A regrettable feature of rail transport is that often, the speed of a line deteriorates over time after it opens or finishes a major upgrade. This can come from deferred maintenance or from proper maintenance that includes stricter speed limits or more timetable padding; in either case, it’s because maintaining the original schedule is not seen as a priority, and thus over time service degrades. In some cases, this can also include a deterioration of frequency over time, usually due to inattention.
This is not excusable behavior. The networks where this feature exists, including the US, France, and Germany, are not better-run than the Shinkansen, where I have not seen any such deterioration of Shinkansen speed in many years of poking around timetables on Hyperdia, or the system in Switzerland. Switzerland’s timed transfers make it impossible for gradual deterioration of speed to accumulate – trains are scheduled to just make connections to other trains at major nodes, and so if they slow down too much then they can’t make the transfers and the entire network degrades.
I wish I could say degradation is a purely American phenomenon. It’s very common in the United States, certainly – on the subway in New York the deterioration made citywide news in 2017 (including one piece by me), on the trains between New York and New Haven the schedule is visibly slower now than it was in the late 2000s, on Amtrak the Northeast Corridor has degraded since the 2000s. Speed is not viewed as a priority in the US, and so there are always little excuses that add up, whether they’re flagging, the never ending State of Good Repair program on the New Haven Line under which at no point in the last 20-25 years have all four tracks been in service at the same time, or just inattention to reliability.
But no. France and Germany have had this as well. The TGV used to run between Paris and Marseille in 3:03 every two hours and in 3:06 every other hour; today I see a 3:04 itinerary every four hours and the rest start at 3:11. And here, the Berlin-Hamburg trains were timetabled at 1:30 in the mid-2000s, giving an average speed of 189 km/h, the highest in Germany even though the top speed is only 230 and not 300; the fastest itinerary I can find right now is 1:43, averaging only 165 km/h.
I stress that such deterioration does not have any benefits. It’s an illusory tradeoff. When New York chose to slow down the L trains’ braking rate as part of CBTC installation, this was not seen in reduced systemwide maintenance costs; speed just wasn’t a priority, so the brakes were derated. The 7 train, as I understand it, will instead speed up when CBTC comes online, a decision made under Andy Byford’s program to speed up service.
Nor has France saved anything out of the incremental slowdowns in TGV service. Operating costs are up, not down. The savings from slowdowns are on the illusory to microscopic spectrum, always trumped by increases in cost from other sources, for example the large increases in wages in the 2010s due to the cheminot strikes.
By far the greatest cost of speed is during construction. During operations, faster service means lower crew costs per km. This is where the Swiss maxim of running trains as fast as necessary comes from. This isn’t about derating trains’ acceleration – on the contrary, Switzerland procures high-performance trains. It’s about building the least amount of physical infrastructure required to maintain a desired timetable, and once the infrastructure is built, running that timetable.
I’ve written five pieces about national and transnational traditions of building urban rail: US, Soviet bloc, UK, France, Germany. I’m about to continue this series with a post about Japan, but yesterday I made a video on Twitch jumping ahead to different national traditions of high-speed rail. The video recording cut two thirds of the way through due to error on my part, so in lieu of an upload, I’m writing it up as a blog post. The traditions to cover are those of Japan, France, Germany, and China; those are the world’s four busiest networks, and the other high-speed rail networks display influences from the first three of those.
The briefest description is that the Shinkansen is treated like a long-range subway, the TGV like an airplane at flight level zero, and the ICE like a regional rail (and not S-Bahn) network. China doesn’t quite fit any of these modes but has aspects of all three, some good, some not.
But this description must be considerably nuanced. For example, one would expect that airplane-like trains would have security theater and a requirement for early arrival. But the TGV has neither; until recently, platforms were completely open, and only recently has SNCF begun gating them, not for security but for ticket checks, with automatic gates and QR codes. Likewise, until recently passengers could get to the train station 2-3 minutes before the train’s departure and get on, and only now is SNCF requiring passengers to show up as long as 5 minutes early.
|Influenced||Korea, Taiwan||Spain, Italy, Belgium, Morocco||Northern Europe||—|
|Egress||Very fast||Very slow||Medium||Fast|
|Integration with slow trains||Medium||Poor||Good||Poor|
|Average speed (major cities)||High||High, except Belgium||Mixed high, low||Very high|
|Security theater||No||Only in Spain||No||Yes|
|Platform access control||Yes||Increasingly yes||No||Yes|
|Major city stations||Central||Historic, Paris has 4||Central||Outlying|
|Minor city stations||Mixed||Outlying, “beet fields”||Usually legacy||Usually outlying|
|Grades||1.5-2%||3.5%||1.25%, max 4%||1.5-2%|
|Construction costs||High||Low or medium||Medium||High|
For more detailed data on costs and tunnel and viaduct percentage, consult our high-speed rail cost database.
The Shinkansen as a subway
The Shinkansen network has very little branching. Currently there is none south of Tokyo; a short branch to Nagasaki is in planning but will not open anytime soon. To the north, there is more branching, and the Yamagata and Akita Mini-Shinkansen lines, the only legacy lines with Shinkansen through-service, split trains, with one part of the train continuing onward to Shin-Aomori and Hokkaido and another part splitting off to Yamagata or Akita.
Going south of Tokyo, the off-peak frequency to Shin-Osaka is four express Nozomi trains an hour, at :00, :09, :30, :51 off-peak; two semi-express Hikari, at :03, :33; and one local Kodama, at :57. The 21-minute gaps are ugly, but on a train that takes around 2.5 hours to get to Shin-Osaka, they’re not too onerous. Thus, there is a culture of going to the train station without pre-booking a ticket and just getting on the next Nozomi. The ticketing system reinforces this: there is no dynamic yield management, but instead fixed ticket prices between pairs of station depending on seat class. What yield management there is is static: the Nozomi has a small surcharge, to justify excluding it from the JR Rail Pass and so shunt tourists to the Hikari.
This is not literally the headway-management system seen on some unbranched subway systems, like the Moscow Metro and Paris Métro; Moscow keeps time by distance from the preceding train, and not by a fixed schedule. But this is fine: some subway systems are timetabled, like the U-Bahn in Berlin and the Tokyo subway. Tokyo even manages to mix local and express trains on some two-track subway lines with timed overtakes. To the scheduler, the fixed timetable is of paramount importance. But to the passenger, it isn’t – people don’t time themselves to a specific train.
Another subway-like characteristic includes interior layout, designed around fast egress. Shinkansen cars have two door pairs each and platforms are 1,250 mm high with level boarding, enabling 1 minute dwell times even at very busy stations like Shin-Osaka. Trains make multiple stops in the Tokyo and Osaka regions, and even Nozomi and equivalent fastest-train classes on other lines stop there, to distribute loads. There is no cafe car, and luggage is overhead, to maximize train seating space: a 25 meter car has 18-20 seating rows with 1-meter pitch, which is greater efficiency than is typical in Europe.
Station location decisions, finally, are designed as far as practical to be in city centers. Stations with Shin- before their names are new stations, like Shin-Osaka and Shin-Yokohama, but they tend to be sited close to city centers, at intersections with subway and commuter rail lines.
The main drawback of Japan is that the construction costs are very high. This comes from a political decision to build elevated lines rather than at-grade liens with earthworks, as is common in Europe. This preponderance of els has been exported to South Korea, Taiwan, and China, all of which have high costs relative to the tunneling proportion; the KTX, essentially a Shinkansen adapted to an environment in which the legacy trains are standard-gauge too, is notable for having low tunneling costs, as is common in Korea, but high costs on lines with moderate amounts of tunneling thanks to the high share of construction on bridges.
East Asia has high population density, which lets it get away with high costs since the ridership is high enough to compensate – THSR is at this point returning around 4% on very high costs. But in any other environment, this leads to severe problems. China, with lower incomes and fares than in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, already has trouble paying interest on lines other than the Beijing-Shanghai system. India, building a turnkey Shinkansen as recommended by Japanese consultants, who were burned by Taiwan’s mix of European and Japanese technology on an operationally-Japanese system, is spending enormous sums of money: the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is around PPP$50.6 billion, for 508 km, $100 million/km on a line that’s only 5% in tunnel and even those tunnels could have been avoided by running on broad gauge and using existing a widened legacy right-of-way in Mumbai.
The TGV as flight-level zero air travel
As detailed in New Departures by Anthony Perl, the history of the TGV differs from that of the Shinkansen in a key aspect: the TGV was built after the postwar decline of rail travel (as was the ICE), whereas the Shinkansen was built before it (as was to some extent CRH). The Shinkansen was built in 1959-64: there was no decline in rail evident yet, with only 12 cars/1,000 people in Tokyo in 1960, and the system was designed to deal with growing ridership. In contrast, the TGV was planned after the 1973 oil crisis, in a then-wealthier and more motorized country than Japan, aiming to woo passengers back to the train from the car and the plane.
Previously, SNCF had been engaging in experiments with high speed and high-voltage electrification, inventing 25 kV 50 Hz electrification in the process, which would be adopted by the Shinkansen and become the global standard for new electrification. It also experimented with running quickly on ballasted track – without modifications, the trains of that era kicked ballast up at high speed, there was so much air resistance. But investment had gone to legacy intercity rail, driving up the average speed of the electrified Mistral to 130 km/h and the Aquitaine to 145 km/h. Nonetheless, competition with air was fierce and air shuttles in that era before security theater attracted many people in competition with four-hour trains from Paris to Lyon and Bordeaux.
The TGV’s real origin is then 1973. The crisis shocked the entire non-oil-exporting world, leading to permanently reduced growth not just in rich countries (by then including Japan) but also non-oil-exporting developing countries, setting up the sequence of slow growth under import substitution and then the transition to neoliberalism. France reacted to the crisis with the slogan “in France, we have ideas,” setting up the nuclearization of French electricity in the 1980s, reduced taxes on diesel to encourage what was then viewed as surplus fuel rather than as a deadly pollutant, and the construction of the electric TGV.
Despite the ongoing growth of the Shinkansen then, there was extensive skepticism of the TGV in the 1970s and early 80s. The state refused to finance it, requiring SNCF to borrow on international markets. The LGV Sud-Est employed cost-cutting techniques including 3.5% grades and high superelevation to avoid tunnels, at-grade construction with cut and fill balancing out to avoid surplus dirt, and land swaps for farms that would be split by the line to avoid needing to build passageways.
Construction costs were only 5.5M€/km in 2021 euros. Unfortunately, costs have risen since and stand at 20M€/km, or even higher on Bordeaux-Toulouse. But the LGV network remains among the least tunneled in the world thanks to the use of high grades; in our database the only less tunneled network, that of Morocco, is a turnkey TGV, built at unusually low cost.
As in Japan, the line was built between the two largest cities: Paris and Lyon. Also as in Japan, Lyon could not be served at the historic center of Perrache, but instead at a near-center location, Part-Dieu, which then became the new central business district, as the LGV Sud-Est was built concurrently with the Lyon Metro and nearby skyscrapers, as is typical for a European city wishing to avoid skyscrapers in historic centers. But everything else was different. There were no real intermediate stops the way that the express Shinkansen have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto: the LGV Sud-Est skipped Dijon, which instead was served on a branch, and the two intermediate stops on the line, Le Creusot and Mâcon-Loché, are on the outskirts of minor towns and only see a few trains per day each.
Moreover, relying on France’s use of standard-gauge, there was, from the start, extensive through-service beyond Lyon, toward Marseille, Geneva, Saint-Etienne, and Grenoble. Frequency was for the most part low, measured in trains per day. There was little investment in regional rail outside the capital, unlike in Germany, and therefore there was never any attempt to time the connections from Saint-Etienne and Grenoble to the TGV at Part-Dieu.
