It is much harder to find estimates of construction costs for elevator access to metro stations than to find estimates for the costs of new tunnels. Accessibility isn’t as flashy, so it does not get reported in the international trade press. If you’re a humble blogger who has no idea what the Japanese phrases for “elevator,” “wheelchair accessibility,” and “construction costs” are, you have no way of figuring out how much it cost Tokyo to get its legacy subway network to be about 80-90% accessible. Thankfully, there are enough European cities where I do know those phrases that I do have a list. It comprises just eight cities, two in the US and six in Europe, and in at least one case (Milan) I don’t fully trust the numbers.
New York:the current capital plan spends $740 million on 19 stations, and a single elevator is $10 million if I understand Curbed correctly. The headline figure is $39 million per station.
Boston: MBTA head of systemwide accessibility, Laura Brelsford, told me that Symphony is a $25 million, 4 elevator project, and that Copley and Arlington were in the $30-40 million range each. I can’t find a link, unfortunately.
London: here is a source saying a £76 million fund would make 12 stations step-free, but I don’t know which stations. This source states a higher figure, £200 million for 13 stations, which in PPP terms is about $22 million per station. The lower figure is only $9 million per station.
Paris: nothing is accessible except M14 and the RER and there are no plans to make anything accessible, but a disability rights organization estimates the cost of making all 303 Metro stations accessible at €4-6 billion. Subtracting M14-only stations this is also about $22 million per station at the midpoint.
Madrid: a 2016-20 plan breaks down costs per station. They’re about €5 million per station per line it serves (so a 3-line transfer is €15 million), and a single elevator is €1.5 million. The relevant numbers are on PDF-pp. 12-17. This document used to exist in English too but the URL broke and the Web Archive doesn’t have it. Lumping all remaining stations together, few of which are transfers, gives €531.9 million for 93 stations, or $7.5 million per station.
Berlin: follow the link from my tweetstorm. The U-Bahn is about to complete step-free access by 2020. The cost is €800,000 per elevator, €2 million per station, or $2.6 million per station.
Barcelona: I have three separate sets of numbers, and am placing the city on this list with the lower two. Here is a source describing the installation of elevators at 14 stations for €26.8 million. Here is a source describing a single station on a different line to be made accessible for €2.1 million. In contrast, a document describing the plan for universal accessibility states the cost up to 2009 at €390.97 million euros (PDF-p. 87) for 73 stations (PDF-p. 83). The first two sources average to $2.5 million per station, but the third one, covering more stations, including complex transfer points, averages $7 million per station in what I imagine are in 2009 prices.
Milan: this article seems to be saying that elevator installation at 21 stations is budgeted at €24.5 million, all on Lines 1 and 2, which are shallow cut-and-cover lines built under narrow medieval streets. I’m not sure whether all of these are elevators, though – the Milan Metro site says that it has elevators at some stations and stairlifts at others. This totals $1.5 million per station.
The low construction cost of elevator accessibility in Berlin is notable since the city’s tunneling costs are not so low. I am still trying to talk to local transit officials about this, but my surface understanding is that fewer elevators are needed per station. The city uses island platforms rather than side platforms and has shallow subsurface stations with access from raised street medians, so a single elevator covers the entire station.
That said, Paris and New York both have extensive cut-and-cover construction under very wide streets, much like Berlin. A multiple of 2 over Berlin costs is to be expected as they have side platforms, and thus all station infrastructure needs to be doubled. However, Paris’s costs are (apparently) higher than Berlin’s by a factor of 9 and New York’s by a factor of 15. Paris is not a high-cost city when it comes to tunneling, and it’s possible that the activists just estimated it based on London costs, or that the government made up a high number in order to sandbag the calls for step-free accessibility.
Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.
Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.
Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.
One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.
Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.
Finance and costs
This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.
In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.
He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.
In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.
Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.
Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.
First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about €5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about €5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about €2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just €800,000.
And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.
That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.
I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.
By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.
But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.
There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.
Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.
Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.
This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.
If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.
That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.
The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.
New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.
The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.
I was reticent to post about this topic; I polled it on Patreon in December and it got just under 50% while the two topics I did blog, difficult urban geography and cross-platform transfers, got 64% and 50% respectively. However, between how close the vote was and the conversation about the current state of the subway in New York, I felt obligated to explain what’s been going on. The short version is that practically the entire change in subway ridership in New York over the last generation or two has come from the off-peak, and the way American cities set their frequency guidelines off-peak amplify small changes in demand, so that a minor setback can lead to collapse and a minor boost can lead to boom.
The good news is that by setting frequency to be high even if it does not look like ridership justifies it, cities can generate a virtuous cycle on the upswing and avoid a vicious one on the downswing. However, it requires the discipline to run good service even in bad times, when bean counters and budget cutters insist on retrenchment. The Chainsaw Al school of management looks appealing in recessions or when ridership is falling, and this is precisely when people who run transit agencies must resist the urge to cut frequency to levels that lead to a positive feedback loop wrecking the system.
The key to the frequency-ridership spiral is that cutting frequency on transit makes it less useful to passengers, since door-to-door trip times are longer and less reliable. The size of this effect can be measured as the elasticity of ridership with respect to service: if increasing service provision by 1% is demonstrated to raise ridership by e%, we say that the elasticity is e.
Fortunately, this question is fundamental enough to transit that there is extensive published literature on the subject:
- In a classical TRB paper, Armando Lago, Patrick Mayworm, and Matthew McEnroe look at data from several American cities as well as one British one, disaggregating elasticity by frequency, mode (bus or commuter rail), and period (peak or off-peak). The aggregate average value is e = 0.44 for buses and e = 0.5 for commuter rail, but when frequency is better than every 10 minutes, e = 0.22 on average.
- Todd Litman of the advocacy organization VTPI has a summary mostly about fare elasticity but also service elasticity, suggesting e is in the 0.5-0.7 range in the short term and in the 0.7-1.1 range in the long term.
- A paper by Joe Totten and David Levinson includes its own lit review of several studies, including the two above, finding a range of 0.3 to 1.1 across a number of papers, with the lower figures associated with urban service and the higher ones with low-frequency suburban service. The paper’s own research, focusing on transit in Minneapolis, finds that on weekdays, e = 0.39.
One factor that I have unfortunately not seen in the papers I have read is trip length. Frequency is more important for short trips than long ones. This is significant, since when the headway is shorter relative to in-vehicle trip time we should expect lower elasticity with respect to the headway. Waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 minutes for an hour-long trip is not much of an imposition; waiting 30 minutes rather than 15 for the same trip is a greater imposition, as is waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 for a 20-minute trip.
In New York, the average unlinked subway trip is 13.5 minutes long, so the difference between 10 and 5 minutes is very large. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe cite research saying passengers’ disutility for out-of-vehicle time is 2-3 times as large as for in-vehicle time; the MTA’s own ridership screen states that this penalty is 1.75, the MBTA’s states that it is 2.25, and a study by Coen Teulings, Ioulina Ossokina, and Henri de Groot says that it is 2 in the Netherlands. Figuring that this penalty is 2, the worst-case scenario for off-peak weekday wait time in New York, 10 minutes, has passengers spending more perceived time waiting for the train than riding it, and even in the average case, 10/2 = 5 minutes, it is close. In that case, higher values of e are defensible. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe have less data about in-vehicle time elasticity and do not attempt to aggregate in- and out-of-vehicle time. But adding everything together is consistent with e = 0.8 relative to speed averaged over the total wait and in-vehicle time, and then e is maybe 0.4 relative to frequency.
The impact of service cuts
If the elasticity of ridership relative to frequency is 0.4, then cutting service by 1% means cutting ridership by 0.4%. If half the operating costs are covered by fares, then revenue drops by 0.2% of total operating expenses, so the 1% cut only saves 0.8% of the total subsidy. Achieving a 1% cut in operating costs net of fare revenue thus requires a 1.25% cut in service, which reduces ridership by 0.5%.
This may not sound too bad, but that’s because the above analysis does not incorporate fixed costs. Rail comes equipped with fixed costs for maintenance, station staffing, rolling stock, and administration, regardless of how much service the agency runs. Lisa Schweitzer uses this fact to defend Los Angeles’s MTA from my charge of high operating costs: she notes that Los Angeles runs much less service than my comparison cases in the US and Europe and thus average cost per train-km is higher even without undue inefficiency. In contrast, bus costs are dominated by driver wages, which are not fixed.
