Consultants and Railroaders Turn New Haven Line Investment Into Shelf Art

The state of Connecticut announced that a new report concerning investment in the New Haven Line is out. The report is damning to most involved, chief of all the Connecticut Department of Transportation for having such poor maintenance practices and high construction costs, and secondarily consultant AECOM for not finding more efficient construction methods and operating patterns, even though many readily exist in Europe.

What started out as an ambitious 30-30-30 proposal to reduce the New York-New Haven trip time to an hour, which is feasible without construction outside the right-of-way, turned into an $8-10 billion proposal to reduce trip times from today’s 2 hours by 25 minutes by 2035. This is shelf art: the costs are high enough and the benefits low enough that it’s unlikely the report will lead to any actionable improvement, and will thus adorn the shelves of CTDOT, AECOM, and the governor’s office. It goes without saying that people should be losing their jobs over this, especially CTDOT managers, who have a track record of ignorance and incuriosity. Instead of a consultant-driven process with few in-house planners, who aren’t even good at their jobs, CTDOT should staff up in-house, hiring people with a track record of success, which does not exist in the United States and thus requires reaching out to European, Japanese, and Korean agencies.

Maintenance costs and the state of good repair racket

I have a video I uploaded just before the report came out, explaining why the state of good repair (SOGR) concept has, since the late 1990s, been a racket permitting agencies to spend vast sums of money with nothing to show for it. The report inadvertently confirms this. The New Haven Line is four-track, but since the late 1990s it has never had all four tracks in service at the same time, as maintenance is done during the daytime with flagging rules slowing down the trains. Despite decades of work, the backlog does not shrink, and the slow zones are never removed, only replaced (see PDF-p. 7 of the report). The report in fact states (PDF-p. 8),

To accommodate regular maintenance as well as state-of-good-repair and normal replacement improvements, much of the four-track NHL typically operates with only three tracks.

Moreover, on PDF-p. 26, the overall renewal costs are stated as $700-900 million a year in the 2017-21 period. This includes rolling stock replacement, but the share of that is small, as it only includes 66 new M8 cars, a less than second-order item. It also includes track upgrades for CTRail, a program to run trains up to Hartford and Springfield, but those tracks preexist and renewal costs there are not too high. In effect, CTDOT is spending around $700 million annually on a system that, within the state, includes 385 single-track-km for Metro-North service and another 288 single-track-km on lines owned by Amtrak.

This is an insane renewal cost. In Germany, the Hanover-Würzburg NBS cost 640 million euros to do 30-year track renewal on, over a segment of 532 single-track-km – and the line is overall about 30% in tunnel. This includes new rails, concrete ties, and switches. The entire work is a 4-year project done in a few tranches of a few months each to limit the slowdowns, which are around 40 minutes, punctuated by periods of full service. In other words, CTDOT is likely spending more annually per track-km on a never-ending renewal program than DB is on a one-time program to be done once per generation.

A competent CTDOT would self-abnegate and become German (or Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). It could for a few hundred million dollars renew the entirety of the New Haven Line and its branches, with track geometry machines setting the tracks to be fully superelevated and setting the ballast grade so as to improve drainage. With turnout replacement, all speed limits not coming from right-of-way geometry could be lifted, with the possible exception of some light limits on the movable bridges. With a rebuild of the Grand Central ladder tracks and turnouts for perhaps $250,000 per switch (see e.g. Neustadt switches), trains could do New York-New Haven in about 1:03 making Amtrak stops and 1:27 making all present-day local stops from Stamford east.

Infrastructure-schedule integration

The incompetence of CTDOT and its consultants is not limited to capital planning. Operations are lacking as well. The best industry practice, coming from Switzerland, is to integrate the timetable with infrastructure and rolling stock planning. This is not done in this case.

On the contrary: the report recommends buying expensive dual-mode diesel locomotives for through-service from the unelectrified branches instead of electrifying them, which could be done for maybe $150 million (the Danbury Branch was once electrified and still has masts, but no wires). The lifecycle costs of electric trains are half those of diesel trains, and this is especially important when there is a long electrified trunk line with branches coming out of it. Dual-mode locomotives are a pantomime of low electrification operating costs, since they have high acquisition costs and poor performance even in electric mode as they are not multiple-units. Without electrification, the best long-term recommendation is to shut down service on these two branches, in light of high maintenance and operating costs.