At the other end, Paris did not build a central station, unlike German or Japanese cities. The time for such a station was, frustratingly, just a few years before work began on the TGV in earnest: RATP was building the RER starting in the 1960s and early 70s, including a central station at Les Halles, which opened 1977. But this was designed purely for urban and suburban use, and the TGV stayed on the surface. The last opportunity for a Paris central station was gone when SNCF extended the RER D from Gare de Lyon to Les Halles. Thus Paris has four distinct TGV stations – Lyon, Montparnasse, Nord, and Est – with poor connections between them.
This turned the TGV into a point-to-point system. Were there a central station, trains could have gone Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille. But there wasn’t, and so for Lille-Lyon service, SNCF built the Interconnexion Est, bypassing Paris and also serving Disneyland and Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. When the LGV Atlantique opened, Tours kept its historic terminal, and thus trains went either Paris-Tours or Paris-Bordeaux bypassing Tours. When the LGV Sud-Est was extended south with the LGVs Rhône-Alpes and Méditerranée, trains did not go via Part-Dieu, even though it had always been configured as a through-station for points south, but rather via a bypass serving Lyon’s airport; trains today go Paris-Lyon, Paris-Marseille, or at lower frequency Lyon-Marseille, but not Paris-Lyon-Marseille.
Of note, Japan’s subway-like characteristic is partly the outcome of its linear geography along the Taiheiyo Belt, making it an ideal comparison also for the Northeast Corridor in the United States. But Lille, Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, and yet the service plans do not make use of that geography. There is no planning around seat turnover: if a train makes an intermediate stop, it’s one with very low ridership, like Mâcon, with no attempt to have seats occupied by Paris-Lyon passengers and then by Lyon-Marseille ones.
Over time, this led to a creeping airline-ization of the TGV. Airline-style dynamic yield management was introduced, I believe in the 1990s. This was after SNCF had spent the 1980s marketing the TGV as 260 km/h for the same fare as 160 km/h; the overall fares on legacy intercity trains and TGVs are similar per p-km, but TGVs have opaque pricing, and are designed to maximize fares out of Paris-Lyon in particular, where air competition vanished. The executives at SNCF are increasingly drawn from the airline world, and, perhaps out of social memory of the navettes competing with 4-hour trains in the 1970s, they think that trains cannot compete with air travel if they take longer than 3-3.5 hours, even though they do successfully on such city pairs as Paris-Toulon.
Having skipped Germany’s InterCity revolution and its refinements in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, the TGV network has stagnated in the last decade. Ridership is up since the pre-Great Recession peak but barely, only by around 10%. The frequency is too weak for inter-provincial links, where people mostly drive, and in the 1990s and 2000s the TGV network grew to dominate the Paris-province market; there isn’t much of a remaining market for the current operating paradigm to grow into.
While some regional links are adopting takt timetables, for example some of the Provence TERs, SNCF management has done no such thing. Instead, it has spent the last 15 years pursuing airline strategies, including imitation of low-cost airlines, first iDTGV and then OuiGo. A generalist elites of business analysts believes in market segmentation and price discrimination, which do not work on a mode of travel where a frequent, flexible timetable is so paramount.
Among the countries influenced by France, Spain is notable for realizing that it has a problem with operations. In an interview with Roger Senserrich, ADIF head Isabel Pardo de Vera spoke positively of Spain’s efficient engineering and construction, but centered ADIF and RENFE’s problems, including the poor operations. Like Italy and Belgium, and more recently Morocco, Spain learned the concept of high-speed rail from France; also like Italy and Belgium, it mixed in a few German elements, which in the 1980s meant Germany’s more advanced LZB signaling, but at the time, there was no Switzerland-wide takt yet, and the inferiority of French operations and scheduling was not yet evident. But Spain self-flagellates – this is how it learns – whereas France is just a hair too rich to recognize its weaknesses and far too proud for its elite to Germanize where needed.
The ICE as long-distance regional rail
Germany came into the 1960s with some of the most advanced legacy rail in the world, with technology that would be adopted as a Shinkansen standard. This goes back to the 1920s, when Deutsche Reichsbahn was formed from the merger of the state-level railways in the wake of the post-WW1 German Revolution. The new railway regulation, dating to 1925, promoted new kinds of engineering now completely standard, such as the tangential switch. DRB would also experiment with 200 km/h diesel express trains in the 1930s. Even in the 1960s and early 70s, when the most advanced rail tech was clearly in Japan, Deutsche Bundesbahn kept up with rail tech, much like SNCF, inventing LZB signals.
But unlike Japan and France, Germany never built a complete high-speed rail network. The InterCity network, dating to 1971, was designed around fast legacy trains, at slightly lower speeds than available on the express French legacy trains. The key was that city pairs would be served every two hours, with timed connections at intermediate points boosting many to hourly. This was from the start based on a regular takt and turnover, with more expansive service to smaller cities.
High-speed lines in Germany were delayed, and often built on weird alignments. The most important reason is that in the formative period, from 1971 to 1990, there was no such country as Germany. The country was called West Germany, and, much like Japan, had a fairly linear population distribution from the Ruhr upriver to Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and finally either Karlsruhe or Stuttgart and Munich; but the largest city proper, Hamburg, lay outside this corridor.
The north-south orientation of West Germany contrasted with the rail network it inherited. Until the post-WW1 German Revolution, the rail networks were run by the states, not by the German Empire, and thus interstate connections were underbuilt. Prussia had an east-west orientation, and therefore north-south lines were relatively underbuilt (see for example the 1896 map), and to top it off most north-south routes crossed the Iron Curtain.
To solve many problems at once, but not to solve any of them well, Germany’s first high-speed line connected Hanover, Göttingen, Kassel, Fulda, and Würzburg. Getting to more substantial cities like Hamburg and Frankfurt requires onward through-service at lower speed. The LGV Sud-Est had a minimum curve radius of 3.2 km, and usually 4 km, and can squeeze 300 km/h out of it now, without any tunnels; the Hanover-Würzburg line has a minimum radius of 5.1 km and a maximum grade of 1.25% and is limited to 280 km/h (service runs at 250 km/h), as it was built as a mixed freight-passenger line.
Subsequent lines have, like Hanover-Würzburg, not been complete connections between major cities. Here the difference with France, Italy, South Korea, and China is evident. All are standard-gauge countries, like Germany, and all employ through-service to various degrees. But France opened a complete Paris-Lyon high-speed line in 1981-3, and only the last 30 km into Paris were on legacy trains (since reduced to 8 km with the Interconnexion Est), and likewise Italian, Chinese, and Korean high-speed lines connect major cities all the way. In contrast, this never happens in Germany at longer distance than Cologne-Frankfurt, a 180 km connection. There are always low- or medium-speed segments in between. The maximum average speed between major cities in Germany is either Cologne-Frankfurt or Berlin-Hamburg, a 230 km/h line with tilting trains, both averaging around 180 km/h; the Tokaido Shinkansen, with legacy 2.5 km curves, squeezes 210 km/h out of the Nozomi, and LGVs routinely average 230-250 km/h between Paris and major secondary cities.
Nor are the lower speeds in Germany saving money. The mixed passenger/freight lines have heavier tunneling than they would need if they had 3.5-4% grades. Hanover-Würzburg cost 36M€/km in 2021 euros thanks to its 37% tunneled alignment. German construction costs are not high relative to the tunneling percentage, unlike Chinese or Taiwanese costs, let alone British ones, but the tunneling percentage is in many cases unnecessarily high. This is thankfully not exported to every Northern European country that learned from the InterCity, but the Netherlands, as NIMBY-ridden as Germany, built an unnecessary tunnel on the HSL Zuid and had very high costs even taking that into account; Italy, with an otherwise-French system, likewise overbuilds, as pointed out by Beria-Albalate-Grimaldi-Bel, with viaducts designed to carry heavy freight trains even where there is no such demand.
So the bad in Germany is that the lines have very shallow grades, forcing heavy tunneling, and the costs are so high that the system is not complete. Is there good? Yes!
The InterCity system’s focus on high frequency enables decent service between major cities. Berlin-Munich trains, compromised by the Erfurt detour and subsequent descoping of much of the line, do the trip in 4.5 hours where they should be taking 3 and even 2.5 hours. But it’s not the same as the 4 hours of the pre-TGV Mistral to Lyon or Aquitaine to Bordeaux, the latter of which averaged the same speed as most Berlin-Munich trains today. The Aquitaine ran as a single daily Bordeaux-Paris-Bordeaux round-trip, and another train, branded the Etendard, ran the same route daily but Paris-Bordeaux-Paris. In contrast, DB today connects Berlin-Munich roughly every hour. It’s far more flexible, and the connections to other intercity trains are better.
And just as the TGV’s inexpensive construction has been perfected in Spain while France has slouched on cost control, so has the interconnected system of Germany been perfected on the margins of its sphere of influence, especially in Switzerland. Swiss connections are never fast: the country is too small for 300 km/h trains to make large differences in door-to-door trip times. The average speed on the workhorse Swiss lines connecting the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle is around 110-120 km/h. But they run on a half-hourly takt, and other lines run on an hourly takt, and connections at the major cities are timed. European urbanism has a long tail of small cities, unlike American or Asian urbanism, and the Swiss takt connections those small cities to one another through regular timed transfers, with investments to prioritize punctuality.
This leads to a false belief among German rail advocates in a tradeoff between French or Spanish speed and Swiss or Dutch or Austrian connectivity. The latter set of countries have higher rail ridership per capita, and even Germany has recently overtaken France’s intercity rail ridership (though not yet per capita), and thus activists in Germany think investing in high speed is a waste. But what is actually happening is that the countries of Europe that look up to France have built high-speed rail, and the countries that look down on France have not; the Netherlands has HSL Zuid but it’s peripheral to the national network and its system is otherwise rather Swiss. Germany absolutely can and should complete its network. It just needs to understand that in certain aspects, countries it is used to stereotyping as spendthrift have done a more prudent job than it has.
Already, the younger rail advocates I meet, like Felix Thoma, seem interesting in applying the Deutschlandtakt concept to a high-speed rail network, rather than to a medium-speed one as the previous generations called for. But Germany is a NIMBY country. NIMBYs blocked French levels of energy nuclearization in the 1970s and 80s, creating the last generation’s Green Party (current leader, Annalena Baerbock, is 40 and came of age after those fights); NIMBYs sue projects they dislike on frivolous grounds until the politicians lose interest, much as in the US with its government-by-lawsuit, and thus high-speed rail on the Hamburg-Hanover line has been stuck in limbo for a generation.
Besides the political deference to NIMBYs, who as in the US are not as powerful as either they or the state thinks, the main problem then is unwillingness to merge French and German planning insights where they work. I might also add Japanese insights – the Shinkansen is far more efficient with platforms than any European railroad – but they’re less important here or in France than in the UK, which is a ridiculously high-cost version of French planning.
China as a mixture of all modes, some good, some awful
When I started planning this video and now post, I was puzzling over where to slot China. Other systems seemed fairly easy to slot as Japanese, German, or French, with the occasional special feature (insanely high UK costs, HSL Zuid in an otherwise Swiss intercity takt system, Korean standard-gauge adaptations). But China is its own thing. It makes sense: on the eve of corona, China had 2.3 billion annual high-speed rail riders, comfortably more than than the rest of the world put together; Japan, the second busiest network, had 436 million. In Europe, only France has more high-speed rail ridership per capita, by the smallest of margins.
