The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.
I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.
SNCF is Losing Money
The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.
Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).
In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.
The Spinetta Axe
The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.
But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).
There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.
The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.
And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.
SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.
This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.
Efficiencies not Mentioned
The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.
Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.
Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.
Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.
The Impetus for Cost Control
The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.
The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.
This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.
A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.
A much-awaited Regional Plan Association report about construction costs in New York has come out, as a supplement to the Fourth Regional Plan, and I’m unimpressed. I thought that I would either enjoy reading the RPA’s analysis, or else be disappointed by it. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling tepid toward most of the analysis; my objections to the report are that its numbers have serious mistakes, that the recommendations at the end conflict with the analysis, and that it seems to overvalue other English-speaking countries, even when their construction costs are the highest in the world outside the US.
The big contrast is with Brian Rosenthal’s expose in the New York Times. The main comparison city to New York there is Paris, where the extension of Metro Line 14 resembles New York’s subway extensions; for the article, Brian talked to construction managers here, and either visited the site himself or talked to people who did, to compare the situation with that of New York. As a result, I learned things from Brian’s article that I did not know before (namely, that the excavation per station for the Line 14 extension wasn’t less voluminous than for Second Avenue Subway). The RPA report gives a few details I wasn’t familiar with, such as escalators’ share of construction costs, but nothing that seems big.
I feel like I slag on the RPA a lot nowadays – it started with their report from three years ago about Outer Borough transit and continued with their wrong approach to Triboro, but more recently I didn’t think much of their take on suburban TOD, or the Gateway project, or the Fourth Regional Plan in general. This isn’t out of malice or jealousy; when I talked to Tom Wright six months ago I sympathized with the political constraints he was operating under. The problem is that sometimes these constraints lead either to unforced errors, or to errors that, while I understand where they come from, are big enough that the organization should have pushed and made sure to avoid them. In the case of the construction cost report, the errors start small, but compound to produce recommendations that are at times counterproductive; agency officials reading this would have no way of reducing costs.
Mistakes in the Numbers
The RPA is comparing New York’s costs unfavorably with those of other cities around the world, as well as one American city (Los Angeles). However, at several points, the numbers appear different from the ones I have seen in the news media. Three places come to mind – the first is a nitpick, the second is more serious but still doesn’t change the conclusions, the third is the most egregious in its implications.
The first place is right at the beginning of the report. In the executive summary, on page 2, the RPA gives its first example of high New York costs:
The Second Avenue Subway (SAS), for example, has the distinction of being the world’s most expensive subway extension at a cost of $807 million per track mile for construction costs alone. This is over 650% more per mile than London’s Northern Line extension to Battersea — estimated at $124 million per track mile.
Both sets of numbers are incorrect – in fact, contradicted by the rest of the document. SAS is $1.7 billion per route-km, which is $850 million per track-km. The Northern line extension to Battersea is also much more expensive. I can’t tell whether these figures are missing something, such as stations or overheads, but as headline numbers, they’re both lowballed.
The second place is when the report discusses station construction costs. Not having seen any advance copy, I wrote about this issue two weeks ago, just before the report came out: the three new SAS stations cost $821, $649, and $802 million, according to the Capital Program Dashboard. In contrast, on pp. 16-17, the RPA gives lower figures for these stations: just $386 million, $244 million, and $322 million. The RPA’s source is “Capital Construction Committee reports,” but my post on station costs looked at some of those and found costs that are not much lower than those reported in the Dashboard. The RPA figures for the last two stations, 86th and 72nd, seem close to the costs of finishes alone, and it’s possible that the organization made a mistake and confused the cost of just finishes (or perhaps just excavation) with the total cost, combining both excavation and finishes.
With the correct costs, the difference from what Paris spends on a station (about $110 million on average) seems so stark that the recommendations must center station construction specifically, and yet they don’t.
The third and most problematic mistake is table 10 on page 50, which lists a number of subway projects and their costs. The list is pretty short, with just 11 items, of which 3 are in New York, another is in Los Angeles, one is in Toronto, and 2 are in London. The Toronto project, the Spadina subway extension to Vaughan, and one of the London projects, the Northern line extension, are both lowballed. The RPA says that the Northern line extension’s cost is $1.065 billion, but the most recent number I’ve seen is £1.2 billion, which in PPP terms is $1.7 billion. And the Vaughan extension, listed as $1.961 billion in the report, is now up to C$3.2 billion, about $2.55 billion in PPP terms. Perhaps the RPA used old numbers, before cost escalations, but in such a crucial report it’s important to update cost estimates even late in the process.
But most worryingly, the costs on table 10 also include mistakes in the other direction, in Paris and Tokyo. The cost estimate listed for Line 14 South in Grand Paris Express is $4.39 billion. But the Cour des Comptes’ report attacking Grand Paris Express’s cost overruns lists the line’s cost as only €2.678 billion, or about $3.3 billion; this is in 2012 euros, but French inflation rates are very low, well below 1% a year, and at any rate, even applying American inflation rates wouldn’t get the cost anywhere near $4 billion. In Tokyo, the RPA similarly inflates the cost of the Fukutoshin Line: it gives it as $3.578 billion, but a media report after opening says the cost was ¥250 billion, or about $2.5 billion in today’s PPP conversion, with even less inflation than in France.
I can understand why there would be downward mistakes. Reports like this take a long time to produce, and then they take even longer to revise even after they are supposedly closed to further edits; I am working on a regional rail report for TransitMatters that has been in this situation for three months, with last-minute changes, reviews by stakeholders, and printing delays. However, the upward mistakes in Paris and Tokyo are puzzling. It’s hard to explain why, since the RPA’s numbers are unsourced; it’s possible they heard them from experts, but didn’t bother to write down who those experts were or to check their numbers.
The Synthesis Doesn’t Follow the Analysis
Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup in Tunnelbuilder about how as CEO of Madrid Metro he delivered subway construction for, in today’s money, around $60 million per km, includes a number of recommendations. The RPA report cites his writeup on several occasions, as well as his appearance at the Irish Parliament. It also cites secondary sources about Madrid’s low construction costs, which appear to rely on Melis’s analysis or at least come to the same conclusions independently. However, the RPA’s set of recommendations seems to ignore Melis’s advice entirely.
The most glaring example of this is design-build. Melis is adamant that transit agencies separate design from construction. His explanation is psychological: there are always some changes that need to be made during construction (one New York-based construction manager, cited on p. 38 of the RPA study, says “there is no 100% design”), and contractors that were involved in the design are more likely to be wedded to their original plans and less flexible about making little changes. This recommendation of Melis’s is absent from the report, and on the contrary, the list of final recommendations includes expansion of design-build, a popular technique among reformers in New York and in a number of English-speaking cities.
Another example is procurement. I have heard the same explanation for high New York costs several times since I first brought up the issue in comments on Second Avenue Sagas: the bidding process in New York picks the lowest-cost proposal regardless of technical merit (Madrid, in contrasts, scores proposals 50% on technical merit, 30% on cost, and 20% on speed), and to avoid being screwed by dishonest contractors, the state writes byzantine, overexacting specs. As a result, nobody wants to do business with public works in New York, which means that in practice very few companies bid, leading to one-bid contracts. Brian’s article in the New York Times goes into how contractors have an MTA premium since doing business with the MTA is so difficult, and there’s also less competition, so they charge monopoly rates.
The RPA report’s analysis mentions this (pp. 3-4):
In addition, the MTA’s practice of selecting the lowest qualified bidder, even though they are permitted to issue Requests-for-Proposals, has resulted in excessive rebidding and the selection of teams that cannot deliver, resulting in millions of dollars in emergency repairs.
However, the list of recommendations at the end does not include any change to procurement practices to consider technical merit. The recommendations include post-project review for future construction, faster environmental review, reforms to labor rules, and value capture, but nothing about reforming the procurement process to consider technical merit.
Finally, the report talks about the problem of change orders repeatedly, on pp. 3, 15-16, and 38-39, blaming the proliferation of change orders for part of the cost escalation on SAS. Melis addresses this question in his writeup, saying that contracts should not be awarded for a lump sum but rather be itemized, so that change orders come with pre-agreed costs per item. None of this made it to the final recommendations.
