Not Everything is Like Rail Transport

Sometimes, when I write about cost comparisons or public-sector incompetence, I see people make analogies to other fields. and sometimes these analogies are really strained. So I want to make this clear that I am talking about things that are specific to public transportation, and drawing lessons in other fields requires excellent cross-national comparisons within those other fields.

For example, in a Hacker News thread regarding my last post, including some interesting comments and some truly mad ones, someone brought up education, including that overrated word in US business, disruption. For another example, the pseudonymous New York (I believe?) socialist transit activist who goes by Emil Seidel asked me recently why I talk about full workforce replacement at Amtrak but not at American police departments.

So let’s enumerate some features of rail transport, as far as labor and international comparisons go:

  • The United States is severely behind, with much less usage than in peer developed countries, especially when it comes to commuter and intercity rail as opposed to subways and light rail.
  • The United States is moreover intellectually behind – there is too little academia-industry collaboration, the internal ideas of reform are usually half-baked, and so on, and this again is magnified when it comes to mainline rail.
  • Wages are not really above local market rates, but the market rate is pulled up by solvable work conditions problems. Moreover, there is severe overstaffing on mainline rail, though much less so on subways and not at all as far as I can tell on buses.
  • The laws of physics are universal, and to a large extent so are those of economics, which means that knowledge transplants quickly between different environments when the recipient place is interested in learning, as Southern Europe is in learning from Northern Europe.

I don’t think any of the above features applies to education. The United States seems worse than Northern Europe and East Asia, and does spend more money, but the money doesn’t really go to teachers. The OECD’s Education at a Glance report finds that among the OECD countries for which there is data, the US ranks last in teacher pay relative to that of similarly-educated workers (PDF-p. 387), and has somewhat more students per teacher than the average (PDF-p. 372). Starting Berlin teachers get paid slightly better than starting New York teachers, Germany having one of the best pay rates relative to wages, enough to overcome New York’s large average income premium over Berlin.

The part about the laws of physics being universal might apply to education, but the upshot is that full replacement leads to a big reduction in quality, because teachers should know the students personally and a contingent workforce of strikebreakers moving around from city to city can’t do that.

It’s plausible that the US is also intellectually behind on education, in the sense of not being aware of trends in Finland, Singapore, the Netherlands, and other high-performance countries. My impression is that individual Americans sometimes acquire such an interest but the school district system does not reward such knowledge, so they remain interested parents who yell into the ether and never become decision makers. But I don’t know to what extent American teachers, curriculum writers, etc. are just ignorant of advances elsewhere, and judging by the quality of comments on this subject, the American commenters who go ahead and assume education works like rail transport don’t either.

Policing, unlike education, does display a glaring international difference. American cops shoot around 1,100 people every year, around 3-3.5 per million people; the European range is 0.03-0.25 per million, to the point that one must rely on multiyear averages to get any reliable rates by country, and the high-income Asian range is so low that in 2018 Japan only had two killings, for a rate of 0.016. This is disproportionate to any difference in crime rates, police racism levels, etc.

And yet, all the other issues apply. The US does not have an overstaffed police by European standards, either writ large or in specific cities. NYPD has somewhat larger strength per capita than the TMPD, by about one third per Wikipedia, but this is not a large difference, and New York has higher crime than Tokyo. The biggest glaring difference to me on the labor side, all from Wikipedia-level knowledge, is that Germany requires years of academy of cops compared with a few months in American cities, but that argues against general replacement. And local knowledge is of paramount importance in criminal investigation.

I’d like to stress, then, that I make assertions regarding public transportation, especially mainline rail. These include the inferiority of North America to Europe and Asia, to such extent that Americans in the field need to view themselves as deficient Europeans or Asians and acquire the knowledge of the global technological frontier before attempting to innovate.

But this, again, is barely even true in other parts of public transportation. In urban transit that doesn’t touch mainline rail, the inferiority is still there but the gap is narrow in operations. It’s really only capital construction and anything involving mainline rail where one sees routine inefficiency by a factor of 5-10, with a commuter train staffed with five or more crew where a similar-size train here would have one, very low maintenance productivity, order-of-magnitude construction cost premiums, and so on. In operations, New York is still inefficient but the factor is 2 and not 10 and some other American cities, like Chicago, have normal operating costs. (Japanese cities, not depicted in the link, cluster around $5/car-km – see report for Mumbai Metro, PDF-pp. 254-261.)

If the point is to look at staffing levels carefully and only then make proclamations regarding the workforce, then it’s natural that the conclusions in different fields may be different. In mainline rail there really is a case for full replacement at Amtrak and some commuter rail agencies in the US, but it’s in context of truly otherworldly costs, an internal culture that is technologically stuck in the 1950s, and high enough staffing levels that pushing the reset button could be worth it. This case is most likely not there for other industries, and, again, isn’t there for non-mainline US rail transit, which needs reforms but often in a direction junior planners already push for.


  1. Phake Nick

    Especially for routes depart West from Chicago, is the Amtrak long distance travel still meaningful for non-leisure long distance travel, that airlines and Greyhound cannot replace their function and convert all those long distance trains into a separate train cruise company for the convenience of those who take leisure trains, while Amtrak itself can focus on improving regional railway, and hopefully in the process also remove both staffs and fans who view rail travel as merely some sort of vanity niche?

    • SB

      Better solution might be let current Amtrak reorganize into agency based around land cruises and one train a day services.
      And form a new agency which incorporates best practices from across the world for intercity and high speed rail.

      • Phake Nick

        Even Amtrak still operate much more regional service than long distance train according to my understanding
        And Amtrak receiving public money as well as having legally defined obligation for freight railway to follow also make it not suitable to convert it itself into a purely leisure for profit leisure travel company

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        SB, the U.S. should not have one train a day on any line. Period. We’re not an ex-Soviet -stan. America can afford more than one train a day. Amtrak is America’s eighth-largest airline, and remember there’s an important rural constituency because there is no flyover country.

        I personally don’t see any utility for multiday long-distance routes. But, a funny thing happened during the HSR threads a couple of weeks ago. Out of curiosity, I was perusing the Rail Passengers Association ridership fact sheets on those long distance routes. The end-to-end city pairs on those long distance routes are often No. 1 and No. 2 in ridership, and No. 1 in revenue. We are talking about 2019 here. It’s not the golden age of railroading. We have airplanes and airports. We have an interstate highway system. We have Greyhound and even the old Trailways network in some places. And there are still people going from L.A. to New Orleans, L.A. to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle and Chicago to Oakland. On Amtrak. As we know it and experience it.

        My suggestion: Any service part of the Amtrak national network gets a minimum coverage of six trains a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. (There would be flexibility to avoid overnight service and compress the six trains to more-than-every-4-hours if maintenance work or freights need it.) States are free to, and encouraged to, purchase more services within their jurisdictions similar to California, Michigan or North Carolina.

        As for the long-distance routes, they should be broken into segments for operational reliability. Routes should run between the two largest cities in the closest adjoining states. Sunset Limited, for instance, would be New Orleans-Houston, Houston-El Paso (Houston-San Antonio should be true HSR following the T-bone proposal; then service could be San Antonio-El Paso, and I could make an argument that this is possibly a viable HSR corridor too); El Paso-Tucson; and Tucson-Los Angeles.

        Whether sleepers are worth it needs to be studied. Are sleepers a money pit or do the amenities command a premium that can turn into an operating profit or at less of a loss than coach-class service? Could Amtrak turn these into experiential services where they could be branded by a travel company that would set the user experience and hire specially trained Amtrak staff members to provide the services?

        Then we can examine which of these corridors can be turned into faster-than-highway speeds. A lot of these long-distance trains have cruising speeds below 65 mph. The Zephyr drops to 38 mph between Denver and Salt Lake City. We should invest in making passenger trains at least 75 mph cruising speed where available.

        • Matthew Hutton

          People go on the California Zephyr to look at the scenery 🙂. The speed isn’t super important.

          • Phake Nick

            That’s exactly the problem
            Antrak long distance service now being known as for people “to look at the scenery” make people get a wrong image of what passengers rail is for.
            Currently Amtrak is looking for legal enforcement tool to ensure passenger trains’ priority over freight trains, and are also talkong with states and federal government for subsidies for expanded seevices.
            It would be hard to support these pushes financially and legally, if tge goal is just for people “to look at the scenery”.
            And if lawmakers share such perception and misunderstood the main purpose of passenger rail service as “to look at the scenery”, then they’d be much less likely to give extra fund or legal tool Amtrak for the necessary rail service expansion, aa “to look at the scenery” isn’t worth the government money or priority above freight trains.
            Their existence causing people think passenger rail transportation is something other than for transporting passengers from one place to another is in itself a problem preventing the development of passenger rail where they could be more useful in actually helping the passenger transportation.

          • Onux

            Yes, Cheyenne is pretty small, but at only 46 mi from Ft Collins on existing and mostly straight track it isn’t a huge deal to get there.

            Pueblo is at least double the size, and slightly closer to Colo. Springs.

            The main argument I can make for Chey.-Pueblo is that it covers everything meaningful within 300-500 mi in any direction, and it is all in a straight line. Maybe hourly service Ft. Collins-Colo. Spr., with a few trips per day covering the full Chey.-Pueblo route. If it’s a connecting bus to Cheyenne no big deal.

            Everything else should be no question. Phoenix-Mesa has as many people as the whole Front Range in one city, less than 400mi from LA. LA-LV should be packed, considering volume on I-15. The Texas Triangle probably has as more people than Greater LA now.

          • adirondacker12800

            Fort Collins has trains, Freight trains but it has trains.

            Making that faster than a bus would cost a lot of money.

        • adirondacker12800

          There aren’t enough people out in the great beyond to use six trains a day.

          • Herbert

            China thinks there are enough people to build hsr out to Xinjiang

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            There aren’t enough people out in the great beyond to use six trains a day.

            Sunset Limited, serving some of the most built-up areas in the West, Southwest, and Southeast, has service levels reflective of a nation with the GDP of Turkmenistan.

            The most challenging for ridership is going to be the Empire Builder, since this is America’s widest gap of 1+ million MSAs (about 1,700 miles between the Twin Cities and Seattle or Portland). There aren’t even too many 100,000+ areas, though most of inhabited North Dakota lives along the line. Six trains a day would be good for the portions across Washington state. The central Washington to Portland branch could probably support that level of service. It might offset Montana, where if you combined the populations of all the melancholy hamlets with Amtrak stations, they’d be less than 50,000. (Gauging by some of their Wikipedia entries, some of these places only exist because they’re Empire Builder stops.)

            America can afford it, and a train ride might offer a nice alternative to watching the barley grow.

          • Phake Nick

            @Herbert I am sure China didn’t build the high speed line to Xinjiang because they think it have enough people. Instead they think it is important for integration and assimilation of Xinjiang into China, and is also symbolically and politically important. Even now the high speed rail need 12 hours to reach the next province’s capital and only 4 trains a day is being offered, and last I read about it even those few trains have a really low load factor. That’s despite they have lowered the ticket price to the level of 80USD for such a long 1800km trip.

          • Herbert

            To my knowledge the Empire Builder is one of Amtrak’s most popular trains currently.

            I mean the landscapes it traverses are stunning.

            As for the wisdom of building hsr out to Xinjiang: Wouldn’t similar arguments apply for the emptier corners of the U.S, too?

          • adirondacker12800

            The Empire Builder gets the same ridership, giver or take a few thousand as Trenton New Jersey. Trenton gets less ridership than Newark New Jersey gets. All of New Jersey has less than half the ridership of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. It’s not Amtrak’s most popular trains. In nice round numbers trains with the name “Northeast Regional” are a quarter of Amtrak’s ridership. Throw in Acela and the state supported services that serve NEC stations it’s half of Amtrak’s ridership. Apparently people along the Empire Builder’s route are aware of aeroplanes. Fargo’s airport had roughly twice as many passengers as all of the Empire Builder.
            Reproducing late 19th Century sightseeing trips, with retention toilets, air conditioning and wi-fi isn’t transportation. It’s sightseeing. There can even be an argument that they need an alternative to cars and buses. If they are lucky enough to have a bus. I suppose they could raise fares to actually cover the cost of the land cruise. There aren’t enough of them to be building grade separated electrified railroads when there are airplanes.

          • Herbert

            Faster more frequent service gets better ridership. Who’da thunk?

          • barbarian2000

            >That’s despite they have lowered the ticket price to the level of 80USD for such a long 1800km trip.

            80 USD is still a lot of money for a country with the GDP per capita of China

          • Phake Nick

            @barbarian2000 At least such fare would be competitive against flights, yet air travel still have more passengers on such route from my understanding

          • Herbert

            I did a very cursory search (and anecdotally, Chinese airlines often have fares not available on the English language version of their website) and got ~ 235$ there and back for a flight between Ürümqi and Beijing.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Adirondacker12800, why do we try to re-create 19th century train experiences? And why do I make the good-faith argument, that yeah, even the Empire Builder deserves multiple trains a day what with Montana and Idaho being in the way?

            First, I’m of the proposition that the schedules aren’t reflective of actual or potential demand. America has thrice-weekly or one-a-day long-distance trains because of a management and budget allocation problem. 1. Congress is the manager and the board of directors. 2. Congress is unique in that it can run afoul of conventional market thinking and give the passenger railroad as much money as it wanted, but instead has settled on a Failure Consensus model. (Republicans want Amtrak dead, but will tolerate its existence because it serves as a nail to hang the frame that Government is Bad and taxnspendlibruls are its Enablers. Democrats in turn protect union jobs but also forgo the tough conversations to make operations more cost-effective, which might mean reduced headcount or dumping work rules that diminish bargaining power.) A corollary to 2: America can afford to overpay for bad service because the government doesn’t have to go begging to financiers or bondholders (Paul Krugman’s “bond vigilante” trope) without the fear of them taking the market hostage if America chooses a policy contrary to their interests.