New York does not keep a headcount of transit employees in a searchable format – the Manhattan Institute’s See Through New York applet helps somewhat but is designed around shaming workers who make a lot of money through overtime rather than around figuring out how many people work (say) maintenance. But Chicago does, and we can use its numbers to estimate the fixed and variable costs of running the L.
The CTA has somewhat more than 10,000 workers, split fairly evenly between bus and rail. The rail workers include about 800 working for the director of maintenance, working on the rolling stock, which needs regular servicing and inspections regardless of how often it’s run; 550 working for facilities maintenance; (say) 400 out of 800 workers in administrative capacity like communications, general counsel, purchasing, and the chief engineer’s office; 600 workers in power and way maintenance; nearly 1,000 customer service agents; and 450 workers in flagging, switching, and the control towers. Only 500 workers drive trains, called rapid transit operators or extra board, and there may charitably be another 200 clerks, managers, and work train operators whose jobs can be cut if there is a service cut. A service cut would only affect 15% of the workers, maybe 20% if some rolling stock maintenance work can be cut.
In New York the corresponding percentage is somewhat higher than 15% since trains have conductors. Train operators and conductors together are about 13% of the NYCT headcount, so maybe 20% of subway employees, or 25% with some extra avoidable maintenance work.
What this means is that achieving a 2% cut in subsidy through reducing service requires a service cut of much more than 2%. If only 25% of workers are affected then, even without any frequency-ridership elasticity, the agency needs to cut service by 8% to cut operating costs by 2%.
The Uber effect
The combination of elasticity and fixed costs means that rail ridership responds wildly to small shocks to ridership. For a start, if the agency cuts service by 1%, then operating costs fall by 0.25%. Ridership falls by 0.4%, and thus revenue also falls by 0.4%, which is 0.2% of total operating costs. Thus operating costs net of revenue only fall by 0.05%. The only saving grace is that this is 0.05% of total operating costs; since by assumption fare revenue covers half of operating costs, this saves a full 0.1% of the public subsidy.
Read the above paragraph again: taking fixed costs and elasticity into account, cutting service by 1% only reduces the public subsidy to rail service by 0.1%. A 2% cut in subsidy in a recession requires a brutal 20% cut in service, cutting ridership by 8%. And this only works because New York overstaffs its trains by a factor of 2, so that it’s plausible that 25% of employees can be furloughed in a service cut; using Chicago numbers this proportion is at most 20%, in which case revenue falls one-to-one with operating costs and there is no way to reduce the public subsidy to rail operations through service cuts.
Of course, this has a positive side: a large increase in service only requires a modest increase in the public subsidy. Moreover, if trains have the operating costs of Chicago, which are near the low end in the developed world, then the combined impact of fixed costs and elasticity is such that the public subsidy to rapid transit does not depend on frequency, and thus the agency could costlessly increase service.
This is relevant to the Uber effect – namely, the research arguing that the introduction of ride-hailing apps, i.e. Uber and Lyft, reduces transit ridership. I was skeptical of Bruce Schaller’s study to that effect since it came out two years ago, since the observed reduction in transit ridership in New York in 2016 was a large multiple of the increase in total taxi and ride-hailing traffic once one concentrated on the off-peak and weekends, when the latter rose the most.
But if small shocks to ridership are magnified by the frequency-ridership spiral, then the discrepancy is accounted for. If a shock cuts ridership by 1%, which could be slower trains, service disruptions due to maintenance, or the Uber effect, then revenue falls 1% and the subsidy has to rise 1% to compensate. To cover the subsidy through service cuts requires a 10% cut in service, further cutting ridership by 4%.
Off-peak service guidelines
The above analysis is sobering enough. However, it assumes that service cuts and increases are uniformly distributed throughout the day. This is not the actual case for American transit agency practice, which is to concentrate both cuts and increases in the off-peak.
Unfortunately, cuts in off-peak service rather than at rush hour do not touch semi-fixed labor costs. The number of employees required to run service is governed by the peak, so running a lot of peak service without off-peak service leads to awkward shift scheduling and poor crew utilization. Higher ratios of peak to base frequency correlate with lower total service-hours per train driver: in addition to the examples I cite in a post from 2016, I have data for Berlin, where the U-Bahn’s peak-to-base ratio is close to 1, and there are 829 annual service-hours per driver.
I discussed the fact that the marginal cost of adding peak service is several times that of adding off-peak service in a post from last year. However, even if we take rolling stock acquisition as a given, perhaps funded by a separate capital plan, marginal crew costs are noticeably higher at the peak than off-peak.
In New York, the rule is that off-peak subway frequency is set so that at the most crowded point of each route, the average train will be filled to 125% seated capacity; before the round of service cuts in 2010 this was set at 100%, so the service cut amounted to reducing frequency by 20%. The only backstop to a vicious cycle is that the minimum frequency on weekdays is set at 10 minutes; on weekends I have heard both 10 and 12 minutes as the minimum, and late at night there is a uniform 20-minute frequency regardless of crowding.
Peak frequency is governed by peak crowding levels as well, but much higher crowding than 125% is permitted. However, the busiest lines are more crowded than the guidelines and run as frequently as there is capacity for more trains, so there is no feedback loop there between ridership and service.
The saving grace is that revenue is less sensitive to off-peak ridership, since passengers who get monthly passes for their rush hour trips ride for free off-peak. However, this factor requires there to be substantial enough season pass discounts so that even rush hour-only riders would use them. Berlin, where U-Bahn tickets cost €2.25 apiece in bundles of 4 and monthly passes cost €81, is such a city: 18 roundtrips per month are enough to justify a monthly. New York is not: with a pay-per-ride bonus a single ride costs $2.62 whereas a 30-day pass costs $121, so 23.1 roundtrips per month are required, so the breakeven point requires a roundtrip every weekday and every other weekend.
New York subway ridership evolution
The subway’s crisis in the 1970s reduced ridership to less than 1 billion, a level not seen since 1918. This was on the heels of a steady reduction in ridership over the 1950s and 60s, caused by suburbanization. In 1991, ridership was down to 930 million, but the subsequent increase in reliability and fall in crime led to a 24-year rally to a peak of 1,760 million in 2015.
Throughout this period, there was no increase in peak crowding. On the contrary. Look at the 1989 Hub Bound Report: total subway ridership entering Manhattan south of 60th Street between 7 and 10 am averaged about 1 million, down from 1.1 million in 1971 – and per the 2016 report, the 2015 peak was only 922,000. Between 1989 and 2015, NYCT actually opened a new route into Manhattan, connecting the 63rd Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line; moreover, a preexisting route, the Manhattan Bridge, had been reduced from four tracks to two in 1986 and went back to four tracks in 2004.
Nor was there much of an increase in mode share. The metropolitan statistical area’s transit mode share for work trips rose from 27% in 2000 to 30% in 2010. In the city proper it rose from 52% in 1990 to 57% in 2016. No: more than 100% of the increase in New York subway ridership between 1991 and 2015 was outside the peak commute hours, and nearly 100% of it involved non-work trips. These trips are especially affected by the frequency-ridership spiral, since frequency is lower then, and thus a mild positive shock coming from better maintenance, a lower crime rate, and perhaps other factors translated to a doubling in total ridership, and a tripling of off-peak ridership. Conversely, today, a very small negative shock is magnified to a minor crisis, even if ridership remains well above the levels of the 1990s.
The way out
Managers like peak trains. Peak trains are full, so there’s no perception of wasting service on people who don’t use it. Managers also like peak trains because they themselves are likelier to ride them: they work normal business hours, and are rich enough to afford cars. That current NYCT head Andy Byford does not own a car and uses the city’s transit network to get around scandalizes some of the longstanding senior managers, who don’t use their own system. Thus, the instinct of the typical manager is to save money by pinching pennies on off-peak service.
In contrast, the best practice is to run more service where possible. In Berlin, nearly all U-Bahn trains run every 5 minutes flat; a few lines get 4-minute peak service, and a few outer ends and branches only get half-service, a train every 10 minutes. At such high frequency, the frequency-ridership spiral is less relevant: an increase to a train every 4 minutes would require increasing service by 25%, raising costs by around 5% (Berlin’s one-person crews are comparable to Chicago’s, not New York’s), but not result in a significant increase in ridership as the shorter headway is such a minute proportion of total travel time. However, New York’s 10-minute off-peak frequency is so low that there is room to significantly increase ridership purely by running more service.