The choice of coaches is equally bad. The report looks at bilevels, which are a bad idea in general, but then adds to the badness by proposing expensive catenary modifications (PDF-p. 35). In fact, bilevel European trains exist that clear the lowest bridge, such as the KISS, and those are legal on American tracks now, even if Metro-North is unaware.

The schedule pattern is erratic as well. Penn Station Access will soon permit service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. And yet, there is no attempt to have a clean schedule to both. There is no thought given to timed transfers at New Rochelle, connecting local and express trains going east with trains to Grand Central and Penn Station going west, in whichever cross-platform pattern is preferred.

The express patterns proposed are especially bad. The proposal for through-running to Philadelphia and Harrisburg (“NYX”) is neat, but it’s so poorly integrated with everything else it might as well not exist. Schedules are quoted in trains per day, for the NYX option and the GCX one to Grand Central, and in neither case do they run as frequently as hourly (PDF-p. 26). There is no specific schedule to the minute that the interested passenger may look at, nor any attempt at an off-peak clockface pattern.

Throw it in the trash

The desired rail investment plan for Connecticut, setting aside high-speed rail, is full electrification, plus track renewal to permit the elimination of non-geometric speed limits. It should cost around $1 billion one-time; the movable bridge replacements should be postponed as they are nice to have but not necessary, their proposed budgets are excessive, and some of their engineering depends on whether high-speed rail is built. The works on the New Haven Line are doable in a year or not much more – the four-year timeline on Hanover-Würzburg is intended to space out the flagging delays, but the existing New Haven Line is already on a permanent flagging delay. The trains should be entirely EMUs, initially the existing and under-order M8 fleet, and eventually new lightweight single-level trains. The schedule should have very few patterns, similar to today’s off-peak local and express trains with some of one (or both) pattern diverting to Penn Station; the express commuter trains should take around 1:30 and intercity trains perhaps 1:05. This is a straightforward project.

Instead, AECOM produced a proposal that costs 10 times as much, takes 10 times as long, and produces half the time savings. Throw it in the trash. It is bad, and the retired and working agency executives who are responsible for all of the underlying operating and capital assumptions should be dismissed for incompetence. The people who worked on the report and their sources who misinformed them should be ashamed for producing such a shoddy plan. Even mid-level planners in much of Europe could design a far better project, leaving the most experienced and senior engineers for truly difficult projects such as high-speed rail.

44 comments

  1. Kevin Egan

    Dear Gov. Lamont: you’ve been a good manager for COVID. Are you hearing what Alon is saying? Can you do as well for our transportation infrastructure? It would be the single most powerful jolt you could give to our hidebound and faltering state economy. Please!

  2. Gok

    Does anyone understand what the “$8-$10 billion investment plan” is actually referring to? The 138 page PDF is purely for the by-2022 service enhancement that was planned years ago (thus why most of it is dated 2019)

  3. Matthew Hutton

    Alon, if I got my local council to pay you to come up with a plan to improve their public transport (which if I am in a position of power I would strongly consider) then I’d be hiring a consultant 😀.

    • Alon Levy

      I saw! They said they’re saving $1 billion from the scope reduction and yet the budget is still the same $4 billion as in 2016.

    • bruce hain

      @Matthew Hutton Could it be someone got after them about it? Now for the Tehachapi Pass with the 28 tunnels 73.5 miles worth – just slightly too small for two tracks, but big enough for double-stack – a ten year project with the most optimistic timeframe. It’s also 6000′ vertical feet of unnecessary up and down and 26mi extra laterally. They already pulled the forty-foot center barrier ploy – causing the circuitous Central Valley section to get built – now to a stage beyond redemption – to keep passengers off their tracks. CA should take the SP:Line by eminent domain and force the freight carrier to use their own elevated monstrosity. Which was their doing after all. Also they got the Tehachapi Route written into Law, with a stop required at Palmdale. Take a look at a map and see how ridiculous it is. I hope it’s not true happenings are like the whether, coming from west to east.

      • Eric2

        Speaking of eminent domain, there are much more important freight ROWs that could use eminent domain, like in LA, the Bay Area, and Chicago. Why isn’t this possible?

