Density and Rail Transport (Hoisted from Social Media)

I wrote a long thread about regional rail and population density, and I’d like to explain more and give more context. The upshot is that higher population density makes it easier to run a rail network, but the effects are most visible for regional rail, rather than either urban rail or high-speed intercity rail. This is visible in Europe when one compares the networks in high-density Germany and low-density Sweden, and has implications elsewhere, for example in North America. I stress that high-speed rail is not primarily affected by background density, but only by the populations of cities within a certain range, and thus France, which has one of Western Europe’s lowest densities, manages to have high per-capita ridership on the TGV. However, the density of a regional mesh comes from background density, which is absent in such countries as France, Sweden, and Spain.

What is density?

Population density is population divided by area. This post is concerned with overall density at the level of an entire country or region, rather than the more granular level of the built-up urban area of a single city. What this means is that density is in large part a measurement of how close cities are to one another. In a high-density area like western Germany, Northern Italy south of the Alps, England, or the Low Countries, cities are spaced very close together, and thus people live at densities surpassing 300/km^2. In contrast, low-density areas have isolated cities, like Sweden, Australia, Canada, or the Western United States.

For example, take Stockholm. The region has about 2.5 million people, and has a strong urban and suburban rail network. However, there just aren’t a lot of cities near Stockholm. The nearest million-plus metro areas are Oslo, Gothenburg, and Helsinki, all about 400 km away, none much bigger than 1 million; the nearest 2 million-plus metro area is Copenhagen, 520 km away. The region I use as an example of German polycentrism, Rhine-Neckar, is about the same size as Stockholm, and has a good deal more suburban sprawl and car usage. The nearest million-plus region to Mannheim is Karlsruhe, 55 km away; it is a separate metropolitan area even though the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn does have an hourly train to Karlsruhe. Frankfurt is 70 km away. A 400 km radius from Mannheim covers nearly the entirety of Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries; it reaches into Ile-de-France and into suburbs that share a border with Amsterdam. A 520 km radius covers Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, and Prague, and reaches close to Vienna.

Density and regional rail

Kaiserslautern is a town of 100,000 people, served by the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn every half hour even though it is not normally seen as part of the Rhine-Neckar region. It has, in addition to the east-west S-Bahn, independent regional lines reaching north and south. When I visited two years ago, I saw these lines pulse while waiting for my delayed TGV back home to Paris.

This is viable because there are towns ringing Kaiserslautern, close enough that a low-speed regional train could connect them, with their own town centers such that there is a structure of density around their train stations. This in turn exists because the overall population density in Germany is high, even in Rhineland-Pfalz, which at 206/km^2 is slightly below the German average. The alternative structure to that of Germany would have fewer, larger cities – but that structure lends itself well to regional rail too, just with fewer, thicker lines running more frequently. If those smaller towns around Kaiserslautern did not exist but people instead lived in and right around Kaiserslautern, then it would be a city of about 400,000, and likewise Mainz might have 500,000 and the built-up area of Mannheim would have more people in Mannheim itself and in Ludwigshafen, and then there would be enough demand for a regional train every 10-20 minutes and not just every half hour.

I bring up Sweden as a low-density contrast, precisely because Sweden has generally well-run public transport. Stockholm County’s per capita rail ridership is higher than that of any metropolitan area of Germany except maybe Berlin and Munich. Regional rail ridership in and around Stockholm is rising thanks to the opening of Citybanan. Moreover, peripheral regions follow good practices like integrated intermodal ticketing and timed transfers. And yet, the accretion of a mesh of regional lines doesn’t really exist in Sweden. When I visited Växjö, which is not on the main intercity line out of Stockholm, I had a timed connection at Alvesta, but the timetable there and at Växjö looked sporadic. Växjö itself is on a spur for the network, but poking around the Krösatågen system it doesn’t look like an integrated timed transfer system, or if it is then Alvesta is not a knot. I was told in the replies on Twitter that Norrbotten/Västerbotten has an integrated network, but it runs every 2 hours and one doesn’t really string regional rail lines together to form longer lines the way one does in Germany.

Integrated regional networks

The integrated timed transfer concept, perfected in Switzerland, is ideal for regional and intercity networks that form meshes, and those in turn require high population density. With these meshes, regional rail networks overlap, underlaying an intercity network: already one can get between Frankfurt and Stuttgart purely on lines that are branded as S-Bahn, S-Bahn-like, or Stadtbahn, and if one includes RegionalBahn lines without such branding, the network is nationally connected. Even in Bavaria, a state with lower density than the German average, nearly all lines have at least hourly service, and those form a connected network.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Italy, which has high density especially when one excludes unpopulated alpine areas, is adopting German norms for its regional rail. As in Germany, this originates in urban networks, in Italy’s case that of Milan, but Trenord operates trains throughout Lombardy, most of whose population is not the built-up area of Milan, and even lines that don’t touch Milan run hourly, like Brescia-Parma. Italy is not unusual within Southern Europe in looking up to Germany; it’s only unusual in having enough population density for such a network..

Once the network is in place, it is obligatory to run it as an integrated timed transfer system. Otherwise, the connections take too long, and people choose to drive. This in turn means setting up knots at regular intervals, every 30 minutes for a mixed hourly and half-hourly system, and investing in infrastructure to shorten trip times so that major cities can be knots.

The concept of the knot is not just about regional service – high-speed rail can make use of knots as well. Germany has some low-hanging fruit from better operations and under-construction lines that would enable regularly spaced knots such as Frankfurt, then Mannheim, then Stuttgart, and far to the north Hanover and then Bielefeld. The difference is that Germany’s ideal high-speed rail network has around 20 knots and its existing regional rail network has about as many in Hesse alone. Nor can regional rail networks expect to get away with just building strong lines and spamming frequency on those, as the Shinkansen does – regional rail uses legacy alignments to work, generating value even out of lines that can only support an hourly train, whereas high-speed lines need more than that to be profitable.

Globally, the lowest-hanging fruit for such a system is in the Northeastern United States, followed by China and India. Population density in the Northeast is high, and cities have intact cores near their historic train stations. There is no excuse not to have a network of regional lines running at a minimum every 30 minutes from Portland down to Northern Virginia and inland to Albany and Harrisburg.

A few modifications to the basic Swiss system are needed to take into account the fact that the Northeast Corridor, run at high speeds, would fill a train every 5 minutes all day, and the core regional lines through New York could as well. But regional rail is not a country bumpkin mode of transportation; it works fine within 100 km of Frankfurt or Milan, and should work equally well near New York. If anything, a giant city nearby makes it easier to support high frequency – in addition to internal travel within the regional system, there are people interested in traveling to the metropole helping fill trains.

What about low-density places?