There’s a World Outside the Anglosphere
If the report’s recommendations are not based on its own analysis, or on correct construction cost figures, then what are they based on? It seems that, like all failed reform ideas around the US, the RPA is shopping for ideas from other American cities or at least English-speaking ones that look good. Its recommendations include “adopt London’s project delivery model” and “expand project insurance and liability models,” the latter of which is sourced to the UK and Australia. Only one recommendation so much as mentions a non-English-speaking city: “develop lessons learned and best-practice guidance as part of a post-project review” mentions Madrid in passing, but focuses on Denver and Los Angeles.
This relates to the pattern of mistakes in the cost figures. Were the numbers on table 10 right, the implication would be that London, Paris, and Tokyo all have similar construction costs, at $330, $350, and $400 million per km, and Toronto is cheaper, at $230 million per km. In this situation, London would offer valuable lessons. Unfortunately, the RPA’s numbers are wrong. Using correct numbers, London’s costs rise to $550 million per km, while those of Paris and Tokyo fall to $260 and $280 million. Toronto’s costs rise to $300 million per km, which would be reasonable for an infill subway in a dense area (like the Fukutoshin Line and to some extent the Metro Line 14 extension), but are an outrage for a suburban extension to partly-undeveloped areas.
Using correct numbers, the RPA should have known to talk to people in countries that don’t speak English. Many of the planners and engineers in those countries speak English well as a second language. Many don’t, but New York is a large cosmopolitan city with immigrants with the required language skills, especially Spanish.
Nonetheless, the RPA report, which I am told cost $250,000 to produce, does not talk to experts in non-English-speaking countries. The citations of Melis are the same two English-language ones I have been citing for years now; there is no engagement with his writings on the subject in Spanish or his more recent English-language work (there’s a paper he coauthored in 2015 that I can’t manage to get past the paywall update: kind souls with academic access sent me a copy and it’s not as useful as I’d hoped from the abstract), nor does the RPA seem to have talked to managers in Madrid (or Barcelona) today. Across more than 200 footnotes, 30-something are sourced to “expert interviews,” and of those all but a handful are interviews with New York-based experts and the rest are interviews with London-based ones.
As a result, while the report is equipped to explain New York’s internal problems, it fails as a comparative piece. The recommendations themselves are primarily internal, based on things Americans have been discussing among themselves for years: streamlining environmental review, simplifying labor rules, expanding design-build.
The labor reforms mentioned include exactly one specific case of excessive staffing, reported in the New York Times (and, beforehand, on an off-hand remark by then-MTA Capital Construction chief Michael Horodniceanu), about the number of workers it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine. The New York Times article goes into more detail about the entire process, but the RPA report ignores that in favor of the one comparison that had been going around Transit Twitter for years. Instead of proposing specifics for reducing headcounts, the report talks about changing the way workers are paid for each day, relying on internal reforms proposed by people dissatisfied with the unions rather than on any external analysis.
The Cycle of Failure
I’ve been reading policy papers for maybe a decade – mostly American, a few Israeli or Canadian or British or French. There’s a consistent pattern in that they often treat the practices of what they view as a peer city or country as obvious examples of what to do. For example, an American policy paper on Social Security privatization might explain the Chilean system, and recommend its implementation, without much consideration of whether it’s really best industry practice. Such papers end up at best moving sideways, and at worst perpetuate the cycle of failure, by giving governments the appearance of reform while they in fact cycle between bad options, or occasionally stumble upon a good idea but then don’t understand how to implement it correctly.
If New York wants to study whether design-build is a good idea, it’s not enough to put it in the list of recommendations. It needs to do the legwork and read what the best experts say (e.g. Melis is opposed to it) and look at many cities at once to see what they do. I would feel embarrassed writing a long report like this with only 7 case studies from outside the US. I’d want to examine many more: on the cheap side, Stockholm, Milan, Seoul, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Naples, Helsinki; on the expensive side, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Toronto, Melbourne, Munich, Amsterdam; in between, Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, Zurich, Copenhagen, Vienna. On anything approaching the RPA’s budget for the paper, I’d connect with as many people in these places as I could in order to do proper comparative analysis.
Instead, the RPA put out a paper that acknowledges the cost difference, but does not make a real effort to learn and improve. It has a lot of reform ideas, but most come from the same process that led to the high construction costs New York faces today, and the rest come from London, whose construction costs would astound nearly everyone in the world outside the US.
One of the things I learned working with TransitMatters is that some outside stakeholders, I haven’t been told who, react poorly to non-American comparison cases, especially non-English-speaking ones. Ignorant of the world beyond their borders, they make up excuses for why knowledge that they don’t have is less valuable. Even within the group I once had to push back against the cycle of failure when someone suggested a nifty-looking but bad idea borrowed from a low-transit-use American city. The group’s internal structure is such that it’s easy for bad ideas to get rejected, but this isn’t true of outside stakeholders, and from my conversation with Tom Wright about Gateway I believe the RPA feels much more beholden to the same stakeholders.
The cycle of failure that the RPA participates in is not the RPA’s fault, or at least not entirely. The entire United States in general and New York in particular is resistant to outside ideas. The political system in New York as well as the big nonprofits forms an ecosystem of Americans who only talk to other Americans, or to the occasional Canadian or Brit, and let bad ideas germinate while never even hearing of what best industry practices are. In this respect the RPA isn’t any worse than the average monolingual American exceptionalist, but neither is it any better.
The most worrisome part of the RPA Fourth Regional Plan is the LaGuardia Airport connector. The regional rail system the RPA is proposing includes some truly massive wastes of money, but what the RPA is proposing around LaGuardia showcases the worst aspects of the plan. On Curbed I explained that the plan has an unfortunate tendency to throw in every single politically-supported proposal. I’d like to expand on what I said in the article about the airport connector:
The most egregious example is another transit project favored by a political heavyweight: the LaGuardia AirTrain, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Though he touts it as a one-seat ride from Midtown to LaGuardia, the vast majority of airport travelers going to Manhattan would have to go east to Willets Point (a potential redevelopment site) before they could go west. Even airport employees would have to backtrack to get to their homes in Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, it wouldn’t save airport riders any time over the existing buses.
Once again, it’s proven unpopular with transit experts and advocates: [Ben] Kabak mocked the idea as vaporware, and Yonah Freemark showed how circuitous this link would be. When Cuomo first proposed this idea, Politico cited a number of additional people who study public transportation in the region with negative reactions. Despite its unpopularity—and the lack of an official cost for the proposal—the AirTrain LaGuardia is included in the RPA’s latest plan.
But there is an alternative to Cuomo’s plan: an extension of the N/W train, proposed in the 1990s, which would provide a direct route along with additional stops within Astoria, where there is demand for subway service. Community opposition killed the original proposal, but a lot can change in 15 years; Astoria’s current residents may well be more amenable to an airport connector that would put them mere minutes from LaGuardia. Cuomo never even tried, deliberately shying away from this populated area.
And the Fourth Plan does include a number of subway extensions, some of which have long been on official and unofficial wishlists. Those include extensions under Utica and Nostrand avenues (planned together with Second Avenue Subway, going back to the 1950s), which also go under two of the top bus routes in the city, per [Jarrett] Walker’s maxim [that the best argument for an urban rail line is an overcrowded bus line, as on Utica and Nostrand].
There is also an extension of the N/W trains in Astoria—though not toward LaGuardia, but west, toward the waterfront, where it would provide a circuitous route to Manhattan. In effect, the RPA is proposing to stoke the community opposition Cuomo was afraid of, but still build the easy—and unsupported—airport connector Cuomo favors.
My views of extending the Astoria Line toward LaGuardia have evolved in the last few years, in a more positive direction. In my first crayon, which I drew in 2010, I didn’t even have that extension; I believed that the Astoria Line should be extended on Astoria Boulevard and miss the airport entirely, because Astoria Boulevard was the more important corridor. My spite map from 2010, give or take a year, connects LGA to the subway via a shuttle under Junction, and has a subway branch under Northern, a subway extension that I’ve been revising my views of negatively.
The issue, to me, is one of branching and capacity. The Astoria Line is a trunk line on the subway, feeding an entire tunnel to Manhattan, under 60th Street; the Queens Boulevard Line also feeds the same tunnel via the R train, but this is inefficient, since there are four trunk lines (Astoria, Flushing, and Queens Boulevard times two since it has four tracks), four tunnels (63rd, 60th, 53rd, Steinway/42nd), and no way to get from the Astoria Line to the other tunnels. This was one of my impetuses for writing about the problems associated with reverse-branching. Among the four trunks in Queens, the Astoria Line is the shortest and lowest-ridership, so it should be extended deeper into Queens if it is possible to do so.