        • Alon Levy

          It’s illegal for state and local governments to do so – only the feds have eminent domain power over railroads. Given how states have abused railways before, I don’t think it’s a bad law.

          • Eric2

            You don’t think would be a good idea to nationalize some ROWs in big cities in order to electrify them and run frequent daytime service on them?

  4. Margaret

    Your article was as far away from factual as we are from Mars. Slandering a firm with no evidence is also unacceptable.

    • Ernest Tufft

      This company sold overpriced unnecessary maintenance intensive $60 million flood gate to my former working class community because FEMA redrew flood controls maps, that were based on old data. Also, flood gate didn’t really address the FEMA problem of flooding BEHIND the levee.

  5. Robert Jackel

    It’s shocking to see it written, but obvious now that I think about it, that the NHL is effectively 3-track. Is any other 4-track part of the NEC so consistently down to 3 for maintenance? If not, does Connecticut have any rationalization for why they alone are unable to run 4 tracks?

    • Benjamin Turon

      They only have training wheel trains, the outrigger trucks use the outside tracks, so its three tracks to one train, thus they can’t use the fourth track.

    • bruce hain

      @Robert Jackel It’s like that in places all over the NEC. NH Line is very old and the original spacing is less than 12.5′ which is problematic, and that might serve as a partial excuse. But there’s no excuse for having Harold Interlocking in Queens down to two tracks till the end of time, which the East Side Access Project has been designed to compel. They had it worked out in 1917 – when they built the four-track Hell Gate Bridge – where the interlocking could be upgraded to four tracks with no interruption in service whatsoever. And these people are cocking their snoots at it. (You know – six subaqueous tunnels each better than 2.5 miles long where people died and got dismembered so we could travel through them going a mile-a-minute. The flooding of the Hudson tunnel was caused by brackish water coming in through the LIRR storage yard built in 1986. With the LIRR tunnels it was modifications to some ventilating shaft in the ’90s. The S. tube of the Hudson one is problematic. It should be closed. Now. In order to demo one though you have to do them both at the same time. It’s time. Way cheaper than that god-awful new tunnel – what a piece of shit – and 4-tenths of a mile shorter.

  6. Ernest Tufft

    This constant paperwork engineering going nowhere, or with huge cost overruns is big problem in perpetual construction of dams and gates, in the name of “flood control”, that mostly provides conduit of water supply to billionaire export farmers at tax payer expense.

    Trustee in our reclamation district 1614 wrote this in response to forwarded copy:

    “Yea, AECOM was the construction manager and they own the contractor that is building the gate”

    60 million dollar gate paid for by mostly impoverished Country Club neighborhood in Stockton. This project narrows mouth of historic clam shell dug tributary Smith Canal from 300 yards to 50 feet, which many, including myself, believe will result in siltation of canal for navigational purposes and destroy fish and bird habitat, and which removes from public access a peninsula in San Joaquin River, known as Dad’s Point. We had beautifully landscaped water front property with dock in this canal, but considering all that we have experienced from levee engineers and their soak the tax payer through a complex of rigged elections (truly “rigged”, not reference to Trump), we sold out and moved to Spain.

    • michaelrjames

      we sold out and moved to Spain.

      Before moving back to California, right? :

      I caught a plane to Spain
      Went to a party down a red dirt road
      There were lots of pretty people there
      Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue
      They said “How long can you hang around?”
      I said a week maybe two
      Just until my skin turns brown
      Then I’m going home … to California

      50th anniversary of Blue tomorrow.

      • Ernest Tufft

        No, sold house and live in house bought in Spain, 10 minute walk from HSR station that’s within city 1/3 size of Stockton that has no HSR.

  7. plaws0

    Alon, buddy, don’t hold back. Pulling punches gets us nowhere. Tell us, please, how you *really* feel about this Shelf Art.

    (Second great term I’ve learned in the past couple days – the other is “COVID Volunteer” for the willfully unvaccinated).

