit under the closed bridge. While the funded replacement for a variable-lift bridge will dramatically decrease delays by raising faster and only needing to raise a little bit for the squat sand barges, simply relocating the cement plant south of the bridge or shoving some payola to switch them to freight rail off the Danbury Branch (whatever the difference is between cheaper barge rates and less-cheap railcar) effectively zeroes out the openings at Norwalk River. Enough that maritime regs can probably flip from ship-first to mandatory X hour advance notice to the RR on requested openings (sort of how DOCK Bridge works with its required 24-hour advance request to Amtrak).

        SAGA (Saugatuck River) in Westport, PECK (Pequonock River) in Bridgeport, and DEVON (Housatonic River) in Milford split the remaining 25% of openings. PECK was replaced in 1998 and has the lowest rate of openings by far, so is a non-concern. The compelling case for an under-Harbor tunnel bypass here is whacking the sharp S-curve through downtown. However, that only meaningfully helps the Acela as NE Regionals already stop in Bridgeport and Bridgeport is the outer transfer for interior CTrail service on Shore Line East, (future) Hartford Line run-thru patterns, and Waterbury Branch. SAGA and DEVON are both replaceable with fixed bridges if the approach grades were raised. At SAGA all that entails is raising Westport Station on the west bank from at-grade to embankment-raised station…easy. At DEVON Naugatuck Ave. on the east side that goes under I-95 then over the New Haven Line tracks and over the east-wye Waterbury Branch tracks @ Devon Jct. in very quick succession would have its grade changed to go under all tracks, then the Waterbury west wye @ Devon Jct. would have its approach raised on a grade to the somewhat taller fixed bridge. ConnDOT would probably love to make both of these flips to fixed spans, but as long as the Feds keep starving them to pay their own lion’s share like happened with WALK Bridge replacement they are constrained enough that considering going the extra mile is difficult. It would be tragic and pointless if those spans had to get designed as movable-for-movable replacements simply because the above-and-beyond grants weren’t available to expand the project areas to raising the approaches.

        Work the options here and basically every current New Haven Line movable excepting COS COB ceases to be any traffic issue, which helps for shortening the bench planning-wise on which bypasses are mandatory vs. nice-to-have’s. WALK and PECK are least concerns because both hardly ever open at all after you’ve settled with the Norwalk cement plant over the barge traffic relocation, and the maritime regulations at both can flip to favor the RR with mandatory 12-24 hour advance requests required before openings. The other two disappear outright for fixed spans, create a completely bridge-uninterrupted RR between East Bridgeport and Connecticut River @ Old Saybrook, and de facto eliminates all maritime traffic preemption between Greenwich and Old Saybrook.

        • Alon Levy

          Cos Cob should be replaced as a curve modification, converting two short, sharp curves into one long, wide curve. But that requires some kind of integration of infrastructure and the timetable, so none of the organizations involved thinks that far ahead, hence the plans for a movable bridge with the same curves. The cost estimates that have such a bridge cost more than the wider, 10-lane Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge are insane and CDOT should a) fire most of top management and b) replace them with a large staff of in-house engineers so that the state stops spending a multiple of what other states, let alone other countries, spend on such projects.

  4. Gok

    Well you certainly are becoming a real US infrastructure planner: blog post cost estimates went from $10 billion to $13 billion in about 8 days. 🙂

    It would be helpful to split up the time savings by scheduling, rolling stock, and construction. Even if all this new track was to magically appear, there’s nothing to prevent Amtrak from continuing to run incompetent schedules. Just applying 7%/4% contingency with today’s tracks and trains would lead to a very different schedule than Amtrak’s current timetables.

    • Alon Levy

      So, I was saying $10 billion in the early 2010s, and I’m saying $13 billion now (check the Metcalfe’s law post), which is about the same as what $10 billion was worth in the late 2000s.

