The Need to Remove Bad Management

I’ve talked a lot recently about bad management as a root cause of poor infrastructure, especially on Twitter. The idea, channeled through Richard Mlynarik, is that the main barrier to good US infrastructure construction, or at least one of the main barriers, is personal incompetence on behalf of decisionmakers. Those decisionmakers can be elected officials, with levels of authority ranging from governors down to individual city council members; political appointees of said officials; quasi-elected power brokers who sit on boards and are seen as representative of some local interest group; public-sector planners; or consultants, usually ones who are viewed as an extension of the public sector and may be run by retired civil servants who get a private-sector salary and a public-sector pension. In this post I’d like to zoom in on the managers more than on the politicians, not because the politicians are not culpable, but because in some cases the managers are too. Moreover, I believe removal of managers with a track record of failure is a must for progress.

The issue of solipsism

Spending any time around people who manage poorly-run agencies is frustrating. I interview people who are involved in successful infrastructure projects, and then I interview ones who are involved in failed ones, and then people in the latter group are divided into two parts. Some speak of the failure interestingly; this can involve a blame game, typically against senior management or politics, but doesn’t have to, for example when Eric and I spoke to cost estimators about unit costs and labor-capital ratios. But some do not – and at least in my experience, the worst cases involve people who don’t acknowledge that something is wrong at all.

I connect this with solipsism, because this failure to acknowledge is paired with severe incuriosity about the rest of the world. A Boston-area official who I otherwise respect told me that it is not possible to electrify the commuter rail system cheaply, because it is 120 years old and requires other investments, as if the German, Austrian, etc. lines that we use as comparison cases aren’t equally old. The same person then said that it is not possible to do maintenance in 4-hour overnight windows, again something that happens all the time in Europe, and therefore there must be periodic weekend service changes.

A year and a half ago I covered a meeting that was videotaped, in which New Haven-area activists pressed $200,000/year managers at Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation about their commuter rail investments. Those managers spoke with perfect confidence about things they had no clue about, saying it’s not possible that European railroads buy multiple-units for $2.5 million per car, which they do; one asserted the US was unique in having wheelchair accessibility laws (!), and had no idea that FRA reform as of a year before the meeting permitted lightly-modified European trains to run on US track.

The worst phrase I keep hearing: apples to apples. The idea is that projects can’t really be compared, because such comparisons are apples to oranges, not apples to apples; if some American project is more expensive, it must be that the comparison is improper and the European or Asian project undercounted something. The idea that, to the contrary, sometimes it’s the American project that is easier, seems beyond nearly everyone who I’ve talked to. For example, most recent and under-construction American subways are under wide, straight streets with plenty of space for the construction of cut-and-cover station boxes, and therefore they should be cheaper than subways built in the constrained center of Barcelona or Stockholm or Milan, not more expensive.

What people are used to

In Massachusetts, to the extent there is any curiosity about rest-of-world practice, it comes because TransitMatters keeps pushing the issue. Even then, there is reticence to electrify, which is why the state budget for regional rail upgrades in the next few years only includes money for completing the electrification of sidings and platform tracks on the already-electrified Providence Line and for short segments including the Fairmount Line, Stoughton Branch, and inner part of the Newburyport and Rockport Lines. In contrast, high platforms, which are an ongoing project in Boston, are easier to accept, and thus the budget includes more widespread money for it, even if it falls short of full high-level platforms at every station in the system.

In contrast, where high platform projects are not so common, railroaders find excuses to avoid them. New Jersey Transit seems uninterested in replacing all the low platforms on its system with high platforms, even though the budget for such an operation is a fraction of that of the Gateway tunnel, which the state committed $2.5 billion to in addition to New York money and requested federal funding. The railroad even went as far as buying new EMUs that are compatible not with the newest FRA regulations, which are similar to UIC ones used in Europe, but with the old ones; like Metro-North’s management, it’s likely NJ Transit’s had no idea that the regulations even changed.

The issue of what people are used to is critical. When you give someone authority over other people and pay them $200,000 a year, you’re signaling to them, “never change.” Such a position can reward ambition, but not the ambition of the curious grinder, but that of the manager who makes other people do their work. People in such a position who do not know what “electronics before concrete” means now never will learn, not will they even value the insights of people who have learned. The org chart is clear: the zoomer who’s read papers about Swiss railroad planning works for the boomer who hasn’t, and if the boomer is uncomfortable with change, the zoomer can either suck it up or learn to code and quit for the private sector.

You can remove obstructionist managers

From time to time, a powerful person who refuses to use their power except in the pettiest ways accidentally does something good. Usually this doesn’t repeat itself, despite the concrete evidence that it is possible to do things thought too politically difficult. For example, LIRR head Helena Williams channeled Long Island NIMBYism and opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds – it would intrude on what Long Islanders think is their space in the tunnels to Penn Station. But PSA was a priority for Governor Andrew Cuomo, so Cuomo fired Williams, and LIRR opposition vanished.

This same principle can be done at scale. Managers who refuse to learn from successful examples, which in capital construction regardless of mode and in operations of mainline rail are never American and rarely in English-speaking countries, can and should be replaced. Traditional railroaders who say things are impossible that happen all the time in countries they look down on can be fired; people from those same countries will move to New York for a New York salary.

This gets more important the more complex a project gets. It is possible, for example, to build high-speed rail between Boston and Washington for a cost in the teens of billions and not tens, let alone hundreds, but not a single person involved in any of the present effort can do that, because it’s a project with many moving parts and if you trust a railroad manager who says “you can’t have timed overtakes,” you’ll end up overbuilding unnecessary tunnels. In this case, managers with a track record of looking for excuses why things are impossible instead of learning from places that do those things are toxic to the project, and even kicking them up is toxic, because their subordinates will learn to act like that too. The squeaky wheel has to be removed and thrown into the garbage dumpster.

And thankfully, squeaky wheels that get thrown into the dumpster stop squeaking. All of this is possible, it just requires elected officials who have the ambition to take risks to effect tangible change rather than play petty office politics every day. Cuomo is the latter kind of politician, but he proved to everyone that a more competent leader could replace solipsists with curious learners and excusemongers with experts.


  1. michaelrjames

    My only commentaire is that while doubtless there are incompetent individuals, my focus is more on the political forces that have been operating these past 4 decades. Especially in the Anglosphere where power and competence have been deliberately removed from the civil service involved in such things, to shift real decision making to overt political appointees and to private players. The incompetence and denialism you describe is a result rather than a cause, and those people may be genuinely dumb/incurious as they may be the ones left after the better ones saw the writing-on-the-wall and left for private industry, or they know that this behaviour is the only thing that keeps them in the job–not threatening anyone (except inferiors; these are usual perfect jobsworths) and covertly oiling the cost-inflation and denialism about alternatives. Making it almost impossible is the revolving doors between upper civil service (or public authorities) and the very people in industry they are supposed to supervise or contain.

    Be careful of the boomers-v-zoomers shtick because it’s probably not true; in my experience the boomers who are in the upper ranks (yes, I’m one) are competent but have been increasingly displaced by the next gen of managerialists (who learn it at university management courses, MBAs etc) and don’t believe widgetry needs specialist knowledge and instead can be managed better by someone trained in accountancy. And the people who competently run the best rail systems in the world are or were boomers, who inherited and respected their skills from the previous generation and would/do happily pass it all on to the next gen. It’s the new generations of managerialists and political ideologues who disdain all those people with ‘old’ experience and competencies. Oh, and increasingly in the Anglosphere, those with the relevant competencies are immigrants or first-gen-born of immigrants, often POC, and so are starting disadvantaged, when most of the non-immigrants disdain such expertise in ‘hard’ professions, instead gravitating to the money professions. I was just beginning my scientific training (late 70s-early 80s) when this trend was already obvious (in the Anglosphere) and there were already people worried about it–they were right to worry because look at the result.

    • Alon Levy

      In North American mainline rail specifically, the civil servants tend to suck too. It’s different in urban rail operations, and Richard for example has pointed out for years that BART operations are decent, it’s the heavily politicized capital construction that sucks. (For example, the San Jose subway horror show is not a BART project but a VTA project.) But in mainline rail, the railroaders act like it’s still 1952 and reform efforts happen over their objections, for example in Toronto. This isn’t quite an Anglosphere thing – Britain and Australia are different – so much as North America having diverged from Europe and refusing to learn.

      But yes, part of the issue is that the US and UK tend to have unusually low STEM privilege. Technical skills are for autists and immigrants, real leaders are generalists. (P.S. in Continental Europe, I think the most generalist-led society is France, which has some of the same elite problems as Britain; the contrast with Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia is noticeable.) But in mainline rail in North America, the engineers are used to what they’ve been mentored in over the decades, which is unreliable service, limited connections with academic engineering research, and complete insularity.

      [I also typo-fixed your above comment by request.]

      • Herbert

        The only place I’ve been to that exceeds the almost mythical respect engineers with the relevant university degree in Germany enjoy is Latin America where “ingeniero” replaces first and last name and is even mentioned on the likes of “here in 1873 the people x y and z came together to plan the overthrow of the evil regime of so and so” – If one of them had an engineering degree, it will be mentioned…

        That said, I don’t think this translates either to a particular expertise when it comes to public transit nor the willingness to learn from Spain instead of playing “Yankee junior”. In virtually all of Latin America the biggest problem with public transit is that there simply isn’t enough of it. Just take mainland Central America, where out of six capitals (Managua, San Jose, Tegucigalpa, Panama City, San Salvador, Guatemala city) only one has urban rail of any kind and that’s not even counting Belize (due to it being Anglophone)

        • michaelrjames

          Surely there is still respect for such professions in East Asia and Asia generally? After all, that’s the source of a lot of the profession in the Anglosphere. In the recent tv documentary on building the just-opened Sydney NorthWest Metro a lot of the workers were from these places including Germany, Switzerland, France, India and East Asia. Indians are big in this kind of thing, partly because they have English as mother-tongue but also because there is plenty of them because their culture still accords respect to such professions. My impression of the US is that their tech industries would barely function if it wasn’t for the Indian imports (and increasingly first-gen local born Indians; heck one is even VEEP, though ok not STEM).