Low-density places absolutely can support good rail transport. But it doesn’t look like the German mesh. Two important features differ:

  1. It is not possible to cobble together a passable intercity rail network from regional express lines and upgrade it incrementally. Intercity lines run almost exclusively intercity traffic. This tilts countries toward the use of high-speed rail, including not just France but also Spain and now Sweden. This does not mean high-density countries can’t or shouldn’t build high-speed rail – they do successfully in Asia, Italy has a decent network, Britain has high-speed rail plans, and Germany is slowly building a good network. It just means that high-density countries can get away with avoiding building high-speed rail for longer.
  2. The connections between regional and intercity lines are simpler. Different regions’ suburban networks do not connect, and can be planned separately, for example by state-level authorities in Australia or provincial ones in Canada. These networks are dendritic: intercity lines connect to regional lines, and regional lines branch as they leave city center. Lines that do not enter the primary city center are usually weaker, since it’s unlikely that there are enough strong secondary centers at the right places that a line could serve them well without passing through the primary center.

In extreme cases, no long-distance rail is viable at all. Australia is a borderline case for Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail – I think it’s viable but only based on projections of future population and economic growth. But Perth and Adelaide are lost causes. In the United States, railfans draw nationally-connected proposals, but in the Interior West the cities are simply too far apart, and there is no chance for a train to usefully serve Denver or Salt Lake City unless cars are banned. Connecting California and the Pacific Northwest would be on the edge of viable if the topography were flat, but it isn’t and therefore such a connection, too, is a waste of money in the economic conditions of the early 21st century.

Note that even then, cities can have suburban rail networks – Perth and Adelaide both have these, and their modal splits are about on a par with those of secondary French cities like Nice and Bordeaux or secondary American transit cities like Boston and Chicago. Denver is building up a light rail and a commuter rail network and one day these networks may even get ridership. The difference between the case of Perth or Denver and that of a German city is that Perth and Denver can rest assured their regional rail alignments will never be needed for intercity rail.

In less extreme cases, intercity trains are viable, and can still run together with regional trains on the same tracks. California is one such example. Its population density and topography is such that planning regional rail around the Bay Area and in Los Angeles can be kept separate, and the only place where intercity and regional trains could work together as in Germany is the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor. Blended planning with timed overtakes is still recommended on the Peninsula, but it’s telling that at no point have Bay Area-based reformers proposed a knot system for the region.

Those less extreme low-density cases are the norm, in a way. They include the Midwestern and Southern US, the Quebec-Ontario corridor, the Nordic countries, France, nearly all of Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe apart from Italy; this is most of the developed world already. In all of those places, regional rail is viable, as is intercity rail, but they connect in a dendritic and not meshlike way. Many of the innovations of Germany and its penumbra, such as the takt and the integrated intermodal plan, remain viable, and are used successfully in Sweden. But the exact form of regional rail one sees in Germany would not port.


  1. michaelrjames

    Alon: “Australia is a borderline case for Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail – I think it’s viable but only based on projections of future population and economic growth. But Perth and Adelaide are lost causes.”

    It more than borderline. Remember that Melbourne-Sydney passes thru the national capital Canberra plus regional towns of Goulburn and Albury-Wodonga so it already has a population catchment of about 12m and all three cities continue to grow. Thus this is fairly comparable to Madrid-Barcelona HSR if about 250km longer. Melb-Syd is the world’s third busiest air city-pair with approaching 10m pax pa. Brisbane is #18 with about 5m. The Syd-Bris HSR line is more marginal at 980km but it also serves the most inhabited coastal strip in Australia and takes in the #6 and #7 cities, Gold Coast and Newcastle-Maitland. Thus this east-coast line would span 8 of Australia’s top ten cities (including Sunshine Coast just north of Bris and Woolongong just south of Syd).
    Perth and Adelaide will have to wait for hyperloop.

    • Alon Levy

      That’s what I mean when I say borderline… Sydney-Melbourne may be the world’s #3 air route, but in between there is approximately nothing. No disrespect for Canberra – I’m sure most of the people there are not Liberal MPs – but it has 400,000 people. Compare this with the #2 air route, Tokyo-Sapporo: the Tohoku region has 8.5 million people, generating a lot of Tokyo-bound rail traffic and printing money for JR East even without the Hokkaido connection, which only opened for the Shinkansen a few years ago, and which still only goes to Hakodate.

        • Alon Levy

          1. It has Zaragoza.
          2. The ridership is pretty bad, partly due to city size, partly due to RENFE’s TGV-on-steroids ticketing practices.
          3. Spanish construction costs are so ridiculously low RENFE can make a profit even then; for the same reason, Sweden is starting to build HSR.

          • Herbert

            It’s telling that both “low cost” new entrants to the Spanish market want to start on the Madrid Barcelona route. I’m pretty sure a lot of the residual air travel on that route is due to price…

          • Alon Levy

            The metro area has 800,000 people, which is twice as much. And then you have Tarragona, with a provincial population of another 800,000.

          • Herbert

            The train station doesn’t serve the metro area now, does it?

          • Matthew A da Silva

            Agreed on RENFE’s horrendous ticketing practices. Budget travelers pretty much all fly Madrid-Barcelona because AVE tickets between the two cities are so expensive and inflexible.

            When I was in Spain a few years back, I missed my train, which rendered my €100 “saver fare” worthless. There was no rebooking fee or anything. I had to buy a brand new €200 ticket for a later train that day. And because my American-issued credit card didn’t have contactless at the time, I had to stand in a long line at customer service to get the new ticket since my American-issued credit card wouldn’t work with the ticket machines due to the lack of a PIN, RENFE didn’t offer e-tickets, and I did not have access to a printer.

          • Herbert

            And it even more certainly doesn’t serve an entire province – especially not for trains that do not even stop in Tarragona…

      • michaelrjames

        My point was not so much the size of Canberra–though it is growing and Canberra-Queanbeyan (the part of it in NSW) has 460k–but that it is the national capital. That is a privileged thing and for example why Sacramento is on CAHSR. It would be less than an hour from Sydney and would generate much more traffic than many comparable size cities elsewhere, and would be a successful route in its own right.
        Also, the amazing thing about that #3 air route (and #18 too) is that it occurs in such a low population place like Australia. For example it is the same traffic as Eurostar between London-Paris which are two megacities with at least twice the population of Syd-Melb. For whatever reasons there is exceptional traffic between our east coast cities. It shows how a HSR link would be successful.
        FWIW, the pandemic has apparently led to people relocating from both big cities. In Sydney’s case many go up the coast and some people are saying this is a long-term trend and would add support to HSR (to Brisbane, ie. serving all the myriad towns along the coast en route). I don’t happen to believe the pandemic scenario however I have always argued HSR could be a useful relief valve on Sydney property pressure cooker/unaffordability.