            That aside, let’s establish 6 trains daily or 4 hours service (distinction: 24/6 yields 4-hour service, but the arrangement could be flexible so that a more productive segment can run less service at night and more frequent daylight service) as the Mendoza Line for Amtrak service. The least productive Amtrak line will always get this amount of service. More productive services would be rewarded with additional trains or speed upgrades. (Think about the Sunset Limited: thrice-a-week service on it and the portion of the Texas Eagle it hauls, yet this actually runs through heavily populated and fast-growing areas that could sustain well above 6 trains daily.)

            The Empire Builder is an interesting thought experiment, because it is such a massive donut hole. It’s more hole than donut, once you go west of North Dakota until you arrive in Spokane. You do have some interesting things going on here. For reference, here is the RPA’s Empire Builder fact sheet:

            * There is enthusiasm for going end-to-end. Chicago-Seattle is No. 2 in ridership and No. 1 in revenue. Chicago-Portland is No. 6 in ridership and No. 2 in revenue. This isn’t going to be a market to easily dislodge, and we can go about all day theorizing why people in the 21st century would want to ride 2,200+ miles on Amtrak. But they do.
            * City population and ridership don’t correlate the way we think they do. In Chicago, Portland and Seattle they do. Something is happening in North Dakota. It’s a sparsely populated state, but serendipitously much of its population is along the Builder. Fargo’s 2-state CSA has a population of 450,000. The next biggest is Grand Forks (170K). Then we have Minot, which isn’t even metropolitan. It’s 75,000, but produces most of North Dakota’s ridership — more absolute ridership than Fargo. Minot has 27,000 “activity” while Fargo has 18,550 “activity.” Grand Forks has 12,800 “activity” — it has about a third the population of Fargo but two-thirds of its ridership, so it wins on a per-capita basis. Minot-St. Paul is also No. 10 for ridership.
            * Whitefish, Montana! Population 8,200. An “activity” of 55,000. It doesn’t make the top 10 for ridership, but does take three spots in the revenue category, with passengers from relatively nearby Seattle and Portland as well as faraway Chicago willing to ride here. A fourth Montana station, East Glacier, is open summers only for Glacier National Park. It’s popular with Chicago passengers.

            If this route had to be broken up, it wouldn’t be in the middle — that would be a low productivity Montana city — but would probably be Whitefish. A Portland-Whitefish and Seattle-Whitefish train could be doable with 6 trains daily, split with each PNW city getting thrice-daily service. Or, 6 Seattle-Whitefish trains, and 6 Portland-Pasco trains (Pasco would be the transfer to the Builder). The east leg should be Minot to Chicago. If/when high-speed rail is built, the Builder can truncate in the Twin Cities.

          • Phake Nick

            @Herbert The high speed railway in Xinjiang does not offer direct train to Beijing, due to the roundtrip distance exceeded maximum allowed distance between servicing.
            Flight between Urumqi and Lanzhou (same city pair as the train I quoted) cost 120USD *round trip* according to quick internet search, compares to the train costing 80USD *one way*.
            If you go to Beijing from Lanzhou using also the high speed train you need to pay an additional 100USD one way.
            But there’s also a more economical option of taking the through running slow train

          • Phake Nick

            @Bobson Dugnutt
            Problem is, upping the frequency of such multi-day trains wouldn’t attract much more passengers than there currently exists, due to the nature of the trains being something like “about the journey”, with vast majority of passengers already picked either automobiles or cars if they are really trying to travel between the two cities. The financial cost and time cost of using the train make it uncompetitive. These cost won’t be lowered even if you can increase the frequency to multiple departure each days.
            The argument here is, as people are travelling on a train for leisure purpose, why should transportation budget, as well as transportation policy public discussion time, be spent on it?

          • Herbert

            How do you know that adding frequency on Amtrak’s LD routes – which, again, are often the only transportation option in many rural areas – would not increase ridership? Certainly it’s worth a try…

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Phake Nick, I’m not so sure that as you say “… upping the frequency of such multi-day trains wouldn’t attract much more passengers than there currently exists, due to the nature of the trains being something like “about the journey”.

            The RPA’s Fact Sheet gives some numbers but doesn’t give the complete reality on the ground. For that, we’d actually have to take a few days and ride the Builder end to end. 🙂

            We can get some idea by gleaning those bars near the top right corner under the Trips by Length header. Roughly half of the ridership is going the high-speed rail “sweet spot” of 100 to 500 miles. Another 13% is going 501-699 miles an hour. Nearly a quarter of riders are going for the journey, riding 1,000 miles or more. As you’d expect, sleeper passengers (orange bars) trend toward the longer distances.

            Empire Builder is a trunk line that is doing so many things at once, though its schedule assumes a land cruise. Half the passengers are going 100-500 miles, what would be the ideal high-speed rail corridor. We had a bull session about making the case for a part of this route HSR because of the close proximity of major metropolitan areas to one another — Chicago to the Twin Cities. Subtracting the end-to-end rides, the pairs in this corridor in the HSR sphere are No. 1, No. 3, No. 7 (Wisconsin Dells is a proxy for Madison), No. 8 and No. 9. The two Chicago-to-Pacific Northwest full-line routes are No. 2 (Seattle) and No. 6 (Portland).

            I could also make a case — and what the hell, this is a comment board so why not — that the Pacific Northwest portion could also be upgraded to high-speed rail. It would be in Washington State’s interest to link its two biggest metro areas, on the opposite ends of the state and separated by mountains (not unlike Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania), with high-speed rail. The current routes don’t serve it well; it would have to be a V-shape connecting Seattle, Ellensburg (university), Yakima, Pasco/Richland/Kennewick, Walla Walla and Spokane. The Portland leg parallels the Columbia River and might warrant higher-speed, if not true high-speed, tracks to the Tri-Cities. Portland to Spokane and Portland to Tri-Cities are No. 4 and 5 for city pairs.

            Yet there’s more to North Dakota and Montana than meets the eye. Williston and Minot are tiny places that produce surprisingly high ridership. A lot may be due to the oil boom; Minot to St. Paul is the 10th most popular city pair. Minot has a 4-year state school and an Air Force base, and its ridership is heading east, serving the larger Grand Forks and Fargo metros.

            Whitefish is one of the most productive stations on the line. It’s a city of about 8,000 but sees 55,000 “activity” a year. It has three of the top 10 city pairs by revenue, and people from Chicago, Seattle and Portland are visiting it. I think the ridership is a mix of tourist ridership and seasonal itinerant workers.

            WIth the mix of 100-500 mile and 1,000+ mile rides, the Empire Builder can handle multiple trains a day with the stronger ridership pairs offsetting the weaker legs. Keep in mind that ridership is low because there is only a train a day, and the schedules are designed to optimize the scenic parts for Chicago and PNW passengers. The riders in the middle have to go out of their way to meet the train’s schedule, which can be at late night or in the middle of the night.

          • adirondacker12800

            Why can’t you get it through your head that ridership is low because the population out there is low. Running empty trains isn’t going to give the few people out there the urge to travel.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            Why can’t you get it through your head that ridership is low because the population out there is low.

            Because population does not determine ridership (demand). Service supply does.

            You’re arguing that Amtrak is following best practices and every other train line worldwide, public or private, would run the same amount of service or outright cancel it based upon population alone.

            Again, the Empire Builder is a strange beast. There are very large anchor cities at the ends, and a multiday train serves them and somehow attracts ridership. Closer to the large anchor cities, particularly nearer Chicago, you have still pretty heavily populated second-tier cities that can sustain multiple trips per day (Milwaukee, Fargo). On the west end, there are three larger areas (Spokane, Portland and Seattle) that have ridership demand among them, or that Spokane is on the way to where Portland and Seattle passengers are going, like Chicago or Whitefish.

            The North Dakota ridership might be a fluke owing to the oil boom, but the small cities of Williston and Minot are generating a lot of demand. That Minot-St. Paul is No. 10 for ridership suggests that North Dakota is feeding ridership to the Twin Cities, and since Grand Forks and Fargo are on the way (combined, they have a half-million people), it would lead to improved service and higher ridership where the population is likely less boom-bust.

            Ridership is 50% rides of 100-500 miles, 25% 1,000+ miles-both ends, and the bottom 10% of station pairs are for trips of 0-100 miles and 700-1,000 miles.

            So those North Dakota and Montana stations are not going to produce dramatic ridership gains, but you could plot out that whatever ridership is generated, the behavior will roughly follow the pattern of 2 riders going 100-500 miles, 1 rider going a really long way, and 1 rider going a really short distance or from 700 to 1,000 miles. The larger the city, the higher the chance of ridership — and the Builder has a few larger cities (Spokane, Pasco, Fargo, Great Falls, La Crosse) that would do more than its fair share of ridership gain to offset the smaller cities the line has to serve.

          • Onux

            “Because population does not determine ridership (demand). Service supply does.”

            So if we run 12-car trains at 17 tph between Minot and Whitefish we will get 165 million riders per year, just like the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, correct? Because the same service supply will determine the same ridership?

            Your statement is beyond absurd. Service/supply puts a floor on ridership (run no trains, get no passengers), but population absolutely determines ridership and certainly puts a ceiling on it. You also contradict yourself when you say “The larger the city, the higher the chance of ridership”

            Adirondacker is correct, there are not enough people to justify the transcontinental routes, not when planes and cars exist as competition. Putting “heavily populated” or “larger cities” in the same sentence as Fargo, Pasco or La Crosse is silly.

            To improve rural mobility, the US should establish an Essential Ground Service program similar to Essential Air Service, and subsidize bus routes from Greyhound, Trailways, etc. A few busses throughout the day instead of one train in the middle of the night, to say nothing of towns and routes the trains don’t serve (like all of S. Dakota, or any N-S trip) make this vastly more helpful to the “people with no other option” the rail fans are worried about.

            The Empire Builder should be split into a Chicago-Twin Cities service and a Portland/Spokane/Seattle route. A crude approx. using milage (not time) suggests 6 daily trains each direction Chi-Minn. and 3 daily trains each direction through Spokane.

            Get rid of the Zephyr, use the hours for frequent service Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo (could be hourly!).
            Toss the Southwest Chief, create a service to Las Vegas (the one in Nevada with millions of visitors, not the one in New Mexico with 6-7 boardings a day), build a brand, and merge with Desert XPress if it gets built.
            End the Sunset Limited, make a frequent LA-Phoenix route that actually stops in Phoenix, not 30 mi away in Maricopa.
            Scrap the Texas Eagle and create meaningful service for the 18M people in the Texas Triangle.
            Abandon the Coast Starlight and use the service hours/rolling stock to improve California services, or expand the Cascades, or create a downtown-downtown SF-LA sleeper (with reasonable evening departure/morning arrival) until/if CAHSR happens.

            There are more options in the east (ATL-Charlotte-Raleigh 3/day instead of NYC-ATL-NO once) but you get the idea.

            Little about Amtrak is good, but its best performance other than DC-NY-Bos is routes of 100-450 mi, connecting large metros with trains 5-16x per day (Surfliner, Cap. Corridor, Keystone, Hiawatha). There are plenty of similar markets that are not being served because of money wasted on transcontinental land cruises.

          • adirondacker12800

            Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo (could be hourly!).
            It would mostly empty because there aren’t a lot of people in Cheyenne or Pueblo. A bus to Fort Collins from Laramie and Cheyenne would be iffy. Or from Pueblo to Colorado Springs. Trains to Fort Collins or Colorado Springs would be a good first step.

        • Herbert

          Per what is often cited, the sleepers at the very least earn their own way. And it’s only natural that you’d have more people willing to shell out for a sleeper than sitting in coach from Chicago to the west coast. Plus existing sleeper cars are already paid for and depreciated. If and when assets need replacing the calculus might change but I
          wouldn’t know why

        • Nilo

          The Soviet Union had some of the world’s best railways, so this comparison seems odd to me.

          • Herbert

            The Transsib was begun under the tsars and its electrification was finished under Putin. There are not many things that stayed constant in Russian politics in the last century – railroads is one of them

          • Ryland L

            “And also unlike the Moscow-Beijing train where almost everyone is making the complete journey, very few passengers on the Rossiya are going all the way to Vladivostok. The Rossiya is used for all sorts of shorter intermediate journeys, with Russians getting on and off at every station.”

          • Alon Levy

            Silly question: do the Moscow-Beijing and Moscow-Vladivostok trains overlie to create higher daytime frequency on the shared segment?

    • Herbert

      Many communities have Amtrak service and nothing else. That’s why Amtrak has endured despite many attempts to kill it – senators and representatives from those places were very adamant that their train couldn’t possibly be axed

  2. Korakys

    Heh, I was thinking of making such a comment yesterday but didn’t in the end.

    Every country has its problems, the United States, however, has more than its fair share. I believe that this is ultimately due mainly to its size. The bigger a country gets the less efficient it can be.

    • Phake Nick

      Other than issues related to military I don’t see that being the case.
      Especially when it come to cases like education system, police, urban transit, they are local topic. How many people in your country living outside your local area have no bearing on how good or bad the situation would be.

      • Herbert

        China is not more dysfunctional than a random Central Asian ex Soviet state. The EU is not more dysfunctional than its constituent parts. India is not more dysfunctional than Pakistan or Bangladesh. I think empirically the thesis doesn’t hold up.

        • Korakys

          I’m confident that Bangladesh will overtake India in about two decades. Pakistan is a more difficult question which I’ll have to think about.

          It would be better to compare the ex-Soviet Central Asian states against Russia rather than China, but even there I see that the case is not clear for me. It may be that size only effects democratic states since autocratic ones all have a small ruling elite regardless of how big they are.