In 2015 I criticized the frequency guidelines in New York on the grounds of branching: a complexly branched system must run interlined services at the same frequency, even if one branch of a trunk line is somewhat busier than the other. However, the frequency-ridership spiral adds another reason to discard the current frequency guidelines. All branches in New York should run at worst every 6 minutes during the daytime, yielding 3-minute frequency on most trunks, and the schedules should be designed to avoid conflicts at junctions; non-branching trunk lines, that is the 1, 6, 7, and L trains, should run more frequently, ideally no more than every 4 minutes, the lower figure than in Berlin following from the fact that the 1 and 6 trains are both local and mostly serve short trips.
Moreover, the frequency should be fixed by a repeating schedule, which should be clockface at least on the A train, where the outer branches would only get 12-minute frequency. If ridership increases by a little, trains should be a little more crowded, and if it decreases by a little, they should be a little less crowded. Some revision of schedules based on demand may be warranted but only in the long run, never in the short run. Ideally the system should aim at 5-minute frequency on every route, but as the N, R, and W share tracks, this would require some deinterlining in order to move more service to Second Avenue.
This increase in frequency is not possible if politicians and senior managers respond to every problem by cutting service while dragging their feet about increasing service when ridership increases. It requires proactive leadership, interested in increasing public transit usage rather than in avoiding scandal. But the actual monetary expense required for such frequency is not large, since large increases in frequency, especially in the off-peak, mostly pay for themselves through extra ridership. The initial outlay required to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one is not large; all that is required is interest from the people in charge of American transit systems.
Fresh off the election, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has proposed an ambitious infrastructure plan, dubbed 30-30-30, in which train travel between New York and Stamford, Stamford and New Haven, and New Haven and Hartford would be cut to 30 minutes. With an average speed of about 110 km/h, this is only about half the average speed typical of high-speed rail, but still slightly higher than that of the Northeast Regional between New York and Washington, which is competitive with cars and buses provided there is enough capacity.
For 30-30-30 to truly be cost-effective, the plan needs to speed up trains with relatively little infrastructure investment, at a cost measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Is that feasible? The topline answer is yes. All three segments can be done in the specified amount of time. North of New Haven, there are generous margins, but 30-minute travel times will rely on electrifying the Shuttle and running high-quality electric trains. South of New Haven, each segment has just seconds to spare to achieve the governor’s goal, and no big-ticket capital investment would be needed, but the plan will require a complete overhaul in Metro-North operations.
Some additional repairs are needed on tracks straight enough to allow trains to run at 160 km/h, which are today only maintained to allow 75 mph, or 120 km/h. The state may also need to procure lighter trains, able to accelerate faster than the current equipment. On a fast schedule, with few intermediate stops, the difference with the current M8 trains is small, but in practice north of Stamford, where trains are likely to make many stops, the difference would be noticeable.
Most of all, reliability must improve enough that is possible to remove the extensive schedule padding in the timetable today. Metro-North is in a perpetual maintenance cycle. At any time there is a slow zone somewhere on the tracks, with generous schedule padding on top of it. Maintenance must be switched to the nighttime, as is practiced on high-speed lines in Japan and France and on subways everywhere in the world outside New York, in order to improve daytime reliability.
The simulation of train performance
In order to figure out the best possible trip times, I made a table of speed zones on the New Haven Line, from Grand Central to New Haven. But instead of using current speed zones, which are very conservative, I looked for the maximum speed that is feasible within the current right-of-way.
The most important rule I followed is no curve modifications, even modifications that are likely to happen under any high-speed rail scenario. While some capital investment may still be required, it is entirely within existing rights-of-way.
In the simulation, I used code outputting slow penalties for trains based on prescribed performance characteristics. For this, I used two sets of characteristics. The first, is for the M8 trains used by Metro-North today. The second is an average of modern European regional trains, such as the Stadler FLIRT, the Alstom Coradia, the Bombardier Talent 2, the CAF Civity, and the Siemens Mireo. Because they are much lighter-weight, all have about 50% better acceleration than the M8 at any speed. Both sets of trains can reach the same top speed, 160 km/h, but when the M8 slows down from top speed to make a station stop, the extra acceleration and deceleration time add another 69 seconds to the trip, compared with only 46 seconds on the European regional trains.
That said, the proposed schedule has few intermediate stops, and even with frequent slowdowns due to curves, the total difference in time between the two sets of trains is about two minutes. So, while I would urge Connecticut to buy modern trains at its next procurement, based on the latest revision in FRA regulations permitting lightly-modified European trains, the present-day rolling stock is good enough, it’s just much heavier than it needs to be.
While I did not assume any curve modifications, I did assume that trains could run faster on curves than they do today. The New Haven Line has conservative values for the permitted centrifugal force acting on trains. I explain more about this in a previous post about trains in Connecticut, but the relevant figures are about 8” of total equivalent cant on the New Haven Line today, or about 200 mm, whereas light trackwork increasing total cant and already-existing regulatory changes above the rails could raise this to 12” on existing trains, about 300 mm, and even more on tilting trains like the Acela. The difference between 200 and 300 mm of total equivalent cant corresponds to a 22% increase in speed; the formula is .
Moreover, in some areas the maximum speeds are even lower than one might assume based on curve radius and current permitted curve speeds. These include the movable bridges over the waterways, which have very low speed limits even when the tracks are mostly straight; if the bridges physically cannot accommodate faster trains then they should be replaced, a capital investment already on the state and the region’s official wishlist.
In addition to speed limits imposed by curves and bridges, there is a uniform speed limit of 90 mph (145 km/h) on the New York segment of the line and 75 mph on the Connecticut segment. This is entirely a matter of poor maintenance: the right-of-way geometry could support higher speed today in some places, even without curve modifications.
Finally, trains today go at excruciatingly slow speed in the throat heading into the bumper tracks at Grand Central, 10 miles per hour. This is bad practice: even with bumper tracks, German train throats with complex switches are capable of 70 km/h. This change alone would save about 4 minutes. Overall, trains today are scheduled to take about 11-12 minutes between Grand Central and Harlem, and the proposed schedule cuts this down to 5-6.
The proposed schedule
I am attaching a spreadsheet with exact speed zones, rounded down in 5 km/h increments. People who wish to see what’s behind the timetable I’m proposing can go look there for intermediate times. These may be especially useful to people who want to see what happens if more stops on the Lower New Haven Line are included. For example, one might notice that all technical travel times are padded 7%, as is standard practice in Switzerland, and that trains dwell exactly 30 seconds at each station, which is observed on busy commuter lines in Zurich as well as Paris.
I am including two stopping patterns: regional and intercity. Regional trains make the same stops as the Upper New Haven Line trains do today, plus New Rochelle. Intercity trains only make a few stops beyond Stamford, with a stopping pattern close to that of Amtrak. In addition, I am including two different sets of rolling stock: the current M8, and lighter, faster-accelerating European trainsets. The difference in the regional train pattern is noticeable, while that in the intercity one is less so.
Finally, at stations, it’s possible to state the scheduled the time the train arrives at the station or the one it departs. At all intermediate stations, the timetable below states the arrival time, unlike the attached spreadsheet, which uses departure times to permit calculating exact average speeds.
|Stop||Regional, M8||Regional, euro||Intercity, M8||Intercity, euro|
In theory, achieving the governor’s proposed timetable is easier north of New Haven. The Hartford Line is a straight route. Most of it has a top speed of 80 mph, and outside the approaches to New Haven and Hartford, the speed restrictions are caused by arbitrarily slowdowns for grade crossings rather than by constrained geometry.
However, in practice, the line is in poor state of repair. Grade crossings are unprotected. The entire line is not electrified, and there are no plans to electrify it, for reasons that can only be explained as an allergy that North American railroaders have to electrification. The stations have low platforms, which are not accessible to people in wheelchairs without labor-intensive, time-consuming lift operations—and even if there are no riders with disabilities, it just takes longer for passengers to board from low platforms.
The above schedule assumes 7% padding and 30-second dwell times at stations, but such assumptions only work when the equipment is reliable, and when there are wide doors letting passengers on the train with level boarding or at worst short steps. Traditional commuter lines pulled by diesel locomotives, serving low-platform stations with narrow doors, have to be much slower. Clem Tillier‘s example timetable for Caltrain requires 15% padding and 45-second dwell times with today’s diesel operations—and at rush hour some station dwells stretch over minutes due to the railroad’s uniquely high number of passengers with bicycles.