        • Alon Levy

          The national capital effect… I don’t know how important it is? Hard to say since Canberra is unusually small, but usually in Canada’s endless HSR studies, Ottawa is on the line but doesn’t contribute much, unlike the Toronto-Montreal city pair. Sacramento, of note, is a metro area of 2.5 million people – it’s small compared with LA and SF but it’s similar in size to, say, Brisbane.

          I assume the air traffic volumes in Australia are high because it’s not as convenient to drive between the cities? I don’t know how the convenience of domestic flying compares with that of Europe or the US; Sydney-Melbourne looks about twice as big as the pre-AVE volume of Madrid-Barcelona, but I can believe that a lot of vacationers just drove (and still drive). In the US, at the Sydney-Melbourne distance, most people drive rather than flying, though usually bigger cities generate higher air modal split, I’m told by Elizabeth Alexis that LA-SF is 50-50.

          • Herbert

            Arguably there is a “national capital effect” in the level of flights on BER-CGN – a lot of ministries actually have their official first seat in Bonn…

          • adirondacker12800

            I’m told by Elizabeth Alexis that LA-SF is 50-50.
            The soccer mom concern troll? The NIMBY/BANANA, concern troll set, when they aren’t pulling stuff from their neither regions or Fox News, occasionally get their stuff from cite-able sources. She got that from somewhere. The studies for California’s HSR perhaps? CalTrans? USDOT?

          • df1982

            Canberra already has 1m flights, 1m bus trips (at 3:30h) and 5m car journeys to Sydney per year. HSR would take over all of the first two, a big chunk of the third, and probably add a huge amount of induced demand since at present there is no good transport connection of any kind between the two cities. 6m HSR journeys per year would be a conservative estimate, more with population growth, and this would be enough to justify a half-hourly service by itself, as well as boost the cost-benefit ratio of the Sydney-Melbourne line (although it would be on a spur after Goulburn).

            I also wouldn’t describe Adelaide as a lost cause. It has nearly 1.5m people and is within HSR range of Melbourne (5m, about 700km away). But the biggest thing in its favour is that except for the Adelaide Hills (which would require a 13km base tunnel), the topography between the two cities is very flat and very unpopulated, so the line would be exceptionally easy to build per km. Much of the alignment of the existing rail line could probably be re-used, making it even easier and cheaper to build. It’s a logical next step of the system after Melbourne-Brisbane is built out.

          • df1982

            You underestimate how far Sydney-Melbourne is. it’s about a 9 hour drive, so try DC to Atlanta. I don’t believe for one second that more people drive that city-pair than fly.

          • Henry Miller

            Most people in the US drive for several reasons that don’t apply to Australia.

            First because there isn’t good transit at either end you will be renting a car which drives up costs. Plus if you fly you pay for parking at the airport. Thus the economics of flying are worse.

            Second, it is called road trip. If you fly you get to point b, but miss everything in between. National parks, museums, and other attractions are part of the trip, but not the point of the trip. There may also be uncles or cousins that are only a small detour away so you may as well visit them.

            For the first, Australia has invested in transit so you have a better chance of not needing a car enough to make driving worth it. For the second that there is nothing in between means there is nothing to see.

            A HSR in most of the US needs to be paired with a slower regional rail (either four track or timed overtakes ) so that people can transfer to something that stops at all the little towns on the way. Of course that regional rail won’t be worth it without local transit in the towns nobody will use it, and nobody will use local transit when it doesn’t go anywhere.without some larger regional connection (traffic isn’t an issue in these towns so just drive ).

            In short, in the US HSR will take away from flying, but not do much about driving because driving isn’t about point to point.

            In the above Australia is the unique part. Most of the world has the same factors as the US along the way. Until someone seriously proposes something like a Japan Korea HSR line anyway.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Most people in the US drive for several reasons that don’t apply to Australia.

            Australia is exactly the USA minus ten or fifteen years, give or take.

            As for Canberra and “capital effect”, think Bundesdorf.

            Sydney-Melbourne always has been and, sadly, will always remain one of the better potential global HSR city pairs.
            (Maybe Canberra gets a Toledo-like spur. Maybe there’s shin-ACT out of town. Maybe it doesn’t matter very much.)

          • df1982

            One point I would concede about different travel patterns is that in Australia it is MUCH more uncommon for people to move interstate, so family reunion plays a significantly smaller role in intercity travel. Restless young people in Brisbane and Adelaide may look to move to Sydney and Melbourne respectively, but that’s about it. People living in the country move to their intra-state capital, while those living in Sydney and Melbourne would tend to look to London or New York instead of somewhere else in Australia. It’s striking that, compared to the US, almost nobody moves interstate for university (and there’s not even an in-state tuition discount to motivate this). In the end, mainland Australia is more like five isolated settler-outposts surrounded by wilderness than an actual coherent nation. I wonder if Canada might also be a bit like this.

            As such, Melbourne-Sydney travel is mainly about business trips and weekends away (both of which are dominated by flying and could be captured by HSR). Family holidays in the car will usually involve driving a few hours out of the city to a beach town rather than heading to another state capital.

          • adirondacker12800

            Of course that regional rail won’t be worth it without local transit in the towns nobody will use it,
            Which of course is why airports are a terrible failure.

          • Henry Miller

            @Richard Mlynarik there is one important difference that I’m getting at. There are a lot more small cities in the US. While you wouldn’t build HSR for a city of 100,000 if you are building HSR and it runs close to such a city you will stop for it. All those small cities in the US may add up to as many people as one of the anchor cities at the end. This lack is unique to Australia.

            @adirondacker12800 most of the cities I’m taking about the airport is questionable. A few 45 minute flights to the nearest hub airport, it is as fast to drive after security. Or possiblly there isn’t any commercial service.

            The cities that anchor HSR have airports for business travelers, they are successful, but they serve a lots of destinations that are too distant for HSR. Coast to coast might get a HSR route, but nobody will ride the whole trip. Travel between continents is almost entirely by air, and always will be.

          • michaelrjames

            @Henry Miller: “All those small cities in the US may add up to as many people as one of the anchor cities at the end. This lack is unique to Australia.”

            Yes, but as I wrote earlier the coastal strip from Sydney up to Brisbane (1000km by road) is the most densely populated ‘regional’ areas, very broadly similar to the coast LA to SF.
            Sydney to Brisbane coastal strip:
            Gold Coast……………..693,671
            Northern Rivers……….296,531

            Towns that would be graced with a HSR station would be Lismore & Grafton (for Northern Rivers) and Coffs Harbour & Port Macquarie (for Mid-Northcoast). These towns grow via the sea- and tree-change phenomenon, ie. people retiring from Sydney and using their real-estate profits to pump up local RE prices! The thing is that a lot of people in these areas travel regularly to the big cities at either end. Today they drive which is a bore due to the time and the stress (Highway 1, the Pacific Highway is a bendy often 2-lane affair, shared with giant trucks) and if you’re staying in the CBD then parking charges. The existing train is a joke. HSR would transform this and pick up a lot of pax, plus quite feasibly encourage more semi-sea-changers who don’t necessarily have to be at their workplace every workday so could do it by train but never by car (some actually do it today by flying). Of course this might generate NIMBYism because Sydney would be exporting its sprawl and high RE prices to these sleepy seaside towns!