  8. bruce hain

    I wouldn’t be so hard of the CT DOT. They have done well – despite the Freight Carrier Railroad Engineering FRA Revolving Door Cabal – at getting rail improvements, and with higher speed. They had the forethought, in Connecticut, to upgrade the New Haven-to-Springfield Corridor, when certainly no federal or state outfit such as the MTA or NJ Transit would have even given it a thought. I hear it’s a success, and this despite the sophomoric looking stations with huge Tower of Power passenger bridges that seem designed to make people hate railroads. (could it be?) Surely they cost way more than something less oppressive. (I can hear the reading of the NEPA docs in which the trusted engineers set out their explanations having to do with exigencies of grade perhaps. ((I believe they did eliminate a few grade crossings.)) Big bucks for those stodgy stations though, that can hardly be expected to attract passengers in their own right – which is the kind of thing you want with stations. And who in ANY state DOT or Transit Board would have the discernment to call their bluff? Not many, I wouldn’t say, Mr. Levy.)

    Hell, now they have a 90mph service with close scheduling and passengers to justify it. Where else has that happened?

    They also did CTfasTrack (the New Britain-Hartford Dedicated Busway) that includes by contrast a lot of natty looking passenger interface and infra. There is certainly a market of passengers, and I believe they’ve proven they’re amenable to buses. They plan to have interchange of passengers with the NH-Spfld train service too. Again, where else has this happened? not too many places, at least not with the relative volume of the two projects, given the commuting population there. Of course they have great capacity for the future.

    AND it was, after all, the head of the CT DOT who called the NEC Future Amalgamated Boondoggles “a crayon drawing” – that being a one RARE instance, in terms of discernment.

    In-house engineers are part of the Cabal. They have been working ten years on the Hudson Tunnel Project/ARC – at both the MTA and Port Authority. (idk about NJ Transit) And when you ask them point blank, well why are they doing this like that, they’ll answer back – in complete innocence – “Yes, that IS strange I don’t know why, that’s just the way they do.” I’ve had it happen and I doubt that they’re innocent. But then you look at the boards: well Cotton’s a piece of work, the Official Trough Bearer for Cabal Principals such as WHIS or Parsons or whatever. Most of the rest seem honestly well meaning. This stuff is simple enough to explain, all that’s needed is to get their ear in time. I think Feinberg is going to work out well for the MTA. I donno what can be done to get here ear in the space of two minutes.

  9. df1982

    Ten years ago, the standard inter-peak train from New Haven to Grand Central, running local to Stamford then express to Harlem, generally took 1:40-1:50. And that was with a lot of fat in the timetable, because every time a train started running late it could easily catch up to the timetable by the time it got to its terminus. Now the same trains take around 2:10, and will seemingly continue to do so even after PTC is introduced. And the DOT is proposing to spend $10b to just get it back down to what it was. A pure boondoggle.

    • Alon Levy

      Because they wreck passenger egress capacity. The RER A couldn’t even maintain 30 tph throughput on the eve of corona even with three pairs of triple-wide doors per train and had to go down to 24-27 tph – and once you can’t run the same tph count, bilevels’ advantage in cost per unit of capacity turns into a disadvantage.

      • Mark N.

        I guess you really can’t argue with numbers, but from a passenger standpoint bilevels sure seem attractive. Maybe I have this impression because so many of the newer IC and IR trains in Germany are bilevels and impress simply due to their newness compared to the older stock, but I also like the more compact boarding area and at least the possibility for a higher view on scenically interesting routes. It truly is a bit more of a hassle when traveling with large pieces of luggage, however.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, but note that the busiest trains here are single-level, i.e. the urban S-Bahns. The compact boarding area is a bug rather than a feature in big cities, because egress capacity is a limiting factor and it’s necessary to have many doors; Berlin has 3 door pairs per 18-meter car.

          • Mark N.

            A single-level train means potentially a very long sprint when switching trains or even getting to a reserved seat at the initial departure station. The egress itself may be slower with bilevels, but the walk to and between makes up for that (at least somewhat) for being shorter.

          • Alon Levy

            Wait, why? Stations don’t have just one egress point at one end. Even Grand Central has some access points at the northern end, though I think they’re just for ESA and not the existing platforms due to dumb design.

          • michaelrjames

            @Mark N.