          • Eric2

            I think it’s just that Western countries only let in the talented and hard-working Indians, not the average Indian.

          • Herbert

            The average Indian is plenty hard working and talented. But the immigration system only lets in those with a college degree or working towards one…

          • michaelrjames


            But it’s beyond just numbers. Or rather India has a very long and strong history in numbers, for example establishing zero and via that, the decimal system. Ramanujan was one of the most remarkable mathematicians of the last century if not all time–his birthdate is celebrated every year in India as National Mathematics Day.

          • Eric2

            My working assumption is that the average person of every nation is equally hard working and talented. But the US (and other Western countries) don’t let in the average Indian, they let in the ones more hard working and talented than average. That’s what I meant to say. Not to denigrate the average Indian.

          • RossB

            In the U. S., the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act lead to a big increase in immigration from India. Educational exchange programs, new temporary visas for highly skilled workers, and expanded employment-based immigration channels opened pathways for highly skilled and educated Indian immigrants, many of whom brought family. Immigration policy is heavily based on both family reunification and employment. Thus since 1965 you’ve had a lot of upper class Indians coming over either because they are highly educated, or family of someone who was.

            I doubt there are very many hard working or talented members of the lower classes that make it over. A few, but it is skewed by class more than ability or effort.

          • michaelrjames

            @RossB: “I doubt there are very many hard working or talented members of the lower classes that make it over. ”

            I never said that. But it is not upper classes, instead it is the middle class which of course, in a country of 1.5 billion, is quite a big group and as aspirational as any middle-class anywhere. Americans (and some others in the Anglosphere and rich west) have some peculiar delusions about the likes of India and China which are mixtures of first-world and third-world but where the solid middle classes are now bigger than any equivalent group anywhere else in the world. Of course the perception of any Euro or Australia/Japanese/Korea/Singaporean etc first-time visitor to the US is always shocked at exactly the same thing there. Like that teacher in Oklahoma (I cited in earlier post) who suddenly realised in mid-life that she wasn’t in the middle-class anymore.

          • adirondacker12800

            Like that teacher in Oklahoma (I cited in earlier post) who suddenly realised in mid-life that she wasn’t in the middle-class anymore.
            She doesn’t understand the word “middle”. The Census Bureau estimates the median household income in Oklahoma, in 2019, was $52,919. The median salary for a teacher in Oklahoma is $52,412. A 180 day working year is worth a bit too. If she has a working spouse they are well above the median. Or a summer job. Teachers love to take summer jobs.

          • michaelrjames

            @adirondacker: “The Census Bureau estimates the median household income in Oklahoma, in 2019, was $52,919. The median salary for a teacher in Oklahoma is $52,412. A 180 day working year is worth a bit too. ”

            That must explain why the teachers in Oklahoma went on strike and won the argument with the first increase in education budgets since forever: “For four years running, the state has led the nation in tax cuts to education, outpacing second-place Alabama by double digits. Years of tax cuts and budget shortfalls mean that Oklahoma has fallen to 49th in teacher pay. Spending per pupil has dropped by 26.9% since 2008.”

            And …”teachers in West Virginia ended a heated nine-day strike in which they bargained for a 5 percent pay increase for all state employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers in West Virginia are the fifth lowest paid in the country, earning an average of $45,240 — but Oklahoma actually holds the title for the lowest paid teachers in the country. In Oklahoma, the average annual income for a high school teacher is $42,460. Many make much less.”

            Both average and median (even if true; looks dodgy to me, is your figure of $52k really the lowest in the country?) may mask a very unequal profile, ie. of older teachers with higher salary and the kind of entry-level salaries many younger teachers are complaining about. “The state minimum salary was increased at all years of experience and degree levels by an average of $6,100. The minimum for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is now $36,601, a $5,001 increase over the previous minimum salary, which was set at $31,600 in 2008.5 Aug 2019” And explains a mass exodus of teachers from the state. In Tulsa they “lost 22 percent of our teachers last year, and over the last couple of years, more than 30 percent in total.”

            Your “180 day working year” is a bit tricksy. They work 10 months of the 12. Have you ever taught? Are you one of those who bitch about teachers getting it so easy? Some people may find it a breeze, though some also don’t take it seriously, but my experience (at the tertiary level which I think is easier than lower levels) is that it can be exhausting though I presume teaching the same curriculum over long periods, it does get easier. AFAIK, the US is the only advanced economy who pays teachers like that (is it universal in all states/school districts?). The surprising thing about Oklahoma is that its cost of living is not so low yet the pay is so miserable for so many. It shows what happens with decades of austerity budgets and running down public institutions (except jails, it’s world leading in conviction and incarceration). Fast approaching failed state status.

          • adirondacker12800

            If she was a teacher from her early 20s she wasn’t earning entry level pay. I didn’t say anything about average. Get back to us when you figure out the difference between average and median.

          • RossB

            “But it is not upper classes [from India, that are coming to the U. S.], instead it is the middle class”

            I’ve never read anything like that, but feel free to quote your sources. Much of what I wrote came for this:

            A recent article in the Atlantic ( sums it up nicely:

            This scene played out in thousands of families as many of India’s best and brightest left for the U.S. From 1966 to 1977, according to the historian Vijay Prashad, about 20,000 scientists immigrated from India to the United States, along with 40,000 engineers and 25,000 physicians. The majority spoke English and came from upper-caste communities (as my parents did). The composition of the diaspora was representative of only a narrow slice of India: people who had the social capital and intellectual means to succeed far from home, and who had the resources to make the journey in the first place.

            Then there is just the statistical evidence ( About 40% of those born in India living in the U. S. have a post graduate degree. 40%! Holy cow, man, that ain’t middle class for America, let alone India. 28% of all Americans have a bachelors degree or higher; 72% of Indian immigrants do.

            Maybe you’re confusing Mexicans with Indians?

          • michaelrjames

            First you are confusing upper-caste with financial status. While some those Brahmins were generally better off, it was neither universal nor would their status be what would be defined as middle-class by western standards.

            Second, and more importantly, that data was a narrow slice of time from 50 years ago. I was speaking of recent times (last 15-25 years) when India sometimes had the world’s fastest growing major economy and some sectors such as IT bloomed. This is when its middle-class really grew and it involved a lot more than just the 5% upper-caste.

            Third, “About 40% of those born in India living in the U. S. have a post graduate degree.” is of course a simple result of selection by your Green Card conditions, and the insatiable demand by your IT and other industries because the US doesn’t encourage enough native-born to pursue those studies. We’d find something similar in Australia for recent Indian and Chinese immigrants (though a wider spectrum since our IT industry is nothing as large a sector relative to others–however our IT sector does scream loudly when restrictions on such work visas is mooted by politicians from time to time; some claim that it is really because you can get a more qualified Indian at lower pay rate (in principle not really allowed in Oz … yeah). At any rate this feature has nothing to do with the earlier point which only concerned internal status within India.

          • Herbert

            There is no middle class.

            There is a class that has to sell their labor to survive. And one that exploits the labor of others.

            “Middle class” is a propaganda term from the cold war era to keep the laborers in check

          • adirondacker12800

            “Middle class” is a propaganda term from the cold war era to keep the laborers in check
            Somebody tell Karl Marx he survived World War II.

          • RossB

            “First you are confusing upper-caste with financial status. ”

            No, you are ignoring recent U. S. immigration policy, as well as the data that supports it. This isn’t old data — it is from 2015. I’ve listed article after article to support something that is generally considered common knowledge. To quote that first report (

            “Indian immigrants are more likely to be highly educated, to work in management positions, and to have higher incomes.”

            “About 40% of those born in India living in the U. S. have a post graduate degree.” is of course a simple result of selection by your Green Card conditions.

            YES! That’s what I’ve been saying. Holy cow, man, it isn’t that complicated. Immigration policy favors family reunification and specialized workers. BOTH favor high income Indians. Existing Indian immigrants are upper class, which means that when members of the family come over, they tend to be upper class as well. Specialized workers are generally people who are highly educated, which means (of course) that it tends to favor the upper classes. Just look at those numbers. The average full time Indian Immigrant worker made $77,000 a year in 2015. That’s not middle class! That same year the average American made $20,000 less.

            You keep making the same arguments, without any data to support your case. Of course you can find exceptions. But there is very little economic mobility within the United States right now, and there is very little in the Indian American community either. That’s because the folks who come over are largely well to do, and continue to do well.

        • Roger “Four Freedoms” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

          That is inherited from Spain. The country has many ills, but the “Ingenieria de caminos, canales y puertos” (the traditional name for civil engineers) has a reputation from being the most brutal, toughtest academic credential anyone can get, and they work HARD to ensure that it continues to be the case. Attrition in that degree is nuts (I believe 75%+) and getting means you are truly, truly good and respected.

          Spanish engineers are Gods. Politicians do not mess with them.

      • Lee Ratner

        American politicians either prefer the car because Culture War or just don’t want to punish Americans out of their car and suburban lifestyles.

        • Andrew in Ezo

          This. The ship has sailed on ever making most major metro areas outside of the NE anywhere decent wrt public transport. Coming from Japan, whenever I visit the folks in the Bay Area, if I need to use the public transport (something to avoid if at all possible), the overall feeling I get when waiting at a bus stop, a Caltrain station, or riding a filthy BART train stopping at filthy stations is that society as a whole is giving me or any public transport user a big ‘ol F*** you.

