Modernizing Rail Unconference

On Sunday the 12th of July, a few of us public transit activists are going to hold a conference online called Modernizing Rail, focusing on better service and integration in the Northeastern United States. Our keynote speaker will be Vukan Vuchic, the Serbian-American UPenn transportation professor who imported German rail modernization schemas from the 1970s, including the concept of regional rail; he will speak about the history of this in the context of SEPTA, which built much of the S-Bahn infrastructure (e.g. S-Bahn through-running tunnel) but has not done many other important things such as fare integration and coordinated planning with urban transit.

Update 2020-07-04: due to a family health emergency, Vuchic cannot make it. Therefore we will have an alternate keynote address by Michael Schabas, entitled Using Business Case Analysis to Design Better Railways.

Schabas has been finding ways to make railways deliver more and cost less for 40 years, shaping urban, intercity, and high speed rail projects in Canada, England, and the USA, and operating passenger and freight railways in England and Australia. He is the author of The Railway Metropolis – how planners, politicians and developers shaped Modern London. Since 2014 he has been advising Toronto’s Metrolinx on the $20 billion upgrading and electrification of the GO Rail system, and the $28.5 billion expansion of Toronto’s subway system. Michael is a Partner in FCP, a rail strategy boutique based in the UK advising clients on rail developments and projects around the world

The keynote will be between 11 am and noon Eastern time.

After the keynote, we will hold unconference-style sessions. For people who have not seen this style before, this means that we solicit ideas from the entire body of attendees for breakout sessions, and then by consensus, depending on the number of attendees and what they are interested in, split into rooms for further discussion of the selected topics. There will be three slots for breakouts: 1-2, 2:15-3:15, 3:30-4:30 pm, all Eastern time; the number of breakouts will depend greatly on the number of attendees, which at this point we are uncertain about. The breakouts may include pure discussions or presentations, and we also solicit expressions of interest in presenting if there’s an issue you have particular interest and expertise in.

There will be more information available on social media, but to register, please complete this form. You can create an account on Journey for this if you’d like, in which case you can save your progress and come back later, but this is not a long form and you can complete it in one go without registration.

The conference will be held on Zoom, with link emailed shortly before the event takes place.

Update 2020-07-11: here is the timetable. Email us at for the Zoom password if you’ve registered.



    @Alon, I was part of a group which did a 100% virtual transportation unconference in April ( We had over 200 unique individual participants. If you are interested, I can market your event to our participants, or introduce you to our “tech guru” who managed our technical infrastructure. Let me kn own if you are interested.

  2. michaelrjames

    You’ve certainly got a star keynote. I hope you compile a podcast of the highlights for those of us who won’t participate in the live event. I’m sure the focus will be on very immediate practical issues of which there are no shortage. But I hope Vukan Vuchic might give his assessment of any likely relevance of maglev, high-speed or low-speed, in light of this month’s speed record breaking by the Chinese (and intent to persist with maglev development) and his own paper on maglev for the NEC which is almost exactly 20 years old now. There were assumptions or questions in that paper that are now known, plus another twenty years of lack of American progress in HSR.
    I understand you may want to avoid descending into futile hyperloopiness but still, what is such a gabfest for if not a bit of alt thinking? Though arguably it is no longer so ‘alt’ with plenty of working examples in serious rail nations. It is way beyond dismissal with the sneer of ‘gadgetbahn’ (which is also about 20 years old).

    • ckrueger99

      Dr V just appeared on our local (to Philly) zoom with Transit Matters today. I was awestruck.

    • Herbert

      What do you think of “Transport System Bögl” developed by the German construction giant Max Bögl?

      • michaelrjames

        Herbert, not sure your question is directed to me. But, as a reader of this blog you must know Bögl’s own PR could have been lifted from some of my rants on it:
        Speeds of up to 150 km/h are possible when station distances are long enough. “Bögl TSB” permits small curve radii of up to 45 m, vertical radii of 300 m and gradients of up to 10 %. In elevated railway operation, spans of up to over 72 m between pillars can be achieved.