The RPA is proposing to extend the Astoria Line, to its credit. But its extension goes west, to the waterfront. This isn’t really a compelling destination. Development isn’t any more intense than farther east, and for obvious reasons it isn’t possible to extend this line further; the RPA’s proposal would only add one stop to the subway. In contrast, an eastern extension toward LGA could potentially rebuild the line to turn east on Ditmars (with some takings on the interior of the curve at Ditmars and 31st), with stops at Steinway and Hazen before serving the airport. The intensity of development at Steinway is similar to that at 31st and Ditmars or at 21st, and Hazen also has some housing, albeit at lower density. Then, there is the airport, which would be about 8 minutes from Astoria, and 26 minutes from 57th and 7th in Manhattan. This is a different route from that proposed in the Giuliani administration, involving going north above 31st and then east farther out, running nonstop to the airport (or perhaps serving a station or two) through less residential areas, but I believe it is the best one despite the added impact of running elevated on Ditmars.
LGA is not a huge ridership generator; total O&D ridership according to the Consumer Airfare Report is around 55,000 per day, and 33% mode share is aspirational even with fast direct service to Manhattan hotels and an easy connection to the Upper East Side. But it still provides ridership comparable to that of Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars on the line today, and Steinway and Hazen are likely to add more demand. If the MTA closes the 11th Street Connection, taking the R from 60th Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line, in order to reduce the extent of reverse-branching, then the Astoria Line will run under capacity and need this additional demand. The total number of boardings at all stations, including Queensboro Plaza, is 80,000 per weekday today, plus some transfer volumes from the 7, which empties at Queensboro Plaza as 60th Street Tunnel provides a faster route to most Manhattan destinations than the Steinway Tunnel. An LGA extension should add maybe 40,000 or 50,000 weekday riders, without much of a peak since airport travel isn’t peaky, and make it easier to isolate the Astoria Line from the other Queens lines. This is not possible with a short extension to the waterfront as the RPA proposes.
I’ve seen someone suggest somewhere I don’t remember, perhaps on Twitter, that the reason the RPA plan involves an extension of the Astoria line to the west is to insidiously get the correct extension to LGA passed. If the RPA can propose an el in Astoria and not be killed by NIMBYs, then it will prove to Cuomo that NIMBYism is not a problem and thus he can send the subway to the airport directly, without the circuitous air train project that even less acerbic transit writers like Ben and Yonah hate.
I disagree with this line, on two different grounds. The first is that the RPA has two other reasons to support a western extension of the Astoria Line: it connects to the waterfront (which, following de Blasio and his support for the waterfront tramway, the RPA wants to develop further), and it got a station on Triboro in the Third Regional Plan, in the 1990s. I can no longer find the map with the stations on Mike Frumin’s blog, but the plan was to have a station every 800 meters, with a station to the west of Ditmar/31st still in Queens, around 21st Street; only in the more recent plan did the RPA redesign the idea as Crossboro, with much wider stop spacing.
The second grounds for disagreement is that the RPA presented a long-term vision. If Cuomo’s flawed LGA connector is there, then it will embolden him to find money to build this connection, even though it’s slower than taking a bus to the subway today. It will not embolden anyone to look for funding for the extension of the Astoria Line to the west, since there is no force clamoring for such extension – not the neighborhood, and not even the RPA, which includes this line on a long list of proposals.
As I said on Curbed, the RPA has been around for 90 years. Cuomo is just a governor, not even the leader of a real political movement (unlike Bernie Sanders, who seems to be interested in his leftist agenda more than in himself). There is no reason for an organization so venerable to tether itself to a politician who isn’t likely to be around for more than a few more years. On the contrary, it can provide cover for Cuomo to change his plan, if it does some legwork to prove that people in Astoria actually are interested in subway expansion to the east.
Based on a Patreon poll, the top two priorities for this blog for critiquing the RPA Fourth Regional Plan are its mess of the LGA connection and the Astoria Line, and the proposed commuter rail trunk line on Third Avenue. The third priority is multi-tracking existing lines and timetable-infrastructure integration.
New York’s existing regional rail network suggests a north-south trunk line, starting from the Harlem Line in the north and continuing south to Lower Manhattan and beyond. Such a line would run parallel to the Lexington Avenue Line, providing additional express service, running fast not just between 125th Street and City Hall but also farther north and south. Going back to 2009, I have proposed such a line, controversially continuing on to Staten Island:
Of note, the depicted regional rail network makes use of the entirety of Grand Central’s approach tracks. There are four tracks, two used by Line 2 to Penn Station (the green line) and two by Line 4 (the blue line), the north-south trunk under discussion. In contrast, here is the RPA version:
There is a lot more going on in the RPA version – more tunnels, some light rail lines – but the important thing to focus on in this post is the north-south trunk. The RPA is proposing the following items:
- A north-south trunk line under Third Avenue, with an onward connection to Brooklyn.
- Stops at 125th, 86th, 42nd, 31st, 14th, Canal, and Fulton Street.
- Two tunnels to New Jersey (in addition to Gateway), at 57th and Houston Streets, using Third Avenue to connect between them.
- A tunnel directly under the Harlem Line in the Bronx, called an express tunnel but making more stops, with infill at 138th and 149th Street, to intersect the 6 and 2/5 trains respectively.
I contend that all three elements are problematic, and should not be built without major changes.
1. Third Avenue
The RPA plan bypasses the existing tracks to Grand Central entirely. This simplifies scheduling, in the sense that all trains using Third Avenue are captive to the reorganized system from the start. It also serves the Upper East Side and East Harlem slightly better: there is more population density east of Third Avenue than west of it, so it materially benefits riders to have a commuter rail station on Third rather than on Park, where the current line goes.
Unfortunately, these advantages are swamped by the fact that this means the Fourth Regional Plan is proposing about 8 kilometers of tunnel, from 138th Street to 42nd, redundant with the existing Grand Central approach. At the cost I think is appropriate for urban tunnels, this is around $2 billion. At what New York seems to actually spend, start from $13 billion and go up.
Because this trunk line would have to be built from scratch, it also has necessarily limited capacity. The Grand Central approach has four tracks; Third Avenue is as far as I can tell based on the plan just two. Many trains on the Hudson and New Haven Lines would need to keep terminating at the existing Grand Central station, with no through-service; any transfer to the Third Avenue trunk would involve walking a long block between Park and Third Avenues, 310 meters apart.
The capacity limitation, in turn, forces some reverse-branching onto Metro-North, on top of that coming from future Penn Station Access lines (the connections from the New Haven and Hudson Lines to Penn Station, depicted on both the RPA map and my map). It is possible to avoid this by connecting just one of Metro-North’s line to the new trunk, probably the Harlem Line, and then make passengers from the other two lines go to the existing Grand Central. But at least as depicted in the map, this service pattern seems unlikely: the High Bridge infill stop suggests some Hudson Line trains would go to the trunk, too. Unfortunately, even without reverse-branching, service would not be great, since connections between the old and new system (especially with the Hudson Line) would require a long walk at 125th Street or Grand Central.
The long walk is also a problem for the trunk line from Grand Central south. According to OnTheMap, the center of gravity of Midtown jobs seems to be between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, with few jobs east of Third. While this trunk line is good for scooping Upper East Side passengers, it isn’t good for delivering them to their exact destination.
2. Stop Spacing
The RPA stop spacing is too local. The 4 and 5 trains stop at 125th, 86th, 59th, Grand Central, Union Square, City Hall, and Fulton Street. It’s for this reason that my map’s Line 4 is so express, stopping only at 125th Street, Grand Central, Union Square, and Fulton Street: the line parallels the Lexington Avenue Line so closely that it should offer a different stopping pattern. For the same reason, observe that I do not include any infill on the LIRR Main Line west of Jamaica, where is it closely parallel to the Queens Boulevard Line with its E and F express trains; on lines not so close to express subways, I have extensive infill instead.
