There’s a moralistic discourse in the United States about fare evasion on public transport that makes it about every issue other than public transport or fares. It’s a proxy for lawlessness, for police racism, for public safety, for poverty. In lieu of treating it as a big intra-urban culture war, I am going to talk about best practices from the perspective of limiting revenue loss to a minimum.
This is an issue where my main methodology for making recommendations for Americans – looking at peer developed countries – is especially useful. The reason is that Americans practically never look at other countries on hot-button culture war issues, even less than (say) the lip service the center-left pays to foreign universal health care systems. Americans who support immigration liberalization practically never listen when I try bringing up the liberal work visa, asylum, and naturalization policies of Germany or Sweden. Knowing stuff about the rest of the world is a type of competence, and competence is not a factor in a culture war. The upshot is that successful policies regarding fare collection in (for example) Germany are obscure in the United States even more than policies regarding wonkier transportation issues like train frequency.
The current situation in New York
In the summer, Governor Cuomo announced a new initiative to hire 500 cops to patrol the subway. The justification for this scheme has varied depending on who was asking, but the primary goal appears to be to defeat fare evasion. Per Cuomo’s office, fare evasion costs $240 million a year on the subway and buses, about 5% of total revenue. The MTA has also mentioned a higher figure, $300 million; I do not know if the higher figure includes just urban transit or also commuter rail, where conductors routinely miss inspections, giving people free rides.
But New York fare evasion is mostly a bus problem: the rate on buses is 22%. On the subway the rate is only 4%, and there is somewhat more revenue loss on buses than on subways. This, in turn, is because bus fares are enforced by drivers, who for years have complained that fare disputes lead to assaults on them and proposed off-board fare collection as an alternative. On many buses, drivers just let it go and let passengers board without paying, especially if nearly all passengers are connecting from the subway and therefore have already paid, as on the B1 between the Brighton Beach subway station and Kingsborough Community College or on the buses to LaGuardia.
So realistically the subway fare evasion level is closer to $110 million a year. The total cost of the new patrol program is $56 million in the first year, escalating by 8% annually thanks to a pre-agreed pay hike scale. Whereas today the program is a net revenue generator if it halves subway fare evasion, a level that already seems strained, within ten years, assuming normal fare escalation, it will need to cut fare evasion by about 90%, which is a complete fantasy. A sizable proportion of riders who do not pay would just stop riding altogether, for one. The governor is proposing to spend more on fare enforcement than the MTA can ever hope to extract.
The American moral panic about fare evasion regrettably goes far beyond New York. Two years ago, BART announced that it would supplement its fare barriers with proof-of-payment inspections, done by armed cops, and lied to the public about the prevalence of such a belts-and-suspenders system. More recently, it trialed a new turnstile design that would hit passengers in the face, but thankfully scrapped it after public outcry. Boston, too, has its moral panic about fare evasion, in the form of campaigns like the Keolis Ring of Steel on commuter rail or Fare is Fair.
There is another way
In talking to Americans about fare evasion, I have found that they are generally receptive to the idea of minimizing revenue loss net of collection costs. However, what I’ve encountered more resistance about is the idea that people should just be able to walk onto a bus or train.
In the urban German-speaking world, everyone with a valid fare can walk onto a bus, tram, or train without crossing fare barriers or having to pay a driver. This system has been copied to American light rail networks, but implementation on buses and subways lags (except on San Francisco buses). In New York, the SBS system uses proof of payment (POP), but passengers still have to validate fares at bus stops, even if they already have paid, for example if they have a valid monthly pass.
In the vast majority of cities, no excuse exists to have any kind of overt fare control. Tear down these faregates. They are hostile to passengers with disabilities, they cost money to maintain, they constrain passenger flow at busy times, and they don’t really save money – evidently, New York’s subway fare evasion rate is within the range of Berlin, Munich, and Zurich. Fare enforcement should be done with POP alone, by unarmed civilian inspectors, as in Berlin. Some people will learn to dodge the inspectors, as is the case in Berlin, and that’s fine; the point is not to get fare evasion to 0%, but to the minimum level net of enforcement costs.
New York itself may have an excuse to keep the faregates: its trains are very crowded, so peak-hour inspections may not be feasible. The question boils down to how New York crowding levels compare with those on the busiest urban POP line, the Munich S-Bahn trunk. But no other American city has that excuse. Tear down these faregates.
What’s more, the fare inspection should be a low-key affair. The fine in Berlin is €60. In Paris on the RER I can’t tell – I believe it’s three figures of which the first is a 1. Inspectors who can’t make a citation without using physical violence should not work as inspectors.
Make it easy to follow the law
The most important maxim when addressing a low-level crime is to make it easy to follow the law. Mistakes happen; I’ve accidentally fare-dodged in Berlin twice, only realizing the error at the end of the trip. This is much more like parking violations or routine mistakes in tax filing.
The turnstile acts as a reminder to everyone to pay their fare, since it’s not possible to fare-dodge without actively jumping it. (I did turnstile-jump in Paris once, with a valid transfer ticket that the turnstile rejected, I think because Paris’s turnstile and magnetic ticket technology is antediluvian.) However, turnstiles are not necessary for this. A better method is to ensure most passengers have prepaid already, by offering generous monthly discounts. My fare dodges in Berlin happened once before I got monthlies and once on my way to the airport on my current trip, in a month when I didn’t get a monthly since I was only in Berlin 6 days.
New York does poorly on the metric of encouraging monthlies. Passengers need to swipe 46 times in a 30-day period to justify getting a monthly pass rather than a pay-per-ride. This is bad practice, especially for passengers who prefer to refill at a ticketing machine rather than at home or on their phone with an app, since it means passengers visit the ticketing machines more often, requiring the agency to buy more to avoid long lines. In Berlin, the breakeven point is 36 trips. In Zurich, it’s 20 trips; ZVV does whatever it can to discourage people from buying single tickets. In both cities, there are further discounts for annual tickets.
Unfortunately, the problem of indifference to monthlies on urban rail is common around the Anglosphere. Singapore has no season passes at all. In Vancouver, Cubic lobbying and a New Right campaign about fare evasion forced TransLink to install faregates on SkyTrain, and when the faregate project had predictable cost overruns, the campaigners took that as evidence the agency shouldn’t get further funding. London’s fare capping system is weekly rather than monthly – there are no monthly passes, and all fares are set at very high levels. Britain generally overuses faregates, for example on the commuter trains in London. London generally gives off an impression of treating everyone who is not a Daily Mail manager as a criminal. Paris is better, but not by much. The German-speaking world, as irrational as Britain and France about urban crime rates that are far lower than they were a generation ago, still treats the train and bus rider as a law-abiding customer unless proven otherwise.
American transit agencies and activists resist calls for large monthly discounts, on a variety of excuses. The most common excuse is revenue loss, which is weird since realistically New York would transition to a large discount through holding the monthly fare constant and hiking the single-ride fare. It’s the second most common excuse that I wish to deal with here: social fares, namely the fact that many low-income riders don’t have the savings to prepay for an entire month.
On social fares, as on many other socioeconomic issues, it is useful for Americans to see how things work in countries with high income compression and low inequality under the aegis of center-left governments. In Paris, various classes of low-income riders, such as the unemployed, benefit from a solidarity fare discount of 50-75%. In both Paris and Stockholm, the monthly pass is flat regionwide, an intentional program of subsidizing regular riders in the suburbs, which are on average poorer than the city.
The flat fare is not really applicable to American cities, except possibly the Bay Area on BART. However, the large fare reductions to qualifying low-income riders are: a number of cities have used the same definition, namely Medicaid eligibility, and give steep discounts for bikeshare systems. On the same principle, cities and states can discount fares on buses and trains.
The right way to view fares
Fares are an important component of public transport revenue; the taxes required to eliminate fares are significant enough that there are probably better uses for the money. By the same token, the issue of fare evasion should be viewed from the lens of revenue loss, rather than that of crime and disorder. The transit agency is not an individual who is broken by being mugged of $100; it should think in terms of its own finances, not in terms of deterrence.
Nor is making it easier to follow the law going to encourage more crime – to the contrary. Transit agencies should aim at a fare system, including enforcement, that allows passengers to get on and off trains quickly, with minimum friction. Turnstiles do not belong in any city smaller than about 10 million people. The fare structure should then encourage long-term season passes, including annual passes, so that nearly all residents who take public transport have already paid. Random inspections with moderate fines are the layer of enforcement, but the point is to make enforcement largely unneeded.
And tear down the faregates.