Historically, the system should be viewed as having borrowed liberally from other systems in richer countries that built out their networks earlier. Among the three prior traditions, the one most similar to what CRH has converged on is the Shinkansen, and yet there is significant enough divergence I would not class CRH as a direct Shinkansen influence the way I do the KTX and THSR. This also mirrors the situation for rapid transit: China displays clear Soviet influences but has diverged sufficiently that it must be viewed as a separate tradition now.
The most important feature is that CRH evolved on the cusp of the decline of rail in favor of cars and planes, a decline that has been more complete in Western countries. In the 1980s and early 90s, China was already growing very quickly; this was from a very low base, so it was not noticed in richer countries, but it was enough that there were already motorization and domestic air travel competing with China Railway. This led to a multi-phase speed-up campaign, announced in 1993 and implemented from 1997 to 2007.
At this point, construction was on legacy alignments to legacy stations. In the North China Plain, the railroads were straight thanks to the flat topography, and so what was needed was investment in the quality of the physical plant – the sort of investments figured out in midcentury France and Germany, adapted by the Shinkansen. This was not trivial, not in a then-low-income country like China, but it was not enormously expensive either. At the same time, there was growing electrification in China, using 25 kV 50 Hz, leading to higher and higher train classes, all charging premium fares over the third-world tickets for traditional trains. At the apex was the D class, covering 200 km/h EMUs; the one time I rode a train in China, a day trip from Shanghai to Jiaxing and back in 2009, the way back was on a D class train, which had the comfort level and speed of the Northeast Corridor, topping at 170 km/h and averaging maybe 110. This investment has continued, and as of 2019, 72% of the network is electrified.
But China was already looking for more. In 2008, the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed line opened, as the world’s first 350 km/h line. In the financial crisis’s aftermath, China rapidly built out the network as fiscal stimulus, and by 2011, ridership overtook the Shinkansen’s as the world’s largest. Without legacy considerations, the system is built for 380 km/h, even though trains run at 350 km/h, and express trains average 280-290 km/h.
Like the United States and unlike Japan or most of Western Europe, China has an extensive freight rail network. Its approach is the opposite of Germany’s: high-speed lines are dedicated to passengers, and some are officially called passenger-dedicated lines, or PDLs, to make this clear. Freight trains go on the legacy network. Regional rail in China is very weak; the few lines that exist are new-builds, rather like long-range subways, and frequency is often lacking, the Beijing lines branded as S-Bahn barely running off-peak. With nearly all intercity rail having moved over to CRH, the legacy network is relatively free for freight use, even coal trains, which are slow and care little for reliability improvements for higher-end intermodal cargo.
However, the passenger-only characteristic of CRH’s system does not mean it’s employed French cost-cutting techniques. Rather, lines run almost exclusively on viaducts and have shallow grades, raising construction costs as in the rest of East Asia. Stations are newly-built at high expense: Beijing South cost 7 billion yuan, which in today’s PPP dollars is around $3 billion. There are many tracks and no economization with fast turnarounds as in Japan, and station layouts are comparable to airports, with some security theater.
Beijing South is at least just outside the Second Ring Road. Other stations are farther out. This is not just the beet field stations that characterize TGV service to small cities like Amiens or Metz, but also outlying stations in major centers. Shanghai Station only sees high-speed trains on the local line to Nanjing, providing a dedicated track pair equivalent to Kodama service while Nozomi-equivalent trains continue on to Beijing on their own tracks. The trains to Beijing get a separate Shanghai station, Hongqiao, colocated with the city’s domestic airport. The connecting subways tend to be better than at true beet field stations in France, which miss regional rail connections, but those stations are still well outside city center.
China is moreover exporting the bad more than the good. Chinese-funded projects in Africa are not fast – the average speeds are perhaps midway through China’s speed-up campaign, predating CRH. But they do have oversize, airport-like stations located well outside city centers. This happens even when right-of-way to enter city center exists, as in Nairobi.
On mixing and matching
Understanding these four distinct traditions is important for high-speed rail planning, in those four countries as well as elsewhere, such as in the UK and US. It’s important to understand the tradeoffs that these traditions made, and drawbacks that are not so much tradeoffs as things that didn’t seem important at the time.
Most notably, Britain has oversize stations, spending billions on new terminals such as in Birmingham. This comes from the low efficiency of most European turnaround operations, because most European cities have huge rail terminals from the steam era with a surplus of tracks. When trains need to turn fast, they do: German trains running through Frankfurt, which is a terminal, turn in 3-4 minutes to continue to their onward destination. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, JR East learned to turn trains in 12 minutes even while giving them a cleaning, and with such tight operations, Britain should be able to fit traffic growth within existing station footprints.
It is also desirable to learn from students who have surpassed their old teachers. Korea has lower construction costs than Japan, Spain has lower construction costs than France and greater understanding of the need to integrate the timetable and infrastructure, Switzerland has perfected the German system to the point that German rail advocacy calls for reimportation of its planning maxims.
In the same way that Taiwan built infrastructure to European specs but is running Japanese trains on it, to its profit and to Japan’s chagrin, it may be advisable to build infrastructure in the French (or, better yet, Spanish) way but then run trains on it the German (or better yet, Swiss) way. But it’s more nuanced than this conclusion, due to important contributions from China and Japan, and due to the focus on having a central station, which France chose not to build in Paris to its detriment.
But in general, I think it behooves countries to learn to implement the following from those four traditions:
- Japan: the best rolling stock, high-efficiency turnaround operations, reliable schedules; avoid excessive viaducts and Japan’s increasing demand for turnkey systems.
- France: passenger-dedicated infrastructure standards (supplemented by Cologne-Frankfurt), land swap deals for at-grade construction, cost control (in the Spanish version – France is deteriorating); avoid TGV rolling stock and airline-style pricing.
- Germany: takt (especially in the Swiss and Dutch versions), open station platforms, integration between timetable and infrastructure, seat turnover, decent rolling stock; avoid empowering NIMBYs and building mixed lines with freight.
- China: separation of passenger and freight operations, very high average speeds; avoid airline-style outlying stations and excessive viaducts.
Now that there’s decent chance of US investment in rail, Randal O’Toole is resurrecting his takes from the early Obama era, warning that high-speed rail is a multi-trillion dollar money sink. It’s not a good analysis, and in particular it gets the reality of European and Asian high-speed rail systems wrong. It displays lack of familiarity with rail practice and rail politics, to the point that most nontrivial assertions about rail in Europe and Asia are incorrect.
More broadly, the way O’Toole gets rail investment here wrong comes from making unexamined American assumptions and substituting them for a European or Japanese reality regarding rail as well as rail politics. If the US can’t do it, he thinks other countries can’t. Unfortunately, he’s even unfamiliar with recent work done on American costs, when he compares the Interstate system positively with recent high-speed rail lines.
High-Speed Rail Profitability: France
I’m currently working on building a database similar to our urban rail costs for high-speed rail. Between this and previous iterations of analyzing the TGV, I’ve been reading a lot of internal French reports about its system. Thankfully, France makes available very good public information about the costs and technical specifications of its system. It helps that I read French, but the gap between what’s available for France and Belgium (see for example line schemas) is vast. This provides crucial background that O’Toole is missing.
The most important thing to understand is that the TGV network is profitable. The Spinetta report on the fiscal losses of SNCF makes it clear, starting on p. 60, that the TGV network is profitable, and recommends favoring its development over the money-losing legacy networks, especially the branch lines. The report even calls for closing weak branch lines with only a few trains a day, which I called the Spinetta Axe at the time, in analogy with the Beeching Axe. Due to public outcry the state rejected the cuts and only implemented the organizational changes promoted by the report.
Moreover, all lines are very profitable excluding the cost of fixed capital. The Spinetta report’s TGV section says that operating costs average €0.06/seat-km, which is around 0.085€/p-km, despite overstaffing of conductors (8 per conventional 400-car TGV) and extensive travel on legacy track at low speed and higher per-km labor costs. Average TGV fare revenue per an ARAFER report from 2016 is 0.10€/p-km – compare p-km on p. 15 and revenue on p. 26. This is typical for Europe – RENFE and DB charge similar fares, and the nominal fares seem to have been flat over the last decade.
What’s dicier is cost of capital. In all other European countries for which I’m aware of the process, all of which are Northern rather than Southern, this is done with benefit-cost analysis with a fixed behind-the-scenes discount rate. France, in my view wisely, rates lines by their financial and social rates of return instead. A 2014 report about the Bordeaux-Toulouse LGV, recently given the go-ahead for 7.5 billion €, warns that the profitability of LGVs decreases as the system is built out: the LGV Sud-Est returned 15% to SNCF’s finances and 30% to French society (including rider consumer surplus), but subsequent lines only returned 4-7% to SNCF’s finances, and Bordeaux-Toulouse is likely to return less, 6% including social benefits per the study and at this point slightly less since the study assumed it would cost slightly less than the current budget.
The general theme in the French discourse on trains is that the TGV network is an obvious success. There absolutely is criticism, which focuses on the following issues:
- Regional rail, that is not intercity rail, is underdeveloped in France outside Paris. The ridership of TER networks is pitiful in comparison with German-speaking and Nordic metropolitan areas of comparable size. For example, sourced to a dead link, Wikipedia claims 64,300 TER PACA trips per day, comprising the metropolitan areas of Marseille (1.8 million), Nice (1), Toulon (0.6), and Avignon (0.5); in Helsinki (1.5) alone, there are 200,000 daily commuter rail trips. But this isn’t really about high-speed rail, since TER planning and subsidies are devolved to regional governments, and not to SNCF.
- SNCF has contentious labor relations. In the early 2010s, the unions went on a wave of strikes and got wage concessions that led to the evaporation of SNCF’s 600 million €/year primary surplus. The railway unions in France (“cheminots”) are unpopular, and Macron has been able to pass reforms to SNCF’s governance over their strikes and objections.
- Future LGVs are not as strong as past ones. Real costs in France are rising, and the network already links Paris with all major secondary cities in airplane-competitive time save Nice. Interprovincial links on the network are weak, despite the construction of the LGV Rhin-Rhône, and nothing like the Deutschlandtakt is on the horizon enabling everywhere-to-everywhere travel.
- SNCF thinks like an airline and not like a railroad. It separates passengers into different buckets as airlines do, has many executives with airline background (and Spinetta is ex-Air France), thinks passengers do not ride trains for longer than 3 hours even though at 4 hours the modal split with air is still better than 50-50, and has poor integration between the TGV and legacy rail.
- SNCF still has a lot of accumulated debt from past operating losses, some predating the TGV and the start of regional subsidies for regional rail. It was hoped that TGV profits could cover them, but they can’t. This mirrors the controversy in Japan in the 1980s, where, in the breakup of JNR into the JRs and their privatization, debt from past operating losses was wiped but not debt from Shinkansen construction (see Privatization Best Practices, PDF-p. 106).
However, saying that the existing network is a failure is the domain of cranks and populists. It is unrecognizable from the discussion of transportation investments in France.
What O’Toole says about high-speed rail
O’Toole’s understanding of internal French (or Spanish, or Japanese) issues is weak. This isn’t surprising – Americans to a good approximation never have good insights on the internal issues of any other country, even when it speaks English. The American political sphere, which includes political thinktanks like Cato, is remarkably ignorant globally, and rather incurious. As a result, what he says about the TGV is based on an Americanized understanding. To wit:
The Northeastern United States has a weak rail network: Amtrak averages vintage 1960s speeds and charges 2-4 times the per-km fare of the TGV. As a result, an ecosystem of private intercity buses has developed, starting with unregulated ones like Fung Wah and, as they were shut down, corporate systems like Megabus and Bolt. O’Toole is fond of these buses, with their lower fares and road-like lack of integration between infrastructure and operations.
