Austerity is Inefficient

Working on an emergency timetable for regional rail has made it clear how an environment of austerity requires tradeoffs that reduce efficiency. I already talked about how the Swiss electronics before concrete slogan is not about not spending money but about spending a fixed amount of money intelligently; but now I have a concrete example for how optimizing organization runs into difficulties when there is no investment in either electronics or concrete. It’s still possible to create value out of such a system, but there will be seams, and fixing the seams requires some money.

Boston regional rail

The background to the Boston regional rail schedule is that corona destroyed ridership. In December of 2020, the counts showed ridership was down by about an order of magnitude over pre-crisis levels. American commuter rail is largely a vehicle for suburban white-collar commuters who work in city center 9 to 5; the busiest line in the Boston area, the Providence Line, ran 4 trains per hour at rush hour in the peak direction but had 2- and 2.5-hour service gaps in the reverse-peak and in midday and on weekends. Right now, the system is on a reduced emergency timetable, generally with 2-hour intervals, and the trains are empty.

But as Americans get vaccinated there are plans to restore some service. How much service is to run is up in the air, as is how it’s to be structured. Those plans may include flattening the peak and going to a clockface schedule, aiming to start moving the system away from traditional peak-focused timetables toward all-day service, albeit not at amazing frequency due to budget limits.

The plan I’ve been involved with is to figure out how to give most lines hourly service; a few low-ridership lines may be pruned, and the innermost lines, like Fairmount, get extra service, getting more frequency than they had before. The reasoning is that the frequency that counts as freedom is inversely proportional to trip length – shorter trips need more frequency and shorter headways, so even in an environment of austerity, the Fairmount Line should get a train every 15 or 20 minutes.


In an environment of austerity, every resource counts. We were discussing individual trains, trying to figure out what the best use for the 30th, the 35th, the 40th trainset to run in regular service is. In all cases, the point is to maximize the time a train spends moving and minimize the time it spends collecting dust at a terminal. However, this leads to conflict among the following competing constraints:

  • At outer terminals like Worcester and Lowell, it is desirable that the train should have a timed transfer with the local buses.
  • At the inner terminals, that is South and North Stations, it is desirable that all trains arrive and depart around the same time (“pulse“), to facilitate diagonal transfers, such as from Fitchburg to Salem or from Worcester to Brockton.
  • Some lines have long single-track segments; the most frustrating is the Worcester Line, which is in theory double-track the entire way but in practice single-track through Newton, where only the nominally-westbound track has platforms.
  • The lines should run hourly, so ideally the one-way trip time should be 50 minutes or possibly 80 minutes, with a 10-minute turnaround.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to satisfy all constraints at once. In an environment with some avenues for investment, it’s possible to double-track single-track bottlenecks, as the MBTA is already planning to do for Newton in the medium run. It’s also possible to speed up lines on the “run as fast as necessary” principle to ensure the trips between knots take an integer or half-integer multiple of the headway; in our higher-investment regional rail plan for Worcester, this is the case, and all transfers and overtakes are tight. However, in a no-investment environment, something has to give. The Worcester Line is 90 minutes end-to-end all-local, and the single-track section is between around 15 and 30 minutes out of South Station, which means it is not possible to conveniently pulse either at South Station with the other commuter lines or at Worcester with the buses. But thankfully, the length of the single-track segment between the crossovers is just barely enough to allow bidirectional local service every 30 minutes.


No-investment and low-investment plans are great for highlighting what the most pressing investment needs are. In general Boston needs electrification and high platforms everywhere, as do all other North American commuter lines; it is unfortunate that not a single system has both everywhere, as SEPTA is the only all-electric system and the LIRR (and sort of Metro-North) is the only all-high-platform system. However, more specifically, there are valuable targets for early investment, based on where the seams in the system are.

In the case of integrated timetabling, it’s really useful to be able to make strategic investments, including sometimes in concrete. They should always be based on a publicly-communicated target timetable, in which all the operational constraints are optimized and resolved for the maximum benefit of passengers. For example, in the TransitMatters Regional Rail plan, the timed transfers at the Boston end are dealt with by increasing frequency on the trunk lines to every 15 minutes, at which point the average untimed transfer is about as good as a timed hourly transfer in a 10-minute turnaround; this is based on expected ridership growth as higher frequency and the increase in speed from electrification and high platforms both reduce door-to-door trip times.