As I’m putting more and more urban rail lines and their construction costs into one table, I have to notice trends. One that I’ve talked about for many years is that construction costs in the Anglosphere are higher than in the rest of the developed world, not just in world leader New York but also in other American cities as well as in Britain, Canada, Singapore, and so on. For years I identified this with common law, which I no longer do. Instead, I want to expand on this by asking what exactly the Anglosphere even means.
The features of the Anglosphere
Within the developed world, a subset of countries consists of the Anglosphere. The core is Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but Ireland has to be on the list too, as should Singapore and to varying extents Israel and Hong Kong. Which features separate them from the remainder of the first world:
- For the most part, they use English as their usual language – but Israel, Hong Kong, and Quebec do not, and Singapore only does as a public language while maintaining Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as home languages.
- They use English common law – but Quebec uses a French-derived code for civil law.
- They have extensive right to trial by jury – but Israel and Singapore have no juries.
- They use single-member districts in elections – but Singapore and Hong Kong are undemocratic, Israel and New Zealand use proportional representation, Ireland uses single transferable vote, and Australia’s single-member districts use instant runoff (cf. France’s single-member districts with runoffs).
- They have higher economic inequality than other developed countries, lower taxes and government spending, and weaker unions – but there are some exceptions (e.g. Canada and Australia are less unequal than Italy, and South Korea and Japan have lower taxes than most of the Anglosphere), and moreover the ranges within both the Anglosphere and the rest of the developed world are quite wide.
- They make extensive use of privatization and public-private partnerships for infrastructure and services – but Stockholm contracts out its urban rail whereas no major American city does, and France built one of its recent high-speed lines, the one to Bordeaux, as a PPP.
- The smaller countries see the US, the UK, or both as inspirations for what modern prosperity looks like – but Israel compares itself with both the US and Western Europe (especially Germany), Singapore’s cultural cringe extends toward both the US/UK and bigger East Asian countries, and Hong Kong is torn between Western and Chinese models.
Every distinguishing feature of the Anglosphere can be made to correlate with high construction costs, but that tells us little, because it could be that this is just a spurious relationship, the real cause being something else about the Anglosphere. When making a claim about what makes the US, UK, and Canada so expensive to build in, it’s useful to test it against special cases – that is, countries that are part of the Anglosphere in general but fail that specific criterion.
The legal system
With respect to common law, Quebec is the ideal testing ground. Montreal and Toronto share more social and economic features than do other pairs of major cities with their respective languages. A large Toronto premium over Montreal would suggest that remaining differences, such as the legal code or maybe the peculiarities of Quebec politics, matter to construction costs.
But what we see is the opposite. In the 2000s, Toronto and Montreal both built subway extensions at pretty reasonable costs. Since then, costs have risen in both cities in tandem, placing the planned Blue Line extension in Montreal and the planned Ontario Line and Scarborough replacement in Toronto among the most expensive non-New York subways. So it’s likely that common vs. civil law makes no great difference to costs.
By the same token as with the use of common versus civil law, we can look at the electoral system. Israel and New Zealand use fully proportional elections, and Israel has national lists, without any local empowerment. Both countries have cheap recent electrification projects, but when it comes to tunneling, both Tel Aviv and Auckland are on the expensive side.
Conversely, France has single-member districts with runoffs; the lack of a spoiler effect weakens political parties, but they’re still stronger than in the US, and in practice independent candidates mostly run explicitly as left or right. Any reasonable mechanism for why single-member districts should raise construction costs should apply regardless of whether these districts are elected by plurality or with runoffs (and besides which, Melbourne has extreme costs and Sydney fairly high ones). And yet, French costs are decidedly average: Grand Paris Express is the median world subway by construction costs, and other Metro extensions in Paris and other French cities are somewhat cheaper.
Unions and inequality
The political factor – the Anglosphere’s socioeconomic policy is generally to the right of that of Continental European countries – has its own special cases too. The American left and center-left has in particular seized upon the importance of health care to construction costs, since the US has high health care costs and employers, especially in the public sector, are expected to pay most of the costs of workers’ health insurance. But the UK and Canada both have largely public systems that the American left uses as inspiration for its single-payer health care plans, and the UK also has very good cost control; and yet both countries have very high infrastructure construction costs. Singapore, whose health care system is private and unequal but also low-cost, has very expensive subway construction as well.
We can similarly look at inequality in general, or at union power. The correlation between inequality and national construction costs should be fairly high, if only because the Anglosphere has high inequality as well as high construction costs. However, per Branko Milanovic’s data for after-tax-and-transfers inequality, Canada, Britain, and Australia all have slightly lower inequality than Spain, and are comparable to Greece and Italy.
Unions can affect construction costs in either direction. The American center-right and right complain that the power of public-sector unions warps public incentives and forces high construction and operating costs, citing union hostility to productivity improvements that include layoffs, or such regulations as prevailing wage laws. However, the most unionized countries in the developed world are in Scandinavia, where costs are low. The OECD has union density figures by country, and the big cleave is Scandinavia versus the rest. The Anglosphere is on the weaker side.
Perhaps the correlation must then go the other way? That is, weak unions increase costs, for example by creating a siege mentality among those workers who do have stable union jobs (including rail workers, as the industry’s economic and political situation is friendly to unionization)? But the data does not support that, either. Spain’s union density is barely higher than the US’s and much lower than Britain’s, and Greece’s is comparable to Britain’s. The available data strongly suggests that union power has no effect on construction costs, positive or negative.
Could it be privatization?
Privatization and the reliance on PPPs is the least clean of the Anglosphere’s special features – that is, it is not always used throughout the countries I identify with the Anglosphere, and conversely it may be used elsewhere, even in countries with generally left-wing economic policy like Sweden. Nonetheless, among the political, legal, social, and economic factors, it is the only one I cannot rule out.
The issue is not precisely contracting out something, as Stockholm is doing with urban rail. Rather, it is more specifically privatizing the planning aspects of the state, such as engineering. Spain relies heavily on in-house engineering and design, while the US and UK, and by imitation the rest of the Anglosphere, prefer private consultants. To the extent I have cost comparisons within the same city or country with different levels of privatization, they’re suggestive that it matters: the publicly-funded LGV Est Phase 2 cost €19 million per kilometer (with a tunnel covering 4% of the route), the PPP LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique cost €23 million per kilometer (with no tunnels), the two lines opening within a year of each other. This is not an enormous cost difference, but accounting for the tunnel makes the cost noticeable, perhaps a factor of 1.5.
Overrelying on a single case is not particularly robust. In light of the similarities between costs of different lines in the same city, and even those of different cities in the same country, the N for a quantitative comparison is not large – my data table currently has 38 unique countries, and even accounting for a few misses for which I haven’t included data yet, like Israel, the number is not much larger than 40. It is not responsible to use multivariable regressions or other advanced statistical techniques in such a situation.
In that case, looking at one or two cases provides a powerful sanity check. As far as I can tell, the Anglosphere’s tendency toward privatization and using consultants, often reinforced by different English-speaking countries learning one another’s practices, could be a serious cost raiser. However, the other special features of the Anglosphere – common law, winner-take-all elections leading to two-party systems, and weak unions and welfare states – are unlikely to have a significant effect.
I’m about to send a thinktank a draft of a table of subway construction costs, and I’d like to preview one of the most important findings from the data. This is based on 125 distinct items, totaling 2,297 kilometers – some complete, some under construction, a handful proposed. I’ve alluded to this here before, for example when writing about national traditions (US, Soviet, UK) or about Russian and Nordic costs. But the basic observation is that construction costs are not really a feature of an individual metro line, but of a city, and usually an entire country.
What this means is that if one line in Madrid is cheap, then we can expect other lines in Madrid to be cheap, as well as in the rest of Spain; if one line in London is expensive, then we can expect other lines in London to be expensive, as well as in the rest of the UK. In fact, in both countries the construction costs of metro systems in the capitals also accord with the construction costs of intercity high-speed rail: cheap in Spain, expensive in Britain, with Germany somewhere between Spain and Britain and France somewhere between Spain and Germany.
The examples in this section are somewhat cherrypicked to be the ones with narrower ranges, but there are very few examples with truly large ranges over a similar period of time (i.e. not secular increases as in Canada). I am specifically excluding regional rail, as it tends to be more expensive per kilometer than subways.
Panama: Line 1 cost around PPP$260 million per kilometer for 53% underground construction, and Line 2 is cheaper, around $150 million, but is entirely above-ground. This is consistent with a factor-of-2.5 underground premium over elevated lines, well in line with the literature.