And thus, he claims, falsely, that European high-speed rail cannibalized profitable buses. This is unrecognizable from within Europe, where intercity buses were underdeveloped until recently. In France, US-style intercity buses are called Macron buses, because the deregulation that brought them into existence passed in the mid-2010s, when Macron was the economy minister. They complement high-speed rail but do not replace it, because trains get me from Paris to the German border in 1:45 and buses don’t.
To be fair, TGV ridership has been stagnant in the last few years. But this stagnation goes back to the financial crisis, and if anything ridership picked up starting 2017 with the opening of the LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique. So the buses are not even outcompeting the trains – they thrive in the gaps between them, just as historically they did on international routes, where rail fares are considerably higher and ridership lower.
High-speed rail construction costs
O’Toole looks at the most expensive few lines possible:
Britain’s 345‐mile London–Scotland HS2 high‐speed rail line was originally projected to cost £32.7 billion (about $123 million per mile) and is currently expected to cost £106 billion ($400 million per mile).
International comparisons of high-speed rail costs exist, and Britain’s costs are by far the worst. For example, a 2013 Australian comparison looking at the prospects for such a system in Australia finds that High-Speed 1/CTRL, the line linking the Channel Tunnel with London, cost A$134 million/km, and the second costliest line in the dataset was thee 94% tunneled Bologna-Florence line, at A$95 million/km.
French costs up until the LGV Bordeaux-Toulouse stood around $25-30 million per km in 2021 dollars, net of tunnels. German costs are similar, but German lines have far heavier tunneling than France, a range of 26-51% in tunnel compared with 0-6% in France. One reason is topography. But another is that Germany prefers mixed-use passenger-freight lines, which forces higher construction costs as freight requires gentler grades and, since superelevation must be lower, wider curves; France, like Japan and China, builds dedicated passenger lines, and, unlike Japan or China, keeps them largely at-grade to reduce costs.
O’Toole says, without more references, that it would cost $3-4 trillion to build a US-wide high-speed rail network. But the official Obama-era crayon, at 20,000 km, would be $500 billion at tunnel-free European costs, or maybe $600 billion with 5% tunneling, mostly in difficult places like California and across the Appalachians.
O’Toole proposes more freeways, and says that to build the Interstate system today would cost $530 billion so it’s better than high-speed rail. Here is where his lack of knowledge of the most recent literature on infrastructure costs is a serious drag on his analysis: Brooks-Liscow establish that there was a large real increase in Interstate cost throughout the life of the program, so a budget that’s really a mixture of cheaper early-1960s construction and more expensive construction in the 1970s is not applicable today.
The same issue affects rail costs: the LGV Sud-Est cost, in today’s money, around $8 million/km, which cost would never recur. Brooks-Liscow explain this by greater surplus extraction from citizen voice groups, which demanded detours and route compromises raising costs. This appears true not just diachronically within the US but also synchronically across countries: so far, the low-cost subways we have investigated are all in states with bureaucratic rather than adversarial legalism, while medium-cost Germany is more mixed. Politicized demands leading to more tunneling are well-documented within Germany – the Berlin-Munich line was built through a topographically harder alignment in order to serve Erfurt, at Thuringia’s behest.
So no, today costs from the 1960s are not relevant. Today, urban motorway extensions cost double-digit millions of dollars per lane-km, sometimes more. The I-5 improvement project in Los Angeles is $1.9 billion for I-5 South, a distance of 11 km, adding two lanes (one HOV, one mixed traffic) in each direction. It’s possible to go lower than this – in Madrid this budget would buy a longer 6-lane tunnel – but then in Madrid the construction costs of rail are even lower, for both metros and high-speed lines.
The discourse on profits
In contrast with the basic picture I outlined for the TGV, French media and researchers often point out threats to rail profitability. This can easily be taken to mean that the TGV is unprofitable, and if one has an American mindset, then it’s especially easy to think this. If SNCF officials say that 20% of TGVs lose money, then surely they must be hiding something and the figure is much higher, right? Likewise, if Spinetta says that the TGV network is profitable but not all trains are, then surely the situation is even worse, right?
But no. This is an Americanized interpretation of the debate. In the US, Amtrak is under constant pressure to show book profits, and its very existence is threatened, often by people who cite O’Toole and other libertarians. Thus, as a survival strategy, Amtrak pretends it is more profitable than it really is.
This has no bearing on the behavior of railroads elsewhere, though. SNCF is not so threatened. The biggest threat from the perspective of SNCF management is union demands for higher wages, and therefore, its incentive is to cry poverty. Nobody in France takes out yardsticks of farebox recovery ratios, and therefore, nobody needs to orient their communications around what would satisfy American libertarians.
Within the European high-speed rail research community, the energy efficiency of high-speed rail is well-understood, and many studies look at real-world examples, for example the metastudy of Hasegawa-Nicholson-Roberts-Schmid. In fact, it’s understood that high-speed rail has lower energy consumption than conventional rail. For example, here is García Álvarez’s paper on the subject. This is counterintuitive, because higher speeds should surely lead to higher energy consumption, as Hasegawa et al demonstrate – but high-speed lines run at a uniform speed of 200 or 250 or 300 or 350 km/h, whereas legacy rail has many cycles of acceleration and deceleration. At speeds of up to about 200 km/h, nearly all electricity consumption is in acceleration and not maintaining constant speed, and even at 300 km/h, a late-model high-speed train consumes only above one third of its maximum power maintaining speed.
Instead of this literature, O’Toole picks out the fact that all else being equal energy consumption rises in speed, which it is not equal. Garcia in fact points out that higher speeds are better for the environment due to better competition with air, in line with environmental consensus that trains are far superior on well-to-wheels emissions to cars and planes. Worse, O’Toole is citing Chester-Horvath’s lifecycle analysis, which is not favorable to California High-Speed Rail’s energy efficiency. The only problem is that this paper’s analysis relies on a unit conversion error between BTUs and kWh, pointed out by Clem Tillier. The paper was eventually corrected, and with the correct figures, high-speed rail looks healthy.
Competition with cars and planes
Where high-speed rail exists, and the distance is within a well-understood range of around 300-800 km, it dominates travel. A 2004 report by Steer Davies Gleave has some profiles of what were then the world’s main networks. For Japan, it includes a graphic from 1998 on PDF-p. 120 of modal splits by distance. In the 500-700 km bucket, a slight majority of trips all over Japan are made by rail; this is because Tokyo-Osaka is within that range, and due to those cities’ size this city pair dominates pairs where rail is weaker, especially inter-island ones. In the 300-500 km bucket more people drive, but the Shinkansen is stronger than this on the Tokyo-Nagoya pair, it’s just that 300-500 includes many more peripheral links with no high-speed rail service. It goes without saying that high-speed rail does not get any ridership where it does not exist.
In France, this was also studied for the LGV PACA. On p. 14, the presentation lists modal splits as of 2009. Paris-Toulon, a city pair where the TGV takes around 4 hours, has an outright majority for the TGV, with 54% of the market, compared with 12% for air and 34% for driving. Paris-Cannes is 34% and Paris-Nice is 30%, both figures on the high side for their 5:00-5:30 train trips. Lyon-Nice, a 3:30 trip with awful frequency thanks to SNCF’s poor interprovincial service, still has a 25% market share for the TGV.
In general, competition with cars is understudied. Competition with planes is much more prominent in the literature, with plenty of reports on air-rail modal splits by train trip length. JR East, Central (PDF-p. 4), and West all report such market shares, omitting road transport. Many European analyses appeared in the 2000s, for example by Steer Davies Gleave again in 2006, but the links have rotted and Eurostat’s link is corrupt.
O’Toole misunderstands this literature. He lumps all air and road links, even on markets where rail is weak, sometimes for geographical factors such as mountains or islands, sometimes for fixable institutional ones like European borders. In fact, at least measured in greenhouse gas emission and not ridership, all air travel growth in Europe since 1990 has been international. International high-speed rail exists in Europe but charges higher fares and the infrastructure for it is often not built, with slowdowns in border zones. This is a good argument for completing the international network in Europe and a terrible one against building any network at all.
Even at the level of basic topography, O’Toole makes elementary errors. He discusses the Tokaido Shinkansen, pointing out its factor-of-2 cost overrun. But its absolute costs were not high, which he characterizes as,
The Tokyo–Osaka high‐speed rail line supposedly made money, but it was built across fairly flat territory
So, first of all, the “supposedly” bit is painful given how much JR Central prints money. But “fairly flat territory” is equally bad. Japan’s mountainous topography is not an obscure fact. It’s visible from satellite image. Per Japanese Wikipedia, 13% of the route is in tunnel, more than California High-Speed Rail.
The United States can and should do better
The report is on stronger grounds when criticizing specifics of Amtrak and California High-Speed Rail. American rail construction is just bad. However, this is not because rail is bad; it’s because the United States is bad.
And there’s the rub. Americans in politics can’t tell themselves that another country does something better than the US does. If it’s in other countries and the US can’t do it, it must be, as O’Toole calls rail, obsolete. This is especially endemic to libertarians, who are intellectually detached from their European right-liberal counterparts (Dutch VVD, German FDP, etc.) even more than the American center-left is from social democrats here and the right is from the mainline and extreme right here.
So here, faced with not too hard to find evidence that high-speed rail is profitable in Europe and Asia, and in fact intercity rail is profitable here in general (direct subsidies are forbidden by EU law unless the line is classified as regional), unlike in the United States, O’Toole makes up reasons why trains here are unprofitable or unsuccessful. He says things that are not so much wrong as unrecognizable, regarding topography, buses, construction costs, debt, the state of the TGV debate, or greenhouse gas emissions.
O’Toole is aware of our transit costs comparison. I imagine he’s also aware of high-speed rail cost comparisons, which exist in the literature – if he’s not, it’s because he doesn’t want to be so aware. And yet, no matter how loudly the evidence screams “the United States needs to become more like France, Germany, Japan, Spain, etc.,” American libertarians always find excuses why this is bad or unnecessary. And then, when it comes to expanding freeways, suddenly the cost concerns go out the door and they use unrealistically low cost figures.
But figuring out why the US is bad requires way deeper dives. It requires delving into the field and understanding how procurement is done differently, what is wrong with Amtrak, what is wrong with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, how engineering is done in low- and medium-cost countries, various tradeoffs for planning lead time, and so on. It requires turning into the kind of expert that libertarians have spent the last 60 years theorizing why they need not listen to (“public choice”). And it requires a lot of knowledge of internal affairs of successful examples, none of which is in an English-speaking country. So it’s easier to call this obsolete just because incurious Americans can’t do it.
I’ve used a ridership model to construct a proposal for American high-speed rail – but what about the country I live in? There’s an election this year and one of the contested issues is climate change, and with growing passenger rail advocacy, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that there will be a large federal investment in dedicated high-speed lines (“NBS”). So I think it’s useful to model what German intercity rail will look like if there is greater investment in NBSes, culminating in a nationwide network such that ICEs will spend nearly all the time on NBSes or occasionally heavily upgraded legacy lines (“ABS”) rather than on slower lines.
