Category: Good/Interesting Studies

How to Waste Money on Public Transportation

This is the fourth in a series of five (not four) posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, and federal aid to operations, to be followed by a post about how to do better instead.

I think very highly of Yonah Freemark. His academic and popular work on public transport and urbanism ranges from good to excellent, and a lot of my early thinking (and early writing!) on regional rail and high-speed rail owes a debt to him.

But I think he’s wrong in his proposal for a Green New Deal for transportation. This is a proposal by the Climate and Community Project (not the Urban Institute as I said in previous posts – sorry) to decarbonize transport in the United States, through fleet electrification and investments in public transport. Yonah is one of several authors; I identify him with the public transit-related parts of the report, but I want to make it clear that it’s the report I’m criticizing, regardless of who wrote what.

The fundamental problem of the CCP report is what I’ve been building up to in the last three posts in this series: it tries to please everybody by throwing money everywhere and making conflicting promises. The Green Line Extension was built this way under Deval Patrick, and costs ballooned, and what passed for discipline under Charlie Baker just reinforced the same long-term loss of state capacity that led to the cost explosion.

For example, here’s its take on fleet electrification:

In other words, there is a compelling and immediate need to decarbonize this fleet within a decade. And that’s feasible: buses are replaced every 10 to 15 years on average, and commuter rail trains about every 25 years; currently, commuter trains in the United States are on average 22 years old. Publicly owned vehicles would be replaced with the electric equivalent; for privately owned contracted vehicles (the case for many school buses), and requirements for electrification would be written into contracts and tax credits given to assist the transition of buses from fossil fuels to electric. The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing. The shift to electric transit vehicles would affect maintenance requirements, and the Department of Transportation must ensure the mechanic and operator workforce is fully prepared for the electric transition through workforce retraining assistance. This may require retraining, such as encouraging mechanics to retrain as electric vehicle charging installers.

(…)

Electrifying existing diesel railways would require overhead catenary electrical wires to be useful for electrified trains (though the trains themselves actually cost less than diesel vehicles). The cost of railway electrification infrastructure alone is between roughly $1 and $5 million per mile. There are roughly 6,600 miles of non-electrified commuter rail in the United States, plus roughly 20,800 miles of non-electrified Amtrak service (with some overlap between the two). Amtrak’s routes are mostly owned by freight rail companies, but we suggest joint electrification that includes both passenger trains and freight trains, using this program for Amtrak and another we lay out below for the freight lines. To electrify the national passenger rail network of existing lines would cost between $27 and $137 billion. In addition, new trains would have to be purchased to run on these electrified lines.

I cite this pair of paragraphs because of something they show about the study: it is not uniformly bad. The second paragraph is a decent idea (though $1m/mile is very cheap), and trying to workshop how to wire the national freight network is not necessarily a bad idea, even if the report doesn’t go into enough detail about what the business barrier to electrification is for the private carriers.

But the first quoted paragraph is awful. Here’s the key thing: “The commissioning of thousands of new transit vehicles would produce new, good-paying union jobs in manufacturing” is a giant waste of money. Bus vendors outside North America consistently produce equipment for much less than the protected North American market; the Boris Bus, at £350,000 per unit (around $500,000), is both cheaper than American buses and locally considered expensive, a prime example of Boris Johnson’s poor performance as mayor of London.

The passenger rail industry does not exist in the United States, and attempts by American governments to coerce it to build factories domestically in order to create well-paying jobs have resulted in ballooning costs. The premium for recent American rolling stock orders, behind bespoke regulations, protectionism, informal state-level protectionism, and agency heads that know less than recently-graduated interns who make one quarter of what they do (less, if those interns are European), looks like 50% over European equivalents. Nor does this do much job creation, except perhaps for sitework consultants: the premium for some recent orders has been $1 million per $20/hour 4-to-6-year job created. Those are not objectively good jobs – the wages are not much higher than present-day retail, food service, and delivery jobs – but backward-looking politicians consider them inherently moral, and the report coddles them instead of looking forward.

Then, the report has the following recommendations for how to spend money on improving public transportation:

End the use of federal infrastructure funding for new highway infrastructure, except for focused opportunities that improve equity. Provide immediate funds for a quick-start infrastructure program for walking and cycling. Vastly expand support for transit and metropolitan network planning.

Appropriate $250 billion over 10 years, or $25 billion annually, in federal funding bill to support transit operations funding throughout the United States.

Increase federal support for transit and intercity rail capital projects to $400 billion over 10 years, or $40 billion annually, providing funds for new lines, maintenance of existing infrastructure, and upgrades designed for equitable accessibility.

Require metropolitan planning organization voting systems to be proportional to resident population. Mandate adjustments to local zoning policy to enable more dense, affordable housing near transit in exchange for federal aid. Implement regional commuter benefits throughout the nation.

This, I’m sorry, is a bad program. The $40 billion/year capital investment is not bad, but the proposal explicitly includes maintenance, making it vulnerable to the state of good repair scam, in which agencies demand escalating amounts of money for infrastructure with nothing to show for it. The $25 billion/year operating aid is likely to be a waste as well.

Transit agencies can invest money prudently, but the report says nothing about how to do it, instead proposing to zero out highway funding (which is a good way to save money, but is less relevant to mode shift than American transit advocates think it is). The one concrete suggestion for what to do with the money is “One goal, for example, would be for all residents to have access to a bus or train with a short wait within at most a 15-minute walk at all times of the day.” This is a standard I can get behind in a dense place like New York; nearly everywhere else, it means overfunding coverage routes in low-density areas, often middle-class white flight suburbs, ahead of workhorse urban routes. Writing years ago about New Haven, Sandy Johnston noted that a bus reform there would cannibalize the circuitous suburban bus branches to add service on the core routes through the city and Hamden. The CCP report would do the opposite, boosting frequencies where they are least useful.

Finally, the MPO rules seem weak. I get what Yonah (and perhaps the other authors) wants to do here: he wants to incentivize more housing production near mass transit nodes. But MPO voting weights are not especially relevant. What is relevant is using state power to disempower local communities, which are dominated by NIMBYs even in places where the residents vote YIMBY at the state level, such as San Francisco. The report talks about banning single-family zoning (okay, but duplexes are not TOD), but that’s it. Then it suggests extracting developer profits through mandatory inclusionary housing, which acts as a tax on TOD and reduces housing production. The authors of the study are left-wing, but do not propose public housing, only taxes on TOD to subsidize some local housing; Yonah knows this is not how social housing works in Paris, but he still proposes this for the United States.

The theme of lack of willingness to prioritize flow throughout these recommendations. There is no discussion of how to prioritize good investments, how to increase efficiency (the report points out operating costs for all US transit combined are $50 billion/year; this is 2.5 times the German level, for similar ridership, not per capita), how to make sure that progress does not get extracted by programs for groups thought inherently moral.