Greece: Athens Line 4 is €104 million per km, with construction having started recently. Thessaloniki has two lines in the database, the main line due to open next year and an extension to Kalamata due to open in 2021, and Athens is also about to wrap up an extension of Line 3 to Piraeus. All cost figures may be found here on PDF-p. 9. The two Thessaloniki projects are respectively €135 million/km and €118 million/km, the former at least including rolling stock and I believe the latter too; the Athens Line 3 extension, without rolling stock and with somewhat wider stop spacing, is much cheaper, €61 million/km, but this rises to €82 million/km with rolling stock.
Sweden: the Stockholm Metro extensions under construction all cost pretty much the same per kilometer. Three extensions are under construction at once, in three different directions; per this source, the costs per kilometer (in kronor) are 1 billion, 1.25 billion, and 1.15 billion, with the most expensive of the three involving brief underwater tunneling.
Russia: I asserted in an old post that Russian construction is expensive, with only a handful of projects. Since then I’ve found a source asserting that the entire 2011-20 program is 1.3 trillion rubles, for what appears to be 150 km, 57% underground. This is in PPP terms $364 million per km. Other costs are vaguely in that range – Railway Gazette claims the cost of boring in Moscow is (again in PPP terms) $400-600 million/km, Line 11 is around $310 million/km for underground suburban construction, one line mentioned on Railway Gazette in St. Petersburg is $310 million/km underground, another St. Petersburg line is maybe $360 million/km.
What does this mean?
That there’s correlation between different cities’ construction costs within the same country suggests the differences in costs are predominantly institutional or socio-political, rather than geological. This is further reinforced by looking at countries with very similar socio-political regimes, namely the Nordic countries: all of them are cheap, and even though Stockholm and Helsinki both have similar gneiss geology, the Oslo line I use for comparison does not (and neither does somewhat more expensive Copenhagen).
To further reinforce the institutional point, the costs of high-speed rail in different countries seem to follow the same order as the costs of metros. Spain is cheap: Ferropedia quotes construction costs below €20 million per kilometer. The UK, in contrast, just announced a cost overrun on HS2, a 540 kilometer network, to £88 billion, and even allowing for future inflation, this is maybe 7 or 8 times as expensive as in Spain. France and Germany are in between, in the same order as their metro costs. China, as far as I can tell comparable to France in its metro construction costs, has a high-speed rail construction cost range somewhat higher than France’s, mostly explainable by using more (generally avoidable) viaducts.
This post is about situations in which the most important thing for transportation is reliability, more so than average speed or convenience. It’s inspired by two observations, separated by a number of years: one is my own about flying into or out of Boston, the other is from a New York Times article from yesterday describing a working-class subway rider’s experience.
My observation is that over the years, I’ve used Logan Airport a number of times, sometimes choosing to connect via public transportation, which always involves a bus as the airport is not on the rail network, and other times via taxi or pickup. My choice was always influenced by idiosyncratic factors – for example, which Boston subway line my destination is on, or whether I was visiting someone with a car and free time. However, over the last eight years, a consistent trend is that I am much more likely to use the bus arriving at the airport to the city than departing. I know my own reasoning for this: the bus between South Station and the airport is less reliable than a cab, so when in a crunch, I would take a train to South Station (often from Providence) and then hail a taxi to the airport.
The New York Times article is about a work commute, leading with the following story:
Maribel Burgos barely has time to change into her uniform before she has to clock in at the McDonald’s in Lower Manhattan where she works, even though she gives herself 90 minutes to commute from her home in East Harlem.
It does not take 90 minutes to get between East Harlem and Lower Manhattan on the subway. The subway takes around half an hour between 125th Street and Bowling Green, and passengers getting on at one of the local stations farther south can expect only a few minutes longer to commute with a cross-platform change at Grand Central. Taking walking and waiting time into account, the worst case is around an hour – on average. But the subway is not particularly reliable, and people who work somewhere where being five minutes late is a firing offense have to take generous margins of error.
When is reliability the most important?
What examples can we think of in which being late even by a little bit is unacceptable? Let us list some, starting with the two motivating examples above:
- Trips to the airport
- Work trips for highly regimented shift work
- Trips to school or to an external exam
- Work trips for safety-critical work such as surgery
- Trips to an intercity train station
In some of these cases, typically when the riders are of presumed higher social class, the system itself encourages flexibility by arranging matters so that a short delay is not catastrophic. At the airport, this involves recommendations for very early arrival, which seasoned travelers know how to ignore. At external exams, there are prior instructions of how to fill in test forms, de facto creating a margin of tolerance; schools generally do not do this and do mark down students who show up late. Doctors as far as I understand have shifts that do not begin immediately with a life-critical surgery.
But with that aside, we can come up with the following commonalities to these kinds of trips:
- They are trips to a destination, not back home from it
- They are trips to a fairly centralized and often relatively transit-oriented destination, such as a big workplace, with the exception of regimented shift work for retail (the original NY Times example), which pays so little nobody can afford to drive
- They are disproportionately not peak trips, either because they are not work trips at all, or because they are work trips for work that is explicitly not 9-to-5 office work
- They are disproportionately not CBD-bound trips
The first point means that it’s easy to miss this effect in mode choice, because people can definitely split choice between taxis and transit or between different transit modes, but usually not between cars and transit. The second means that driving is itself often unreliable, except for people who cannot afford to drive. The third means that these trips occur at a point in time in which frequency may not be very high, and the fourth means that these trips usually require transfers.
What does reliability mean?
Reliability overall means having low variance in door-to-door trip time. But for the purposes of this discussion, I want to stress again that trips to destinations that require unusual punctuality are likely to occur outside rush hour. Alas, “outside rush hour” does not mean low traffic, because midday and evening traffic in big cities is still quite bad – to take one New York example with shared lanes, the B35 steadily slows down in the first half of the day even after the morning peak is over and only speeds up to the 6 am timetable past 7 pm. Thus, there are twin problems: frequency, and traffic.
Traffic means the vagaries of surface traffic. Buses are generally inappropriate for travel that requires any measure of reliability, or else passengers have to use a large cushion. Everything about the mixed traffic bus is unreliable, from surface traffic to wait times, and bunching is endemic. Dedicated lanes improve things, but not by enough, and unreliable frequency remains a problem even on mostly segregated buses like the Silver Line to the airport in Boston.
Frequency is the harsher problem. The worker commuting from Harlem to Lower Manhattan is if anything lucky to have a straight-short one-seat ride on the 4 and 5 trains; most people who need to be on time or else are not traveling to city center and thus have to transfer. The value of an untimed transfer increases with frequency, and if every leg of the trip has routine 10-minute waits due to bunching or just low off-peak frequency guidelines, the trip gets intolerable, fast.
What’s the solution?
Bus redesigns are a big topic in the US right now, often pushed by Jarrett Walker; the latest news from Indianapolis is a resounding success, boasting 30% increase in ridership as a result of a redesign as well as other changes, including a rapid bus line. However, they only affect the issue of reliability on the margins, because they are not about reliability, but about making base frequency slightly better. New York is replete with buses and trains that run every 10-15 minutes all day, but with transfers, this is not enough. Remember that people who absolutely cannot be late need to assume they will just miss every vehicle on the trip, and maybe even wait a few minutes longer than the maximum advertised headway because of bunching.
Thus, improving reliability means a wider toolkit, including all of the following features:
- No shared lanes in busy areas, ever – keep the mixed traffic to low-traffic extremities of the city, like Manhattan Beach.
- Traffic signals should be designed to minimize bus travel time variance through conditional signal priority, focusing on speeding up buses that are running slow; in combination with the above point, the idea of giving a late bus with 40 passengers the same priority at an intersection as a single-occupant car should go the way of the dodo and divine rights of kings.
- Off-peak frequency on buses and trains needs to be in the 5-8 minute range at worst.
- Cross-platform transfers on the subway need to be timed at key transfer points, as Berlin manages routinely at Mehringdamm when it’s late and trains run every 10 minutes (not so much when they run every 5); in New York it should be a priority to deinterline and schedule a 4-way timed pulse at 53rd/7th.
- Branch scheduling should be designed around regular gaps, rather than crowding guidelines – variation between 100% and 130% of seats occupied is less important to the worker who will be fired if late than variation between waiting 4 and waiting 8 minutes for a train.
- Suburban transit should run on regular clockface schedules every 30, 20, or 15 minutes, with all transfers timed, including with fare-integrated commuter trains.
I got a bunch of accolades and a bunch of flaming replies over a tweetstorm imagining a bigger, better New York. Some people complained about my claim that subway trains in Brooklyn are underfull; I urge everyone to read my analysis of data from 2016 – it’s still relevant today, as the only big change is that Second Avenue Subway has reduced Upper East Side crowding. The point of this post is to demonstrate where zoning should definitely focus on adding more apartments, to fill trains that are not yet full.