In contrast, the RPA wants trains to make the same number of stops between Harlem and Lower Manhattan as the 4 and 5 subway lines, just at slightly different locations: 31st instead of 59th, Canal instead of City Hall.
The Canal Street location is understandable. Chinatown is a major destination, overshadowed by Midtown and Lower Manhattan but important in its own right; the Canal Street complex on the 6, N/Q/R/W, and J/Z is the 18th busiest subway station in New York on weekdays and the 11th busiest on weekends. It’s also an intersection point between the north-south trunk line and the N/Q trains (in addition to Union Square) and the J/Z trains (in addition to Fulton Street). I think it’s overall not a good idea to include this location, because the 4/5/6 exist, and the connections to the N/Q and J/Z also exist elsewhere, but I think the alternatives analysis for this project should include this station as an option.
In contrast, 31st Street is inexcusable. On the surface, the rationale for it is clear: provide a transfer point with the east-west tunnels feeding Penn Station. In practice, it is weak. The area is just frustratingly out of walking range from Midtown jobs for train riders. The transfer is good in theory, but in practice requires a new tunnel from Penn Station to Long Island, one that the RPA included because Long Island’s turf warriors wanted it despite complete lack of technical merit; the cost of this tunnel, according to RPA head Tom Wright, would be $7 billion. The only reason to include this connection in the first place is that RPA decided against a connection between Grand Central and Penn Station.
3. The New Jersey Tunnels
In New Jersey, the RPA believes in making no little plans, proposing three two-track Hudson crossings: Gateway, and two new tunnels, one connecting Bergen and Passaic Counties with 57th Street, and one from Hoboken to Houston Street. Tunnels in the general vicinity of these are good ideas. But in this plan, there’s one especially bad element: those tunnels link into the same Third Avenue trunk line.
The RPA has a tendency, going back to at least the Third Regional Plan, to hang many elements on one central piece of infrastructure. The Third Plan proposed Second Avenue Subway as a four-track line, with many branches hitting all the other priorities: regional rail, an express rail connection to JFK, more lines in Brooklyn and the Bronx – see schematic on PDF-p. 13 of the executive summary and more detail on PDF-pp. 204-207 of the full plan. Most of these elements were good on their own, but the connection to Second Avenue Subway made them more awkward, with extensive conventional- and reverse-branching, and a JFK connection that would miss all Midtown hotels.
On this plan, the need to link the new elements to the Third Avenue trunk leads to incoherent lines. High-frequency east-west trunks would make a lot of sense, complementing the north-south trunk, but instead of connecting Hoboken with Brooklyn and 57th Street with Long Island, both end up hooking to the north-south trunk and loop back to connect to each other. The proposed tunnels are already there, in the form of Gateway East and the trunk connection to Brooklyn, they just don’t align. Instead, the only east-west alignment that fully goes through is Gateway, with just one stop in Manhattan at Penn Station, except in the tunnel that also has an additional stop at off-Midtown 31st and 3rd.
4. Harlem Line Tunnel
Between Grand Central and Wakefield, the Harlem Line has four tracks. In the South Bronx, the Hudson Line splits off, but the rest of the Harlem Line still has four tracks. Thus, the Bronx effectively has six tracks feeding four in Manhattan. It is this configuration that probably led the RPA to believe, in error, that two additional regional rail tracks in Manhattan were required. In this situation, it is unlikely there will ever be capacity problems on the Harlem Line in the Bronx – the bottleneck is further south. So why is the RPA proposing to add two more tracks to the Harlem Line, in a tunnel?
In section 1 of this post, I defined the Third Avenue trunk’s unnecessary part as running from Grand Central to 138th Street, a total of 8 km. This tunnel, from 138th to the depicted northern end at Woodlawn, where the Harlem and New Haven Lines split, is 11 km. In a city with reasonable cost control, this should be around $2.5 billion. In New York, it would be much more – I can’t tell how much, since it is likely to be cheaper than the recent subway projects (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, and the 7 extension), both of which were in Manhattan, but I would guess about $10 billion is in line with existing New York costs. Is there any valid reason to spend so much money on this tunnel?
When I interviewed Tom Wright and Foster Nichols for my above-linked Streetsblog piece, I only saw the plans around Gateway, and was aware of the Third Avenue trunk idea but not of any of the details, so I never got a chance to ask about the Harlem Line express tunnel. So I can only guess at why the RPA would propose such a line: it got some pushback from the suburbs about wanting more express trains. The RPA could try to explain to suburbanites that the new system would not be so slow in the Grand Central throat: Metro-North does the 6.6 km from 125th to Grand Central in 10 minutes; the trains are capable of doing it in 5-6 minutes, but the last 15 blocks are excruciatingly slow, which slowness would be eliminated with any through-running, via the existing tunnels or via Third Avenue. Instead, for the same reason the organization caved to Long Island pressure to include Gateway East, it caved to Westchester pressure to include more express tracks.
In reality, this tunnel has no merit at all. The way the existing suburban lines are laid out points to a clear service pattern: the Harlem Line on the local tracks, the New Haven Line on the express tracks (regardless if those trains run local or express on the New Haven Line farther out). Wakefield has four tracks and two platforms, but the Harlem and New Haven Lines split just short of it; perhaps new local platforms on the New Haven Line could connect to it, or perhaps the junction could be rebuild north of Wakefield, to enable transfers. With much of the New Haven Line capacity occupied by the reverse-branch to Penn Station Access, there wouldn’t be much of a capacity crunch on the express tracks; in a counterfactual in which reverse-branching is not a problem, some Harlem Line trains could even be routed onto the spare capacity on the express tracks.
Build a Network, Not One Line With Branches
In the short run, the biggest thing the RPA is proposing for regional rail in New York is Gateway plus tie-ins. But this doesn’t really distinguish it from what the politicians want. The real centerpiece of the Fourth Plan, as far as regional rail goes, is the Third Avenue trunk line – even taking over some functionality of Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA proposes to not build south of 63rd Street.
Unfortunately, this trunk line, while almost good, doesn’t quite work. It has 19 km of superfluous tunneling, from Grand Central to Woodlawn, adding no new service to the system, nor new connections to existing service, nor more capacity on lines that really need it. And it insists on linking new east-west tunnels beyond Gateway to the same trunk, ensuring that they couldn’t really work as east-west trunks from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. In centering the trunk, the RPA is in effect ruining the possibility for additional trunks creating a bigger system.
Building a north-south trunk leveraging the Harlem Line is a no-brainer. When I sent Yonah Freemark my first regional rail proposal in 2009, he responded with some draft he’d been working on, I think as an RPA intern, proposing a through-running network using the Harlem Line, with an extension to the south with an onward connection to Brooklyn much like the RPA’s current Third Avenue trunk south of 42nd Street. It’s something that different people with an interest in improving New York’s transit system could come up with independently. What matters is the details, and here, the Fourth Regional Plan falls short.
The RPA has just put up its Fourth Regional Plan, recommending many new subway and commuter rail lines in New York, ranging from good (125th Street subway, Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan regional rail) to terrible (Astoria Line extension to the west rather than to LaGuardia, which gets a people mover heading away from Manhattan). I have a poll for Patreon supporters for which aspects I should blog about; I expect to also pitch some other aspects – almost certainly not what I said in my poll – to media outlets. If you support me now you can participate in the poll (and if you give $5 or more you can see some good writings that ended up not getting published). If you want to be sneaky you can wait a day and then you’ll only be charged in January. But you shouldn’t be sneaky and you should pledge today and get charged tomorrow, in December.
It’s hard to really analyze the plan in one piece. It’s a long plan with many components, and the problems with it don’t really tell a coherent story. One coherent story is that the RPA seems to love incorporating existing political priorities into its plan, even if those priorities are bad: thus, it has the AirTrain LaGuardia, favored by Cuomo, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), favored by de Blasio, and even has tie-ins to these plans that don’t make sense otherwise. Some of the regional rail money wasters, such as Penn Station South and the new East River tunnels from Penn Station to the LIRR, come from this story (the LIRR is opposed to any Metro-North trains going to Penn Station under the belief that all slots from points east to Penn Station belong to Long Island by right). However, there remain so many big question marks in the plan that are not about this particular story that it’s hard to make one criticism. I could probably write 20,000 words about my reaction to the plan, which is about 15 published articles, and there are, charitably, 5 editors who will buy it, and I’m unlikely to write 10 posts.