          • Henry Miller

            There are a fair amount of Americans interested in better public transport. However between the fact that transit isn’t useful (both because it doesn’t come often enough, and doesn’t go where you want to go) most people don’t actually have the option to use it. As such it gets lip service. If competent leadership was in place they could solve those problems and in turn get people interested in the other issues.

          • Herbert

            Let’s see what Pete Buttiegieg does….

            Can’t be much worse than status quo

          • Lee Ratner

            There does seem to be at least some movement towards TOD development around BART stations. The Walnut Creek BART station is building an apartment/retail complex on the old parking lot. The big problem is that even in the dense areas, nearly everything is built around the car and there is a big last mile problem. Like if I want to get to most places in SF, I’m going to have to go a BART stop and either walk or get on a bus or light rail line. Same with most places in Berkeley or Oakland. Driving or taking a Lyft is an easier option. Trying to get Americans towards more dense living is going to be really hard.

          • Tonami Playman

            But they couldn’t help themselves but to build a 925 space 5 level garage replacement first. That ~ 2.7acre lot could have used for additional housing. Even when BART builds TOD, they tend to dedicate a lot of the freed up space to parking. In Walnut Creek’s case roughly 38%. A similar Parking dominated TOD was done at Fruitvale and Dublin/Pleasanton stations.

          • Lee Ratner

            A lot of BART users aren’t going to have somebody that can drive them to the station and leave, so they need spaces for their cars. A parking garage is at least less of an eye sore than a giant parking lot. There is a real practical political limit to how much anti-car measures a politician can get away in the United States. It doesn’t matter whether it is the libertarian light touch approach like getting rid of parking minimums or charging market rates for parking or a more heavy handed make it real hard to drive approach. Fruitvale doesn’t make sense because it was in Oakland proper though. Walnut Creek and Dublin I can understand politically.

          • RossB

            I don’t think the ship has sailed. There is no reason why a city like Seattle can’t operate a system like Vancouver, BC for example. The problem was poor investment in the past, but with proper management, a lot of the mistakes could be corrected.

          • Lee Ratner

            RossB, the best places for increasing transit usage and transit oriented development in the United States outside the North East are what I call non-car car cities. These are places like Portland, Seattle, and Oakland. Cities that never really lost their pre-car character or hollowed out that much but weren’t big enough to have subways before World War II.

          • Henry Miller

            @Lee Ratner No, the best place is any city with > 100,000 people. Much smaller than that and you are small enough that you can’t get enough people on to support the cost of a bus. (you can still do on-demand for the disabled, but let not count that) As you get over that good service will get a few on board and you should be able to break even on costs for select routes.

            I’m sure there is a limit to how much transport you can add before it can’t get any more people out of private cars. (plumbers, delivery, and lots of other city support personal – I suppose they could use transit for their job, but nobody seriously believes transit is better than driving). No city in the US is anywhere close to this, so good management should be able to get some mode share. Of course the smaller the city the harder it is to compete with cars, but since no place is close to the limit we don’t need to worry about that.

            The more cities (of any size) that have transit, the more network effects make them all better. High speed rail is enhanced by the places you can reach once you get there. Local transit is enhanced when people can get more places.

            Yes, good TOD makes transit better, but that is a checken-egg situation: nobody sane will build TOD without lots of destinations you can reach on that transit.

    • Good Egg Jobsworth

      It only takes a little over three decades to prosecute the odd bad egg, however it probably would take less time if people supported those who do report misconduct, but why risk my neck.

    • Oreg

      Agreed about the zoomer-boomer point. By far my worst, least competent managers so far were the millennials. Very authoritarian, hierarchical, conformist style — exactly the opposite of how millennials supposedly expect to be managed. The boomers were much more open to expertise and dissenting opinions from below. But that’s just my anecdotal evidence.

  2. James Scantlebury

    By pushing out Andy Buford, Cuomo also demonstrated he wants loyalty from subordinates rather than a well regarded international expert…
    Two sides of the same coin I guess!

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, and this was incredibly controversial, leading to a lot of scorn from area reporters on the metro beat, whereas nobody went to bat for Helena Williams.

  3. First Class Duck (@FirstClassDuck)

    *The same person then said that it is not possible to do maintenance in 4-hour overnight windows, again something that happens all the time in Europe, and therefore there must be periodic weekend service changes.*

    Did said person ever explain *why* they can’t use 4 hour overnight windows? As in “no, our labour force won’t agree to it” or “we won’t hire enough people to make it work” or “we don’t do outdoor work in the dark” or some other reason that I can’t think of?

  4. Herbert

    A common complaint in Germany these days is “planning takes forever”. The main defences (If any are brought forth) are “democracy takes longer than authoritarianism” and “we want to adequately weigh all alternatives”. A possible excuse that is oddly absent is the one that “the easy stuff has been built already – now we have to build more difficult stuff”

    To give one example of a project that “takes forever” because among other things there are 19th century tunnels which weren’t built for electrification is the right Pegnitz railway or where according to they’re even considering bypassing a difficult section of bridges and tunnels altogether building a new tunnel on a new alignment because that might be easier all things considered

      • Herbert

        Lots of bridges and tunnels (many of the bridges being listed buildings) and sometimes one after the other in such close succession that lowering the floor of the tunnel is impossible.

        Also they want to do the work without disrupting travel too much and some tunnels are too narrow for keeping one track open while the other is being worked on

    • Lukas

      I don’t think that’s it. It’s not all planning, it’s the fact the process building is organised for scarcity and we have a shortage of engineers and Nimbys have too many veto points.

      The whole cost-benefit analysis system + approval grant system enacted by the Feds is only understandable if you think that “we don’t have the money for most things and this have to prioritise”.
      The fact that the process for electrifications e.g. isn’t
      1.) Local Rail Agency wants Electrification
      2.) Line is used by >= 2 tph on average during the work day or there is an option of through running with electrical equipment (Müngstener, Voreifelbahn are two Lines that qualify for both!)
      3.) –> Line is granted spot in electrification priorisation programme
      is a bit scandalous.

      Instead we get long waits for studies into how useful it is, Nimbys get to sue since you change the line and thus new rules apply, which takes years…

      • Herbert

        And if you build noise barriers, people complain almost as much as they do about the noise…

  5. Stephen Bauman

    Project management salaries vary directly with project costs. Someone who manages a $100M project will make more money than one who manages one that costs $1M. It’s in a manager’s self interest to recommend a $100M project that will perform almost as well as one that costs $1M. The self interest appeal permeates the entire design, build, operate, etc. phases of any public or private enterprise. It’s not limited to railroads or construction.

    • Matthew Hutton

      I’d have thought a bigger issue would be that the person managing a $1m project would be paid maybe $50k a year whereas someone managing a $100m project would be paid $250k a year and the public sector won’t pay someone like that that much.

      • Matthew Hutton

        And if you want people to work for you for less pay you’ve got to offer a better workplace culture than the private sector which at this point probably means lightweight bureaucracy with self-management. And certainly it means using Agile.

    • Alon Levy

      The project managers are not the problem, the problem is usually farther up. (Or, in mainline rail in North America, everywhere.)

      • Matthew Hutton

        If the problem is higher up then the salary issue is going to be worse. When the top public sector people get ~£150k you are going to struggle to get talent for roles that pay more than that in the private sector.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s usually the other way around, the real retention problems in the US public sector are for junior planners, essentially because they’re trainable in the private sector, and aren’t seeing a defined-benefit pension for 20+ years.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Some ideas: rebalance pay vs the pension a bit (I.e. pay more and make the pension worse), frame the pension well and make it clear to staff what it is worth, and improve workplace culture by adopting modern business practice (Agile etc).

          • Henry Miller

            you people tend not to value their pension. Given the poor financial shape many of them are in it is hard to blame them. The defined contribution plans are where the young who care want their money. This means that they can move to a different job in a few years and not lose everything they put in. Even if you don’t get any of your 401k match because you leave too soon, at least you get your portion of the contribution for life. Pension systems tend to assume you will work there for life – not a safe assumption for either employees or employers in this day.

            That is for those who can plan ahead 20-50 years and believe that retirement is worth thinking about. In my experience most don’t start thinking about saving for retirement until they are close to 60 at which time it is too late. (Leaving only social security of the equivalent, because you couldn’t opt out of it no matter what you think of the system)

          • adirondacker12800

            In the U.S. you vest in a defined benefit plan in ten years. Or less if the plan allows.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Defined benefit plans are worth tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay.

            You need ~$200k capital in a defined contribution account to get $10k of pension out.

          • Henry Miller

            @adirondacker12800 that is the problem: You have no way to know for sure you will work that job for 10 years. You could get a better offer and quit in year 9. They could lay you off in a budget cut in year 9. Then where are you? With defined contribution you always get something, even if you find a better job one month later.

            @Matthew Hutton I know that, but young people often don’t really understand that or know how to value it. Long term it is their loss, but that is reality. And at current market returns that is only 4-6 years for your 401k to be worth $200k (assuming max contribution and a good investment). My pension when I retire – assuming I stay with my current company until I retire – is about 20k/year (I didn’t start until 35, younger people get more), my 401k is already worth more than that, and it stays with me even if I go elsewhere, and should grow substantially in the mean time.

            In addition to the above, you can’t control risk in your pension plan. Illinois is in trouble now because of how baddly funded their pension plans are. Expect in the next 10 years something will change as voters realize they can’t stand for the taxes they have to pay for then, with no current benefits. (My guess is a $100k/year cap on benefits, which will feel like soaking the rich, but probably more as well since the numbers don’t add up).