          • Alon Levy

            Pakistan is growing more slowly than India. Bangladesh is growing more quickly, yes, and is also one of the most populous countries in the world. The development economists I read attribute the recent high growth in Bangladesh to governance changes that came after it became independent in 1971, including NGO-driven investments in literacy and basic health care and, more recently, labor-intensive growth. The NGO-driven investments are a function of its large size – it was already one of the largest countries in the developing world in 1971, as was Pakistan, which meant that its war of independence, Pakistan’s war crimes trying to hold on, and the country’s subsequent poverty were all globally infamous, making it an attractive Schelling point for global anti-poverty interventions.

          • Herbert

            With the exception of the Baltic states virtually all ex Soviet republics lament the fall of the Soviet Union – as a matter of fact in the dissolution referendum all republics voted “no” albeit some of them due to election boycott by the anti ussr side. Similar things can be said of Yugoslavia.

            Dysfunctional big states break apart. And it ain’t pretty.

            For a state to grow in size, it needs a baseline level of functioning or in the case of voluntary associations like the EU quite a high level of functioning

    • Alon Levy

      Is that really true? To the extent there’s any negative effect of size within Europe, it’s that big cultures refuse to learn from small ones, so that Switzerland and the Netherlands assimilated the German idea of the InterCity takt quickly whereas Germany takes longer to assimilate their refinements creating the national integrated takt. And even then, when it comes to construction costs, the best countries are big-for-Europe Spain, Turkey, and Italy, alongside small Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and Greece. In Asia, even ignoring the city-states as Anglo cringe, we see high costs in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, medium costs in Japan and China, and low costs in Korea.

      The other two topics brought in the post don’t really display a small-is-better-than-big effect either, I don’t think? All of rich Asia does well on education; Singapore has Kumon cram schools (though my understanding is that cram schools aren’t as common there as in Japan), and no notion that it’s better at education than the rest of Asia, only that it’s better than the West. My best guess is that Japan exported its educational norms as a matter of soft power, so there are similarities all over; of note, the private vs. public debate of the Anglo west is so muted that even though Japan has heavy reliance on private schools at the secondary level, Singapore has an entirely public system.

      On crime, likewise, I don’t see Germany being any worse than other Northern European countries. Our rape rate is actually lower than that of the Scandinavian countries, our cops are pretty racist but manage to arrest extreme right rioters (e.g. last summer’s corona denialists), homicide clearance rates are high, police brutality isn’t high. France has higher police brutality, albeit nowhere near as bad as the US, but the sexual assault rates there look like the lowest in Europe, and the murder rates don’t seem unusually high. High-income Asia has just way less crime than Europe, but at least at Wikipedia level it doesn’t scream “Japan is worse than smaller countries.”

      • Herbert

        Different rape rates in at least Sweden are a product of different counting methods. If one person rapes another fifty times, that is “one case of rape” in many countries – but fifty in Sweden. In some countries it is even “one case of rape” if that one person is convicted for the rape of fifty different individuals – as it is “one rapist”. Sweden also treats acts like not using a condom even if the other person specified their desire to use one as “rape”. Finally the by far largest number of rapes are never reported.

        As for education, the “common wisdom” in Germany during the PISA-Schock was that Finland had the best educational system and there is the prejudice that while East Asian systems might produce good measurable results, they put too much stress on kids which leads to other undesirable outcomes. No idea how much water that claim holds.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m basing the comparative sexual assault rates on crime surveys, so the definitions are comparable. Sweden really is high… and has been since the 1990s. Germany’s pretty high too. France is lower. I blame the alcohol and the saying-no-is-for-squares culture; Berlin is notably worse at this than New York.

      • Korakys

        With any particular example given there will always be a counterexample that could be found that points the other way. It is not an absolute law that a larger country will always be worse at a given thing than a smaller country, but rather that over a very broad collection of metrics a pattern will emerge that shows that smaller countries do better (to a point, that point being somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5 million population). The larger the gap in size between two countries the more obvious the problem will become.

        Admittedly one problem with the theory is that it is difficult to falsify because it can take a long time for the size effect to dominate, a major disruption, such as a revolution or full-scale war can reset things because, ultimately, it is a theory of resistance to institutional reform: the larger a country is the more difficult it is to implement positive institutional reforms.

        • Herbert

          Switzerland has had the same government essentially since the 1950s.

          Austria is so dysfunctional, two of its three major parties are continuations of the two pre-war fascisms that plagued the country.

  3. Max Wyss

    Another aspect in railroading is also the antiquated seniority system and the payment per hour; Elsewhere train drivers, conductors etc. are part of a group of around 20, assigned to a set of services, maybe 17 days long. The members of the group work through the list, day by day. The list has some sequences, beginning with a late shift and ending with an early one, plus one or two days off (the moving forward through the shifts add snother half day). For weekends or holidays, the plan is either modified, or the day is off. The advantage of this system is that the employee knows more or less when he works up to several months in advance.

    Payment is a fixed salary, plus maybe some add-ons for overnight stays, location (to compensate for more expensive places), night surcharges etc. This prevents overtime jockeys, from whom one reads occasionally..

    • adirondacker12800

      It can be a bit more complex, if you are telling someone when they have to work, in the U.S., you are an hourly employee.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the US has a more chaotic system, in which you don’t even know reliably what depot you’ll be assigned to. This is especially bad for junior workers, because of the seniority picks. A typical working-class public-sector worker might know that they work at a certain site and make their decision of where to live accordingly, but a bus driver or train driver can’t. For one period a junior subway train operator might be assigned to the Coney Island depot, for another they might be assigned to Corona, for the next to a yard in the Bronx, etc.

      The commute is hell, because the depots are sited near the ends of lines. Unless you live right there it’s 1-1.5 hours in each direction. So the workers demanded and got the right to be paid for their commute, which means that they’re in effect paid for fewer revenue hours just because of this chaos. It’s also common among such workers to own a car, which is not common for the NYC working class, because of the same chaos.

      That’s why I’m saying the market wages are inflated – the current wages are at market, there’s no mass of people trying to become bus or subway drivers in American cities, and in not-New York there are even some recruitment or retention problems. But even with this inflation, it’s not a massive difference – the current pay in New York is around $85,000/year gross, I think maybe $60,000 net, and the pay here is on the order of 30,000€/year net, which is less but not so much less that you can do replacement.

      Moreover, on the subway in New York, the labor productivity is low for the above reason, but the main reason for low productivity is that the timetable is very peaky. So New York can absolutely increase productivity but only through providing more off-peak service – the only way it can do so through layoffs is by running less service at rush hour, when the trains are overcrowded already.

      • Herbert

        There is anecdotal evidence of German wages for bus drivers being too low – namely that they have problems recruiting and are now doing everything to recruit where ever they can – including among foreigners, women, refugees and other groups that were historically not associated with that job.

        Perhaps a factor is that those who may have made a heavy vehicle license at the Bundeswehr as a draftee are now aging out of the working population and with the draft “suspended” for a decade now, there is none coming. (IIRC the Bundeswehr increased the time of service requirement to get a driver’s license on the state’s dime but ~ in the 1970s you could get it for free while doing the mandatory draftee tour of duty.)

        • Sascha Claus

          Don’t forget that the baby boomers are growing out of the working population, too. Then there are stricter requirements for commercial drivers (new, mandatory health and eyesight checks) since some time in the 90ies or 00ies, forcing even more of the aging drivers out of that job.
          Given that wages for bus drivers have been on the way down for a long time (at least in parts of the country), situation has to hit a wall sooner or later, and certainly not softer.

          • Herbert

            And a lot of bus operators have added service, to say nothing of the whole Flixbus boom…

      • Nilo

        Is Chicago more consistent with its assignments then, and that’s why it has higher labor productivity on the L v. the NYC Subway?

      • Keikyu Motorman

        *So the workers demanded and got the right to be paid for their commute*

        Those payments only really applicable in cases where one starts at a different location than where one started, and most have complained that the times listed aren’t anywhere near as reflective as actual running times with transfers or service diversions. Otherwise, crews don’t receive any payment for their commute.

      • Keikyu Motorman

        *For one period a junior subway train operator might be assigned to the Coney Island depot, for another they might be assigned to Corona, for the next to a yard in the Bronx, etc.*

        Assignments can change every day, so day 1 could be Coney Island, day 2 Far Rockaway, day 3 in Jamaica, day 4 in the Bronx, and day 5 back in Coney Island all at varying times (e.g any time from noon to 10 PM for evening shift) . It creates an incentive for employees to drive, especially if their shifts start early (overnight or AM shifts) or finish late (late PM shifts). Coincidentally, recent train operator exams have required motor vehicle licenses, so the implication is that they’re looking for high prole/middle class residents from the metro area.

        *and in not-New York there are even some recruitment or retention problems*

        Drug tests, failing of practical skills and signal exams, and people who just simply aren’t able to adjust to the weird shifts required of transit employees. IIRC, systems like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Dallas start their employees in the $15 to $17 range, and it’s easier to consider working retail versus showing up at 3 AM in the morning to drive a bus.

        *Moreover, on the subway in New York, the labor productivity is low for the above reason, but the main reason for low productivity is that the timetable is very peaky. *

        From what’s been hinted to me, to add an additional trip to crews, you’d basically need to either employ more warm bodies or turn a lot of 8 hour jobs into near 10 hour jobs. Slicing down breaks just makes for more frustrated crews. A line like the 6 where crews spend over two hours on the train with minimal breaks in between runs makes that line very unpopular with crews.

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, in New York the average train operator spends around 550 hours a year driving a revenue train. At least among the few datapoints I have on this side of the Pond, this figure is higher the flatter the schedule is. Helsinki averages 867 and runs every 5 minutes from start to finish, Berlin averages 815 and is flat-ish, London averages 720 and has a peak-to-base ratio of maybe 1.3-1.4, etc. And I know that split shifts are a big problem in the US, with either rules paying people for downtime (in Boston it’s 50%) or timetables that workers just hate.

          • Keikyu Motorman

            In the case of NYCTA, from the schedules that I’ve seen from my friend, unless they slice the hell out of the breaks, or they really improve the running times, there isn’t an easy way to squeeze out more service without paying *more*. NYCTA may have low averages, but increasing said average isn’t going to be *free*. My friend has seen one of the lines where he operates with a 2 trip and 3 trip variant on the weekends, and three trips requires overtime, while two trips doesn’t. If everybody gets three trips to pump up off peak service, it’s an additional cost.

            Find a NYCTA internal time table and work programme and have fun seeing the method behind the madness. 🙂

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          @Keikyu Motorman, this is an emerging trend, but one problem that has emerged in Colorado and the West Coast states in the past half-decade and will probably be seen in larger states soon enough is a shortage of safety-critical workers. There is a critical labor shortage of bus drivers, as well as police officers, firefighters, commercial drivers and heavy-equipment operators.

          The most obvious explanation would be the outrageous costs of living in these areas. What might be the cause of the shortage is the legalization of recreational marijuana.

          Legalization, however, did not create a right to use, and it didn’t create a right to use when legalization occurred when marijuana was legal for medication. If these jobs require a drug-free employment screening as well as being substance-free in the course of work duty, marijuana legalization has not set an accepted use standard or provided an exemption from legal consequences for substance-free jobs.

          Law enforcement must also reckon with no similarity to a blood-alcohol limit for marijuana-impaired driving other than the field sobriety test for DWI. Washington State developed an impairment standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood as the impairment standard for THC. That is a tiny amount. THC has the added problem that unlike alcohol, will remain in the body for weeks because it is fat-soluble, though its power to intoxicate is rather short (marijuana edibles effect a much longer high but also have a longer delayed onset of effects). Safety-sensitive jobs also tend to carry stronger criminal penalties, and often revocations of licenses required to work, than less risky professions.

          Colorado and the West Coast states have been legal for a long time, and while people are consuming openly the states’ residents aren’t stoned out of their gourds and remain productive. They do have a shortage of qualified safety-critical applicants, and the cost of living makes it prohibitive for people of lower-cost regions to relocate. It did all seem to occur right after they legalized weed though.

          • michaelrjames

            @Bobsun Dugnutt

            I agree and I believe uniform and sensible regulations on blood level thresholds are inevitable. It is a quirk of biochemistry that THC remains for a long time in the body–without significant biological effect or impairment–compared to most of the harder drugs like cocaine, opiates etc. If the Biden administration brings in federal decriminalisation, as rumoured, my guess is that they will address this. It needs to be put on the same basis as alcohol and DUI, rather than the current severe penalties at absurdly low levels.

    • Keikyu Motorman

      *Payment is a fixed salary, plus maybe some add-ons for overnight stays, location (to compensate for more expensive places), night surcharges etc. This prevents overtime jockeys, from whom one reads occasionally..*

      The bonus is that you keep the long awkward hours that scare people away from the job, but chase away the overtime that makes the job enticing to candidates to make up for the weird hours. Nearly every railway union in the US would set the plant on fire with this type of change.

  4. Tom Hoffman

    It is widely understood among people who research such things, that in terms of pedagogy, American research and development was top notch through the middle of the 20th century. e.g. “Japanese achievement scores
    in science are “the highest in the non-Communist world,” and Kirst points out the irony of this: Japan’s science curriculum has taken into account material developed in the U.S. with funds from the National Science
    Foundation (NSF) in the 1960s and 1970s–material rarely used in this country today.”

    Since then high performing countries have improved their methods but mainly by unfashionable “sustaining innovations” rather than “disruptive innovation.” For example, Japan has a very predictable 10 year (ish) cycle for revising curriculum, promulgating changes in an effective way, etc.

    And in the meantime we have mostly dismantled our schools of education and marginalized the role of teachers in setting education policy in favor of consultants and economists, so we probably are now at a point where our professional capacity in K-12 education is probably far below that of higher performing countries.

    But also, you have to remember that Massachusetts and other higher performing US states match up with the top tier of countries in international comparisons, so the distance is not really so great.

    • Herbert

      A thing that may leave the U.S. in a false sense of security is that – in part due to immigration, in part due to those things being less related than one things and in part due to how slow such things move – the U.S. is still at the top of many “high order” outcomes of education and R&D – Nobel Prize awards still routinely go to Americans. Americans still file a lot of patents and so on.

