Now that there’s decent chance of US investment in rail, Randal O’Toole is resurrecting his takes from the early Obama era, warning that high-speed rail is a multi-trillion dollar money sink. It’s not a good analysis, and in particular it gets the reality of European and Asian high-speed rail systems wrong. It displays lack of familiarity with rail practice and rail politics, to the point that most nontrivial assertions about rail in Europe and Asia are incorrect.
More broadly, the way O’Toole gets rail investment here wrong comes from making unexamined American assumptions and substituting them for a European or Japanese reality regarding rail as well as rail politics. If the US can’t do it, he thinks other countries can’t. Unfortunately, he’s even unfamiliar with recent work done on American costs, when he compares the Interstate system positively with recent high-speed rail lines.
High-Speed Rail Profitability: France
I’m currently working on building a database similar to our urban rail costs for high-speed rail. Between this and previous iterations of analyzing the TGV, I’ve been reading a lot of internal French reports about its system. Thankfully, France makes available very good public information about the costs and technical specifications of its system. It helps that I read French, but the gap between what’s available for France and Belgium (see for example line schemas) is vast. This provides crucial background that O’Toole is missing.
The most important thing to understand is that the TGV network is profitable. The Spinetta report on the fiscal losses of SNCF makes it clear, starting on p. 60, that the TGV network is profitable, and recommends favoring its development over the money-losing legacy networks, especially the branch lines. The report even calls for closing weak branch lines with only a few trains a day, which I called the Spinetta Axe at the time, in analogy with the Beeching Axe. Due to public outcry the state rejected the cuts and only implemented the organizational changes promoted by the report.
Moreover, all lines are very profitable excluding the cost of fixed capital. The Spinetta report’s TGV section says that operating costs average €0.06/seat-km, which is around 0.085€/p-km, despite overstaffing of conductors (8 per conventional 400-car TGV) and extensive travel on legacy track at low speed and higher per-km labor costs. Average TGV fare revenue per an ARAFER report from 2016 is 0.10€/p-km – compare p-km on p. 15 and revenue on p. 26. This is typical for Europe – RENFE and DB charge similar fares, and the nominal fares seem to have been flat over the last decade.
What’s dicier is cost of capital. In all other European countries for which I’m aware of the process, all of which are Northern rather than Southern, this is done with benefit-cost analysis with a fixed behind-the-scenes discount rate. France, in my view wisely, rates lines by their financial and social rates of return instead. A 2014 report about the Bordeaux-Toulouse LGV, recently given the go-ahead for 7.5 billion €, warns that the profitability of LGVs decreases as the system is built out: the LGV Sud-Est returned 15% to SNCF’s finances and 30% to French society (including rider consumer surplus), but subsequent lines only returned 4-7% to SNCF’s finances, and Bordeaux-Toulouse is likely to return less, 6% including social benefits per the study and at this point slightly less since the study assumed it would cost slightly less than the current budget.
The general theme in the French discourse on trains is that the TGV network is an obvious success. There absolutely is criticism, which focuses on the following issues:
- Regional rail, that is not intercity rail, is underdeveloped in France outside Paris. The ridership of TER networks is pitiful in comparison with German-speaking and Nordic metropolitan areas of comparable size. For example, sourced to a dead link, Wikipedia claims 64,300 TER PACA trips per day, comprising the metropolitan areas of Marseille (1.8 million), Nice (1), Toulon (0.6), and Avignon (0.5); in Helsinki (1.5) alone, there are 200,000 daily commuter rail trips. But this isn’t really about high-speed rail, since TER planning and subsidies are devolved to regional governments, and not to SNCF.
- SNCF has contentious labor relations. In the early 2010s, the unions went on a wave of strikes and got wage concessions that led to the evaporation of SNCF’s 600 million €/year primary surplus. The railway unions in France (“cheminots”) are unpopular, and Macron has been able to pass reforms to SNCF’s governance over their strikes and objections.
- Future LGVs are not as strong as past ones. Real costs in France are rising, and the network already links Paris with all major secondary cities in airplane-competitive time save Nice. Interprovincial links on the network are weak, despite the construction of the LGV Rhin-Rhône, and nothing like the Deutschlandtakt is on the horizon enabling everywhere-to-everywhere travel.
- SNCF thinks like an airline and not like a railroad. It separates passengers into different buckets as airlines do, has many executives with airline background (and Spinetta is ex-Air France), thinks passengers do not ride trains for longer than 3 hours even though at 4 hours the modal split with air is still better than 50-50, and has poor integration between the TGV and legacy rail.
- SNCF still has a lot of accumulated debt from past operating losses, some predating the TGV and the start of regional subsidies for regional rail. It was hoped that TGV profits could cover them, but they can’t. This mirrors the controversy in Japan in the 1980s, where, in the breakup of JNR into the JRs and their privatization, debt from past operating losses was wiped but not debt from Shinkansen construction (see Privatization Best Practices, PDF-p. 106).
However, saying that the existing network is a failure is the domain of cranks and populists. It is unrecognizable from the discussion of transportation investments in France.
What O’Toole says about high-speed rail
O’Toole’s understanding of internal French (or Spanish, or Japanese) issues is weak. This isn’t surprising – Americans to a good approximation never have good insights on the internal issues of any other country, even when it speaks English. The American political sphere, which includes political thinktanks like Cato, is remarkably ignorant globally, and rather incurious. As a result, what he says about the TGV is based on an Americanized understanding. To wit:
The Northeastern United States has a weak rail network: Amtrak averages vintage 1960s speeds and charges 2-4 times the per-km fare of the TGV. As a result, an ecosystem of private intercity buses has developed, starting with unregulated ones like Fung Wah and, as they were shut down, corporate systems like Megabus and Bolt. O’Toole is fond of these buses, with their lower fares and road-like lack of integration between infrastructure and operations.
And thus, he claims, falsely, that European high-speed rail cannibalized profitable buses. This is unrecognizable from within Europe, where intercity buses were underdeveloped until recently. In France, US-style intercity buses are called Macron buses, because the deregulation that brought them into existence passed in the mid-2010s, when Macron was the economy minister. They complement high-speed rail but do not replace it, because trains get me from Paris to the German border in 1:45 and buses don’t.
To be fair, TGV ridership has been stagnant in the last few years. But this stagnation goes back to the financial crisis, and if anything ridership picked up starting 2017 with the opening of the LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique. So the buses are not even outcompeting the trains – they thrive in the gaps between them, just as historically they did on international routes, where rail fares are considerably higher and ridership lower.
High-speed rail construction costs
O’Toole looks at the most expensive few lines possible:
Britain’s 345‐mile London–Scotland HS2 high‐speed rail line was originally projected to cost £32.7 billion (about $123 million per mile) and is currently expected to cost £106 billion ($400 million per mile).
International comparisons of high-speed rail costs exist, and Britain’s costs are by far the worst. For example, a 2013 Australian comparison looking at the prospects for such a system in Australia finds that High-Speed 1/CTRL, the line linking the Channel Tunnel with London, cost A$134 million/km, and the second costliest line in the dataset was thee 94% tunneled Bologna-Florence line, at A$95 million/km.
French costs up until the LGV Bordeaux-Toulouse stood around $25-30 million per km in 2021 dollars, net of tunnels. German costs are similar, but German lines have far heavier tunneling than France, a range of 26-51% in tunnel compared with 0-6% in France. One reason is topography. But another is that Germany prefers mixed-use passenger-freight lines, which forces higher construction costs as freight requires gentler grades and, since superelevation must be lower, wider curves; France, like Japan and China, builds dedicated passenger lines, and, unlike Japan or China, keeps them largely at-grade to reduce costs.
O’Toole says, without more references, that it would cost $3-4 trillion to build a US-wide high-speed rail network. But the official Obama-era crayon, at 20,000 km, would be $500 billion at tunnel-free European costs, or maybe $600 billion with 5% tunneling, mostly in difficult places like California and across the Appalachians.
O’Toole proposes more freeways, and says that to build the Interstate system today would cost $530 billion so it’s better than high-speed rail. Here is where his lack of knowledge of the most recent literature on infrastructure costs is a serious drag on his analysis: Brooks-Liscow establish that there was a large real increase in Interstate cost throughout the life of the program, so a budget that’s really a mixture of cheaper early-1960s construction and more expensive construction in the 1970s is not applicable today.
The same issue affects rail costs: the LGV Sud-Est cost, in today’s money, around $8 million/km, which cost would never recur. Brooks-Liscow explain this by greater surplus extraction from citizen voice groups, which demanded detours and route compromises raising costs. This appears true not just diachronically within the US but also synchronically across countries: so far, the low-cost subways we have investigated are all in states with bureaucratic rather than adversarial legalism, while medium-cost Germany is more mixed. Politicized demands leading to more tunneling are well-documented within Germany – the Berlin-Munich line was built through a topographically harder alignment in order to serve Erfurt, at Thuringia’s behest.
So no, today costs from the 1960s are not relevant. Today, urban motorway extensions cost double-digit millions of dollars per lane-km, sometimes more. The I-5 improvement project in Los Angeles is $1.9 billion for I-5 South, a distance of 11 km, adding two lanes (one HOV, one mixed traffic) in each direction. It’s possible to go lower than this – in Madrid this budget would buy a longer 6-lane tunnel – but then in Madrid the construction costs of rail are even lower, for both metros and high-speed lines.
The discourse on profits
In contrast with the basic picture I outlined for the TGV, French media and researchers often point out threats to rail profitability. This can easily be taken to mean that the TGV is unprofitable, and if one has an American mindset, then it’s especially easy to think this. If SNCF officials say that 20% of TGVs lose money, then surely they must be hiding something and the figure is much higher, right? Likewise, if Spinetta says that the TGV network is profitable but not all trains are, then surely the situation is even worse, right?
But no. This is an Americanized interpretation of the debate. In the US, Amtrak is under constant pressure to show book profits, and its very existence is threatened, often by people who cite O’Toole and other libertarians. Thus, as a survival strategy, Amtrak pretends it is more profitable than it really is.
This has no bearing on the behavior of railroads elsewhere, though. SNCF is not so threatened. The biggest threat from the perspective of SNCF management is union demands for higher wages, and therefore, its incentive is to cry poverty. Nobody in France takes out yardsticks of farebox recovery ratios, and therefore, nobody needs to orient their communications around what would satisfy American libertarians.