The upshot is that austerity is not good for efficiency. Cutting to grow is difficult, because there are always little seams that require money to fix, even at agencies where overall spending is too high rather than too low. Sometimes the timetables are such that a speedup really is needed: Switzerland’s maxim on speed is to run as fast as necessary, not as fast as trains ran 50 years ago with no further improvement. This in turn requires investment – investment that regularly happens when public transportation is run well enough to command public trust.


  1. SB

    Is the problem austerity or the premise that commuter rail should only serve 9-to-5 CBD white collar workers?
    None of the optimizations listed above are super beneficial to those commuters.
    Those commuters would prefer increased peak service over time transfers and increased off peak service.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s austerity. The MBTA is already investigating all-day timetables for fear that the commuters won’t come back to the office, but because of the same fear, the resources for this are scant, and the governor likes cutting service for the sake of cutting service.

  2. Lee Ratner

    All well and good to point this out but now get politicians to give the money for this project.

  3. Herbert

    Does this also apply to… questionable… “improvements” that are made to some transit projects in Germany to get to the desired benefit cost quotient above 1.0 which is precondition for building stuff?

    • Alon Levy

      Maybe? My understanding is that the limit to greater rail investment here is less Schwarze Null and more NIMBYs and Andreas Scheuer. The one borderline case is Hanover-Bielefeld, which should be 28 minutes to fit in a knot system but is instead planned to be just more than 30 minutes, but from what I can tell this is about excessively conservative timetabling, not about leaving the last few km out because of a budget ceiling.

  4. electricangel

    I’ll be taking the train out of North Station tonight to Beverly. The service is lumpy. There is no morning train arriving in Beverly before 8am. My guess is no demand.

    About 20 people have gotten on previously on my late train to Beverly. I greatly appreciate the service, but this is not going to last if nobody is on. They run a train with 5-6 cars and only one is used, that one being far from the North Station entrance. Run a 2-car train, for heaven’s sake!

    • Alon Levy

      The service changes are due to go into effect in the summer, by which point it’s expected that most Americans will have been vaccinated.

    • Henry Miller

      The last service of the day must be almost empty!

      Every office worker has at some point been walking out the door and heard the “hey Bob, look at this” – sometimes it is work related, sometimes not, but either way they have just missed their trip home. thus if any significant number of people are using your last service you need to run another one just to give the stragglers confidence that they can get home.

      The marginal cost of running additional service in non-busy parts of the day is somewhat low. You already have the equipment so why not use it. You need to work around shifts of the workers,but that is something you can schedule.

      Ideally you want to run service 24×7, sure you lose money during the early morning hours, but you can get by with hourly service. The point is to give peace of mind that the system is always there no matter what life throws at you. Once an hour service is always there, anything less means you better have a car (or call a taxi)

  5. RossB

    Another way to put this is: Transit has increasing returns. This is opposite of freeway investment, which has decreasing returns. All other things being equal (i. e. assuming the money is spent wisely).

  6. James S

    The MBTA is closing Plymouth, where a 600+ unit apartment building just opened, with plans for future phases.

    Baker is an imbecile.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, one of the examples of inefficient austerity: in a climate where even mild levels of spending are possible, the MBTA should close Kingston and extend the Plymouth Line to the center of Plymouth, which has more jobs within a half-mile radius than all other Plymouth Line stations south of Braintree combined. Instead, because the MBTA is writing zero-concrete timetables, it has to close Plymouth (which isn’t in city center) and keep Kingston.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        There’s actually no good ‘concrete’ reason whatsoever why it has to be Cordage Park closed instead of the Kingston parking sink, either. The backup move from Plymouth to the Kingston Branch switch for reaching the layover yard, while somewhat inefficient, is not off-scale inefficient compared to layover sitings on the rest of the system. On a majority of the lines there isn’t a picture-perfect yard siting directly beyond the terminal station and some sort of shuffling-in-reverse is required for shift changes or (even on best practice clock-facing turns) the once-every-nth trip cleaning downtime requiring a quick-swapped set. It doesn’t take long, and wouldn’t get in the way of any enhanced future service levels.

        There’s a bus that pings between the Kingston sand pit and Cordage Park for the Kingston-only runs that can literally be inverted if they wanted to weight to Plymouth instead. They just won’t do it because N.I.H. and the finger has always been on the scale in favor of the sandpit parking sink since Day 1. The sad thing is Kingston Mall is the spitting image of Dead Retail Walking and will probably be outright closed and boarded-up within 3 years tops. The rest of that area is a big-box sprawl bomb, and the only adjacent residences are a sprawling walled-garden McMansion condo complex that has near-nonexistent walkup access to the station of any kind, so only caters to drivers. It’s utterly unsustainable, and the parking sink alone is not enough to keep that stop from being a loss-leader. Meanwhile, Cordage Park *sucked* for its first 20 years when the promised TOD magic pixie dust came out stillborn…but has now gotten its act somewhat together with sustainable-enough mixed-use development that the area actually is gaining some legs. They should be planning *now* for the eventual inversion of the termini, but nobody cares enough.

