Institutional Issues: Coordination

In this installment of institutional issues, I’m going to talk about coordination, following up from procurement, professional oversight, transparency, proactive regulations, and dealing with change.

The state is to a large extent a coordinating body. Even the more extractive aspects of it, like historically the military, succeeded or failed not by who was the most brutal (they all were brutal) but by who was most efficient at organizing large groups of people.

Coordination in public transit is especially important, because it’s a system with many moving parts: infrastructure, equipment, timetable, development. These do not accrete spontaneously, not in any society that has also invented cars; transit-oriented development in the 21st century looks different from historic development before mass motorization. Organizational capacity makes the difference between a state that grows around mass transit, like Japan or South Korea or Switzerland or Sweden or increasingly France, and one that grows around cars even when the goal is nominally transit first, as is common in the United States but also most of Southeast Asia.

So in general, better coordination means overall better public transit. But it specifically means better investment – more targeted at the right places. And this is especially visible in mainline rail, which is less self-contained than urban metro lines. The right way to plan is to get different bodies to cooperate, such as different railroads and government agencies. And then there is the wrong, American way.

Coordination versus wishlists

In theory, the United States has mechanisms to get different agencies to talk to one another. The Northeast Corridor planning process understands that the corridor has many users and owners: Amtrak, MBTA, Connecticut DOT, MTA, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, MARC. To ensure they collaborate, there are layers set on top of them, like the NEC Commission.

And yet, the NEC Commission’s plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and the people involved should not work in this field or in government again. The problem is that their idea of coordination is to ask each of the above agencies what its wishlist is, collate the responses, and staple them together.

The wishlist staple job is the opposite of coordination. Coordination means sitting down with intercity and regional rail operators, figuring out their service needs, and writing down a timetable with associated infrastructure plan that maximizes service at minimum cost. Even the accidental moves toward coordination that do exist, like the MBTA plan to complete electrification of the Providence Line and run modern EMUs rather than diesels under catenary, do not figure into the plan: Amtrak still wants a third track on the Providence Line, which such electrification obviates even if Amtrak cuts its Boston-Providence trip time in half. The third track was said to cost $400 million years ago; I do not know if it is still its budget or whether costs are higher now. One such unnecessary project at a time is what it takes to turn what should be a $15 billion project into three-figure billions.

This wishlist mentality is present whenever bad planners (e.g. all Americans) try to do something that involves more than one agency. It’s assumed that different parts of the government must constantly be at one another’s throats. Unless one agency dominates, the only solutions in this mentality are either to do a staple job, or subordinate all agencies to one new hierarchy, typically run by people who have never run transit service and do not respect those who have.

How to plan mainline rail better

Three of the legs of coordinated planning – infrastructure, rolling stock, timetable – are coordinated in an excellent way in Switzerland. (Switzerland is unfortunately too NIMBY for modern TOD.) This does not mean slavishly copying every single Swiss decision, but it does mean that it behooves planners to learn how Swiss rail planners got Europe’s best rail network on a limited (though not quite austerity) budget.

The way it should work is that everything begins from the timetable. Trains must run on the same fixed interval – typically hourly, but denser services should be planned around shorter intervals like 30 minutes or smaller divisors of the hour. This provides the base level of coordination: connections between trains at major stations are to be done at times that are compatible with this interval.

If the trip time between major stations (“Knoten”) is just a bit too long for timed connections at both ends, it means that the trains should be sped up. This is the run trains as fast as necessary maxim, beloved by many high-speed rail opponents who bring up that maxim far more often than they bring up how much rail tunneling Switzerland has built.

Everything must come based on this plan. The choice of rolling stock must be compatible. Switzerland chose bilevel EMUs, because its use case is urban stations with a surplus of platform tracks but limited platform length; the bilevel trades off higher on-train capacity per unit of train length for lower egress capacity, and in a country where the main train station has 26 tracks, the bilevel is the correct choice. Maybe in another environment it is and maybe it isn’t; in New York it is not.

