Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.
The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.
Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.
The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.
The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.
Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.
More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.
The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.
Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.
There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.
The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.
It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.