If anything, I’m more optimistic about this network on the 15-year horizon than about American high-speed rail. Germany is slowly building more lines, like Stuttgart-Ulm, with Ulm-Munich, Frankfurt-Mannheim, Hanover-Bielefeld, and Frankfurt-Fulda on the horizon. People are also studying the prospects of a more expansive map as part of Deutschlandtakt additions, but unfortunately many 200 km/h ABSes are considered good enough even if they’re in easy terrain for a 300 km/h NBS, like Berlin-Halle/Leipzig.
The professional way to model ridership is to split the travel zone, in this case the entire country, into very small pieces. I’m instead going to use an approximation with metropolitan areas and divisions thereof. For an illustration of my model’s level of sophistication, see below:
The gravity model to use is approximately,
The justification for the exponent 2 in the gravity model is that the elasticity of ridership with respect to trip times appears to be close to -2. The justification for the exponent 0.8 is that it empirically appears true when considering Japanese cities’ Shinkansen ridership to Tokyo; the reason for this is that metropolitan areas comprise many different subsections, and the ones farther from city center have longer effective trip time counting connection time to the train station, and larger metropolitan areas tend to have longer distance from the center to the edge.
In the linked paper, the elasticity remains -2 even at short distances. However, we’re going to assume a minimum distance below which the elasticity vanishes, to avoid predicting infinite ridership as distance goes to zero. If distance is expressed in km, the best-fit constant is 75,000, with populations and annual ridership both in millions, and then if there’s no minimum distance, the model predicts Frankfurt (with 4 million people) to Mannheim (2.8 million, 75 km away) has 92 million annual riders just between the two regions, which is utter nonsense. In Japan, ridership looks like the floor is 500 km. In Germany, I’m going to round this to 2.5 hours, and because in practice it’s a bit more than 500 km, I’m going to round the constant 0.3/2.5^2 down to 1.8. We thus get,
This is the current draft of what I think Germany should build:
This isn’t too different from past maps I made. Berlin-Hanover is 60 minutes on this map and not 75 as on previous maps; a nonstop Velaro Novo can do it in 60 minutes, and the projected ridership is high enough that a half-hourly stopping train for service to Wolfsburg is viable in addition to a core express service. The branch point in the Rhine-Ruhr is moved to Dortmund, which slightly slows down service to Cologne and requires more tunnels, but improves frequency to the system massively, since Dortmund is a connection point to regional trains. Göttingen-Erfurt is dropped – all it does is connect Hanover and Hamburg with Erfurt, which is very small, and speed up travel to Nuremberg and Munich by 30 minutes, which is interesting but not enough to justify 100 km of high-speed rail.
Frankfurt still has an awkward-looking loop, whose purpose is to permit trains from Mannheim to enter the central tunnel to be constructed from the east and then run through to Cologne. However, this may not be necessary – trains from Cologne to Mannheim could just as well skip Frankfurt Hbf, serving Frankfurt at the airport or at a new station to be constructed at Frankfurt Süd, analogous to Cologne-Deutz for north-south through-trains. The expected traffic level is so high that the hit to Cologne-Frankfurt frequency is not awful, and the network complexity added by the skip isn’t higher than that added by having Frankfurt-Mannheim trains enter the tunnel from both directions depending on onward destination.
The network trip times are expressed in multiples of 15 minutes, with some places where timed connections are desirable, such as Fulda between Berlin-Frankfurt and Hamburg-Munich trains. However, overall, the traffic density predicted by the model is so high that on the stronger lines, like Cologne-Frankfurt, the timetable would not look like an integrated timed transfer system but rather the more continuous rapid transit-style model seen in Japan.
The power of polycentricity
The 0.8 exponent in the formula for ridership means that if we get to divide a single metropolitan area into subregions, then its ridership will increase. This is only justifiable if trains serve all such subregions; if the trains only serve some subregions, then we have to subtract them out. When we analyze New York or Tokyo, we can’t just add up each part of the metropolitan area separately – if we do so we must remove unserved sections like Long Island or Chiba, and the effect turns out to be similar to just lumping the metro area together.
However, in the Rhine-Ruhr, trains do serve nearly all sections of the region. The shape of the network there is such that intercity trains will continue stopping at Dortmund, Bochum, Essen, Duisburg, Wuppertal, Dusseldorf, and Cologne, at a minimum. The only recognizable centers without stops are Bonn and Mönchengladbach, and Bonn is connected to Cologne by streetcar.
Dividing cities and counties that are in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region into the influence zones of the seven cities with stops based on what is the closest, we get Dortmund with 1.8 million, Bochum with 0.5, Essen 2, Duisburg 1, Wuppertal 0.9, Dusseldorf 2.3 (2 if we subtract out Mönchengladbach), and Cologne 2.9. Adding them up with exponents 0.8 is equivalent to considering a monocentric metropolitan core of 18.1 million; if we subtract out Mönchengladbach, it’s 17.6 million. This is enormous – larger than Paris and London, where only one high-speed rail stop is possible per train.
This also means we need to separately consider domestic and international traffic. Randstad is polycentric as well, and at a minimum there should be stops at Utrecht (1 million), Amsterdam (2.5), and Rotterdam (3.5), which means the region acts like a monocentric region of 9 million. The upshot is that if there were a 300 km/h train connecting Utrecht with Dusseldorf and Cologne with onward connections at both ends, and fares were st at domestic ICE rates and not Thalys rates, the connection between the two conurbations alone would generate about 17 million passengers a year. Of course, the model thinks all trip times up to 2.5 hours are equivalent, and the most distant city pair, Rotterdam-Dortmund, would be perhaps 1:45, but onward connections to German cities like Mannheim, Stuttgart, and Hanover are all 2:30 or longer with a 300 km/h Dutch line, and so there are benefits to constructing such a line over running at lower speed within the Netherlands.
To the extent the Frankfurt-Mannheim region can be thought of as a polycentric megaregion, the same is true there. Frankfurt, by which I mean Hesse-Darmstadt minus Bergstrasse, is 3.7 million people; Mainz is 0.6; the Rhine-Neckar (including Bergstrasse) is 2.4 million; Karlsruhe is 1.1 million; Stuttgart is 2.5 million. The model thinks that these regions combined generate 25 million annual trips to the Rhine-Ruhr.
There’s a rite of passage every year in Berlin of taking a day trip to Bielefeld, an hour and a half away by ICE, every 10 minutes. The idea is to be able to retort to aging millennials who joke that Bielefeld does not exist than they’ve actually been there.
The Abitur is coming soon, and 12th-grade students are supposed to study, but Adam Mansour, Katja Brühl, Max Kleinert, and Nora Martinek are going in Bielefeld. It is not the best day to travel. Friday is a school day, even if it’s short enough it ended at 13:30, and it’s also a popular travel day so the tickets were a bit more expensive, and Adam had to convince his parents it’s worth spending 80€ and all the Germans do it. But at least today it means they don’t have to wake up at 7:00 tomorrow.
On the train going west, Katja keeps complaining about how the train bypasses Magdeburg because of 1980s-90s politics. She says she was looking for labor-related museums in Bielefeld but couldn’t find any; instead, she talks about how the mayor of Hanover is leading a red-black coalition and it’s not the SPD that she’s voting for in September or the SPD that subsidized childcare in Berlin that let her parents afford to have children.
The other three don’t find her annoying. Max and Nora come from much wealthier families, and Nora’s is scratching 10,000€/month, but when Katja talks about how thanks to education reforms pushed on the Länder by the Green-led federal government she could go to the same school as them, they don’t feel either attacked or guilty. They feel happy that they know her and Adam. They listen to what she says about Jusos and housing, the EU, feminism, or comprehensive schools, and it clicks with them because it’s their world too. They know that there are people who resent that the cities are growing faster and associate immigration with social problems; but they associate immigration with Adam’s parents, or with Nora, who only moved to Germany when she was five but who nobody ever calls an immigrant. Adam, in turn, does get called a Syrian immigrant, even though he was born in Germany, his parents having arrived just before the 2015 wave.
There are some American tourists on the train, talking about how pretty Germany is and how they wished the United States could have such a system. Max leans forward and says, “every time they’re on a train, they talk just about the train,” figuring circumlocutions because the Americans might recognize the German word Amerikaner and realize he is talking about them. Nora and Katja giggle, and Adam then joins too.
Otherwise, they try to distract themselves by talking about the exams and about university plans. All plan to go, and all have been told by teachers that they should get good enough grades to go where they want, but Max wants to study medicine and needs to get a 1.0 to get past the numerus clausus. “Do you want me to test you?” Adam asks him.
They are all competitive about grades, even Katja, who told them once that neoliberal models of academic competition promoted inequality, and the Greens should do more to prevent what she calls the Americanization of German education. But Max told them when they planned the trip last week that he was treating it as his vacation day when he wouldn’t need to think about school.
Getting off the train, they start walking toward city hall; Bielefeld doesn’t have a bikeshare system, unlike Berlin, and bringing a bike on the ICE is not allowed. Adam insists on stopping on the way and taking detours to photograph buildings; most aren’t architecturally notable, but they’re different from how Berlin looks.
They run to the Natural History Museum and the Kunsthalle. The museum closes at 17:00 and they have less than an hour, then less an hour at the Kunsthalle until it closes at 18:00. They furiously photograph exhibits when they don’t have enough time to look at them and talk about them.
Adam is especially frantic at the archeology section, just because of the reminder of what he is giving up. He has read a lot of popular history and for the longest time wanted to go study it, but felt like he wouldn’t be able to get work with a humanistic degree and instead went for the real stream at school. When he met Katja two years ago he felt like this choice was confirmed – Katja for all her political interests is going to study environmental engineering and at no point expressed doubt about it.
Max spits on the Richard Kaselowsky memorial when the staff isn’t looking, distracted by other customers. In Berlin he might not even do this, but in Bielefeld he wouldn’t mind getting thrown out of a museum if worst came to worst. Nora and Adam didn’t know the history so as they go in he tells them Kaselowsky was a Nazi and so was the museum’s founder Rudolf Oetker, and the Oetker heirs had to return a few items that may have been stolen from Jewish owners in the Holocaust.
They find a döner place with good reviews and good falafel for Katja and are eating there. Normally they’d go out and get different things in Berlin, but Bielefeld is still a small city and even with Germany’s rapid immigration in the 2020s it doesn’t have Berlin’s majority-migration-background demographics.
Where they’re sitting overlooks the pedestrianized streets of the old city. There are some bikes, some pedestrians, some walking delivery drones. Berlin has a few of these zones within the Ring but they’re not contiguous and Bild accuses the Greens of promoting car-free zones for everyone except the federal government.
They talk about where they want to go, but Max and Katja are hesitant to publicly say what they feel about where they are. It’s Nora who openly says that she’s having fun and that Bielefeld definitely exists no matter what her parents say, but she wouldn’t want to live here. She doesn’t know if she wants to stay in Berlin – she wants to go to TU Munich, partly to see more places, partly because of some parental pressure to leave home – but Bielefeld feels a little too dörferlich.
They all laugh, and Adam says that judging by how his parents describe Daraa, it was a lot smaller than this. He says that they didn’t ever describe Daraa as especially lively, and always compared it negatively with Berlin when he was young and then eventually they just stopped talking about it, it stopped being important to them. Max and Katja nod and start comparing Bielefeld to parts of Germany they know well through extended family – Max’s father is from Münster and his mother’s family is in Göttingen and Hamburg, Katja’s parents are both from Berlin but her mother has family in Fürstenwalde.
And then somehow it drifts back to the election. Katja is worried the Union might win the election this time, stop free work migration, and freeze the carbon taxes at present levels. Adam doesn’t have family left in Syria but they have a few classmates who have family in India, in Vietnam, in Turkey. For the most part things are okay, but there’s always the occasional teacher or group of students who still think Neukölln and Gesundbrunnen are bad neighborhoods; they know who to avoid because people who are racist always find something negative to say to Adam specifically.
