After my last post on poor timetabling in the New York area, I got a lot of feedback comparing New York’s zonal system with existing high-quality commuter rail networks. Some of it was in comments, but most interesting was a post by the pseudonymous socialist Emil Seidel, who compares the situation in New York with that of Munich.
I’m going to go over some best practices here – this is not intended as a highlight of poor American practices. That said, because of the application to New York, I’m going to go over Paris and Tokyo, as they’re both very large cities, in addition to cleaner German examples, including Berlin (where I live), Nuremberg (where Herbert in comments lives and where a Twitter commenter pointed out express service), and finally Emil’s example of Munich.
The upshot is that yes, commuter trains do often have express service, and it’s common for the express service to run local on an outer segment and then express closer in. However, this is not really the New York zone theory. Most importantly, high-quality local service always comes first, and everything else is an overlay. This is common to all of the examples we will look at, and is the most fundamental fact of commuter rail: S-Bahn service is urban rail on mainline tracks.
Infrastructure for local trains
Local service always comes first, ahead of any longer-range regional service. This can be readily seen in infrastructure allocation: in all examples I know of in the German-speaking world, Paris, and Tokyo, when there’s scarce infrastructure built for through-service, local trains get it ahead of longer-range regional ones.
- In Paris, the RER is defined as what runs through on newly-built tunnels, whereas Transilien service terminates at one of the historic terminals of Paris. This distinction is fundamental and precedes other distinctions, such as frequency – there are sections of Transilien H, J, and L that have higher frequency than some RER branches. And where the two systems run side-by-side, the RER is the more local one.
- In Germany, newly-built tunnels are for S-Bahn service. For example, in Munich, the S-Bahn gets to use the tunnel, while other trains terminate on the surface; this is also the case in Frankfurt, Stuttgart (until the upcoming Stuttgart 21), and Berlin (until the North-South Main Line opened).
- In Zurich, there are two through-tunnels under Hauptbahnhof. The older one is used principally by the S-Bahn; the newer one is used by the S-Bahn as well as longer-distance trains. But many long-distance trains stay on the surface.
- In Tokyo, local commuter trains get preference in JR through-running. The original set of through-tracks at Tokyo Station was used for local trains on the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Line, while faster, longer-distance regional trains were demoted, and through-running ceased entirely when the Shinkansen took their space in the 1990s. Regional trains only resumed through-running when the Ueno-Tokyo Line opened in 2015. The Shinkansen’s use of space over regional train is justified because it serves large secondary cities in the Tohoku region and not just suburbs.
Timetabling for local trains
Local trains are also the most important priority for high frequency. In all of the five example cities for this post, local frequency is high, even on branches. In Tokyo and Paris, the trunks don’t really run on takts; Japan and France overall have less rigid takts than Germany but do have off-peak takt patterns, it’s just not very important to passengers when a train on the RER A or the Chuo Line comes every 4-5 minutes off-peak.
Elsewhere, there are takts. There are also takts on the branches in Paris. Typical frequencies are a train every 10, 15, or 20 minutes; they may be lower on outer branches, especially ones that are operationally half-branches, i.e. branches of branches like the two halves of S1 and S2 in Munich. All of this depends on city size; Berlin is bigger than Munich, which is bigger than Nuremberg.
- In Berlin, S-Bahn branches run every 10 or 20 minutes, but the ones running every 10 usually have short-turning variants, so the outer portions only get 20-minute service. The outer ends of 10-minute service – Spandau, Buch, Frohnau, Friedrichshagen, Teltow Stadt, Grünau – tend to be 15-18 km from the center, but one, Potsdam, is almost 30 km out.
- In Munich, S-Bahn branches likewise run every 10 or 20 minutes at rush hour, with some tails that have ugly 40-minute headways. Off-peak, the numbered branches run every 20 minutes.
- In Nuremberg, frequency is weaker, as it is a small city. But S2 has a 20-minute takt up to Schwabach, about 15 km out.
Let us now compare larger cities. Just as Berlin has higher frequency at a given radius than Munich and Nuremberg, so does Paris have even higher frequency, and Tokyo yet higher. On the RER A, branches run every 10 minutes all day; Marne-la-Vallée, home to Disneyland Paris as well as a suburban office park, sees trains every 10 minutes off-peak, 37 km outside city center. At the other end, Cergy sees a train every 10 minutes all day at similar distance, and at rush hour this rises to 5 minutes, but half the trains run on Transilien L rather than the RER.
Some of these Parisian RER trains run express. The RER B, off-peak, has a pattern with three services, each running every 15 minutes: at each end these go minor branch (Robinson or Mitry-Claye), major branch express (major stops to Massy and then local to Saint-Rémy or nonstop to CDG), major branch local (local to Massy or CDG). So yes, nonstop trains exist, in the special context of an airport, but local trains still run every 15 minutes as far as 20-30 km from city center. At rush hour, frequencies rise and there’s no more room for express trains to the north, so trains run every 6 minutes to each of CDG or Mitry, all local: local service always comes first.