          • adirondacker12800

            Or possibly there isn’t any commercial service.

            If there isn’t any commercial service it’s because there aren’t many people there. If there aren’t many people you aren’t going to get many train passengers either. Train stations, unless it’s a patch of asphalt by the tracks for the dozen or so passengers a month, charge for parking too.

            Travel between continents is almost entirely by air, and always will be.

            The snorkels for the passengers and crew would be too long.

          • Henry Miller

            My knowledge of Australia is not very good, so I’m going to stand corrected.

      • Tom M

        @Alon, at what cost level does it make sense for MEL-CBR-SYD-BRS? Low cost Spanish, high cost Australian or somewhere in between? If high cost Australian levels, would the country/government be better off instead subsidising/mandating 100% use of biofuel (and driving use to algae or something better than corn) for aviation instead to achieve low/minimal CO2 emissions?

        • Tonami Playman

          An article referencing an IRENA survey from 2019 states

          Given the small volumes today, there is no market for biojet and price information is limited. A price that’s 60% higher than regular jet fuel translates into a ticket price that’s about 20% higher. However, consumers have shown limited willingness to pay higher prices. Therefore, governments need to create binding share standards or introduce carbon pricing. Also, captive fleets such as military can create demand.

          So according to the above, ticket prices will increase by 20%, but another research paper from the Chinese Academy of Sciences uses a 2 – 7X factor for fuel price increase for 100% aviation biofuel transition. This suggests ticket price increase between 45% and 74%.

          Then you have to worry about the water vapor emission which does not go away with biofuels. How much is the government willing to subsidize a 20%-74% airline ticket price increase compared to putting that subsidy into HSR combined with the benefit of reduced local travel kms because the train stations will be closer to the city center compared to an airport.

          • michaelrjames

            Isn’t the water vapour effect only at lower altitudes. At higher altitudes, as created by planes at cruising levels, doesn’t it do the opposite? That is, reflect more incoming light (heat)? Same as clouds cause cooling not heating.
            One proposed solution to save the Great Barrier Reef is to install a million ocean surface-based (I think) atomisers to create fine water mists above the reef, and thus surface cooling. Hmm, maybe that is also about salt crystals being reflective …

        • michaelrjames

          @Tom M: “@Alon, at what cost level does it make sense for MEL-CBR-SYD-BRS?”

          Herbert is right, that is the wrong question. There is no magic econocratic algorithm that produces the ‘correct’ answer. Which is why the damn thing has never been built, even when the French offered to build it for a few billion in the mid-80s (because some moron politician thought it would still need government funding …). Now it is priced at A$120bn though that was almost a decade ago so maybe 2x that? And is still worth building. A decade of our federal diesel subsidy amounts to $80bn, not to mention the fuel import bill, the road death and disability cost. Focussing solely on costs that can be accurately measured is very misleading.

          • Tom M

            @michaelrjames yes there is no magic formula, but we cannot ignore cost to build whatever we may want. I mean, that is one of the key reasons behind this blog/website in the first place…how to control costs so more can be built (I currently live in NYC and perhaps a COVID silver lining is that we see Cuomo booted and maybe, just maybe, a new approach to public transport operations and construction in the Big overpriced Apple). I’d love to see the offroad diesel fuel subsidy (and many others) go away, but not sure what that has to do with this discussion.

            My point is, is that at high Australian construction cost levels (A$120bn+), is that is a shed load of money. What (if any) are the other alternatives that may produce an equivalent or better outcome for a lower cost?

            For the consumer HSR for MEL-SYD-BRS would deliver a more comfortable experience (more seat space, less inter-modal hassle etc.), but I do not think would be faster (can easily achieve 3 to 3.5 hour CBD to CBD trips by air at the moment for MEL-SYD or SYD-BRS), nor can we assume that ticket prices will be cheaper (my hunch is that the government will look for opex and capex cost recovery). So then, the other major advantage is carbon emission reduction (and not elimination as I don’t see the Australian power grid being carbon neutral for a long time).

            Hence, two alternatives as laid out here. If we focus on the carbon issue alone, then we can spend A$120bn+ for HSR or can we greatly reduce the carbon impact from the existing transport infrastructure which has no construction risk and has a known operating cost. The risk of course is as per the report @Tonami referenced, aviation biofuels are currently low volume. Aviation biofuels are however inevitable for long-range flights (>1,500km) as there is no battery technology in sight that is feasible for any plane with more than 20 seats, and hydrogen likely becomes infeasible once you get to the inter-continental range.

            So how much would it cost to commercialise aviation biofuels? The basic science is complete, there’s some still to complete on long-term use in jet engines, but the main issue is gaining production experience with higher volumes. A A$120bn check would buy a lot of biofuel, and rapidly reduce the cost to near parity with existing sources, and even less once a carbon price was added in.

            Hence my original question. Does it make sense to build MEL-SYD for A$10bn? Yes definitely, couldn’t agree more. $20bn? probably. $50bn? $100bn? $200bn? $1trn?

          • michaelrjames

            @Tom M:
            “I’d love to see the offroad diesel fuel subsidy (and many others) go away, but not sure what that has to do with this discussion.
            My point is, is that at high Australian construction cost levels (A$120bn+), is that is a shed load of money. What (if any) are the other alternatives that may produce an equivalent or better outcome for a lower cost?”

            The diesel rebate is part of so-called transport (and energy) policy, though in reality it is a sop to rural and mining interests. In a mere decade it would cover most of the cost of almost 2,000km of HSR, and HSR infrastructure lasts a lot longer than 10 years. Europe’s first TGV is 30 years old this year and has carried 1bn+ pax. That diesel rebate is just one of a whole series of direct or indirect subsidies to the road lobby and fossil fuel industry. Not to mention what gets spent on roads and very expensive road tunnels in all those east-coast cities, almost all of which either go bust (Brisbane) or were sold to private industry at a 50% discount to their construction cost (WestConnex).
            I don’t know why you can’t see the connection. Why break into a panic sweat over a HSR that barely costs more than just one boondoggle to the road lobby? And FWIW I happen to believe the processes that result in Anglosphere absurdly high costs in infrastructure have their origins in the same phenomenon as that diesel rebate: looking after mates (including some political irritations) and in certain industries. If governments were acting in the national interest and we had a civil service competent in these things (like France, Japan, China etc) the costs would come under some control, and best long-term projects would be approved (more than 35 years ago in the case of HSR when the French first proposed it).