Within the European high-speed rail research community, the energy efficiency of high-speed rail is well-understood, and many studies look at real-world examples, for example the metastudy of Hasegawa-Nicholson-Roberts-Schmid. In fact, it’s understood that high-speed rail has lower energy consumption than conventional rail. For example, here is García Álvarez’s paper on the subject. This is counterintuitive, because higher speeds should surely lead to higher energy consumption, as Hasegawa et al demonstrate – but high-speed lines run at a uniform speed of 200 or 250 or 300 or 350 km/h, whereas legacy rail has many cycles of acceleration and deceleration. At speeds of up to about 200 km/h, nearly all electricity consumption is in acceleration and not maintaining constant speed, and even at 300 km/h, a late-model high-speed train consumes only above one third of its maximum power maintaining speed.
Instead of this literature, O’Toole picks out the fact that all else being equal energy consumption rises in speed, which it is not equal. Garcia in fact points out that higher speeds are better for the environment due to better competition with air, in line with environmental consensus that trains are far superior on well-to-wheels emissions to cars and planes. Worse, O’Toole is citing Chester-Horvath’s lifecycle analysis, which is not favorable to California High-Speed Rail’s energy efficiency. The only problem is that this paper’s analysis relies on a unit conversion error between BTUs and kWh, pointed out by Clem Tillier. The paper was eventually corrected, and with the correct figures, high-speed rail looks healthy.
Competition with cars and planes
Where high-speed rail exists, and the distance is within a well-understood range of around 300-800 km, it dominates travel. A 2004 report by Steer Davies Gleave has some profiles of what were then the world’s main networks. For Japan, it includes a graphic from 1998 on PDF-p. 120 of modal splits by distance. In the 500-700 km bucket, a slight majority of trips all over Japan are made by rail; this is because Tokyo-Osaka is within that range, and due to those cities’ size this city pair dominates pairs where rail is weaker, especially inter-island ones. In the 300-500 km bucket more people drive, but the Shinkansen is stronger than this on the Tokyo-Nagoya pair, it’s just that 300-500 includes many more peripheral links with no high-speed rail service. It goes without saying that high-speed rail does not get any ridership where it does not exist.
In France, this was also studied for the LGV PACA. On p. 14, the presentation lists modal splits as of 2009. Paris-Toulon, a city pair where the TGV takes around 4 hours, has an outright majority for the TGV, with 54% of the market, compared with 12% for air and 34% for driving. Paris-Cannes is 34% and Paris-Nice is 30%, both figures on the high side for their 5:00-5:30 train trips. Lyon-Nice, a 3:30 trip with awful frequency thanks to SNCF’s poor interprovincial service, still has a 25% market share for the TGV.
In general, competition with cars is understudied. Competition with planes is much more prominent in the literature, with plenty of reports on air-rail modal splits by train trip length. JR East, Central (PDF-p. 4), and West all report such market shares, omitting road transport. Many European analyses appeared in the 2000s, for example by Steer Davies Gleave again in 2006, but the links have rotted and Eurostat’s link is corrupt.
O’Toole misunderstands this literature. He lumps all air and road links, even on markets where rail is weak, sometimes for geographical factors such as mountains or islands, sometimes for fixable institutional ones like European borders. In fact, at least measured in greenhouse gas emission and not ridership, all air travel growth in Europe since 1990 has been international. International high-speed rail exists in Europe but charges higher fares and the infrastructure for it is often not built, with slowdowns in border zones. This is a good argument for completing the international network in Europe and a terrible one against building any network at all.
Even at the level of basic topography, O’Toole makes elementary errors. He discusses the Tokaido Shinkansen, pointing out its factor-of-2 cost overrun. But its absolute costs were not high, which he characterizes as,
The Tokyo–Osaka high‐speed rail line supposedly made money, but it was built across fairly flat territory
So, first of all, the “supposedly” bit is painful given how much JR Central prints money. But “fairly flat territory” is equally bad. Japan’s mountainous topography is not an obscure fact. It’s visible from satellite image. Per Japanese Wikipedia, 13% of the route is in tunnel, more than California High-Speed Rail.
The United States can and should do better
The report is on stronger grounds when criticizing specifics of Amtrak and California High-Speed Rail. American rail construction is just bad. However, this is not because rail is bad; it’s because the United States is bad.
And there’s the rub. Americans in politics can’t tell themselves that another country does something better than the US does. If it’s in other countries and the US can’t do it, it must be, as O’Toole calls rail, obsolete. This is especially endemic to libertarians, who are intellectually detached from their European right-liberal counterparts (Dutch VVD, German FDP, etc.) even more than the American center-left is from social democrats here and the right is from the mainline and extreme right here.
So here, faced with not too hard to find evidence that high-speed rail is profitable in Europe and Asia, and in fact intercity rail is profitable here in general (direct subsidies are forbidden by EU law unless the line is classified as regional), unlike in the United States, O’Toole makes up reasons why trains here are unprofitable or unsuccessful. He says things that are not so much wrong as unrecognizable, regarding topography, buses, construction costs, debt, the state of the TGV debate, or greenhouse gas emissions.
O’Toole is aware of our transit costs comparison. I imagine he’s also aware of high-speed rail cost comparisons, which exist in the literature – if he’s not, it’s because he doesn’t want to be so aware. And yet, no matter how loudly the evidence screams “the United States needs to become more like France, Germany, Japan, Spain, etc.,” American libertarians always find excuses why this is bad or unnecessary. And then, when it comes to expanding freeways, suddenly the cost concerns go out the door and they use unrealistically low cost figures.
But figuring out why the US is bad requires way deeper dives. It requires delving into the field and understanding how procurement is done differently, what is wrong with Amtrak, what is wrong with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, how engineering is done in low- and medium-cost countries, various tradeoffs for planning lead time, and so on. It requires turning into the kind of expert that libertarians have spent the last 60 years theorizing why they need not listen to (“public choice”). And it requires a lot of knowledge of internal affairs of successful examples, none of which is in an English-speaking country. So it’s easier to call this obsolete just because incurious Americans can’t do it.
The Pacific Northwest seems like the perfect region for high-speed rail: its cities form a neat line from Vancouver to Portland and points south, grow at high rates with transit-oriented development, and have sizable employment cores around the train station. And yet, when I generated my high-speed rail maps, I could only include it as a marginal case, and even that inclusion was charitable:
(Full-size image is available here.)
There’s been a lot of criticism over why I’m including Atlanta-Jacksonville but not Vancouver-Seattle-Portland, and I’d like to explain why the model says this.
The population density in the Western United States is very low. What this means in practice is that cities are far apart – the best example is Denver, a large metropolitan area that is 537 km from the nearest million-plus metro area (Albuquerque). A high-speed line can connect two cities, maybe three, but will not form the multi-city trunk that one sees in Germany or Italy, or even Spain or France. Lines can still make sense if they serve enormous cities like Los Angeles, but otherwise there just isn’t much.
This relates to Metcalfe’s law of network effects. In a dense region, the 500-800 km radius around a city will have so many other cities that network effects are obtained as the system grows. Even Florida, which isn’t dense by European standards, has cities placed closely enough that a medium-size system can connect Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and then with a 500 km extension reach Atlanta. The I-85 corridor can likewise accrete cities along the way between Washington and Atlanta and get decent ridership.
In the Pacific Northwest, any intercity infrastructure has to live off Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland – that’s it. Spokane is small, orthogonal to the main line, and separated by mountains; Salem and Eugene are small and Salem is technically in the Portland combined statistical area; California’s cities are very far away and separated by mountains that would take a base tunnel to cross at speed. And Seattle is just not that big – the CSA has 5 million people, about the same as Berlin, which has within 530 km every German metropolitan area.
The model thinks that with Vancouver (2.6)-Seattle (5) at 220 km and Seattle-Portland (3.2) at 280, ridership is as follows, in millions of passengers per year in both directions combined:
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
In operating profits in millions of dollars per year, this is,
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
This is $135 million a year. It’s actually more optimistic than the official WSDOT study, which thinks the line can’t make an operating profit at all, due to an error in converting between miles and kilometers. The WSDOT study also thinks the cost of the system is $24-42 billion, which is very high. Nonetheless, a normal cost for Vancouver-Portland HSR is on the order of $15 billion, a bit higher than the norm because of the need for some tunnels and some constrained urban construction through I-5 in Seattle.
It isn’t even close. The financial ROI is 0.9%, which is below the rate of return for government debt in the very long run. Even with social benefits included, the rate is very low, maybe 2.5% – and once social benefits come into play, the value of capital rises because competing government investment priorities have social benefits too so it’s best to use the private-sector cost of capital, which is 4-5%.
This exercise showcases the value of density to intercity rail networks. You don’t need Dutch density, but Western US density is too low – the network effects are too weak except in and around California. It would be mad to build Atlanta-Jacksonville as a high-speed rail segment on its own, but once the Florida network and the I-85 network preexist, justified by their internal ridership and by the Piedmont’s connections to the Northeast, connecting Atlanta and Jacksonville becomes valuable.
The one saving grace of the Pacific Northwest is growth. That’s why it’s even included on the map. Lines in the 1.5-1.8% ROI region are not depicted at all, namely Houston-New Orleans and Dallas-Oklahoma City-Kansas City-St. Louis, both discounted because none of the cities connected has local public transportation or a strong city center. The Pacific Northwest is not discounted, and also benefits from strong growth at all ends.
The gravity model says that ridership is proportional to the 0.8th power of the population of each city connected. To get from 0.9% to 2% requires a factor of 2.2 growth, which requires each city to grow by a factor of 2.2^0.625 = 1.65.
Is such growth plausible? Yes, in the long run. In 2006-16, Metro Vancouver grew 16%; in 2010-9, the core three-county Seattle metro area (not CSA) grew 16% as well, and the core Portland metro area (again, not CSA) grew 12%. At 16% growth per decade, the populations will rise by the required factor in 34 years, so building for the 20-year horizon and then relying on ridership growth in the 2050s and 60s isn’t bad. But then that has a lot of risk embedded in it – the growth of Seattle is focused on two companies in a similar industry, and that of Vancouver is to a large extent the same industry too.
Moreover, the region’s relative YIMBYism can turn into NIMBYism fast. Metro Vancouver’s housing growth is healthy, but the region is fast running out of developable non-residential areas closer in than Surrey, which means it will need to replace single-family housing on the West Side with apartment buildings, which it hasn’t done so far. Growing construction costs are also threatening the ability of both Vancouver and Seattle to feed commuters into their central business districts by rail – Seattle may have built U-Link for costs that exist in Germany, but the Ballard/West Seattle line is $650 million/km and mostly above-ground, and the Broadway subway in Vancouver, while only C$500 million/km, is still on the expensive side by non-Anglo standards. It’s useful to plan around future growth and safeguard the line, but not to build it just on the promise of future growth, not at this stage.