      The single worst incompetence north of New York is actually not Amtrak’s, but Metro-North and CDOT’s – they insist on slowing down trains to 75 mph in their territory, and have absolutely no clue about how track maintenance is done in modern railroading systems and about many other relevant things (senior managers there had no idea FRA regulation had changed), and don’t timetable trains in any consistent way. There’s around 40 minutes of time saving on New York-New Haven coming from better operations on that segment alone, which Amtrak can try proposing but which the primary culprit for today is not Amtrak.

  5. Transportation Justice CNY

    You know a lot more than I do, so this might be a dumb question, but did you try getting the curve geometry from GTFS shape files? I would think they’d have a lot less error than measuring the output on Google Maps.

    • Alon Levy

      On the most annoying parts of the line, i.e. New Rochelle-New Haven and Providence-Boston Switch, I have actual curve data from internal line maps. This isn’t a stupid question, there are some subtleties that took this data + a lot more careful diameter measurements than before, which is why I’m retreating up to 3:19 whereas I used to say 3:10.

  6. Herbert

    I think you might’ve hit an important point with “politicians telling civil servants to ignore prior planning”. Switzerland is a consensus democracy. Japan has a dominant party system (meaning nobody outside the LDP can hold power for long). France has elite consensus built at the Grandes Ecoles which everybody who wants to be somebody has to attend. Germany has had a consensus among all parties which have formed government since the death of Adenauer on many, many points. And even the Linkspartei is – where it is relevant – mostly a social democratic party within the consensus. Add to that that due to the way the Bundesrat functions major political decisions are usually all party consensus anyway. Austria had been a “Proporz” (basically certain government appointments have to go to the “reds” and “blacks” respectively) based consensus democracy from 1945 at the very least to the first Schüssel government and shows signs of it to this day. The Nordic countries are to my knowledge all dominant party systems (Social Democrats in Sweden and Norway, Independence Party in Iceland) and highly consensus oriented. China is – if such a term exists – a “consensus dictatorship” where outside leaders like Deng Mao and (if he’s getting his way) Xi no decision can be formed by a single person and the party keeps surprising cohesion over decades.

    Now how does the Anglosphere differ from all this? The Anglosphere by and large has FPTP or has had it during the time when its current political climate emerged. To distract from the fact that according to the ice cream sellers at the beach theorem parties in a two party system tend to approach each other to the point of unrecognizability, the few few points of disagreement are shouted even more loudly. That’s why “NIMTOO” works – a politician can be almost certain that whatever their signature achievement might be, a successive government of the other political faction will undo it out of spite…

    Maybe some things are indeed best decided by getting everybody to agree.

    Now there’s one place that doesn’t fit into this neat picture: Spain.

    • Alon Levy

      The Nordic countries have two-bloc systems with regular alternation of government between the red-green bloc and the bloc of all center-right parties collaborating on getting the social democrats out of power (I forget which was the first Nordic country to form such an alliance in the era of postwar socdem dominance but this got copied all over the region). But the civil service has very strong professional mechanisms out of politics, like the ombudsman system or tripartite meetings in which the union and business sides stay fixed and only the government changes.

      Israel has a big problem of ministers making everyone paint trees in order to look decisive and ministerial. The low construction costs of the electrification project are in context of Israel Katz not paying much attention to it and letting the ministry do its job. Likewise, right now, ideas like centralized quarantine are coming from the professional bureaucracy; the influence of the health minister, Yaakov Litzman, was wholly negative, but he didn’t care enough to interfere with professional decisions, his contributions were mostly harassment of secular people over bullshit and failure to communicate the magnitude of the crisis to the Haredi community.