            Because of the above issues I tell young people put as much as possible in their defined contribution plan. However when asked about defined benefit plans I tell them they are a nice to have, but don’t put any value on them – there is too much risk out of your control.

        • michaelrjames

          This exactly the kind of thinking that has created the problem over the past forty years. In Australia, and in the UK, the public servants are (too) well paid, especially the upper-level managers who are these days political appointees. The old thinking that you must pay such public servants so-called ‘market rates’ (or else …. pay peanuts …) has been comprehensively debunked. It appears to work in reverse: the more you pay the less they work in the public interest and more in their own narrow self-interest. After all, that is exactly what the ideology has shouted from the rooftops by the likes of Thatcher-Reagan and the likes of Murdoch et al. That greed is good.

          One thing is that many professionals hate working in such organisations when the upper management are political appointees (and often short-termers, putting in a few years before jumping to industry at even higher salary) and impose poor decisions and practices on everyone else, plus the constant threat of being sacked for not toeing the approved line. In fact in Australia the excessive remuneration of such people, nominally working for us, has become an issue though one that doesn’t seem to go anywhere because both sides of politicians aren’t inclined to address it. But it is impossible to address without having hard law–not useless guidelines that the pollies themselves blatantly ignore–about such people leaving to work for private players whom they only just recently worked with etc.

          It is untrue that there aren’t plenty of competent professionals willing to work for the civil service at reasonable recompense, but they want a service to be proud of and not one of arbitrary and blatantly politicised decision making, often by people without relevant expertise.

  6. Matthew Hutton

    In terms of the whole article I think a smarter approach would be to be firstly prepared to pay elite public sector managers a similar wage to what they earn in the private sector, and secondly to offer significant retraining opportunities so the people in place have a good opportunity to learn and do better.

    • Matthew Hutton

      And if you want people to work for you for less pay you’ve got to offer a better workplace culture than the private sector which at this point probably means lightweight bureaucracy with self-management. And certainly it means using Agile.

      (I think this is where this comment should go)

    • Alon Levy

      Sometimes they do bring in outside managers from the private sector. The result usually isn’t good, because they don’t understand modern rail operations either, and have no reason to learn; the American private sector isn’t any more curious about rest-of-world practices than the public sector, it’s just near the technological frontier so it doesn’t need to learn.

      And as for retraining, I get it for a $70,000/year train driver made redundant by automation, but a $200,000/year vice president doesn’t get retrained.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Certainly in Britain the top 1% is made up of a large number of immigrants. So in terms of people at least Britain’s private sector is bringing in expertise from other countries. I’d suspect the same is true in the US.

        And with regards to rail projects one of the areas of significant complication is signalling. Why couldn’t someone who worked for a bank doing tech be successfully bought into that role?

        • Henry Miller

          The best is a culture of training your people and letting them go only if they refuse to apply training. In my limited experience if you set the standard that training and best practices is expected people respond, but it needs to come from above. However you need to give the incompetent room to learn to pull this off, which is not a friendly thing.

          One important point is you need to be clear what risks you are allowed to take. A train accident is bad enough that you want everyone to think “I’ll be fired if something happens, so I’m going to do extra work to ensure it doesn’t”. While you want them to think “Lets try opening the fare gates and doing POP, the worst that can happen is everybody figures out we can’t legally do anything if you don’t pa, and then we use the fare gates again”.

          In other words when do you tell someone “I just spend a million dollars teaching you a lesson – be more careful next time: now get back to work”, and when do you say “I’m firing you for incompetence”. Not any easy question, but one that is vital if you want people to look elsewhere. After all “nobody gets fired for buying IBM” existed for years in the private sector, but eventually those who were willing to look elsewhere got promoted for doing things that IBM couldn’t do.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Being able to take risks (though obviously not ones that kill people too often) is extremely important.

        • Onux

          Yes, however a submarine commanding officer – or the equivalent for any other military unit – has far greater control and power over those they command than any private sector manager, by far. Even if he didn’t use it, he certainly had the power to relieve, replace, or reassign subordinates (sometimes requiring approval of his superior). He wrote or reviewed the fitness reports of his subordinates, which follow them forever in their career, and can write an adverse report that kills any future promotion even if he doesn’t “fire” the person. The military has effectively no work rules or employment law regarding overtime, job classification, etc.; if the commander wants everyone to stay late because they didn’t get it right the first time they do, if the radio operators aren’t getting it he can assign a top torpedo Petty Officer to help them out. A ship commander even has quasi-judicial power over their sailors and can strip them of rank (thus lower pay) or confine them to ship or brig for certain offenses. Just because he didn’t fire anyone doesn’t mean he wasn’t taking other actions to shape up the crew.

          The contrast with the situation in most US public sector employment is stark, to say the least. Bus drivers in San Francisco have no-show days where then can miss work without calling in consequence free, leaving managers to learn of vacancies at morning roll call. The Detroit water department had (has?) rules that plumbers couldn’t drive themselves to repairs or dig to find the pipes, two different unions claimed those jobs. New York City had “rubber rooms” of teachers that they didn’t want in a classroom (some are sex offenders) but who the rules made it too difficult to fire; they received full pay. Whether these rules are due to higher managers Alon says should be fired or due to politicians can be debated, but to only say Marquet turned things around without firing anyone is an oversimplification given other drastic differences.

          Finally, although he didn’t fire anyone, that doesn’t mean Marquet was working with the exact same crew as when the sub was worst in the fleet. Military units rotate personnel on a regular basis, so when he replaced the old commander other crew would have changed as well. A few key senior sailors, the Chiefs, can have an enormous impact on the performance of a unit, as much as the commander.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I believe in the book he mostly improved the crew he had. But I take your point.

      • Gok (@Gok)

        > the American private sector isn’t any more curious about rest-of-world practices than the public sector, it’s just near the technological frontier so it doesn’t need to learn.

        Are you talking about railroads or in general?

          • Gok (@Gok)

            I’m curious which American tech company they think is not obsessed with analysis of their (domestic and foreign) competition.

          • Alon Levy

            Not tech, but look for example at the failure of the American auto industry to adopt the Toyota Production System. To this day the US-based companies can’t make good fuel-efficient cars; they’re making profits right now off of SUVs, taking advantage of low fuel prices. The tech industry, meanwhile, has some serious blinders about innovations that come from not-tech.

          • Herbert

            Tech is fundamentally incapable of conceiving of problems where “there isn’t an app for that” – and not because nobody has built one yet, but because it cannot be done.

            And consequently they scoff at domain knowledge in fields that tells them “it ain’t workin’ like that”

          • Eric2

            I don’t understand what “problems where “there isn’t an app for that” ” is supposed to mean

          • Herbert

            Tech things problems such as transportation can be solved with an app. Hence uber. Hence the obsession with self driving cars.

            When people who’ve studied transportation point out the obvious limits of cars and the advantages of trains, they get mad and tell you, you’re opposed to progress

          • adirondacker12800

            Not tech, but look for example at the failure of the American auto industry to adopt the Toyota Production System

            I don’t know what running the production line has to do with what comes off it.

            To this day the US-based companies can’t make good fuel-efficient cars

            Volkswagen has announced the last time they will retool for internal combustion powered cars is 2026. Tooling lasts a few years which means the last ICE car from Volkwagen will be 2031-ish. GM has announced their products will be all electric by 2025. You are stuck in the Reagan Era.

          • Gok (@Gok)

            Alon, I know cars aren’t your thing but that is not a great example. GM and Ford management spent the 80s and 90s obsessed with foreign practices, setting up joint ventures and/or investing in Japanese manufacturers and having employees visit Japanese factories. They had limited success getting Detroit workers to go for it but they certainly tried. (Hyundai similarly spent about 2 decades trying to emulate TPS, ultimately pivoting upon realizing it didn’t culturally mesh very well.)

            A better example might be airlines. Management at US carriers were able to ignore the existence of ULCCs for decades, keeping domestic fares far above the rest of the world. Not coincidentally, both airlines and automakers had to deal with very strong unions who prevent adoption of new global best practices, but airlines executives really didn’t even try.

            As for innovation from not-tech… what’s that?

          • Eric2

            @Herbert I still don’t understand, why would tech companies produce anything other than tech? You expect them to pass laws?

          • Herbert

            Aviation fares are lower where there is high speed rail.

            Not only does it establish competition in short routes; it allows money conscious travelers on mid and long haul to consider several airports as origin/destination increasing competition

      • Herbert

        Hartmut Mehdorn had no notable connection to railroading prior to being made had of db. Likewise Rüdiger Grube, his successor. Richard Lutz has been in the company since 1994 and was born into a railroading family, but he had worked in the finance side of db

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          @Alon Levy, GM did adopt the Toyota way. GM and Toyota co-owned the NUMMI plant in the Bay Area for about a quarter-century. The partnership dissolved when GM went bankrupt and the plant was closed in 2010.

          It was notable for producing the Toyota Corolla. It now produces Elon Musk’s Teslas.

          • Tonami Playman

            The Toyota manufacturing practices were isolated to the NUMMI plant and did not filter to other GM plants. In Toyota and Honda US plants, any assembly line worker can pull a switch if they notice an issue which brings the entire line to a halt and all plant engineering resources are directed to that section to resolve the issue immediately. This is unheard of in any Ford, GM, or Chrysler plant even today.

            There is also the sporadic heckling of female assembly line workers(though much lower than it used to be in the past). The plant managers looked the other way always refusing to address it. I remember Ford was the only one to significantly reduce the incidence, while Chrysler plants were the biggest offenders. Such behavior is untolerated in Import plants.

            I do have to give GM and Ford some credit though as they have made strides in quality with Buick, Lincoln, Chevrolet, and Ford brands currently ranked 3rd, 7th, 9th, and 10th respectively in the 2020 JD Power Dependability study. All above the industry average while Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge are at the bottom of the pile like they’ve always been.