The good news is that electrification and high platforms are, in the grand scheme of things, cheap. Amtrak electrified the Northeast Corridor between New Haven and Boston at $3.5 million per kilometer in the 1990s, adjusted for inflation; at that cost, wiring the entire New Haven-Springfield shuttle would run up to $350 million. Moreover, Boston has been equipping a number of commuter rail stations with high platforms in order to provide wheelchair accessibility, and in ordinary circumstances, the costs have been on the order of $6-10 million per station. This entire package on the Hartford Line would be cheaper than replacing any of the movable bridges on the New Haven Line.
Moreover, upgrading grade crossings with four-quadrant gates, which make it impossible for cars to drive around the gates while they are closed, is affordable as well—and would permit the towns along the route to institute quiet zones, eliminating the loud train horns. In Boulder, the same installation costs about $500,000 per grade crossing for quad gates and another $300,000 for an alternative to horns; in federal regulations, quad gates are good up to 110 mph. There are 23 level crossings between New Haven and Hartford and another 11 between Hartford and Springfield; $30 million would upgrade them all.
The importance of a good maintenance regime
In Switzerland, schedules are padded by 7% over the technical travel time, to permit trains to recover from delays. By American standards, this is a low figure: the LIRR’s schedules are padded by 20-30%, and I have personally seen an express New Haven Line train do Stamford-Grand Central in about 15% less than the scheduled trip time.
Switzerland achieves high punctuality with relatively tight scheduling by making sure delays do not propagate. Railroad junctions are grade-separated when possible, and if not then they are equipped with pocket tracks to allow trains to wait without delaying crossing traffic. To achieve comparable reliability, Metro-North should grade-separate its most important junctions: Shell, where the line joins with the Northeast Corridor tracks carrying Amtrak (and soon Penn Station Access); and Stam, where the New Canaan Branch joins. It could potentially also grade-separate Berk, where the Danbury Branch joins, and Devon, where the Waterbury Branch joins, but the traffic at these junctions is lighter and delayed branch trains can wait without disturbing mainline trains.
Moreover, like the rest of Europe as well as Japan, Switzerland conducts maintenance at night. The daytime maintenance with work zones that are a common sight on American passenger railroads are unknown on most European railroads. Only mixed lines running high-speed passenger trains in the day and freight at night have to schedule trains next to active work zones, and those are indeed much harder to maintain.
The laws of physics are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. If it’s possible to maintain tracks adequately during four-hour nighttime windows in Europe, it’s possible to do the same in the United States. Freight traffic on the Northeast Corridor is lighter than on many Swiss mainlines, and while passenger traffic at rush hour is very heavy, in the off-peak it is considerably lighter than on the urban commuter rail line trunks of Zurich. While four Metro-North trains run between New York and Stamford every off-peak hour, as does a single Amtrak train, ten Zurich S-Bahn trains run per hour between Zurich and Winterthur, as do six interregional and intercity trains.
The importance of maintenance was underscored in a recent article describing an independent plan to drastically cut travel times through better track standards, spearheaded by Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County and authored by San Francisco consultant Ty Lin and former Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti. In response to their plan, CDOT said it was not possible—and to emphasize this fact, the article notes that an upcoming schedule revision will slow down the trains by 6 to 10 minutes due to trackwork delays.
The one thing that the state must avoid is funneling any money into State of Good Repair (SOGR) programs. SOGR is a black hole permitting incompetent officials to spend capital money without anything to show for it: agencies around the country have SOGR programs decade after decade and somehow their stated maintenance backlogs never shrink.
Instead, 30-30-30 is the closest thing to a true program for what SOGR is supposed to be. Were the tracks in good shape, and were speeds on curves in line with modern railroading practices in other developed countries, express trains would take exactly half an hour to travel between Grand Central and Stamford and between Stamford and New Haven. So 30-30-30 is really setting a standard for a program that, up until now, has only served as an excuse for CDOT to do nothing.
It’s not yet clear what CDOT and Metro-North’s reaction to 30-30-30 will be. Is the governor’s goal achievable? Absolutely, give or take a few minutes. Is it achievable on a reasonable budget? Definitely. Are the managers who have let train schedules slip over the years, as their counterparts in New York have, capable of running the trains punctually enough in order to meet the timetable? That is the big question mark.
I am wrapping up a project to look at speedup possibilities for trains between New York and New Haven; I’ll post a full account soon, but the headline result is that express trains can get between Grand Central and New Haven in a little more than an hour on legacy track. In this calculation I looked at speed zones imposed by the curves on the line. The biggest possible speedups involve speed limits that are not geometric – and those in turn come from some very sharp slow zones. The worst is the Grand Central station throat, and I want to discuss that in particular since fixing the slowest zones usually yields the most benefits for train travel times.
Best practice for terminal approaches
Following Richard Mlynarik’s attempt to rescue the Downtown Extension in San Francisco, I’ve assumed that trains can approach terminals at 70 km/h, based on German standards. At this speed, an EMU on level track can stop in about 150 meters. In Paris, the excellent Carto Metro site details speed limits, and at most terminals with bumper tracks the speed limit is 60 km/h, with a few going up to 100 km/h.
Even with bumper tracks, 70 km/h can be supported, provided the train is not intended to stop right at the bumpers. At a fixed speed, the deceleration distance is the inverse of the deceleration rate. There is some variation in braking performance, but it’s in a fairly narrow range; on subway trains in New York, everything is supposed to brake at the same nominal rate of 3 mph/s, or 1.3 m/s^2, and when trains brake more slowly it’s because of a deliberate decision to avoid wearing the brakes out. As long as the train stops 1-2 car lengths away from the bumpers, as is routine on Metro-North, the variation will be much smaller than the margin of safety.
Fast movement through the station throat is critical for several reasons. First, as I’ll explain below, sharp speed limits have an outsize effect on trip times, and can be fixed without expensive curve easements or top-rate rolling stock. And second, at train stations with a limited number of tracks, the station throat is the real limiting factor to capacity, since trains would be moving in and out frequently, and if they move too slowly, they’ll conflict. With its 60 km/h throat, Saint-Lazare on the RER E turns 16 trains per hour at the peak on only four tracks.
I had a conversation with other members of TransitMatters in Boston yesterday, in which we discussed work to be done for our regional rail project. One of the other members, I forget who, asked me, do European train protection systems shut down in station throats too?
The answer to the question is so obviously yes that I wanted to understand why anyone would ask it. Apparently, the American mandate for automatic train protection on all passenger rail lines, under the name positive train control, or PTC, is only at speeds higher than 10 miles per hour. At 10 mph or less train operators can drive the train by sight, and no signaling is required, which is why occasionally trains overrun the bumpers even on PTC-equipped lines if the driver has sleep apnea.
Without video, nobody could see the facial expressions I was making. I believe my exact words were “…What? No! What? What the hell?”.
The conversation was about South Station, but the same situation occurs at Grand Central. Right-of-way geometry is good for decent station approach speed – there is practically no limit at Grand Central except tunnel clearances, which should be good for 100 km/h, and at South Station the sharp curve into the station from the west is still good for around 70 km/h given enough superelevation.
The impact of slow zones near stations
Last year, I published code for figuring out acceleration penalties based on prescribed train characteristics. The relevant parameters for Metro-North’s M8 is initial acceleration = 0.9 m/s^2, power/weight = 12 kW/t. Both of these figures are about two-thirds as high as what modern European EMUs are capable of, but it turns out that at low speed it does not matter too much.
Right now the Grand Central throat has a 10 mph speed limit starting just north of 59th Street, just south of milepoint 1. The total travel time over this stretch is 6 minutes, a familiar slog to every regular Metro-North rider; overall, the schedule between Grand Central and Harlem-125th Street is 10 minutes northbound and 12-13 minutes southbound, the difference coming from schedule padding. The remaining 65 or so blocks are taken at 60 mph, nearly 100 km/h, and take around 4 minutes.