      But things are shifting even in “high” academia – where once a year spent in the U.S. was an absolute “must have” for anyone wishing for a career in the sciences in many European countries, it is now increasingly avoided among other reasons due to high tuition fees.

      Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten could almost certainly pick his favorite among top name medical programs in the U.S. to work, but he works at the Charité in Berlin. That may have personal reasons, but it may also have reasons in that he finds better conditions for his work in Germany – and that is getting more common with many East Asian and European researchers who find that their home countries or non-U.S. third countries are increasingly attractive compared to the U.S.

  5. df1982

    That’s a pretty rosy account of American bus operations from Alon. Surely there are huge amounts of real inefficiency in operations coming from things like needlessly circuitous routes, low frequencies (which generally means more idling at route termini), lack of timetabling/ticketing integration with other transport modes, front-door-only boarding, general absence of prioritisation measures, passenger facilities

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but for example the TWU strongly supports off-board fare payment and dedicated bus lanes. The problems are real but do not come from inside the house – they come from chickenshit political appointees and occasionally from senior management. Getting rid of 10 bad senior managers isn’t full replacement.

  6. Magus

    If you control Pisa scores for race the US does just what you’d expect. It’s white population par if not better than most European countries, it’s black population better than all African nations, it’s hispanic population better than Mexico, and it’s East Asian population on par or better than Japan/Korea/China.

    So it’s not an ‘education’ problem as such, but no one wants to go there because ‘reasons’. So they twist and obfuscate and do intellectual somersaults to avoid the obvious. Something something ‘redlining’.

    • Sassy

      Asian first names are a better predictor of US PISA scores than Asian last names.

      The kids of smart, high work ethic H1B immigrants tend to do well on these tests, but as they Americanize over generations, they regress. The Asians in Asia are a sample of the entire population (except for PRC numbers), while the Asians in the US is disproportionately descendants of highly educated, ambitious migrants.

      I’m sure if you could separate the scores of children of Nigerian H1Bs, they’d do much, much better than black people who have been in the US since the slave trade times.

    • borners

      Before Alon probably cancels you. Scroll down here. You’ll find a country where blacks do better than whites on education. And the Mixed group is mostly white-black intermarriage FYI. Not that AA’s don’t have the seed the “master race” in them.

      Okay I’m glossing over the London effect, since almost all English visible minorities have a majority clustered in and around London. London is a highly educated megacity. The rest of England and Britain is not especially the Northern Industrial Belt despite having a much higher share of the master race.

    • Luke

      I won’t spend too long on this, because either you’re not interested in obvious chains of causation, or your post will be deleted fairly soon.

      That a population within one country does better than a population within another country, even though those populations are the same race, says exactly the opposite of what you think it does–national systems of education, and local cultures within that nation, play much bigger roles in educational outcomes than do race.

    • Bobson Dugnutt

      Magus, but academics and scientists do “go there.” And they have to turn back.

      The known problem is the Just-so Narrative. Wikipedia provides an entry into what it is and why “just so stories” bedevil the academies.

      A just-so explanation exists somewhere between fact, fiction, folklore and falsehood. Or outside of it. (Postmodernists and the idpol-inclined or -adjacent may that it’s above it, but the postmodernists are probably just gaslighting you for the lulz 🙂 )

      The problem is that just-so explanations often don’t hold up well when pressed through the scientific method wringer. When we are dealing with life sciences and social sciences, we must remember that we are dealing with dynamic relationships that can produce different evaluations upon repeated observations. Physics gave us the observer effect, which stipulates that the very act of observation alone can and does change physical systems. The parallel in the social sciences is the Hawthorne effect — people who sense they are being observed tend to change their behaviors to satisfy the expectations of their observers.

      Cultural, behavioral, or unexplained social phenomena bring about the problems of hurt feelings, hurt reputations and the “all reasoning is motivated reasoning” dilemma. That last one is particularly when you have some hypotheses or modes that have fallen into disrepute (1), fallen out of fashion (2), or have energetic acolytes making a claim for respect (3). Examples of 1 are scientific racists who’ve latched on to evolutionary psychology to launder their racism; 2 would be, say, the James Q. Wilson “broken windows” mode of criminology; 3 are the Austrian schoolers to economics or the Ayn Randians to philosophy and literature departments.

    • Herbert

      There have been studies on “GI babies” in Germany after the war. Turns out there is no significant difference by “race” – and that notably in a country only a few years removed from sterilizing its own black population, so certainly not a place devoid of racism.

      • David

        The Eyferth study you are referring is methodically flawed. 30% of blacks compared to only 3% of whites failed the preinduction mental test of the Army. Which means that the IQ results of the “GI babies” are not representative. Also and this is even more important, the study only observes the result of mixed (!) races, which more or less involve the genetics of the German mother.

        • Herbert

          Who administered those tests and which motivations might they have had not to give a black man a gun and knowledge how to use it?

          • David

            You are grasping straws. You just can’t compare IQ levels of people that were preselected in an unequal way. That’s methodically flawed. There is no methodically clean study that proves, that black and white average IQ would be close. PERIOD.

    • Alon Levy


      First, as Sassy mentions, the Asian sample is skewed.

      Second, I’ll add that PISA isn’t great comparing Europe with either the US or Asia, and that’s why I avoid making claims about Asian superiority to Europe in education, where I have little trouble making the same claim for (say) corona response. The issue at hand is that multiple-choice tests don’t really exist here, which means that students don’t ever learn guessing or answer elimination strategies, whereas they do in both the US and the Asian countries I know anything about (the PSLE in Singapore is multiple-choice and so are university admission tests in Japan).

      Third, you need to believe in biological racism to actually break down all countries by American racial categories. Caste systems work differently in different countries – for example, Philippine-Americans are considered part of the Asian category in the US and are overrepresented in higher education (if less so than Chinese- and Indian-Americans), but in East and Southeast Asia they’re stereotyped as huan-a and as maids. In Britain, there’s a model minority stereotype of Indian- and Chinese-Brits but not Pakistani- or Bangladeshi-Brits, who came to the UK as unskilled guest workers or refugees. In Japan, the burakumin at least historically had lower IQs than the rest of society, but as immigrants to the US, where intra-Japanese castes vanished, they did as well in school as other Japanese-Americans (see here for overview). A Japanese person doing an international comparison the way you do might well classify groups as “those with a stereotype of only having four fingers,” coming from workplace accidents, and all others, and conclude that as the United States has no minority groups so stereotyped, the entirety of the US is the proper comparison to Japan-without-burakumin. A French racist might likewise conclude that France has an unusually difficult situation because it has a larger proportion of Muslims than the US or other Western European countries. And so on.

      • David

        This does not change the fact, that overall on average different phenotypes have significant differences in intelligence (and character). But i agree to the degree, that it might be more nuanced and diffuse than just “whites/blacks/etc are X”. There are many different phenotypes even among people of the same skin color. And class differences play a role as well, of course. It’s multi-dimensional and even more complex than you presented it here. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging biological facts. Racism is when you treat others based on these factual differences in a discriminatory way.

        I think all these things you mentioned play a role, but do not explain the main difference between the US (and yes even !Canada!) and Europe. So what is the major difference between North America and Europe? No, it is not culture, education, economics or race. It is (!) resources. North America has plenty of them, Europe does not. Europe has been forced historically into efficiency, North America always had the luxury of wasting without consequences. And i am not only talking about oil, gas or copper. I am also talking about land. It is undeniable, that land use is extremely inefficient in North America with urban sprawl or even in regards of things like the way roads are designed etc. If you have enough resources you don’t worry about making efficient use of the existing ones. You don’t improve your urban core, no you just tear it down, build a highway through it and build massive zones of single family homes outside your city. You don’t have to worry about taking up space from agriculture. There simply is enough for them elsewhere. That’s how inefficient urban planning is enabled. This waste is also within US manufacturing, which is why the US has lost so many manufacturing jobs to other Asia, while Europe did not so much. In Europe the manufacturing companies that now produce/design car parts and trains (e.g. Siemens) for North America had been forced into more efficient products that are simply superior to American products. On the other hand, the US is a leading country in science, so how could the US fail to terrible in manufacturing and Europe so terrible in science? Doesn’t make sense right? Except if you understand that science requires waste and manufacturing does not.

        • Alon Levy

          Setting aside the biological facts bit (so what now, white British people are biologically inferior because they have the country’s lowest university attendance rate?), your US vs. Europe explanation has some big holes.

          1. Science is doing very well in Europe, thank you very much. Biotech is trans-Atlantic, European academics get Fields medals at healthy rates, etc. Software is doing poorly here, but software has far less industry-academia collaboration than biotech, mechanical engineering, or AI, which is how you’re getting tech founders and people who write for tech (e.g. Scott Alexander) denigrating education in ways that people in biotech lol at.

          2. Canada and Australia are resource-rich too. There are some similarities with the US as of late, but often they come from cultural cringe and usually if there’s something common to the US, Canada, and Australia, then it’s also common to resource-poor, high-density Britain.

          3. Europe has deindustrialized to approximately the same extent as the US. France and the UK have the same manufacturing shares of both GDP and employment as the US, all just shy of 20%. Germany and Japan are somewhat higher, 30% by GDP and 24-25% by employment, sure, but both are trending down.

          4. The Nordic countries are resource-rich. Denmark was an agricultural exporter historically, and the others are very low-density, with heavy historic focus on mining, e.g. Swedish iron ore. You can probably find commonalities with the US – for example, all had weak landed aristocracies due to early land reforms – but the overall story of waste doesn’t really hold there.

          • David

            The university attendance rate has nothing to do with average intelligence. And white British people are no homogenous group. As i said before, there are many variations even among people of the same skin color. I would like to see the source tough.

            1. Everything is relative. I admit that “terrible” is the wrong word to describe European science. Europe might be good in science, but the US excels in it. For more than 50 years the US has won the most Nobel Prizes. Especially in resource consuming science such as space exploration and medicine the US is way ahead of Europe. I am not saying, that Europe would not catch up in some fields, but the gap still exists. Just like the gap between US and European manufacturing has become narrower (mostly due to FDI, knowledge transfer and yes even outsourcing) in recent years.

            2. I included Canada into this as well for some reason. Canada has the same problems as the US not only in terms of public transportation. There is a YT channel of a Canadian living in the Netherlands (“Notjustbikes”) who could tell you more about it. So why does Canada which is politically and socially/culturally (and even ethnically) more close to Europe than the United States does have the same issues as the United States? It’s abundant resources and the waste following from it. In regards of Australia and Britain: Australia is suffering from similar problems as North America in regards of urban sprawl and manufacturing (which has become non-existent at this point). Some things might be a bit different due to a far lower resource diversity, which might have pressured Australia into a much more efficient use of resources in the past (that still has some impact these days) before globalization and before Australia became the coal mine of the world and incentivized a more wasteful behavior. Britain might not have the best public transportation system in Europe, but is way ahead of the US and Canada, so i don’t understand why you think Britain would be a good example. Just compare the London Underground with the New York Subway. The London Underground is a much more advanced system. Even medium and long distance rail is far better in the UK. The gap between continental Europe and the UK might be explained with the colonial past of Britain, which gave Britain a resource advantage over for instance Germany, which would also explain why Germany has taken over Britain in so many fields. It is efficiency due to scarcity vs waste due to abundance.

            3. A 10% difference in share of GDP is a lot. But it is less the quantity than the quality of the manufacturing. US manufacturing could only prosper at all, due to tariffs (=> ). Since those tariffs had been removed, the US increasingly created trade deficits. Germany on the other hand had the world’s largest current account surplus in 2019 (=> ), even a bigger one than China. Do you think that is coincidence? The small trade deficit of France is mostly due to Germany. I mean you could imagine a correlation between resource scarcity and current account balance surplus and you would see it yourself. The same is valid for Japan etc. That it is trending down might have to do with the fact, that scarcity is decreasing in many of these places and due to other reasons. Everything is relative!

            4. The Danish people managed to utilize their land in an efficient way just like the Dutch. That doesn’t mean Denmark would be resource rich. On the contrary, they are the opposite of it. Sweden has iron ore and Norway has oil. However, Sweden and Norway have other scarcities such as lack of agricultural land, which created lots of problems in the past. The mass exodus of the 19th century from Scandinavia to North America is exactly related to this issue. These historic challenges still have impact on the present. They shaped urban centers, industries and the way things are done. And as you said yourself, there are commonalities between the US and the Nordic countries (except Denmark), because they have lots of space for sprawl as well and that’s why things are different in Sweden and Germany.

          • Alon Levy

            Please stop digging. In most environments, uni attendance is taken as an indicator of success through intelligence and hard work – except when it turns out not to prove what the racists believe.

            As for the rest:

            1. As noted by others, you’re still missing European scientific advances (and math too, cf. Peter Scholze).

            2. Canada’s public transport modal splits at equal city size are healthy by British and French standards. Vancouver and Ottawa are higher than Lyon and a lot higher than any other non-Paris French city or any non-London British one; Calgary is about on a par with Marseille. There’s a reason Jarrett Walker tells American cities to envy Canada (in matters other than mainline rail). Australia, same thing, except the mainline rail there is European (Sydney and Melbourne both have S-Bahns) and the non-mainline rail is weaker. The Tube is better than NYCT, yes, but that’s a matter of operating efficiency, on which Canada = Britain, and even much of the non-New York US is on a par, it just can’t expand due to high costs, poor use of mainline rail, and job sprawl.

            3. “Do you think it’s a coincidence?” There are people studying the geography of international trade and you can cite them instead of intuiting. Krugman, for example, points out that Northern European austerity suppresses consumption and therefore maintaining full employment requires exports, and that in the long run, Germany’s population decline makes it a poor investment opportunity, which forces it to again run a large current account surplus. You can even see it in currency exchange rates – the PPP rate is scratching 1€ = $1.40 whereas the current exchange rate is 1€ = $1.20. Britain and France are both less austerian and demographically faster-growing due to higher birthrates and demographic momentum, so they’re net importers; Australia is likewise a net importer. Taiwan, with very little immigration, low birthrates, and the constant threat of a PRC invasion likewise has to suppress consumption and run big current account surpluses, which you can see in the currency exchange rate: US$1 = NT$30, vs. about US$1 = NT$16 at PPP.