The slate of infrastructure projects must likewise be based on total integration of operations and capital planning. This means being able to trace delays to their source, using data to figure out what the most problematic areas are, and fixing them. Swiss trains are not inherently punctual; delays in the 5 minute range are routine. What sets them apart is that the infrastructure has been designed, at minimum cost, to ensure that delays don’t propagate, whereas in Germany, cascading delays are more common, and the less said about the United States, the better.

Swiss integration, to be clear, operates in an environment that is highly federal, has a smattering of private railroads interoperating with SBB, is stingy about public spending, and has in most cases Western Europe’s most privatized economy. And yet there is no separation of infrastructure and operations, in contrast with the trend in Britain and the EU.

Coordination and saying no

A planning agency that has to work with operators to ensure they all collaborate has to mediate conflict in many cases. This is the origin of the wishlist mentality: by planning overly expensive systems with maximum separation between operators, conflict is avoided, at the minor cost of an order of magnitude increase in the budget.

A better way to mediate is to either propose compromises, or outright saying no. Investment that is not part of the coordinated plan is extra and infrastructure plans should not burden the taxpayers with it. If different bodies conflict, sometimes one is right and the other is wrong, and the infrastructure planners should say so; sometimes who is right and who is wrong is consistent, sometimes it isn’t. Moreover, if bodies refuse to coordinate, it’s important to be able to say no to overall plans.

All of this interfaces with previous posts on this subject. In particular, the infrastructure investment program, whether it’s a regional Verkehrsverbund or an intercity system like the NEC Commission, should consist of subject matter experts. Senior politicians should understand that those experts are paid to maximize the efficiency of an enormous infrastructure program and therefore defend their expertise against attacks.


  1. Phake Nick

    I mentioned this elsewhere too but last time when I ask HK government some issues related to bike path improvement, they literally circulated my question around a dozen different departments yet none can response to my inquiry directly. Ultimate they have the civil engineering department responding with something like, bikes are for leisure purpose and thus no data about our plan’s environmental benefits.

    • Frederick

      In the past, there was a coordinating body, the District Council. Most citizens, if they’d had some transport improvement plan in mind, would have talked to their District Councillors and asked them to deal with the pesky bureaucrats.

      After 2020, the District Council is disenfranchised and government officials no longer give a d*mn about the Councillors. Now there’s basically nobody who can stop the government’s action or inaction.

      • Phake Nick

        I would say the end of Urban Council in 1999 already ended that sort of coordination. DCers aren’t empowered to do such thing, they can only talk to different departments more directly.

  2. Max WYSS

    Actually, infrastructure and operation IS separated in Switzerland (at least for the standard gauge network). Sure, SBB Infra is under the same umbrella as operation, or Cargo, but still separated. An example showing this: There is currently an update (double-tracking) going on between Uznach and Schmerikon. The line belongs to SBB, so it is SBB Infra the responsible Infrastructure Manager. However, all train operation over that segment is by SOB.

  3. Max WYSS

    There is a bit of a risk in the Swiss approach. A schedule is then very often cast in concrete, and changes may lead to insconsitencies (such as a “hinketakt” (limping takt; or syncopated takt…), which can create issues with connections to the next finer level of service (aka local buses).

    But it is (IMHO; being a little bit biased), a cost effective way to get good service.

    Also an important aspect is that Switzerland has some formalised planning legislation (“Raumplanungsgesetz”), which forces all political entity levels to think of how they plan to grow (or not), and where. This provides some security in the way population grows, and thus the coming demands. Part of that is also a mid-term (10 to 15 years) plans for development of transit.

    • Henry Miller

      True, if you are building around a schedule then you better make sure the schedule will work for the most possible growth over the next 30 years. When doing marginal service: 2-3 trains per hour I lean to scheduling 3 with forced stops every 20 minutes (sometimes a town of 500 people gets a station because they are where I need to stop for trains to pass anyway, while larger towns get skipped and other city gets service on one edge and not downtown). I figure the additional people the extra train per hour draws will pay for the cost of the extra train, and now I can be sure that the schedule is good for the next 30 years at least and so I can get a return on investment.