I’ll wait to see how the poll on Patreon goes, and what editors may be interested in. There are interesting things to say about the plan – not all negative – in areas including rail extensions, transit-oriented development, and livable streets. But for now, I just want to zoom in on the crayon aspects. I previously put up my 5-line map (4 MB version, 44 MB version). The RPA proposal includes more tunnels, for future-proofing, and is perhaps comparable to a 7-line map I’ve been working on (4 MB version, 44 MB version):
I was mildly embarrassed by how much crayon I was proposing, which is why what I put in my NYU presentation 3 weeks ago was the 5-line system, where Line 1 (red) is the Northeast Corridor and the Port Washington Branch, Line 2 (green) is much the same but through the new Hudson tunnels, Line 3 (orange) is the Empire Connection and the Hempstead Branch, Line 4 (blue) connects the Harlem Line and Staten Island, Line 5 (dark yellow) connects the Erie Lines with the Atlantic Branch and Babylon Branch, and Line 6 (purple) is just East Side Access. In the 7-line system, Line 6 gets extended to Hoboken and takes over the Morris and Essex Lines, and Line 7 (turquoise) connects the Montauk Line with the Northern Branch and West Shore Line via 43rd Street, to prune some of the Line 5 branches.
With all this extra tunneling, the map has 46 new double-track-km of tunnel. With just Lines 1-5, it has 30; these figures include Gateway and the other tunnels highlighted in yellow (but not the highlighted at-grade lines, like Lower Montauk), but exclude East Side Access. In contrast, here’s what the RPA is proposing:
Counting the Triboro-Staten Island tunnel and Gateway starting from the portal (not at Secaucus as the map portrays), this is 58 route-km, and about 62 double-track-km of tunnel (the Third Avenue trunk line needs four tracks between 57th and Houston at a minimum), for substantially the same capacity. The difference is that the RPA thinks Metro-North needs two more tracks’ worth of capacity between Grand Central and 125th, plus another two-track tunnel in the Bronx; from Grand Central to Woodlawn, the Fourth Regional Plan has 19 km, slightly more than 100% of the difference between its tunnel length and mine. My plan has more underwater tunnel, courtesy of the tunnel to Staten Island, but conversely less complex junctions in Manhattan, and much more austere stations (i.e. no Penn Station South).
As I said, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what the RPA is doing, because that’s going to be a series of blog posts, most likely a series of Streetsblog posts, and possibly some pieces elsewhere. But I do want to draw a contrast between what the RPA wants for regional rail and what I want, because there are a lot of similarities (e.g. look at the infill on the Port Washington Branch in both plans), but some subtle differences.
What I look for when I think of regional rail map is an express subway. I’ve been involved in a volunteer effort to produce a regional rail plan for Boston, with TransitMatters, in which we start by saying that our plan could be a second subway for Boston. In New York, what’s needed is the same, just scaled up for the city’s greater size and complexity. This means that it’s critical to ensure that the decision of which lines go where is, for lack of a better word, coherent. There should be a north-south line, such as the Third Avenue trunk in the Fourth Regional Plan or my Line 4; there should be an east-west line, such as the lines inherited from the legacy Northeast Corridor and LIRR; and so on.
The one big incoherence in my plan is the lack of a transfer station between Line 4/6 and Line 1/3 at Madison and 33rd. This is on purpose. Line 2 connects Penn Station and Grand Central, Madison/33rd is well to the south of Midtown’s peak job density, and Lines 4 and 6 shouldn’t be making more stops than the 4 and 5 subway lines, which go nonstop between Grand Central and Union Square.
The other weirdness is that in the 7-line system, unlike the 5-line system, there is no way to get between the Northern Branch or the West Shore Line and the rest of New Jersey without going through Manhattan. In the first map of this system that I made on my computer, Line 7 has an awkward dip to serve the same Bergenline Avenue station as Line 2. But I think what I posted here, with two separate stations, is correct: Lines 6 and 7 are lower priorities than a subway under Bergenline Avenue, which would make intra-state connections much easier. It’s difficult to depict rail extensions at different scales on one geographically accurate map, and doing a schematic map like the London Underground isn’t useful for depicting new lines, which should make it clear to readers where they go. But the 7-line system must be accompanied by subway extensions, some covered by the RPA (Utica, Nostrand) and some not (Bergenline, again).
I recently had to give a short description of my program for good transit, and explained it as, all aspects of planning should be integrated: operations and capital planning, buses and light rail and subways and regional rail, infrastructure and rolling stock and scheduling, transit provision and development. When I make proposals for regional rail, they may look out there, but the assumption is always that there’s a single list of priorities; the reason I depict a 7-line map, or even a 9-line map (in progress!), is to be able to plan lines 1-3 optimally. Everything should work together, and if agencies refuse to do so, the best investment is to make sure those agencies make peace and cooperate. The RPA plan sometimes does that (it does propose some regional rail integration), but sometimes it’s a smörgåsbord of different politically-supported proposals, not all of which work together well.
Here’s a Google Maps image of Southport, a section of Fairfield, Connecticut with its own Metro-North commuter rail station:
Here’s an image at the same scale of Bourg-la-Reine, an inner suburb of Paris on the RER B, at the junction between the line’s two southern branches:
At Bourg-la-Reine, the buildings just east of the station are high-rise. There are local community amenities, including walkable schools, supermarkets, and pharmacies, and people can comfortably live in this suburb without a car. This generates significant RER traffic at all hours of day: outbound trains are often standing-room only until they reach this station even in midday, outside rush hour.
At Southport, there are a few townhouses near the station. But the roads are wide and hostile to pedestrians, and the nearest supermarket closes at 6 pm, too late for commuters returning from the city. Car ownership approaches 100%, and nobody rides the trains except to get to office jobs at the traditional peak hour in Manhattan (or perhaps Stamford).
The difference between the two places is so stark that they can barely be compared. Southport has 317 inbound boardings per weekday. Of those, 263, or 83%, are in the morning rush hour; the Metro-North-wide average is 63%, and the average on the SNCF-operated parts of the RER and Transilien is about 46%. Bourg-la-Reine has 4.5 million annual riders, about 16,000 on an ordinary working day.
A huge part of the difference is about service provision – Bourg-la-Reine has a train every five minutes midday, Southport a train every hour. But it’s not just about service. The RER has stations farther out, with somewhat less intense service, such as a train every 15 minutes, with comparable ridership. And the LIRR and Metro-North have little off-peak ridership even at stations with more frequent service, such as Mineola and Hicksville. Transit-oriented development (TOD) is as important as good service in such cases.
I bring up Southport because the RPA just dropped a study about suburban TOD that grades every New York commuter rail station between 0 and 3, and gives Southport the highest mark, 3. The RPA study looks at zoning within 800 meters of each station and considers whether there’s a parcel of land that permits multifamily housing with a floor are ratio higher than 1.25. Southport has such lots, supporting some townhouses, so according to the RPA it gets full marks, even though, by RER standards, it is like every other American car-oriented suburb.
Based on this methodology, the RPA identifies a number of good suburbs, and even comes to policy conclusions. It proposes more TOD in the mold of existing exurban New York examples, such as Patchogue. The model for the program is the real reason the RPA study is so weak: rather than calling into attention the big differences between land use at suburban stations in New York versus in Paris (or any number of big European cities with suburban rapid transit), it overfocuses on small differences within auto-oriented suburbia.
Some of the ultimate conclusions are not terrible. For example, the RPA is proposing linking federal infrastructure development to permitting more multifamily housing. This would improve things. However, the problem with this is twofold. First, it is unrealistic – the federal government gave up decades ago on enforcing fair housing laws, and has no interest in attempting to make exclusionary suburbs behave. Were I to propose this, hordes of American commenters would yell at me for not understanding American politics. And second, it misunderstands the nature of the problem, and ends up proposing something that, while unrealistic, is still low-impact.
The best way to understand the problem with the study is what author Moses Gates told me on Twitter when I started attacking it. He said that the RPA was looking at zoning rather than actual development. Since there is zoning permitting multifamily development within the prescribed radius at Southport, it gets full marks. With my understanding of what good TOD looks like, I would be able to say that this is clearly so bad the methodology must be changed; on Twitter I suggested looking at zoning within 300 meters of the station rather than 800, since the highest-intensity development should be right next to the station. I also suggested looking at supportive nonresidential uses, especially supermarkets. A development that isn’t walkable to retail at reasonable hours is not TOD.