    • michaelrjames

      Now how does the Anglosphere differ from all this? The Anglosphere by and large has FPTP or has had it during the time when its current political climate emerged. To distract from the fact that according to the ice cream sellers at the beach theorem parties in a two party system tend to approach each other to the point of unrecognizability, the few few points of disagreement are shouted even more loudly. That’s why “NIMTOO” works – a politician can be almost certain that whatever their signature achievement might be, a successive government of the other political faction will undo it out of spite…

      Good analysis. I think it’s worth adding–as a kind of prophylactic for others–that the preference system (or AV, Alternative Vote) system developed in Australia, while better than FPTP, in reality was explicitly developed to entrench the two-party system (in the 1930s IIRC). It was when the conservatives were facing the dilemma of city-based versus rural (then called Country Party, today’s National Party = the NP in LNP = Liberal NP (=conservatives; yes, false advertising)). This led to three-cornered contests in which the two conservative parties often defeated each other via FPTP. AV really proved its “worth” in the 50s when a bunch of inherently conservative (Irish + Italian) catholics got disenchanted with increasing progressivism (esp. social) of the Labor party and broke away to form a small party (DLP, Democratic Labor Party) who would hardly win any seats but whose voters gave their second prefs to the conservatives, thus taking government away from Labor for another 15 years. The DLP and its militant catholic leader Bob Santamaria (Tony Abbott was an acolyte!) was what kept Australia in the dark ages right up to the moment in 1972 when Gough Whitlam finally broke thru the toxic system.

      The preference system was also designed to suppress minor parties and it has been very successful, at least from the p.o.v. of seats in parliament (except the Senate which is proportional): the Greens achieve ≈10-12% of the First Preference vote (≈1.5m voters) but still have only one MP in the lower house, which is grotesque.

      Thus, it was very mixed emotions when the Brits held their referendum on ditching FPTP for AV. As so often, the old dominant parties managed to ask the wrong question because AV was/is not the solution to their problem of grotesquely undemocratic and dysfunctional governing procedures. Hare-Clark is, but that’s another story.

      Incidentally, I think Germany has inadvertently tripped into a similar situation. Despite PR and many parties it has actually come under the toxic effect of one major party/grouping and can’t seem to dig itself out.

      • Herbert

        There is ongoing discussion about electoral reform in Germany. Apparently because it is somehow undesirable to have “too many seats in parliament” but there is also a desire to keep directly elected constituency representatives and keep the constituencies to a manageable geographic size…

        As for the toxic effect on political culture, I think the worst thing is the three Grand Coalitions in four governments we’ve had since 2005…

        • michaelrjames

          I think the worst thing is the three Grand Coalitions in four governments we’ve had since 2005…

          My own view–coming from my profound experience of it (ie. none at all)–is that it is not the Grand Coalition that is the big problem but that one party CDU/CSU is supra-dominant, and even more, one leader is supra-dominant. And for too long (Merkel: excuuse me, what happened to term limits?) It reduces what should have been a healthy multi-party system where parties and members could present and evolve pluralistic positions and members had real choices, etc etc. Instead one big gorilla party and its leader simply imposed their narrow view on everyone else. Didn’t it destroy the Social Democrats (SPD) and make them and their members allergic to any future involvement in such coalitions (I vaguely recall they wanted to make it a condition that Merkel retire but that wouldn’t fly … but they were correct)?
          Check out Hare-Clarke in which I understand it is difficult for one supra-dominant party to emerge (at least in a big enough electorate; problem with Tasmania is that it is too small, and also was perverted by the conservatives to undermine Greens representation in government).
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote

          • Herbert

            Parliamentary systems by and large don’t have term limits. Adenauer served 14 years. Kohl served 16 years. All three social democratic chancellors served twenty years between them (Schmidt 8 years, Brandt 5 and Schröder 7). The stepping down of Merkel at the end of her current term was a foregone conclusion before the last electoral campaign…

          • michaelrjames

            Parliamentary systems by and large don’t have term limits.

            Of course but that is not to say they shouldn’t have term limits. If it is a good idea to restrict to two consecutive terms in a presidential system then it is exactly the same good idea for a parliamentary or any system.
            We got stuck with Robert Menzies tired old reactionary conservatism for 21 years. Then the detestable John Howard for 12 years/4 terms (and he is the reason we got Abbott).