Quick Note: the LaGuardia Transit Connector

It’s amazing how much good can happen when an obstacle like Andrew Cuomo is removed. In lieu of his backward air train proposal, hated by just about everyone not on his payroll, Governor Kathy Hochul is moving forward on a better set of alternatives for a mass transit connection to LaGuardia. It’s interesting to see what the process is looking at but also what it isn’t; so far this looks better than the alternatives analysis for Interborough Express (ex-Triboro).

So far I have not seen analysis, only drawings of 14 alternatives. As with the IBX study, the LGA plan distinguishes different modes of public transit – there are bus, light rail, subway, and even ferry options. But it doesn’t stop there. It looks at multiple alignments: the scope is how to connect LGA to the rest of the city the best, and this can be done from a number of different directions – even a backward train (as light rail) along an alignment similar to Cuomo’s is present, and will likely not advance further because of its circuitous route.

Among the 14 alternatives, I think the obviously best one is a subway extension (slide 12 above); another subway option, a branch following the Grand Central Parkway (slide 11), is inferior because of branching splits frequencies and ridership at the cut off Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard station is high. A subway extension promises a connection in around 30 minutes to Times Square, every 5 minutes all day, with good connections to other destinations via the transfers at Queensboro Plaza and in Midtown.

The one thing that I’m sad the analysis hasn’t looked at is intermediate stations. It’s around 4.5 km from Ditmars to the main LGA terminal along the proposed alignment, passing through redevelopable industrial land and through residential land in Astoria Heights awkwardly tucked between airport grounds and Astoria proper. The same quality of service that the airport could get, these neighborhoods could get as well, except a hair faster because they’re closer.

Extending the Astoria Line is especially useful since it is short and not especially crowded until it hits Queensboro Plaza and inherits the crowding of the 7 train and its riders. In the context of deinterlining the subway, this is especially valuable: right now 60th Street Tunnel carries the N and W from Astoria but also the R from Queens Boulevard, and under deinterlining the tunnel would carry only Astoria riders, and so to match the high demand to 60th Street it’s valuable to create as much ridership as possible on the Astoria Line past Queensboro Plaza.

I hope that the alternatives analysis considers multiple stopping patterns in the future – that is, not just a nonstop route from Ditmars to the airport, but also an option with intermediate stations. (This does not mean local and express trains – either all trains should run locals, or all should run nonstop.) The cost of those stations is not high as it’s an elevated line, and the stop penalty on the subway is less than a minute since the top speed is so low (it looks like 45 seconds in practice comparing local and express trains on the same line).

The Interborough Study

I was excited about the idea of Interborough Express (IBX) as announced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, and then last week her office released a preliminary report about the alternatives for it, and I got less excited. But it’s not that the study is bad, or that Hochul is bad. Rather, the study is a by the numbers alternatives analysis, shorter than the usual in a good way; its shortcomings are the shortcomings of all American planning.

The main rub is that the report looks at various options for the IBX route, broken down by mode. There’s a commuter rail option, which bakes in the usual bad assumption about commuter rail operations, including heavier trains (lighter trains are legal on US tracks as of 2018) and longer dwell times that are explained as a product of the heavier trains (dwell times have nothing to do with train mass). That’s par for the course – as we saw yesterday, everything that touches mainline rail in North America becomes stupid even in an otherwise understandable report.

But even excluding commuter rail, the study classifies the options by mode, focusing on bus rapid transit and light rail (and no subway, for some reason). It compares those two options and commuter rail on various measures like expected ridership and trip times. This is normal for American alternatives analyses for new corridors like IBX: they look at different modes as the main decision point.

This is also extraordinarily bad governance. There are some fundamental questions that are treated as afterthoughts, either not studied at all or mentioned briefly as 1-2 sentences:

  • How far north should the line go? The IBX plan is to only go from Jackson Heights to the south, in contrast with older Triboro proposals going into the Bronx.
  • What should the stop spacing be? The stops can be widely spaced, as in the current proposal, which stops mainly at intersection points with other lines, or more closely spaced, like an ordinary subway line.
  • Under a light rail option, should the line be elevated where the trench is too narrow or at-grade?
  • Should freight service be retained? What are the benefits of retaining freight rail service on the Bay Ridge Branch and what are the incremental costs of keeping it versus taking over the right-of-way?
  • How large should the stations be?
  • How frequent should the trains be? If freight service is retained, what frequencies are compatible with running freight on the same tracks for part or all of the line?

A better study must focus on these questions. Some of them, moreover, must be decided early: urban planning depends on whether the line goes into the Bronx or not; and industrial planning depends on what is done with freight service along the corridor.

Those questions, moreover, are more difficult than the modal question. A BRT option on a rail corridor without closely parallel arterial roads should be dismissed with the same ease that the study dismisses options not studied, and then the question of what kind of rail service to run is much less important than the scope of the project.

But American planning is obsessed with comparing public transit by mode rather than by corridor, scope, or any other aspect. Canadian planning has the same misfeature – the studies for the Broadway SkyTrain extension looked at various BRT and light rail options throughout, even though it was clear the answer was going to be SkyTrain, and omitted more fundamental questions regarding the cost-construction disruption tradeoff or even the scope of the project (the original studies from 2012 did not look at truncating to Arbutus, an option that had been talked about before and that would eventually happen due to cost overruns).

So overall, the IBX study is bad. But it is interestingly bad. Andrew Cuomo was a despicable governor who belongs in prison for his crimes. Less criminal and yet similarly loathsome people exist in American public transit. And yet, Hochul and her office are not like that, at all. This is not a sandbag, or a corrupt deal. It’s utterly ordinary in its failure; with all the unique failures of the Cuomo era stripped, what is left is standard American practice, written more clearly than is usual, and it just isn’t up to par as an analysis.

Hochul has been moving on this project very quickly, and good transit advocates should laud this. It should not take long to publish a report comparing alternatives on more fundamental questions than mode, such as scope, the role of freight, and the extent of civil infrastructure to be used. The costs and benefits of IBX heavily depend on the decisions made on such matters; they should not be brushed aside.

The TransitMatters Rail Electrification Report

At TransitMatters, we’ve just released a report about the costs and benefits of rail electrification. It’s anchored to our proposal to electrify and modernize the commuter rail system in the Boston area, but much of the analysis is broader than that. The non-Bostonian reader may still be interested in the description of construction costs of electrification and the short case studies of Israel, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, Britain, Canada, and the United States. The latter two, covering Toronto and the Bay Area, are unusually expensive and we go over why that came to be and how it is possible to avoid them. The section on alternatives and why they are all inferior to stringing wire and running EMUs is of general interest as well, and I hope European policymakers read over and take it as a sign they should electrify more lines (ideally, all of them, as is being done right now in South Korea, India, and China).

