The Boston BRT initiative is pushing hard for what it calls gold standard BRT in Boston, with the support of ITDP. Backed by a Barr Foundation grant, it launched a competition for pilot routes. Two years ago to the day, Ari Ofsevit already wrote a takedown of the idea of gold standard BRT in Boston, comparing the street width in Boston to the street widths in Bogota and Mexico City. In brief, most of Bogota’s BRT network runs on streets wider than 40 meters, and the rest is still 30-something; in Boston nothing is that wide except streets that have light rail in their medians like Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street, and the key corridors have segments going below 20.
In response to this problem, here is the photo Boston BRT is using to illustrate the technology:
I am not sure where this photo was taken. Judging by the 60 speed limit sign, it can’t be in the US. What we see in the photo is 4 travel lanes in each direction (2 car, 2 bus), a generous median for the station, generous medians on both sides of the main road, and service lanes. Paris’s 80-meter-wide Cours de Vincennes has in each direction a service lane, two parking lanes, one bus lane, and three car lanes, but no median between the two main carriageways. The depicted street has to be wider, which means it’s wider in meters than most Boston arterials are in feet. It’s very wide by the standards of Mexico City, Curitiba, and Bogota.
The BRT Report for Boston depicts another picture in that flavor on PDF-p. 14. It is also painfully misleading about existing BRT lines: its blurb about Mexico City omits the fact that the city has a large, expanding subway network with almost as much ridership as New York’s, and alongside Mexico; its blurb about Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT omits all the internal problems of the line, which make Cleveland urbanists denigrate it as a poor transportation solution.
BRT is a useful tool in cities’ kit for solving transportation problems. But proponents have to be honest about the tradeoffs involves: it is cheaper than a subway but also slower, less comfortable, and more expensive to operate; and it requires difficult choices about how to allocate street space. There are many examples of BRT on streets going down to about 30 meters, and Boston BRT could have also chosen to depict even narrower streets, to be relevant to Boston. Instead, it’s engaging in subterfuge: the report is claiming that BRT is faster than light rail and implying it’s the primary transit mode in Mexico City, and by the same token, the pictures all show wide enough streets for anything.
Five years ago, I wrote about how American cities’ transit priorities cause them to underrate the neighborhoods with the best potential, which typically are also the poorer ones. Those are the in-between neighborhoods: beyond the gentrified core of the city, which is often within walking distance of the CBD in a small region, but not so far that they’re really suburbs. Instead of serving these neighborhoods, cities that want to look like they’re redeveloping build core connectors, i.e. short-range transit services within the gentrified (or gentrifying) center. I was specifically complaining about two plans, one in Providence and one in New Haven. The Providence plan involved a mixed-traffic streetcar, which has since been downgraded to a frequent bus. It’s this project that I wish to talk about in this post.
First, some background: in the 2000s and early 2010s, Rhode Island realigned I-195. This project, called Iway, rebuilt a segment of the freeway to higher standards, but also moved it so as to no longer cut off the Jewelry District from the CBD (called Downcity). Iway turned the Jewelry District from a post-industrial neighborhood to the next (possibly the only) frontier of gentrification in the city, and state elites needed to decide what to do with all this land. This led to plans to build what was in vogue in the late 2000s and early 2010s: a mixed-traffic streetcar, which would connect the Rhode Island Hospital and Jewelry District with Downcity and continue either north to the train station, or east to College Hill via the East Side Tunnel, a short bus-only tunnel cutting off a steep hill between Downcity and the Brown campus. This was from the start bad transit, and we in the Greater City community were skeptical. The plan was eventually scuttled, and the website’s registration lapsed without any redirect to the new plan, which is BRT.
The new BRT route is going between the train station and the Jewelry District. It’s planned to be very frequent, with a bus every 4-5 minutes, appropriate for the short length of the route, about 2 km between the hospital and the train station. The plan is to build open rather than closed BRT, with several branches interlining on the route. Overall, it looks like RIPTA is doing BRT right. And yet, it’s a terrible project.