But for now, they have one another, and they have exams to score highly on to move on and go to university, and they have two hours to kill in Bielefeld until the ICE train they booked in advance departs to take them back home.
Robert Jackel asked me an excellent question in comments: what is a pulse? I’ve talked about timed transfers a lot in the last almost 10 years of this blog, but I never wrote a precise definition. This is a critical tool for every public transportation operation with more than one line, making sure that trains and buses connect with as short a transfer window as possible given other constraints. Moreover, pulse-oriented thinking is to plan capital investment and operations to avoid constraints that make transfers inconvenient.
When are pulses needed?
Passengers perceive the disutility of a minute spent transferring to be more than that of a minute spent on a moving vehicle. This is called the transfer penalty and is usually expressed as a factor, which varies greatly within the literature. In a post from 2011 I quoted a since-linkrotted thesis with pointers to Boston and Houston’s numbers, and in a more recent post I found some additional literature in a larger variety of places, mostly in the US but also the Netherlands. The number 2 is somewhere in the middle, so let’s go with this.
Observe that the transfer penalty measured in minutes and not in a factor is, naturally, larger when service runs less frequently. With a factor of 2, it is on average equal to the headway, which is why it is likely the number is 2 – it represents actual time in the worst case scenario. The upshot is that the value of an untimed transfer is higher the higher the frequency is.
I used the principle of untimed transfers and frequency to explain why small subway networks do not look like small bus networks – they have fewer, more frequent lines. Subway lines that run every 3-4 minutes do not need transfer timing, because the time cost of an untimed transfer is small compared to the likely overall trip time, which is typically in the 15-30 minute range. But the lower the frequency, the more important it is to time transfers. Thus, for example, Berlin times the U6/U7 transfer at Mehringdamm in the evening, when trains run every 10 minutes, but does not do so consistently in the daytime, when they run every 5.
But note: while the value of an untimed transfer is higher at higher frequency, the value of a timed transfer is the same – it is zero-penalty or close to it no matter what. So really, the relative value of timing the transfer decreases as frequency increases. But at the same time, if frequency is higher, then more passengers are riding your service, which justifies more investment to try to time the transfer. The German-speaking planning tradition is the most concerned with transfer timing, and here, it is done commonly at 10 minutes, occasionally at 5 minutes, and never that I know of at higher frequency.
Easy mode: one central station
If all your buses and trains serve one transit center, then a pulse means that they all run at the same frequency, and all meet at the center at the same time. This doesn’t usually happen on urban rail networks – a multi-line urban rail system exists in a high-ridership, high-frequency context, in which the value of serving a mesh of city center lines is high, and the cost of bringing every subway tunnel to one location is high. Instead, this happens on buses and on legacy regional rail networks.
The pulse can be done at any frequency, but probably the most common is hourly. This is routine in small American towns with last-resort bus networks serving people too poor or disabled to drive. Two and a half years ago a few of us on Transit Twitter did a redesign-by-Twitter of the Sioux City bus network, which has ten bus routes running hourly, all pulsing in city center with timed connections. A similar network often underlies the night buses of a larger city that, in the daytime, has a more complete public transport network, such as Vancouver.
Even here, planners should keep two delicate points in mind. First, on buses in mixed traffic, there is an upper limit to the frequency that can be timetabled reliably. The limit depends on details of the street network – Jarrett Walker is skeptical that timetabling buses that run every 15 minutes is feasible in a typical American city, but Vancouver, with no freeways within a city and a rich arterial grid, manages to do so every 12 minutes on 4th Avenue. A half-hourly pulse is definitely possible, and even Jarrett writes those into his bus redesigns sometimes; a 20-minute pulse is probably feasible as well even in a typical American city. The current practice of hourly service is not good, and, as I point out in the Sioux City post, involves slow, meandering bus routes.
The second point is that once the takt is chosen, say half an hour, the length of each roundtrip had better be an integer multiple of the takt, including a minimal turnaround time. If a train needs 5 minutes to turn, and runs half-hourly, then good times for a one-way trip from city center are 10, 25, 40, 55 minutes; if there is no turnaround at city center, for example if there is through-running, then half as many turnarounds are needed. This means that short- and long-term planning should emphasize creating routes with good trip times. On a bus, this means straightening meanders as needed, and either extending the outer end or cutting it short. On a train, this means speedup treatments to run as fast as necessary, or, if the train has a lot of spare time, opening additional infill stops.
The issue of branching
Branches and pulses don’t mix well. The ideal way to run a system with a trunk and branches is to space the branches evenly. The Berlin S-Bahn runs every 3-4 minute on the Stadtbahn trunk and on the North-South Tunnel, mixing services that run every 10 and 20 minutes at roughly even intervals. In such an environment, timed transfers in city center are impossible. This is of course not a problem given Stadtbahn headways, but becomes serious if frequency is sparser. A one-trunk, two-branch regional rail system’s planners may be tempted to run each branch every half hour and interpolate the schedules to create a 15-minute headway on the trunk, but if there’s a half-hourly pulse, then only one branch can participate in it.
This is visible when one compares S-Bahn and RegionalBahn systems. High-frequency S-Bahn systems don’t use timed transfers in city center, because there is no need. I can get from Jannowitzbrücke to Ostkreuz without consulting a schedule, and I would get to the Ring without consulting a schedule either, so there is no need to time the crossing at Ostkreuz. There may be sporadic transfer timing for individual branches, such as between the S9 branch of the Stadtbahn, which diverts southeast without serving Ostkreuz, and the Ring, but S9 runs every 20 minutes, and this is not a pulse, only a single-direction timed connection.
In contrast, RegionalBahn systems, running at longer ranges and lower frequencies, often tend toward timed transfers throughout. The tradeoff is that they don’t overlie to create high-frequency trunks. In some cases, trains on a shared trunk may even platoon, so that all can make the same timed transfer, if high trunk frequency is not desired; this is how intercity trains are run on the Olten-Bern line, with four trains to a platoon every 30 minutes.
Medium mode: dendritic networks
A harder case than the single pulse is the dendritic network. This means that there is a central pulse point, and also secondary pulse points each acting as a local center. All cases I am aware of involve a mainline rail network, which could be S-Bahn rather than RegionalBahn, and then bus connections at suburban stations.
Already, this involves more complex planning. The reason is that the bus pulse at a suburban station must be timed with trains in both directions. Even if planners only care about connections between the suburban buses and trains toward city center, the pulse has to time with inbound trains for passengers riding from the suburban buses to the city and with outbound trains for passengers riding from the city to the buses. This, in turn, means that the trains in both directions must arrive at the station at approximately the same time. A few minutes of leeway are acceptable, since the buses turn at city center so the connection always has a few minutes of slack, but only a few minutes out of what is often a half-hourly takt.
Trains that run on a takt only meet every interval equal to half the takt. Thus, if trains run half-hourly, they can only have suburban pulses every 15 minutes of travel. This requires planners to set up suburban pulses at the correct interval, and speed up or sometimes slow down the trains if the time between suburban nodes. Here is an example I’ve worked on for a Boston-Worcester commuter train, with pulses in both Framingham and Worcester.
Hard mode: meshes
The next step beyond the dendritic network is the multi-node network whose graph is not simply connected. In such a network, every node must have a timed transfer, which imposes considerable planning constraints. Optimizing such a network is an active topic of research in operations and transportation in European academia.
Positive examples for such networks come from Switzerland. Large capital investments are unavoidable, because there’s always going to be some line that’s slower than it needs to be. The key here is that, as with dendritic networks, nodes must be located at consistent intervals, equal to multiples of half the headway, and usually the entire headway. To make multiple timed transfers, trains must usually be sped up. This is why pulse-based integrated timed transfer networks require considerable planning resources: planning for rolling stock, infrastructure, and the timetable must be integrated (“the magic triangle”) to provide maximum convenience for passengers connecting from anywhere to anywhere.
I wrote a long thread about regional rail and population density, and I’d like to explain more and give more context. The upshot is that higher population density makes it easier to run a rail network, but the effects are most visible for regional rail, rather than either urban rail or high-speed intercity rail. This is visible in Europe when one compares the networks in high-density Germany and low-density Sweden, and has implications elsewhere, for example in North America. I stress that high-speed rail is not primarily affected by background density, but only by the populations of cities within a certain range, and thus France, which has one of Western Europe’s lowest densities, manages to have high per-capita ridership on the TGV. However, the density of a regional mesh comes from background density, which is absent in such countries as France, Sweden, and Spain.
What is density?
Population density is population divided by area. This post is concerned with overall density at the level of an entire country or region, rather than the more granular level of the built-up urban area of a single city. What this means is that density is in large part a measurement of how close cities are to one another. In a high-density area like western Germany, Northern Italy south of the Alps, England, or the Low Countries, cities are spaced very close together, and thus people live at densities surpassing 300/km^2. In contrast, low-density areas have isolated cities, like Sweden, Australia, Canada, or the Western United States.
For example, take Stockholm. The region has about 2.5 million people, and has a strong urban and suburban rail network. However, there just aren’t a lot of cities near Stockholm. The nearest million-plus metro areas are Oslo, Gothenburg, and Helsinki, all about 400 km away, none much bigger than 1 million; the nearest 2 million-plus metro area is Copenhagen, 520 km away. The region I use as an example of German polycentrism, Rhine-Neckar, is about the same size as Stockholm, and has a good deal more suburban sprawl and car usage. The nearest million-plus region to Mannheim is Karlsruhe, 55 km away; it is a separate metropolitan area even though the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn does have an hourly train to Karlsruhe. Frankfurt is 70 km away. A 400 km radius from Mannheim covers nearly the entirety of Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries; it reaches into Ile-de-France and into suburbs that share a border with Amsterdam. A 520 km radius covers Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, and Prague, and reaches close to Vienna.
Density and regional rail
Kaiserslautern is a town of 100,000 people, served by the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn every half hour even though it is not normally seen as part of the Rhine-Neckar region. It has, in addition to the east-west S-Bahn, independent regional lines reaching north and south. When I visited two years ago, I saw these lines pulse while waiting for my delayed TGV back home to Paris.
This is viable because there are towns ringing Kaiserslautern, close enough that a low-speed regional train could connect them, with their own town centers such that there is a structure of density around their train stations. This in turn exists because the overall population density in Germany is high, even in Rhineland-Pfalz, which at 206/km^2 is slightly below the German average. The alternative structure to that of Germany would have fewer, larger cities – but that structure lends itself well to regional rail too, just with fewer, thicker lines running more frequently. If those smaller towns around Kaiserslautern did not exist but people instead lived in and right around Kaiserslautern, then it would be a city of about 400,000, and likewise Mainz might have 500,000 and the built-up area of Mannheim would have more people in Mannheim itself and in Ludwigshafen, and then there would be enough demand for a regional train every 10-20 minutes and not just every half hour.
I bring up Sweden as a low-density contrast, precisely because Sweden has generally well-run public transport. Stockholm County’s per capita rail ridership is higher than that of any metropolitan area of Germany except maybe Berlin and Munich. Regional rail ridership in and around Stockholm is rising thanks to the opening of Citybanan. Moreover, peripheral regions follow good practices like integrated intermodal ticketing and timed transfers. And yet, the accretion of a mesh of regional lines doesn’t really exist in Sweden. When I visited Växjö, which is not on the main intercity line out of Stockholm, I had a timed connection at Alvesta, but the timetable there and at Växjö looked sporadic. Växjö itself is on a spur for the network, but poking around the Krösatågen system it doesn’t look like an integrated timed transfer system, or if it is then Alvesta is not a knot. I was told in the replies on Twitter that Norrbotten/Västerbotten has an integrated network, but it runs every 2 hours and one doesn’t really string regional rail lines together to form longer lines the way one does in Germany.