There’s a study by Eno looking at urban rail construction costs, comparing the US to Europe. When it came out last month I was asked to post about it, and after some Patreon polling in which other posts ranked ahead, here it goes. In short: the study has some interesting analysis of the American cost premium, but suffers from some shortcomings, particularly with the comprehensiveness of the non-American data. Moreover, while most of the analysis in the body of the study is solid, the executive summary-level analysis is incorrect. Streetsblog got a quote from Eno saying there is no US premium, and on a panel at Tri-State a week ago T4A’s Beth Osborne cited the same study to say that the US isn’t so bad by European standards, which is false, and does not follow from the analysis. The reality is that the American cost premium is real and large – larger than Eno thinks, and in particular much larger than the senior managers at Eno who have been feeding these false quotes to the press think.
What’s the study?
Like our research group at Marron, Eno is comparing American urban rail construction costs per kilometer with other projects around the world. Three key differences are notable:
- Eno looks at light rail and not just rapid transit. We have included a smattering of projects that are called light rail but are predominantly rapid transit, such as Stadtbahns, the Green Line Extension in Boston, and surface portions of some regional rail lines (e.g. in Turkey), but the vast majority of our database is full rapid transit, mostly underground and not elevated. This means that Eno has a mostly complete database for American urban rail, which is by construction length mostly light rail and not subways, whereas we have gaps in the United States.
- Eno only compares the United States with other Western countries, on the grounds that they are the most similar. There is a fair amount of Canada in their database, one Australian line, and a lot of Europe, but no high-income Asia at all. Nor do they look at developing countries, or even upper-middle-income ones like Turkey.
- Eno’s database in Europe is incomplete. In particular, it looks by country, including lines in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France, but even there it has coverage gaps, and there is no Switzerland, little Scandinavia (in particular, no ongoing Stockholm subway expansion), and no Eastern Europe.
The analysis is similar to ours, i.e. they look at average costs per km controlling for how much of the line is underground. They include one additional unit of analysis that we don’t, which is station spacing; ex ante one expects closer station spacing to correlate with higher costs, since stations are a significant chunk of the cost and this is especially notable for very expensive projects.
The main finding in the Eno study is that the US has a significant cost premium over Europe and Canada. The key here is figure 5 on takeaway 4. All costs are in millions of PPP dollars per kilometer.
|Tunnel proportion||Median US cost||Median non-US cost|
However, the study lowballs the US premium in two distinct ways: poor regression use, and upward bias of non-US data.
Regression and costs
The quotes saying the US has no cost premium over Europe come from takeaways 2 and 3. Those are regression analyses comparing cost per km to the tunnel proportion (takeaway 3) or at-grade proportion (takeaway 2). There are two separate regression lines for each of the two takeaways, one looking at US projects and one at non-US ones. In both cases, the American regression line is well over the European-and-Canadian line for tunneled projects but the lines intersect roughly when the line goes to 0% underground. This leads to the conclusion that the US has no premium over Europe for light rail projects. Moreover, because the US has outliers in New York, the study concludes that there is no US premium outside New York. Unfortunately, these conclusions are both false.
The reason the regression lines intersect is that regression is a linear technique. The best fit line for the US construction cost per km relative to tunnel proportion has a y-intercept that is similar to the best fit line for Europe. However, visual inspection of the scattergram in takeaway 3 shows that at 0% underground, most US projects are somewhat more expensive than most European projects; this is confirmed in takeaway 4. All this means that the US has an unusually large premium for tunneled projects, driven by the fact that the highest-cost part of the US, New York, builds fully-underground subways and not els or light rail. If instead of Second Avenue Subway and the 7 extension New York had built high-cost els, for example the plans for a PATH extension to Newark Airport, then a regression line would show a large US premium for elevated projects but not so much for tunnels.
I tag this post “good/interesting studies” and not just “shoddy studies” because the inclusion of takeaway 4 makes this clear: there is a US premium for light rail, it’s just smaller than for subways, and then regression analysis can falsely make this premium disappear. This is an error, but an interesting one, and I urge people who use statistics and data science to study the difference between takeaways 2 and 3 and takeaway 4 carefully, to avoid making the same error in their own work.
Eno has a link to its dataset, from which one can see which projects are included. It’s notable that Eno is comprehensive within the United States, but not in Europe. Unfortunately, this introduces a bias into the data, because it’s easier to find information about expensive projects than about cheap ones. Big projects are covered in the media, especially if there are cost overruns to report. There is also a big-city premium because it’s more complicated to build line 14 of a metro system than to build line 1, and this likewise biases incomplete data because it’s easier to find what goes on in Paris than to find what goes on in a sleepy provincial town like Besançon. Yonah Freemark thankfully has good coverage of France and includes low-cost Besançon, but Eno does not – its French light rail database is heavy on Paris and has big gaps in the provinces. French Wikipedia in fact has a list, and all of the listed systems, which are provincial, have lower costs than Paris.
There is also no coverage of German tramways; we don’t have such coverage either, since there are many small projects and they’re in small cities like Bielefeld, but my understanding is that they are not very expensive. Traditionally German rail advocates held the cost of a tramway to be €10 million/km, which is clearly too low for the 2010s, but it should lower the median cost compared to the Paris-heavy, Britain-heavy Eno database.
New York is the capital of the coronavirus pandemic, with around 110,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 confirmed deaths citywide, and perhaps the same number across its suburbs. There must be many reasons why this is so; one possibility that people have raised is infection from crowded subways, so far without much evidence. Two days ago, MIT economist Jeffrey Harris wrote a paper claiming that the subways did in fact seed the Covid-19 epidemic in New York, but the paper cites no evidence. Sadly, some people have been citing the paper as a serious argument, which it isn’t; the purpose of this post is to explain what is wrong with the paper.
New York and other subways
In multiple other countries, one cannot see the transit cities in the virus infection rates. In Germany the rates in the largest cities are collectively the same as in the rest of the country. In South Korea, the infection is centered on Daegu; Seoul’s density and high transit usage are compatible with an infection rate of about 700 in a city of 9.5 million, about 1.5 orders of magnitude less per capita than in most Western countries and 2.5 orders of magnitude less than in New York. In Taipei, the MRT remains crowded, with weekday ridership in February and March down by 15-16%. In Italy, car usage is high outside a handful of very large cities like Milan, and Milan’s infection rate isn’t high by the standards of the rest of Lombardy.
However, rest-of-world evidence does not mean that the New York City Subway is safe. The Taipei MRT has mandatory mask usage and very frequent cleaning. German U- and S-Bahn networks are a lot dirtier than anything I’ve seen in Asia, but much cleaner than anything I’ve seen in New York, and also have much less peak crowding than New York. New York uniquely has turnstiles requiring pushing with one’s hands or bodies, and the only other city I know of with such fare barriers is Paris, whose infection rates are far below New York’s but still high by French standards.
So the question is not whether rapid transit systems are inherently unsafe for riders, which they are not. It’s whether New York, with all of its repeated failings killing tens of workers from exposure to the virus, has an unsafe rapid transit system. Nonetheless, the answer appears to be negative: no evidence exists that the subway is leading to higher infection rates, and the paper does not introduce any.
What’s in the paper?
A lot of rhetoric and a lot of lampshade hanging about the lack of natural experiments.
But when it comes to hard evidence, the paper makes two quantitative claims. The first is in figure 3: Manhattan had both the least increase in infections in the 3/13-4/7 period, equivalent to a doubling period of 20 days whereas the other boroughs ranged between 9.5 and 14, and also the largest decrease in subway entries in the 3/2-16 period, 65% whereas the other boroughs ranged between 33% and 56%.
The second is a series of maps showing per capita infection levels by zip code, similar to the one here. The paper also overlays a partial subway map and asserts that the map shows that there is correlation of infection rates along specific subway routes, for example the 7, as people spread the disease along the line.
I will address the second claim first, regarding line-level analysis, and then the first, regarding the borough-level difference-in-differences analysis; neither is even remotely correct.
Can you see the subway on an infection map?
Here is a static version of the infection map by zip code:
This is cases for 1,000 people – note that my post about Germany looks at rates per 10,000 people, so the range in New York is consistently about an order of magnitude worse than in Germany. The map shows high rates in Eastern Queens, the North Bronx, and Staten Island, hardly places with high public transportation ridership. The rates in Manhattan and the inner parts of Brooklyn are on the low side.
There are no ribbons of red matching any subway line – there are clumps and clusters, as in Southern Brooklyn in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and in Central Queens around Corona and East Elmhurst. There is imperfect but noticeable correlation with income – working-class areas have higher infection rates, perhaps because they have higher rates at which people are required to still show up to work, where they can be infected. East Asian neighborhoods have lower rates, like Flushing and environs, or to some extent Sunset Park; Asians are infected at noticeably lower rates than others in New York and perhaps in the rest of the Western world, perhaps because they took news in China more seriously, began practicing social distancing earlier, and wear masks at higher rates. There are many correlates, none of which looks like it has anything to do with using the public transportation network.
What’s more, the paper is not making any quantitative argument why the graph shows correlation with subway usage. It shows the graph with some lines depicted, often misnamed, for example the Queens Boulevard Line is called Sixth Avenue Local, leading to a discussion about higher infection rates on local trains than on express trains where in fact the F runs express in Queens. But it does not engage in any analysis of rates of subway usage or changes therein, or in infection rates. The reader is supposed to eyeball the graph and immediately agree with the author’s conclusion, where there is no reason to do so.
The claim about Manhattan is the only real quantitative claim in the paper. Unlike the zip code analysis, the borough analysis does make some statistical argument: Manhattan had larger reduction in subway usage than the rest of the city and also a slower infection rate. However, this argument relies on an N of 2. Among the other boroughs, there is no such correlation. The argument is then purely about Manhattan vs. the rest of the city. This is incorrect for so many reasons:
- Manhattan is the highest-income borough, with many people who can work from home. If they’re not getting infected, it could be from not commuting as much, but just as well from not getting the virus at work as much.
- The Manhattan subway stops are often job centers, so the decline in ridership there reflects a citywide decline. A Manhattanite who stops taking the subway is seen as two fewer turnstile entries in Manhattan, whereas a New Yorker from the rest of the city who does the same is likely to be seen as one fewer Outer Borough entry and one fewer Manhattan entry.