            4. Denmark was an agricultural exporter historically; it urbanized and industrialized late by British or even German standards. For example, see here for the demographic history, with a table on PDF-p. 81. Denmark took until the late 1910s to become majority-urban, the same timescale as the US; in contrast, Britain was majority-urban by the 1851 census, and Holland (not the Netherlands) was about half urban in the 17th century. Germany was majority-urban in the early 1910s, having caught up to the UK in industrial productivity but not in intangibles like finance and services. And re sprawl, you should look at Sweden on Google Earth, or check modal splits – Stockholm (see PDF-p. 3) actually has slightly higher public transport modal split than Berlin if you think “all trips” is comparable (which I don’t think it is, Berlin is capturing way too many 5-minute walks), and if you try to construct a series for just work trips the two cities are probably about the same. Stockholm is very good at TOD, way better than German cities.

          • David

            The uni attendance rate does not tell us anything about academic success, as black students are 50% more likely to drop out of university.

            1. I am not missing European scientific advances. Europe is one of the leading places for science, but the US overall (!) is even better in it. Which country has sent a man to the moon and “wasted” a few percentage points of its GDP on it? Overall (!) the US has won more Nobel Prizes than Europe during the last 50+ years. Plenty of innovation comes from DARPA, whose primary task is wasting resources on seemingly useless projects.

            2. 48% of Canadians have never used pt in their life. That is better than the 61% in the US, but still significantly worse than the 33% in France and far worse than the 13% in Germany and Britain. Watch “Notjustbikes” explaining the Canadian rail system => I really recommend his channel.

            3. The exchange rate and thus the trade balance has nothing to do with “austerity” or “no austerity”. Some currencies (esp. the USD) are simply overvalued, because the world financial system is anglo centric. The true value of the USD is even lower than the PPP value. Export countries like Germany and Japan are exporting their products far below their true value. They have to, because Americans think the EUR (“socialism”) is worthless. Then these low prices are taken into consideration for the PPP model, so the market exchange rate appears near the ‘true’ exchange rate. Then it appears like the purchasing power would be higher in the US than in Germany and Japan. This is no problem if you can go endless into foreign debt and create a massively negative NIIP (50+% of GDP) and import the goods you need. The problem begins with so called non-tradeables such as construction work or healthcare. They can barely be imported and thus taken away from other countries for cheap. They have to be done with the true domestic productivity level, which in reality is crazy low in the US. Which means that building a subway station can cost a fortune within the US, well it costs the true price. It’s just that everything else is way too cheap.

            4. I have studied economic history. Trust me if i say that urbanization is no reliable development metric, esp. when it comes to Germany. And be careful: historic GDP/income numbers are heavily distorted, especially due to the fact that current numbers are distorted as well (see above). The successful German manufacturing sector has its roots in the medieval times, in the guilds and corporations that ensured high quality standards. Germany’s companies are very old and 50% of the world market leaders in the medium sized enterprise sector are still German. Germany was a highly complex economy long before Britain had started to industrialize. What Germany didn’t have was cheap energy (resources) to industrialize that fast. And yes Sweden and Stockholm have good pt, because Sweden does not have endless resources like North America. However Sweden has way more sprawl than Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.

        • adirondacker12800

          This does not change the fact, that overall on average different phenotypes have significant differences in intelligence
          IQ tests demonstrate how well you do on IQ tests. There is more to life than the very narrow set of skills they measure.

          • David

            I said nothing about IQ or even IQ tests. I said “intelligence”. Although IQ tests are one of the best measurements of intelligence we have so far. That ‘narrow set of skills’ does correlate with almost every other metric that measures some kind of skills (i.e. the ability to avoid car accidents), even when controlled for the social environment, nutrition etc, which shows that it is a very good metric. But i understand that people rather want to believe that everyone and all types of people is/are equally capable. Completely irrational, but psychologically understandable.

          • adirondacker12800

            Move your goal posts where ever want to then. Who knows what you are measuring.

          • Herbert

            The fact that you can get measurably better results at IQ tests after training proves that do not measure anything innate

          • David

            That doesn’t prove anything, but that a certain degree of the IQ test score is the result of learning. That doesn’t debunk the fact, that certain people will never be able to achieve a high score in it, regardless how much they repeat them.

          • David

            People that don’t have the intelligence to excel in IQ tests, who btw exist within every race. It’s just that some races have a higher percentage and some have a lower percentage of them. No offense, but you appear as this obvious fact does confuse you.

          • adirondacker12800

            IQ tests demonstrate how well you do on IQ tests. There is more to life than the very narrow set of skills they measure.

          • David

            If you remove those people who are capable of achieving a higher score than 100, our societies would collapse. Good luck with that!

          • Herbert

            Which “races” are there and how does one ascertain which “race” an individual belongs to?

          • David

            Go study it yourself and you will find it out. I am not here to debate biology, because (a) it is off-topic and (b) it is a political minefield as your aggressive debating further proof. So i will put an end to this now.

          • Herbert

            Ah yes, the oldest cop out in the book.

            The studies I know show very clearly that “race” is not a meaningful biological category in humans

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            When measuring “intelligence,” consider: 1. How is intelligence defined? 2. How is it evaluated?

            These are why it is very hard to provide a durable measurement of what intelligence is supposed to be, then come up with an evaluation that can attenuate for biases and observer effects. A lot of the advances in research have been in ethics and analysis, which have been clearing away much of what has passed for research. The kind of intelligence David is proffering has been, or will come, under scrutiny for cultural effects, scientific racism, and the like.

            There is, however, more reliable and durable scientific advances on measuring the opposite of intelligence — cognitive decline. In this case, we know that people the world over are living longer. The downside is that longevity brings more exposure to age-related decline such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and related neurobiological decline. This is a fact of age and crosses across cultures and socioeconomic organizations (i.e., cognitive decline is just as likely to occur in technologically advanced societies as well as modern agrarian and herding cultures).

            A post-intelligence paradigm is what is needed. Rather than asking who is smarter and why, examine the cognitive ascent from birth to puberty to young adulthood to middle age. Much of humans’ conscious brain capacity is used in occupational endeavors, and our jobs involve thousands if not millions of small tasks accumulated over time and synthesized in real time. Regardless of whether our jobs require advanced degrees or specialized vocational skilling learned in a classroom or through apprenticeship, these tasks involve communication (knowing syntax and grammar of the vernacular language and terms of art of your career), memory recall, computation, brain-eye-hand coordination, pattern recognition — to name a few — and executive action (synthesizing all of these subtasks into a single action).

          • David

            Studies you “know”, but fail to mention. Don’t confuse your politically distorted opinion with hard scientific facts! J. Philippe Rushton from the The University of Western Ontario and Arthur R. Jensen from the University of California at Berkeley think otherwise. In their commentary “The Totality of Available Evidence Shows the Race IQ Gap Still Remains” they say the following: “In a previous study (Rushton & Jensen, 2005), we examined 10 categories of technical research and concluded that the mean Black-White IQ difference in the United States is about 80% heritable. We reviewed evidence that (a) the distribution of IQ scores around the world shows averages of 106 for East Asians, 100 for Whites, 85 for U.S. Blacks, and 70 for sub-Saharan Africans; (b) race differences are most pronounced on the more g-loaded subtests (g being the general factor of mental ability); (c) race differences are most pronounced on the subtests whose scores show the most heritability; and (d) racial differences in brain size parallel the IQ differences. We also reviewed corroborating studies of (e) racial admixture, (f) trans-racial adoption, (g) regression to different racial means, (h) 60 related life-history traits, (i) human origins, and (j) the inadequacy of environmental explanations of the racial IQ difference. (In Africa, the 30-point difference is likely only 50% heritable because environmental factors such as malnutrition and disease have so much more impact than they do elsewhere in the world; Lynn, 2006.)

          • Alon Levy

            Congratulations, you may not have heard of BioNTech or Drosten or Peter Scholze or any science postdating the Moon landing, but you’ve heard of the Pioneer Fund-funded researchers who other geneticists think are white supremacist hacks! Maybe you think European science lags American science because our racists don’t think in terms of five-race theory anymore, they instead make up different things?

            Seriously, Lynn and Jensen aren’t taken too seriously by other geneticists. Stephen Pinker, for example, refrains from citing them, because they’re hacks. His chapter on IQ heritability in The Blank Slate cites Eric Turkheimer instead. (P.S. there are way more than 10 studies on this and this includes a lot of metastudies – including e.g. the thing Herbert pointed out re children of US soldiers in Germany. I’d go and find the cite if at any point in this thread you seemed to display any curiosity, which judging by your indifference to the link I gave to Ogbu on burakumin IQs you don’t.)

            And the broader question is, in a post in which I talk about teacher salaries, your mind immediately went to your racism. Why? I guess it’s because I’m impugning America’s honor by saying that a) it is bad at something and b) can become better (whereas your BS about a culture of waste or misrepresenting Swedish sprawl levels portrays it as an immutable geographic fact).

          • David

            Of course everyone who cites facts is a white supremacist, if those facts contradict the political ideology of biological equality among all human beings, which in itself is an absurd assumption that contradicts all common sense. This is how science and reason is oppressed these days. You missed the chance to cite your own scientific results contradicting what is written down in the commentary. Instead you retorted with ad hominem attacks – the racist card – as predicted. But it is people like you and other science deniers who are doing white supremacists a favor. You could have gone the reasonable and respectful way and simply acknowledging the facts and then work together with me and others on solutions how to address the specific inherent problems different phenotype groups are facing in their daily lives, yes to help them effectively. But that is racism right?

          • Eric2

            As someone who has no particular standing in this blog but likes to read about transit and not other random culture wars – can we please stop this discussion here?

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Your blog, Alon, but this bullshit is not just off-puttingly off-topic (like 80% of the comments — so little signal-to-noise in the replies section, which really diminishes the value of what you take the time to write above it, honestly) but actively repulsive.

            There are plenty of other places in which you can engage with racists. Why feed trolls here as well?

            But yeah, your blog, and you seem to have lots of energy.

          • Eric2

            “like 80% of the comments — so little signal-to-noise in the replies section, which really diminishes the value of what you take the time to write above it, honestly”

            This I don’t understand. If you dislike the comments, why are you reading them? Why don’t you just read the posts and stop there? Nobody is compelled to read the comments, so how do they diminish the value of the posts?

          • Richard Mlynarik

            This I don’t understand. If you dislike the comments, why are you reading them? Why don’t you just read the posts and stop there? Nobody is compelled to read the comments, so how do they diminish the value of the posts?

            I try to scan through the comments because there are a number of well-informed and interesting people who do take the time to write, sometimes. I “dislike the comments” that neither I (nor, frankly, anybody else in the world) should be forced to skip over to ignore.

            But it’s a shitload of work to ignore the random off-topic crap, and it means the good stuff SIMPLY GETS LOST and the good people eventually get tired and go away because who has the time to wade through crap? This has happened over and over and over in different forums with different technology, and it’s sad every time, and it’s tiresome to see it not only happening but more-or-less encouraged here.

            At least usenet had kill files.

            Flood the zone with shit

          • David

            The ad hominem racist card has destroyed this debate. People don’t know the difference between racism and acknowledging biological differences between races. I value all human beings equally valuable, regardless of their race, IQ or other mental and physical abilities/capabilities. That is true anti-racism, acknowledging the differences and yes the advantageous/disadvantageous of races and treat everyone with respect and dignity. I don’t have to create the unreasonable and anti-scientific illusion of biological equality among all human beings and races. If you need that to feel good, ok but don’t call everyone who is interested in the truth a racist!

          • Alon Levy

            [To everyone else: don’t engage, David’s blocked. There’s a level of racist sealioning even I get uncomfortable with.]

      • Herbert

        Arab Christians in Israel have a higher than average level of educational and economic attainment. As virtually no European country actually has reliable statistics on “Muslims” (only on country of origin of refugees / migrants and their descendants) Arab Christians are virtually always lumped into the “Muslim” category because they come from Muslim majority countries and there are no statistics that actually account for that. Similar with other religious minorities in MENA who would of course be over-represented among refugees for obvious reasons.

        • David

          You are strawmanning, just Alon. No one said that intelligence would be the only factor that determines success. It’s the major driver, but of course there are environmental factors as well. And these environmental factors are often the result of cultural/economic/social exchange between these different groups.

          • Herbert

            Is intelligence not a product of environmental factors?

            IQ test results certainly are.

          • David

            No, intelligence is the result of genetics. And IQ test results are mostly (!) the result of intelligence. They are the best measurement of intelligence we have so far. Of course some IQ tests are better than others. Not denying that. But keep strawmanning me, that i would have said, that IQ test results would be only determined by intelligence. I never said that.

          • Herbert

            If IQ tests were the result of genetics, their results would not vary wildly decade over decade or between the same group of people before and after having taken classes on how to be good at IQ tests.

            You keep making assertions which have been disproved myriad times and do not prove any sources to back up your claims…

          • David

            It would have been smarter for you not to attack at the lack of citations if you don’t provide them yourself. There are variations within the same phenotype group, however they are small compared to the differences between different phenotype groups. It would also be nice from you if you stop making the same strawman argument over and over again. I never wrote, that IQ tests would be measuring precisely intelligence.

          • Herbert

            Then how do you know what intelligence is if you can’t measure it. Also: what is a phenotype group?

            You keep using terms you don’t even define.

          • David

            You can approach it with help of IQ tests, as IQ tests have a very good correlation with many other metrics measuring skills. If you control for environmental factors in your observation and you still find a major percentage of skills that is unchanged among certain phenotypes, it is undeniable that intelligence is mainly genetically predetermined.