The Toronto problem

When we came up with the cost range of $800 million to $1.5 billion, there was a lot of skepticism. The Reddit thread‘s two most common kinds of comment are “great, this can’t happen fast enough” and “it will cost billions because of unspecified MBTA problems.” As I said in responding to one of the comments, the higher-cost comparison cases all have specific reasons for their higher costs: Britain has clearance restrictions that do not exist anywhere else in the world, and Caltrain had unusual managerial incompetence regarding the related signaling project where the MBTA is actually doing well. But Toronto still looms large.

As I said on Reddit,

I’m not too worried about Caltrain’s errors, which were truly bespoke. Toronto worries me more, because while the specifics are avoidable, the ultimate cause is reproduced: Toronto and Boston are both huge cities with heavy peak commuter rail traffic and should have electrified generations ago, so now the benefits of electrification are so high that managers can afford to be careless about costs and still have above-water benefit-cost ratios.

So it is important to be careful and avoid Toronto’s problems with cost control. This means baking cost control into the program from the start, and aggressively protecting the budget from use by other actors as OPM:

  1. The budget should be set at a standard level with standard contingencies. Do not aim for the ceiling; aim for average. Nor should anyone include 100% contingency as used by Toronto; if you budget money for the project it will be used, so optimize for minimizing overall cost rather than for just-in-case funding.
  2. Designs should be standard, and variations should be accommodated only based on cost minimization. Basically, if it’s good enough for Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Israel, etc.,, it’s good enough for the United States.
  3. If NIMBYs push back, the state should fight back. They want noise walls? Nope, EMUs are a lot quieter than diesels, quality of life will improve. They want trenches? Nope, that’s too expensive.
  4. Under no circumstances should passenger rail electrification money be used for corporate welfare for freight rail companies. They can pay their own way for clearance for double-stacked containers.

The importance of maximum electrification

Based on the observations that the lifecycle costs of DMUs are about twice those of EMUs, and that operating and capital costs are both driven by the peak rather than off-peak, it’s possible to establish financial rates of return on electrification. Not counting the speed and reliability benefits to passengers, the ROI is around 0.3-0.5% per US-size car per hour at the peak. Lines that run 8-car trains every 15 minutes at rush hour run 32 cars per hour and so have an ROI of 10-16%; this is why outside the US and Canada, cities that run such long trains at such frequency have long electrified their tracks.

The problem is that electrification is relatively unfamiliar in North America. It exists, but is sporadic, and there have been very few recent projects, so managers think it’s a Herculean task. In Boston I’ve seen reticence to wire more track due to institutional conservatism, even in plans that spend comparable amounts of money on things the region is more used to, like station platform upgrades and extra tracks. Worse, I’ve seen this in New Jersey, which is largely already electrified but uninterested in finishing the job.

Against such conservatism, it’s important to remember that failure to undertake a high-value investment isn’t any more moral than a large investment that goes to waste. When your ROI hits double digits, you waste public benefits by avoiding or even just delaying the project – and the above calculation comes just from savings on operating, maintenance, and capital acquisition costs, without the large benefits to passengers, the environment, etc.

Can large cities afford not to electrify? Yes. They have money for many kinds of waste, including for forgoing the benefits of commuter rail electrification. But just because they can afford to waste money and social benefits doesn’t mean they should. So, please, no talk of DMUs, or bi-modes, or pilot programs, or batteries – just wire your system already and import some high-quality EMUs.

Early Commitment

I want to go back to the problem of early commitment as I explained it two months ago. It comes out of research done by Chantal Cantarelli and Bert van Wee about Dutch cost overruns, but the theory is more generally applicable and once I heard about it I started seeing it in play elsewhere. The short version is that politically committing to a megaproject too early leads to lock in, which leads to compromised designs and higher costs. The solution, then, is to defer commitment and keep alternatives open as much as possible.

The theory of lock in

The papers to read about it are Cantarelli-Flyvbjeerg-Molin-van Wee (2010), and Cantarelli-Oglethorpe-van Wee (2021). Both make the point that when the decision to build is undertaken, it imposes psychological constraints on the planners. They are not long or difficult papers to read and I recommend people read them in full and perhaps think of examples from their own non-Dutch experience – this problem is broader than just the Netherlands.

For example, take this, from the 2010 paper:

Decision-makers show evidence of entrapment whenever they escalate their commitment to ineffective policies, products, services or strategies in order to justify previous allocations of resources to those objectives (Brockner et al, 1986). Escalating commitment and justification are therefore important indicators of lock-in. The need for justification is derived from the theories of self-justification and the theory of dissonance which describe how individuals search for confirmation of their rational behaviour (Staw, 1981; Wilson and Zhang, 1997). This need arises due to social pressures and “face-saving” mechanisms. The involvement of interest groups and organizational pushes and pulls can also introduce pressures into the decision-making process, threatening the position of the decision-makers, who may feel pressure to continue with a (failing) project in order to avoid publicly admitting what they may see as a personal failure (McElhinney, 2005). “People try to rationalize their actions or psychologically defend themselves against an apparent error in judgment” (Whyte, 1986) (“face-saving”). When the support for the decision is sustained despite contradicting information and social pressures, the argumentation for a decision is based on the need for justification.

The focus on face-saving behavior leading to escalation is not unique to the literature on transportation. In international relations, it is called audience cost and refers to the domestic backlash a political leader suffers in case they back down from a confrontation they were involved in earlier; this way, small escalations turn into bigger ones and eventually to war, or perhaps to a forever occupation.

There are a number of consequences of lock in:

  1. Projects will follow designs set long ago, especially ones that were hotly contentious. For example, California High-Speed Rail has stuck with the decision to build its alignments via Palmdale and Pacheco Pass, since the possibilities of changing Palmdale to the Grapevine/Tejon alignment and Pacheco to Altamont Pass both loomed large (there was a NIMBY lawsuit trying to force a change to Altamont). However, at the same time, there are plans to potentially run the partially-built system without electrification, since that issue was never in contention and is not part o the audience cost.
  2. There are unlikely to be formal cancellations. California is again a good example: high-speed rail lives as a hulk, not formally canceled even when the governor said of the idea to complete it, back during the Trump administration, “let’s be real,” defending the initial construction segment between Bakersfield and Fresno as valuable in itself. Formal cancellation is embarrassing; a forever construction project is less visible a failure.
  3. Prioritization is warped to tie into real or imagined connections with the already-decided project. California is not as clear an example of this as of the other two points, but in New York, once the real (if not yet formal) decision to go forward with Second Avenue Subway was made in the 1990s, the Regional Plan Association tied in every proposed expansion plan to that one line.

Surplus extraction

Cantarelli-van Wee treat early commitment as a problem of bad planners, who become psychologically wedded to potentially incorrect solutions. However, it is instructive to shift the locus of moral blame to surplus extraction by political actors, such a local politicians, power brokers, and NIMBYs.

In the story of HSL Zuid, much of the extra cost should be blamed on excessive tunneling. In the flat terrain of Holland and near-coastal Brabant, no tunneling should have been needed. And yet, the line is 20% underground, partly to serve Schiphol, partly to avoid taking any farmland in the Groene Hart. The Groene Hart tunneling has to be understood in context of rural NIMBYism (since at-grade solutions to habitat loss exist in France).