The top bus corridor in Rhode Island is the R route (for Rapid), formed from the former 99 and 11 buses, which were by far the top two in ridership. It runs every 10 minutes, between Pawtucket and South Providence, serving some of the poorest parts of an already poor urban area. It has some BRT treatments, including hard-fought signal priority (Governor Carcieri vetoed it six times, and it took until the more progressive Lincoln Chafee replaced him for signal priority to go ahead). But buses run in mixed traffic, and fare collection is on-board. If any route deserves better frequency, it’s this one.
Moreover, the attempt to shoehorn multiple routes through the BRT path is compromising those routes. The R route is already detouring through the train station, which the old 99 route did not serve, and which forces a few minutes’ detour. Another bus, route 1, does not currently serve the train station, but will be rerouted once the BRT path opens; route 1 goes through the East Side tunnel, and making it detour to the train station would give it an especially circuitous path between the East Side and Downcity (the 1 already detours to enter the hospital, which is set back from the street). This, in turn, compromises the usefulness of the tunnel, which is that it interlines several routes between Downcity and Brown, which then go in different direction east of Brown.
There are potentially strong east-west corridors that could receive the R treatment. In the east, off-board fare collection on the buses using the tunnel would considerably speed up service. In the west, there are a few potentially strong routes: Broadway (carrying the 27 and 28 to Olneyville), Atwells in Federal Hill (carrying the 92 fake trolley, which runs through to the East Side and used to use the tunnel), and Westminster/Cranston (carrying the 17, 19, and 31). The highly-branched nature of the routes east of the tunnel makes through-service dicey, and this in turn is a matter of a broken bus network in East Providence. But overall, demand roughly matches that of the strongest corridor on the west, which is either Broadway or Westminster/Cranston, depending on how much branching one tolerates. This would create a second rapid bus trunk between College Hill and Olneyville. So why is the city investing in another route?
It’s not the train station. The train station itself is not a compelling transit destination. It’s too close to Downcity; even with a 5-minute bus frequency, it’s faster to walk from the central bus transfer point at Kennedy Plaza (or to the nearest point on the old 99 route on North Main or Canal) than to transfer to the right bus. It should be served by the routes for which it’s on the way, for example the northwest-bound 50, 56, and 57 routes. It’s unlikely anyone will transfer to a bus to the train station. Nor is it likely anyone will take the 1 from College Hill to the train station: walking downhill takes 15 minutes, and people going to a train station need more reliability than a mixed-traffic bus can provide. Walking uphill is more difficult, and there is less need for reliability, but even then, it seems that most people walk. This means the only real use of the train station connection is for people from the Jewelry District.
This brings me to the Jewelry District itself. The city wants to redevelop it, but it is not yet much of a destination. Nor is Providence itching for new development sites: residential rents are affordable on the East Side, and Downcity commercial property values are so low that the city’s tallest building is empty and was said at appraisal to have no value. So why the rush to give the Jewelry District better public transit than existing neighborhoods that direly need it, like South Providence, Olneyville, and Pawtucket?
The answer is contained in the title of this post. South Providence and Olneyville are in-between neighborhoods. Pawtucket is far enough away that it is getting a $40 million infill station on the Providence Line, but the state is not going to fund frequent service or integrated fares between the line and RIPTA buses. As far as Pawtucket’s predominantly poor and working-class residents are concerned, the train might as well not be there; nor will any gentrifiers move to Pawtucket for service to Boston (they get about the same travel time out of Providence and far better amenities). The focus for the city and the state is on redevelopment, and one can almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of the power brokers who passed this deal.
This neglect of the working class and of Providence’s nonwhite neighborhoods (South Providence is black, Olneyville is Hispanic) is not deliberate. But there is clear disparate impact: the Jewelry District gets BRT, South Providence and Olneyville can drop dead. Like everywhere else in the US, the power structure in Providence discourages investment in the in-between neighborhoods, even comfortable ones like the East Side. The in-between neighborhoods are intact enough that building something there is about providing transportation services, rather than about development and renaissance and the creative capital and other buzzwords. And providing services is too boring, too political, too underappreciated. Better to build something shiny and say “I did that,” even if it’s useless. What the elites consider shiny changes every few years – it was streetcars last decade and is frequent buses today – but the principle is the same: instead of investing for the benefit of residents of Providence and its inner suburbs, the state invests for the benefit of ribbon-cutters.