        Including that last point: the very long spans, because the trains are so much lighter and moving trains exert so much less vibration and force on the track. It always struck me that it was amenable to considerable cost saving, in both the materials and manufacture but also in construction costs and time. One hope is that its near-silent operation might overcome NIMBYism to allow much cheaper elevated transit instead of very expensive (at least in the Anglosphere) deep-bore tunnels. For me (but strangely cannot find any mention on the Bögl website) another big factor is the now-proven extremely low maintenance cost and extreme reliability. One thing I, as a non-train geek, have learnt from Alon’s blog, and paying more attention to these things elsewhere, is just how intensive, unrelenting and costly a part of a transit system the maintenance is–of the track and the trains. The TransRapid system in Shanghai has been operating since 2006 and apparently only incurred a total of 2 weeks maintenance over that period.

        I have to admit complete ignorance about this development by Bögl and am surprised I have not read anything about it in any media, despite it being apparently very advanced (delivering trains to China for testing). A cursory search seems to show the first media mention was in February this year and another article just days ago! There is a Wiki but in German only. A search of IRJ brings up zilch (other than Bögl normal rail projects).

        There is even talk of building the failed proposal of a line to Munich airport, which seems … brave! (Made me almost suspect an elaborate spoof.) Apparently it is a development using TransRapid technology so that explains how such a sophisticated and apparently complete technology didn’t just pop out of the ether. Doubtless it still costs more than steel wheels (though if it is implemented elevated …) but the long-term cost savings must be pretty big.

        Thanks for bringing it to my notice. I reckon with China (and Japan) pursuing very high-speed MagLev and Korea, China, Japan and now Bögl with city transit systems, it definitely should be discussed at the conference.

        Now, what do you think?

          • ckrueger99

            Can the Bögl trains and legacy trains share the same track, at least during a transition period? What are the upgrades needed to legacy tracks and other infrastructure? Does it make sense for an existing ‘El’ system like Chicago or Philly?

          • michaelrjames

            No*. The lack of interoperability has been a major argument against maglev. It has some logic w.r.t. high-speed rail but not really for city transit. It’s why TransRapid didn’t take off in Europe which has a huge rail network. However, the argument can be turned on its head as it avoids being burdened with all the compromises and bad practices of old rail. And of course for actual HSR sections new track and often ROW must be built. Thus, I still believe it makes some sense for the US NEC which needs its own ROW without sharing track with freight (and at the mercy of the companies that own them), and where building such a new standard rail ROW has proven just too difficult. The NEC’s Acela Express trains are capable of 240km/h but average about 110km/h. But an elevated silent super-train …
            China and Japan, and maybe India have such huge demand they can justify a separate network. The Beijing-Shanghai HSR is not yet a decade old but already at 80-90% capacity. Its catchment includes one quarter of China’s population, thus more than the population of the US.

            *There are old claims by Americans James Powell and Gordon Danby that they invented maglev in 1966, and a system that can use more or less standard steel rails (using them to generate an induced current/magnetic field to levitate their train) but it never had credibility.

          • Alon Levy

            Germany can justify a separate intercity high-speed rail network. This does not mean Transrapid – it means HSR that’s technologically compatible with legacy trains because we do expect some trains to run through, but designed so that most intercity trains spend the entire trip on high-speed lines or on dedicated approaches, rather like France but with through-tracks at major cities. Berlin already has these through-tracks, Stuttgart is about to get them at excessive price, and Frankfurt is beginning the process of intercity through-tracks, which I believe should be dedicated to ICE trains given the expected traffic there.

          • adirondacker12800

            The NEC doesn’t have much freight and in the congested parts there’s four tracks. And alternate routes. If a maglev train is actually going to stop in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Haven and Providence that eats up some of the time-saving. And it can’t go to Richmond or Harrisburg or Albany or Hartford. Or Montreal or Charlotte. Or Cleveland, Detroit or Atlanta. ..Minneapolis, Dallas or Miami

          • michaelrjames

            Well, it’s so good to see that old American can do attitude rising up again!