            For the consumer HSR for MEL-SYD-BRS would deliver a more comfortable experience (more seat space, less inter-modal hassle etc.), but I do not think would be faster (can easily achieve 3 to 3.5 hour CBD to CBD trips by air at the moment for MEL-SYD or SYD-BRS), nor can we assume that ticket prices will be cheaper (my hunch is that the government will look for opex and capex cost recovery). So then, the other major advantage is carbon emission reduction (and not elimination as I don’t see the Australian power grid being carbon neutral for a long time).

            The only trip that would not beat flying would be Syd-Bris which is 900+km. However it would certainly beat the hassle everyone has come to hate about flying. For all the rest the overall travel would be faster, including anywhere between Bris-Syd (most of the northern part, ie. Northern Rivers (exception of Byron Bay) & Gold Coast head to Bris rather than Sydney.)
            I don’t think carbon abatement is a major thing in supporting HSR, and biofuels are a complete distraction. However it is part of converting a car-dependent public to use and support transit more. Further it would encourage citywide and regional transit, the absence of which is one reason people against HSR point to in the poor comparison to Europe or Japan. They’re right but it doesn’t mean we should just give up like Americans; instead it means we should build it. In fact LA is trying to (re)build it, and Dallas, Houston, Atlanta etc where policy makers know there is really no choice but face massive resistance in people’s brainwashing over the last century and PR by the road and fossil fuel (and housing) lobbies. My point here is that well-run HSR (and I’ve never been on a poor one though perhaps Amtrak NEC qualifies) is a powerful conversion tool for most people the first time they experience it–including lifelong road warriors but who still say “it’s all wonderful in Europe, Japan and China but can’t work here”.
            Then there is the urbanist angle. Australia has ridiculous concentration in a tiny number of big cities that are now suffering, not least Sydney because it really has run out of developable land (and give rightwingers the opportunity and they would start sacrificing the green space of which there is quite a lot). The nucleii of future cities have been named by me in earlier posts here. By itself that factor–ie. housing affordability, lifestyle preservation, equality issues, not to mention the de facto agglomeration effect on industry, business, creativity etc–is worth trillions not a few billions over the decades, and is a real alternative to pumping up the unsustainable cost of living in Sydney with awful SFH suburbs 50km out but still edging towards million dollar houses.

            When the (faux) argument comes down to cost then we shouldn’t allow that to stop us. Not least because it keeps getting more expensive the more we delay it. Plus I believe the high cost is partly engineered by the usual suspects to favour roads and fossil fuels. And the real cost of not doing it gets worse (affordability, city liveability etc).

          • Herbert

            Aviation biofuels are a chimera.

            Power to Liquid is where it’s at.

            And subsidizing some worse alternative to HSR is not going to bring the secondary benefits of HSR. Plus, in old Keynesianism, the money you invest in infrastructure isn’t just “lit on fire” it is spent as the wages of loads of people (some of them overpaid management, or rent extractors, granted) and at least part of it will circulate in the economy creating stimulus…

          • Tom M

            @michaelrjames I don’t think you can use the reason that we already waste a lot of money today to justify potentially wasting that same money (or more) on HSR. I say potentially not because I personally would like to HSR on Australia’s east coast, rather I’m just trying to ask how much should it cost assuming world’s best practice, what it may cost assuming prevailing Australian practice, and are there better alternatives to spend the money on to achieve the same goal(s) of HSR.

            I do not see the clear link between HSR and affordability, city liveability. Surely those are to a much greater extent influenced by land use planning, planning restrictions, tax policy, regional, intra-city public transit, and other city/metropolitan specific factors, rather than thinking about how people can move quickly and sustainably ~1,000km?

    • Eric2

      For once I mostly agree with michaelrjames 🙂 Melbourne-Sydney on an inland route (through Wagga Wagga, with Canberra on a spur) is about 800km of mostly flat land, a 3.5hr standard HSR line should be relatively cheap to build with no intermediate stops. The massive flight volume indicates that the rail volume would be high as well, and that’s before population growth. Both cities have strong CBDs and radial rail networks from them, making the HSR station locations attractive.

      Sydney-Brisbane is more difficult to justify – the terrain appears much worse, current travel volume seems somewhat lower, and you would probably need separate stations for Brisbane and Gold Coast (the latter in an inconvenient suburban location).

      • Herbert

        Well, that makes it clear what gets built first and what gets built later.

        Reportedly Canberra’s light rail system (which had been a part of Burley-Griffin’s design way back when, but was only built recently) is performing quite well…

        And the airport is fogged up more than anything

        • michaelrjames


          Unfortunately Canberra Airport was privatised a long time ago and the owners are well-connected and are big opponents to HSR for obvious reasons. I mean between either Melb or Syd who would ever fly if you could train it in under an hour city centre to city centre? (Well, there’d have to be a cafe/bar!)

          Re their light rail, of course it is popular. Only the dumb conservatives thought otherwise. Actually they probably knew it would be popular which is why they opposed it; Canberra/ACT has had the longest consecutive government by same party in Oz history: a Labor-Greens coalition! Drives ’em crazy.

          • df1982

            The Canberra airport owners are pro-HSR, with the proviso that the Canberra station is at the airport rather than Civic (downtown), with the idea that people flying from Sydney would choose to ride to Canberra and fly from there. This is insane and should be refused outright.

          • Herbert

            What if you build two stations? One in Civic and one at the airport? (Doesn’t mean all or even most trains have to stop at both)

      • michaelrjames

        @Eric2 “For once I mostly agree with michaelrjames”

        Hey, you know what they say. Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day … 🙂

  2. Matthew Hutton

    If we are serious about tackling climate change then people are going to have to be keener about travelling by train. I’d expect that’d make California to Chicago or the east coast a journey you’d do by train. And I’d expect that’d make trans-continental high speed rail in the US viable.

    • Matthew Hutton

      I mean if it justified 5 trains a day from the Bay Area to the east coast and 3 a day from the Bay Area to Chicago then we are talking what 3-4 a day from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City and Denver each and we have a viable route. Especially as I’m sure New York JFK or San Francisco to the Rocky Mountains national parks sleeper train would be viable – if only for the European tourist trade.

      • Herbert

        The question is: when will the U.S. get a government that like the current Chinese one appreciates the benefit of “political” high speed rail lines to keep sparsely populated regions integrated and combat centrifugal tendencies a country of such size tends to have…

        • Eric2

          The US doesn’t have that problem. All ethnicities and political persuasions exist in every US region. There is a polarization between urban and rural areas, but that is just as true within a single state like Pennsylvania or Michigan as in the US as a whole. So HSR wouldn’t help.

          This is unlike China, or for that matter Spain, which have separatist ethnicities in certain regions and HSR could help keep the cultures from diverging.

          • Herbert

            The Chinese and Spanish civil wars were over political differences that didn’t have strong local factors to them.

            The American civil war was about a system that only existed in a geographically limited part of the country and the goal of the anti government side was literally secession.