        • Alon Levy

          The reason for the closure isn’t the yard move, it’s frequency. It’s better to have frequent service than more tails in this situation. So before the line is extended to Plymouth Center, all trains should go to Kingston (as is more or less the case today), but once it is extended, Kingston should close, and if a park-and-ride is needed, it should be built on the mainline.

          • Matthew A da Silva

            What’s stopping them from moving the park-and-ride next to the beer distributor next to where the mainline crosses Route 3? Or hell, what’s stopping them from building a deck at Cordage Park if they are so desperate to attract drive-up ridership?

          • F-Line to Dudley


            The beer distributor *was* the original 1990’s preferred site for the Kingston parking sink, back when the service restoration was still aiming for a uni-branch to Plymouth. Apparently the property owners at the time were very politically connected, and refused to play ball while getting the local Legislature delegation to back them as off-limits for any eminent domain. Then the owner of the sandpit, who was also a big political donor, wormed his way into a sweet land deal baiting the fairly wasteful Kingston Branch build (with its maze of tunnels passing Route 3) instead.

            Revisiting the beer distributorship today would probably involve some semi-invasive road construction abutting wetlands to funnel the station access traffic away from angular residential streets in the neighborhood, but otherwise the politically-connected owner has long since sold out the property and is no longer an obstacle. Another alternative for a mainline station replacement for the sandpit would be the old Kingston Depot site at the MA 3A grade crossing, but instead of having the platforms east of the crossing (where the old H.H. Richardson-designed stone depot building is now a restaurant)…flip them west of the crossing so the Public Works yard behind Kingston Town Hall can serve as a decent-sized parking lot. While further distance-wise from the highway, 3A/Summer St. has mercifully few traffic lights from Exit 18 so tends to flow pretty robustly even at peak rush hour traffic loading.

            Extension to Plymouth Center isn’t prevented by the rail trail at all. The trail is intentionally shifted to the edge of what used to be a 3-track property line and the derelict rails are still sitting in the ground the whole way down. Easy to do up as fence-separated rail-with-trail. Landbanked MBTA property runs as far as Murray St., as the former Conrail freight yard and freight house abutting the downtown rotary was sold off for redevelopment in the 1980’s begatting the current hotel & restaurants. The municipal parking lot there won’t be developed into anything because the MBTA vs. town property lines bisect the lot too awkwardly to bureaucratically subdivide, so that can be the station lot and the 800 ft. platform would abut the former Lothrup St. crossing opposite the lot…1 block from where the footpath to the Ferry Terminal ends at the corner of Water & Lothrup. NIMBY’s blocked the completion of the line back in the 90’s, but local attitudes have changed since then so they’d probably be amenable to the extension today.

            Unfortunately with the ass-backwards way the state treats the line it’s going to take the fast-imploding Kingston Mall getting boarded up with no takers for redevelopment and the economic bottom falling out of the environs around the sandpit to get them to do any overdue troubleshooting of the terminus being on the wrong branch. And even then…only after an attempt at unilateral service cuts gets repelled back. Unfortunately, Middleboro trains being diverted then branched to Fall River and New Bedford in 3 years via the South Coast Rail Phase I shit sandwich is going to make on-time performance on the single-track segment of Old Colony in Dorchester & Quincy a nightmare. Plymouth and Greenbush passengers are going to get shouldered with all the delay downsides for self-justifying optics of the SCR build and the funny math of funding it without any treatment whatsoever to the mainline single-tracking. No consideration whatsoever was given to doubling-up the JFK/UMass and Quincy Center platforms for staging meets/overtakes, so any schedule hiccups on any branch will end up upsetting the whole applecart. The sum-total “solution” is to just hold Plymouth trains at the Braintree platform in any situation so South Coast trains get all the self-correction slack to themselves, and making sure the T’s delay Twitter feed gets blown up by angry South Shore commuters who they’re well-used to ignoring instead of the South Coast newbies who they can condition from Day 1 to like-or-lump the crappy service they’re being fed. Gov. Baker is no doubt openly rooting for all ridership south of Whitman on the Plymouth Line to just up and die so they never have to lift a finger in troubleshooting and can just cut their way out of a very self-induced problem.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

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