            One awful outcome is how a party becomes wedded to toxic policies, sometimes for decades beyond that leader, simply because they equate a successful leader purely in political terms. Menzies wasn’t a truly terrible PM but it meant we and via his party inheritors, got stuck with a ridiculous ’50s mentality, even by people who almost certainly know/knew better. Howard was a toxic PM and has left nothing but a negative impact, but nevertheless this cult of the winning leader, it too has transferred to his current acolytes. Likewise Merkel is not a terrible leader but she is stubbornly resistant to any change and this is crippling all of Europe. And it just doesn’t bloody stop …

            It’s a mix of cult worship and inciucio. I suppose a German will consider the use of such an Italian term/practice to be insulting but it’s reality, even if the outcome is very different (but guess what, that was never dependent on those long leaderships). And I’d bet no German (or anyone) thinks Xi’s awarding himself president for life is a good idea, but that has already effectively happened with Merkel and those leaders you mention.

          • Herbert

            A slow moving system has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand moving slowly kept many trams intact. On the other it has led to the agonizingly slow progress on HSR (first proposed by the minister of transportation under Brandt – first trialed 60 years even before THAT)….

          • michaelrjames

            A slow moving system has advantages and disadvantages.

            I guess that refers to the “act in haste and repent at leisure” maxim.
            But I think that misplaces the choices. The most important thing is to come to the correct decision or strategy. Your final sentence says it all: the German political class and most technical elites knew what should have been done at least 60 years ago. All the rest is not the advantage of a slow-moving system, or wisdom in not rushing, but almost dereliction in neglect on not acting on it. Once one realises what needs to be done, in fact it generally is best to implement quickly, opportunity cost etc (that’s a pretty good life rule too; most of our worst errors are not things done in haste but hesitation on things we fundamentally know/knew we should have done; that’s a version of “when we age it is not the things we messed up that we regret but the things that we didn’t do).

            And sometimes the opposite is true too. Sometimes it is better to come to a decision, even the “wrong” (less than ideal) decision and act on it. The worst thing is often doing nothing. There’s often more than one solution to a problem, but if you make a seriously wrong decision then acting on it quickly will mean coming more quickly to the realisation it is wrong. BTW, I still regret that Germany failed to build a proper TransRapid line …

          • Herbert

            The big problem with Transrapid is that it always forces a transfer. And unless one wishes to spend truly gargantuan amounts of money on a “starter line” there are few lines where a Transrapid would capture all that many pax from existing rail due to speed alone… I’m not sure many people would spend much more for a 60 minute Berlin-Hamburg travel time over what there is currently…

  7. Nathan Williams

    I read the phrase “takings in Darien” and immediately say to myself “well, that plan’s DOA”.

    • Alon Levy

      Why? Long Island’s opposition to Penn Station Access was more widespread and included a State Senate majority leader and the LIRR president. But PSA was a priority for Cuomo, so he removed Helena Williams from her job, and eventually Dean Skelos too was replaced. NIMBYs have much less veto power over state priorities than everyone imagines they do.

      • adirondacker12800

        And Amtrak dispatches Penn Station so the LIRR can go suck eggs if they wanna get antsy with the MTA and Amtrak.

      • Luke

        I have to imagine that’s true only depending on the relative size of constituencies. A big, populous state like New York–especially one wherein (at least) 75% of economic and political activity is more or less in one location–is going to be less amenable to piddling local concerns than a small one without significant centralization. Certainly speaking from New Hampshire’s slightly-atypical situation, it’s entirely possible for small locales to dominate over big ones, especially if the big ones don’t realize well enough that they’re more important than a bunch of wealthy McMansion owners and hold-out farmers. Many Americans are still very much so under the illusion that small, sparse communities are healthy enough to not need connection to bigger, denser places.

      • Nathan Williams

        Just from having known some individual landowners in Darien and not imagining them going without a bitter and expensive fight if it happened to be their land.

        • Alon Levy

          Long Island has NIMBYs, too. They couldn’t fight off the LIRR Third Track. Same is true of the NIMBYs in Palo Alto fighting California HSR – and those NIMBYs even had real technical merit to their lawsuit, the Pacheco alignment is trash.

    • Herbert

      The cost cited is 137,5 Million € but it is not entirely clear what that refers to…

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