- Many Manhattanites left the city to shelter elsewhere, as seen in trash collection data.
- Manhattan’s per capita subway usage is probably higher than that of the rest of the city counting discretionary trips, so 65% off the usual ridership in Manhattan may still be higher per capita than 56% off in Brooklyn or 47% in Queens. (But this is false on the level of commuting, where Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn all have 60% mode share.)
Does the paper have any value?
I have heard people on Twitter claim that correlation is not causation. This argument is too generous to the paper, which has not shown any correlation at all, since the only quantitative point it makes has an N of 2 and plenty of confounders.
For comparison, my analysis of metro construction costs has an effective N of about 40, since different subway projects in the same country tend to have similar costs with few exceptions (such as New York’s extreme-even-for-America costs), and I consider 40 to be low enough that Eric Goldwyn and I must use qualitative methods and delve deep into several case studies before we can confidently draw conclusions. The paper instead draws strong conclusions, even including detailed ones like the point the paper tries to make about local trains being more dangerous than express trains, from an N of 2; it’s irresponsible.
But what about the workers?
A large and growing number of New York City Transit workers have succumbed to the virus. The current count is close to the citywide death toll, but transportation workers are by definition all healthy enough to be working, whereas citywide (and worldwide) the dead are disproportionately old or have comorbidities like heart disease. Echoing the union’s demands for better protection, Andy Byford had unkind words to say about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees in charge of the system, MTA chair Pat Foye and acting NYCT chair Sarah Feinberg.
However, this is not the same as infection among passengers. The dead include workers who are in close proximity to passengers on crowded vehicles, such as bus drivers, but also ones who are not, such as train operators, maintenance workers, and cleaners. Train cleaners have to remove contaminated trash from the platforms and vehicles without any protective equipment; NYCT not only didn’t supply workers with protective equipment, but also prohibited them from wearing masks on the job even if they’d procured them privately. Contamination at work is not the same as contamination during travel.
So, should people avoid public transportation in New York?
If the best attempt to provide evidence that riding the subway is a health hazard in a pandemic is this paper, then that by itself is evidence that there is no health hazard. This is true even given New York City Transit’s current level of dirt, though perhaps not given its pre-crisis peak crowding level. Social distancing is reducing overall travel and this is good, not necessarily because travel is hazardous, but mostly because the destination is often a crowded place with plenty of opportunity for person-to-person infection.
In preparation for going back to normal, the current level of cleanliness is not acceptable. The state should make sure people have access to masks, even if they’re ordinary ones rather than N95 ones, and mandate their usage in crowded places including the subway once they are available. It should invest far more in cleaning public spaces, including the subway, to the highest standards seen in the rich countries of Asia. It should certainly do much more to protect the workers, who face more serious hazards than the riders. But it should not discourage people who are traveling from doing so by train.
In the last year, Massachusetts has been studying something called the Rail Vision, listing several alternatives for commuter rail modernization. This has been independent of the North-South Rail Link study, and one of the options that the Rail Vision considered was full electrification. Unfortunately, the report released yesterday severely sandbags electrification, positing absurdly high costs. The state may well understand how bad its report is – at least as of the time of this writing, it’s been scrubbed from the public Internet, forcing me to rely on screencaps.
In short: the alternative that recommends full system electrification was sandbagged so as to cost $23 billion. This is for electrification, systems, and new equipment; the NSRL tunnel is not included. All itemized costs cost a large multiple of their international cost. The Americans in my feed are even starting to make concessions to extremely expensive projects like the Caltrain electrification, since the proposed MBTA electrification is even costlier than that.
But the telltale sign is not the cost of the wires, but rolling stock. The report asserts that running electrified service requires 1,450 cars’ worth of electric multiple units (“EMUs”), to be procured at a cost of $10 billion. More reasonable figures are 800 and $2 billion respectively.
Why 1,450 cars?
The all-electric option assumes that every line in the system will get a train every 15 minutes, peak and off-peak. What counts as a line is not clear, since some of the MBTA’s commuter lines have branches – for example, the Providence and Stoughton Lines share a trunk for 24 km, up to Canton Junction. However, we can make reasonable assumptions about which branches are far enough out; overall rolling stock needs are not too sensitive to these assumptions, as most lines are more straightforward.
The MBTA is capable of turning trains in 10 minutes today. In making schedules, I’ve mostly stuck to this assumption rather than trying to go for 5-minute turnarounds, which happen in Germany all the time (and on some non-mainline American subways); occasionally trains steal 1-2 minutes’ worth of turnaround time, if there’s a longer turn at the other end. Thus, if the one-way trip time is up to 50 minutes, then 8 trainsets provide 15-minute service.
To me, high-frequency regional rail for Boston means the following peak frequencies:
Providence/Stoughton: a train every 15 minutes on each branch. Service south of Providence is spun off to a Rhode Island state service, making more stops and running shorter trains as demand is weaker than commuter volumes to Boston. With this assumption, the Providence Line requires 7-8 trainsets. The Stoughton Line, with the South Coast Rail expansion to New Bedford and Fall River, each served every half hour, requires around 9-10. Say 18 sets total.
Worcester: the big question is whether to exploit the fast acceleration of EMUs to run all-local service or mix local and express trains on tracks in Newton that will never be quadrupled unless cars are banned. The all-local option has trains doing Boston-Worcester in just under an hour, so 9-10 trainsets are required. The mixed option, with a train every 15 minutes in each pattern, and local trains only going as far as Framingham, requires 14 sets, 8 express and 6 local.
Franklin/Fairmount: a train every 15 minutes on the Franklin Line, entering city center via the Fairmount Line, would do the trip in around 50 minutes. It may be prudent to run another train every 15 minutes on the Fairmount Line to Readville, a roughly 17-minute trip by EMU (current scheduled time with diesel locomotives: 30 minutes). Overall this is around 12 trainsets.
Old Colony Lines: there are three lines, serving very low-density suburbs. The only destinations that are interesting for more than tidal commuter rail are Plymouth, Brockton, Bridgewater State, and maybe an extension to Cape Cod. Each branch should get a train every 30 minutes, interlining to a train every 10 from Quincy Center to the north. About 10-12 trainsets are needed (2 more if there’s an hourly train out to Cape Cod); this is inefficient because with three branches, it’s not possible to have all of them depart South Station at :05 and :35 and arrive :25 and :55, so even if there’s a train every 15 minutes per branch, the requirement doesn’t double.
Fitchburg Line: a local train to Wachusett every 15 minutes would require around 12 sets (75 minutes one-way). The number may change a little if there’s an overlay providing service every 7.5 minutes to Brandeis, or if trains beyond South Acton only run every half hour.
Lowell Line: an EMU to Lowell would take about 27 minutes, depending on the stop pattern; 5 trainsets provide 15-minute frequency.
Haverhill Line: an EMU to Haverhill running the current route (not via the Wildcat Branch) would take about 40 minutes, so 7 trainsets provide a train every 15 minutes.
Eastern Lines: like the Old Colony Lines, this system has very low-density outer branches, with only one semi-reasonable outer anchor in Newburyport. Trains should run to Beverly every 10 minutes, and then one third should turn, one third should go to Rockport, and one third should go to Newburyport. With the same inherent inefficiency in running this service on a symmetric schedule as the Old Colony, around 10-12 sets are needed.
This is about 90 sets total. At eight cars per set, and with a spare ratio of 11%, the actual requirement is 800 cars, and not 1,450. The difference with the state’s assumption is likely that I’m assuming trains can run at the acceleration rates of modern EMUs; perhaps the state thinks that EMUs are as slow and unreliable as diesel locomotives, so a larger fleet is necessary to provide the same service.
Rolling stock costs
Reducing the cost of infrastructure is complicated, because it depends on local factors. But reducing the cost of industrial equipment is easy, since there are international vendors that make modular products. Factories all over Europe, Japan, and South Korea make this kind of equipment, and the European factories barely require any modifications to produce for the American market under current federal regulations.
It is not hard to go to Railway Gazette and search for recent orders for EMUs; names of trainsets include Talent, FLIRT, Mireo (cost information here) and Coradia. The linked Coradia order is for €96,500 per meter of train length, the other three orders are for about €70,000. A US-length (that is, 25 meters) car would cost around $2.5 million at this rate. 800 cars times $2.5 million equals $2 billion, not the $10 billion the MBTA claims.
Railway Gazette also discusses a maintenance contract: “Vy has awarded Stadler a contract worth nearly SFr100m for the maintenance in 2020-24 of more than 100 five-car Flirt EMUs.” These trains are 105 meters long; scaled to US car length, this means the annual maintenance cost of an EMU car is around $50,000, or $40 million for the entire fleet necessary for electrified service.
The actual net cost is even lower, since the MBTA needs to replace its rolling stock very soon anyway. If the choice is between 800 EMUs and a larger diesel fleet, the EMUs are cheaper; in effect, the rolling stock cost of electrification is then negative.
Why are they like this?
I struggle to find a problem with Boston’s transportation network that would not be alleviated if Massachusetts’ secretary of transportation Stephanie Pollack and her coterie of hacks, apparatchiks, and political appointees were all simultaneously fired.
There is a chain of command in the executive branch of the Massachusetts state government. Governor Charlie Baker decides that he does not want to embark on any big project, such as NSRL or rail electrification, perhaps because he is too incompetent to manage it successfully. He then intimates that such a project is unaffordable. Secretary Pollack responds by looking for reasons why the project is indeed unaffordable. Under pressure to deliver the required results, the planners make up outrageously high figures: they include fleet replacement in the electrified alternative but not in the unelectrified one (“incremental cost”), and then they lie about the costs by a factor of five.
Good transit activists can pressure the state, but the state has no interest in building good transit. The do-nothing governor enjoys no-build options and multi-billion dollar tweaks – anything that isn’t transformative is good to him. The do-nothing state legislature enjoys this situation, since it is no more capable of managing such a project, and having a governor who says no to everything enables it to avoid taking responsibility.
In the last few years, ever more serious and powerful actors have begun investigating the fact of high American infrastructure construction costs. First it was Brian Rosenthal’s excellent New York Times exposé, and then it was the Regional Plan Association’s flop of a study. At the same time, I was aware that the congressional Government Accountability Office, or GAO, was investigating the same question, planning to talk to sources in the academic world as well as industry in order to make recommendations.