In this formulation, the problem with lock in is not just at the level of planners (though they share most of the blame in California). It’s at the level of small actors demanding changes for selfish reasons, knowing that the macro decision has already been made and the stat cannot easily walk away from the project if costs rise. These selfish actors can be NIMBY, but they can equally be local power brokers wanting a local amenity like a detour to serve them or a station without commercial justification. In Germany, an extra layer of NIMBYism (albeit not on connected with lock in – we have late commitment here) is demands to include freight on high-speed lines, in order to take it off legacy lines, which design forces gratuitous tunneling on high-speed lines in order to moderate the grade.

California is a good example of a non-NIMBY version of this. The state politically committed to building high-sped rail in the 2008 election, for which it showed clear maps of the trains detouring via Palmdale and going to San Francisco via Pacheco Pass. By the time further environmental design showed that the Los Angeles-Palmdale route would require tens of km more tunneling through Soledad Canyon than anticipated to avoid impact to an ecologically sensitive area, the state had already pitched Palmdale as a key high-speed commuter suburb, and Los Angeles County made housing plans accordingly. The county subsequently kept agitating for retaining Palmdale even as other alignment changes in the area were made, turning Palmdale into its pet project.

The planning literature undertheorizes and understudies problems arising from localism. In conversations with people in the European core as well as the United States, there’s an unspoken assumption that the community is good and the state is bad. If the community demands something, it must represent correction of a real negative externality, rather than antisocial behavior on behalf of self-appointed community leaders who the state can and should ignore. It doesn’t help that the part of Europe with the least community input is the Mediterranean countries, which Northern European planners look down on, believing any success there must be the result of statistical fudging.

The solution: late commitment

To reduce costs and improve projects, it’s best to delay political commitment as late as possible. This means designing uncertain projects and only making the decision to build at advanced stages of design – maybe not 100% but close enough that major revisions are not likely. The American situation in which there is no regular design budget so agencies rely on federal funding for the design of the projects they use the same federal funding for leads to bad outcomes over and over. California, which went to referendum without completing the environmental design first, takes the cake.

Late commitment is thankfully common in low- and medium-cost countries. Germany does not commit to high-speed rail lines early, and, judging by Berlin’s uncertainty over which U-Bahn extensions to even build, it doesn’t commit to subways early either. Sweden is investigating the feasibility of high-speed rail but rail planners who I talk to there make it clear that it’s not guaranteed to happen and much depends on politics and changes in economic behavior; overall, Nordic infrastructure projects are developed by the civil service beyond the concept stage and only presented for political negotiation and approval well into the process. Southern European planners com up with their own extension programs and politically commit close to the beginning of construction.

Do Costs Run Over or Are They Underestimated?

The literature on cost overruns for infrastructure projects is rich, much more so than that for absolute costs. The best-known name in this literature is Bent Flyvbjerg, who in the early 2000s collated a number of datasets from the 1980s and 90s to produce a large enough N for analysis, demonstrating consistent, large cost overruns, especially for urban rail. Subsequently, he’s written papers on the topic, focusing on underestimation and on how agencies can prospectively estimate costs better and give accurate numbers to the public for approval. This parallels an internal trend in the US, where Don Pickrell identified cost overruns in 1990 already, using 1980s data; Pickrell’s dataset was among those analyzed by Flyvbjerg, and subsequent to Pickrell’s paper, American cost overruns decreased to an average of zero for light rail lines.

But a fundamental question remains: are cost overruns really a matter of underestimation, or a true overrun? In other words, if a project, say Grand Paris Express, is estimated to cost 22.6 billion € in 2012 (p. 7) and is up to 35.6 billion € today (p. 13), does it mean the cost was 35.6b€ all along and the 2012 analysis just failed to estimate it right? Or dos it mean the cost was 22.6b€ then, and then the budget ran over due to failures of planning that could have been avoided?

Transit agencies that just want to avoid the embarrassment of media headlines saying “they said it costs X but it costs 2X” care mostly about underestimation. This is also true of both generic project managers and political appointees, two groups that do not care about the details of how to build a subway, and think of everything in abstract terms in which a subway might as well be a box of shampoo bottles.

However, the concrete examples that I have seen or heard of for cost overruns look like overruns rather than underestimation. That is, those projects could have been done at the original cost, but planning mistakes drove the budget up, or otherwise created conditions that would enable other forces to drive the budget up.

The Netherlands: early commitment

Bert van Wee is among the world’s top researchers on cost overruns, even if he’s less well-known to the public than Flyvbjerg. He spoke to me about the problems of early commitment in Dutch planning, in which politicians commit to a project before design is finalized. Once the political decision has been made, it is easy for actors to extract surplus, because the state or city cannot walk away easily, while a 20% cost overrun is much easier to explain to the public. This problem plagued 2000s investments like HSL Zuid. To deter this, after 2009 the Netherlands passed reforms that attempt to tackle this problem, aiming to defer the formal political decision to later in the process.

This factor seems to correlate with absolute costs, if not with overruns. American planning is extremely politicized; Canadian planning is fairly politicized too, with individual subway projects identifiable as the brainchildren of specific politicians or parties; Southern European and Nordic planning is highly bureaucratized, with design driven by the civil service and politicians making yes or no decisions late in the process.

Sweden: changes in rules

According to a senior planner at Nya Tunnelbanan, the project has run over from 22.506 billion kronor in 2013 to 31.813 today, both in 2016 price levels; in US dollars, this is $2.551b/19.6 km to $3.606b/19.6 km, all underground. The reasons for the escalation come largely from tighter regulations as well as litigation:

  • Safety requirements have been tightened midway through the project, requiring a service tunnel in addition to the two track tunnels, raising excavation volume almost 50%
  • An environmental court ruling slowed down excavation further
  • Consensus with stakeholders took longer than expected
  • Excavated rock was reclassified midway through the project from useful building material to waste that must be disposed of

Focusing on underestimation is not really germane to what’s happened in Stockholm. The problem isn’t that early 2010s engineers failed to anticipate regulations that were not in force at the time. It’s that regulations were changed later. The rock removal process today actually increases greenhouse gas emissions, just because of the need to freight it away, let alone the systemwide effects on climate of making it harder to build subways.

California: scope creep and change orders

California High-Speed Rail is such a big project that its cost overruns, in multiple stages, were amply discussed in the media. The original announcements in the early 2010s, for example here, were largely about scope creep. At-grade segments turned into viaducts; above-ground segments, particularly in the Bay Area, were turned into tunnels. The reasons were mostly about agency turf battles.