Instead of using the current subway map, let us start with a deinterlined map:
The reason for using this map is that it’s cleaner than the real map, since there is no track-sharing between routes of different colors, and not much route-sharing (one color local, one express). Getting from here to this map is cheap but not free, as it requires certain junction rebuilds, especially on the 2/3. I ask that my commenters resist the temptation to argue over the details of this map, since the point about zoned capacity does not really depend on questions like whether the E runs local in Queens and the F runs express or the reverse.
Where there is capacity
In 2016, three directions on the subway were truly at capacity, surpassing 4 standees per square meter: the 2/3 and 4/5 coming into Midtown from Uptown, and the L. The analysis looks at crowding on trains entering the Manhattan core, so it lumps lines from Queens based on which tunnel they enter from, which underestimates crowding on the E, since it shares tracks with the under-capacity M. Counted properly, the express Queens Boulevard trains should be viewed as near or at capacity as well, the F having 3.33 standees per square meter and the E having somewhat more.
Additional lines with capacity crunches, with about 3 standees per square meter or more, include the A/D coming in from Uptown, the 6, and the Astoria Line (then the N/Q, now the N/W). The 1 and 7 trains have capacity crunches as well in outlying areas: the 7 is overcrowded until it hits the transfer points to the E/F and N/W but has plenty of space in Long Island City, and the 1 is fairly crowded north of the junction with the express trains and then unloads passengers onto the overcrowded 2/3. These areas should not be deemed to have much spare capacity until such time as operations on the subway improve, permitting higher frequency and eventually more lines.
In contrast, the remaining lines have space, often plenty of space. Everything in Brooklyn except the L and to some extent the J/M/Z is underfull: these trains have high frequency as determined by crowding guidelines at the Uptown or Queens end, but in Brooklyn there are fewer people today so the ridership is weaker. The local lines on the Upper West Side both have plenty of space on the trains as well as space on the tracks for more trains if need be. The 7 downstream of Queensboro Plaza has plenty of space, and the local Queens Boulevard trains downstream of Jackson Heights have nowhere for passengers to transfer to an overcrowded express service.
Since I’m relying on data from 2016, there’s no accounting for Second Avenue Subway. Even then, the 4/5 was only the third most overcrowded trunk line entering the Manhattan core, and it’s likely that there’s additional capacity coming from the new line. There’s certainly space on the tracks for more trains on Second Avenue, and one of the goals of deinterlining specifically is to make it feasible to run more service on this line, which currently only runs a train every 6-8 minutes at rush hour.
The map of where New York could add housing
The map excludes parts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan where the highest and best use is commercial rather than residential. But the boundaries there are deliberately crude: Downtown Brooklyn, NYU, and the Meatpacking District are drawn, to avoid excessive fragmentation of the drawn area, while Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen are excluded as too close to Midtown.
The map also does not look at considerations other than capacity. Some of the highlit areas on the Upper East and West Sides and Lower East Side are already built to very high density, at least on the avenues and major streets; these areas should be the template of how the rest of the city should look. At the other end, East New York has too weak demand for massive construction, especially if everything to its west is upzoned.
However, large swaths of desirable, close-in areas with relatively short buildings are highlit. Rich inner Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope and South Brooklyn are currently built to missing middle density, with a floor area ratio of about 1.5 away from corner lots. A more appropriate floor area ratio in these neighborhoods is 12, corresponding to tapering buildings in the 20-30 story range, as on the avenues on the Upper East and West Sides. Park Slope is half an hour from Midtown by subway, and less than that from Lower Manhattan. The population of these neighborhoods is perhaps 150,000, and should be more than a million given their proximity to job centers.
Subway deserts and future additions
The map is designed to work with more or less the same service as today, maybe with slightly more frequency on lines that could handle it easily (that is, Second Avenue Subway). But what about future service? The L train is overcrowded, but only runs 19 trains per hour at the peak due to electrical limitations, and could go up to 26 with better electrical capacity, or for that matter lighter trains drawing less power during acceleration. Further extensions of Second Avenue Subway could more effectively relieve pressure off the 4/5, to the point of creating more capacity in the Bronx, which remains well below peak population. Commuter rail modernization opens up large swaths of Queens. Decades in the making extensions on Nostrand and Utica fill in the transit desert in southeast Brooklyn, currently served by buses that nominally come every 2 minutes and in practice comes in platoons of 4 every 8 minutes.
As with the map above, a hypothetical map of development sites assuming reasonable subway expansion includes areas that would be unlikely to actually see new development. Williamsburg and Greenpoint may turn into forests of towers given the opportunity, but in neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay and East Flatbush developers might well stick to the occasional 6-to-10-story mid-rise building that would not look out of place in Paris. In Eastern Queens, the desired density is probably spiky, with clusters of tall buildings around LIRR stations surrounded by single-family houses and missing middle, much like the structure of density in Toronto and Vancouver.
This post is a cautionary note for everyone who proposes, advocates for, or plans public transportation: please avoid numerology. What I mean by numerology is, it’s easy to target round numbers for trip time, ridership, capacity, or cost, but this may not be based on good design principles. Round numbers are memorable, which makes them attractive for marketing, but quite often the roundness percolates from public communications to system design, and then it tends to lead to bad results: excessive amounts of money spent on meeting a particular trip time, useful scope cut from a project to stay under a too tight budget, and general overpromising.
I’m tagging this incompetence because it is always bad, but even people who are generally good may unwittingly engage in numerology. I’m pretty confident I’ve done this in previous posts by accident. So I’m exhorting myself and good transit advocates and not just the usual politicians and power brokers.
10x and tech
The worst numerology that I’ve seen in technology is not specifically in transportation, but in the software industry of the American West Coast, which is obsessed with the concept of 10x, that is 10 times as good as normal. The most common variation of this is the 10x engineer, that is the programmer who gets 10 times the productivity of the average programmer, but (by implication) does not demand 10 times the average salary, or even 1.5 times the average salary.
Thanks to Elon Musk, the same concept of 10x has jumped into the transportation discourse – Musk promises a 10x reduction in construction costs for tunneling. It goes without saying he cannot deliver, but the telling thing here is the origin of the number. It does not come from some deep analysis finding that California’s tunneling costs are about 10 times as high as those of some target best practice, or even as high as those of a new method. (In fact, California is around 7 times as expensive to build in as Madrid or Seoul, the world’s cheapest cities to build in, so 10 is at the limit of plausibility.) Rather, the number came first: innovation in American tech is supposed to come in orders of magnitude, not continuous improvements, so the target was 10x, just as SpaceX’s target for space launch cost reduction is 10x even though so far the reality is maybe 1.5x or 2x.
The primary problem here is overpromising. Factor-of-10 improvements are almost nonexistent. The one example I am comfortable with in transportation is the tunneling costs in New York specifically, and even that is a problem that only emerged with the latest project, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2; Phase 1 and the 7 extension are off by a factor of 6 or 7 off the rest-of-world average (and about 15-20 off the very cheapest in the world), and East Side Access is a problem of overbuilding more than anything so I can’t even give it a specific factor. Many other things in New York are too expensive, but generally by a factor ranging from 1.5 to 3. Cutting operating costs in half, cutting rolling stock procurement costs by a third, and so on are both laudable goals, but 10x rhetoric skips them entirely. Thus comes the secondary problem with 10x-oriented numerology: just as it rounds up factor-of-7 improvements and overpromises a factor of 10, it completely ignores factor-of-2 improvements as they simply cannot plausibly be stretched to an order of magnitude.
It is common in marketing to promise round numbers for schedules: 2-hour trip times, 3-hour trip times, etc. This sometimes percolates into the planning world behind the scenes, leading to planning around discrete trip times in integer numbers of hours.
In France it’s a commonplace that high-speed rail is only competitive with air travel if the trains take 3 hours or less. The reality is very different on two levels: first, mode share is a continuous function of trip time, so the difference between (say) 2:55 and 3:05 cannot be very big. And second, in 2009, rail had a 54% mode share of all Paris-Toulon trips, on which the TGV takes 4:08-4:20, compared with 12% for air; the TGV held its own as far east as Cannes (34%), 5:26 away, and Nice (30%), 5:57 away. The 3-hour rule is alluring and may be true in one specific social class, namely airline and railway managers, but the numerology here makes it easy to stick to it even if the breakeven point keeps creeping up to 3:30, 4:00, 4:30, 5:00.