The GAO report is out now, and unfortunately it is a total miss, for essentially the same reason the RPA’s report was a miss: it did not go outside the American (and to some extent rest-of-Anglosphere) comfort zone. Its literature review is if anything weaker than the RPA’s. Its interviews with experts are telling: out of nine mentioned on PDF-p. 47, eight live in English-speaking countries. Even when more detailed information about non-English-speaking countries is readily available, even in English, the GAO report makes little use of it. It is a lazy study, and people who ideologically believe the American federal government does not work should feel confident citing this as an example.
Brian himself already notes one of the reasons the report is so weak: Congress mandated a comparative study, but the report made no international comparisons at all. Instead, the report offered this excuse (PDF-p. 27):
The complexity of rail transit construction projects and data limitations, among other things, limits the ability to compare the costs of these projects, according to the stakeholders we interviewed. As highlighted above, each project has a unique collection of specific factors that drive its costs. According to FTA officials, each proposed transit project has its own unique characteristics, physical operating environment, and challenges. Some stakeholders said that the wide disparity in the relative effect of different cost factors renders cost comparisons between projects difficult. For example, representatives of an international transit organization said that because of the large number of elements that can affect a project’s costs and the differences in what costs are included in different projects’ data, projects should be compared only at a very granular level and that aggregate cost comparisons, such as between the costs per mile or costs per kilometer of different projects, are likely flawed. Some stakeholders also said that project costs should not be compared without considering the projects’ contexts, such as their complexity. For example, one academic expert contended that project costs cannot be compared without considering the context of each project, and that analysis of projects should focus on leading practices and lessons learned instead.
There is a big problem with the above statement: disaggregated costs for many aspects of urban rail construction do exist. The Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris has done a lot of legwork comparing tunnel boring machine staffing levels and wages in New York and in Germany, and found that New York pays much higher wages but also has much higher staffing levels, 25-26 workers compared with 12. I have done some work looking at station costs specifically, and at the cost of installing elevators for wheelchair accessibility.
There is a lot of detailed comparative research about the costs of high-speed rail; the report even references one such meta-study undertaken within Europe, but omits the study’s analysis of causes of cost differences and instead asserts that it shows that comparing different projects is hard. In the interim, California contracted Deutsche Bahn to do a post-mortem of its elevated high-speed rail costs, which found that California needlessly built larger structures than necessary, explaining its cost premium over Germany.
Instead of probing these disaggregated estimates, the GAO preferred to say that they are too hard and move on.
Even without disaggregation, there are some good sanity checks one can make about construction costs. The most important is that big projects – major subway expansions, regional rail tunnels, high-speed rail – cost an appreciable amount of the government’s budget. The budget for the 200-kilometer Grand Paris Express project is €35 billion, plus another €3 billion in contributions for related suburban rail extensions such as that of the RER E. There may be future cost overruns, but they will be reported in the media, just as the current overrun has been; it is extremely difficult to hide cost overruns measured in tens of billions in a Paris-size city, and even in a China-size country it may not be easy.
Is it plausible that GPX is inherently easier to build than New York’s $1+ billion/km subway tunnels? Yes. It’s equally plausible that it is inherently harder. Second Avenue Subway runs under a wide, straight throughfare, a situation that simplifies construction. In Israel, the ministry of transportation has long mentioned the ease of tunneling under wide, straight boulevards in connection with plans to extend the second line of the Tel Aviv subway to North Tel Aviv under Ibn Gabirol, and admitted this even when it opposed the extension on land use grounds.
The most important sanity check is that in a world with several dozens of cities with a wide variety of wealth levels, land use patterns, geologies, and topographies, no city has managed to match or even come close to New York’s construction costs. New York is not special enough to be an edge case in all or even most relevant geographic variables – it is dense but no denser than Seoul or Paris, it is wealthy but no wealthier than London or Paris or Munich and barely wealthier than Stockholm, it has hard rock but less hard than Stockholm (and in Stockholm the gneiss is cited as a cost saver – bored tunnels do not require concrete lining), etc.
Moreover, the cities that have the highest construction costs outside New York are almost without exception in the same set of countries: the US, Canada, Britain, Singapore, Australia. What’s likelier – that there is some special geographic feature common to the entire Anglosphere (including Quebec) but absent from all other developed countries, or that there is a shared set of legal and political traditions that developed in the last 50 years that impede cost-effective construction? Instead of probing this pattern, the GAO preferred to wash its hands and refuse to compare projects across countries.
In lieu of making international comparisons, the GAO has engaged in extensive internal comparison. It cites aspects that have raised the costs of Second Avenue Subway above other American subway projects, such as overdesign for stations. Apparently, it’s completely legit to compare two different cities’ construction if they’re in the same country.
Over and over again, it references its own domestic standards. The GAO has 12 design standards, e.g. on PDF-pp. 51-52 and 56-60; the report mentions that existing cost estimation methodologies by the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, meet 7 of them; thus, it exhorts transit agencies to meet the other 5 standards.
The only problem is that there is no evidence supplied that those design standards are really useful. After all, the United States has very high costs, so why should anyone trust its standards? Even domestically, the report makes no effort to bring up successful examples of low overall costs coming from following prescribed standards. Seattle recently opened a light rail tunnel built for around $400 million per kilometer, a cost that would get most European project managers fired but that is still the lowest for an American urban rail tunnel built in this century. But the report never brings up Seattle at all, never mind that New York would salivate over the prospect of tunneling at Seattle’s cost.
The real internal comparisons then are not between different cities in the United States. Rather, they’re between different stages of cost estimation for the same project. There is published literature on cost overruns, most famously by Bent Flyvbjerg and his research group. The report cites Flyvbjerg. Moreover, one of the nine academic experts it consulted is Don Pickrell, who published a seminal paper on American cost overruns and ridership shortfalls in 1990. Pickrell was influential enough that a 2009 review found that not only had cost and ridership projections improved greatly in the intervening two decades, but also there was an improvement in ridership estimate quality attributable to Pickrell’s paper.
The GAO report is not the best source on cost overruns, but it is not completely useless there. Unfortunately, it remains useless when it comes to discussing absolute costs, a different topic from relative increases. Flyvbjerg’s original paper found that the US did not have higher cost overruns than Europe; but absolute costs in the US are several times as high. Flyvbjerg’s paper found that urban rail has higher cost overruns than road projects; but when a rail tunnel and a road tunnel are built in the same city, the road tunnel is more expensive by a factor of 1.5-2.5, at least in the four-city pilot I reported in 2017, owing to the need to build bigger bores with ventilation to carry heavy car traffic.
Lazy analysis, lazy synthesis
Americans who think of themselves as reformers like to point out real problems to solve, but then propose solutions that they made up without any connection with their analysis. The RPA study is one such example: even though one of its sources (namely, former Madrid Metro CEO Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup about low Spanish costs) explicitly calls for separation of design and construction, its recommendations include a greater reliance on design-build. The same design-build recommendation appeared in a 2008 report in Toronto comparing the costs of the Sheppard subway, opened in 2002, with those of subways in Madrid; construction costs in Toronto have since tripled, while those of Madrid have barely risen.
To the GAO report’s credit, it does not recommend design-build. It even mentions the biggest drawback of design-build: it shifts cost risk to the private contractor, who compensates by demanding more public money up front. Nonetheless, it does not follow through and does not make the correct recommendation on this subject – namely, that cities and states should cease using this approach. It buries a recommendation for in-house expertise alongside a fad for peer review of projects.
Instead of lazily proposing design-build, the GAO lazily proposes two barely relevant tweaks (PDF-p. 43):
- The FTA administrator should ensure that FTA’s cost estimating information for project sponsors is consistent with all 12 steps found in GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide and needed for developing reliable cost estimates.
- The FTA Administrator should provide a central, easily accessible source with all of FTA’s cost estimating information to help project sponsors improve the reliability of their cost estimates.
In other words, the report makes no recommendation about how to reduce costs, only about how to tell the public in advance that costs will be unaffordably high.
Why are these reports so bad?
This is not the first time a serious group releases an incurious study of American construction costs. What gives?
I suspect the answer has to be a combination of the following problems:
- Reform factions often have a lot of internal ideas about how to improve things based on what they already know. They will cite new information if they feel like they must do so to save face, but they will not let new evidence change their conclusions. A little knowledge can be dangerous.
- Finding information from outside the US, especially outside the English-speaking world, puts Americans (and Canadians) at a disadvantage. They know few to no foreigners, have little experience with cities abroad except as tourists, and do not speak foreign languages. Even when machine translation is decently accurate, which it is in the engineering literature in European languages, they are intimidated by the idea of dealing with non-English material. The process of learning is humbling, and some people prefer to remain proud and ignorant.
- Open-ended analysis does not always lend itself to easy explanations or easy solutions. Even when solutions do present themselves, they may not flatter the people in power. Ten years ago I did not think senior management at American transit organs should be fired; today I think mass layoffs of the top brass, especially the political appointees, are somewhere between very useful and essential.
All three problems interact. For example, senior management is even less likely to be multilingual than junior staffers, who may be second-generation immigrant heritage speakers of a foreign language; thus, anything relying on foreign material disempowers the high-ups in favor of up-and-comers. The quick-and-easy-and-wrong solutions reformists seize upon if they find a little bit of knowledge let outfits like the GAO feel more powerful without actually challenging any obstructive politician or interest group, and if those solutions fail, they can always keep churning reports about implementation.
Last year, I did not know whether the GAO was capable of providing a blueprint for improving American infrastructure at lower cost. I assumed good faith because I had no reason not to. With this report, it is clear to me as well as to other observers of American public transit that the GAO is not so capable. Instead of doing what was in the country’s best interest, the people who commissioned and wrote the report delivered the minimal product that would get them kudos from superiors who do not know any better. They could have learned, or made a serious effort to learn, but that might challenge their assumptions or those of the high political echelons, and thus they preferred to say nothing and propose to do nothing.
You have to give Bill de Blasio credit: when someone else forces his hand, he will immediately claim that he was on the more popular-seeming side all along. After other people brought up the idea of a bus turnaround, starting with shadow agencies like TransitCenter and continuing with his frontrunning successor Corey Johnson, the mayor released an action plan called Better Buses. The plan has a bold goal: to speed up buses to 16 km/h using stop consolidation and aggressive enforcement of bus priority. And yet, elements of the plan leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The Better Buses plan asserts that the current average bus speed in New York is 8 miles per hour, and with the proposed treatments it will rise to 10. Unfortunately, the bus speed in New York is lower. The average according to the NTD is 7.05 miles per hour, or 11.35 km/h. This includes the Select Bus Service routes, whose average speed is actually a hair less than the New York City Transit average, since most of them are in more congested parts of the city. The source the report uses for the bus speed is an online feed that isn’t reliable; when I asked one of the bus planners while working on the Brooklyn route redesign, I was told the best source to use was the printed schedules, and those agree with the slower figures.