The RPA does not think in this language. It thinks in terms of internal differences within the US. Occasionally it deigns to learn from London, but London’s suburban development is auto-oriented by European standards (transit mode share in the London commuter belt is at best in the teens, often in the single digits). Learning from anywhere else in the world, especially places that don’t speak English, is too difficult. This means that the RPA could not reach the correct conclusion, namely, that there is no such thing as an American suburb with TOD. The only exception I can come up with in the United States involves Arlington, on the Washington Metro, and Arlington is no longer considered a suburb, but really a full-fledged city in a different state, like Jersey City.
The other thing the RPA missed is that it drew too large a radius. TOD at a train station should include townhouses 800 meters out – but it’s more important to include high-rise residential construction next to the train station and mid-rise apartment buildings 500 meters out. Giving American suburbs latitude to place TOD so far from the station means they will act like Southport and allow small amounts of multifamily housing out of the way, while surrounding the station itself with parking, a tennis court, and large single-family houses with private swimming pools. This is not hypothetical: suburbs in New Jersey have reacted to court rulings mandating affordable housing by permitting apartments at the edge of town, far from supporting retail and jobs, and keeping the town core single-family.
Because the RPA missed the vast differences in outcomes between the US and France, it missed some useful lessons:
- States should centralize land use decisionmaking rather than give every small suburb full autonomy.
- TOD doesn’t need to be fully mixed-use, but there should be some local retail right next to housing.
- Housing should be high-density right next to the station. A floor area ratio of 1.25 is not enough.
- Publicly-funded social housing should be next to train stations, in the city as well as in the suburbs, and this is especially important in expensive suburbs, which aren’t building enough affordable housing.
Without suburban TOD, any regional rail system is incomplete. I wish I could have covered it at my talk, but I didn’t have time. Good service needs to run to dense suburbs, or at least suburbs with dense development within walking distance of the station. It needs to extend the transit city deep into suburbia, rather than using peak-only commuter rail to extend the auto-oriented suburbs into the city.
A stenographer at Bloomberg is reporting an Amtrak study that says the social benefit-cost ratio of the Gateway program is about 4. Gateway, the project to quadruple the double-track line from New York to Newark, including most important the tunnel across the Hudson, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. Cost overruns have been constant and severe: it was $3 billion in the ARC era in 2003, $9 billion when Governor Chris Christie canceled it in 2010, and $13.5 billion when Amtrak took over in 2011 and renamed it Gateway. And now Amtrak is claiming that the net present value of Gateway approaches $100 billion; in a presentation from late 2016, it claims that at a 3% discount rate the benefit-cost ratio is 3.87, and compares it positively with Crossrail and California HSR. This is incorrect, and almost certainly deliberate fraud. Let me explain why.
First, the comparison with Crossrail should give everyone pause. Crossrail costs around the same as the current projection for Gateway: about $21 billion in purchasing power parity terms, but future inflation means that the $25 billion for Gateway is very close to $21 billion for Crossrail, built between 2009 and 2018. Per Amtrak, the benefit-cost ratio of Crossrail as 3.64 at the upper end – in other words, the benefits of Crossrail and Gateway should be similar. They are clearly not.
The projection for Crossrail is that it will fill as soon as it opens, with 200 million annual passengers. There is no chance Gateway as currently planned can reach that ridership level. New Jersey Transit has about 90 million annual rail riders, and NJT considers itself at capacity. This number could be raised significantly if NJT were run in such a way as to encourage off-peak ridership (see my writeup on Metro-North and the LIRR, for which I have time-of-day data), but Gateway includes none of the required operational modernization. Even doubling NJT’s ridership out of Gateway is unlikely, since a lot of ridership is Hoboken-bound today because of capacity limits on the way to New York, and Gateway would cannibalize it; only about 60 million NJT riders are taking a train to or from New York, so a more realistic projection is 60 million and not 90 million. Some additional ridership coming out of Amtrak is likely, but is unlikely to be high given Amtrak’s short trains, hauled by a locomotive so that only 5-7 cars have seats. Amtrak has an asterisk in its comparison saying the benefit-cost ratios for Crossrail and Gateway were computed by different methodologies, and apparently the methodologies differ by a factor of 3 on the value of a single rider.
That, by itself, does not suggest fraud. What does suggest fraud is the history of cost overruns. The benefits of Gateway have not materially increased in the last decade and a half. If Gateway is worth $100 billion today, it was worth $100 billion in 2011, and in 2003.
One change since 2011 is Hurricane Sandy, which filled the existing North River Tunnels with corrosive saltwater. A study on repairs recommended long-term closure, one tube at a time. But the difference is still small compared to how much Amtrak thinks Gateway is worth. The study does not claim long-term closure is necessary. Right now, crews repair the tunnels over weekends, with weekend closures, since weekend frequency is so poor it can fit on single track. The study does not say how much money could be saved with long-term closures, but the cost it cites for repairs with long-term closures is $350 million, and the cost under the current regime of weekend closures cannot be several billion dollars more expensive. The extra benefit of Gateway coming from Sandy is perhaps $1 billion, a far cry from the almost $100 billion projected by Amtrak for Gateway’s worth.
What this means is that, if Gateway really has a benefit-cost ratio approaching 4 today, then it had a benefit-cost ratio of about 7 in 2011. Amtrak did not cite any such figure at the time. In 2003 it would have have had a benefit-cost ratio approaching 25, even taking into account inflation artifacts. None of the studies claimed such a high figure. Nor did any of the elected or appointed officials in charge of the project act like it was so valuable. Construction was not rushed as it would have if the benefit-cost ratio was so high that a few years’ acceleration would have noticeable long-term consequences.
The scope of the project did not suggest an extreme benefit-cost ratio, either. ARC, then Gateway, was always just two tracks. If a two-track tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio higher than 20, then it’s very likely the next two-track tunnel has a high benefit-cost ratio as well. Even a benefit-cost ratio of 4 would lead to further plans: evidently, Transport for London is planning Crossrail 2, a northeast-southwest tunnel complementing the east-west Crossrail and north-south Thameslink. Perhaps in 2003 Port Authority thought it could not get money for two tunnels, but it still could have planned some as future phases, just as Second Avenue Subway was planned as a full line even when there was only enough money for Phase 1.
The plans for ARC included the awkward Secaucus loop bringing in trains from the Erie lines into Penn Station, with dual-mode diesel/electric locomotives. This is a kludge that makes sense for a marginal project that needs to save every penny, not for one where benefits exceed costs by more than an order of magnitude. For such a strong project, it’s better to spend more money to get it right, for example by electrifying everything. It would also have been better to avoid the loop kludge and send Erie trains to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as I have proposed in various iterations of my regional rail plan.
All of this together suggests that in 2003, nobody in charge of ARC thought it was worth $70 billion in 2003 dollars, or around $100 billion in 2017 dollars. Even in 2011, Amtrak did not think the project was worth $85 billion in 2011 dollars. It’s theoretically possible that some new analysis proves that old estimates of the project’s benefits were too low, but it’s unlikely. If such revisions were common, we would see upward and downward revisions independent of cost overruns. Some rail projects with stable costs would see their benefit-cost ratios shoot up to well more than 10. Others might be revised down below 1.
What we actually see is different. Megaprojects have official estimates on their benefit-cost ratios in a narrow band: never less than 1 or else they wouldn’t be built, never more than 4 or 5 or else people might disbelieve the numbers. In an environment of stable costs, this would make a lot of sense: all the 10+ projects have been built a long time ago, so the rail extensions on the table today are more marginal. But in an environment of rapid cost escalation, the fact that benefits seem to grow with the costs is not consistent with any honest explanation. The best explanation for this is that, desperate for money for its scheme to build Gateway, Amtrak is defrauding the public about the project’s benefits.
Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.