            The NEC doesn’t have much freight and in the congested parts there’s four tracks.

            Excellent. Then we can expect those trains to get close to their 240km/h design speed soon!

            hard to imagine the more widely spaced elevated columns will be enough to satisfy NIMBYs

            Srsly, this is America today? The thing is that maglev’s incompatibility with existing steel-wheel rail has advantages because, for just one thing in this context, there is no rational reason why its structure needs to be so heavy. It would be like building dedicated bike or pedestrians paths and structures to cope with 40 tonne 36-wheelers (or B-doubles as we would say, or indeed 120 tonne road trains that pound our outback “roads” (dirt tracks)). This argument is reminiscent of the 19th century reaction to trains moving at 40km/h, that passengers would die of stress and heart attacks.

            it can’t go to Richmond or Harrisburg or Albany or Hartford

            First, why not? Second, neither does the Acela Express go to any of those places (or if it does, there is no reason a maglev couldn’t).

            If a maglev train is actually going to stop in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Haven and Providence that eats up some of the time-saving.

            Maglev actually is a great advantage for including more stops with less than half the time penalty as standard trains (or even less given that it can speed up transiently to instantly make up ground/time if required). This is true for both HSR and city transit. Obviously, on the NEC some trains would be express while others would serve intermediate destinations. For city transit, even at lower and medium speeds, it saves a lot via both acceleration and higher speeds between frequent stops. Not only does it make city travel faster but fewer trains (40% fewer at least) to provide the same service, thus increased capacity with no penalty (one of Bögl’s selling points is that its smaller train sets can deliver 40,000 pax/h). You can see this effect dramatically in the Shanghai TransRapid with only one train on each track, shuttling back and forth over its 30km in 7m20s.

            Marginal gains at best, with a lot of risk

            Risk? First, is this what Americans have come to, frightened of their own shadows? Second, this is a major rail manufacturer who has been doing heavy engineering for almost 100 years. Oh, and it’s German. But I suppose I shouldn’t load on Americans since our resident German, Herbert, seems fainthearted on this thing too! Sad.
            Look, the fundamentals are screamingly obvious. The best possible performance with almost inconceivable reliability and almost zero maintenance costs. It’s not fiction but reality for 14 years for the high-speed version in Shanghai, but also the low-speed urban versions in Linimo (Japan), Incheon (Korea), Beijing S1 (China) and the most recently opened, Changsha (China) that has a 120km/h design speed and cost a reported $40m/km. Incheon cost $56m/km and Bögl claims their system costs “30 to 50 million euros (US$33-56m) per kilometre of double-track line with elevated track.” I guess we’ll get an idea from the 3.5km test track in Chengdu for the Bögl train.
            I suppose it really comes down to price but one wonders: what price 100% reliability and zero maintenance? Priceless? Ask New Yorkers who pay a lot more than maglev costs to build any new subway, and whose old subway is slower, and moves fewer people, than 100 years ago. Arthritic and decrepit, stuck in the past. A bit like Americans in general, or transit bloggers!

          • michaelrjames

            And exemplified by Mike Pence yesterday, where, after 5 months of denialism and refusal of the leadership to give clear advice, he gave another press conference in which he downplayed the pandemic’s spiralling cases and deaths–as Trump held a campaign rally inside a megachurch packed with maskless supporters–he signed off with “one more specific piece of advice: “Continue to pray.”

          • adirondacker12800

            The NEC doesn’t have much freight and in the congested parts there’s four tracks.