In Brooklyn, the average bus speed based on the schedules is around 11 km/h. But the starting point for the speed treatment Eric Goldwyn and I recommended is actually somewhat lower, around 10.8 km/h, for two reasons: first, the busiest routes already have faster limited-stop overlays, and second, the redesign process itself reduces the average speed by pruning higher-speed lightly-used routes such as the B39 over the Williamsburg Bridge.
The second reason is not a general fact of bus redesigns. In Barcelona, Nova Xarxa increased bus speeds by removing radial routes from the congested historic center of the city. However, in Brooklyn, the redesign marginally slows down the buses. While it does remove some service from the congested Downtown Brooklyn area, most of the pruning in is outlying areas, like the industrial nooks and crannies of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Without having drawn maps, I would guess the effect in Queens should be marginal in either direction, for essentially the same set of reasons as in Brooklyn, but in the Bronx it should slow down the buses by pruning coverage routes in auto-oriented margins like Country Club.
With all of the treatments Eric and I are proposing, the speed we are comfortable promising if our redesign is implemented as planned is 15 km/h and not 16 km/h.
How does the plan compare with the speaker’s?
City Council Speaker Johnson’s own plan for city control of NYCT proposes a bus turnaround as well. Let us summarize the differences between the two plans:
|Aspect||Johnson’s plan||De Blasio’s plan|
|Stop consolidation||Not mentioned||Yes|
|Bus lanes||48 km installed per year||16-24 km installed per year|
|Bus lanes vs. cars||Parking removal if needed||Not mentioned|
|Physically separated bus lanes||Yes||3 km pilot|
|Median bus lanes||Probably||Maybe|
|Signal priority||1000 intersections equipped per year||300 intersections equipped per year|
For the most part, the mayor’s plan is less ambitious. The question of bus lanes is the most concerning. What Eric and I think the Brooklyn bus network should look like is about 350 km. Even excluding routes that already have bus lanes (like Utica) or that have so little congestion they don’t need bus lanes (like the Coney Island east-west route), this is about 300 km. Citywide this should be on the order of 1,000 km. At the speaker’s pace this is already too slow, taking about 20 years, but at the mayor’s, it will take multiple generations.
The plan does bring up median lanes positively, which I appreciate: pp. 10-11 talk about center-running lanes in the context of the Bx6, which has boarding islands similar to those I have observed on Odengatan in Stockholm and Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. Moreover, it suggests physically separated lanes, although the picture shown for the Bx6 involves a more obtrusive structure than the small raised curbs of Paris, Stockholm, and other European cities where I’ve seen such separation. Unfortunately, the list of tools on pp. 14-15 assumes bus lanes remain in or near the curb, talking about strategies for curb management.
The omission of Nostrand
The mayor’s plan has a long list of examples of bus lane installation. These include some delicate cases, like Church Avenue. However, the most difficult, Nostrand, is entirely omitted.
Nostrand Avenue carries the B44, the second busiest bus in the borough and fifth in the city. The street is only 24 meters wide and therefore runs one-way southbound north of Farragut Avenue, just north of the crossing with Flatbush Avenue and Brooklyn College. Northbound buses go on New York Avenue if they’re local or on Rogers if they’re SBS, each separated from Nostrand by about 250 meters. The argument for the split is that different demographics ride local and SBS buses, and they come from different sides of Nostrand. The subway is on Nostrand and so is the commerce. And yet, parking is more important to the city than a two-way bus lane on the street to permit riders to access the main throughfare of the area most efficiently.
Moreover, even the bus lanes that the plan does discuss leave a lot to be desired. The second most important street in Brooklyn to equip with high-quality physically separated bus lanes, after Nostrand, is Church, like Nostrand a 24-meter street where something has to give. The plan trumpets its commitment to transit priority, and yet on Church it includes a short segment with curb lanes partly shared with delivery trucks using curb management. Limiting merchant complaints is more important to the mayor than making sure people can ride buses that are reliably faster than a fast walk.
Can the city deliver?
The mayor has recurrently prioritized the needs of people who are used to complaining at public meetings, who are typically more settled in the city, with a house and a car. New York may have a majority of its households car-free, but to many of them car ownership remains aspirational and so does home ownership, to the point that the transit-oriented lifestyle remains a marker of either poverty or youth, to be replaced with the suburban auto-oriented lifestyle as one achieves middle-class status. Even as there is cultural change and this mentality is increasingly not true, the city’s political system keeps a process that guarantees that millions of daily transit users must listen to drivers who complain that they have to park a block away.
The plan has an ambitious number: 16 km/h. But when it comes to actually implementing it, it dithers. Its examples of bus lanes are half-measures. There’s no indication that the city is willing to overrule merchants who think they have a God-given right to the street that their transit-riding customers do not. Without this, bus lanes will remain an unenforced joke, and the vaunted speed improvements will be localized to too small a share of bus route-km to truly matter.
The most optimistic take on Better Buses is that the mayor is signaling that he’s a complete nonentity when it comes to bus improvement, rather than an active obstacle. But more likely, the signal is that the mayor has heard that there are political and technical efforts to improve bus service in the city and he wants to pretend to participate in them while doing nothing.
Two days ago, Port Authority put out a study about a rail link to LaGuardia, which became Governor Cuomo’s top transit priority a few years ago. The PDF file is bundled with the RFP, but starting on PDF-p. 25 it’s an alternatives analysis and not an RFP. While transit activists including myself have attacked Cuomo’s proposed rail link for its poor alignment choice, the Port Authority study considers many alternatives, including some interesting ones. It also describes the current situation in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the alternatives for a rail link, but also summarize some of the important facts buried in the study. Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.
The current situation
LaGuardia had about 25 million O&D passengers in 2017. They disproportionately go to or from Midtown, but it’s not as overwhelming as I thought based on this density map. Here is a precise breakdown, lumping together both locals (33%) and visitors (67%):
In Manhattan and western Queens “Walking access” means half a mile from a commuter rail stop or from the 7 train; there is no attempt to track walk access to the N or W trains. In Eastern Queens it means half a mile from any subway stop.
About half of the passengers get to or from the airport by taxi, and another 20% are dropped off or picked up in a car. Only 6.2% use public transportation, and another 5.6% use a shared ride such as a hotel shuttle.
Among employees, the situation is different. I expected employees to cluster in western and central Queens, but in fact, based on the same categories used for passengers, the largest group is Queens East beyond subway range:
There are 13,000 employees at LaGuardia per Port Authority (compared with about 10,000 per OnTheMap), of whom 40% take transit to work and 57% drive. It goes without saying that the transit options are exceedingly harsh. The connections from Brooklyn require taking a subway through Manhattan (and I don’t think LGA is necessarily important enough to justify a direct bus route from Brooklyn, presumably a merger of the B38 with a Q18/Q47 compromise route to the airport). From Queens beyond subway range they require taking a bus to the subway and then another bus. The implication is that people take transit to the airport out of necessity – that is, poverty – and not because the options are good.
Unfortunately, the implication is also that it’s hard to serve the current employee base by any rail link, even if it’s fare-integrated with the subway (unlike the JFK AirTrain). The origins are too dispersed. The best that can be done is serving one tranche of origins, and letting passengers sort themselves based on commute possibilities.
In some strategic places, a decent two-seat ride can be made available. The M60 bus is not good for passengers, but it is fine for employees since more of them come from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and moreover low incomes imply that it’s fine to have a transit : car trip time ratio well in excess of 1 provided it’s not too onerous. Some future rail extensions, not covered in the study, would help with passenger distribution: Triboro RX would help get passengers from the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens to major transfer points at Astoria and Jackson Heights, and Penn Station Access with an Astoria stop would help get eastern Bronx passengers into Astoria with a quick transfer.
The alternatives analyzed
The study mentions a horde of different options for connecting people to the airport, but most only get a few paragraphs followed by an indication that they don’t meet the objectives and therefore should not be considered further. These excluded alignments exist only for i-dotting and t-crossing, such as ferries or whatever Elon Musk is calling his tunnels this year; Port Authority is right to reject them.
The alternatives proposed for further consideration consist of no build, subway extensions, and various air train alignments. Unfortunately, on second pass, the subway extensions are all eliminated, on the same grounds of community impact. This includes the least impactful subway extension, going north on 31st Street and then east on 19th Avenue, avoiding Ditmars (which could host an el).
Instead of a subway extension, the study is recommending an air train. There are many alternatives analyzed: one from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, one from Woodside with a connecting to the local M/R trains on the Queens Boulevard Line at Northern Boulevard, one from Jackson Heights, one from Jamaica with a missed connection to the 7, and one from Willets Point as recommended by Cuomo. All but the last are excluded on the same grounds of impact. Any land acquisition appears to be prohibited, no matter how minor.
What went wrong?
The obvious answer to why the study recommends the Willets Point detour is political support. This can be seen in e.g. PDF-p. 150, a table analyzing each of the air train possibilities. One of the criteria is operational concerns. The Jamaica option fails that test because it is so circuitous it would not get passengers between the airport and either Penn Station or Grand Central in thirty minutes. The Willets Point option passes, despite being circuitous as well (albeit less so); it would still not get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in thirty minutes since the 7 is slow, but the study seems to be assuming passengers would take the LIRR, on the half-hourly Port Washington Branch.
This alone suggests political sandbagging. But by itself it doesn’t explain how the study’s assumptions sandbag the options the governor doesn’t favor; after all, there could be many little omissions and judgment calls.
Rather, I propose that the study specifically looked only at nonstop service to the airport. The subway extensions are all proposed as nonstop services from Astoria (either Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars) to the airport, without intermediate stops. Without intermediate stops, the political will to build els above neighborhood streets is diminished, because few people in Astoria have any need to travel to LaGuardia. In contrast, with intermediate stops, the subway extensions would improve coverage within Astoria, serving Steinway and Hazen Streets.
If intermediate stops are desired, then 19th Avenue may not be the best corridor. Ditmars itself is feasible (with some takings), as are 21st and 20th Avenues. Ditmars has the most impact but serves the highest-value location, and can descend to Grand Central Parkway to get to the airport without any tunneling, limiting costs.