Integrated regional networks
The integrated timed transfer concept, perfected in Switzerland, is ideal for regional and intercity networks that form meshes, and those in turn require high population density. With these meshes, regional rail networks overlap, underlaying an intercity network: already one can get between Frankfurt and Stuttgart purely on lines that are branded as S-Bahn, S-Bahn-like, or Stadtbahn, and if one includes RegionalBahn lines without such branding, the network is nationally connected. Even in Bavaria, a state with lower density than the German average, nearly all lines have at least hourly service, and those form a connected network.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Italy, which has high density especially when one excludes unpopulated alpine areas, is adopting German norms for its regional rail. As in Germany, this originates in urban networks, in Italy’s case that of Milan, but Trenord operates trains throughout Lombardy, most of whose population is not the built-up area of Milan, and even lines that don’t touch Milan run hourly, like Brescia-Parma. Italy is not unusual within Southern Europe in looking up to Germany; it’s only unusual in having enough population density for such a network..
Once the network is in place, it is obligatory to run it as an integrated timed transfer system. Otherwise, the connections take too long, and people choose to drive. This in turn means setting up knots at regular intervals, every 30 minutes for a mixed hourly and half-hourly system, and investing in infrastructure to shorten trip times so that major cities can be knots.
The concept of the knot is not just about regional service – high-speed rail can make use of knots as well. Germany has some low-hanging fruit from better operations and under-construction lines that would enable regularly spaced knots such as Frankfurt, then Mannheim, then Stuttgart, and far to the north Hanover and then Bielefeld. The difference is that Germany’s ideal high-speed rail network has around 20 knots and its existing regional rail network has about as many in Hesse alone. Nor can regional rail networks expect to get away with just building strong lines and spamming frequency on those, as the Shinkansen does – regional rail uses legacy alignments to work, generating value even out of lines that can only support an hourly train, whereas high-speed lines need more than that to be profitable.
Globally, the lowest-hanging fruit for such a system is in the Northeastern United States, followed by China and India. Population density in the Northeast is high, and cities have intact cores near their historic train stations. There is no excuse not to have a network of regional lines running at a minimum every 30 minutes from Portland down to Northern Virginia and inland to Albany and Harrisburg.
A few modifications to the basic Swiss system are needed to take into account the fact that the Northeast Corridor, run at high speeds, would fill a train every 5 minutes all day, and the core regional lines through New York could as well. But regional rail is not a country bumpkin mode of transportation; it works fine within 100 km of Frankfurt or Milan, and should work equally well near New York. If anything, a giant city nearby makes it easier to support high frequency – in addition to internal travel within the regional system, there are people interested in traveling to the metropole helping fill trains.
What about low-density places?
Low-density places absolutely can support good rail transport. But it doesn’t look like the German mesh. Two important features differ:
- It is not possible to cobble together a passable intercity rail network from regional express lines and upgrade it incrementally. Intercity lines run almost exclusively intercity traffic. This tilts countries toward the use of high-speed rail, including not just France but also Spain and now Sweden. This does not mean high-density countries can’t or shouldn’t build high-speed rail – they do successfully in Asia, Italy has a decent network, Britain has high-speed rail plans, and Germany is slowly building a good network. It just means that high-density countries can get away with avoiding building high-speed rail for longer.
- The connections between regional and intercity lines are simpler. Different regions’ suburban networks do not connect, and can be planned separately, for example by state-level authorities in Australia or provincial ones in Canada. These networks are dendritic: intercity lines connect to regional lines, and regional lines branch as they leave city center. Lines that do not enter the primary city center are usually weaker, since it’s unlikely that there are enough strong secondary centers at the right places that a line could serve them well without passing through the primary center.
In extreme cases, no long-distance rail is viable at all. Australia is a borderline case for Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail – I think it’s viable but only based on projections of future population and economic growth. But Perth and Adelaide are lost causes. In the United States, railfans draw nationally-connected proposals, but in the Interior West the cities are simply too far apart, and there is no chance for a train to usefully serve Denver or Salt Lake City unless cars are banned. Connecting California and the Pacific Northwest would be on the edge of viable if the topography were flat, but it isn’t and therefore such a connection, too, is a waste of money in the economic conditions of the early 21st century.
Note that even then, cities can have suburban rail networks – Perth and Adelaide both have these, and their modal splits are about on a par with those of secondary French cities like Nice and Bordeaux or secondary American transit cities like Boston and Chicago. Denver is building up a light rail and a commuter rail network and one day these networks may even get ridership. The difference between the case of Perth or Denver and that of a German city is that Perth and Denver can rest assured their regional rail alignments will never be needed for intercity rail.
In less extreme cases, intercity trains are viable, and can still run together with regional trains on the same tracks. California is one such example. Its population density and topography is such that planning regional rail around the Bay Area and in Los Angeles can be kept separate, and the only place where intercity and regional trains could work together as in Germany is the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor. Blended planning with timed overtakes is still recommended on the Peninsula, but it’s telling that at no point have Bay Area-based reformers proposed a knot system for the region.
Those less extreme low-density cases are the norm, in a way. They include the Midwestern and Southern US, the Quebec-Ontario corridor, the Nordic countries, France, nearly all of Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe apart from Italy; this is most of the developed world already. In all of those places, regional rail is viable, as is intercity rail, but they connect in a dendritic and not meshlike way. Many of the innovations of Germany and its penumbra, such as the takt and the integrated intermodal plan, remain viable, and are used successfully in Sweden. But the exact form of regional rail one sees in Germany would not port.
The Swiss slogan electronics before concrete, and related slogans like run trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible, is a reminder not to waste money. However, I worry that it can be read as an argument against spending money in general. For many years now, Cap’n Transit has complained that this slogan is used to oppose bad transit like the Gateway Tunnel and if the money is not spent on public transportation then it may be spent on other things. But in reality, the Swiss slogans, all emphasizing cost minimization, must be reconciled with the fact that Switzerland builds a lot of concrete, including extensive regional rail tunneling in Zurich and intercity rail tunneling. Electronics precedes concrete, but does not always substitute for it; it’s better to think of these planning maxims as a way to do more with a fixed amount of money, and not as a way to do the same amount of project with less money.
The extent of tunneling in Switzerland
Here is a list of tunnels built in Switzerland since the 1980s, when its modern program of integrated timetable-infrastructure-rolling stock investment began:
- Zurich S-Bahn, including the 7 km combination of the Hirschengraben and Zürichberg Tunnels for the first S-Bahn trunk starting 1990, and the 5 km Weinberg Tunnel for the second trunk starting 2014.
- Geneva RER, including the CEVA trunk, which has about 8.4 km of tunnel.
- The Mattstetten-Rothrist line between Olten and Bern is 52 km long of which a total of 21 km is in tunnel.
- A few more small intercity projects within the Bahn 2000 plan include tunnels.
This is not a small program. Zurich and Geneva are not large cities, and yet they’ve build regional rail trunk tunnels – and Zurich has built two, the most of any German-speaking country, since Berlin and Hamburg only have one of their trunk lines each in tunnel, the rest running above ground. The Mattstetten-Rothrist line likewise does not run at high speed, topping at 200 km/h, because doing so would raise the cost of rolling stock acquisition without benefiting the national integrated timetable – but it was an extensive undertaking for how small Switzerland is. Per capita, Switzerland has built far more intercity rail tunnels by length than France, and may even be ahead of Germany and Italy – and that’s without taking into account the freight base tunnels.
The issue of passenger experience
It’s best to think of organization-before-electronics-before-concrete as a maxim for optimizing user experience more than anything. The system’s passengers would prefer to avoid having to loiter 20 minutes at every connection; this is why one designs timed transfers, and not any attempt to keep the budget down. The Bahn 2000 investments were made in an environment of limited money, but money is always limited – there’s plenty of austerity at the local level in the US too, it just ends up canceling or curtailing useful projects while bad ones keep going on.
In Europe, Switzerland has the highest modal split for rail measured in passenger-km, 19.3%, as of 2018; in 2019, this amounted to 2,338 km per person. The importance of rail is more than this – commuters who use trains tend to travel by train shorter than commuters who use cars drive, since they make routine errand trips on foot at short distance, so the passenger-km modal split is best viewed as an approximation of the importance of intercity rail. Europe’s #2 and #3 are Austria (12.9%) and the Netherlands (11.2%), and both countries have their own integrated intercity rail networks. One does not get to scratch 20% with a design paradigm that is solely about minimizing costs. Switzerland also has low construction costs, but Spain has even lower construction costs and it wishes it had Switzerland’s intensity of rail usage.
Optimizing organization and electronics…
A country or region whose network is a mesh of lines, like Switzerland or the Netherlands, had better adopt the integrated timed transfer concept, to ensure people can get from anywhere to anywhere without undue waiting for a connecting train and without waiting for many hours for a direct train. This includes organizational reforms in the likely case there are overlapping jurisdictions with separate bus, urban rail, and intercity rail networks. Fares should be integrated so as to be mode-neutral and offer free transfers throughout the system, and schedules should be designed to maximize connectivity.
This should include targeted investments in systems and reliability. Some of these should be systemwide, like electrification and level boarding, but sometimes this means building something at a particular delay-prone location, such as a long single-track segment or a railway junction. In all cases, it should be in the context of relentlessly optimizing operations and systems in order to minimize costs, ensure trains spend the maximum amount of time running in revenue service and the minimum amount of time sitting at a yard collecting dust, reduce the required schedule padding, etc.
…leads to concrete
Systemwide optimization invariably shows seams in the system. When Switzerland designed the Bahn 2000 network, there was extensive optimization of everything, but at the end of the day, Zurich-Bern was going to be more than an hour, which would not fit any hourly clockface schedule. Thus the Mattstetten-Rohrist line was born, not out of desire to run trains as fast as possible, but because it was necessary for the trains to run at 200 km/h most of the way between Olten and Bern to fit in an hourly takt.
The same is true of speed and capacity improvements. A faster, more reliable system attracts more passengers, and soon enough, a line designed around a train every 15 minutes fills up and requires a train every 10 minutes, 7.5 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes. An optimized system that minimizes the need for urban tunneling soon generates so much ridership that the tunnels it aimed to avoid become valuable additions to the network.
The Munich S-Bahn, for example, was built around this kind of optimization, inventing many of the principles of coordinated planning in the process. It had a clockface schedule early, and was (I believe) the first system in the world designed around a regionwide takt. It was built to share tracks with intercity and freight trains on outer branches rather than on purely dedicated tracks as in the older Berlin and Hamburg systems, and some of its outermost portions are on single-track. It uses very short signaling blocks to fit 30 trains per hour through the central tunnel in each direction. And now it is so popular it needs a second tunnel, which it is building at very high cost; area activists invoked the organization before electronics before concrete principle to argue against it and in favor of a cheaper solution avoiding city center, but at the end of the day, Munich already optimized organization and electronics, and now is the time for concrete, and even if costs are higher than they should be by a factor of 2-3, the line is worth it.