Only in one case was the problem more about underestimation than overrun: the Central Valley segment had originally been planned to follow railroad rights-of-way, but had to be redesigned to have more viaducts and swerve around unserved small towns. This was bad planning, at two points: first, the original designs assumed trains could go at 350 km/h through unserved towns, which they don’t anywhere; and second, once the redesign happened, it was so rushed that land acquisition was time-consuming and acrimonious. Even then, much of the overdesign as identified by a Deutsche Bahn postmortem could have been prevented.

The second stage is more recent: the Central Valley construction contracts have long busted their budgets due to change orders. Change orders are a common problem in California, and in this case, it involved not only the change order king Tutor-Perini, but also the usually reasonable Dragados. The situation here must be ascribed to overrun rather than underestimation: a transparent process for handling changes, based on itemized costs, is an emerging best practice, known since the early 2000s to people who cared to know, and more recently seen in the economics literature for general infrastructure. That California failed to follow this practice – which, again, was available already in the late 2000s – is the source of malpractice. The original bids could have held if the process were better.

Absolute costs and cost overruns

Cost overruns are not the same as absolute costs. They are not even obviously correlated: witness the way the US eliminated most overruns on surface light rail projects in the 1990s and 2000s, to the point that projects with large overruns like the Green Line Extension are exceptional, while absolute costs have skyrocketed. But if we understand the problem to be about cost overruns from an ambitious but achievable budget rather than about underestimating a final cost that could not be improved on, then the study of the two topics is inherently intertwined.

Problems that recur in postmortems of cost overruns are not just about estimation. They’re about building better and cheaper. A bureaucratized planning process in which politicians retain the right to make yes-or-no decisions on complete design reduces cost overruns by reducing leakage and surplus extraction; the overruns such a process prevents are preventable extra costs, rather than higher initial estimates. The same is true of avoiding overbuilding, of not introducing extraneous regulations, of treating environmental questions as systemic and quantitative rather than as local under a do-no-harm principle. Even the question of change orders is more transparently about reducing absolute costs in the literature, since the overruns prevented tend to be seen in higher risk to the contractor leading to higher profit margin demands.

The upshot is that this makes the study of absolute costs easier, because we can reuse some of the literature for the related problem of cost overruns. But conceptually, it means that agencies need to be more proactive and treat early budgets as standards to be adhered to, rather than just blow up the budgets preemptively so that it’s easier to stick to them.

Hire In-House, Don’t Use Consultants

I recently found two presentations, one from 2017, the other from earlier this week, both underscoring the importance of in-house expertise for efficient construction. This is layered on top of interviews Eric and I did for our Boston case study and a few additional interviews I did in other American and European cities. It is my professional opinion that agencies that engage in major capital projects, even if they involve rolling stock acquisition rather than the construction of new lines, ought to hire in-house, and make sure to have long-term capital programs.

The presentations

Both presentations concern rolling stock. The one from 2017 is by Stadler, regarding the challenges of the American market. On slide 32, it mentions that Caltrain was a demanding customer, with all expertise outsourced and yet managers engaging in micromanagement. The micromanagement is in line with what we’ve heard from contractors for other capital expansions, like Second Avenue Subway, especially contractors with experience in both the US, where this practice is common, and Europe, where it isn’t.

Thanks to the factors mentioned by Stadler as well as the Buy America requirement to set up a new factory with a new supply chain for a midsize order, the cost is $551 million/96 cars, or $5.74 million/car; the typical cost of a KISS is 300 million €/90 cars, and the €:$ ratio is not 1.72, far from it.

The other presentation, from this week, concerns the MBTA’s slow approach to electrifying its commuter rail network. It wishes to begin with a pilot on the already-electrified Providence Line, but is running against the problem of having no in-house expertise, just as Caltrain does not. The presentation on this says, on slide 3, that it takes 6-9 months to onboard consultants, and another 6-9 to develop performance requirements for a kind of vehicle that is completely standard in high-performance regional rail networks in Europe.

Instead of hiring experienced professionals (who must come from Europe or East Asia and not the US), the MBTA plans to piggyback on either the overpriced Caltrain order, or an obsolete-technology order by New Jersey Transit. The Caltrain order, moreover, is stretched for the generous loading gauge of the Western US, but does not fit the catenary height on the East Coast, even though European KISSes would easily and are around 13 cm lower than existing MBTA rolling stock.

Prior Northeastern examples

This combination of political and managerial micromanagement with outsourcing of technical expertise to consultants is common enough in the United States. In the Boston report on the Green Line Extension, we were told by multiple sources that the MBTA only has 5-6 engineers doing design review. Thus, they have the capacity to handle small projects but not large ones.

Small-scale projects like building a new infill station or taking an existing low-platform commuter rail station and converting it to an accessible high-platform one usually have limited cost premium: in Berlin, infill stations are 10 million € outside the Ring, whereas in Boston, infill stations and high-platforming projects (which are very similar in scope) are around $20-25 million – and Boston platforms are longer. This is also the case in Philadelphia, where headline costs are lower because the stations are smaller, but overall the unit costs are comparable to those of Boston.

But large projects are beyond the ability of a 6-person team. The required permanent staffing level is likely in the teens for a team whose job is just to score design and construction contracts. This choked the original Green Line Extension, leading to bottlenecks in design and contributing to the project’s extreme cost. The restarted version is still extremely expensive – it’s getting some good press this week for running slightly under a $2.3 billion/6.3 km budget, but said budget, $360 million/km, is well above the international norm for a subway, let alone trenched light rail. The current project has sunk costs from the previous ones, and a combination of in-house and consultant design about whose efficacy we’ve heard conflicting reports, but the team is much larger now.

In areas that don’t even have the skeletal design review staff of Boston, costs are high even for small projects. Connecticut deserves especial demerit: its department of transportation relies exclusively on consultants for rail design (perhaps also road design but I do not know), and infill stations cost not $20-25 million but $50+ million. The Hartford Line, compromised from the start, even displays this state-by-state difference: the one Massachusetts project, a single high platform in Springfield, cost $10 million/100 meters, a fraction of comparable projects in Connecticut. Larger Connecticut stations, such as those for Metro-North, have seen extreme scope creep, amounting to a $106 million total cost.

Consultants and design

American agencies speak of design-bid-build contracts, in which design and construction are separate, and design-build ones, where they are combined into a single contract. Design-bid-build is superior. But really, contracts in low-cost countries are often neither of those, but just build contracts, with design done mostly in-house. A procurement official in Stockholm explained to me that Swedish contracts tend to be build contracts; design-bid-build can sometimes be used with supplemental consultants helping with design, but it’s not the norm. Moreover, in Oslo, the use of design consultants instead of in-house design has not been good: consultants tend to engage in defensive design because of how Norway structures risk allocation, leading to overbuilding.

In Spain and (I believe) Italy, contracts are design-bid-build. But there’s so much in-house involvement in design that it’s more accurate to call these build contracts. The in-house design teams are not huge but they’re enough to work with private design firms and score proposals for technical merit. In Istanbul, the system is somewhat different: preliminary design at the 60% level is contracted out separately from the combination of final design and construction, which may possibly be called des-bid-ign-build, but the design part is extensively scored on technical merit, at 60-80% of the total weight. The construction contracts in Istanbul are lowest-bid, but contractors can be disqualified, and since Turkey has so much infrastructure construction, contractors know that they need to behave well to get future work.