As the Regional Plan Association continues to work on its Fourth Regional Plan, expected to be published next year, it’s releasing various components of the upcoming agenda. One, an update from the Third Regional Plan from 1996, is a line variously called Triboro or Crossboro. In the third plan, Triboro RX was meant to be a circumferential subway line, taking over existing abandoned and low-traffic freight rail rights-of-way in Brooklyn, Queens, and the South Bronx, terminating at Yankee Stadium via a short tunnel. It was never seriously proposed by any political actor, but was briefly mentioned positively by then-MTA chair Lee Sander in 2008, and negatively mentioned by Christine Quinn, who called for a bus line along a parallel alignment in her mayoral campaign in 2013. In 2014, Penn Design proposed a variant it calls Crossboro, which differs from the original Triboro proposal in two ways: first, the stop spacing is much wider, and second, instead of the short tunnel to Yankee Stadium, it continues northeast along the Northeast Corridor, making four stops in the Bronx as in the proposed Metro-North Penn Station Access plan. Crossboro is an inferior proposal, and unfortunately, the fourth plan’s Triboro proposal downgrades it from the original alignment to Crossboro.
As I explained a year and a half ago, specifically in the context of Crossboro, it is poor planning to run train service that begins as a radial and then becomes as a circumferential instead of continuing into the center. The route of Crossboro, and now also the Triboro plan, involves going from the North Bronx to the south in the direction of Manhattan, but then turning southeast toward Queens and Brooklyn, rather than continuing to Manhattan. Briefly, in a system with radial and circumferential routes (as opposed to a grid), circumferential service is the most effective when it connects to secondary centers, and has easy transfers to every radial. If a line runs as a radial and then switches to circumferential, its ability to connect to other radials is compromised, making it a weaker circumferential; nor could it ever be even a half-decent radial without service to the CBD. Lines with such service pattern, such as Line 3 in Shanghai and the G train in New York until 2001, tend to underperform.
However, the stop spacing deserves to be treated separately. Under both Crossboro and the RPA’s new version of Triboro, there are too few stops for the line to be useful as an urban rail service. I’m going to ignore the connection between Queens and the Bronx, which as a major water crossing can be expected to have a long nonstop segment, and talk first about the Bronx, and then about Queens and Brooklyn.
In the Bronx, there are four stops in 10 km, starting counting from where the bridge toward Queens begins to rise. This may be reasonable for a commuter rail service with local service extending well past city limits (to New Rochelle or even Stamford), but when it terminates within the city, it’s too far for people to be able to walk to it. The proposed stops also miss the Bronx’s most important bus route, the Bx12 on Fordham Road, which in 2015 became the city’s busiest single bus route. A stop on the Pelham Parkway, the continuation of Fordham in the East Bronx, would be a massive travel time improvement over trying to reroute the Bx12 to meet a train station near Coop City, the proposed northern terminus of both Crossboro and the new Triboro. Conversely, it would delay few other passengers, by very little, since there would only be one further stop north. The result of the proposed stopping pattern is then that most people living near the line would not be able to either walk to it or take a frequent bus.
In Queens and Brooklyn, starting from Astoria and going south, the route is 26 km long, and the new Triboro makes 17 stops. The average interstation, 1.5 km, is noticeably above the international subway average, and is especially high for New York, whose stop spacing is near the low end globally. The original version had 29 stops over the same distance, and one more stop between Astoria and the bridge. Unlike in the Bronx, in Brooklyn all streets hosting major radial routes get subway stops. However, long stretches of the route get no stops. The stop spacing is not uniform – from Northern Boulevard to Grand Avenue there’s a stretch with 4 stops in 2.8 km (counting both ends), but from Astoria-Ditmars to Northern Boulevard there’s a 2.5 km nonstop service, skipping Astoria Boulevard and Steinway, passing through a medium-density neighborhood south of the Grand Central Parkway with mediocre subway access. A stop at Astoria Boulevard and Steinway is obligatory, and probably also one between Astoria and Northern, around 49th Street. To the south of Grand Avenue, the proposal calls for a 2.1 km nonstop segment to the M terminus at Metropolitan Avenue, skipping Middle Village, which is cut off from Grand by the Long Island Expressway and from the M by cemeteries. An additional stop in the middle of this segment, at Eliot Avenue, is required.
In Brooklyn, the route runs express next to the L train, splitting the difference between serving Broadway Junction (with a connection to the A/C) and Atlantic Avenue (with a connection to the LIRR): the RPA’s diagram depicts a station at Atlantic Avenue but calls it Broadway Junction. Farther south, it makes a few stops on an arc going southwest toward southern Brooklyn; the stops are all defensible, and the stop spacing could potentially work, but there are still potential missing locations, and some nonstop segments in the 1.7 km area. For example, it goes nonstop between Utica and Nostrand Avenues, a distance of 1.7 km, with a good location for an interpolating station right in the middle, at Albany Avenue. From Nostrand west, it stops at a transfer to every subway line, except the R. In that segment, one more stop could be added, between the F and the D/N; the reason is that the gap between these two lines is 1.8 km, and moreover the right-of-way slices diagonally through the street grid, so that travel time from the middle to either stop is longer along the street network. However, overall, this is not why I dislike the route. Finally, at the western end, the route is especially egregious. The right-of-way is parallel to the N train, but then awkwardly misses 59th Street, where the N veers north and starts going toward Manhattan. The original proposal had a stop several blocks away from 59th, with a long transfer to the R (and N); this one drops it, so there is no R transfer in Brooklyn – trains express from the D/N transfer at New Utrecht to the terminus at Brooklyn Army Terminal, where there is very little development. There are practically no through-riders who would be inconvenienced by adding the extra two N stops in between. In contrast, due to the low frequency of the N (it comes every 10 minutes off-peak), making passengers originating in those stations who wish to ride Triboro transfer would add considerably to their travel time.
A route like Triboro has an inherent problem in deciding what stop spacing to use, because as a circumferential, it is intended to be used on a large variety of origin-destination pairs. For passengers who intend to connect between two outer radial legs more quickly than they could if they transferred in Manhattan, the wider stop spacing, emphasizing subway connections, is better. However, the mixed radial-circumferential nature of the new Triboro makes this a losing proposition: there’s no connection to any subway line in the Bronx except the 6. Moreover, in Brooklyn, there’s no connection in Brooklyn to the R, and if there’s a connection to the A/C, it involves walking several hundred meters from what on the L is a separate subway stop.
In contrast, for passengers whose origins are along the line, narrower stop spacing works better, because they’re unlikely to cluster around the connection points with the radial subway lines. (The line has no compelling destinations, except maybe Jackson Heights and Brooklyn College; in the Bronx, the two most important destinations, the Hub and Yankee Stadium, are respectively close to and on the old Triboro route, but far from the new one.) The aforementioned Astoria/Steinway, Eliot, and Albany, as well as the skipped stations along the L and N routes, all have reasonable numbers of people within walking distance, who have either poor subway access (the first three) or only radial access (the L and N stations).
What’s more, if trains make more stops, the increase in travel time for passengers connecting between two legs is not large compared with the reduced station access time for passengers originating at an intermediate station. The reason is that passengers who connect between two legs are not traveling all the way. The fastest way to get from the West Bronx to southern Brooklyn is to take the D train all the way, or take the 4 to the D; from the 6 train’s shed, the fastest way is to take the 6 and transfer to the N/Q at Canal or the B/D at Broadway/Lafayette. No circumferential service can change that. The benefit of circumferential service is for people who travel short segments: between the Bronx and Queens, or between the 7 or the Queens Boulevard trains and the lines in Brooklyn that aren’t the F. Given high circumferential bus ridership in Brooklyn – two circumferential routes, the B6 and B35, rank 2nd and 4th borough-wide and 4th and 7th citywide, despite averaging maybe 9 km/h – connections between two Brooklyn legs are also likely. For those passengers, making a few more local stops would add very little to travel time. The subway has a total stop penalty of about 45 seconds per station. Of the ten extra stops I list as required – Astoria/Steinway, Eliot, Albany, 59th, four along the L, and two along the N – three (the two on the N and 59th) are basically end stations, and few passengers have any reason to travel over more than five of the rest. In contrast, adding these ten stops would improve the quality of transfers to the R and A/C and provide crucial service to intermediate neighborhoods, especially Middle Village.