            I’m not sure your argument holds water…

          • Eric2

            I’m talking about Xinjiang and Tibet in the case of China, and Catalonia in the case of Spain, and the last few decades in both cases. Not about civil wars earlier in history.

          • Herbert

            Catalan or Xinjiang secession has never led to a civil war. Texas or Alabama secession has. And the threat of secession is still idly made from time to time by dumb Repubs…

            But at any rate, the party that represents the empty parts of the U.S. hates rail too much to try and engineer a compromise “Yes, you can have your rail lines, but only if we get them, too”….

          • Matthew Hutton

            I’m pretty sure the Xinjiang high speed line was built as a pre-cursor to building belt and road from China to Europe.

          • Herbert

            The US has a similar role in freight transit. For some goods it makes more sense to put them on a container, carry them by rail from New York City to Long Beach than muck about with the Panama Canal.

            But that’s not what you build a high speed line for. And neither is the belt and road thing about high speed passenger trains

      • Ryland L

        I think a good chunk of people would prefer LA to NYC overnight in a High-Speed sleeper car to the current “5-hours (which extends to full-day with time differences) with <12-inch legroom

        • michaelrjames

          @Ryland L

          They may well prefer that HSR sleeper, but would they be willing to pay for it. Flying has become absurdly cheap which of course accounts for those conditions you object to, but it is the actual market making its choices.

          • Herbert

            Once PtL mandates become a thing, air travel will get more expensive…

          • michaelrjames

            About the mid-80s, when living in Europe, I decided to never use an American airline. Americans in the same (Euro) labs agreed, especially as this was the time Virgin Atlantic was offering serious competition and no-bs simplified ticketing. The occasional trip on an American line–eg. when forced to because it was funded by the NIH (mandatory policy of flying American if they are paying; an early version of MAGA? It didn’t work! And if flying to west coast you had to insist on non-stop or they would try to offload you at some eastern hub on to domestic which was even worse, in fact a real horrorshow–incidentally another reason why I think HSR would become popular very fast, despite American’s misconceptions). Of course I wasn’t flying business, though travelling solo and with a briefcase, I did occasionally get upgraded if the plane was very full.

          • Herbert

            “Eurobusiness” is simply Economy class with the middle seat empty…

    • Eric2

      Even sleeper HSR will not make transcontinental HSR viable. NYC-Dallas is 2500km, Dallas-LA is 2000km. Each of those is pretty much a full night on its own. Vacation days are precious, nobody wants to spend one cooped up on a train.

      As for climate change, put an appropriate carbon tax on flights and use it to pay for sequestration, and the problem solves itself without banning flights.

      • Herbert

        Power to liquid fuels are the future of aviation if there is a future of aviation.

        And I think the habit of routinely flying coast to coast for inane reasons in the U.S. will decrease…

        • Eric2

          There is no reason that the carbon creation (production and burning of jet fuel) has to be connected to the carbon removal (sequestration). They can be unrelated processes in different locations as long as the net is zero.

          • Herbert

            There is no known large scale working carbon sequestration in the world. Whereas power to liquid is a solved problem with only costs as a deterrent.

            We will need sequestration if we are to continue using concrete. Filtering the CO2 out of the air is a pretty inefficient process and it’s required for every carbon sequestration process that doesn’t rely on harvesting the CO2 at the source

      • Matthew Hutton

        NYC – San Francisco should take around 16 hours, so leaving after work on Friday at say from New York 8pm would get you to San Francisco at 8am. That would be hours and hours ahead of when you’d land on a Saturday daytime flight. On the way back if you leave Saturday night at 10pm, you’d return in New York for 6pm Sunday which is a wash with an 8am flight on Sunday morning – although better as you wouldn’t have to get up at 5am to get to the airport for that flight.

        • michaelrjames

          I’d take an overnight HSR but the trouble is that a sleeper HSR would have crap economics (operational versus construction). And if it there were just ‘cheap’ seats then flying would be better (5-6h versus 16h trying to sleep upright!); I have thought there is an intermediate solution with deep recliner seats but similar effect, ie. fewer seats ruining the economics. Even if it saves a hotel room, that’s not the way travellers look at it.
          But while coast-to-coast HSR is not viable as a non-stop service that doesn’t mean the US can’t build coast-to-coast HSR, contrary to Alon’s econocratic analysis. Just like the IHS was built to everywhere, it would need to be largely funded by the feds. Call it the BHN (Buttigieg HSR Network) …
          Re carbon emissions, it’s pretty much irrelevant except as part of proper transit. I mean I have never quite understood what Central Texas Rail pax do when they arrive at either end: presumably hire a car? The thing doesn’t even get into the city centres (sorry, centers).
          Plus the timescale of these things is way too late to be part of carbon abatement which we needed yesterday.

          • adirondacker12800

            They don’t bring a car with them when they fly yet they manage once they get there.

          • michaelrjames


            That’s what I said. But is there any operating HSR line* in the world that works like that, ie. dumps the travellers out in the middle of nowheresville in the burbs? I know that Houston has a lot of its activity out there sprawled along its ring roads but a single station would serve maybe 5% of it without car hire or Uber (for those with a company cc) and getting caught up in its congestion (4th worse in US). Removes one of the big advantages of HSR. Do car hire and Uber have a stake in Texas Central Rail? It is typically Texan. A bit like their secessionist power grid, someone hasn’t thought it out. The line would save 2.5h on the journey from station-to-station but given you have to drive to/from the stations at both ends, and still drive to your end-destination, it is not clear just how much time overall it saves on driving (given as 4h).

            *HS1 that takes Eurostar from the tunnel at Dover to St Pancras in central London, does has a station at Stratford but so far it doesn’t stop and take pax there–because the demand is mostly in the centre. It is about 10km east of central London and a few km north of the secondary CBD at Canary Wharf. But Stratford is a high-density TOD with a CBD already third after Canary Wharf, and the station is a mega station with a myriad of other mainline, regional and metro rail connections. Comparing to Houston is bit like comparing to Mars.
            And yes, I think “Houston, we have a (HSR viability) problem.” CaHSR may cost a fortune but will be a raging success if it actually gets built. Ditto LA-LV.

          • Herbert

            The term “beetroot station” was first coined in French, so there’s precedent…

          • Ryland L

            @michaelrjames Apparently JetBlue is pricing full-recline business class seats on its new Transatlantic service within 200-300$ of economy class. Railroads should see how they do that.

            Could build some new cities on a cross-country route: make Kansas/Oklahoma blue!

        • Eric2

          Oh yeah, that reminds me of the other issue with transcontinental HSR, which is the prevalence of huge mountains in the western US which make HSR construction there pretty unaffordable. LA-Dallas at least has the benefit of a flat route along the southern border (exactly why the US made the Gadsden Purchase long ago).