Tokyo has even higher local frequency. Rapid lines tend to have their own dedicated pair of tracks, there is so much traffic. For example, the Chuo Line has four tracks to Mitaka: the local tracks carry the Chuo-Sobu Line, and the express tracks carry the Chuo Rapid Line farther out. Both patterns are very frequent.
What Tokyo does have is a melange of express services with names like Special Rapid, Limited Express, or Liner. However, they are timetabled around the local services, or the regular rapid ones if there’s a rapid track pair as on Chuo, even in environments with competition between private railways for commuter traffic. The Chuo Rapid Line’s basic pattern, the vanilla rapid, runs irregularly every 3-8 minutes off-peak, with Special Rapid trains making limited stops timetabled around those, with timed overtakes at major stations. Thus frequency stays very high even as far out as Tachikawa, 37.5 km from Tokyo Station. Moreover, at rush hour, where frequency is denser, there is less, sometimes no, special express service.
Timetabling for express trains
All of our five example cities have express trains. In Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg, they’re branded as RegionalBahn, distinct from the S-Bahn. In Paris, some RER trains run express, but mostly Transilien provides extra express service. In Tokyo, it’s all branded as part of the Kanto area commuter rail network. This is the core of Emil’s argument: express service exists in Germany, but has separate branding.
Nonetheless, there are best practices for how to do this. In Jarrett Walker’s bus-based terminology, it is better to run limited, that is make major stops, than to run express, that is have long nonstop sections from outer areas to city center. Sometimes patterns are somewhat of a hybrid, like on some New York subway lines, but the basic principle is that regional trains never skip major stations.
- In Berlin, the Stadtbahn, built in the 1880s, has four tracks, two dedicated to local S-Bahn trains and two to everything else. Intercity trains on the Stadtbahn only stop at Hauptbahnhof and Ostbahnhof, but regional trains make roughly every other S-Bahn stop. Elsewhere, some stations are never missed, like Lichtenberg and Wannsee. Note also that as in Paris, Berlin likes its airport express service, branded FEX, which skips the RegionalBahn station and S-Bahn branch point Schöneweide.
- In Munich, some RegionalBahn services express from the S-Bahn terminal, where they always stop, to Hauptbahnhof; some also make a few stops on the way. It depends on the line – Dachau and Laim are both popular RegionalBahn stops.
- In Nuremberg, I encourage people to look at the map. Express trains abound, at fairly high frequency, each named service running hourly, and they always make certain major stations like Erlangen and Fürth.
The stopping pattern can be more local once there’s no S-Bahn, but it’s not really local. For example, at both ends of Berlin’s RE 1, a half-hourly regional line between Brandenburg an der Havel and Frankfurt an der Oder with half the trains continuing west to Magdeburg and south awkwardly to Cottbus, there are stops spaced 7-10 km apart between the built-up area of Berlin-Potsdam and those of Brandenburg and Frankfurt.
In Paris and Tokyo, similarly, express trains stop at major stations. The RER B’s express pattern does run nonstop between Gare du Nord and CDG, but to the south of Paris, it makes major stops like Bourg-la-Reine rather than trying to run nonstop from Massy to Paris; moreover, the RER trains make all stops within the city core, even neighborhood stops like Cité-Universitaire or Nation. Tokyo’s Special Rapids likewise stop at major stations like Kokubunji, and don’t run nonstop from outer suburban branches to Shinjuku and Tokyo.
What this means for New York
New York does not run its commuter rail in the above way. Not even close. First, local frequency is weak. The pre-corona timetables of the New Haven and Harlem Lines have 30-40 minute gaps at rush hour at radii where Berlin still has some 10-minute service. Off-peak the schedule is more regular but still only half-hourly. Hourly S-Bahn systems exist, for example in Mannheim, but those are mocked by German railfans as not real S-Bahns but barely upgraded regional rail systems using the term S-Bahn for marketing.
And second, express trains are not designed to provide an express overlay on top of local trains with transfers where appropriate. When they’re zoned, they only make a handful of stops at rush hour and then express, often without overlapping the next zone for a transfer. This is the case even where the infrastructure is a four-track line set up for more normal express service: the Hudson Line is set up so that Ossining, Tarrytown, and Yonkers have express platforms, but its timetable largely ignores that in favor of long nonstops, with 20-minute gaps at Yonkers.
In the future, it is critical to focus on a high-quality local takt, with frequency depending on city size. In Boston, a Berlin-size city, the TransitMatters plan calls for a 15-minute takt, sometimes 10 minutes, generally as far out as 20-30 km. But New York is a larger city, and needs 5 minutes within the city and 10 well into suburbia, with a strong local schedule that express trains can go around if appropriate. S-Bahn service, by whatever name or brand it has, is always about using mainline infrastructure to operate urban rail and extend the city into the suburbs.