      Once you are beyond marginal service though it doesn’t matter. At 4 trains per hour you are busy enough to run two tracks the whole way and now your stations can be placed where it makes sense. When you have two tracks you can change schedules at will. With a few switches you can add infill stations that get skip service. You can even remove a bad station from service (though if it comes down to this you really messed up planning)

      In short marginal service demands great coordination. The less marginal your proposed lines the more it can stand on its own with poor planning. (Can – not should)

  4. Max WYSS

    The NEC Commission could be a very good anchor point for an Infrastructure Manager for the NEC. Condition would be that it does act similar to an Infrastructure Manager in Europe, together with an independent organ to ensure non-discriminatory access to the operators.

    This would imply to separate Amtrak (the Train Operator) from Amtrak (the Infrastructure Manager). But it could make the NEC more efficient, and (hopefully) way more cost efficient. In such a scenario, buzzwords like “SOGR” would not exist, as the new Infrastructure Manager would be big enough to be able to afford the right tools (to be acquired, for example from Matisa or Plasser&Theurer), and use them properly. Replacing every third sleeper would be a thing of the past…

    This would also force the Train Operators to make up their mind about what they want and need, and it would become the new Infrastructure Manager’s task to moderate and (if needed) to adjust accordingly. That would mean long-term planning by everyone, but that should really be nothing too difficult to achieve… It would, however, eliminate vanity projects (and that’s a good thing…).

  5. adirondacker12800

    in New York it is not.
    NJTransit multilevels get roughly 25 percent more passengers through the tunnel under the Hudson in the same length of train. Getting on or off the train isn’t the problem at Penn Station New York. It’s getting on or off the platform.

  6. Henry Miller

    I’ve been watching a suburb go in next to my house. With all the dirt work they are doing a little coordination would give the entire suburb a subway, complete with underground entrances from each house. Sewer, water, electric, gas, phone, tv, and internet: Could all run in the entrance tunnel, and the subway would also have the storm drains running in it. Just to get the storm drains in they dug out wide enough for a 4 track subway plus all of the above (most of this was space filled, but space had to be made for workers to put the pipes in so they dug a lot more dirt than the pipes needed.

    Most of the development wasn’t dig that deep, but still if there was a plan the developers could have left the tunnels for the future subway at very little additional cost. However it needs a plan: this potential subway wouldn’t be worth anything because the next development wouldn’t connect to it as the developers design things

  7. adirondacker12800

    connections between trains at major stations are to be done at times that are compatible with this interval.

    I’ll bite. To keep things simple the LIRR has ten branches and NJTransit has ten branches. How do you get all ten of them into Penn Station at the same time?

    Apparently the overnight schedules for the New York City subway D/N/Q/R trains are arranged to have timed transfers at DeKalb Avenue. Time that one you can’t time other ones, other places in the system.

    This may work when it’s a red line and blue line trying to coordinate with a green line and orange line. Not so much when you want to do a lot of trains on two tracks. Or a line that has transfers in more than one place. Pesky complexity.

    • Andy Gilbert

      You hire people who know how to use timetabling software…this is a solved problem that is done at scale in basically every other developed megacity other than NYC.

      • adirondacker12800

        If the express from Suffern gets in at :00 and the local to Port Washington leaves at :05 the local to Hicksville, Long Beach, Bablyon, Oyster Bay and express to Ronkonkama can’t also be leaving. If the express from Suffern gets in at :00 the local from Montclair can’t arrive simultaneously. It gets in at :03 which misses the change to the Port Washington local. If you want every 20 minutes from each of the branches, you can’t do that on two tracks you need four.

        • Henry Miller

          True, eventually you need more tracks. However start with operations and plan them out. You don’t need nearly as much track if you plan out the timetable before you start pouring concrete.