          • df1982

            The Dallas station of Texas Central will be downtown, albeit a short distance from the existing Dallas Union (which has all the Amtrak and light rail connections) because of the desire to keep the HSR line operationally segregated. Even having their own tracks at a shared station was too much, apparently.

            Houston was initially planned to run into downtown (where there is an existing Amshack), but the FRA revised this to a suburban highway interchange, with a proposed light rail connection to downtown. Why the FRA should be involved in this decision baffles me, and I think it’s a bad idea for the reasons you mentioned.

            The project is not bad overall, but they really should have focused on a downtown-to-downtown service, and selecting station sites to maximise transit connections.

    • Henry Miller

      Even if airplanes and cross country road trips stopped today it would hardly make a difference to global warming. If that isn’t what you care about, then you need to focus on local. How do you get people keener on taking the bus around town. Once you have made progress there some of that should upgrade to train, but most shouldn’t. Let people fly around if they want to go a long distance, even encourage it because people who fly prefer not to have a car at either end.

      Of course if we get that many people out of local cars regional and HSR is easier to justify, but that should be a low priority.

      • adirondacker12800

        They can charge their electric cars with the PV over the parking space.

      • Matthew Hutton

        10km a week to the supermarket is still only 500km a year. If I go for a weekend away 250km away from my house that one trip will do as many miles as all my supermarket trips.

        And for those who do intercontinental trips the intercontinental flights dominate ones carbon emissions with the only solution with current technology being widespread high speed rail.

        • adirondacker12800

          People drive to places other than the supermarket. 13,500 miles a year, on average. Most of it relatively close to home.

      • Ryland L

        Given how much more elastic air travel/long-distance travel tends to be (i.e. its not essential to go on vacation), and how much wealthier air travelers are, it makes sense to target that market from efficiency+equity perspectives

  3. Herbert

    I think calling places of 100k or more inhabitants “villages” (as you did in your Twitter thread) is needlessly combative. The 100k threshold is seen as very important in Germany (so much so that some shrinking towns have annexed suburbs for no other purpose than to stay above that line) because it is the line above which a city can be called “Großstadt”. Media coverage and railfan discussions seem to indicate that a “proper” Großstadt “should” have urban rail,9082682,672877,677925 and one needs to research into policy failures when they don’t. Similarly media coverage is full of “Großstädte ohne Fernverkehr“ bemoaning that places like Chemnitz (population slightly below 250k) are not served by IC or ICE trains.

    Certainly in Sweden they thought that the “village” of Lund, population even slightly below 100k was deserving of urban rail and built the first new tram system in a century. Reportedly Uppsala at perhaps twice the population of Lund is next in line, reversing in the process a 1950s mistake.

  4. Robert Jackel

    Is there a good primer on what a “pulse” is? Is it just “The regional trains all leave 5-10 minutes after the interstate train?” Or is it something more complicated?

    • Alon Levy

      It’s both less and more complicated.

      Less complicated: a pulse timetable is when all buses and trains run at the same frequency, and are scheduled so that they all arrive at a central station at the same time and then depart it a few minutes later. This is pretty common in small towns in the US that have a skeletal bus network – the buses all pulse at a city center location, usually every hour.

      More complicated: if your network is larger than a few routes, then you need to think about more than one connection point. This can be a dendritic network, in which the trains pulse at city center, let’s say every half hour, and then they go out into the suburbs and at major suburban stations there are bus pulses that are also timed with the train. But then you need to make sure the train arrives at the suburban station at a convenient time. If the city center pulse is at :00 and :30, then at a suburban station where the inbound train arrives :10 and :40 and the outbound one :20 and :50 you can’t pulse, because a bus pulse would be able to connect to inbound trains or outbound ones but not both. So you’d better set up the system so that wherever you have a bus pulse, the train arrives either :00 and :30, or :15 and :45.

      In bigger networks, even dendritic timetables are too simple. In Zurich, for example, there are buses that connect two S-Bahn stations on separate lines and pulse with both. The Swiss and Dutch intercity rail networks are themselves pulse-based, with pulses at major cities to allow people to connect. This always requires the national railroad to invest in infrastructure so that trains can make multiple pulses – if Zurich and Basel pulse at :00 and :30 then Bern has to pulse at :00 and :30 too and then you have to make sure trains can get from Zurich and Basel to Bern in less than an hour, which project required a long bypass with many tunnels.

      • Robert Jackel

        Yeah this can get complicated. If frequency is high enough, is the pulse sort of irrelevant? I’m thinking about the SEPTA/NJT transfer at Trenton that I used to take, where the NJT trains ran like twice as often as SEPTA. So, you could take basically any SEPTA train and have a short wait on the platform for NJT, but not vice versa.

        • Diego

          If one of the two connecting lines is frequent (say headways < 10 min) then you don't need a pulse. If you're transferring from a high frequency line to a low frequency line just make sure to time your trip so that you arrive before the connection but don't have to wait too long. This is what everyone does when they take a metro to the train station.

  5. Dan

    Could you have a level crossing at 155 mph if there is literally no one in the countryside like the you have in the western part of the us?

    • Andrew in Ezo

      In Japan, the simplest definition would be the boundaries of the urban network in each metro area, which is also the limit of the rfid contactless card payment system (Suica, Icoca, Toica, et al).

  6. Lee Ratner

    Density is one issue with rail transit in the United States but it isn’t the only one. A lot of people just see cars as more convenient for short and medium distance travel for many different ones. Besides the last mile problem and being dependent on a schedule problem, if you have kids to escort to different activities like sports or music lessons in different places at roughly the same time, the car is a lot more convenient than transit. Same with other chores. There should be a post on kids, chores, and transit. Either you really have to punish people out of their cars and/or convince them that transit will be just as easy as a car.

    • Herbert

      If kids can take the bus to school on their own, why shouldn’t they be able to take the bus or bike to football practice or piano lessons on their own?

      • Andrew in Ezo

        Exactly. In my city, children do the above unremarkably. The city subway also sponsors urban orienteering events on weekends for primary school age children where the goal is to visit every station on the network on their own to collect stamps and get a prize in the end. The idea is to encourage independence, learning about the neighborhoods, and how to use the subway.

      • Lee Ratner

        Kids don’t take the school bus on their own any more. Most school districts don’t offer them. The usual way to get to school is to be driven by their parents. A minority might either drive, rare these days, or take the local bus/transi system.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          So the argument is: “We don’t do that so it’s impossible. Nobody’s ever thought about this before. Also, you should write a blog post about why it is impossible. And stop trying to punish us.”

          Really. why bother?

          • Nilo

            It’s also false. California infamously cut school buses, but most districts in the country still have them. Parents just got it in their head that kids were incapable of walking/biking/busing to school.

        • Matthew da Silva

          You realize many large cities in the US give kids transit passes instead of running school buses, right? It may not be the norm in all areas, but in the cities (and in many compact railroad/streetcar suburbs too), kids walk, bike, or take transit to school on their own.