Last month, I committed to producing a subway fantasy map for Lagos via a Twitter poll. I’m working on this, but before I go into Lagos itself, I want to talk about the third world in general. Good transportation in poor countries is of independent interest, but it also has some applications to thinking about solutions for rich countries, such as the countries my readers live in. The reason is that every principle of good transportation planning has edge cases, exceptions, and assumptions, and it is critical to evaluate these in the largest variety of situations. Understanding transportation in the United States can yield insights about Europe and vice versa; likewise, understanding the first world can yield insights about the third and vice versa.
The epistemological principle I use is that if I believe that a high concentration of factor A makes solution B work better, then a low concentration of factor A should make solution B work worse. I used that in a post about high-speed rail in Sweden, arguing against it due to the absence of factors that make it work better, namely, linear population distribution. Many good design principles formulated in rich countries depend on those countries’ high incomes, and are less relevant to countries that are only about as wealthy as the US and northwestern Europe were in 1900.
Everything is terrible
On nearly every indicator of technology or living standards, every poor country is worse than every rich country. There are some exceptions involving middle-income countries (for example, Russia and China have very good rail freight), but not in low-income countries. I wrote a piece in YIMBY recently describing the state of New York and Vienna in the early 20th century, which had very high crowding levels; much of the same story can describe many third-world cities today, especially in India, where tight zoning limits housing supply to the point of overcrowding. In Mumbai, the average residential floor space per person is 9 square meters, compared with 55 in Manhattan.
Pollution levels are very high as well, because of the combination of high population density and heavy industry (especially in North India), as well as the proliferation of cars. The amount of pollution caused by 50 or 100 cars per 1,000 people in a dense city where the cars don’t have catalytic converters can be many times worse than that caused by the 200 mostly diesel-powered cars per 1,000 people of Paris, or the 250 cars per 1,000 people of New York. The low motorization levels of lower-middle-income cities like Cairo, Lagos, or Mumbai aren’t a barrier to traffic, either: those cities routinely have traffic jams, just as the United States started having jams in the 1920s. These cities have centralized employment in the CBD, not a lot of road capacity coming in, and a culture in which the middle class drives (or is driven by chauffeurs).
This creates an urgency for improving public transportation in low-income countries that does not exist in the developed world. Third-world countries that build subways spend a much higher share of their GDPs on them than Europe and Japan do, and some, such as India and Bangladesh, spend more than the United States. If Paris hadn’t built the RER, Franciliens would drive or take the slower Metro; if Shanghai hadn’t built the Metro, Shanghainese would still be living in tiny apartments and riding buses in crawling traffic; if Lagos doesn’t build a metro, Lagosians will keep facing multi-hour commutes. The same situation also creates an urgency for improving other areas the government can invest in; good government, capable of making these investments at reasonable cost, without too much corruption, is crucial for economic and social development.
Concrete before electronics
The cost of advanced signaling systems, such as driverless technology, is approximately the same everywhere in the world, in exchange rate terms. The cost of civil infrastructure construction is approximately the same in PPP terms, and if anything may be a little lower in poor countries. The cost of labor that advanced technology avoids is proportional to wages. This means that the electronics-before-concrete principle is less valid in poorer countries, and is sometimes not valid at all. There are practically no driverless metros in developing countries; the only examples I can find of lines in operation include two lines in Sao Paulo and one in Manila, with a small handful more under construction. Brazil is middle-income, and the Philippines are lower-middle-income rather than poor.
This principle also extends to countries with existing rail lines that they could expand. Investments in concrete – additional tracks, grade separation, relief lines – are more valuable than in developed countries, while investments in electronics are less valuable. A city with a desperate transportation situation can expect that every rapid transit line it builds will fill quickly. Tunnels are in a way more future-proof than precise schedules and resignaling.
Regulate cars, not buses
A recurrent feature of transportation in poor cities without rapid transit or BRT is the minibus. It goes by various names; the most famous to the first-world reader is probably the Nairobi matatu, but it also exists in Lagos as the danfo, in the Philippines as the jeepney, and in Jakarta as the angkot. These vehicles are not popular with the segment of the population that the government listens to: they are typically noisy and dirty and the drivers are aggressive. The governor of Lagos State recently announced a plan to ban the danfos, saying they don’t meet the international standards of a great city and should be replaced with air-conditioned buses. This is while the city is still working on its first metro line.