Now, let’s eliminate the slow zone. Let trains keep cruising at 100 km/h until they hit the closer-in parts of the throat, say the last kilometer, where the interlocking grows in complexity and upgrading the switches may be difficult; in the last kilometer, let trains run at 70 km/h. The total travel time in the last mile now shrinks to a minute, and the total travel time between Grand Central and Harlem shrinks to 5 minutes and change. Passengers have gained 5 minutes based on literally the last mile.
For the same reason, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel imposes a serious speed limit – currently 30 mph through the tunnel, lasting about 2 miles; removing this limit would cut 2-2.5 minutes from the trip time, less than Grand Central’s 5 because the speed limit isn’t as wretched.
The total travel time between New York and New Haven on Metro-North today is about 1:50 off-peak, on trains making all stops north of Stamford. My proposed schedule has trains making the same stops plus New Rochelle doing the trip in 1:23. Out of the 27-28 minutes saved, 5 come from the Grand Central throat, the others coming from higher speed limits on the rest of the route as well as reduced schedule padding; lifting the blanket 75 mph speed limit in Connecticut is only worth about 3 minutes on a train making all stops north of Stamford, and even on an express train it’s only worth about 6 minutes over a 73 kilometer stretch.
What matters for high-speed travel
High-speed rail programs like to boast about their top speeds. But in reality, the difference between a vanilla 300 km/h train and a top of the line 360 km/h only adds up to a minute every 30 kilometers, exclusive of acceleration time. Increasing top speed is still worth it on lines with long stretches of full-speed travel, such as the Tohoku Shinkansen, where there are plans to run trains at 360 over hundreds of kilometers once the connection to Hokkaido reaches Sapporo. However, ultimately, all this extra spending on electricity and noise abatement only yields a second-order improvement to trip times.
In contrast, the slow segments offer tremendous opportunity if they are fixed. The 10 mph limit in the immediate Penn Station throat slows trains down by around 2 minutes, and those of Grand Central and South Station slow trains by more. A 130 km/h slog through suburbia where 200 km/h is possible costs a minute for every 6.2 km, which easily adds up to 5 minutes in a large city region like Tokyo. An individual switch that imposes an undue speed limit can meaningfully slow the schedule, which is why the HSR networks of the world invented high-speed turnouts.
Richard Mlynarik notes that in Germany, the fastest single end-to-end intercity rail line used to be Berlin-Hamburg, a legacy line limited to 230 km/h, where trains averaged about 190 km/h when Berlin Hauptbahnhof opened (they’ve since been slowed and now average 160). Trains go at full speed for the entire way between Berlin and Hamburg, whereas slow urban approaches reduce the average speed of nominally 300 km/h Frankfurt-Cologne to about 180, and numerous compromises reduce that of the nominally 300 km/h Berlin-Munich line to 160; even today, trains from Berlin to Hamburg are a hair faster than trains to Munich because the Berlin-Hamburg line’s speed is more consistent.
The same logic applies to all travel, and not just high-speed rail. The most important part of a regional railway to speed up is the slowest station throats, followed by slow urban approaches if they prove to be a problem. The most important part of a subway to speed up is individual slow zones at stations or sharp curves that are not properly superelevated. The most important part of a bus trip to speed up is the most congested city center segment.
All reform agendas run into the same problem: someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more politically powerful than the entrenched interests that need reform. The big political incentive for a leader is to swoop in to fix an organization that is broken and get accolades for finally making government work. But whether this work depends on what exactly is broken. If the fish rots from the tail, and better management can fix things, then reformist politicians have an easy time. The problem is that if the fish rots from the head – that is, if the problem is the political leaders themselves – then there is no higher manager that can remove underperforming workers. My contention is that when it comes to poor American public transit practices, the fish usually rots from the head.
Whither fixing construction costs?
I wrote my first comment documenting high New York construction costs at the end of 2009. By 2011 this turned into my first post in my series here with some extra numbers. By the time I jumped from commenting to blogging, the MTA had already made a reference to its high costs in a 2010 report called Making Every Dollar Count (p. 11): “tunneling for the expansion projects has cost between three and six times as much as similar projects in Germany, France and Italy.” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been plagiarizing my 2011 post since 2013.
However, the early recognition has not led to any concrete action. There has not been any attention even from leaders who could gain a lot of political capital from being seen as fixing the problem, such as governors in California, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as successive New York mayors. That Governor Cuomo himself has paid little attention to the subway can be explained in terms of his unique personal background from a car-oriented city neighborhood, but when it’s multiple governors and mayors, it’s most likely a more systemic issue.
What’s more, there has been plenty of time to come up with an actionable agenda, and to see it pay dividends to help catapult the career of whichever politician can take credit. The MTA report came out 9 years ago. An ambitious, forward-thinking politician could have investigated the issue and come up with ways to reduce costs in this timeframe – and in the region alone, four politicians in the relevant timeframe (Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Cuomo, and Governor Christie) had obvious presidential ambitions.
Evidently, there has been action whenever a political priority was threatened. The LIRR had long opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project, on the grounds that by sending trains through a tunnel used by the LIRR, Metro-North would impinge on its turf. As it was a visible project and a priority for Cuomo, Cuomo had to remove the LIRR’s obstruction, and thus fired LIRR President Helena Williams in 2014.
So what’s notable is that construction costs did not become a similar political priority, even though rhetoric of government effectiveness and fighting waste is ubiquitous on the center-left, center, and center-right.
That successive powerful American leaders have neglected to take on construction costs suggests that there is no benefit to them in fixing the problem. The question is, who benefits from high costs, then?
The answer cannot be that these politicians are all corrupt. The inefficiency in construction does not go to any serious politician’s pockets. Corruption might, but that requires me to believe that all relevant mayors and governors take bribes, which I wouldn’t believe of Italy, let alone the United States. One or two crooks could plausibly lead to cost explosion in one place, but it is not plausible that every serious politician in the New York area in the last decade has been both corrupt and in on the exact same grift.
Another answer I’d like to exclude is powerful interest groups. For example, if the main cause of high American construction costs were unions, then this would explain why governors all over the more liberal states don’t make an effort to build infrastructure more cheaply. However, there are enough high-cost states with right-wing politics and anti-union laws. The other entrenched interest groups are quite weak nationwide, for example planners, who politicians of all flavors love to deride as unelected bureaucrats.
The pattern of competence and incompetence
In my dealings with New York, I’ve noticed a pattern: the individual planners I talk to are curious, informed, and very sharp, and I don’t just mean the ones who leak confidential information to me. This does not stop at the lower levels: while most of my dealings with planners were with people who are my age or not much older, one of my sources speaks highly of their supervisor, and moreover my interactions with senior planners at the MTA when Eric Goldwyn and I pitched our bus redesign were positive. Eric also reports very good interactions with bus drivers and union officials.
In contrast, the communications staff is obstructive and dishonest. Moreover, the most senior layer of management is simply incompetent. Adam Rahbee describes it as “the higher up you get, the less reasonable people are” (my paraphrase, not a direct quote); he brings up work he proposed to do on reworking on the subway schedules, but the head of subway operations did not have the budget to hire an outside consultant and the higher-up managers did not even know that there was a problem with trains running slower than scheduled (“running time”).
A number of area observers have also noticed how MTA head Ronnie Hakim, a Cuomo appointee, was responsible to much of the recent spate of subway slowdowns. Hakim, with background in law rather than operations, insisted speed should not be a priority according to Dan Rivoli’s sources. The operations staff seem to hate her, judging by the number and breadth of anonymous sources naming her as one of several managers who are responsible for the problem.
The pattern is, then, that the put-upon public workers who run the trains day in, day out are fine. It’s the political appointees who are the problem. I don’t have nearly so many sources at other transit agencies, but what I have seen there, at least in Boston and San Francisco, is consistent with the same pattern.
Quite often, governors who aim to control cost institute general hiring freezes, via managers brought in from the outside, even if some crucial departments are understaffed. For example, Boston has an epidemic of bus bunching, is staffed with only 5-8 dispatchers at a given time, and can’t go up to the necessary 15 or so because of a hiring freeze. The 40 or so full-time dispatchers who are needed to make up the difference cost much less than the overtime for bus drivers coming from the bunching, to say nothing of the extra revenue the MBTA could get if, with the same resources, its buses ran more punctually. In the name of prudence and saving money, the MBTA wastes it.