Finally, let me make a remark about comparative costs. The original Triboro plan required a short tunnel, between Melrose Metro-North station and Yankee Stadium; the new one does not. However, a single kilometer of new tunnel in the context of a 34 km line is not a major cost driver. The new proposal is actually likely to be more expensive. It is longer because of the segment in the Bronx along the Northeast Corridor, about 40 km in total, and 10 km would be alongside an active rail line. There are plans for increased mainline passenger rail service on the line: Penn Station Access, plus any improvements that may be made to intercity rail. Far from offering opportunities to share costs, such traffic means that any such plan would require four tracks on the entire line and flying junctions to separate trains going to Penn Station from trains going to Brooklyn. Fare collection would be awkward, too – most passengers would transfer to the subway, so subway faregates would be required, but commuter rail has no need for faregates, so sharing stations with Penn Station Access would require some kludge that wouldn’t work well for any mode. Tunneling is expensive in New York, but so is at-grade construction; a kilometer of tunnel in the Bronx is unlikely to cost more than configuring an active rail mainline for a combination of suburban and high-frequency urban service.
The RPA proposes the London Overground as a model, treating the new Triboro as a commuter line offering subway service levels. Everywhere else I’d support this idea. But here, it fails. First, as I explained in a previous post, the routing is an awkward mix of radial and circumferential. But second, the stop spacing only works in the context of a long suburban line feeding city center, and not an urban circumferential line. In the context of an urban line, more stops are needed, to let people walk from more neighborhoods to the train, or take a connecting bus. For the most part, the original Triboro plan, designed around interstations of about 900 meters not counting the water crossing, would work well. Crossboro, and its near-clone the new Triboro, is inferior to it in every respect, and the RPA should jettison it from the Fourth Regional Plan in favor of the old proposal.
Two recent news items have driven home the point that American construction costs are out of control. The first is the agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey to fund the Gateway project, at a cost of $20 billion. The second is the release of more detailed environmental impact studies for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; I previously expressed tepidly positive sentiment toward the NEC Future concept, but now there are concrete cost projections: the only full HSR option, Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. As such, I am going to ignore other issues in this post, such as whether to serve Hartford on the mainline or not: they are real issues, but are secondary concerns to the outrageous cost figures.
Although both Gateway and NEC Future have extreme costs – too high for me to be able to support either project – the causes of those high costs are different. Gateway includes not just a new tunnel across the Hudson but also substantial unnecessary scope in Penn Station South; however, I suspect that even if the scope is pared down to the minimum required to provide four tracks from Newark to New York, the budget would still be very high. The bare Gateway tunnel (including Penn South) is to my understanding $14-16 billion; the maximum cost that can be justified by the extra ridership, unless additional operating improvements (which can be done today) are in place, is about $7 billion. As with Second Avenue Subway, there is a real problem of high unit costs. I emphasize that there is too much scope in Gateway, but the scope alone cannot explain why 5 km of tunnel cost many billions, when expensive non-US projects such as Crossrail top at a billion dollars per km and the geologically more complex Marmaray tunnel cost (in PPP terms) about $400 million per km.
The situation with NEC Future is different, in two ways. First, if Gateway cuts a zero from the budget, I will consider it a solid project, perhaps even an inexpensive one given the wide river crossing. (For reference, in 2003 the projected cost was $3 billion). In contrast, if NEC Future cuts a zero from its budget, I will still consider it too expensive – perhaps worth it because of the benefits of HSR, but certainly too high to be built without further inquiry. $29 billion for 720 km is justified for a line with a fair amount of tunneling and entirely greenfield construction, whereas the NEC has long segments that are already nearly ready for HSR and requires very little tunneling.
But second, and more importantly, NEC Future’s unit costs are not high. Read appendix B.06, which discusses cost: on PDF-p. 28 it breaks down cost by item, and other than the tunnels, which at $400-500 million per km are several times as expensive as intercity rail tunnels usually are, the infrastructure items’ per-km costs are reasonable. And the NEC doesn’t require much tunneling in the first place: Connecticut may be hilly, but HSR can climb 3.5% grades and ride on top of the hills, and only in Bridgeport is tunneling really necessary. Make it perhaps 5 km of required tunneling, all around Bridgeport. When I said $10 billion would build full-fat HSR on the NEC, I assumed $200-250 million per km for the Bridgeport tunnel. I also assumed $750 million for new tunnels in Baltimore, whose cost has since risen to $4 billion in part due to extra scope (4 tracks rather than 2). So 2 extra billions come from more expensive tunneling, and 278 extra billions come from bloated scope. Perhaps a subset of the 278 comes from high unit costs for systems and electrification, but these are not the main cost drivers, and are also quite easy to copy from peer developed countries. In the rest of this post, I will document some of the unnecessary scope. I emphasize that while Alternative 3 is the worst, the cost projection for Alternative 1, at $50 billion, is still several times the defensible cost of improvements.
Let us turn to chapter 4, the alternatives analysis, and start on PDF-p. 54. Right away, we see the following wasteful scope in Alternative 2:
- Full four-tracking on the Providence Line, instead of strategic overtakes as detailed here.
- A bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which at a radius of 1,746 meters imposes only a mild speed restriction on trains with E5 and Talgo tilt capability, 237 km/h.
- An entirely new tunnel from Penn Station to Sunnyside, adding a third East River tunnel even though the LIRR is not at capacity now, let alone after East Side Access opens.
- A tunnel under Philadelphia, so as to serve the city at Market East rather than 30th Street Station.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks in New Jersey parallel to the NEC, rather than scheduling commuter trains on existing local tracks as detailed here.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks alongside much of the New Haven Line, even in areas where the existing alignment is too too curvy.
- Extensive tunneling between New Haven and Providence (see PDF-pp. 69-70 and 75), even in Alternative 1, even though HSR trains can climb the grades on the terrain without any tunnels outside the Providence built-up area if the tracks go west.
Alternative 2 also assumes service connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Providence, which I do not think is the optimal alignment (it’s slightly more expensive and slower), but is defensible, unlike the long proposed tunnels under Philadelphia, totaling around 30 km. The overall concept is also far more defensible than the tunnel-heavy implementation.
Alternative 3 adds the following unnecessary scope (see PDF-pp. 58 and 76-83):
- Full six-tracking between New York and Philadelphia and between Baltimore and Washington.
- Tunnel-heavy alignment options bypassing the New Haven Line, including inland options via Danbury or a tunnel across the Long Island Sound.
- The new Baltimore tunnels are longer and include a new Baltimore CBD station, where the existing station is at the CBD’s periphery.
- If I understand correctly, new platforms at New York Penn Station under the existing station.
- Tunnels under the built-up area of Boston.
According to the cost breakdown, at-grade track costs $20 million per km, embankments cost $25 million per km, elevated track costs about $80 million per km, and tunnels cost $400 million per km. When I draw my preferred alignments, I assume the same cost elements, except tunnels are cheaper, at $200 million per km. (I also add 20% for overheads on top of these base costs, whereas these documents add contingency on top of that.) This should bias the NEC Future toward above-ground options.
Instead, look at the maps in appendix A. Alternative 3 is PDF-pp. 76-81. The options for getting out of the New York urban area include an almost entirely tunneled inland alignment, and a tunnel under the Long Island Sound; making small compromises on trip time by using the New Haven Line, and making up time elsewhere by using better rolling stock, is simply not an option to the planners.
Let’s go back to Gateway now. Although the cost premium there is not as outrageous as for NEC Future, it is a good case study in what the US will fund when it thinks the project is necessary and when there is sufficient lobbying. Paris has the political will to spend about $35 billion on Grand Paris Express, and London is spending $22 billion on Crossrail and is planning to spend much more on Crossrail 2. Between Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, the PATH terminal, East Side Access, and now Gateway, New York is planning to have spent $43 billion on public transit by the middle of next decade. And now people are talking about Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The political will to build both rapid transit and HSR in the US exists; the government spends tens of billions on it. But due to poor cost effectiveness, what the US gets for its money is almost nothing.
The $20 billion that the federal government and both states are willing to set on fire for Gateway prove that, were there a plan to build HSR so that trains would go between Boston and Washington in three and a half hours on a budget of $10-15 billion, it would be funded. This is not a marginal case, where the best plan still elicits groans from anti-tax conservatives: those conservatives ride trains between New York and Washington and want them to be faster. Instead, it is purely about excessive costs. Gateway’s $20 billion could build the tunnel and also full HSR on the NEC, and the $290 billion that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people. It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control. 95% cost savings are possible here, and this is the only thing advocates for better intercity rail in the US should be focusing on.