Unfortunately, American consultants believe the opposite: they believe in the superiority of design-build and are not even aware of pure build, only design-bid-build. Sources from that world that I generally think highly of have told me that directly. But that is because the sort of projects that they are most likely to be involved in are ones that use consultants, which definitionally are not build contracts. The ongoing expansion projects in Stockholm, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, and Berlin have no use for international consultants, so international consultants are not familiar with them, and end up knowing only about high-cost examples like London or the occasional medium-cost one like Paris. In effect, to rely on consultants is to ascertain one largely learns worst industry practices, not best ones.

Hire in-house

The alternative to paying consultants is to obtain public-sector expertise. Agencies are obligated to hire sufficient-size teams, and pay them competitively. Engineers in Italy and Spain have a lot of social prestige, much as in France and Germany; even in medium- rather than low-cost countries in Europe, like France, we were told by UITP planners that the people planning metro systems are hired from the engineering elite (in France, this would be Grandes Ecoles graduates), and paid appropriately.

In the US, there is no such prestige. Humanities professors speak of STEM privilege routinely, but by Continental and East Asian standards, the US and UK have no STEM privilege: the elites are generalist and are not expected to know the specific industrial fields they oversee. The public sector thus treats the planner and the engineer as a servant to the political appointee. Senior management routinely ignores the advice of younger planners who are more familiar with present-day research.

The pay, too, is deficient. In absolute numbers, planners at American transit agencies get paid better than their European counterparts – but American white-collar wages are generally higher than European ones. The MBTA pays project managers $106,000 a year as of a few years ago, which is a nice wage, but the Boston private sector pays $140,000 in transportation and more in other fields. The public sector, through budget-cutting officials, sends a clear price signal: we do not want you to work for us.

There is another way, but it requires letting go of the idea that private consultants are better than long-term in-house experts. It is obligatory to hire in-house at competitive wages to grow the design review teams, and listen to them when they say something is desirable, difficult, or impossible. Instead of onboarding consultants, agencies should immediately staff up in-house with plans for long-term investments. Moreover, senior management should back the planners and engineers when they engage in value engineering, even if it annoys politicians and local activists. The role of elected politicians is to review those in-house plans and decide whether there is room in the budget for the megaprojects they recommend, and not to micromanage. This way, and only this way, can the United States shrink its procurement costs to typical Continental European levels.

Australian Construction Costs

There’s a report just released by the Grattan Institute called Megabang for Megabucks, talking about high construction costs in Australia. Our transit costs project is quoted as an international comparison, pointing out that Australia is near the global high end. I encourage people to read the report itself, which says interesting things about problems with Australian construction and procurement. I am especially happy to see that the recommendations for the most part accord with what we are learning from other cases – of course, our Boston case is out and the report authors have likely read it, but the recommendations are in line with things we see from yet-unpublished cases, so this is not just me looking at a mirror.

The issue of competition

Australian megaproject contracts have insufficient competition. Only three firms are Tier One, the largest infrastructure contractors in Australia; those get most contracts for the largest infrastructure projects, and when mid-tier firms bid, it’s often in partnership with a Tier One company. Moreover, in the largest size category, higher than $1 billion, even the Tier One firms often partner with one another, leading to monopoly.

International firms do access the Australian market, but it is inconsistent. Australia overweights the importance of local experience, and has some unusual rules, such as requiring firms to engage in more prior design than is typical.

This is consistent with what I’ve seen in Israel. In short, the electrification contract in Israel was won by Spanish contractor SEMI, which had extensive European experience but none in Israel. This was criticized domestically, and some people blamed it for the schedule slips on the electrification project, but such blame is unfair. The bulk of the delays are not the fault of SEMI but come from a lawsuit launched by Alstom, which competed for the contract and lost out on price; Alston employed industrial espionage to create FUD about the bid, and the lawsuit delayed works by three years. Despite this, the costs have not run over much, and the absolute per-km costs remain on the low side, net of extras like Haifa’s demand for a trench. Thus, even in a situation of extensive domestic complaints about the winning bidder’s lack of local experience, said lack did not materially create problems.

This is also consistent with lessons from Turkey. In Turkey, there must be a minimum of three bidders. If there are only one or two, the state or municipal government must rebid. Absolute costs in Turkey are low and so are cost overruns; the extensive competition helps discipline the contractors, as does the political consensus in favor of rapid infrastructure construction, credibly promising firms that there will be more work in the future and if they behave they will get some of it.

Procurement

The study discusses different contracting regimes. It does not talk about the design-build issue; I do not know whether it is as prevalent in Australia as in Canada, and regrettably there is no cost history, thus no way for me to confirm my suspicion that Australia resembles Canada and Singapore in only having had a cost explosion in the last 20 years. However, it does talk about change orders.

Change orders are a notable problem in California. Low bids followed by renegotiation are common there; Tutor Perini is notorious for this behavior. The study goes over strategies to deal with this issue, though it does not talk explicitly about itemization as in Spain and Italy, where the unit prices are public and then if more is needed (e.g. more labor due to slower progress) then the change is already pre-agreed, avoiding litigation. Sweden avoids litigation as well.

Finally, the study talks about rushing. This was an issue in Boston, so this may be me learning from a mirror, but, in brief, American funding for infrastructure encourages agencies to rush the preliminary design to apply for federal funding early. This leads to compromised designs and premature commitment, since there is no ongoing funding for long-term design.

Learning from good examples

I think the one drawback of the study is the list of comparisons. Sourced partly to us and partly to Read-Efron, they say,

The empirical evidence is incomplete, but what there is shows that rail construction costs in Australia are in the top quarter of 27 OECD countries studied. They are higher than in numerous other rich countries: 26 per cent higher than in Canada, 29 per cent higher than in Japan, and more than three times as high as in Spain (Figure 1.2 on the following page). And road and rail tunnels cost more in Australia than elsewhere in the world, according to an international study.

The comparison with Canada has a problem: the Canadian costs in our database go back 15-20 years, and back then, costs were much lower than today. The latest costs do not show an Australian premium over Canada – Toronto is more expensive to build in than Sydney and almost as much as Melbourne. It is critical to understand that high costs are really a pan-Anglosphere phenomenon, and thus Australia should learn from Continental European and East Asian examples (except very high-cost Hong Kong), and not from countries that in the last 10 years have had the same problems as Australia or worse. Spain is always good, as are common features to low-cost Spain, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, and the Nordic countries, and even common features to those and medium-cost countries like France, Germany, China, and Japan.