The risk aversion pattern
The above section has two examples of political interference making operations worse: a hiring freeze at the MBTA (and also at the MTA), and Ronnie Hakim deemphasizing train speed out of fear of lawsuits. There is a third example, concerning capital planning: Cuomo’s interference with the L shutdown, well covered by local sources like Second Avenue Sagas, in which the governor effectively took sides in an internal dispute against majority opinion just because engineering professors in the minority had his ear. All three examples have a common thread: the negative political interference is in a more risk-averse direction – hiring fewer people, running slower trains, performing ongoing maintenance with kludges rather than a long-term shutdown.
The importance of risk-aversion is that some of the problems concerning American construction costs are about exactly that. Instead of forcing agencies that fight turf battles to make nice, political leaders build gratuitous extra infrastructure to keep them on separate turf, for example in California for high-speed rail. Only when these turf battles risk a visible project, such as the LIRR’s opposition to Penn Station Access, do the politicians act. Costs are not so visible, so politicians let them keep piling, using slush funds and raiding the rest of the budget.
In New York, the mined stations, too, are a problem of risk-aversion. Instead of opening up portions of Second Avenue for 18 months and putting it platforms, the MTA preferred to mine stations from a smaller dig, a five-year project that caused less street disruption over a longer period of time. An open dig would invite open political opposition from within the neighborhood; dragging it over five years may have caused even more disruption, but it was less obtrusive. The result: while the tunneling for Second Avenue Subway was about twice as expensive as in Paris, the stations were each seven times as expensive. The overall multiplier is a factor of seven because overheads were 11 times as expensive, and because the stop spacing on Second Avenue is a bit narrower than on the Paris Metro extension I’m comparing it with.
In contrast with the current situation in New York, what I keep proposing is politically risky. It involves expanding public hiring, not on a massive level, but on a level noticeable enough that if one worker underperforms, it could turn into a minor political scandal in which people complain about big government. It involves promoting smart insiders as well as hiring smart outsiders – and those outsiders should have industry experience, like Andy Byford at New York City Transit today, not political experience, like the MBTA’s Luis Ramirez or the FRA’s Sarah Feinberg; by itself, hiring such people is not risky, but giving them more latitude to operate is, as Cuomo discovered when Byford began proposing his own agenda for subway investment.
On the engineering level, it involves more obtrusive construction: tunnels and els, not bus lanes that are compromised to death – and the tunnels may involve cut-and-cover at stations to save money. Regional rail is obtrusive politically, as modernization probably requires removal of many long-time managers who are used to the current way of doing things (in Toronto, the engineers at GO Transit obstructed the RER program, which was imposed from Metrolinx), and in New York the elimination of Long Island and the northern suburbs’ respective feudal ownership of the LIRR and Metro-North. The end result saves money, but little kings of hills will object and even though American states have the power to overrule them, they don’t want the controversy.
The fish rots from the head
American transportation infrastructure does not work, and is getting worse. The costs of building more of it are extremely high, and seem to increase with every construction cycle. Operating costs for public transit run the gamut, but in the most important transit city, New York, they are the highest among large world cities, and moreover, the cheapest option for extending high-quality public transit to the suburbs, regional rail, is not pursued except in Silicon Valley and even there it’s a half-measure.
The problems are political. Heavyweight politicians could use their power to force positive reforms, but in a number of states where they’ve been able to do so on favorable terms, they’ve done no such thing. On the contrary, political influence has been negative, installing incompetent or dishonest managers and refusing to deal with serious long-term problems with operations and maintenance.
The reason politicians are obstructive is not that there’s no gain in improving the state of public services. On the contrary, there is a huge potential upside to getting credit for eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and delivering government projects for much cheaper than was thought possible. But they look at minor controversies that could come from bypassing local power brokers, who as a rule have a fraction of the influence of a governor or big city mayor, or from building bigger projects than the minimum necessary to be able to put their names or something, and stop there.
One animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head: the worst abuses come from the top, where politicians prefer slow degradation of public services to a big change that is likely to succeed but risks embarrassment or scandal. The other animal analogy is that, through a system that rewards people who talk big and act small, American politics creates a series of chickenshit leaders.
A city that is building a rapid transit network piecemeal has to decide on priorities. There are tools for deciding where to build the first line, such as looking at the surface transit network and seeing what the busiest corridor is. These are relatively well-understood. In this post I’d like to focus on where to build the second line, because that question depends not only on the usual factors for where to build transit, but also on how the first line is expected to change the network. This is relevant not only to cities that are building a new rapid transit system, but also to cities that have such a network and are adding new lines one at a time: the usual tools can straightforwardly suggest where to build one line, but figuring out where to build a second line requires some additional work.
A toy model
Consider the following city, with its five busiest buses, labeled A-E from busiest to fifth busiest:
Let’s stipulate that there’s a wealth of arterial roads radiating in the right directions, and no motorways entering city center, so the exceptions to the rule that trains should go where the busiest buses are don’t apply. Let’s also stipulate that the other buses in the city don’t affect the internal ranking of the first five much – so if there are a bunch of north-south buses close to route C not depicted on the map, they’re not busy enough to make it busier than route A.
Clearly, based on the A > B > C > D > E ranking, the top priority for a first rapid transit line is A. Not only is it the busiest bus but also it is parallel to the second busiest.
But the second priority is not B, but C. The reason is that a rapid transit line on A captures east-west traffic, and then from the eastern and western neighborhoods people on route B are likely to walk south or ride a circumferential bus to get to the train. In the presence of a subway underneath the arterial carrying route A, the strongest bus corridor will almost certainly become C, and thus planners should aim to build a subway there as their second line, and begin design even before the first subway opens.
Fourth Avenue in Vancouver
Vancouver already has a rapid transit system, with three SkyTrain lines. However, the issue of the second line crops up when looking at remaining bus corridors and future subway plans. The strongest bus route is by far Broadway, which had higher ridership than the buses that became the Millennium and Canada Lines even when those lines were planned. The Millennium Line was only built first because it was easier, as it is elevated through the suburbs, and the Canada Line because Richmond demanded a SkyTrain connection.
Fortunately, Broadway is finally getting a subway, running from the Millennium Line’s current terminus at VCC-Clark to Arbutus, halfway toward the corridor’s natural end at UBC. The question is, what next? The second busiest bus corridor in Vancouver is Fourth Avenue, where the combined ridership of the 4, 44, and 84 buses and the part of the 7 that is on Fourth exceeds that of any corridor except Broadway; only Hastings, hosting the 95 and 160, comes close.
And yet, it is obviously wrong to plan any subway on Fourth Avenue. Fourth is half a kilometer away from Broadway; the 44 and 84 are relief for the 99 on Broadway. TransLink understands it and therefore there are no plans to do anything on Fourth – the next priority is extending the Expo Line farther out into Surrey or Langley, with the exact route to be determined based on political considerations.
Regional rail and subways in New York
In New York, two commonly-proposed subway extensions, down Nostrand and Utica, are closely parallel. The fact that they are so close to each other means that if one is built, the case for the other weakens. But these two corridors are so strong it is likely that if one is built, the second remains a very high priority. The only subway priority that is plausibly lower than the first of the two and higher than the second, regardless of which of Utica and Nostrand is built first, is a 125th Street crosstown extension of Second Avenue Subway.
But a more serious example of one future line weakening another occurs for regional rail. The top priority for regional rail in New York is four-tracking the tunnels to Penn Station under the Hudson; based on this priority, organizations that look beyond the next gubernatorial or congressional election have come up with farther-reaching proposals. Here, for example, is the map from the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan:
In addition to four-tracking the North River Tunnels under the aegis of the Gateway project, the RPA calls for two additional two-track tunnels under the Hudson, in phases 2 and 3 of its proposal. Both are to feed Midtown: the phase 2 tunnel is to connect regional rail lines to be reactivated with Columbus Circle, Grand Central, and other destinations in the city, and the phase 3 tunnel is to then carry the same line out of the city and back into New Jersey via Hoboken and the existing commuter lines serving southern and southwestern suburbs.
The logic, as I understand it, is that Midtown is the core of the New York region, and so it is the most important to connect there. I don’t know if this is what the RPA was thinking, but I asked at an IRUM meeting in 2010 why all plans involve connections to Midtown rather than Lower Manhattan and was told Lower Manhattan was not as important a business district.