A more benign example of numerology is the 30-30-30 plan in Connecticut. Governor Lamont has proposed far-reaching investments to speed up trains to take half an hour on each of three segments: New York-Stamford, Stamford-New Haven, New Haven-Hartford. This is more or less feasible: a reasonable level of investment would reduce New York-New Haven to about 1:03 on express trains, with Stamford near the exact midpoint. However, the target trip times remain numerological: there is no obvious reason why 1:00 is so much better than 1:10. So far 30-30-30 has run into resistance from incompetent traditional railroaders, but it’s easy to imagine a future in which the governor approves the plan over their objections, and then has to decide how much money to spend on the final few minutes’ worth of speedup to meet the stated goals.
In contrast with numerology based on round numbers, there is a much more solid planning paradigm based on trip times a few minutes short of a round number. In that case, the trip time is a round number including turnaround time, which makes it easy to run trains on a clockface schedule. Differences like 1:05 vs. 0:55 are not important enough to bother passengers about, but differences in frequency between hourly and every 1:10 are critical – passengers can remember 9:05, 10:05, 11:05, 12:05 much better than they can 9:05, 10:15, 11:25, 12:35. Therefore, the integrated timed transfer plan of Switzerland and the Netherlands aims at trip times that are not very memorable, but that together with connection or turnaround time enable memorable schedules.
In addition to the tech industry’s 10x concept, more traditional cost estimations can suffer from numerology as well. Here it is important to distinguish relative from absolute costs. Relative costs are relative to an already-decided budget; in that case, it is useful to force agencies to stay within their promised costs, to discourage lowballing costs in the future (“strategic misrepresentation” in Bent Flyvbjerg’s language). Absolute costs are about numbers that sound big or small, and in that case, there is no good reason to force costs to hew to a specific number.
In the case of absolute costs, politicians may fit the program to the cost in either direction. Reportedly, the size of the stimulus bill passed by the Obama administration at the beginning of 2019 was designed to be in the hundreds of billions and avoid the dreaded trillion number, even though some of the administration’s advisors argued for $1.2-1.8 trillion. In transportation, I do not know of specific examples, but there is so much political pressure among various people who think they’re fiscally conservative that there’s bound to be pressure to go underneath a round number, in other words a political equivalent of pricing a product at $99 instead of $100.
In the other direction, visionaries may think they’re being bold by making up a high number, usually a catch round figure like $1 trillion for US-wide infrastructure. The numerology here operates on a different level from the relatively small band of just under a limit vs. just over a limit: here the main problem is that the cost figure is arbitrary, and then the list of projects to be funded is chosen to match it. If there aren’t enough good projects, agencies will either bloat the budgets of projects by lading them with semi-related spending, for example bundling a light rail line with street reconstruction and tree planting, or go forward with weak proposals that would otherwise not be funded.
In the third and last installment of my series posting sample commuter rail schedules for New York (part 1, part 2), let’s look at trains in New Jersey. This is going to be a longer post, covering six different lines, namely all New Jersey Transit lines that can go to Penn Station, including one that currently does not (Raritan Valley) but could using dual-mode locomotives.
As on Metro-North and the LIRR, very large improvements can be made over current schedules, generally reducing trip times by 30-43%, without straightening a single curve. However, electrification is required, as is entirely new rolling stock, as the electric locomotives used by NJ Transit are ill-fit for a fast schedule with many stops. Moreover, all low platforms must be raised to provide level boarding and some must be lengthened to avoid overuse of selective door opening, which may require a few new grade separations on the North Jersey Coast Line. As a first-order estimate, 50-something trainsets are required, each with 8-12 cars. This is not quite free, but the cost is low single-digit billions: about $1.5 billion for trains, maybe $400 million for 160 km of electrification, and around $700 million for what I believe is 70 low- or short-platform stations.
Here is a spreadsheet detailing speed zones for all New Jersey Transit lines passing through Newark. In support of previous posts, here are other similar spreadsheets:
- New Haven Line (express schedule, add stop penalties as appropriate for locals) – the spreadsheet is about a minute too fast, missing some slowdowns in the terminal, and the version in my post (part 1) corrects for that
- Harlem Line
- Hudson Line locals and expresses
- LIRR Main Line (including Port Jefferson, not covered in my posts)
Line by line schedules
The New Jersey Transit timetables are less consistent than the east-of-Hudson ones; I attempted to look at local midday off-peak outbound trains whenever possible.
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark South Street||—||0:12|
This fastest rush hour express trains do the trip in 1:12-1:13, and Amtrak’s Regionals range between 0:55 and 1:04, with trains making all nominal Amtrak stops (including rarely-served New Brunswick and Princeton Junction) taking 1:15.
North Jersey Coast Line
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark South Street||—||0:12|
|Point Pleasant Beach||2:15||1:22|
In electric territory, that is up to Long Branch, my schedule cuts 38% from the trip time, but in diesel territory the impact of electrification nearly halves the trip time, cutting 48%.
Raritan Valley Line
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark South Street||—||0:12|
The Raritan Valley Line does not run through to Manhattan but rather terminates at Newark Penn because of capacity constraints on the mainline, so the New York-Newark trip times are imputed from Northeast Corridor trains. So really the trip time difference is 1:34 versus 0:54, a reduction of 42% in the trip time thanks to electrification.
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark Broad Street||0:19||0:11|
|Newark 1st Street||—||0:13|
This timetable is cobbled from two different train runs, as electric wires only run as far out as Dover, so trains from New York only go as far as Dover, and trains to Hackettstown serve Hoboken instead. Observe the 35% reduction in trip time in electric territory despite making a few more stops, and the 48% reduction in trip time in diesel territory.
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark Broad Street||(0:19)||0:11|
|Newark 1st Street||—||0:13|
As the line is entirely electrified, the time saving is only 30%. Note that Gladstone Branch trains do not run through to Penn Station except at rush hour, so I’m imputing New York-Newark Broad trip times using the Morristown Line.
|Station||Current time||Future time|
|Newark Broad Street||(0:20)||0:11|
|Newark 1st Street||—||0:13|
|Newark Park Street||—||0:15|
|Montclair State U||0:50||0:33|
Beyond Dover, a handful of evening trains continue to Hackettstown. Interestingly, the saving from electrification is only 32% – and the train I drew the current schedule from is a Hoboken diesel train. Electric trains run from New York to Montclair State University, but are for some reason actually slightly slower today than the Hoboken diesels on the shared Newark-MSU segment. I suspect that like the LIRR, NJ Transit does not timetable electric trains to be any faster than diesels on shared segments even though their performance is better.
There are specific patterns to where my schedule outperforms the existing one by the largest margin and where it does so by the smallest margin.
Between New York and Newark, I am proposing that trains take 10-11 minutes, down from 18-20 today, cutting 45% from the trip time. This comes from several factors. The first is avoiding unnecessary slowdowns in terminal zones: Penn Station should be good for about 50 km/h, ideally even more if there are consistent enough platform assignments that the turnouts can be upgraded to be faster; Newark should not impose any speed limit whatsoever beyond that of right-of-way geometry.
The second is increasing superelevation and cant deficiency. The worst curve is the turn from Harrison to Newark; its radius is just shy of 500 meters, good for around 110 km/h at normal cant and cant deficiency (150 mm each), or even 120 km/h if the cant is raised to 200 mm in support of higher-speed intercity service. But the current speed limit is a blanket 45 mph, even on Amtrak, whose cant deficiency is fine. The Newark approach is then even slower, 35 mph, for no reason. It’s telling that on my schedule, the Secaucus-Newark speedup is even greater than the New York-Secaucus speedup, despite the Penn Station interlocking morass.
The third is reducing schedule padding. The schedules appear extremely padded for what NJ Transit thinks is a capacity problem but is not really a problem in the midday off-peak period. Between 9 am and noon, 18 trains depart Penn Station going west, 10 on the Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast and 8 on the Morris and Essex Lines and the Montclair Line.
On lines without electrification, the time savings from electrification are considerable, with the exception of the Boonton Line. This is especially notable on the tails of the North Jersey Coast and Morristown Lines, both of which allow for 48% reductions in trip time, nearly doubling the average speed.
This is related to the issue of low platforms. These tails have low platforms, whereas the inner segment of the Raritan Valley Line (up to Westfield), which already has mostly high platforms, does not exhibit the same potential speed doubling. Outer segments may also not be well-maintained, leading to non-geometric speed limits. Between Long Branch and Bay Head the tracks are fairly straight, but the existing speed limits are very low, at most 60 mph with most segments limited to 40 or even 25 or less.
In contrast with the enormous slowdowns between New York and Newark and on unelectrified tails, the workhorse inner segments (including the entire Northeast Corridor Line) radiating out of Newark are only about 1.5 times as slow as they can be, rather than twice as slow. The Gladstone Branch, which runs EMUs rather than electric locomotive-hauled trains, manages to be only about 1.37 times as slow, in large part courtesy of low platforms.