  7. Matthew da Silva

    There’s lots of people with the right technical knowledge, but not as many with the right technical knowledge who can ALSO play the politics. Look at what happened with Byford in NYC. We can do all the work to get someone with the proper knowledge of global best practice in charge, but if they don’t know how to convince elected officials to greenlight best practice as an approach (usually by tricking the politician into thinking it was their idea), it’s all for nought.

    • michaelrjames

      @Matthew da Silva

      You’ve got that backwards. What you describe is almost entirely the fault of the politician(s). We in the Anglosphere have completely lost the balance between a semi-independent civil service who are guided by elected politicians to one where the politicians expect total control by subservience, and to serve political and personal ends not the national or public interest, and regardless of scientific or expert consensus. If 2020 and what has happened in the UK and USA haven’t convinced people of this, then one wonders what it takes.

  8. adirondacker12800

    The railroad even went as far as buying new EMUs that are compatible not with the newest FRA regulations,

    Their time machine wasn’t working when they developed the specifications. So they used the then current regulations.

    • Alon Levy

      At the time they developed the specs, they knew both what the new regs and what the approximate timeline on their publication would be.

      • adirondacker12800

        We’ve been over this. Contemporaneously. They didn’t. I’m not the one trying to make a living at this,. It’s all buried somewhere on NJTransit’s website. Go find it.

        • Roy

          NJT released the RFP for new EMUs in November 2017 and Tier I alternative compliance regs were finally written into the Federal Register November 2018.
          However, FRA had telegraphed their intent to create Alternative Tier I rules in 2012, and New Jersey Transit personnel were members of FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee Passenger Safety Working Group Engineering Task Force throughout the process of creating the regulations. While the regs weren’t out yet, not taking them into account when issuing a major equipment order, particularly when having intimate knowledge of their contents, is a management failure perfectly in order with Alon’s post above.
          Being proactive and looking forward, rather than making status-quo excuses, is a basic trait of any successful organization or manager.

          • Matthew A da Silva

            The fundamental problem with that whole procurement was NJT’s obsession with making the new MUs interoperable with their existing multilevel stock, something that wound up not being part of the final product due to technical issues (the MUs will only be interoperable with the NEW trailers on order). Without that interoperability requirement, there was no good reason NOT to spec out an alt-compliance product with better acceleration.

          • adirondacker12800

            And if the guess had been wrong they would have been stuck trains they couldn’t use.

          • Eric2

            You don’t need to guess when the contents are known.

            And even if they had been unknown – a competent manager waits a couple years before buying until the rules are published, rather than gambling the investment on the possibility that the rules might be different from expected.

          • adirondacker12800

            They needed a new tunnel in 2000 and more cars in 2010. Having passengers cling to the outside of the cars doesn’t work out well.

  9. Onux

    “ When you give someone authority over other people and pay them $200,000 a year, you’re signaling to them, “never change.” ”

    This is not at all a universal rule. Lots of companies and organizations expect their managers to change, innovate and stay current with global trends. Tech is most famous (“disruption”, Apple’s multiple pivots to MP3 players, phones, etc., Netflix going from mailed DVDs to streaming) but there are others (Nucor steel and WL Gore come to mind). If this doesn’t happen in the public sector a good question to ask is why.

  10. Patrick Jensen

    I’m not convinced it helps to fire incompetent managers, unless one understands why they got hired in the first place. Otherwise you end up getting more of the same.

    One variable that I think might be worth looking into is the connection between cost and electoral systems. My hunch is that countries or regions that elect a large part or all of their representatives from single-member constituencies have higher costs, because they favor candidates that cater to parochial concerns. Fiscally, this kind of electoral setup is also prone to domination by narrow interest groups (as outlined in e.g. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups), because benefits are often concentrated, but costs are dispersed.

    Systems with multi-member constituencies, on the other hand, usually have to take a broader geographical and fiscal perspective.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with trying to look at the electoral system for this is that the electoral system is heavily correlated with being in the Anglosphere. So it correlates strongly, but the features of the Anglosphere that lead to high costs may be different. The main reasons I don’t think this is about single-member districts are,

      1. France and Britain are similar in having single-member districts together with very strong national parties and unitary governance. But French costs are much lower than British costs.
      2. New Zealand uses proportional representation but is otherwise a British offshoot with similar political sentiments as in Britain, and its costs look an awful lot like those of Canada and Australia, i.e. very high as of recently.
      3. In the United States, some states are dominated by parochial concerns that essentially work like aldermanic prerogative but at larger scale, for example Massachusetts, but the specific impact of this situation is not to raise costs but rather to disperse spending across many districts. Moreover, the dispersed spending in Massachusetts tends to be more cost-effective than concentrated megaprojects like GLX and SCR.

      The bad managers in mainline US rail got hired because the older crop of hiring managers liked them, and so on as you go farther back in history. They got mentored in the ways of companies that technologically stagnated in the middle of the 20th century, and at this point telling them how other countries work is not possible because everything around them tells them “you are a successful professional” and not “you are the American equivalent of a Soviet apparatchik.”

  11. Reedman Bassoon

    I think the word “incompetent” is mis-applied here. In the US civil service, the employees are generally average, but there is zero/nada/zip motivation to work hard or innovate. You advance, by law and by union contract, only with seniority and/or education. That is why we have 2nd grade public school teachers with masters degrees who stay in 2nd grade for 30 years (yes, I know them). That why a LIRR manager or BART manager who came up through these ranks will not report a janitor making $400k/year, and won’t suggest changes to contract rules which are unfair to the taxpayer/rider. Does anyone at Caltrain care about having the worlds most expensive/delayed electrification project, and the most expensive/delayed train control upgrade? No. You keep your head down, your mouth shut, and collect a pension that no one in the private sector of Silicon Valley gets. And the money for that salary/pension/benefits is guaranteed, and the payer will never go bankrupt.

    • RossB

      “and collect a pension that no one in the private sector of Silicon Valley gets”

      No, they get stock options and 401K worth a lot more. I think I would have more incentive at say, Google, to keep my head down and my mouth shut until my stock options were vested than if I worked for the government (especially if I was in a union).

      • Alon Levy

        …no, unionized public-sector workers lose their jobs all the time if they speak out. The American public sector’s informal agreement is that you do as told and don’t try to get creative and get rewarded with guaranteed employment until your pension is vested, but if you say things people don’t want to hear then you’ll be fired and your firing may well be timed just before a pension cliff so you get nothing. Cf. tech firms, where stock options vest after a few years and people do quit, and when they quit they sometimes do become critics, esp. at Facebook (less so at Google, which isn’t loathed by its own programmers).

        • RossB

          “unionized public-sector workers lose their jobs all the time if they speak out”

          I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen teachers air their complaints about management (the school board or the state) in ways that I couldn’t imagine in a private, non-unionized setting. The one thing a union does — more than anything — is protect the employee from an arbitrary dismissal. Oh, and if people at Facebook (and similar companies) complain *after* they quit, doesn’t that prove my point? They kept their head down at the time, because they didn’t want to get axed. I was no different. It wasn’t until I neared retirement that I became more bold, and started listing off the various faults within the software company I worked. In my exit interview I think I had a couple pages of suggestions.

          Put it this way: If Amazon workers unionize in Alabama, do you think those workers are more, or less likely to complain about working conditions, or other problems at the warehouse?

          • RossB

            In a well run organization, unions play a huge role in improving quality and productivity. In a poorly run organization, having a union is usually better than not. To use a couple examples I’ve already mentioned, consider Boeing and the NBA. There is a strong correlation between the problems at Boeing and the anti-union management. The 787 problems were caused in large part to production issues in South Carolina (a non-union shop). It is quite possible that the long, slow decline for Boeing would not have occurred if the machinist and engineering unions had a larger voice in management.

            The NBA has an extremely strong union. Players get a little bit more than half the revenue, and are the highest paid unions workers in the world. They also have a huge role in decision making. The league has never been stronger. Drug abuse and domestic violence is way down, the quality of play is way up. The value of a franchise is enormous. So while the players get a bigger slice of the pie, the pie is huge, and growing.

            The idea that unions foster an anti-productivity attitude is backwards. That is on management. Management should work with the unions in generating a sense of trust, and professionalism. That existed at Boeing back in the day, and exists in the NBA right now.

          • Henry Miller


            When my union friends are constantly blaming management and saying they need to fight management it proves you are wrong. You cannot work with a union that believes management is evil. And so things get worse and worse. Only when unions and management are willing to work together can we have progress, either side can kill that and I’m convinced that while there is blame to go around, unions deserve a large share of it.

            The above is a US union perspective. In Europe Unions seem to be more willing to work with management for the better of both.

          • Herbert

            In Germany, by law, union reps sit on the board of major corporations (they just get outvoted easily)

    • john

      @Reedman Bassoon:

      There’s a lot of truth in your argument, although it’s not restricted to the public sector–the same thing happens in private-sector companies, especially where: the management has all the power and the sense of entitlement to use it as they please; workers are easily replaceable if they propose changes mgmt doesn’t wanna try (or speak up about mistreatment); and high churn doesn’t quickly tank the company/division/worksite; fields like warehousing, lower-skilled manufacturing, big-chain retail, and agricultural labor. Academia and hospitals can be a little of both: the higher-status degreed workforce (doctors, professors) and unionized staff (if any) often face the public-sector-style pressures to keep quiet and last long enough to accumulate seniority or vest their pension, while lower-status non-unionized staff (from cleaners to technicians) are sometimes treated like a bit like expendable warehouse workers (not often quite as badly as warehouse workers, and almost never as badly as ag workers).