The toy model has one fixed city center and varying outlying areas, the opposite of the situation here. Here, my criticism is of plans that serve the dominant city center while ignoring the second most important center. The total number of jobs in Midtown is 800,000 whereas Lower Manhattan has 250,000 – but Lower Manhattan is more compact, so a single station at Fulton with several exits can plausibly serve the entire area, whereas Midtown has areas that are too far from both Penn Station and Grand Central. The next pair of tracks should serve Midtown, but the pair after them should serve Lower Manhattan, to ensure good coverage to both business districts.
I did a complex Patreon poll about series to write about. People voted for general transit network design, and more posts about national traditions of transit in the mold of the one about the US. Then I polled options for transit network design. There were six options, and people could vote up or down on any. Difficult urban geography was by far the most wanted, and three more alternatives hover at the 50% mark. To give the winning option its due course, I’m making it a mini-series of its own.
There are cities that, due to their street layout, make it easy to run transit on them. Maybe they are flat and have rivers that are easy to bridge or tunnel under. Maybe they have a wealth of wide arterials serving the center, with major cross streets at exactly the right places for stations and an underlying bus grid. Maybe they spread out evenly from the center so that it’s easy to run symmetric lines. Maybe their legacy mainline rail network is such that it’s easy to run interpolating buses and urban rail lines.
And then there are cities that are the exact opposite. In this post I’m going to focus on narrow or winding streets and what they mean for both surface and rapid transit. The good fortune for transit planners is that the city that invented urban rapid transit, London, is a prime example of difficult urban geography, so railway engineers have had to deal with this question for about 150 years, inventing some of the necessary technology in the process.
Rapid transit with narrow streets
The easiest ways to build rapid transit are to put it on a viaduct and to bury it using cut-and-cover tunneling. Both have a minimum street width for the right-of-way – an el requires about 10 meters, but will permanently darken the street if it is not much wider, and a tunnel requires about 10 meters for the tracks but closer to 18 for the stations.
Nonetheless, even cities with narrow streets tend to have enough streets of the required width. What they don’t always have is streets of the required width that are straight and form coherent spines. The labyrinth that is Central London does have wide enough streets for cut-and-cover, but they are not continuous and often miss key destinations such as major train stations. The Metropolitan line could tunnel under Euston Road, but the road’s natural continuation into the City is not so wide, forcing the line to carve a trench into Farringdon. Likewise, the District line could tunnel under Brompton Road or King’s Road, but serving Victoria and then Westminster would have required some sharp curves, so the District Railway carved a right-of-way, demolishing expensive Kensington buildings at great expense.
While London is the ur-example, as the city that invented the subway, this situation is common in other cities with large premodern cores, such as Rome, Milan, and Istanbul. Paris only avoided this problem because of Haussmann’s destruction of much of the historic city, carving new boulevards for aesthetics and sewer installation, which bequeathed the Third Republic a capital rich in wide streets for Metro construction.
Dealing with this problem requires one of several solutions, none great:
London’s solution was to invent the tunnel boring machine to dig deep Tube lines, avoiding surface street disruption. With electric-powered trains and reliable enough TBMs to bore holes without cave-ins, London opened the Northern line in 1890, crossing the Thames to provide rapid transit service to South London. Subsequently, London has built nearly all Underground lines bored, even in suburban areas where it could have used cut-and-cover.
The main advantage to TBMs is that they avoid surface disruption entirely. Most first-world cities use them to bore tunnels between stations, only building stations cut-and-cover. The problem is that TBMs are more expensive to use than cut-and-cover today. While turn-of-the-century London built Tube lines for about the same cost per km as the Metropolitan line and as the cut-and-cover Paris Metro and New York City Subway, in the last half century or so the cost of boring has risen faster than that of shallow construction.
The worst is when the stations have to be mined as well. Mining stations has led to cost blowouts in New York (where it was gone gratuitously) and on London Crossrail (where it is unavoidable as the tunnel passes under the older Underground network). A city that cannot use cut-and-cover tunnels needs to figure out station locations that are easily accessible for vertical digging.
The alternative is the large-diameter TBM. Barcelona is using this technique for Line 9/10, which passes under the older lines; the city has a grid of wide boulevards, but the line would still have to pass under the older metro network, forcing the most difficult parts to be deep underground. The large-diameter TBM reduces the extent of construction outside the TBM to just an elevator bank, which can be dug in a separate vertical TBM; if higher capacity is desired, it’s harder but still possible to dig slant bores for escalators. The problem is that this raises construction costs, making it a least bad solution rather than a good one; Barcelona L9, cheap by most global standards, is still expensive by Spanish ones.
Carving new streets
Before the 1880s, London could not bore the Underground, because the steam-powered trains would need to be close to surface for ventilation. Both the Metropolitan and District lines required carving new right-of-way when streets did not exist; arguably, the entire District line was built this way, as its inner segment was built simultaneously with the Victoria Embankment, under which it runs. The same issue happened in New York in the 1910s and again in the 1920s: while most of the city is replete with straight, wide throughfares, Greenwich Village is not, which forced the 1/2/3 to carve what is now Seventh Avenue South and later the A/C/E to carve the southern portions of Sixth Avenue.
This solution is useful mostly when there are wide streets with absolutely nothing between them that a subway could use. The reason is that demolishing buildings is expensive, except in very poor or peripheral areas, and usually rapid transit has to run to a CBD to be viable. If the entire route is hard to dig, a TBM is a better solution, but if there are brief narrows, carving new streets New York did could be useful, especially if paired with improvements in surface transit.
Looking for station sites
Milan built its first metro lines cut-and-cover. However, lacking wide streets, it had to modify the method for use in a constrained environment. Instead of digging the entire street at a sloped angle and only then adding retaining walls, Milan had to dig the retaining walls first, allowing it to dig up streets not much wider than two tracks side by side. This method proved inexpensive: if I understand this article right, the cost was 30 billion lire in 1957-1964 prices, which is €423 million in 2018 prices, or €35 million per km. Milan’s subsequent construction costs have remained low, even with the use of a TBM for Metro Line 5.
The problem with this method is that, while it permits digging tunnels under narrow medieval streets, it does not permit digging stations under the same streets. Milan is fortunate that its historical center is rich in piazzas, which offer space for bigger digs. One can check on a satellite map that every station on Lines 1 and 2 in city center is at a piazza or under a wide street segment; lacking the same access to easy station sites, Line 3 had to be built deeper, with tracks stacked one under the other to save space.
I have argued in comments that Paris could have used this trick of looking for less constrained sites for stations when it built Metro Line 1, permitting four tracks as in New York as long as the express stations under Rue de Rivoli stuck to major squares like Chatelet. However, Paris, too, is rich in squares, it just happens to be equally rich in wide streets so that it did not need to use the Milan method. London is not so fortunate – its only equivalent of Milan’s piazzas is small gardens away from major streets. It could never have built the Central line using the Milan method, and even the Piccadilly line, which partly passes under wide streets, would have been doubtful.
Rapid transit benefits from being able to modify the shape of the street network to suit its needs. Surface transit in theory could do the same, running in short tunnels or widening streets as necessary, but the value of surface modes is not enough to justify the capital expense and disruption. Thus, planners must take the street network as it is given. The ideal surface transit route runs in the street median on two dedicated lanes, with boarding islands at stops; creating a parking lane, a moving lane, and a transit lane in each direction on a street plus some allowance for sidewalks requires about 30 meters of street width or not much less. Below 25, compromises are unavoidable.
Cutting car lanes
A lane is about 3 meters wide, so removing the parking lanes reduces the minimum required street width by about 6 meters. Contraflow lanes instead allow the street to have the same four lanes, but with a moving lane and a parking lane in one direction only. In extreme cases it’s possible to get rid of the cars entirely; a transit mall is viable down to maybe 12-15 meters of street width. The problem is that deliveries get complicated if the city doesn’t have alleyways or good side street access, and this may force compromises on hours of service (perhaps transit doesn’t get dedicated lanes all day) or at least one parking lane in one direction.
Some city cores with very narrow streets don’t have double-track streetcars. A few have one-way pairs, but more common is single-track segments, or segments with two overlapping tracks so that no switching is needed but trams still can’t pass each other. Needless to say, single-tracking is only viable over short narrows between wider streets, and only when the network is punctual enough that trams can be scheduled not to conflict.