In Delhi, attempts to give buses road priority met an intense backlash from high-income drivers. There was a failed lawsuit openly stating that car drivers’ time was more important. Eventually Delhi scrapped the system entirely.
In contrast, the most successful public transit in cities that were recently poor or low-income, such as Singapore or Seoul, is in an environment where state policy restrained cars and not buses. Singapore has had congestion pricing since in the 1970s, the first city in the world to implement this scheme, and levies high taxes on cars, as does Hong Kong. Seoul restrained domestic consumption, including of cars, in its period of early industrialization from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Nigeria has 60 cars per 1,000 people. Lagos has maybe 150. To a large majority of the city’s population, cars are traffic, not transportation. Numbers in other third-world megacities vary but are not too different: Cairo has about 200 as of 2011, Delhi about 170, Jakarta about 300. (Some car and population numbers are a few years out of date; caveat emptor.) Traffic restraint is the correct policy given massive traffic jams and growing pollution levels, and the sooner the city starts, the better it will look in a generation.
Plan for growth
Developing-world cities are going to be much larger and richer in 30 years than they are today. National population growth rates range from moderate in India and Bangladesh to explosive in Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. Moreover, all of these countries have low urbanization rates today and fast migration from the villages to the cities, setting up fast urban population growth even where national population growth isn’t so high. Economic growth projections are dicier, but at least one estimate through 2024 is quite optimistic about India and East Africa.
The high-density context of most cities in question rules out any auto-based development pattern. The population density of the eastern half of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, from Delhi downriver to Bangladesh, is about 1,000 people per km^2, comprising nearly 600 million people. Nowhere in the developed world is this density seen outside city regions. Lombardy has 400 people per km^2, and is as hemmed by mountains as North India, producing large-scale thermal inversions; with high levels of car traffic and heavy industry, it is one of the most polluted regions of Europe. Southern Nigeria is not so dense, but with fast population growth, it eventually will be. Egypt’s population density along the Nile is well into the four figures.
This also has implications for how rapid transit should be built. A metro line that passes through lightly-populated areas will soon sprout dense development around it, just as the early lines did in late-19th century London and early-20th century New York. Most New York railfans are familiar with the photo of farmland next to the 7 train in the 1910s; between 1900 and 1930, New York’s population doubled, while Queens’ population grew by a factor of 7. Such growth rates are realistic for some developing-world cities. For the same reason, it is worthwhile investing in grade-separated rights-of-way now, when they are cheap.
Another implication concerns capacity. Even Nairobi, which is not a megacity, can expect to become one soon, and requires many different rapid transit lines entering its center. Some of these can be accommodated on existing roads, as els or relatively easy subways under wide streets, but not all can. When the roads are wide enough, cities should consider four-track structures, since the relative construction cost of four-tracking is low for an el or a cut-and-cover subway.
Four-tracking has one additional benefit: local and express service, which is of critical importance in the very largest cities. In forums like Skyscraper City, Tokyo railfans often express concerns over China’s subways, which have no express tracks and little to no commuter rail, since they offer no path through the center faster than about 35 km/h (Tokyo’s express commuter lines, like Tokaido and Yokosuka, approach 60 km/h).
The final implication is that it’s fine to build a central business district from scratch. Shanghai is doing this in Lujiazui, but that is the wrong location, on the wrong side of a riverbend, with only one Metro line serving it, the overcrowded east-west Line 2; a north-south rail line would have to cross the river twice. A better location would have been People’s Square, served by Lines 1, 2, and 8. This is of especial relevance to cities whose traditional center is in a difficult location, especially Lagos but also Dar es Salaam.
BRT is not rapid transit
The failure of Delhi’s BRT line is in some sense atypical. The line was compromised from the start, and global pro-BRT thinktank ITDP expressed criticism from the start. However, other BRT projects draw cause for concern as well. Dar es Salaam’s BRT is instructive: the first phase cost about $8.5 million per km in exchange rate terms, or about $27 million per km in PPP terms, comparable to an average European light rail line or to an American BRT boondoggle. A hefty chunk of this cost comes from importing Chinese-made buses, which are priced in exchange-rate terms and not in PPP terms.