            The “slower egress” with bilevels is really only an issue at peak peak hour, ie. with severe crowding–of trains and of certain central stations. The newest RER bilevels have 3 sets of extra-wide doors plus generous foyer zone to ease this problem, for example so seated travellers can relocate to the foyer in preparation for exiting at the next stop, but there is only a certain level of crowding beyond which it becomes too much and thus those rare instances causing train delay (which was often less than one such incident per day, but as I said, it can propagate to a wider system disturbance and of course at the worst time). The thing is that some transit planners, and some transit geeks, want to “solve” this issue by imposing a physical arrangement such as far less seating that in principle increases capacity (esp. in single-level cars) and eases passage thru a car. Thus those (future) trains on London CrossRail have only longitudinal seating which may help with this problem (which is only a problem for the peak of the peak and a few stations) by reducing comfort factors for far greater numbers of travellers over long distances (ie. RER & S-Bahn, not short-run Metro). I seriously dislike longitudinal seating for longer journeys because of the obvious: 1. less separation from neighbour, ie. less control over personal space; 2. slip-sliding around on those bench seats by both forward and braking and turning motions of the train; 3. less functional for other activities like reading or using laptop (I know, ‘everyone’ just uses a mobile phone these days …) or even just quiet contemplation. And this for a 40+km trip! Or for that matter even 5-10km. No thanks. I think the modern RER bilevels are a sensible compromise between these different factors. And they still achieve, day-in day-out, >60,000 pax per hour (in each direction) and 1.2 million per day.

            Incidentally, it was announced in January that bilevel M120 trains will replace the single-level trains on RER-B. This increases capacity by ≈30%. Like A the RER-B has had unexpected consistent high pax growth, with >900,000 per day.
            Thus: Pax: 1; Faceless managerialist planners: 0 🙂

          • adirondacker12800

            The northern access, in Grand Central, goes to all the tracks. They might be adding more for ESA but the stuff at approximately 47th Street has been there for years and serves all the tracks.

          • Sassy

            If there are over 60k passengers in one direction, and only 23.7k seats, then the majority of passengers are indeed standing, and it is more comfortable for the standees to have single level all longitudinal seating. As a service gets more popular, the more people stand in both absolute and relative terms, and the people standing become even more important.

            Single level all longitudinal seating is part of elevating S-Bahn type services to provide metro-style service for shorter distance trips. It provides a better standing experience, and also makes it more convenient to sit on shorter trips.

            The people at the ends of the line that are traveling all the way to the center would be better served semi-express services that not only have transverse seating (preferably with reservations to guarantee a seat and minimize people walking around), but also skip the closer-in-but-not-central stops on the line. Limited stops also reduces the impact of inefficient stops, so you can have fewer doors and more seats.

          • Mark N.

            > Stations don’t have just one egress point at one end.

            At least two situations where this doesn’t help much and the bilevel has an advantage:

            1) When arriving at the departure terminal by public transportation where the nearest entry to the station is at the far end of the seat on the train you’re wanting to catch.
            2) When transferring and your seat on the first train is near the end opposite to your seat on the next train.

            The DB seat reservation system should make it easier to avoid such situations (if you think to consider it when reserving), but I’ve unfortunately often found the directional information given to be either missing or incorrect.

          • Alon Levy

            I think most people get unreserved tickets? And cross-platform transfers are not that common on intercity trains, where the pulse system involves many more than 2 lines transferring. On regional trains, yes, but those are never reserved.

            And at major stations, there’s no such thing as nearest entry. Grand Central is a giant complex with many different subway lines and direct access on foot to different parts of Midtown, exactly the sort of environment where having multiple access points is valuable. So are even smaller major transfer points – Hermannplatz for example has multiple different places where it’s optimal to stand on the train depending on where you’re going.

          • Mark N.

            > And at major stations, there’s no such thing as nearest entry.

            I’m probably exaggeratedly influenced by my extensive travel to and from Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof. There nearly all public transportation converges at Arnulf Klett Platz in front of (and below) the station. (Of course, with S21, every walk to the trains now is that much longer to get past the huge excavation for the new underground station.)

    • michaelrjames

      Bi-levels are not quite as bad as Alon says. In fact the data on the Paris RER-A don’t support his contention on this.