Moreover, the impact of els can be reduced by building them on concrete columns rather than all-steel structures. Paris Metro Line 2 opened in 1903, before the First Subway in New York; it has a steel structure on top of concrete columns, and the noise level is low enough that people can have conversations underneath while a train is passing. New Yorkers should be familiar with the reduced noise of concrete structures since the 7 el on top of Queens Boulevard is quiet, but that is an all-concrete structure on a very wide street; Line 2 here follows wide boulevards as well but not so wide as Queens Boulevard, and is moreover a mixture of concrete and steel, and yet manages not to have the screeching noise New Yorkers are familiar with from Astoria, Woodside, and other neighborhoods with els.
Is this study valuable?
Yes and no. Its conclusions should be tossed for their limited scope (nonstop airport access only), questionable assumptions (overreliance on infrequent commuter rail), and political aims (justifying Cuomo’s decision). But some of the underlying analysis, especially of current travel patterns, is useful for the purposes of thinking about systemwide transit expansion. Despite the consideration of an N/W extension, the study does not try to figure out the percentage of travelers whose ultimate origin or destination is near an N/W stop, only near a 7 stop; however, we can make some educated guesses from the map and realize that an N/W extension is of considerable value to passengers.
For employees, the situation is more delicate. The study mentions them but doesn’t try to optimize for them – the aim is to give Cuomo political cover, not to design the best possible public transit for New York. But the dispersal of worker origins means that a single rail link to the airport is unlikely to have much of an effect. Better everywhere-to-everywhere transit is needed. With decent bus connections at Astoria and Jackson Heights, it’s more important to build circumferential transit there (that is, Triboro) than to connect directly to the airport.
A general program of transit expansion would serve both groups. An N/W extension through Astoria with intermediate stops would give the neighborhood better coverage while also connecting the airport with Manhattan destinations, with good transfers to origins on the Upper East and West Sides. Better circumferential transit would then let workers from different parts of the city use the same extension without having to detour through Midtown even if their origins are in the Bronx or Queens.
Can any of this happen? The answer is unambiguously yes. Even in New York, els and at-grade rail is not so expensive. The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.
Boston has two main train stations: South Station, and North Station. Both are terminals, about 2 km apart, each serving its own set of suburbs; as a result, over the last few decades there have been calls to unify the system with a regional rail tunnel connecting the two systems. This tunnel, called the North-South Rail Link, or NSRL, would have been part of the Big Dig if its costs hadn’t run over; as it were, the Big Dig reserved space deep underground for two large bores, in which there is clean dirt with no archeological or geotechnical surprises. The NSRL project had languished due to Massachusetts’ unwillingness to spend the money on it, always understood to be in the billions, but in the last few years the pressure to build it intensified, and the state agreed to fund a small feasibility study.
A presentation of the draft study came out two days ago, and is hogwash. It claims on flimsy pretext that NSRL would cost $17 billion for the tunnel alone. It also makes assumptions on service patterns (such as manual door opening) that are decades out of date not just in Europe and East Asia but also in New York. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, discusses it here; there’s a livestream as well as a link to a presentation of the draft study.
The content of the study is so weak that it has to have been deliberate. The governor does not want it built because of its complexity, no matter how high its benefits. Thus, the state produced a report that sandbags a project it doesn’t want to build. People should be fired over this, starting with planners at the state’s Office of Transportation Planning, which was responsible for the study. The way forward remains full regional rail modernization. As for the cost estimate, an independent study by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimates it at about $5 billion in today’s money; the new study provides no evidence it would be higher. I urge good transit activists in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to demand better of their civil servants.
The study says that the cost of a four-track NSRL tunnel under the Big Dig would be $17 billion in 2028 dollars. In today’s money, this is $12 billion (the study assumes 3.5% annual cost escalation rather than inflation-rate cost escalation). It claims to be based on best practices, listing several comparable tunnels, both proposed and existing:
- California High-Speed Rail tunnels (average estimated cost about $125 million per km, not including overheads and contingency)
- Crossrail (see below on costs)
- The M-30 highway tunnel in Madrid (average cost about $125 million per km of bored tunnel in the mid-2000s, or around $150 million/km in today’s money)
- The canceled I-710 tunnel in California (at 7.2 km and $5.6 billion, $780 million per km
- The Spoortunnel Pannerdensch Kanaal (around $200 million in today’s money for 1.6 km of bore, or $125 million per km)
Unlike the other tunnels on the list, Crossrail has stations frustrating any simple per km cost analysis. The headline cost of Crossrail is £15 billion; however, I received data from a freedom of information request showing that the central (i.e. underground) portion is only £11.6 billion and the rest is surface improvements, and of this cost the big items are £2.2 billion for tunneling, £4.1 billion for stations, £1 billion for tracks and systems, and £2.7 billion for overheads and land acquisition. The tunneling itself is thus around $150 million per km, exclusive of overheads and land (which add 30% to the rest of the project). All of this is consistent with what I’ve found in New York: tunneling is for the most part cheap.
With the exception of Crossrail, the above projects consist of two large-diameter bores. The mainline rail tunnels (California HSR and Pannerdensch Kanaal) are sized to provide plenty of free air around the train in order to improve aerodynamics, a feature that is desirable at high speed but is a luxury in a constrained, low-speed urban rail tunnel. The highway tunnels have two large-diameter bores in order to permit many lanes in each direction. The plan for NSRL has always been two 12-meter bores, allowing four tracks; at the per-km boring cost of the above projects, this 5 kilometer project should cost perhaps a billion dollars for tunneling alone.
The stations are typically the hard part. However, NSRL has always been intended to use large-diameter tunnels, which can incorporate the platforms within the bore, reducing their cost. Frequent commenter Ant6n describes how Barcelona used such a tunnel to build Metro Lines 9 and 10, going underneath the older lines; the cost of the entire project is around $170 million per km, including a cost overrun by a factor of more than 3. Vertical access is likely to be more difficult in Boston under the Big Dig than in Barcelona, but slant shafts for escalators are still possible. At the worst case scenario, Crossrail’s station costs are of an order of magnitude of many hundreds of millions of dollars each, and two especially complex ones on Crossrail 2 are £1.4 billion each; this cost may be reasonable for Central Station at Aquarium, but not at South Station or North Station, where there is room for vertical and slant shafts.
It’s possible that the study made a factor-of-two error, assuming that since the mainline rail comparison projects have two tracks, their infrastructure is sized for two urban rail tracks, where in reality a small increase in tunnel diameter would permit four.
Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government came up with an estimate of $5.9 billion in 2025 dollars for a four-track, three-station NSRL option, which is about $5 billion today. Their methodology involves looking at comparable tunneling projects around the world, and averaging several averages, one coming from American cost methodology plus 50% contingency, and two coming from looking at real-world cost ranges (one American, one incorporating American as well as rest-of-world tunnels). Their list of comparable projects includes some high-cost ones such as Second Avenue Subway, but also cheaper ones like Citybanan, which goes deep underneath Central Stockholm with mined tunnels under T-Centralen and Odenplan, at $350 million per km in today’s money.
But the MassDOT study disregarded the expertise of the Kennedy School researchers, saying,
Note: The Harvard Study did not include cost for the tunnel boring machine launch pit and only accounted for 2.7 miles of tunneling (the MassDOT studies both accounted for 5 miles of tunneling), and no contingency for risk.
This claim is fraudulent. The Kennedy School study looks at real-world costs (thus, including contingency and launch pit costs) as well as at itemized costs plus 50% contingency. Moreover, the length of the NSRL tunnel, just under 5 km, is the same either way; the MassDOT study seems to be doubling the cost because the project has four tracks, an assumption that is already taken into account in the Kennedy School study. This, again, is consistent with a factor-of-two error.
Moreover, the brazenness of the claim that a study that explicitly includes contingency does not do so suggests that MassDOT deliberately sabotaged NSRL, making it look more expensive than it is, since the top political brass does not want it. Governor Baker said NSRL looks expensive, and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack is hostile as well; most likely, facing implicit pressure from above, MassDOT’s overburdened Office of Transportation Planning scrubbed the bottom of the barrel to find evidence of absurdly high costs.
Massachusetts really does not want or understand electrification. Even some NSRL supporters believe electrification to be an expensive frill that would sink the entire project and think that dual-mode locomotives are an acceptable way to run trains in a developed country in the 2010s.
In fact, dual-mode locomotives’ weak performance serves to raise tunneling costs. Struggling to accelerate at 0.3 m/s^2 (or 0.03 g), they cannot climb steep grades: both the Kennedy School and MassDOT studies assume maximum 3% grades, whereas electric multiple units, with initial acceleration of 1.2 m/s^2, can easily climb 4% and even steeper grades (in theory even 10%, in practice the highest I know of is 7%, and even 5% is rare), permitting shorter and less constrained tunnels.
As a result of its allergy to electrification, MassDOT is only proposing wiring between North Station and the next station on each of the four North Side lines, a total of 22.5 route-km. This choice of which inner segments to electrify excludes the Fairmount Line, an 8-stop 15 km mostly self-contained line through low-income, asthma-riven city neighborhoods (source, PDF-pp. 182 and 230). Even the electrification the study does agree to, consisting of about 30 km of the above surface lines plus the tunnels themselves, is projected to cost $600 million. Nowhere in the world is electrification so expensive; the only projects I know of that are even half as expensive are a pair of disasters, one coming from a botched automation attempt on the Great Western Main Line and one coming from poor industry practices on Caltrain.
A more reasonable American budget, based on Amtrak electrification costs from the 1990s, would be somewhat less than $2 billion for the entire MBTA excluding the already-wired Providence Line; this is the most familiar electrification scheme to the Bostonian reader or planner. At French or Israeli costs, the entire MBTA commuter rail system could be wired for less than a billion dollars.
Another necessary element is conversion to an all-EMU fleet, to increase performance and reduce operating costs. Railway Gazette reports that a Dutch benchmarking study found that the lifecycle costs of EMUs are half as high as those of diesel multiple units. As the MBTA needs to replace its fleet soon anyway, the incremental cost of electrification of rolling stock is negative, and yet the study tacks in $2.4 billion on top of the $17 billion for tunneling for vehicles.
A miscellany of incompetence
In addition to the sandbagged costs, the study indicates that the people involved in the process do not understand modern railroad operations in several other ways.