          • michaelrjames

            @Matthew da Silva: “You realize many large cities in the US give kids transit passes instead of running school buses, right? It may not be the norm in all areas, but in the cities (and in many compact railroad/streetcar suburbs too), kids walk, bike, or take transit to school on their own.”

            Yes, and the kids are vastly better for it. School buses appears to be a uniquely American phenomenon (does Canada do it?) and spookily socialist. There is a theory that it adds to the behavioural characteristics of Americans: indifference to fellow Americans (well, anyone), winner-takes-all mentality, ruthless exploitation of others and any misfortune, distrust bordering on paranoia, random violence etc. It might even imprint them with hate/distrust of any kind of transit. Those yellow vehicles are mini-cauldrons of Lord of the Flies incubators. These factors are some of the reasons for dedicated school buses in the first place. Kids are brutal little horrors and need strong socialising at those ages but it is precisely what bussing misses. They can’t get away with such anti-social behaviour on ordinary public buses and get to observe what happens when someone else acts out–though of course the gun issue means that in America there is more reluctance of bystander or driver intervention.

            In response to Lee Ratner, the US suffers hugely from chicken-egg problem. So many things are so wrong and so deeply embedded that one despairs at how to begin to improve it. The kids and ridiculous giant truck (dressed up as SUV) mom school dropoff is almost entirely due to the basic structure of American zoning in suburbia. Not something that can be changed except painfully slowly over generations. After covid, if you tell Americans they need to be more like NYC–or even old streetcar towns/suburbs–many would reach for their guns.

          • Lee Ratner

            The school bus was invented on how to get kids in rural areas to school after the car was invented. Once people started going to school for longer than the bare mininal amount, it became clear that you needed X number of kids to have a decent school system rather than a one room school house, you needed to pool kids in a wider range than rural walking distance. They then got expanded to other areas but were apparently eliminated after I graduated from high school in the late 1990s.

            The chicken-egg issue is the real tough one. Densifying a car suburb into something more urban and transit friendly seems to be a lot harder than naturallly urbanizing a village or small town. Nobody seems to have the stomach to do this.

          • First Class Duck (@FirstClassDuck)

            *They can’t get away with such anti-social behaviour on ordinary public buses*

            I’m not sure about that. There’s a reason why some railfans and busfans would bus routes and subway lines around high school dismissal times…

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, so, just to make things clear, density is not why the US modal split is so bad. Urban rail is independent of national or regional density; Sydney’s modal split is decently healthy by German or Italian standards. I’m specifically discussing regional rail, and not urban S-Bahns either, but rather true regional and interurban trains.

      There should be a post on kids, chores, and transit.

      Ooh, good idea, I’ll Patreon-poll this :).

      • Ryland L

        I wish you wrote on this fact that “density is not destiny” (maybe I’m missing an article?). Its a pablum that’s quite widely ingrained in planning education and used to justify operating 1-hour-headway bus service rather than 15-minute service+bus lanes in LA

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, that’s a separate problem. That said, LA is a dense city. There’s no structure to this density, but you don’t need structure to run buses more frequently. I suspect whatever reason LA has for running hourly headways is a pure excuse, same way you can find British excusemongers who say England is too dense and that’s why building HS2 is so difficult just as you can find American ones who say America is not dense enough.

  7. df1982

    Alon, are there not scenarios where a pulse is actually the worse option? I’m thinking of a hypothetical situation where you have a regional line with branches at either end, which has a connection with an intercity line in the centre. Each branch and the intercity line have 30min frequencies. To achieve a pulse, then the trunk would have to run at something like 2/28min frequencies. Whereas if the branches are evenly spaced out, you can have 15min frequencies on the trunk, at the expense of one of the branches missing the pulse. If the trunk is relatively strong compared to the branches, wouldn’t having a more frequent, even headway there be preferable to running everything to meet the intercity train (considering a small minority of passengers are probably going to be making this change)?

    • Alon Levy

      YES. This is specifically an advocate criticism of Stuttgart 21. Stuttgart 21 operates like a long-range S-Bahn (one in which two of the four approaches are pretty useless, but that has precedents, like the RER C). So trains have to arrive in the central tunnel relatively evenly spaced, which means no timed connections. In contrast, national rail pulses usually occur in environments with surface train terminals with many tracks, so that all trains can arrive and depart around the same time.

      Of note, S-Bahn trains – real ones, not RegionalBahns that brand themselves as S-Bahns like the Rhine-Neckar’s – don’t pulse with intercity trains, for this reason. Urban service is frequent enough that people make untimed transfers. There are some internal timed transfers sometimes, as on the subway, but it’s not a systematic pulse, nor can it be.

      • Diego

        It’s also interesting to note that, in a branched service, it’s impossible to have a consistent all day takt, even headways on the branches and the trunk, and extra peak service. I understand Alon that you make a strong case for running peak service (or at least something close to it) in the middle of the day since it’s cheap, but I imagine it gets expensive if you run it late at night?

        • Alon Levy

          You can (and Germany does) run less service in the evening, what I’m hardline on is not running less service between the morning and afternoon rush hours than during rush hour.

          • Diego

            My point is that it’s very awkward to run less service in the evening on a branched service running on a takt. You’ll need to accept uneven headways in the trunk.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            One good way to do this is to have consistent all-day headway on the one branch (designated as the “trunk”) with the branching line through-running at peaks, adding supplemental inner trunk service (which will not have uniformly spaced trains at peaks, and may involve an long dwell at the junction station followed by a platoon on the trunk depending on infrstructure), while running as a timed connecting shuttle confined to the branch all day.

            The base service to the branch and on the trunk is consistent and even all through the service day, while timing connections to the supplemental through-running branch-to-trunk is less important and can be somewhat neglected in favour of other scheduling priorities.

  8. Diego

    Ireland falls into the lowish density small island category. Unlike France, the cities aren’t big enough to support HSR. But unlike Sweden the distances aren’t big enough to make normal speed rail trips unacceptably long (Dublin-Cork would be about 2 hours). Only Dublin is big enough to support frequent regional rail, but towns such as Cork or Galway could benefit from some local service bringing commuters and visitors from the surrounding villages. But at the same time it seems that layering such a system on top of intercity rail would be excessive.

    Anyway, in my crayon for Ireland, I figured a good way to save operating money would be to merge the regional and the intercity services. All trains make all stops, except in the Dublin area, which is big enough to justify a separate, frequent, local service. A rough estimation of the operating costs showed that even at 25% average occupancy, only modest ~10% subsidies would be necessary to run the show, if passengers are willing to pay the current Dublin-Cork fares (41 euros/250 km ~ 0.16 euro/km).

  9. Pingback: Pulses (Hoisted from Comments) | Pedestrian Observations
  10. Pingback: News roundup: not nearly enough – Seattle Transit Blog

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