    • Alon Levy

      No. Primary and secondary education in Canada seems a lot better than in the US (for one, no school districts). Britain outperforms the US on PISA even with a test format that British students aren’t exposed to and American ones are.

      When it comes to police brutality, the only developed country that’s even vaguely similar to the US is Canada, and even Canada has maybe 1 police killing per million people (link) – even with worse racialization than in the US (about 5.5:1 black:white, 7:1 indigenous:white; the US black:white ratio is 2.5:1), black Canadians get killed by police at slightly lower rates than white Americans. Israel’s multi-year average is 0.03 Jews, 2.3 Arabs in 2000-15, and the Arab number has fallen since because it was disproportionately the suppression of one riot in 2000 in which 13 were killed. British police violence rates are not high by European standards – to the contrary, I think the multiyear average in the UK is well below the Western European average.

        • Rational Plan.

          Only highly trained armed response units have guns. 95% of the Police do not have guns, but neither does anyone else.

          • Herbert

            Technically Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain, but of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland…

      • Rational Plan.

        There were just 25 death attributable to the Police in the UK in the 2010’s. (Yes the whole decade!) This includes shooting of terrorists and deaths caused by taser and choke holds.

          • Rational Plan.

            That was just me being brief. They don’t, there have been a couple of cases where improperly applied restraint has ended with someone dying.

  7. Ernest Tufft

    Probably you would expect comments to follow when education is compared to public transport, but as person who has taught in USA and abroad, when it comes to university level education, USA obviously leads the world and Finland, Singapore, and Netherlands have insufficient N to even be compared. Comparing one or two great institutions in Singapore or Finland with California’s highly productive UC system is difficult. Same is mostly true in K-12 education where while public school district budgets in USA are extremely wasteful bureaucracy at the district office level, the ethnic diversity and behavior demand present in American public education creates complexity that blows away European public school comparisons for most part, and also largely in part because of a huge influence of private funded education not generally found in USA. USA Atlantic coast states with its traditional private schools for the elite merit some comparison, I suppose, but not public education dominated Pacific coast states where private education is mostly limited to small Catholic parochial school system. American early childhood education typically starts earlier than elsewhere in the world, so while public high school test scores lag for USA, there’s strong recovery at community college and land grant university level.

    • navyou14

      But how much of that post-secondary education gain (“strong recovery at community college”) in US institutions lead to an overall improvement on socioeconomic development in American counties? While there are a definite number of things that US high schools cover that would otherwise seem unprecedented in Northern European secondary education, on the contrary it seems like much practical knowledge is non-existent in primary- and secondary education and is only stipulated on beginner level in American postsecondary institutions. Whereas in Northern European secondary education, much of that practical knowledge has been matured throughout primary- and secondary education which in overall resulted a far more efficient and lesser wasteful management of resources and planning included in socioeconomic development.

      I agree that there are a huge amount of complex theoretical topics that are taught at a much grander level in the US, however the practical basis for an efficient approach when designing and planning machinery, vehicles, utilities and landscape is way behind Western European countries, to my surprise however I think the US is opting for a change to emphasize more on practical decision making which can be seen in the change of Covid-19 strategy with Biden’s entrance to the Oval office. The continuous emphasis on lockdown, mask mandating and vaccination which was almost non-existent in Sweden compared to the US until very recently, yet still not even close to how the US is progressing.

      • Ernest Tufft

        Tesla and Caterpillar have no problem invading the machinery market of Germany, and German automobile industry generally is overpriced given its overrated quality in design.

    • Herbert

      There might be a few elite universities, but most American college graduates got into debt to be able to get a degree that is practically worthless.

      A common joke among German high school graduates is that the first year in a U.S. college is spent learning what you learn in the last year or two in German high school. And exchange students from German routinely perform way better than in Germany when they visit American High Schools.

      • Nilo

        The idea that American college degrees are worthless seems pretty absurd. Alon makes fun of America’s a lot for mouthing off about shit they don’t understand, but this is a great example of a European saying shit he doesn’t understand.

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          @Nilo, not entirely. Overall, a person with a college degree in any field is likely to outearn someone with a lower degree or none at all across a lifetime of wage earnings. The worthlessness, relatively speaking, comes from the signaling theory side of the higher-education debate. Signal theory’s competition is human capital theory. (And academic arguments being what they are, there is a synthesis that human capital and signaling aren’t mutually exclusive and exist side-by-side).

          Think of signaling like currency markets. The more degrees put out in a field, the more the new graduates on the margin drive down the price of labor (devaluation). This signals to employers to either create more jobs, or more often than not, reduce wages or employment to make jobs highly selective. The fewer degrees, or the lower supply of workers that might need advanced knowledge (like medicine, law, engineering or the academies), the more likely the profession overall is specialized and commands high economic value and unlikely to diminish qualification (gold standard).

          • Paul

            @Nilo, @Bobson Dugnutt
            I’d argue that what makes a degree “worthless” is when the wage premium you get from having the degree is not enough to offset the cost of obtaining it. The signaling effect matters because of its connection with the wage premium, but the biggest criticism of American universities is their high tuition rates which push many degrees into negative territory. It doesn’t make any economic sense to take out $100k+ in student loans unless the wage premium for that degree is large.

          • Nilo

            People who are 100k in debt from undergraduate degrees are such a small portion of the population they may as well not exist. Despite what people on the internet tell you there are plenty of colleges you can attend that only cost as much or a bit more than a pell grant. The entire California State system is a great example.

      • Ernest Tufft

        American exchange students to German schools perform way better than German students, so tables get turned on that false wisdom. The average German attends trade schools, even the lowliest American State college outranks German counterparts. I recall European exchange students in my upper level university coursework at San Diego State producing some pretty mediocre output because the methods they were taught were dated.

    • Sascha Claus

      /me gets 26,3 km for Husum – Jübek and 198,5−64,9=133,6 km for Niebüll – Itzehoe, totalling 159,9 km. Almost 170 km. 🙂
      One wonders how cost is affected by the 8 km Hindenburgdamm through the tidal flats and whether the Danes have plans to electrifiy their second north-south line, which connects at Niebüll.

          • Alon Levy

            $1.5-2.5 million. Denmark is $2.6-2.9m/km and that’s with the project being paused and then unpaused as the state kept changing its mind on prioritization.

      • Herbert

        I have heard people claim that the salty air is an obstacle to electrification. I never quite bought that, but it might legitimately make things more expensive.

        As for the distance, it is hard to get from the Wikipedia article because the diagram jumps all over the place…

  8. Tom M

    Does Amtrak and other US mainline organisations get polluted (for want of a better term) by US mainline freight rail thinking that is not applicable to passenger rail? Or are they just so insular they don’t even seek to learn from them?

  9. Alex Cat3

    In my personal opinion America’s education problem is just a reflection of its lack of a welfare state. Education in high-income communities in the US is generally fine, it is mainly just in low-income ones that kids are struggling. Kids don’t learn well when they’re homeless/hungry/lacking healthcare. Unfortunately racism has prevented America from adopting radical ideas like “kids shouldn’t have to sleep outdoors or starve.”

      • ericson2314

        That is counting the migrant workers? Do they bring kids?

        I would also say US schools are burdened by being the main state service to poor families. That and local control / funding.

  10. Alex Cat3

    As a high school senior and son of a teacher, I would say that education reform efforts, which are often headed by people from the business world with no experience in education, have compounded the problem by making teachers sit through endless meetings and fill out mountains of paperwork, leaving them with no time to plan their lessons properly, forcing them to divert time from teaching facts to assigning vaguely defined and academically worthless projects (because “critical thinking” blah blah), and stifling their creativity with poorly designed cookie cutter curriculum. I will always remember the time in sixth grade when I was asked to write a “narrative essay” for science class. Having been taught that personal narratives and essays were separate formats, I asked the teacher what a “narrative essay” was, and she said “I don’t know, but the principal wants me to assign one.”

  11. borners

    I’ve been toying with a response to the right-wing Anglophone desire to make government function “like a business” something along the lines of “what business?” infamously railway privatizers have never seriously discussed nor implemented anything based on the actually functioning Japanese model. European style railway franchising is probably closest to commercial shipping and hasn’t really worked.

    I mean high-capital expenditure, increasing returns to scale and long-term horizons are not at all absent from the private sector, I mean US IT tech firms spring to mind from the terrifyingly successful (Amazon) to the deservedly in trouble (Uber). Energy? I mean electrical energy is probably the most similar field not just because electrification/signaling is so important to trains; peak times, fixed long lasting capital assets and variety of modes etc.

    Though Alon’s WW3 twitter feed does get one thinking about the comparison with defense procurement. Its not perfect because the role of timetabling and fixed infrastructure is much less important, but questions of co-ordination, mode-specialization Projects like the F-35 suggest the US is exporting its government procurement crisis to its Allies. Though its interestingly if you look naval exports the are really interesting parallels to mass transit. US and UK can build advanced ships but they can’t export them at all because they are too pricey (less true 3 decades ago), whereas Nordics, French, Germans and Italians can. Japanese are self-sufficient and are competent (despite SDF having tight budget limits there is deliberate policy of retiring ships at a higher rate than the global average) but don’t export well yet. And Koreans and Chinese have arrived on the scene in force.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with comparisons with defense procurement is that defense procurement isn’t really about best value. When Turkey buys Russian air defense systems, it’s not because there was at any point a comparison on tactical and operational criteria concluding that the product was superior to NATO-made competitors, but because there was a political decision to buy Russian to signal that Turkey could defect from NATO if NATO pissed it off too much on diplomatic and political grounds. It leads to weirdness especially with Israeli exports, because states buy them both on tactical grounds (e.g. NSO is good for spying on domestic dissidents) and on the political grounds of signaling to the US that the state is friends with America’s allies even if it engages in some international-left rhetoric on trade and patents.

    • Henry Miller

      The f35 is about r&d. The individual cost to assemble a plane is reasonable for the volume of orders. However the r&d for all the new systems is not easy to control, and there are a lot of all new systems in there. One of the reasons the f22 isn’t out of control is the took systems developed for the f35 (this is common in industry, I’ve put a lot of effort into fuguing out how to get some other project to pay for systems I need). Some of what the f35 does requires new systems, though there is plenty of room to debate if anything is worth developing.

      HSR should be approximately zero r&d. Even if you buy maglev there will only be small development costs at worst. Everything has been developed, we should just be ordering track, switches, power lines, trains, stations, and so on – all to previous plans, using previous jigs. There is a little unique work in grading the geography, but even that is well understood.

      If you decide to build a vacuum train, then cost overruns for r&d should be expected. For standard rail though there us nothing new here, so on time and budget is only a matter of the planning and willingness to say no to things that drive up costs. That is one of the lessions from spain is they invest in good planning staff to get the costs down.

        • Henry Miller

          Tunnels are known as well, more expensive though. If NIMBY wants a tunnel where there isn’t other reasons just raise their property taxes locally to pay for it. Just bringing that up will stop a lot of them. That is one solution. There are others, but you need to figure them out.

          • Eric2

            IIRC Berkeley paid for a tunnel to put BART underground there. It’s a good approach, though I doubt it will overcome determined NIMBYs in general.

          • Herbert

            It’s a non starter if the NIMBYs have political support on their side.

            The people who would have to raise their property taxes could instead derail the project or lead lawsuit campaigns

      • Eric2

        The F-35 is also about dumb initial design choices, particularly expecting it to be a fighter AND a bomber AND have STOVL, and therefore being worse at any of those than a dedicated plane would be. This is comparable to digging a giant cavern for East Side Access rather than reuse the existing platforms in Grand Central. Once you commit yourself to the wrong track, all the good work from then on will not make it a good project.

        • borners

          Best value is a difficult question if its public sector/semi-public sector. Defense equipment obviously has a more hard-edged geopolitical role of course. And is rolling stock and other relevant equipment always purchased solely on best value? I mean we can see geopolitics behind the turnkey HSR systems (Morocco, Taiwan, India) to a degree. And the Japanese are still sore about Korea not letting them build HSR there. ROK, PRC and Spain traded some initial costs and RD effort to build their own HSR rolling stock production industries, although it wouldn’t work elsewhere. But most countries build off shelf equipment all the time. I’m not sure I see why the comparison isn’t useful. Sometimes you need to do different because you have specific problems (e.g. Spain and guage changers).

          Still Alon you don’t think the problems of US transport infrastructure and defense procurement aren’t related?

        • Henry Miller

          @Eric2 I’ve seen people say that, then someone else responds and defends it as the right choice. I don’t know enough enough defense airplanes to judge who is right. Either way my point stands, there is a lot of R&D that isn’t needed to build HSR.

        • anonymouse observer

          F-35 is designed for the Joint Strike Fighter Program, not by Lockheed Martin by itself for itself. So, isn’t it logical that loss or lack of public servants with strong subject-matter expertise or politics created the “dumb initial design choices” and F-35, just like the transportation/rail projects in the U.S.?

      • Bobson Dugnutt

        @Henry Miller, HSR would theoretically be zero R&D. The American Way, however, is first to overpay and learn by failure because of the Self Esteem Thing.

        The Biden Plan is a lot like what Trump’s “Infrastructure Week” would have been had it not been a macguffin. The problem is … Americans need “jobs.” The U.S. cannot deign itself that Europe, Japan and South Korea have eclipsed us in heavy manufacturing. We’d be spending billions on equipment when we could use that wealth to either build our own trains (smash head on desk) or have trains that run elsewhere in the world but built in the U.S. by American workers (drive palm swiftly and powerfully into forehead).

        It’s this factory fetishism that underpins the Buy America fallacy, and it cuts across both political parties.

        It’s probably worse on the pre-operations engineering end. Alon would have the knowledge here, but the engineers are no less proud than assembly line workers and want to figure out established knowledge on their own.