On longer stretches without enough room for two tracks or two lanes, one-way pairs are unavoidable; these complicate the network, and unless the streets the two directions of the bus or tram run on are very close to each other they also complicate interchanges between routes. New York has many one-way pairs on its bus network, even on wide and medium-width streets in order to improve the flow of car traffic, and as a result, some crosstown routes, such as the B35 on Church, are forced to stop every 250 meters even when running limited-stop. While New York’s network complexity is the result of bad priorities and can be reversed, cities with premodern street networks may not even have consistent one-way pairs with two parallel streets on a grid; New York itself has such a network in Lower Manhattan.
Bus network redesign
The best way to avoid the pain associated with running buses on streets that are not designed for fast all-mode travel is not to run buses on such streets. Boston has very little surface transit in city center, making passengers transfer to the subway. In Barcelona, part of the impetus for Nova Xarxa was removing buses from the historic core with its narrow streets and traffic congestion and instead running them on the grid of the Eixample, where they would not only provide a frequent system with easy transfers but also run faster than the old radial network.
However, this runs into two snags. First, there must be some radial rapid transit network to make people connect to. Boston and Barcelona both have such networks, but not all cities do; Jerusalem doesn’t (it has light rail but it runs on the surface). And second, while most cities with a mixture of wide and narrow streets confine their narrow streets to premodern historic cores, some cities have streets too narrow for comfortable bus lanes even far out, for example Los Angeles, whose north-south arterials through the Westside are on the narrow side.
What not to do: shared lanes
It’s tempting for a transit agency to compromise on dedicated lanes whenever the street is too narrow to feature them while maintaining sufficient auto access. This is never a good idea, except in outlying areas with little traffic. The reason is that narrow streets fed by wide streets are precisely where there is the most congestion, and thus where the value of dedicated transit lanes is the highest.
In New York, the dedicated bus lanes installed for select bus service have sped up bus traffic by around 30 seconds per kilometer on all routes Eric Goldwyn and I have checked for our Brooklyn bus redesign project, but all of these figures are averaged over long streets. Within a given corridor, the short narrows that the transit agency decides to compromise on may well feature greater time savings from dedicated lanes than the long arterial stretch where it does set up dedicated lanes. This is almost certainly the case for the Silver Line in Boston, which has unenforced dedicated lanes most of the way on Washington Streets but then uses shared lanes through Downtown Boston, where streets are too narrow for dedicated lanes without reducing auto access.
While electric cars remain a niche technology, electric buses are surging. Some are battery-electric (this is popular in China, and some North American agencies are also buying into this technology), but in Europe what’s growing is in-motion charging, or IMC. This is a hybrid of a trolleybus and a battery-electric bus (BEB): the bus runs under wire, but has enough battery to operate off-wire for a little while, and in addition has some mechanism to let the bus recharge during the portion of its trip that is electrified.
One vendor, Kiepe, lists recent orders. Esslingen is listed as having 10 km of off-wire capability and Geneva (from 2012) as having 7. Luzern recently bought double-articulated Kiepe buses with 5 km of off-wire range, and Linz bought buses with no range specified but of the same size and battery capacity as Luzern’s. Iveco does not specify what its range is, but says its buses can run on a route that’s 25-40% unwired.
Transit planning should be sensitive to new technology in order to best integrate equipment, infrastructure, and schedule. Usually this triangle is used for rail planning, but there’s every reason to also apply it to buses as appropriate. This has a particular implication to cities that already have large trolleybus networks, like Vancouver, but also to cities that do not. IMC works better in some geographies than others; where it works, it is beneficial for cities to add wire as appropriate for the deployment of IMC buses.
Vancouver: what to do when you’re already wired
Alert reader and blog supporter Alexander Rapp made a map of all trolleybus routes in North America. They run in eight cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Dayton, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Mexico City, Guadalajara.
Vancouver’s case is the most instructive, because, like other cities in North America, it runs both local and rapid buses on its trunk routes. The locals stop every about 200 meters, the rapids every kilometer. Because conventional trolleybuses cannot overtake other trolleybuses, the rapids run on diesel even on wired routes, including Broadway (99), 4th Avenue (44, 84), and Hastings (95, 160), which are in order the three strongest bus corridors in the area. Broadway has so much ridership that TransLink is beginning to dig a subway under its eastern half; however, the opening of the Broadway subway will not obviate the need for rapid buses, as it will create extreme demand for nonstop buses from the western end of the subway at Arbutus to the western end of the corridor at UBC.
IMC is a promising technology for Vancouver, then, because TransLink can buy such buses and then use their off-wire capability to overtake locals. Moreover, on 4th Avenue the locals and rapids take slightly different routes from the western margin of the city proper to campus center, so IMC can be used to let the 44 and 84 reach UBC on their current route off-wire. UBC has two separate bus loops, one for trolleys and one for diesel buses, and depending on capacity IMC buses could use either.
On Hastings the situation is more delicate. The 95 is not 25-40% unwired, but about 60% unwired – and, moreover, the unwired segment includes a steep mountain climb toward SFU campus. The climb is an attractive target for electrification because of the heavy energy consumption involved in going uphill: at 4 km, not electrifying it would brush up against the limit of Kiepe’s off-wire range, and may well exceed it given the terrain. In contrast, the 5 km in between the existing wire and the hill are mostly flat, affording the bus a good opportunity to use its battery.
Where to add wire
In a city without wires, IMC is the most useful when relatively small electrification projects can impact a large swath of bus routes. This, in turn, is most useful when one trunk splits into many branches. Iveco’s requirement that 60-75% of the route run under wire throws a snag, since it’s much more common to find trunks consisting of a short proportion of each bus route than ones consisting of a majority of route-length. Nonetheless, several instructive examples exist.
In Boston, the buses serving Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury have the opportunity to converge to a single trunk on Washington Street, currently hosting the Silver Line. Some of these buses furthermore run on Warren Street farther south, including the 14, 19, 23, and 28, the latter two ranking among the MBTA’s top bus routes. The area has poor air quality and high rates of asthma, making electrification especially attractive.
Setting up wire on Washington and Warren Streets and running the Silver Live as open BRT, branching to the south, would create a perfect opportunity for IMC. On the 28 the off-wire length would be about 4.5 km each way, at the limit of Kiepe’s capability, and on the 19 and 23 it would be shorter; the 14 would be too long, but is a weaker, less frequent route. If the present-day service pattern is desired, the MBTA could still electrify to the northern terminus of these routes at Ruggles, but it would miss an opportunity to run smoother bus service.
In New York, there are examples of trunk-and-branch bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens. The present-day Brooklyn bus network has a long interlined segment on lower Fulton, carrying not just the B25 on Fulton but also the B26 on Halsey and B52 on Gates, and while Eric Goldwyn’s and my plan eliminates the B25, it keeps the other two. The snag is that the proportion of the system under wire is too short, and the B26 has too long of a tail (but the B52 and B25 don’t). The B26 could get wire near its outer terminal, purposely extended to the bus depot; as bus depots tend to be polluted, wire there is especially useful.
More New York examples are in Queens. Main Street and the Kissena-Parsons corridor, both connecting Flushing with Jamaica, are extremely strong, interlining multiple buses. Electrifying these two routes and letting buses run off-wire on tails to the north, reaching College Point and perhaps the Bronx on the Q44 with additional wiring, would improve service connecting two of Queens’ job centers. Moreover, beyond Jamaica, we see another strong trunk on Brewer Boulevard, and perhaps another on Merrick (interlining with Long Island’s NICE bus).
Finally, Providence has an example of extensive interlining to the north, on North Main and Charles, including various 5x routes (the map is hard to read, but there are several routes just west of the Rapid to the north).
IMC and grids
The examples in New York, Providence, and Boston are, not coincidentally, ungridded. This is because IMC interacts poorly with grids, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that the part of the world where it’s being adopted the most has ungridded street networks. A bus grid involves little to no interlining: there are north-south and east-west arterials, each carrying a bus. The bus networks of Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles have too little interlining for IMC to be as cost-effective as in New York or Boston.
In gridded cities, IMC is a solution mainly if there are problematic segments, in either direction. If there’s a historic core where wires would have adverse visual impact, it can be left unwired. If there’s a steep segment with high electricity consumption, it should be wired preferentially, since the cost of electrification does not depend on the street’s gradient.
Overall, this technology can be incorporated into cities’ bus design. Grids are still solid when appropriate, but in ungridded cities, trunks with branches are especially attractive, since a small amount of wire can convert an entire swath of the city into pollution-free bus operation.