Tilting Trains and Technological Dead-Ends

The history of tilting trains is on my mind, because it’s easy to take a technological advance and declare it a solution to a problem without first producing it at scale. I know that 10 years ago I was a big fan of tilting trains in comments and early posts, based on both academic literature on the subject and existing practices. Unfortunately, this turned into a technological dead-end because the maintenance costs were too high, disproportionate to the real speed benefits, and further work has gone in different directions. I bring this up because it’s a good example of how even a solution that has been proven to work at scale can turn out to be a dead-end.

What is tilting?

It is a way of getting trains to run at higher cant deficiency.

What is cant deficiency?

Okay. Let’s derive this from physical first principles.

The lateral acceleration on a train going on a curve is given by the formula a = v^2/r. For example, if the speed is 180 km/h, which is 50 m/s, and the curve radius is 2,000 meters, then the acceleration is 50^2/2000 = 1.25 m/s^2.

Now, on pretty much any curve, a road or railway will be banked, with the outer side elevated above the inner side. On a railway this is not called banking, but rather superelevation or cant. That way, gravity countermands some of the centrifugal force felt by the train. The formula on standard-gauge track is that 150 mm of cant equal 1 m/s^2 of lateral acceleration. The cant is free speed – if the train is perfectly canted then there is no centrifugal force felt by the passengers or the train systems, and the balance between the force on the inner and outer rail is perfect, as if there is no curve at all.

The maximum superelevation on a railway is 200 mm, but it only exists on some Shinkansen lines. More typical of high-speed rail is 160-180 mm, and on conventional rail the range is more like 130-160; moreover, if trains are expected to run at low speed, for example if the line is dominated by slow freight traffic or sometimes even if the railroad just hasn’t bothered increasing the speed limit, cant will be even lower, down to 50-80 mm on many American examples. Therefore, on passenger trains, it is always desirable to run faster, that is to combine the cant with some lateral acceleration felt by the passengers. Wikipedia has a force diagram:

The resultant force, the downward-pointing green arrow, doesn’t point directly toward the train floor, because the train goes faster than the balance speed. This is fine – some lateral acceleration is acceptable. This can be expressed in units of acceleration, that is v^2/r with the contribution of cant netted out, but in regulations it’s instead expressed in theoretical additional superelevation required to balance, that is in mm (or inches, in the US). This is called cant deficiency, unbalanced superelevation, or underbalance, and follows the same 150 mm = 1 m/s^2 formula on standard-gauge track.

Note also that it is possible to have cant excess, that is negative cant deficiency. This occurs when the cant chosen for a curve is a compromise between faster and slower trains, and the slower trains are so much slower the direction of the net force is toward the inner rail and not the outer rail. This is a common occurrence when passenger and freight trains share a line owned by a passenger rail-centric authority (a freight rail-centric one will just set the cant for freight balance). It can also occur when local and express passenger trains share a line – there are some canted curves at stations in southeastern Connecticut on the Northeast Corridor.

The maximum cant deficiency is ordinarily in the 130-160 mm range, depending on the national regulations. So ordinarily, you add up the maximum cant and cant deficiency and get a lateral acceleration of about 2 m/s^2, which is what I base all of my regional rail timetables on.

You may also note that the net force vector is not just of different direction from the vertical relative to the carbody but also of slightly greater magnitude. This is an issue I cited as a problem for Hyperloop, which intends to use far higher cant than a regular train, but at the scale of a regular train, it is not relevant. The magnitude of a vector consisting of a 9.8 m/s^2 weight force and a 2 m/s^2 centrifugal force is 10 m/s^2.

Okay, so how does tilt interact with this?

To understand tilt, first we need to understand the issue of suspension.

A good example of suspension in action is American regulations on cant deficiency. As of the early 2010s, the FRA regulations depend on train testing, but are in practice, 6″, or about 150 mm. But previously the blanket rule was 3″, with 4-5″ allowed only by exception, mocked by 2000s-era advocates as “the magic high-speed rail waiver.” This is a matter of carbody suspension, which can be readily seen in the force diagram in the above secetion, in which the train rests on springs.

The issue with suspension is that, because the carbody is sprung, it is subject to centrifugal force, and will naturally suspend to the outside of the curve. In the following diagram, the train is moving away from the viewer and turning left, so the inside rail is on the left and the the outside rail is on the right:

The cant is 150 mm, and the cant deficiency is held to be 150 mm as well, but the carbody sways a few degrees (about 3) to the outside of the curve, which adds to the perceived lateral acceleration, increasing it from 1 m/s^2 to about 1.5. This is typical of a modern passenger train; the old FRA regulations on the matter were based on an experiment from the 1950s using New Haven Railroad trains with unusually soft suspension, tilting so far to the outside of the curve that even 3″ cant deficiency was enough to produce about 1.5 m/s^2 of lateral force felt by the passengers.

By the same token, a train with theoretically perfectly rigid suspension could have 225 mm of cant deficiency and satisfy regulators, but such a train doesn’t quite exist.

Here comes tilt. Tilt is a mechanism that shifts the springs so that the carbody leans not to the outside of the curve but to its inside. The Pendolino technology is theoretically capable of 300 mm of cant deficiency, and practically of 270. This does not mean passengers feel 1.8-2 m/s^2 of lateral acceleration; the train’s bogies feel that, but are designed to be capable of running safely, while the passengers feel far less. In fact the Pendolino had to limit the tilt just to make sure passengers would feel some lateral acceleration, because it was capable of reducing the carbody centrifugal force to zero and this led to motion sickness as passengers saw the horizon rise and fall without any centrifugal force giving motion cues.

Two lower cant deficiency-technology than Pendolino-style tilt are notable, as those are not technological dead-ends, and in fact remain in production. Those are the Talgo and the Shinkansen active suspension. The Talgo has no axles, and incorporates a gravity-based pendular system in which the train is sprung not from the bottom up but from the top down; this still isn’t enough to permit 225 mm of cant deficiency, but high-speed versions like the AVRIL permit 180, which is respectable. The Shinkansen active suspension is computer-controlled, like the Pendolino, but only tilts 2 degrees, allowing up to 180 mm of cant deficiency.

What is the use case of tilting, then?

Well, the speed is higher. How much higher the speed is depends on the underlying cant. The active tilt systems developed for the Pendolino, the Advanced Passenger Train, and ICE T are fundamentally designed for mixed-traffic lines. On those lines, there is no chance of superelevating the curves 200 mm – one freight locomotive at cant excess would demolish the inner track, and the freight loads would shift unacceptably toward the inner rail. A more realistic cant if there is much slow freight traffic is 80 mm, in which case the difference between 150 and 300 mm of cant deficiency corresponds to a speed ratio of \sqrt{(80+300)/(80+150)} = 1.285.

Note that the square root in the formula, coming from the fact that acceleration formula contains a square of the speed, means that the higher the cant, the less we care about cant deficiency. Moreover, at very high speed, 300 mm of cant deficiency, already problematic at medium speed (the Pendolino had to be derated to 270), is unstable when there is significant wind. Martin Lindahl’s thesis, the first link in the introduction, runs computer simulations at 350 km/h and finds that, with safety margins incorporated, the maximum feasible cant deficiency is 250 mm. On dedicated high-speed track, the speed ratio is then \sqrt{(200+250)/(200+130)} = 1.168, a more modest ratio than on mixed track.