        The Self Esteem Thing prevents America from settling on a policy that would allow the U.S. to import equipment and knowledge for the initial build-out, then incrementally replace each facet once a market is established with domestic capital and labor. This is how foreign carmakers operate. The auto assembly plant is the last achievement a domestic market unlocks. The order usually goes: 1. Establish domestic sales, financing and maintenance. 2. Establish a domestic parts supply chain. 3. Establish a domestic headquarters with marketing, engineering, design and R&D. 4. Establish the assembly plant.

        The UnAmerican Way (the right way) for high-speed rail: 1. Troll the market of HSR networks that are about to retire their older fleets, or through the magic of options, find an HSR network about to embark on a locomotive-and-car capital purchase and piggyback on that order. 2. Establish the domestic parts supply chain, and since we have a freight rail section, most components can and are produced domestically already. 3. Build maintenance knowledge and engineering know-how through apprenticeships. The U.S. has abundant remanufacturing skill and capacity, so we can save a ton by buying used HSR consists and reconditioning them to a like-new state. As for the engineering and construction end, establish a two-way relationship where Americans can learn abroad and see a system in service, while foreign engineers and construction professionals can educate Americans to take the reins when the system is finished. 4. Once ridership is stable, import new HSR locos and cars from a company willing to establish a domestic factory. 5. Establish the domestic factory.

        • michaelrjames

          @Bobsun Dugnutt

          I don’t want to say you are wrong but your use of “The UnAmerican Way” flags that you don’t believe it would ever happen. But I just read an article in Rail Journal (link & extract below) about a new start-up in France, called Le Train, with the suggestion/implication that they are going to source second-hand trains. However the author suggests that this simply doesn’t happen with HSR trains. It seems SNCF is going to have a quite large stock of retired TGV sets but all destined to be destroyed. Part of this is that they (well, the French government which has interests in both SNCF and Alstom) don’t want to undermine orders for new trains, and clearly Alstom wouldn’t want to undermine their American deal to ‘construct’ (assemble) the Avelia-Liberty for Amtrak’s NEC (and of course already producing the trains; testing of the first trains began last year). I have thought that the shorter lifespan of Japanese Shinkansen might have been a deliberate strategy to ensure ‘constant build’, ie. to ensure factories and industrial capacity and skills are in constant deployment, rather than feast-and-famine orders. But perhaps it was, in the 1950s, when Japan was still in post-war austerity mode and wanted to stretch the use of (fully imported) steel. I don’t really know but they’ve had plenty of time since then to have changed strategy.

          French start-up proposes open-access TGV services
          Le Train plans to purchase 10 TGVs for inter-regional services in south west France.
          David Haydock, 30 April 2021.

          The company says it will acquire around 10 TGV sets with a capacity of around 350 seats but, speaking to local media, [CEO] Getraud would not expand on where these might come from.
          SNCF is currently withdrawing the TGV Atlantique sets (around 450 seats) which have operated in this area and intends to withdraw TGV Réseau sets (around 350 seats) in the near future. Around 20 recently-refurbished TGV Sud Est sets (350 seats) were withdrawn in December 2019 and several are still stored around France ahead of scrapping. However, SNCF has not offered TGV sets for sale in the past, preferring to instead send them to be scrapped. There are no other high speed trains available on the second-hand market.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Michaelrjames, thanks for sharing this info. With secondhand trains effectively non-existent, piggybacking via options may be the way to go. A factory in the US might be necessary if established builders are producing at 100% capacity.

            Alstom and Siemens would have a leg up since they already have a large domestic presence. Alstom has the Acela deal and last year purchased Bombardier, which practically has a lock on commuter rail with its bilevel cars. Alstom has also done vehicle reconditioning for Amtrak. Siemens is known mostly for its urban rail vehicles, but it has recently built a batch of clean air locomotives for California.

            China’s CRRC isn’t a familiar name but it has become the world’s largest rolling stock manufacturer. It’s aggressive in securing overseas deals. Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles might be buying subway cars from them, but with Trump-era trade war brinkmanship and Congress worried about “spy trains,” the US might be trying to drive CRRC out of the market.

            China has been willing to set up US factories, too, but these are often sweeteners to land a contract and exist to fulfill an order (they rarely lead to an export market).

        • anonymouse observer

          “HSR would theoretically be zero R&D”

          I do not think so. If it is the case, why Japanese high-speed rail operators and RTRI are all actively working on R&D even today, several decades after they opened the high-speed rail for revenue service?

          Technology used for the high-speed rail is still evolving. Using rolling stock and other systems which are near the end of usable life means that the industry needs to start with technology from two generations ago. You still need to localize the old technology in some extent to meet local conditions like climate and regulatory requirements (requires R&D) and catch up to the latest (requires R&D). For the high-speed rail rolling stock, China did amazing job catching up from knock-down production of the initial CRH1 through CRH5, implying that R&D is necessary in order to start up the high-speed rail industry from scratch even if one is basing off older generation technology from somewhere.

          Also, how auto industry and railroad industry in the United States have been doing implies that the Americans in general has been having a hard time engaging in R&D for mature technology just to improve or keep it up with changes, given:
          – American auto manufacturers were not able to come up with gas-electric hybrid before Toyota;
          – Big 3 spent years to add downsized diesel engine to their smaller pickup truck lineups;
          – GM spent decades just to move the engine from the front nose to mid-body on Corvette.

          I cannot come up with anything epoch-making and revenue-service-ready which American railroads came up with as a result of R&D since 1960s. They and the steel manufacturers could not come up with a rail with extra strength (for longer life) and ended up with importing from Japan. Development and implementation of the PTC has been total nightmare given the system chosen for the Class Is is not reliable at all, and passenger carriers are suffering from it in terms of on-time performance.

          With these things, I think the issue is deeper than just self-esteem, and copying from other countries to establish the domestic high-speed rail would not work in the U.S. in both short-term and long-term because of the mindset toward mature technology.

          • Alon Levy

            But at this point US regulatory requirements are such that European (sadly, not Shinkansen) trains are legal with trivial modifications, like window glazing; those requirements were developed in dialog with the vendors to ensure they could reuse their tech without additional R&D.

            The PTC development is just wheel reinvention. European systems exist, and they’re even good for Northeastern passenger rail; some railroads managed to use the Americanized version of ETCS, ACSES, like the MBTA, whereas others, like the LIRR, keep foot-dragging and also have higher costs. And the less said about Caltrain’s CBOSS disaster, the better.

          • Phake Nick

            @Henry Miller For the US to build HSR, then R&D would be necessary in production and construction technique, they can learn from rest of the world but still have plenty of thing to that can be developed for the American environment
            @Alon Levy Texas Shinkansen have successfully convinced federal regulators to let them use Shinkansen standard instead of American railroad standard for the project they’re building, so that they can use essentially use the same train as N700S with only a bit modification then they can be use in the US
            Also, anonymouse observer’s comment wasn’t about which version of trains can American use, but instead is about high speed trains are still evolving, same should be able to said about European high speed train like how ICE4 have improved energy efficiency and such

          • Henry Miller

            @anonymouse observer

            That is continuous improvement, not new R&D. CI is a very useful investment, but it is also controllable. Take the technology of existing rail and build exactly that and you expect most of the same problems. However if you ask the operators of existing systems they will probably tell you what they don’t like, a bit of R&D money might solve that problem – and even if it doesn’t you can cut your losses and build the old thing again with the known problems. If you start over you have to keep throwing money at a problem – or cut your losses and have nothing at all.

            The two different types of R&D mean very different costs. We should start with whatever the latest state of the art best practice is, and build that – there are always new things, but there is nothing new that we need today. When they are getting ready to build our train order we may want to upgrade to the next state of the art thing, but if they want to charge more we can say no if the improvement isn’t worth the costs.

            I’m not saying don’t fund CI improvements. We should do that, but it shouldn’t come out of the budget to build any line today. Instead we start building, and the CI is a separate budget. Sometimes the CI will find something better and we decide to adopt a new process half way through, but we can do that or not on a case by case basis, and always with an intelligent debate about if the cost overrun is actually worth it since we have a choice to not pay the price.

            Note in particular we already have blueprints for dozens of stations – just take one and build it again. We even know what changes had to be made along the way so we can avoid a lot of change orders. (more likely take 3, the important part is to get good at building them)

            If you want to start a new company making trains (switches, track, signals; parts like seats, wheels, doors; or something else) you might not have the option. You will have to invest in new R&D to get technology that you cannot license (and thus have to work around patents). There is no way to be sure that your investment in this will work out, you just keep throwing money into R&D until either you solve the issues and have a product, or your investors decide to stop giving you money. This is a valid thing to do – and what needs to be done in order to get something like the F-35 (I’m not going to comment on if we should) – but HSR is not like that. We don’t need anything new, we need more of the old thing! Some minor improvements would be nice if we can get them, but we should put a cap on what we are willing to pay.

            With the US not being a leader in HSR the cap should be very low as we don’t even know what is worth paying for yet. Also there is a poor ROI on any R&D investment as we don’t know if the people really will ride like the model predicts. Eventually we should get enough HSR that it is worthwhile to pay for R&D. That will start when we have a problem that is minor to others but for some reason important to our situation.

            Last, Biden will only be president for 3.5 more years (or 7.5), and congress may change before then. There is enough time and money to get HSR running before Biden leaves office, but only if the focus is getting it running with existing technology. Even the fastest R&D efforts mean that the track will not be running before Biden is out of office and who knows what his replacement will do (even if a Democrat). However by going all off the shelf we can get useful track running (if we can’t Biden should forget about any rail and fix government so that it can be done the next time there is political will)

          • Henry Miller

            @Phake Nick

            Learning how to build is not R&D. It is training.

            Find a few foreman (people who know construction in general and just need to learn the rail specific parts) who know Spanish, Korean, Turkish, Japanese, fly them out to work with a crew for 3 months and they are trained. Then bring them all together for a month to learn from each other, then let them hire people and when there are enough people split the crews. Similar for other levels of management.

            Or perhaps the Swedish have already created training courses and we just need to hire someone to translate them. We might find the French are thinking about making a useful course and we can help pay for creating it so long as there is a translation.

            I’m sure there is someone how has the required knowledge willing to move to the Us for a project, or even immigrate for a new life.

            Ideally more than one of the above: each has pros and cons. The point is we don’t need any R&D, we just need to figure out how to get the knowledge that others have already done here.

            The only unique parts of production and construction is geological – that needs to be checked separately for every meter of track no matter where you are in the world to figure out what foundation you need for that ground.

          • adirondacker12800

            Railroad ROW is highway with tracks on top of it instead of asphalt. The construction crews know how to do that. Though the construction crews that do railroad probably are more familiar with any minor specifics that may be different.

          • anonymouse observer

            Alon is right on the PTC, but I am not sold on others’ definition of “improvement” or “training” because I cannot explain how the following examples of high-speed rail system “improvements” are just “improvement” or “training” and not R&D based achievements:
            – Evolution of converter-inverter and the motor technology used on the high-speed trainsets. After the VVVF control become common in the railroad, CI technology went from GTO to IGBT to SiC, and each one of them went from test lab setting for very small power input-output to very high power input-out to handle high current and voltage needed to run trains at high speed. Also, the latest high-speed trainset uses PMSM motors instead of the induction motor, which needs different kinds of CI to make it work for railcar propulsion (I really don’t know why: not my expertise).
            – Bogie design. JR Central developed a new bogie for 300 Series Shinkansen trainset which does not have bolster and end beam on the bogie frame to reduce the weight (0.5 to 0.7 t reduction). Someone must did extensive research and development to get this achievement because all Shinkansen bogies before the 300 Series had bolster and end beam for structural integrity and prevention of hunting motion at higher speed.
            – Signaling and communication system, especially digitization (or conversion from analog system to digital system). Can simple “improvement” allow someone to come up with very-high-availability, low-latency, quick-handover signal and communication system from whatever existed at that time and keep up with bandwidth requirements?
            – Infrastructure maintenance cost reduction. Some of new methods like replacement of long continuous truss bridge without doing bridge replacement must need something beyond “improvement” or “training” because these new methods need to actually work – for instance, someone needs to know the bridge replaced using the new method handle a lot of dynamic load (high-speed trains running at very high-speed) before actually rebuilding the bridge using the new method.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @anonymouse observer wrote:

            Alon is right on the PTC, but I am not sold on others’ definition of “improvement” or “training” because I cannot explain how the following examples of high-speed rail system “improvements” are just “improvement” or “training” and not R&D based achievements:

            Henry Miller provided a very good distinction of R&D contrasted with Continuous Improvement. It’s R&D if it’s an original invention or if the R&D’s ends are in service of a high-value good or service (something patentable/licensable/royalty-able, producing a proprietary good/service that leads to vendor lock-in, etc.). It’s CI if it’s an evolution of earlier R&D and the ends are to reduce costs or produce efficiencies. The most famous is Moore’s law: computing power doubles every two years or so. That is efficient production, but it’s also value reduction. An integrated circuit can last longer than two years, and might be in the supply chain beyond two years, but its value is effectively reduced by at least half with a pipeline of more powerful circuits.

            One that is going in in the modern space race is how to bring down the cost of launching payloads into orbit, as measured in dollars-per-kilogram. This article claimed that Elon Musk (read: SpaceX) came close to 10X-ing space costs from $18,500/kg to $2,720/kg.,is%20just%20%242%2C720%20per%20kilogram.

          • Henry Miller

            @anonymouse observer

            Lets put it a different way: is the goal to create the best possible design, or to have something? Do you design your own computer starting with sand, or buy one from a store? Do you build your car from raw iron ore, or buy one from a dealer? Both are possible, (though most designers start a bit higher up the supply chain from the raw ore), but your results will be different.

            HSR in the US should be seen like buying something already made: you select from what is available now. You might want a flying car, but since you can’t buy one you compromise on something else. You hope you grow big enough that in the future you can ask for some things you want, but right now we are not there yet. The only design money the US should be spending now is checking the geography to figure out if the ground will support the railbed and other foundations. Everything else should be off the shelf designs.