Electronics before concrete, not instead of concrete
Switzerland is not going to build a French-style national high-speed rail network anytime soon. It has no reason to – at the distances typical of such a small country, the benefits of running at 300 km/h are not large. But this does not mean its rail network only uses legacy lines – on the contrary, it actively builds bypasses and new tunnels. Right now there are plans for an S-Bahn tunnel in Basel, and for an express tunnel from Zurich to Winterthur that was removed from Bahn 2000. The same is true of other European countries that are at or near the frontier of passenger rail technology. Even the Deutschlandtakt plan, compromised as it is by fiscal austerity, by high construction costs, by a pro-car transport minister, and by NIMBYs, includes a fair amount of new high-speed rail, including for example a mostly fast path from Berlin to Frankfurt.
When you plan your rail network well, you encourage more people to use it. When you optimize the schedules, fare integration, transfer experience, and equipment, you end up producing a system that will, in nearly every case, attract considerable numbers of riders. Concrete is the next step: build those S-Bahn tunnels, those express bypasses, those grade separations, those high-speed lines. Work on organization first, and when that is good enough, build electronics, and once you have both, build concrete to make maximum use of what you have.
I’ve periodically written about consumption and production theories of cities – that is, whether people mostly move to cities based on consumption or production amenities. The production theory is that what matters is mostly production amenities, that is, jobs, and this underlies YIMBYism. Consumption theory is that people move for consumption amenities, and, moreover, these amenities are not exactly consumption in the city, for example good health outcomes, but consuming the city itself, that is neighborhood-level amenities in which who lives in the city matters. The latter theory, for example promulgated by Richard Florida, is that jobs follow consumption amenities like gay bars, and not the other way around. It is wrong and production theory is right, and I’d like to give some personal examples from Berlin, because I feel like Berliners all believe in consumption theory.
The situation in Berlin
Berlin is an increasingly desirable city. After decades in which it was economically behind, the city is growing. Unemployment, which stood at 19% in 2005, was down to 7.8% last year. With higher incomes come higher rents, and because Berlin for years built little housing as there was little demand, rents rose, and it took time for housing growth to catch up; on the eve of corona, the city was permitting about 6 annual dwellings per 1,000 people, up from about 1 in the early 2000s.
This is generally attributed to tech industry growth. There are a lot of tech startups in the city. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much – Google’s biggest Germany office is by far Munich’s, and the Berlin office is mostly a sales office with a handful of engineers who are here because of a two-body problem. But the smaller firms are here and the accelerator spaces are very visible, in a way that simply didn’t exist in Paris, or even in Stockholm.
Berlin’s production amenities
I might not have thought that Berlin should attract so much tech investment. My vulgar guess would be that tech would go to cities with many preexisting engineers, like Munich and Stuttgart, or maybe to Frankfurt for the international flight connections. But Berlin does make sense in a number of ways.
The city is mostly fluent in English. Jakub Marian’s map has France 39% Anglophone and Germany 56%, which doesn’t seem too outlandish to me. But Paris seems in line with the rest of France, whereas in Berlin, service workers seem mostly Anglophone, which is not the case in (say) Mainz or Munich.
The global tech industry is Anglophone, and good command of English is a huge production amenity. Other English-dependent industries seem to favor Anglophone European cities as well, for example various firms fleeing Brexit moved their European headquarters not to Paris but to Amsterdam or maybe Dublin.
The federal government is here. This is not relevant to tech – the startups here don’t seem to be looking for lobbying opportunities, and at any case German lobbying works differently from American lobbying and firm-level proximity to the capital is unimportant. However, the government stimulates local spending, which has increased employment. The government’s move here has been gradual, with institutions that during division were spread all over West Germany slowly migrating to Berlin.
The quality of infrastructure in Berlin is very good. The urban rail network was built when Berlin was Western Europe’s third largest city, after London and Paris, and has even grown after the war because the West built U7 and U9 to bypass Mitte. This means that commute pain here is not serious, especially on any even vaguely middle-class income. Moreover, Berlin has benefited from post-reunification investment, including Hauptbahnhof and two high-speed rail lines.
Consumption theory and the counterculture
The queer counterculture that I am involved with in Berlin tells a different story. To hear them tell it, Berlin has a quirky, individualistic, nonconforming culture, unlike the stifling normality of Munich. Artists moved here, and then other people moved here to be near the artists, paying higher rents until the artists could no longer afford the city. This story is told at every scale, from Berlin as a city to individual neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. A lot of the discourse about Berlin repeats this uncritically, for example Feargus O’Sullivan at CityLab/Bloomberg Cities writes about the cool factor and about gentrification of old buildings.
It is also a completely wrong story. This is really important to understand: nobody that I know in the sort of spaces that are being blamed for gentrification, that is the tech industry and its penumbra, has any interest in the counterculture. I go to board games meetups full of tech workers who are fluent in English and often don’t know any German, and they have no connections at all to the local counterculture. They interact with immigrant culture spaces, not with the 95%+ white counterculture as defined by queer spaces in Neukölln that complain about gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing white flight at the rate of postwar New York (compare 2019 data, PDF-pp. 25 and 28, with 2016, PDF-pp. 28 and 31). Occasionally there are crossovers, as when an American comedian hosted live standup in February and then there were tech workers and said American also interacts with the counterculture, but a standup comic is not why Berliners complain.
Nor do I find foreign tech workers especially interested in German minutiae comparing Berlin with Munich. By my non-German standards, Berliners already jaywalk at indescribably lower rates, and I gather that Munich is stuffier but that’s not why I’m here and not there, the rents and the language are.
We’re not even particularly oppositional to the counterculture. I personally am because seeing queer space after queer space host indoor events during corona without masks was a horrifying experience; I went to a queer leftist meetup in late October in which people huddled together maskless and I was the only one with a mask on, except for one trans Australian physicist who drank a beer and then masked after finished. But the rest? They don’t care, nor should they. The counterculture is not the protagonist or the antagonist of Berlin’s story; it’s barely a bystander. Consumption theory is just what it promotes in order to convince itself that it’s important, that it spreads ideas and not viruses.
There’s a big difference between the various regional rail proposals I’ve made for New York and similar examples in Paris and Berlin: the New York maps go a lot further, and incorporate the entirety of regional rail, whereas the RER and the Berlin S-Bahn both focus on shorter-range, higher-frequency lines, with separate trains for longer-range service, generally without through-running. A number of New York-area rail advocates have asked me why do this, often suggesting shorter-range alternatives. Yonah Freemark made a draft proposal many years ago in which through-running trains went as far as New Brunswick, White Plains, and a few other suburbs at that range, on the model of the RER. But I believe my modification of the system used here and in Paris is correct for New York as well as the other American cities I’ve proposed regional rail in.
The reason boils down to a track shortage making it difficult to properly segregate S-Bahn/RER-type service from RegionalBahn/Transilien-type service. These are two different things in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, and Crossrail in London is likewise planned to run separately from longer-range trains, but in Zurich and on Thameslink in London these blend together. Separate operations require four-track mainlines without any two-track narrows at inconvenient places; otherwise, it’s better to blend. And in New York, there are no usable four-track mainlines. Philadelphia and Chicago have them, but not on any corridor where it’s worth running a separate RegionalBahn, which is fundamentally a short-range intercity train, and not a suburban train.
Here is a map of the Berlin S-Bahn (in black) and U-Bahn (in red) overlaid on the New York metropolitan area.
The reach of the S-Bahn here is about comparable to the size of New York City, not that of the metropolitan area. Even taking into account that Berlin is a smaller city, the scope is different. Service to suburbs that are not directly adjacent to Berlin the way Potsdam is is provided by hourly RegionalBahn trains, which do not form a neat network of a frequent north-south and a frequent east-west line through city center.
Here is the same map with the Paris Métro and RER; a branch of the RER D runs off the map but not much, and the RER E branches going east, still within the map box, go further but only every half hour off-peak.
The Parisian Transilien lines are not shown; they all terminate at the legacy stations, and a few have frequent trunks, generally within the scope of the box, but they don’t form axes like the east-west RER A and north-south RER B.
So what I’m proposing is definitely a difference, since I’ve advocated for through-running everything in New York, including trains going from Trenton to New Haven. Why?
Four-track lines and track segregation
In most of Berlin, the infrastructure exists to keep local and longer-range rail traffic separate. The Stadtbahn has four tracks, two for the S-Bahn and two for all other traffic. The North-South Tunnel has only two tracks, dedicated to S-Bahn service; the construction of Berlin Hauptbahnhof involved building new mainline-only tunnels with four tracks. Generally, when the S-Bahn takes over a longer line going out of Berlin, the line has four tracks, or else it is not needed for intercity service. The most glaring exception is the Berlin-Dresden line – the historic line is two-track and given over to the S-Bahn, requiring intercity trains to go around and waste 20 minutes, hence an ongoing project to four-track the line to allow intercity trains to go directly.
In Paris, there are always track paths available. Among the six main intercity terminals, the least amount of infrastructure is four-track approaches, at Gare de Lyon and Gare d’Austerlitz, with two tracks given over to the RER and two to everything else. Of note, the entirety of the Austerlitz network has been given to the RER, as has nearly all of the Lyon network, which is why the lines go so far to the south. The other terminals have more: Saint-Lazare and Nord each have 10 tracks, making segregation very easy. Only subsidiary regional-only stations have two-track approaches, and those are entirely given over to the RER, forming the eastern part of the RER A, the southern part of the RER B, and the western part of the RER C.
New York has a shortage of approach tracks. The reason for this is that historically the mainlines mostly terminated outside Manhattan, so the four-track approaches only went as far as Newark, Jersey City, etc. The LIRR has a four-track mainline into Penn Station from the east, which is why I’ve advocated for some segregation, but even that should eventually involve the express trains via East Side Access through-running to New Jersey; see the second map in this post.
On the New Jersey side there are plans for four tracks with new tunnels across the Hudson, but two tracks have to be shared with intercity trains, and there’s no easy way to neatly separate service into two S-Bahn tracks and two RegionalBahn tracks. In the short run, two of these tracks would have to include trains diverting west to the Morris and Essex Lines, which have a three-track main and therefore cannot segregate their own locals and expresses. In the long run, with the M&E system given its own tunnel across the Hudson, you could theoretically do two local and two express tracks, but that runs into a different issue, which is that east of Penn Station, there are two paths to New Rochelle, both of which have local stops.
The issue of having two paths between the city center station and an important suburban junction, both with local stations, is also a problem in London. North of the Thames, most mainlines are at least four-track, making segregation easy, hence the plans for Crossrail. The only exception is the Lea Valley lines. But in South London, lines are two-track – historically, railways that needed more capacity did not widen one line to four tracks but instead built a parallel two-track lines with its own local stations, often arranging the local stations in a loop. The result is a morass of merging and diverging lines reducing capacity, and London is only slowly disentangling it. In either case, it makes segregation difficult; Thameslink can’t just take over the slow lines the way Crossrail is, and therefore there are Thameslink trains going as far as Bedford and Brighton.
What does this mean?
It’s somewhat unusual for New York to get a regional rail network in which every train, even ones going to distinct cities like New Haven, is part of a central system of through-running. But it’s not unheard of – Thameslink works like this, so does the Zurich S-Bahn, and so does Israel’s national network with its Tel Aviv through-running – and it’s an artifact of a real limitation of the region’s mainline rail system.
But this should not be viewed as a negative. New York really does have suburban sprawl stretching tens of kilometers out. It should have suburban rail accompanying all these suburbs, and wherever possible, it should run on a schedule that is useful to people who are not just 1950s-style 9-to-5 commuters. Moreover, New York lacks either the vast terminals of Paris or the Ringbahn’s mushroom concept, which means trains from outer suburbs have nowhere to go but Manhattan, so they might as well be turned over into a through-running system.