Of course, 1.5 times as slow is still pretty bad. This is because no line on NJ Transit is truly modern, that is running all EMUs serving high platforms. But the electric lines manage to be less bad than the diesel lines, and the suburbs less bad than the New York-Newark segment with its excessive timetable padding and terminal zone slowdowns.
How to get there from here
NJ Transit has a problem: perhaps unaware of the new FRA regulations, it just ordered bilevel EMUs compliant with the old rather than new regulations. If it can cancel the order, it should do so, and instead procure standard European EMUs stretched to the larger clearances of the American (or Nordic) railway network.
Simultaneously, it should complete electrification of the entire Penn Station-feeding system, including the Raritan Valley Line even though right now it does not run through to New York. This includes some outer branches with low traffic, not enough to justify electrification on their own; that is fine, since the 31 km of wire between Dover and Hackettstown, 25 km between Long Branch and Bay Head, 27 between Raritan (where semi-frequent service ends) and High Bridge, and 30 between MSU and Denville permit a uniform or mostly uniform fleet with no diesel under catenary. EMUs are far more reliable than anything that runs on diesel, and if NJ Transit retires diesels and only runs EMUs on the most congested segment of the network, it will be able to get away with far less schedule padding.
In Boston, at Transit Matters we’ve likewise recommended full systemwide electrification, but with priority to lines that connect to already-electric infrastructure, that is the Stoughton branch of the Providence Line, the Fairmount Line (which is short enough to use Northeast Corridor substations), and subsequently the entire South Station-feeding system. By the same token, it is more important to electrify the outer edges of the Morristown and North Jersey Coast Lines and the entire Raritan Valley Line than to electrify the Erie lines not analyzed in this post, since the Erie lines’ infrastructure points exclusively toward Hoboken and not New York.
In addition to electrification, NJ Transit must replace all low platforms with high platforms. This should generally be doable with ramp access rather than elevators to save money, in which case a double-track station should be doable for about $10 million, if Boston and Philadelphia costs are any indication. In addition to speeding up general boarding, high platforms permit wheelchair users to board trains without the aid of an attendant or conductor.
All of this costs money – the infrastructure should cost somewhat more than $1 billion, and new rolling stock should cost about $1.5 billion at European costs, or somewhat more if there’s an American premium for canceling the in-progress contract for inferior equipment. But none of this costs a lot of money. New Jersey is ready to sink $2.75 billion of state money as part of an $11 billion Gateway tunnel that would do nothing for capacity (since it four-tracks the tunnel but not the surface segments to Newark); it should be ready to spend about the amount of money on a program that is certain to cut 25-50% off of people’s travel time and perhaps halve operating costs.
In my last post about New York regional rail schedules, I covered the New Haven and Harlem Lines of Metro-North and the Main Line and Hempstead Branch of the LIRR. I was hoping to cover more lines tonight, but due to time constraints only the Hudson Line is available.
This post should be viewed as considerably more accurate than the previous one, because I’ve obtained a Metro-North track chart with exact curve radii. I had to use measuring tools in the previous posts, and although the results were generally accurate, they were not completely so, and a few short, sharp curves cost a few more seconds than depicted. I do not believe the total slowdown between New York and either New Haven or Southeast to be worse than one minute relative to the track chart, but it is a slight slowdown, more than countermanding my tendency to round all fractional seconds up in speed zones.
One key difference with my last post is that the Hudson Line is not entirely electrified. It is only electrified south of Croton-Harmon; farther north, trains run with diesel locomotives, changing to electric mode only in Manhattan. My timetable assumes electrification. This is a project Metro-North should be pursuing anyway, since the outer Hudson Line is one of the busiest diesel lines in New York, alongside the outer Port Jefferson Branch and the Raritan Valley Line.
This lack of electrification extends to part of the express tracks south of Croton-Harmon as well. As a result, this schedule, while relying on cheap investments, is not quite the near-zero cost improvement on the express line. On the local line it is, since the trains are electrified.
As before, I am not assuming any curve is straightened, merely that track geometry trains fix the tracks to have higher superelevation (150 mm) and that trains run at 150 mm cant deficiency rather than today’s 3″. In metric units, this means acceleration in the horizontal plane is 2 m/s^2, so curves obey the formula
One big-ticket item that Metro-North should look into, in addition to completing electrification, is grade-separating the interlocking at CP 5, between the Hudson and Harlem Lines. The flat junction is extremely busy – it may plausibly have higher peak throughput than the flat junctions that plague South London’s commuter rail network – and hinders a simple 2-tracks-in, 2-tracks-out operation. This is not strictly speaking a speedup, but I would be more comfortable writing aggressive, high-frequency timetables if trains did not conflict at-grade.
Local trains run up to Croton-Harmon, making all stops.
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
The 9-minute interstation between Ossining and Croton-Harmon represents end-of-line schedule padding – in the southbound direction, trains are scheduled to take only 4 minutes.
Observe that the travel time difference is smaller than on the other lines presented in my previous post. Current equipment could shave 21% off the travel time, which is considerable but a far cry from the 33-40% elsewhere in the system. The reason is that the Hudson Line is maintained to higher standards, with cruise speeds of 80 mph on much of the line; I am assuming a speedup to 160 km/h, but the stop spacing along the Hudson is so short that trains can’t even hit 160 km/h while accelerating. The curves are still insufficiently superelevated – the Spuyten Duyvil curve where the fatal derailment happened has only 2.5″ of superelevation – and trains are only rated for low cant deficiency. However, the other aspects of the speedup on other lines are less conspicuous.
I also suspect that there is less schedule padding on the Hudson Line than on the other lines. Its frequency is lower, the line is four-track for most of its length, and the one significant flat junction equally affects the other two Metro-North mainlines. So the schedule may already be stable enough that padding, while considerable, is less outrageous than on the LIRR.
Express trains on the Hudson Line run a variety of stopping patterns, especially at rush hour. The line’s infrastructure is set up for intermediate express stops at Harlem, Marble Hill, Yonkers, Tarrytown, Ossining, and Croton-Harmon, but the standard off-peak pattern makes slightly fewer stops. My assumption is that all the above stations will receive express service.
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
This is a 35-38% reduction in travel time while making four more stops, two on the inner part of the line and two on the outer part that currently only see occasional seasonal use for hiking trails. The explanation for this is simple: the rolling stock used today is not M-7 EMUs but diesel locomotives. Rush hour trains running nonstop between Manhattan and Beacon connect Grand Central with Poughkeepsie in 1:36-1:37, a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes, twice as high as what a European regional EMU can achieve at a top speed of 160 km/h.
Moreover, the 80-90 mph speed limit, which is dead letter on local trains for most of the way because they stop so frequently, consumes a few minutes relative to 160 km/h when trains run nonstop for long stretches. Thus, an increase in top speed is necessary in addition to an increase in curve superelevation and cant deficiency.
What about Grand Central?
My schedules consistently depict 6-minute trip times between Grand Central and Harlem, compared with current timetables that have them do it in 10-11 minutes. On most of the line, the top speed is the same – 60 mph, against 100 km/h in my timetable. The difference is entirely in the last mile out of Grand Central, where the limit today is 10 mph for no good reason.
The constrained environment of Grand Central does not leave room for high-speed switches. Nonetheless, the existing switches, called #8 switches, have a curve radius of about 140 meters, which is good enough for 40 km/h with no superelevation and a cant deficiency of 150 mm. American switches are generally rated for twice their number in miles per hour, assuming no superelevation and a 2″ cant deficiency; but higher cant deficiency is possible, and is really important as the difference between 25 and 40 km/h for a few hundred meters is considerable.
Moreover, 40 km/h is only the governing speed for a very short distance, about half a kilometer. Farther out, trains can always take the straight direction on turnouts, with one exception, turnout number 309B on the southbound local track (track 4), which is a triangular switch, i.e. one without a straight direction. Fixing the switch to have a straight direction from track 4 to track J, the westernmost approach track to the lower level of the station, should be a priority, plausibly saving 3 minutes for all trains using this track.
With trains taking the straight direction wherever possible, the central express tracks in the Park Avenue Tunnel (tracks 1 and 2) should exclusively feed the upper level, and the outer local tracks should exclusively feed the lower level; this way, there would not be any conflict. The station was originally designed for local trains to use the lower level and express trains to use the upper level, so this is nothing new, just a more rigid way of running service than today. Each of the two levels has ladder tracks permitting access to about 10 platform tracks, which is more enough for a train every 2 minutes; for reference, the 4 platform tracks of Haussmann-Saint Lazare on the RER E turn 16 trains per hour at the peak today, and were constructed with the ability to turn 18.