          • adirondacker12800

            Everything else should be off the shelf designs.
            Most off the shelf designs don’t fit the hundreds if not thousands of level boarding platforms in the Northeast. People in Ohio, someday, are going to want to take trains to New York or Chicago which means Chicago is going to be the same as New York. You want things that are “Amtrak” loading gauge. Which is Shinkansen give or take a few centimeters.

          • Phake Nick

            @Henry Miller I mean there are certainly US specific geographically condition that need innovation to overcome?

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Phake Nick, yes — continuous improvement would be undertaken by R&D. The difference is that continuous improvement is looking for marginal efficiencies on a finished and manufactured good, or process efficiencies for a service.

            For an automaker, say there’s a challenge to bump up the mileage on a popular car from 20 mpg to 25 mpg. It’s quite a challenge to take an existing engine and make it 25% more efficient. R&D would have to look at lighter-weight materials, an advance in fuel intake or output, or reduction of drag by redesigning the body — or some combination. There could also be a competition factor. Competitors are engaged in the same activity. This could mean making it to market first, seeing if the technology could be licensed, or reverse-engineering a competing product to see if it can be improved upon (this one carries a huge legal risk though).

            Each marginal improvement is a diminishing return, subject to physical or economic limits. A hybrid car, or an all-electric car, would require R&D as a new product because the substantial work would be designing and engineering a new powertrain. The body, style and cabin require less design and engineering compared with the mechanical and increasingly electrical workings.

            As for high-speed rail vs. maglev, the latter has not advanced to the point of continuous improvement. There are a few maglevs operating in the world, but not at the point where continuous improvement can scale to where maglev can achieve a unit cost advantage over HSR.

          • michaelrjames

            Bobson Dugnutt: “There are a few maglevs operating in the world, but not at the point where continuous improvement can scale to where maglev can achieve a unit cost advantage over HSR.”

            There is no evidence for that statement. And please don’t use “absence of evidence as evidence of absence”. If one took the cost of the Shanghai maglev (the only HSR maglev built with paying customers) both CaHSR and HS2 are more expensive.
            There are reasons for not choosing maglev but vaguely waving one’s hands in the air while shouting ‘cost’ is not one of them, at least in the Anglosphere were we can’t control costs.

            Further, maglev has been subjected to CI. The Chinese claim to have almost halved the cost per km since finishing the Shanghai Transrapid. And Bögl’s version of ‘low-speed’ urban Transrapid is similar (and at 150km/h it’s not so slow, in fact faster than the NEC, America’s fastest rail line).

          • adirondacker12800

            If maglev is so cheap and easy to do why isn’t there a second one someplace?

          • michaelrjames

            Yeah, like I claimed it was “cheap and easy”.
            …. but perhaps compared to the psycho-dramas of both CaHSR and HS2 maybe it could be …
            And you don’t seem to have noticed that Japan is building ‘a second one’ …

          • adirondacker12800

            You claimed is was cheap and easy when you wrote “If one took the cost of the Shanghai maglev (the only HSR maglev built with paying customers) both CaHSR and HS2 are more expensive.” The Japanese have been building one any day now for decades. For when you don’t want to use the SST. All of will be running on fusion power plants.

          • anonymouse observer

            I would like to ask the same question again in different way; if you think examples I used are all “continuous improvement”, could someone tell me why induction motors or permanent magnet synchronous motors were not used for traction motors on rail vehicles or locomotives until 1990s even for the AC-electrified systems, and what kind of “continuous improvement” made it possible? Also, is whatever breakthrough which made possible to use induction motor or PMSM for the rail vehicle traction motors just a “continuous improvement”?

            By the way, I am having a hard time digesting why “CI” in the context is read as “Continuous Improvement” when I was talking about components on the trainset. I really meant “Converter-Inverter”.

          • Henry Miller

            I didn’t mean to imply that CI is not a form of R&D, though reading back I see I did do that. CI is a form of R&D, which should be separated from all new development. Sorry about that mistake.

            @anonymouse observer
            Induction motors or permanent magnet synchronous motors have existed for years, but they didn’t make sense for trains until electronics advanced to the point where we could affordably make power transistors that could handle the power required. Trains need to have variable speed, the motors you list cannot do variable speed without electronics that didn’t really exist until the 1990s at the earliest. (Vacuum tubes can do it, but they have other issues on a train). There has been a big revolution in motors over the past 15 years – a lot of things that previous would have got a universal motor (change RPM by changing voltage via a simple resister) now get some form of motor that requires electronics to run. This change is across all industries and has changed a lot of things. Trains are just applying existing R&D here.

            As for “Continuous Improvement” vs “Converter-Inverter” – welcome to the crazy world of acronyms where the same letter sequence can mean more than one thing depending on context. Language is icky that way. I think everyone gets confused by this type of thing regularly. I’m not about to try to type/spell those long words often though, and I don’t think anyone else is, so we just have to deal with it.

          • michaelrjames

            @Henry Miller: “welcome to the crazy world of acronyms where the same letter sequence can mean more than one thing depending on context. … I’m not about to try to type/spell those long words often though, and I don’t think anyone else is, so we just have to deal with it.”

            It’s very rare that an acronym can have multiple meanings within the one speciality and I can’t remember what the convention for dealing with that is. But the convention in scientific & technical publication is that the first time you use the abbreviation you spell it out, thus: “continuous improvement (CI)”. Perhaps on a comment thread, it would be the first time used by any commenter. Note that, as usual the general media don’t do this properly. They will often spell out the thing in full the first time they use it, but they don’t give the acronym at that time but subsequently just use the acronym solo, making it difficult to relate them! On screen it has become easier because you just search for the acronym and in principle the first time it occurs it should be accompanied by the full unabbreviated explanation.

            I’ve pointed it out to editors and sub-editors but they just don’t seem to get it, or their convention is a different (inadequate) one. Don’t get me started on the modern screwy conventions on capitalisiing/not capitalising acronyms which are completely counter-logical (ahem, like the liberal-arts grads who determine these things …:-).

            Of course that doesn’t account for insider geeks who like to signal their insiderdom by deliberately using as many obscure acronyms as possible without explanation …

  12. bruce hain

    I can’t make an extensive comment but I’m glad you’re bringing this up, because I believe the problems in the US are largely internal to the particular industry (though the MO seems clearly to be spreading) and stem from a secretive mindset in leadership that took hold immediately post-war – though one can cite with assurance earlier instances such as debacles with the Roseville Tunnel of the Lackawanna Cutoff Project (which should have been a cut – the subject of a years-long dispute between the president of the RR and his engineers. After their success with the tunnel they were emboldened, continuing the trend with the towering and somewhat sinister looking Nicholson Viaduct, which has prevented economic development locally owning to lack of a train station anyone could get to, whereas the crossing could have been negotiated with less infra and for less money farther north. The tendency overall was toward obsessiveness with flat grades whereas all were aware by this time that electric traction was a superior solution, and more amenable to the physical landscape. ((the Cutoff in NJ took that obsession to a point of ridiculousness.)) OR the truly comical 6-plus-miles approach from the NY Central Main Line to the Castleton Cutoff – with high bridge where the connection crosses under same, that could have been accomplished in one mile, with similar gentle grade – or grades in the case of what now exists, etched in stone and steel of practical permanence.

    It makes clear what these engineers thought of the leadership of the companies they worked for, and indeed the companies and the industry themselves; and it translates to modern times with the companies replaced by state agencies and their boards in complete thrall to these malevolent forces of engineering conglomerates of professional NEPA Document composition – and abuse – though I’m sensing SOME signs of life as the boards seem to be growing suspicious of knocking their heads against a wall these past 35-or-so years.

    Learning is always experience-led, and far from the US learning anything from the successful programs in Japan, Europe, China – they have lately had some considerable success in exporting this kind of MO – and you see it in Germany where after running down DB for years Maydorn gets put in charge of the airport! Or – discouragingly EVEN in England – where HS2 – a concentrated compilation of all these infra-planning and construction ploys and schemes that we’ve been seeing close up, and we now find etched in stone and steel with only one project here to show for it – East Side Access – are taking place on an even grander scale. Oh Dear! (I won’t go into the opportunities missed and permanently spoiled by ESA. It will be lying underfoot for at least a century – a painful reminder of the decadent-age planning machinations we were – once, hopefully – prone to.)

    As far as employees on trains and running them, or ticket clerks – these positions like schedule planning involve a high degree of intellect and problem solving ability (because no matter if the ultimate, well-intentioned and well-done planning and construction has been accomplished, rail is ALWAYS constrained by space considerations resulting in physical impossibility of one versatility or another, no matter how much is spent in a theoretical perfect world.) Many – really all of them – are prestigious, and desirable, positions. But the trend in wishful thinking among boards and their misleading advisors runs always to complete automation – something they seem to consider a desirable exigency in this Brave New World of theirs. Someone needs to educate them on the facts of what brings prosperity and cohesion in a society. And rail transportation – of all the forms out there – has the greatest potential to have a civilizing and health-inducing effect. It should be emphasized, but until the problem-inducing entities are found out, or voluntarilly bug off, it represents a huge gulf of unrealized potential.

  13. bruce hain

    As far as being “technologically stuck in the ’50s” I’d say the temporal quality of projects getting done (not including the first blossoming of BART and the Washington Metro, which may be our last great projects for a while) is from some historical point way earlier than that. Compare East Side Access with its 3% grades and mainline radii less than 1000′. Not to mention it’s destructive effect on speed and train capacity at Harold – where the only solution is an ESA Mitigation Project ((All rights Reserved on THAT concept)) as against the original Penn Station Tunnel and Terminal RR – with high speed tangents and a minimal number of gentle curves and grades, through the SIX LINEAR MILES of its multiple-tube alignment. Or Grand Central with its highest capacity ever to turn around trains, and screeming-fast multi-level approach. (which they’ve partially wrecked now – with woefully compromised ability to lay over trains, that must be stored IN the station. Penn is also designed so trains can move through at 20-25mph or so – 750′ is the shortest radius with but one exception – Huge versatility – you gotta be a Philadelphia Lawyer to comprehend the routing choices of those double ladders with slip switches

    There Is No Comparison. ESA is a glorified subway with Main Line pretensions.

    All with technological planning and construction abilities – and ease of construction – EXPONENTIALLY ADVANCED over 1910’s stiff-leg derricks and steam shovels.

    There hardly seems any excuse at all.

    • Alon Levy

      I never saw the diagram – do you have a reference for the 750′ radius for Penn? (It’s 54 km/h if there’s any room for a spiral, but if there isn’t, then it’s only 44.)

      • bruce hain

        I never got notice of your replies but did write a few things under them in response, so now am hitting the “reply button” – because for instance, I have a good copy of a drawing that you or Adirondacker might want, and you could tell me how to get it to you. Besides the usual screed.

    • Alon Levy

      I know the switch numbers and speeds, the drawings I have of the interlockings exist but the quality isn’t good enough (they’re not blueprints).

      • adirondacker12800

        As of when? they rebuilt wide swaths on either side of Penn Station recently. “recently” depends on what part got paid for which way.

        • bruce hain

          I believe the switch numbers and config would still be the same, because there would be problems with lack of space if they decided to modify it – and they used wooden ties throughout both projects, I believe.

          • bruce hain

            Also they were grousing publicly about having to order bespoke trackworks to be made at the time.

          • adirondacker12800

            There are those pesky columns and platforms in the way. Which then restrict where the other tracks can be. There was a blurb in the first round back in 2015? about “faster” with “higher speed switches”. Who knows if they actually did that. It needs a current track map at the very least, an employee timetable would be nice and detailed drawings would be even better. I’m sure they have detailed drawings. …. They didn’t reserve space between 10th and 11th Ave, for Gateway, without them..

  14. bruce hain

    Sorry. I didn’t get any notice of the replies so I decided to take a look. I have a good copy of the original drawing in PDF form but no way to host it, but if you say how I could get it to you. I measured the curves by pasting it in Google Earth, marking the tangents and locating the curves. (Or that’s the way I would do it now; this was a little earlier; still sure it’s 750.) There are no spiral offsets, and all the switches and crossings would preclude any superelevation.

    The work on Interlockings A and the one at the east end of the station seems to have been more show than actual renewal, and I saw from the window shortly after the shut-down deformations at A that take years (a decade or more?) to develop – as the light hit it just right, and of course, we were going very slow. They always go so slow through there in my experence in the past couple of years. If it’s like the bumpiness and lurching at Sunnyside these past years I’d say it’s for propaganda purposes, specifically anti-train. Same the Jamaica Crawl-over with it’s 1500′ radius. The six tracks at A which the tunnel branches to immediately past 10th Avenue are spaced 12′ apart (very close, although trains were taller and more top-heavy back then) for purposes of getting through interlocking A at speed. It’s a brilliant way of minimizing the jog you get with wider spacing – and the necessarily shorter radii with longer curve angles needed to accomplish the same move within the same linear distance. (Is that why they’re always insisting on 15′? Could increase the const. cost significantly in a situation like that. But the 15′ has it’s advantages for avoiding curved frogs where there is a multiple track turnout, such as the 4-track one where the Bergen+Main line meets the M+E – I think it’s called West End. Some of the old switch angles there are plenty speedy too.) In any case I’d say Interlocking A was planned to be about as speedy and compact as could be, and in a situation like that they’re definitely not mutually exclusive.

    They always creep through it in my recent experience, with a tendency to come to a full stop first, and the state of the tracks would not allow the originally intended speeds anyway of course, despite the Summer of Hell. It is a kind of disrespect for the sacrifices and lives lost to build that project, and the brilliance of the planning. I wish something could be done about it, this culture of diminution, and it may be there are signs of life at NJ Transit in that regard, at least they now seem to think the Boonton Line is something worth preserving. That’s a start.

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