          Of course demand is a factor. If you want to run each branch at 30 TPH then you need dedicated tracks for each branch. It would be nice to have this problem, but if you do you won’t have a problem paying for the track (most underground or elevated). Well you won’t in most of the world, NYC with their love to spending far more than needed may have a problem.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Ok so for LIRR I’d make long beach, far Rockaway and the two Hempstead branches into branch lines than terminate at the main line. I’d close forest hills, Kew Gardens and Notstand avenue and improve east New York so it links to broadway junction with a travelator.

            Then make 1/3 of the trains go to each of the three remaining northern lines go through to penn terminal and make the two southern lines go through to Atlantic terminal. And make every other train stop at east New York and Woodside.

            In terms of expresses I’m not sure – but that would give each branch a reasonable base frequency.

          • adirondacker12800

            Neither of you understand the scale. During rush hours, they are running more than 30 trains an hour between Penn Station and Woodside now. A few branch off to Port Washington and the rest go to Jamaica. So many people who don’t need to stop in Queens that a few of the trains at the peak of peak hours don’t stop at Jamaica. Which frees up space at the Spanish Solution track so people can transfer between three trains. When East Side Access opens and trains start going to Grand Central they are predicting that someday there will be 30 trains an hour to Penn Station and 20 trains an hour to Grand Central. There won’t be trains to Brooklyn anymore. People will change at Jamaica to the separate platform and tracks for Brooklyn. You don’t understand the scale.

          • Eric2

            LIRR has 4 tracks to Penn Station. 30+ tph is easily handled on 4 tracks.

            Admittedly there are only 2 tracks from Penn Station to Manhattan, but 1) they are working on adding 2 more tracks, 2) in the meantime half the trains can continue to NJ and half terminate in the West Side Yard.

          • Tiercelet

            @Eric2 “from Penn Station to Manhattan” — not clear what you mean here; do you mean to NJ? Tracks from NYP to NJ and elsewhere wouldn’t be LIRR, though, right?

          • adirondacker12800

            They are proposing 30 an hour for the LIRR, 6 an hour for Metro North, a few for Amtrak. There isn’t any third rail in New Jersey that LIRR trains can use.

          • Matthew Hutton

            If you are doing 30tph why do you need a timed connection at Jamaica?

          • Henry

            The timed transfers at Jamaica are currently for zero-cost platform transfer for Atlantic passengers, because Atlantic is quite the inconvenient terminal. And I do think some of those trains actually skip Jamaica. (Some of them don’t go anywhere near Jamaica, like the ones on the Port Washington Branch.)

            That being said, I am pretty sure they’re tossing that out when East Side Access comes online, eventually.

          • adirondacker12800

            They built an island platform, at Jamaica, for Brooklyn. It will keep the Brooklyn trains out of the way of the Penn Station or Grand Central trains.

    • fjod

      High-frequency urban/suburban rail isn’t the prime use case for timed connections (and the relevant major station in this case anyway would be Jamaica). If you’re trying to sweat as much capacity out of your suburb-to-centre line then you’re obviously going to have to just whack as many trains on the line with as short an interval as possible.

      • adirondacker12800

        It already is high frequency. They’ve been timing connections at Jamaica since 1913. Between three trains at a time. If you are lucky enough to be traveling between the three terminals and the three branches those trains serve. Otherwise you have to wait. And timed transfer out in Nassau County.

          • adirondacker12800

            Everybody else seems fascinated by the concept of timed transfers. Even though someday, during the peak, there will be a train every three-ish minutes to/from Grand Central and a train every two-ish to/from Penn Station. And there will still be multiple branches. Timed transfers with what? And why do normal people care if it’s every three minutes?

          • Eric2

            “Everybody else” is fascinated by the concept of timed transfers for low-frequency lines. You’re complaining that timed transfers are impossible on high-frequency lines, which is true but a pointless non sequitor.

          • Matthew Hutton

            To be fair they do have timed connections in London at Finchley Road for example between the jubilee line and metropolitan line but if one line is late they are late and the connection doesn’t happen.