The result is that for very high-speed rail applications, Pendolino-level tilting was never developed. The maximum cant deficiency on a production train capable of running at 300 km/h or faster is 9″ (230 mm) on the Avelia Liberty, a bespoke train that cost about double per car what 300 km/h trains cost in Europe. To speed up legacy Shinkansen lines, JR Central and JR East have developed active suspension, stretching the 2.5 km curves of the Tokaido Shinkansen from the 1950s and 60s to allow 285 km/h with the latest N700 trains, and allowing 360 km/h on the 4 km curves of the Tohoku Shinkansen.

What happened to the Pendolino?

The Pendolino and similar trains, such as the ICE T, have faced high maintenance costs. Active tilting taxes the train’s mechanics, and it’s inherently a compromise between maintenance costs and cant deficiency – this is why the Pendolino runs at 270 mm where it was originally capable of 300 mm. The Shinkansen’s active suspension is explicitly a compromise between costs and speed, tilted toward lower cant deficiency because the trains are used on high-superelevation lines. The Talgo’s passive tilt system is much easier to maintain, but also permits a smaller tilt angle.

The Pendolino itself is a fine product, with the tilt removed. Alstom uses it as its standard 250 km/h train, at lower cost than 350 km/h trains. It runs in China as CRH5, and Poland bought a non-tilting Pendolino fleet for its high-speed rail service.

Other medium-speed tilt trains still run, but the maintenance costs are high to the point that future orders are unlikely to include tilt. Germany has a handful of tilt trains included in the Deutschlandtakt, but the market for them is small. Sweden is happy with the X2000, but its next speedup of intercity rail will not involve tilting trains on mostly legacy track as Lindahl’s thesis investigated, but conventional non-tilting high-speed trains on new 320 km/h track to be built at a cost that is low by any global standard but still high for how small and sparsely-populated Sweden is.

In contrast, trainsets with 180 mm cant deficiency are still going strong. JR Central recently increased the maximum speed on the Tokaido Shinkansen from 270 to 285 km/h, and Talgo keeps churning out equipment and exports some of it outside Spain.

No Cafe Cars, Please

European and American intercity train planning takes it as a given that every train must have a car dedicated to cafeteria service. This is not the only way to run trains – the Shinkansen doesn’t have cafe cars. Cafe cars waste capacity that could instead be carrying paying passengers. This is the most important on lines with capacity limitations, like the Northeast Corridor, the West Coast Main Line, the LGV Sud-Est, and the ICE spine from the Rhine-Ruhr up to Frankfurt and Mannheim. Future high-speed train procurement should go the Shinkansen route and fill all cars with seats, to maximize passenger space.

How much space do cafe cars take?

Typically, one car in eight is a cafe. The standard European high-speed train is 200 meters long, and then two can couple to form a 400-meter train, with two cafes since the two 200-meter units are separate and passengers can’t walk between them. In France, the cars are shorter than 25 meters, but a TGV has two locomotives and eight coaches in between, so again one eighth of the train’s potential passenger space does not carry passengers but rather a support service. Occasionally, the formula is changed: the ICE4 in Germany is a single 12-car, 300-meter unit, so 1/12 of the train is a cafe, and in the other direction, the Acela has six coaches one of which is a cafe.

A 16-car Shinkansen carries 1,323 passengers; standard class has 5-abreast seating, but even with 4-abreast seating, it would be 1,098. The same length of a bilevel TGV is 1,016, and a single-level TGV is 754. The reasons include the Shinkansen’s EMU configuration compared with the TGV’s use of locomotives, the lack of a cafe car in Japan, somewhat greater efficiency measured in seat rows per car for a fixed train pitch, and a smaller share of the cars used for first class. An intermediate form is the Velaro, which is an EMU but has a cafe and three first-class cars in eight rather than the Shinkansen’s three in 16; the Eurostar version has 902 seats over 16 cars, and the domestic version 920.

The importance of the first- vs. second-class split is that removing the cafe from a European high-speed train means increasing seated capacity by more than just one seventh. The bistro car is an intermediate car rather than an end car with streamlining and a driver’s cab, and if it had seats they’d be second- and not first-class. A German Velaro with the bistro replaced by a second-class car would have around 1,050 seats in 16 cars, almost even with a 4-abreast Shinkansen even with four end cars rather than two and with twice as many first-class cars.

How valuable are cafes to passengers?

The tradeoff is that passengers prefer having a food option on the train. But this preference is not absolute. It’s hard to find a real-world example. The only comparison I am aware of is on Amtrak between the Regional (which has a cafe) and the Keystone (which doesn’t), and Regional fares are higher on the shared New York-Philadelphia segment but those are priced to conserve scarce capacity for profitable New York-Washington passengers, and at any rate the shared segment is about 1:25, and perhaps this matters more on longer trips.

Thankfully, the Gröna Tåget project in Sweden studied passenger preferences in more detail in order to decide how Sweden’s train of the future should look. It recommends using more modern seats to improve comfort, making the seats thinner as airlines do in order to achieve the same legroom even with reduced pitch, and a number of other changes. The question of cafes in the study is presented as unclear, on PDF-p. 32:

Food and RefreshmentsWillingness to Pay
Coffee machine (relative to no service at all)3-6%
Free coffee and tea in each car6%
Food and drink trolley11%
Cafeteria14%
Restaurant with hot food17%

Put another way, the extra passenger willingness to pay for a cafeteria compared with nothing, 14%, is approximately equal to the increase in capacity on a Velaro coming from getting rid of the bistro and replacing it with a second-class car. The extra over a Shinkansen-style trolley is 3%. Of course, demand curves slope down, so the gain in revenue from increasing passenger capacity by 14% is less than 14%, but fares are usually held down to a maximum regulatory level and where lines are near capacity the increase in revenue is linear.

Station food

Instead of a bistro car, railroads should provide passengers with food options at train stations. In Japan this is the ekiben, but analogs exist at major train stations in Europe and the United States. Penn Station has a lot of decent food options, and even if I have to shell out $10 for a pastrami sandwich, I don’t think it’s more expensive than a Tokyo ekiben, and at any rate Amtrak already shorts me $90 to travel to Boston. The same is true if I travel out of Paris or Berlin.

Even better, if the station is well-designed and placed in a central area of the city, then passengers can get from the street to the platform very quickly. At Gare de l’Est, it takes maybe two minutes, including time taken to print the ticket. This means that there is an even broader array of possible food options by buying on the street, as I would when traveling out of Paris. In that case, prices and quality approach what one gets on an ordinary street corner, without the premium charged to travelers when they are a captive market. The options are then far better than what any bistro car could produce, without taking any capacity away from the train at all.