      One big quibble though: your 2nd-grade teacher analogy doesn’t work, by itself or with the rest of your argument. K-12 education isn’t that kind of competitive “move up or move out” field. Teaching 2nd grade for 30 years is simply not a failure, if the teacher is good at it and continues to grow and improve at it over those years; and the only real internal alternative–climbing the ranks into and through administration–isn’t really something a society would want more than a small fraction of teachers to aspire to, let alone achieve, because the number of good administrators needed is a small fraction of the number of good teachers needed.

  12. Patrick Jensen

    I think your proof by contradiction needs a bit more work.

    1. France does have a lot of single-member districts at the national level yes, but not so much at the regional level. Take the the Council of Paris, it has 163 members from 17 electoral districts using proportional representation with a majority bonus, while the London Assembly has 14 members elected using FPTP and 11 using a modified version of d’Hondt method.

    2. New Zealand uses proportional representation at the national level yes, but take for example Auckland: “The governing body of the Auckland Council consists of the mayor, deputy mayor, and 19 other members. The members of the governing body are elected from thirteen wards across the Council area using the first-past-the-post system every three years at the same time as the mayor.” Sounds mighty British, doesn’t it?

    I cannot comment on number 3.

    Contrast these examples with the Helsinki City Council or Stockholm Regional Council, whose 85 and 149 members, respectively, are elected at-large.

    In the end this is just an extension of your theory of zoning and local decisionmaking into the realm of transport planning:

    • Reedman Bassoon

      In most of the US, at-large city council elections are now illegal. They are considered to discriminate against minority candidates, who don’t have the funds to mount city-wide campaigns. Hence, district representatives are the norm.

      • Herbert

        Just have the elections run the same way they did in Bavaria:

        Each voter can give their votes to candidates across lists and more than one vote to any given candidate…

  13. plaws0

    Lol. Probably won’t read all the comments because … well, because … BUT … I bet that T (or Keolis, the CR contractor) management type would be shocked to learn that the line to Providence is not 120 years old, but 185. Sure, sure, *some* of that infrastructure has been renewed but dammit, not the Canton Viaduct! 😀 (Seriously, if you get the chance to visit, take a train to Canton Jct and walk down to the viaduct – it’s pretty cool! Through service to Providence started before the viaduct was built – a stage coach conveyed passengers from end-of-track to end-of-track. This is *not* lost history.)

    In fact, the portion of that line from before BBY to Readville was completely modernized 35 years ago after a governor cancelled the “South West Expressway” 50 years go. I mean, if that manager doesn’t know even that recent history … jeebus.

    There are a lot of Boomers that need to leave. And I hail from the tail-end of said boom (1963 model) and even I can see it so clearly. And it’s not limited to transportation planning – we should be so lucky.

    I appreciate your non-Anglosphere-centric perspective. It has made me think about just how effed up stuff is in said sphere.

  14. Reedman Bassoon

    There is a somewhat parallel article in the Wall Street Journal (Feb 7) titled “Mediocrity Is Now Mandatory”. It is focused on universities (standardized tests are not used in admissions, schools have eliminated grades, staff hiring now includes Diversity and Inclusion Department reviews).

    • plaws0

      There is very little evidence that performance on a standardized test predicts success in college (unless the major chosen is standardized test taking). Our local emporium of higher education went pass/fail for Spring 2020 because that semester was effed up. Students wanted to continue that for Fall 2020, but IIRC, it didn’t happen. Semester was still kinda effed, but everyone knew what was coming this time.

      It may come as a shock to some, but there is a segment of society that will criticize education (primary/secondary/post-secondary/whatever) no matter what they do because they are trying to pull up the ladder after their kind has made it up.

    • Alon Levy

      This has 0% to do with whatever intra-American culture war bullshit animates partisans. (For one, American elite universities are extremely hard to get into – even the legacies have to be decently intelligent and good at faking diligence.) It’s about the fact that “our country sucks at ___ and needs to learn to be more like other countries” is impossible to accept among groups of Americans, so whenever the US sucks at something, it’s incapable of learning.

      • Herbert

        If you’re in the imperial core, you get away with not learning from the periphery…

        Until you don’t…

      • Herbert

        If you’re in the imperial core, you get away with not learning from the periphery…

        Until you don’t…

      • myb6

        Alon, I’m not sure the WSJ article is just a culture war bogeyman. Seems pretty similar to your own complaint above about low STEM privilege. Admission is hard, yes, but not via objective performance metrics. Admissions are increasingly a “moxie” proxy: who can build a flashy resume showing dramatic commitment to the institution’s pet causes? The amount of fake/nonsensical “charitable”/”activist”/”leadership” activity I witnessed going through the system was nauseating. That may select for highly “able” individuals (cue Alec Guinness “from a certain point of view”), but seems intuitive that form of elite selection would not lead to great infrastructure.

        I bet many of the managers you spoke to were quite intelligent. That wasn’t the problem.

        OTOH, firing bad management is a much more tractable issue than a low-STEM-privilege (or even more generally, a low-objective-performance) culture that goes back centuries (eg lawyer dominance of our political class).

        • Alon Levy

          Admission at the private elites is mostly a hard objective metric that nonetheless produces too many candidates, and then among them they pick the legacies and the socially-compatible-with-legacies people; the public elites mostly admit by SATs and GPAs. The alternative is to do what Todai does and make the admission tests harder, but we’re not talking about the sort of people who could ever think “foreign elite unis have something to teach us.” The SAT has too low a ceiling for Harvard or even UMich, and my understanding from reading non-comparable studies is that the SAT-college GPA correlation is therefore higher at non-elite unis than at elite ones, where the 1400 vs. 1500 distinction is pretty noisy and there is no 1000 vs. 1500 distinction because you don’t get in with 1000.

          Also, something rather important in this sidetrack is that public-sector US managers don’t usually come from elite-at-age-18 pipelines. For example, let’s take Richard Andreski, since I’ve named him already and he has a public LinkedIn: he went to Lafayette College, which calls itself a Hidden Ivy, i.e. wants to be but isn’t actually elite (does anyone call Yale hidden anything?), and majored in biology, and then years later, after he’d already worked in the field, he went back to school to Rutgers for a master’s. His CV doesn’t scream “chosen for the elite at age 18,” unlike for example Pete Buttigieg; it screams “middle-class person who worked his way up the hierarchy.” He is also incompetent, but that’s not visible in the CV, and I’ve met other people in the industry with similar CVs who are good at their jobs and should be promoted rather than fired.

          • myb6

            Given no standards across teachers, courses, programs, nor schools, I think labeling GPA a hard-objective metric is a stretch; I’d grant you it’s better than BS resume fluff. But given a weak filter on a middling obj/subj metric and an intense filter on moxie proxy, that means the real admission is on the moxie proxy. You’re emphasizing legacy (think that’s weakened lately), there’s also money/social ties, and 21stC the cocurricular resume is weighty (under more individual control it actually has stronger behavioral implications and selection effect).

            Regarding elite education not being the issue for bad public-sector management, yeah I agree, I was more saying that the US has this general cultural problem upstream of elite education, hierarchical promotions, and political appointments. The WSJ article is relevant as an example not an explanation. Moving the discussion that far upstream is a sidetrack, indeed, from the focused purpose of the post, I know.

        • michaelrjames

          @myb6 (& Alon):

          I bet many of the managers you spoke to were quite intelligent. That wasn’t the problem.
          OTOH, firing bad management is a much more tractable issue than a low-STEM-privilege (or even more generally, a low-objective-performance) culture that goes back centuries (eg lawyer dominance of our political class). >/blockquote>

          Exactly. I pointed this out in the very first post on this page. Everyone on this blog knows it is largely the politicians who need firing, while recognising, however, it is a deeply cultural problem and most politicians are just weather vanes of a sick culture. Reading so many comments here shows to me that it is a giant distraction focussing so much on apparent poor quality managers. Everyone here knows that NYC-MTA needed someone like Andy Byford–someone competent with wide world experience running big-city transit, familiar with world best practice. He fit the bill of what was required and appeared willing to do what was necessary. Yet he lasted barely two years. Unlike the vast majority of Americans in such positions he had more options and when he was politically knee-capped he resigned and is now head of London Transport. Everyone on this site knows it was Cuomo’s incompetence and narrow political and partisan MO that was to blame, and a succession of such politicians in NY, city and state, is responsible for the dire state of public transit (and other issues of critical public importance, eg. public health responses to covid).

          So, why blame the managers? (Or of course the other popular bogymen of the unions–you don’t get much more bloody-minded than the transport unions who run Paris RATP but the city and country still run a top-of-class transit system.)

          One might say that such people who choose to work in transit in the USA are self-selected low-performers, though many at the top are just passing thru, filling in their cv for the next jump upwards in the Peter Principle playbook. It’s why so many in management positions are lawyers or accountants, and certainly not trainspotters. Take Byford’s replacement, Sarah Feinberg, who climbed up the ladder thru impeccable Democratic connections–6 years with Rahm Emanuel got her the improbable gig of FRA Administrator under Obama; she’s neither lawyer or accountant but in fact the pure expression of a politicised system: a pure insider with a degree in Politics!. She is called “interim” president of MTA …

          “She is in the most unenviable position of anyone I’ve ever met right now,” says Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. Does she think Feinberg wants the job permanently? “Oh God, would you? Personally, I don’t know if I would want the job on a good day.”