The upshot is that very little station reconstruction is needed at this stage. Some reconstruction is required for through-running, as it would require all approach tracks to go to the lower level, but even that would be much cheaper than the through-running tunnels. But with terminating service, only one switch needs to be changed. This is not expensive; the limiting resource is imagination to do better than today’s slow service.
A few years ago, when I started writing timetables for proposed regional rail lines, I realized how much faster they were than current schedules. This goes beyond the usual issues in Boston with electrification, which can cut the Boston-Providence trip from the current 1:10 or so to around 45 minutes. In New York the trains are already electrified, but trip times are slow, due to a combination of weak rolling stock, low platforms in New Jersey, poor maintenance in Connecticut, and obscene schedule padding in Long Island. This post collects a few before-and-after comparisons of how fast regional rail in New York could be.
Due to time constraints, not all lines are included in this post; by popular demand I can complete this and make it a two-part post. In this post I am going to focus on the New Haven and Harlem Lines and the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma and Hempstead Branches.
The LIRR and Metro-North both have reasonable if conservative equipment. Thus, it is valuable to look at the trip times that current equipment could achieve, that is the M-8s on the New Haven Line and the M-7s on the other lines. Future equipment should be higher-performance, and in particular both railroads should procure modular platforms based on proven European regional rail designs, rather than stick with overweight, overpriced equipment as in the upcoming capital plan. Thus the following tables include trip times with both current equipment and a notional regional electric multiple unit (EMU) with the specs of a Talent 2, FLIRT, Coradia Continental, DBAG Class 425, or similar train.
As a note of caution, these trip times are not achievable at zero cost, only at low cost. No curve needs to be straightened, but some curves need to be superelevated, and in some areas, particularly Connecticut, additional track work is required. All of this is quite cheap based on European maintenance regimes, though perhaps not based on American ones, but it is not literally a day one timetable – figure a few months’ worth of work systemwide. Schedules would also need to be simpler, with fewer creative express patterns, to facilitate low schedule padding, 7% as in Switzerland rather than the LIRR’s current 30% pad.
Much of this work comes from this post about the LIRR and this one about the New Haven Line, but here I’m covering the Harlem
and Hudson Line s as well, and using more recent computations for acceleration.
New Haven Line
Locals to Stamford:
|Station||Current time||Future M-8 time||Future Euro time|
|Mount Vernon East||0:27||0:18||0:16|
Some of the numbers are interpolated, but the end-to-end times as well as those to New Rochelle, Port Chester, and Riverside are exact. No curve is straightened, but all non-geometric speed limits, including those on the Cos Cob Bridge, are removed; the Cos Cob Bridge is not straight enough for high-speed rail, but a regional train could squeeze 150 km/h out of it, or 160 if it is replaced.
Expresses to New Haven are faster, as detailed in my older post on the subject:
|Station||Current time||Future M-8 time||Future Euro time|
Numbers differ from my older post by a minute to allow for slightly slower approaches to the Grand Central stub-end, at 50 km/h rather than 100 km/h as with any future through-running. This is still several minutes faster than the current 10 mph speed limit out to a mile out of the station. It doesn’t matter too much; at the end of the day, this is a difference of 1:18 vs. 2:09, with one extra station. I repeat: better track maintenance, less conservative terminal approach speeds, higher superelevation on curves, modern schedule padding, and (on the margin) higher-performance equipment could reduce trip times from 2:09 to 1:18, a cut of 40% in trip time, without straightening a single curve.
The Harlem Line today runs local and express trains, but this involves a long stretch from north of Mount Vernon West to North White Plains with three and two rather than four tracks; trains just don’t run frequently enough today that it’s a problem, but in the future they will need to. Therefore, my timetable below is all-local. Nonetheless, trip times to White Plains on the local train are comparable to those of today’s express trains.
|Station||Current time (local)||Current time (express)||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|Mount Vernon West||0:32||—||0:24||0:23|
|North White Plains||1:01||0:41||0:44||0:40|
Observe that the current schedule has very long trip times before the end station – 8 minutes from White Plains to North White Plains on the local, 11 from Brewster to Southeast on the express. Southbound, both segments are timetabled to take only 4 minutes each. This is additional padding used to artificially inflate on-time performance, in lieu of the better practice of spacing out the pad throughout the schedule, at 1 minute per 15 minutes.
LIRR Main Line
The LIRR has a highly-branched system, and I’m only going to portray the Main Line to Ronkonkoma among the long express lines. This is because in the long term, the South Side lines shouldn’t be going to Penn Station but to Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Port Jefferson Branch could benefit from a side-by-side comparison of trip times, but that is partly a matter of electrifying the outer part of the line, a project that is perennially on the LIRR’s wishlist.
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|New Hyde Park||—||0:20||0:19|
The fastest Main Line train of the day runs between Penn Station and Ronkonkoma stopping only at Hicksville, Brentwood, and Central Islip, not even stopping at Jamaica; it does the trip in 1:08, a few minutes worse than the M7 could with less schedule padding and small speedups at terminal zones (Penn Station throat slowdowns add 1-2 minutes, it’s not the mile-long slog of Grand Central).
Finally, for local service supplementing the rapid Main Line, we can look at the Hempstead Branch, which under my regional rail maps should keep serving Penn Station along today’s alignment, continuing north along the Empire Connection to the Hudson Line. Today, only a handful of peak trains run between Penn Station and Hempstead – off-peak, Hempstead diverts to Atlantic Terminal. Here are side-by-side schedules, using the fastest peak train as a comparison:
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|Country Life Press||0:47||0:34||0:32|
Across the four lines examined – New Haven, Harlem, Main, Hempstead – trains could run about 50-66% faster, i.e. taking 33-40% less time. This is despite the fact that the rolling stock today is already EMUs: the vast majority of the speedup does not come from upgrading to higher-end trains, but rather from running faster on curves as all EMUs can, avoiding unnecessary slowdowns in station throats, and reducing schedule padding through more regular timetables.
The speedup is so great that the Harlem Line could achieve the same trip times of present-day nonstop trains on locals making 14 more stops between Manhattan and North White Plains, a distance of 38 km, and the LIRR could achieve substantially faster trip times than today’s nonstops on semi-rapid trains. In fact, the LIRR could even make additional local stops on the Main Line like Forest Hills and Hollis and roughly match the fastest peak trains, but expected traffic volumes are such that it’s best to leave the locals to the Hempstead Branch and put the Main Line on the express tracks.
Good transit activists in and around New York should insist that the managers prioritize such speedups. If locals can match today’s express trip times, there is no need to run creative express stopping patterns that force trains into complex patterns of overtakes. Just run frequent local service, using the maxim that a line deserves express service if and only if it has four tracks, as the New Haven Line and shared Main Line-Hempstead Branch segment do. With the slowest speed zones sped up, curve speeds raised to the capabilities of modern EMUs (including the conservative M-7s and M-8s), and schedule padding shrunk to where it should be, the suburbs could be so much closer to Manhattan at rush hour as well as off-peak, stimulating tighter metropolitan connections.
Four years ago I brought up the concept of the small, dense country to argue in favor of full electrification in Israel, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Right now I am going to dredge up this concept again, in the context of intercity trains. In a geographically small country, the value of very high speed is low, since trains do not have stretches of hundreds of kilometers over which 300 km/h has a big advantage over 200 km/h; if this country is dense, then furthermore there are likely to be significant cities are regular intervals, and stopping at them would eliminate whatever advantage high-speed rail had left.
Nonetheless, unlike with electrification, with high-speed rail there is a significant difference between Israel and the Low Countries. Israel does not have economic ties with its neighbors, even ones with which it does have diplomatic relationships, that are strong enough to justify international high-speed rail. Belgium and the Netherlands do – the high-speed rail they do have is already internationally-oriented – and their problem is that they have not quite completed their systems, leading to low average speeds.
The situation in Israel
Israel is a country of 20,000 square kilometers, with about 9 million people. Both figures exclude the entirety of the Territories, which are not served by intercity trains anyway, and have such geography that not even the most ardent annexationists propose to build any.
The country is long and narrow, and the maximum north-south distance is almost 500 km, but the cities at the ends are very small, and the population density in the South is exceptionally low. Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, is a city of 52,000, and is 170 km from the nearest Israeli city, Dimona. A low-speed line for freight may be appropriate for this geography, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal, but there is no real point in investing in high passenger rail speed. For purposes of fast intercity trains, the southern end of Israel is Beer Sheva, less than 100 km from Tel Aviv.