            Excellent. Then we can expect those trains to get close to their 240km/h design speed soon!
            Focus. your argument was that there is freight in the way. There isn’t.
            They do get up to service speed everyday. For a short stretch in Rhode Island but they do. They are being replaced, the test train has been delivered, that will be capable of 350. someday, have to convince the welfare queens in flyover country that spending money in the Northeast is spending the Northeast’s money.

            it can’t go to Richmond or Harrisburg or Albany or Hartford

            First, why not?

            Because there won’t be any track? Unless you want to build a whole new network to someplace in the general vicinity of I-35 more than half a continent away.

          • michaelrjames

            I know you live there and I live on the other side of the planet, but am I to disbelieve this bloke Alon Levy:

            the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure

            OK that doesn’t specifically mention freight but Wiki does:

            The corridor is used by many Amtrak trains, including the high-speed Acela Express, intercity trains, and several long-distance trains. Most of the corridor also has frequent commuter rail service, operated by the MBTA, Shore Line East, Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, and MARC. The corridor is also shared by a rapid transit system in a short part of New Jersey, the PATH train. Several companies run freight trains over sections of the NEC.

            The thing is that it doesn’t have to be very much at all, especially if controlled by the freight railroad companies, to have a big effect. Clearly sharing a route with much slower traffic is no way to run a HSR, as the average speeds proves.
            Further, I seem to recall that Amtrak’s absurd $290bn HSR plan will continue the sharing. In some places where new tunnels may not be necessary, any new ones are being built to handle double-height containers. Of course there may be a case to make expensive new infrastructure do double duty–for example freight at night–but the precedent of freight rail companies in the US is not good and they are exclusively interested in remunerating themselves and their shareholders.
            Looking at old blogs I see that effectively Alon agrees (selected extracts):

            michael.r.james 2015/11/14 – 00:15
            Alon wrote:
            Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev.

            In my naivety I wonder if that is not a glass-half-full scenario. The expense is so over the top that a Maglev looks cheap! I’m serious. I know that there is some kind of reflexive reaction whenever Maglev is mentioned that it is simply unaffordable, but is it true? It seems there is no credible recent costing to answer this question.
            With the Siemens [TransRapid] technology the trains are very light and thus create a virtuous circle: efficient use of power, easier sharp turns or steep grades, accel/decel, Also one should not apply the cost of standard (HSR or slow trains) for elevated track of $80 million per km (Alon) because the trains are much, much lighter so the spans can be both longer and less weighty, and foundations less expensive.
            Further, the fact that the maglev track cannot be interoperated is a glass-half-full unless you are a freight operator hoping to get a free lunch. All the arguments I read here about local commuter traffic and conflicts with other parts of the rail network are thrown away, by the engineering! It must have its own ROW.

            As regards those other destinations you mention, no they won’t be directly served by a MagLev but neither would they be served directly by any kind of HSR, as today the Acela Express trains don’t serve them. But they would continue to be served by whatever Amtrak train service they currently have, which would mean one change to link into the whole NEC.

          • adirondacker12800

            Amtrak or the states own it between Washington DC and Boston. The busy parts are busy with commuter traffic, not a lot of freight. And have four tracks. And in places six or more. You can definitely see PATH platforms in Newark and Harrison New Jersey. PATH has it’s own separate tracks. The majority of Amtrak’s ridership comes from the Regionals, not from Acela. And Acela can stop anyplace with high platforms and wires. Amtrak just chooses not to.

      • Eric2

        Fancy proprietary technology with a proprietary unverifiable safety system? Hard to imagine cost will be cheaper than a regular metro, hard to imagine the more widely spaced elevated columns will be enough to satisfy NIMBYs. Marginal gains at best, with a lot of risk, plus the inherent disadvantage of incompatibility with other systems.

  3. michaelrjames

    FYI, in Nature online:
    Organizing a virtual conference changed the way we think about academic exchange
    Flying around the world to give a ten-minute presentation to an exhausted audience is a model long overdue for reform, say sustainability researchers Christina Bidmon, Cristyn Meath and René Bohnsack.
    Christina Bidmon, Cristyn Meath & René Bohnsack, 24 June 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.