First, door opening. While practically everywhere else in the first world doors are automatic and opened with the push of a button, the MBTA insists on manual door opening. The MassDOT study gives no thought to high platforms and automatic doors (indeed, the Old Colony Lines are already entirely high-platform, but some of their rolling stock still employs manual door opening), and assumes manual door opening will persist even through the NSRL tunnels. Each train would need a squad of conductors to unload in Downtown Boston, and the labor costs would frustrate any attempt to run frequently (the study itself suggests hourly off-peak frequency; in Paris, RER lines run every 10-20 minutes off-peak).
Second, capacity. The study says a two-track NSRL would permit 17 trains per hour in each direction at the peak, and a four-track NSRL would permit 21. The MBTA commuter rail network is highly branched, but not more so than the Munich S-Bahn (which runs 30 at the peak on two tracks) and less so than the Zurich S-Bahn (which before the Durchmesserlinie opened ran either 20 or 24 tph through the two-track tunnel, I’m not sure which).
Worse, the FMCB itself is dumbfounded by the proposed peak frequency – in the wrong direction. While FMCB chair Joe Aiello tried explaining how modern regional rail in Tokyo works, other members didn’t get it; one member dared ask whether 17 tph is even possible on positive train control-equipped tracks. My expectations of Americans are low enough that I am not surprised they are unaware that many lines here and in Japan have automatic train protection systems (ETCS here, various flavors of ATC in Japan) that meet American PTC standards and have shorter minimum headways than every 3-4 minutes. But the North River Tunnels run 24-25 peak tph into Manhattan, using ASCES signaling, the PTC system Amtrak uses on the Northeast Corridor; the capacity problems at Penn Station are well-known to even casual observers of American infrastructure politics.
A state in which the FMCB members didn’t really get what their chair was saying about modern operations is going to propose poor operating practices going forward. MassDOT’s study assumes low frequency, and, because there is no line-wide electrification except on the Providence Line and eventually South Coast Rail (where electrification is required for wetland remediation), very low performance. MassDOT’s conception of NSRL has no infill stops, and thus no service to the bulk of the contiguous built-up area of Boston. Without electrification or high platforms, it cannot achieve high enough speeds to beat cars except in rush hour traffic. Limiting the stop penalty is paramount on urban rail, and level boarding, wide doors, and EMU acceleration combine to a stop penalty of about 55 seconds at 100 km/h and 75 seconds at 160 km/h; in contrast, the MBTA’s lumbering diesel locomotives, tugging coaches with narrow car-end doors with several steps, have a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes at 100 km/h.
The presentation makes it very clear what the value of MassDOT’s NSRL study is: at best none, at worst negative value through muddying the conversation with fraudulent numbers. The Office of Transportation Planning is swamped and could not produce a good study. The actual control was political: Governor Baker and Secretary of Transportation Pollack do not want NSRL, and both the private consultant that produced the study and the staff that oversaw it did what the politicians expected of them.
Heads have to roll if Massachusetts is to plan good public transportation. The most important person good transit activists should fight to remove is the governor; however, he is going to be easily reelected, and replacing the secretary of transportation with someone who does not lie to the public about costs is an uphill fight as well. Replacing incompetent civil servants elsewhere is desirable, but the fish rots from the head.
Activists in Rhode Island may have an easier time, as the state is less hostile to rail, despite the flop of Wickford Junction; they may wish to demand the state take lead on improving service levels on the Providence Line, with an eye toward forcing future NSRL plans to incorporate good regional rail practices. In New Hampshire, provided the state government became less hostile to public investment, activists could likewise demand high-quality commuter rail service, with an eye toward later connecting a North Station-Nashua-Manchester line to the South Side lines.
But no matter what, good transit activists cannot take the study seriously as a planning study. It is a political document, designed to sandbag a rail project that has high costs and even higher benefits that the governor does not wish to manage. Its cost estimates are not only outlandish but brazenly so, and its insistence that the Kennedy School study does not include contingency is so obviously incorrect that it must be considered fraud rather than a mistake. Nothing it says has any merit, not should it be taken seriously. It does not represent the world of transportation planning, but rather the fantasies of a political system that does not understand public transportation.
The Regional Plan Association has a detailed regional rail proposal out. It’s the same one from the Fourth Plan that I’ve criticized here, on Streetsblog, and on Curbed, but with more explanation for how the service should run, with stopping patterns and frequency.
There are some good aspects there, like a section about the importance of electrification and multiple-units, though it stops short of calling for full electrification and replacement of locomotives with EMUs; the focus on off-peak frequency is also welcome. There are also bad ones, like the claim on p. 32 that it’s difficult to impossible to provide through-running using the existing Penn Station tracks used by New Jersey Transit. Foster Nichols told me that there are some difficulties with grades but they should be doable if NJT commits to an all-EMU fleet, and reminded me that the ARC studies judged through-running using these station tracks and new tunnels feasible. What he expressed to me as a difficulty turned into a near-impossibility in the report, in order to justify the $7 billion Penn Station South project.
But I want to focus on one particularly bad aspect of the proposal: the stopping patterns. The RPA is proposing three distinct stopping patterns on pp. 32-45, with three separate brands: Metro, in the city and some inner suburbs; Regional Express (RX), in the suburbs; and Trans-Regional Limited (TRL), providing intercity service to New Haven, Ronkonkoma, Philadelphia, and other major stations outside the built-up area. Even as the plan talks about the importance of making sure suburban trains serve urban stations in order to give them frequent service through overlay, the stopping patterns suggest the opposite.
The proposal involves trains from the suburbs expressing through most city stations (including the infill) even on two-track lines, like the Port Washington Branch. Metro trains would make all current stops plus additional infill to Bayside, and RX trains would only serve Willets Point, Flushing, and Bayside, and then run from Bayside to Port Washington. A similar pattern happens from Jamaica to Valley Stream, resulting in the Babylon, Long Beach, and Far Rockaway Branches all having to share a track pair. Moreover, the RX trains may themselves be divided into local and express trains, for example on the New Haven Line.
This is bad practice. On a two-track line, there’s no real reason to skip a handful of inner stations just to guarantee the outer ones express service. If anything, the need to schedule trains on the same tracks would lead to more fragile timetables, requiring more schedule padding. My analysis from 2.5 years ago found that the LIRR Main Line is padded 32% and the Babylon Branch is padded 19%: that is, the scheduled travel time on the Main Line (up to Ronkonkoma) is 32% more than the travel time imputed from line speed limits and current fleet acceleration performance. Patrick O’Hara, who the RPA study even quotes as a source elsewhere, investigated this issue separately, looking at best-case timetables, and found that some runs are padded 40-50%.
In Switzerland, trains are padded 7%, and I’m told that in Japan, after the Amagasaki accident showcased the safety problems of overly precise schedules, pads are about 5%. Express trains and locals mixed on the same line make it harder to maintain tight enough reliability for low schedule padding; this way, on an all-local line, trip times may match those of express trains on mixed lines, as they do in my analysis above. The best analogy is the RER B going to the north: the express trains are 4 minutes faster than the local trains, skipping 9 stops. The stop penalty on the RER B is higher, closer to 7 minutes over 9 stops, but the shared tracks with local trains (and with the RER D between Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles) means that there’s a fudge factor in the schedule, so it’s not possible to reliably do better than 4 minutes, and the trains end up visibly crawling on the mainline.
The reader familiar with technical transit advocacy in the Bay Area may interject, what about Caltrain? Clem Tillier has no trouble proposing timetables mixing local trains, express trains, and high-speed rail on the same track pair with timed overtakes, and a 7% pad. So why am I down on this concept in New York? The answer is line complexity. Caltrain is a simple two-track back-and-forth, and HSR is generally more punctual than legacy trains because it runs for long stretches on high-quality dedicated tracks, so it’s unlikely to introduce new variability to the line. In contrast, the RPA plan for regional rail in New York involves extensive branching, so that train schedules depend on trains elsewhere on the line. In this case, introducing more complexity through local/express sharing is likely to require more schedule padding, erasing the speed advantage.
In general, my questions to establish guidelines for where express trains are warranted are,
- How long is the line, measured in the number of stations? More stations encourage more express trains, because more stations can be skipped. In higher speed zones, stop penalties are higher, but at equal line length measured in km, higher speeds and fewer local stations reduce the benefit of express trains.
- How frequent are trains? At low frequency, local stations need more frequency, so express runs are less useful. At very high frequency, there may not be capacity for different stopping patterns unless the line has four tracks. On a two-track line, the optimum frequency for a local/express alternation is about 6-12 trains per hour, 3-6 local and 3-6 express, with a single mid-line overtake. Multiple overtakes on a single line are possible, but more fragile, so they are a bad idea except in special circumstances.
- What is the demand for travel? Express trains work best if there are a few distinguished stations at regular intervals, or else if the line is long and there is strong demand at the far end; if the inner stations are very strong then it’s more important to give them higher local frequency. When performing this analysis, it’s important to make sure station ridership levels reflect genuine demand rather than service. For example, Caltrain express stops have high ridership in large part because of their better service, not nearby density, as shown in Clem Tillier’s analysis. The LIRR Main Line has far more ridership at Mineola and Hicksville than the other stations on the trunk and also far more service, but Patrick explains that this is due to better highway access, so it’s genuine demand and not just a reflection of better service.
Caltrain needs express service because it has about 20 stations between San Francisco and San Jose, depending on the amount of infill and anti-infill desired; a target frequency of 8-10 peak trains per hour; and strong demand on the outer stations, especially for reverse-peak trips. In New York, none of the two-track lines meets the same standard. Some are too short, such as the Port Washington Branch. Others are too busy, such as the Harlem Line, Babylon Branch, and LIRR Main Line. Yet others have too much demand clustering in the inner stations, such as the Erie lines and the North Jersey Coast Line.
On four-track lines, it’s always easier to run express service. This doesn’t mean it should always be run: the upper New Haven Line is a strong candidate for relegating all commuter trains to the local tracks, making all stops, giving the express tracks to intercity trains. The Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey is a dicey example: past Rahway there are four tracks, but intercity trains could run at very high speeds, making track sharing on the express tracks difficult. My service pattern map has express trains skipping Edison and Metuchen, but it’s just two stations, making it better to just run local beyond Rahway to clear the express tracks for high-speed rail.
It’s tempting to draw proposals involving intense metro-style regional rail service only serving the urban and inner-suburban stations; I’ve had to argue against such plans on some MBTA lines. The problem is that trains from the outer suburbs are still necessary and still going to pass through the inner suburbs, and in most cases they might as well stop at those stations, which need the frequency more than the outer suburbs need the few minutes of speedup.