In the Galilee the situation is not quite as stark. The main barrier to intercity rail development is not low population density – on the contrary, the Galilee averages around 400 people per km^2, not counting the Golan Heights. Rather, the physical and urban geographies are formidable barriers: the mountainous topography forces all railroads that want to average reasonable speed to tunnel, and the cities are not aligned on linear corridors, nor are there very large agglomerations except Nazareth, which is about 100 km north of Tel Aviv. A low-speed rail network would be valuable, tunneling only under mountainous cities like Nazareth and Safed, but even 200 km/h in this region is a stretch, let alone 300. Thus, just as the southern limit of any fast intercity rail planning in Israel should be Beer Sheva, the northern limits should be Haifa and Nazareth.
The box formed by Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beer Sheva, less than 200 km on its long side, is not appropriate geography for high-speed rail. It is, however, perfect for medium-speed rail, topping at 160 or 200 km/h. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed line, built because the legacy line is so curvy that it is substantially slower than a bus, only runs at 160 km/h for this reason – the distance along the railway between the two cities is 57 km and there’s an intermediate airport stop, so the incremental benefit of running faster is small. The Tel Aviv-Haifa line, built in stages in the 1930s and 50s, runs in the Coastal Plain and is largely straight, capable of 160 km/h or even faster. The Tel Aviv-Beer Sheva line is slower, but it too can be upgraded. In all of these cases, the target average speed is about 120 km/h or perhaps a little faster. A high-speed train would do better, but reducing trip times from 40 minutes to 30 just isn’t worth the expense of a new line.
Nazareth is the odd one out among the major cities, lacking a rail connection. This is for both geographical and sociopolitical reasons: it is on a hill, and it is Arab. Reaching Nazareth from the south is eminently possible, on a line branching from the Coastal Railway in the vicinity of Pardes Hanna, continuing northeast along Route 65 through Kafr Qara and Umm al-Fahm, and entering the city via Afula. Modern EMUs can climb the grades around Umm al-Fahm with little trouble, and only about 4 km of tunnel are required to reach Nazareth, including a mined underground station for the city. Continuing onward requires perhaps 8 km of tunnel.
However, so far Israel Railways has been reticent to enter city centers on tunnels or els. Instead, it serves cities on the periphery of their built-up areas or in freeway medians. It would require little tunneling to enter the center of Netanya or Rishon LeTsiyon, and none to enter that of Ashdod or Ashkelon. This is the result of incompetence, as well as some NIMBYism in the case of Rishon. Nonetheless, such short tunnels are the right choice for regional and intercity rail in those cities as well as in Nazareth, which poor as it is remains the center of Israel’s fourth largest urban agglomeration.
What if there is peace?
In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is 300 km/h high-speed rail, justified by international connections to France and Germany. What if Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians that thaws its relationships with the rest of the Arab world, justifying international connections to present-day enemy states like Syria and Lebanon as well as to cold friends like Jordan and Egypt?
The answer is that the Levant writ large, too, is a relatively small, dense area. The Palestinian Territories have even higher population density than Israel, as does Lebanon. Jordan and Syria, on the desert side of the mountains, are less dense, but if one drops their low-density areas just as one would drop Israel south of Beer Sheva, the box within which to build intercity trains is not particularly large either.
Amman is 72 km from Jerusalem; it’s an attractive target for a continuation of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway at 160-200 km/h, the main difficulty being the grades down to and up from the Jordan Valley. Beirut and Damascus are both about 240 km from Tel Aviv on the most likely rail routes, via the coast up to Beirut and via Nazareth and Safed up to Damascus. The only connection at a truly compelling distance for 300 km/h rail is to Aleppo, which is not large enough and is unlikely to generate enough ridership across the language and political barrier to be worth it.
Egypt presents a more attractive case. Cairo is enormous, and there is a whole lot of nothing between it and the Gaza Strip, a perfect situation for high-speed rail. However, this is firmly in “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” territory, as none of the required construction really affects present-day Israeli intercity rail planning. It’s not like the Levantine Arab capitals, all of which lie along extensions of important domestic Israeli routes.
Integrated timed transfers
The Netherlands and Switzerland both have national rail networks based on the idea of an integrated timed transfer, in which trains from many destinations are designed to reach major nodes all at the same time, so that people can connect easily. In Switzerland, trains arrive at every major city just before :00 and :30 every hour and depart just after, and rail infrastructure construction is designed to enable trains to connect cities in integer multiples of half hours. For example, since trains connected Zurich and Basel with Bern in more than an hour, SBB built a 200 km/h line from Olten to Bern, shortening the trip time to just less than an hour to facilitate connections. Every half hour this line carries a burst of four trains in seven minutes in each direction, to ensure trains from many different destinations can connect at Bern at the right time.
I have argued against this approach in the context of Germany, proposing high–speed rail instead specifically on the grounds that Germany is a large country with many pairs of large cities 500 km apart. In the context of the Netherlands, the integrated timed transfer approach is far superior, which is why it is adopting this approach and refining it in ways that go beyond Switzerland’s decentralized planning. Belgium, too, had better adapt the Swiss and Dutch planning approach. What about Israel?
In Israel, timed transfers are essential to any intercity rail build-out. However, a fully integrated approach is more difficult, for three geographical and historical reasons. First, most intercity traffic flows through one two-track mainline, the Coastal Railway. Using advanced rail signaling to permit many trains to enter Tel Aviv at once is fine, but it would not be the everywhere-to-everywhere system of more polycentric countries like Switzerland.
Second, Israeli metro areas are really a mixture of the mostly-monocentric contiguous sprawl of France and the Anglosphere and the polycentric regions of distinct cities of the Netherlands and the German-speaking world. Jerusalem’s agglomeration is entirely Anglo-French in this typology, without significant independent cores, and Tel Aviv and Haifa both have substantial Anglo-French cores ringed by far less important secondary centers. The significant secondary centers around Tel Aviv and Haifa are edge cities within the built-up area that may be near a rail line, like Herzliya Pituah and the Kiryon, but are never independent town centers like the various Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr cities.
And third, Israel completely lacks the large railway terminals of Western countries that built their mainlines in the 19th century. Integrated pulses require one station track per branch coming out of the station, since the point of such timetables is to have trains from all branches arrive at the station at once. Within Germany there is criticism of the Stuttgart 21 project on the grounds that the new underground Stuttgart station will only have eight tracks, whereas there are about 14 planned branches coming out of the city.
So does this mean timed transfers are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Israel Railways must plan around timed transfers at junction stations like Lod, the closest thing the Tel Aviv region has to a German-style secondary core, as well as at future branch points. Entering secondary city centers like Netanya and Ashdod would involve tunnels and els, but more significantly to the national network, these would all be branches, and adding more branches to the mainline would require planning better transfers at the branch points and in the center.
Moreover, Israel still has significant intercity bus service, and most likely always will. Timed connections between buses and trains at outlying terminals like Ashdod are a must, and nationwide coordination of bus schedules to enable such connections is a must as well.
Intercity rail for a small, dense country
The situation in Israel – as in Belgium and the Netherlands – favors a different kind of rail development from that of larger countries like France and Japan. Short distances between major urban areas, frequent stops for intermediate cities, and cities that are not really located along easy lines call for the following design principles:
- The maximum speed should be 160-200 km/h – lines should not be designed for higher speed if that requires more tunneling or bypassing existing mainlines, unless there is a compelling international link.
- All trains should be electric, and run electric multiple units (EMUs) rather than locomotives, making use of EMUs’ fast acceleration to serve many stops.
- Significant cities that do not have rail links or have circuitous links should get new lines, using short tunnels or viaducts if necessary to reach their centers.
- Transfers at junction stations should be timed, as should transfers between buses and trains in cities with significant travel volumes to areas not served by the railway.
- The state should coordinate timetables and fares at the national level and engage in nationwide integrated planning, since a change in one city can propagate on the schedule 100-200 km away.
In Israel, public transportation planners understand some of these points but not others. Rail planning is based on medium rather than high speed; there are some calls for a high-speed train to Eilat, but so far what I’ve seen is at least partly about freight rather than passengers. The state is electrifying most (though not all) of its rail network – but it’s buying electric locomotives as well as EMUs. New rail lines go in freeway medians and on tangents to built-up areas, as if they were 300 km/h lines, rather than low-speed regional lines for which if people have to drive 5 km they may as well drive the remaining 50 to their destination. Schedule coordination is a mess, especially when buses are involved.
Going forward, Israel should aim to have what the Netherlands has, and even more, since the Netherlands has not fully electrified its network, unlike Switzerland. Israel should aim for very high traffic density, connecting the major cities at a top speed of 160-200 km/h and average speed of about 120 km/h, with easy transfers to slightly slower regional lines and to buses. Its cities may not be Tokyo or Paris, but they’re large enough to generate heavy intercity traffic by public transportation, provided the rail network is there.