          Now, at the very top of US transport there is Buttigieg who studied History & Lit before doing the notorious PPE as a Rhodie in Oxford. Some people believe the Oxford PPE is responsible for all the UK woes; given that Clinton was a Rhodie too (and they almost all do the PPE) there is a case to be made for this claim to extend to the US. To top off his cv he worked at McKinsey. None of that is very promising but at least he is very close to the desk where the buck stops (and the occupant of that desk is a lifelong train commuter) and has the power to shift the needle in the right direction. No one doubts he is super-clever and capable (though that PPE …) but everyone here is ridiculously focussed on ‘intelligence’ or ‘competence’ whereas the most important factor is intention. We don’t really know about that and I remain sceptical in that it is like that old maxim about ‘when you can master faking sincerity you can go all the way’. His fellow PPE-er Bill, is probably the role model in this.

          • michaelrjames

            A ‘perfect’ example of these factors that are more important than ‘intelligence’ or ‘competence’ is the case of Baroness ‘Dido’ (Diana) Harding who was a friend of Boris (Classics) and David Cameron (an Oxford PPE) at Oxford and who did a PPE herself before her stint at McKinsey. Ennobled by Cameron, then appointed by Matt Hancock (Boris’ minister of health, and yes an Oxford PPE) to run the “Test and Trace” covid operation. She immediately appointed Deloitte (Sharon Thorne, their global chair is … an Oxford PPE) to execute it, who appointed Serco (most infamous for running UK private prisons) to put it into operation; what could go wrong? Everything went wrong and almost a year later it is still not properly functioning. No one doubts these people are intelligent.
            Can Buttigieg overcome this legacy? The betting odds are not great. I sincerely hope I am wrong. While I am tempted to say that my sincerity is not fake, in some ways I have largely given up on America and more interested in how the world gets past its over-dependence on such a wayward superpower. At least Joe is not a PPE or Ivy-League and is a trainspotter (even an Amtrak station named after him) and not burdened by the perception of being super-intelligent !

          • RossB

            Yep. Once again I have to reference the Atlantic article:

            I find it interesting, really. When Trump was nominated, I pointed out that everyone was focused on the wrong thing. Sure, he is a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic narcissist. But he is also incompetent. He had no government experience. None at all. That is truly extraordinary, if not unique.

            Yet this sort of thing happens all the time in business. James McNerney was head of Boeing for five years. He never worked in the factory. He was never an aeronautical engineer. He doesn’t even have an engineering degree. But he did graduate from Yale, and get an MBA from Harvard. Of course. It all makes sense.

            What is weird is that this is just accepted. I can’t imagine this happening in sports. The Knicks have struggled for years. Maybe someone with an MBA from Harvard (who spent time at McKinsey) can do a better job coaching them. After all, managing a basketball can’t be harder than creating the world’s most sophisticated airplanes, or building a reusable capsule to transport people to the space station. All you have to do is make those players put the ball in the basket, while preventing the other team from doing that more.

            And yet, of course, no one does that. Because unlike business — or government — it isn’t about schmoozing. No one will be impressed with your power point presentation, or your brilliant comments to the board. No one cares where you went to school. They only want to win. You better have experience, and most likely you will have to work you way up *within that very domain*. If you don’t win, you get fired. If only business and government worked that way.

          • RossB

            I will say, I like Joe — I’m not impressed with Pete. Maybe he is smart enough to realize that a huge part of the problem is guys like him being put into positions like the one he is in. Maybe, but I think the better choice would have been Bloomberg. A “technocratic management style” is exactly what is needed for the agency. Who knows, maybe Mayor Pete figured that out, and will get extremely qualified people with years of domain knowledge to do the real work, while he provides cover for them, and lets them focus on their job, instead of BS. We can hope.

          • Gok (@Gok)

            I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at with the McNerney example. Who cares whether or not he studied teenage versions of aeronautical engineering as an undergrad? He spent 20 years working in the field at GE, and in his 10 years at the helm, Boeing did extremely well. The MAX stuff happened after he left and they went back to an aerospace engineer CEO, Muilenburg. Airbus’s recent success has also come under a non-engineer CEO, Tom Enders, who is a political scientist by training. If anything your example is showing how a generalist *can* succeed in leadership roles.

          • RossB

            “I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at with the McNerney example.”

            Fair enough. Quick history of Boeing: During its heyday, Boeing was an engineering/manufacturing based company. High end, well paid engineers and machinists. The company gradually transitioned away from this approach. Instead of investing in the company, they essentially cashed out, and are now “too big to fail”.

            It is inappropriate to lay all the blame at McNerney. Stonecipher was also responsible for much of the mess. He was largely responsible for the 787 outsourcing fiasco, which was a huge screw up. McNerney just kept the same approach, which meant under-investing in engineering, while outsourcing the manufacturing. This time it wasn’t overseas, or to a third-party company, but to low wage, non-union South Carolina. The message was simple. Quality is not the priority — money is. McNerney oversaw development of the Boeing 737 MAX (to quote Wikipedia) but he left before it was completed. In fact, he was the one that decided to leverage the 737 (and forever sully the name of one of the world’s most reliable aircraft) instead of building a new jet. Do you really think, given the business culture created during that period, that he would have done anything different than the guy who replaced him? Please. Muilenburg was like Herbert Hoover — not responsible for the Great Depression, but not smart enough to reverse course. They still haven’t reversed course. Calhoun is another GM guy, making the same, horrible mistakes.

            The point is, Boeing moved away from focusing on quality (in both engineering and machining), and on bean counting. They put people in charge that knew nothing about engineering or manufacturing. Eventually this caught up with them. It wasn’t like Airbus did anything spectacular; they just kept doing the same thing, and watched as Boeing collapsed.

          • Herbert

            Buttiegieg may be a smarmy careerist who would sell his soul and his husband to get ahead, but he’s also more polyglot than 90% of Americans and has more than once stated that America is behind and he is willing to implement best practices from other places…

            So here’s hoping…

          • myb6

            michaelrjames, I read what you wrote with interest. A quibble: excusing the managers would also require excusing the politicians, as they too are cogs in a malfunctioning system. I’m not trying to convict anyone, not even in a morality court, I just want general recognition that bad performers need to removed, period. And yeah, covid really opened my eyes, I thought I was already cynical about rotting institutions; I had no idea what was coming.

          • michaelrjames


            I never intended to imply that poor managers or functionaries should be excused. It is rather that when thinking about the problem, I believe it is a big distraction to focus on them, for all the reasons I have given. It’s the system (in the Anglosphere) that needs fundamental change. You can sack as many current public servants or top managers as you want and it really won’t change anything, especially, pace Byford, when anyone trying to do the right thing gets sacked too.

            On a related issue, today’s big news in the UK is that the minister of Health, the aforementioned Matt Hancock (with his Oxford PPE) has announced a total reorganisation of the NHS. In the middle of the covid crisis! The main effect is to give the minister much more control and he even said that “health matters must be decided by the minister”. You know, because his 6 years studying medicine and ten years post-graduate specialisation and ten years working within the NHS …. oh wait, he is a political lifer (no experience outside politics) and if he has any expertise it is economics. To be fair (the tiniest bit) he is rolling back all the disastrous “internal market” and outsourcing/privatisation-by-stealth brought in a decade ago by David Cameron (another who believes an Oxford PPE equips one to run the world, even without any relevant experience). But its failure is now acknowledged by everyone including Cameron in his biog. Not that Labor’s Blair was any better but the Brits have been trying to overcome NHS problems for at least 5 decades while never broaching the glaring issue: it consumes 8% GDP, 35% less than peer nations like France, Germany, Switzerland etc (or to put it more dramatically, these countries spend 50% more)., and fwiw 50% of the US which I suppose is one argument about money not being the solution.

            Sincerely, I hope Mayor Peter brings real change. None of these PPE guys are not clever, especially when they are also Rhodes Scholars but this arrogance appears their serious weakness. They don’t seem to believe anyone else can possibly be cleverer or can solve problems like they can. After their obligatory stint at McKinsey their natural inclinations having been confirmed, they go on to brush aside all objections. Buttigieg must be aware of the building criticisms of the PPE and/or McKinsey approach to problem solving and its lamentable history so one can only hope he looks beyond the McKinsey cartel for solutions that might work, for people not just accountants/beancounters on narrow terms.

          • myb6

            RossB, I felt the same way in 2016: it was shocking how little Trump’s lack of relevant experience was discussed; the clickbaity controversy pushed it aside. Obama wasn’t particularly qualified either, didn’t stop me from voting for him (guess I’m part of the problem).

      • RossB

        “American elite universities are extremely hard to get into”

        Not really. You can go to a state community college and if you do well, be accepted into an elite state university (University of Michigan, Cal, etc.). I’m not sure exactly how it works, but for Washington State, it isn’t that hard. To quote the website: “Washington residents who have completed an associate degree at a state community college and achieve at least a 2.75 GPA are automatically admitted. You might not always get to come the first quarter you want, but there will be space for you eventually.” Having been to a Washington State community college, I can tell you 2.75 isn’t that hard. If I wanted to be a nurse, this is the route I would take, especially since I could be an RN out of community college. If I was unhappy with my job, I could go to the world’s best nursing school, and get a bachelors RN, or continue to become a Nurse Practitioner.

        A lot of students aren’t aware of this, for several reasons. Partly it is culture (movies often portray freshmen at a university). Private universities like to imply that going there is the key to success. Banks who have saddled generations of students with enormous debt love to wallow in the myth (there is way more money to be made by lending to those headed to an expensive university than someone who understands value in education). It is all a fairly new phenomenon, spurred on by various forces in the Reagan era. The way around all the BS is to go to community college first, do well, and then advance.

        • michaelrjames


          That’s right, and I was shocked when I discovered it. Here’s some info:

          Applicants: 19,137
          Admitted: 4,551
          Admit rate: 24%
          93% of admitted transfer students were from California community colleges.

          Applicants: 22,281
          Admitted: 5,667 (= 32% of 17,522 total admissions)
          Admit rate: 25%
          93% of admitted transfer students were from California community colleges.