      Seats per hour:
      ……………………………30tph ……..25tph ……..15tph
      bi-level MI09 trains: …..28,440 ……23,700……14,220
      1-level MI84 trains: …..18,720……15,600……….9,360
      CrossRail(short train):..13,500……..11,250………6,750

      Total pax per hour (standing + seated):
      ……………………………30tph ……..25tph ……..15tph
      RER-A MI09 trains: …..78,000.……65,000…….39,000
      CrossRail(short train):..45,000……..37,500…….22,500

      The table compares the newer bi-level RER-A trains to the single-level trains they replaced.
      The bi-level trains still carry 4,980 more seated passengers per hour than the single-level trains even when the former is at “only” 25tph and the latter is at 30tph (the bolded data in the table). That is 26.6% more. But the duplex trains in total can carry 2,600 passengers (seated + standing) so it has the ability to deliver very large numbers of passengers. The frequency was reduced due to occasional incidents of crowding affecting the closing of doors causing train delay; it was rare but just once a day in peak can cause flow-on disruption across the system. These “limitations” only occur for a few hours around peak times. At all other times the bi-level train carries 50% more seated passengers for their long journeys than the old (or any modern alternative) MI84 single-level train. And that is what the design is all about. RER-A serves distant suburbs/towns up to 50km from the centre so seating most of these commuters was a priority. The line carries >300 million pax p.a. which is the highest of any commuter line outside of Asia.
      London CrossRail is included because it is modelled on Paris RER-A and similarly will serve very distant suburbs & locales. It has the potential to use duplex trains but is starting with single-level (and 15tph). The carrying capacity difference with RER-A is quite dramatic and my prediction is that the line will become very popular very quickly (if it ever opens!) and they might come to regret some of these decisions, but perhaps it won’t ever approach RER-A level of use. Few commuter lines in the west get stress tested like this. In fact even RER-A probably won’t have to cope with such huge traffic for much longer because the RER-E western extension will take over a western branch of RER-A, M14 extension will take some load off it too and the GPX orbital lines will likewise take pressure off the radial lines.

  10. Roy

    Alon, are you sure that the NBS renewal in Germany is a good comparison to modernization of a legacy 4-track mainline? Modern high-speed lines are designed with high, uniform standards for structures, earthworks, catenary, junctions, and signaling (e.g., no line side signals)

    Also, NBSs are designed to facilitate single-track working, allowing catenary isolation for works while maintaining service on one track and easy access from dedicated maintenance depots. Not to mention that designs and components are uniform across the line – the ideal case for highly mechanized renewals using modern machinery. The modernization of that NBS also did not require any upgrades to junctions or route geometry, or any catenary changes as they already use modern high speed turnouts, constant-tension cat, etc.

    I won’t defend the cost overruns of schemes in the UK such as GWEP and WCRM (AECOM and their ilk were probably there somewhere), but those British legacy 4-track main modernization projects (signal changes, junction upgrades and remodeling, extensive changes to route geometry, changes to location of neutral sections, bridge replacements, etc.) might be more comparable to this Metro-North case.

    • Alon Levy

      The New Haven Line doesn’t need upgrades to right-of-way geometry either at this scale – the existing geometry is good enough for intercity trips in just more than an hour. One junction needs a grade separation, Shell; it is not getting one, but could for low hundreds of millions, one-time, judging by Harold costs ($250 million for a harder project in a more constrained area). The catenary is already modernized. The turnouts are trash, but they can be replaced cheaply, and the project here involves full turnout replacement already, for around 150,000-250,000€/turnout depending on speed; doing this at Grand Central would be very low tens of millions even with an underground premium, take a few weeks, and save all Metro-North trains around 4 minutes just on the last mile into the terminal.

      British projects are not actually comparable. Bridge replacements are a huge problem in the UK, where the bridges are so low they had to invent new technology to electrify the tracks (surge arrestors). In the US, the clearances are more generous than anywhere in Europe save Scandinavia and Russia, which makes electrification in places that lack it, like Boston, a piece of cake. Americans just assume they have problems and 16′ 4″ bridge clearances in Boston are comparable to British lines that can barely clear single-stack containers, but no, the US is an unusually easy environment when it comes to loading gauge. And the New Haven Line is already electrified anyway.

  11. Ernest Tufft

    Station modification in NYC and other places is sorely needed. Changing staircases to ramps, eliminating ticket turn style bottlenecks (as well as simplifying ticketing machines), and providing separate pedal thru ramp access to one end of the loading platform, toward where bicycle car will locate, can all save time in transit.

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