          • fjod

            Yes they do this at Van der Madeweg on the Amsterdam metro too (3 lines, each on a 10-min frequency, two timed to arrive simultaneously) which I used to use a lot when I lived round there. Due to interlining it theoretically means that no journey through the station should experience a transfer penalty, which is nice. When it worked it was very convenient; when it didn’t it was infuriating! Unfortunately GVB’s insistence on randomly substituting 2-car light rail vehicles for 6-car metro trains meant that it often failed in the morning peak when you needed it most.

          • Eric2

            Vienna also has a metro timed transfer at Langenfeldgasse. Metro timed transfers exist, but they are a niche feature. Metros function great without them.

          • Frederick

            Timed transfer is needed when the headway is 10 minutes or longer. Metro as infrastructure or operation paradigm only makes sense with a headway of 10 minutes or shorter. 10 minutes is the limit.

      • adirondacker12800

        I don’t know, You are the one who is worried about someplace where a train toddles through twice an hour and another one wheezes in once an hour. Even there, in this universe anyway, there can only be one train on a track at time.

        • Matthew Hutton

          I mean, say Oxford railway station in England pre Covid had 8 trains per hour in 4 pairs of two trains and had more passengers per year than the Atlantic terminal for the LIRR (I’m assuming the LIRR passenger counts on Wikipedia are daily passengers). So it might make sense for Oxford station to have timed connections between its different services.

          • adirondacker12800

            Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn is a terminal. I would hazard a guess that not many people are expecting to change between LIRR trains there. I’m sure people connect between the subway and the LIRR there. Should they time it to meet the 2,3,4,5,B,D,N, Q or the R train? Or the A,C,J/Z or L at East New York? It does present a quandary because during rush hour some of the subway trains are local and some of them are express. Even more fun when you consider that the Brighton Local is a Sixth Avenue train and the Brighton Express is a Broadway train. Etc.

  8. Simon

    In which sense is Switzerland not doing modern TOD? Did you ever check the dense development 300m around every suburban train station (e.g. Altstetten, Oerlikon, Baden)? Sorry, but that’s nothing you find in Berlin.
    (and dense by Swiss standards, by which I mean two rows of 10+ store buildings)

  9. Pingback: Doing Less More With Less – Sustaining Capabilities
  10. Oreg

    I’m surprised by two statements about Switzerland:
    * “Swiss trains are not inherently punctual; delays in the 5 minute range are routine.” — Really? In my experience, a delay of more than 1 or 2 minutes is very rare – except for trains arriving from abroad. According to the SBB, more than 90% of their trains arrive with less than 3 minutes delay and around 99% of connections are met.
    * “Western Europe’s most privatized economy.” — How? Even the national telco and post are still owned by the government (majority and fully, respectively)! Same with the grid and utilities (the latter on a canton level).

    Also worth noting in this context:
    * Markets within Switzerland are not very competitive with many de facto monopolies.
    * Businesses and politics are often chummy with each other.

    • Alon Levy

      I’ve seen domestic train delays in Switzerland, but only one was big. And re privatization, it has the second highest private-sector share of health spending in the democratic first world, after the US.

      • Oreg

        According to the statistics, the delay you experienced is clearly an outlier.

        The healthcare market with all its complexity and misaligned incentives is not a good gauge for the privatization level of a country. Switzerland must be towards the bottom of the privatization table of Western countries. In addition to what I mentioned above, Swiss Post and Swisscom have branched out into IT services, there are state insurers (accident, buildings), cantons have banks of their own (Kantonalbanken) and even a large weapons manufacturer (RUAG) is still owned by the government. Other countries like France, Spain or the UK even privatized their water supply (foolishly). Not Switzerland.

        Switzerland is schizophrenic. On the international stage they are cut-throat capitalist, not shying away from beggar-thy-neighbor policies, but domestically they are anti-competitive to an almost socialist degree. Anti-competitive agreements were legal before they got their first competition law only in 1995. Enforcement, however, is weak.

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