          But competition is still pretty intense (which is fair enough IMO):

          “We have about 2.1 million students in the California community college system, whereas the University of California has about 230,000 or so students across a number of campuses, and the Cal-State system (with 23 member institutions, including San Diego State) has a little over 400,000 students,” he said.

        • Alon Levy

          At the high-end unis, it’s very different. The elite privates just don’t accept transfer credit, except maybe from other elite unis. Berkeley does accept transfer credit from community colleges, but it’s hard.

          And nursing is not a particularly high-end job. In Europe people don’t even perceive nurses as part of the middle class, let alone any kind of elite. In French sociology of work, nursing is considered an intermediate job, which means it’s guaranteed that about a quarter of the workforce outranks you, and in practice more because programmers are for silly reasons considered intermediate as well but get paid better and have more prestige.

          (To tie this to the other subthread: teachers are an intermediate profession too. In Germany they’re borderline middle-class, esp. if they teach Gymnasium, but our teachers get paid near the top in the OECD relative to college-educated workers. Berlin pays starting teachers a hair better than New York in PPP terms, and we have 2/3 the per capita income of New York.)

          • Nilo

            Just to add some info Berkeley is required to accept transfer credit from California community colleges, but even a place like Stanford will accept at least some transfer credits (students would never be able to graduate in less than 4 years otherwise.) I source of knowledge here is I had several friends in college who were CC transfers.

          • michaelrjames

            @Alon “Just to add some info Berkeley is required to accept transfer credit from California community colleges”

            It’s more than that. I believe it was part of the original Clark Kerr’s formulation for California’s three-tiered system. With most attending the Community Colleges, then more California State U campuses and students than the 8 (or is it 10?) UC research universities. Part of this was the deal that Californians wouldn’t be charged fees though that eventually broke down under gov Reagan (in fact Prop 13 is blamed for the decline of CA edu performance because the state simply couldn’t fund education the way it had; from top state to one of the worst performing ones in maybe 20 years). So all UCs have to accept a large number of CC and CSU students, which I think is a good thing.
            Other than the screw over by Republican politics, I am a fan of the CA system. Having the three tiers allowed more people to attend tertiary education (IIRC, CA had the highest per cap in the world) and those who began at the lower levels could, with talent and/or motivation, migrate to the top tier. I think it especially suits that turbulent time in most people lives, the jump from school to independent learning and a version of adulthood, and the terrible pressure of trying to decide what to do with one’s life, parental pressure, peer pressure etc. It can be seen as a social leveller since lower-SES are more likely to begin in the lower tiers but can gain confidence and motivation as they taste tertiary edu, escaping family or peer-group low expectations.
            Some commentators or so-called edu experts (I’m not sure there is such a thing; just opinionators) apparently think the opposite, that it was devised as a means of social stratification; I think that is political b.s. (I recall Simon Marginson may have said this; the fact that he is a Brit I think is telling.) The numbers that I presented in the earlier post proves it to me–ie. plenty make that progression and are probably the better for it. I say this because everywhere in the Anglosphere especially (though elsewhere too) tertiary ed is considered to be in crisis. Though it seems to me it is mostly self-inflicted; CA’s is almost entirely due to Californian voters self-inflicted monetary paralysis of government. Australia’s is similar and due to the lazy and unwise overdependence on foreign student’s high fee income substituting for continuing decline in govt direct grant funding. The Brits liked and copied the Australian model (deferred student fees, called contingency loans) and foreign fee income. Australia had a multi-tiered system with the original Group of Eight (G8) universities, technical institutes and other things like teachers and nursing colleges, but in the 90s they turned all them into universities which I think was pure austerity politics (with single contingency HECS loan scheme and all could take foreigners and charge them a fortune) under guise of …. I dunno … “levelling” or some such bullshit.

          • RossB

            “And nursing is not a particularly high-end job.”

            Oh really? So someone who has a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree and works at a high end hospital doesn’t have a high-end job? An RN who works in the emergency room and is more responsible for critical care than an MD is not high end? Good God, what is your definition of a high end job, if not the people who save your life?

            “In French sociology of work, nursing is considered an intermediate job”

            Yes, but we were talking about the United States, not France. In the United States, nursing is an elite profession, whether it is treated that way by privileged society or not.

          • myb6

            michaelrjames, your comment on the advantages of the tiered system reminded me of the many times I’ve told friends “we need ladders not tracks”. I’ve said it in reference to gifted education (gutted by opposition to tracking), to medical education (we’d have more/cheaper doctors with a stepwise system vs “risk 200+k and 8+ years and fall off a cliff if it doesn’t work out”), to the stress and malfeasance of elite admissions, to economic mobility, to academic careers etc.

            Just like “if we share vehicles we don’t have to sit in traffic or pay for mostly-unused machinery”, seems so elementary that I’m embarrassed to raise the point; yet here we are.

          • Joseph Breed

            @RossB regardless of whether it should be high end, it is not. I’m speaking as someone with a nurse in my family. I also have a friend who recently looked into starting a new career in nursing but rejected it after doing some research- too many people have written about how you simply don’t get enough pay for all the stress you need to deal with.
            I’m sure for a lot of people it ends up being a solidly middle class career, and I’m sure there’s some people who end up doing even better. But no matter how important or hard the work is, that doesn’t guarantee benefits and social status to match.

    • Mikel

      Single-track HSLs are safe enough. On the other hand, cutting more than 50% of the capacity to save 2% of the cost is… wow, I thought Alon was being provocative when they advocate por purging the upper management of US agencies, but the stuff reported in than article calls for nuking the entire CAHSR Authority. How did they even start pouring concrete before figuring out how to electrify the line?

      Perhaps the Texas Central approach of just offsourcing to competent foreign contractors, though IMO imperfectly executed, is the only way to get something done in the short term.

      • Herbert

        Streetsblog says the “single track” story is a typical Vaterbidian distortion of facts; certainly all infrastructure is built to accommodate both tracks. There was just (Before the election when funding was unclear) an idea to maybe build one track before the other to generate revenue as construction is ongoing

        • Mikel

          Oh, fair enough. I still think it doesn’t make sense; installing a second track while the other is already running is more difficult than doing both at once. One could argue for this approach in a branch-of-a-branch context like the Antequera-Granada HSL (and if it weren’t for the pandemic, that one would have hit full capacity in 2020 with ~12 trains per day per direction), but the Central Valley segment is supposed to be the trunk of a system with very high potential ridership. At least nobody suggested starting operations in diesel mode and electrifying when demand ramps up…

          Anyway, the whole project is so effed up, I doubt the time needed for the superstructure is near its worst problems. I don’t think the feds should pledge a single dollar until the people who run the project figure out how to cut costs by a factor of like at least 2.

    • adirondacker12800

      They can install a second track when they run more than a few trains a day.

      • Matthew Hutton

        There’s no point building the line if you aren’t going to do hourly trains, even the Spanish manage that.

        • Herbert

          The Vegas to Victorville venture reportedly wants to do the same ill advised cost cutting…

        • adirondacker12800

          Are they planning on banning automobiles south of Merced? You do both understand that the whole system isn’t going to open all at once?

        • Henry Miller

          @adirondacker12800 the only reason to not open everything all at once is to get practice running trains and people before the real grand opening. Without the full LA-SF link (last I checked they were thinking about canceling most of that) the number of possible passengers make the whole not worth building. Since the reality is they can’t build everything at once (good management could do this better, but there are still limits) it makes sense to open parts early, but be clear, this is just practice runs for operations and any people that find it useful is a bonus.

          If there already was a system in place, things are different. If they had the LA->SF link and wanted to go to San diego or Portland, then each city along the way is a useful link and should be opened as soon as possible. Of if the LA->Vegas leg existed, then a LA to anywhere leg is useful. However none of that exists to they can’t count on the network.

          • adirondacker12800

            The reason they are building stuff between a bunch of small towns is that the paperwork was ready when money dropped out of the sky. They can practice running trains on one track.

          • Herbert

            With Caltrain electrification they’ll already have the San Jose San Francisco leg and iirc what they’re building connects to San Jose, so even if they don’t reach Los Angeles for the time being they have something which can generate ridership

  15. michaelrjames

    I just read the perfect joke for Pedestrian Observations (and Elon Musk fans?): (Nature mag.)
    “You wait two years for a Mars mission, and then three come along at once!”

  16. Basil Marte

    “What people are used to”, “rest-of-world practice” — would the word “doctrine” fit? It isn’t necessary for American railroad doctrine to be written down in a book for it to be called a doctrine, and have it pointed out that it’s from the 1950s at the latest.

  17. James S

    About 5 years ago, we met someone in Fresno who came from Spain, to work on the HSR project. He was brought in for 6-8 months to provide his expertise in building HSR.

    At the end of his term, he said nothing was done. He said the American managers refused to make decisions. Every single decision had to be run past a dozen people. Not one person wanted to be the one who said yes, and would then be held accountable if something went wrong. Basically, it was always easier to pass the buck.

    Currently, Im working with an agency where one of the head honchos insists that everything be run by him. So once the 15 middle managers sign off on it, it goes into his inbox to be reviewed. The thing is, head honchos are busy. Theyre rarely in the office. So basic projects get held up for weeks or months until he gets around to signing off on it.

    And if he has a problem with it? Back to the beginning.

    It’s a nightmare. And I don’t know how to fix it. Nobody likes the system, but everyone is ok with it. It is what it is.

    Move fast and break things is illegal. Which is why as much of an idiot Elon Musk is, I think he might actually get things done. Basically, in the time it takes a regular US agency to approve a project, he can build something, have it completely suck. and then rebuild it three more times until its good enough.

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