All else being equal, higher incomes strengthen the case for rail vs. BRT and lower incomes weaken it, since one of the major advantages of rail is fewer drivers per unit of passenger capacity. However, there is a countervailing force: the bulk of the cost of rail construction is local construction, priced in PPP terms, and not imported capital, priced in exchange rate terms. Trains still cost more than buses per unit capacity, but the bulk of the cost premium of rail over BRT is not the vehicles, and a weak currency reduces this premium.
And for all of the global marketing, by ITDP and by Jaime Lerner, the Curitiba mayor who invented modern BRT, BRT is not rapid transit. It is surface transit, which can achieve comparable speed to a tramway, but in a dense city with heavy traffic, this is not high speed. The busiest Parisian tramways, T1 and T3, average about 18 km/h. Modern rapid transit starts at 30 km/h and goes up as construction standards improve and stop spacing widens. BRT is still a useful solution for smaller cities, but in the larger ones, which need more speed, grade-separated rapid transit is irreplaceable.
Don’t neglect mainline rail
How are people going to travel between Jakarta and Surabaya, or between Lagos and Kano, or between Nairobi and Mombasa? They’re not going to fly; the capacity of air traffic is not high. They’re not going to take a vactrain. The only real solution is a high-speed rail network; Indonesia is already building HSR from Jakarta to Bandung, using Chinese technology, with plans for a further extension to Surabaya.
The most difficult part of building a new intercity rail network from scratch is serving the big cities. This is the big advantage of conventional rail over maglev or vactrains: it can run on legacy tracks for the last few kilometers. (In poorer countries, which import technology from richer ones, another advantage is that conventional rail isn’t vendor-locked.) Between this and the need to also accommodate medium-speed intercity rail to smaller cities, it’s important that developing-world cities ensure they have adequate right-of-way for any future system. Trunks should have a minimum of four tracks, with intensive commuter rail service on the local tracks, in a similar manner to Mumbai.
It is also important to build the metro to be mainline-compatible, in electrification and track gauge. It is wrong for India (and Pakistan) to build a single kilometer of standard-gauge metro; everything should be broad-gauge. Russia, where everything is on Russian gauge, does this better. African mainline rail networks are usually narrow-gauge and weak, and in some places (such as East Africa) are being rebuilt standard-gauge. Southeast Asia runs the gamut, with reasonable service in Jakarta, which is running frequent electric commuter rail using second-hand Japanese trains; this suggests future metro lines in Jakarta should be built narrow- rather than standard-gauge, to allow Tokyo-style through-service to commuter rail.
The biggest developing-world cities have problems with air pollution, traffic, overcrowding, and long commutes – precisely the problems that rapid transit is good at solving. They have equally great problems with infrastructure for electricity, running water, and sewage, and with access to health care, education, and such basic consumer goods as refrigerators. And they have limited tax capacity to pay for it all.
This makes building good transit – cost-effective, future-proof, and convenient enough to get high ridership – all the more critical. The smallest cities today may be able to get away with looking like smog-ridden midcentury Los Angeles, but even medium-size ones need to plan on models starting from New York or London or Tokyo, and the biggest ones, especially Lagos, should plan on looking like something that doesn’t really exist today.
To that effect, third-world governments need to absorb massive amounts of knowledge of good practices developed in Western Europe and high-income East Asia (and to a lesser extent Russia and China). But they cannot implement them blindly, but have to learn how to adapt them to local conditions: chiefly low incomes, but also weak currencies, import-dependence in technology, high expected future growth, and (in many cases) high expected population density. Nothing prevents a poor country from doing transit well: China, still a middle-income country, has more high-speed rail ridership than the rest of the world combined, and subway ridership per capita in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou is healthy. But India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other poor countries with big cities have their work cut out for them if they want to solve their transportation problems.
I’d been making cryptic remarks about a possible job offer for a month, and a week ago I tweeted when I heard the final no. I didn’t want to say where I was interviewing until after I heard back, either way; now that I have, I’d like to talk more about the process, and what I think it means for transportation criticism in general.
A few weeks after I posted that I’m transitioning to working in transit or transit writing full-time, a recruiter reached out to me. I wouldn’t have applied myself, not out of ideological opposition to working on Hyperloop, but because until that point, I imagined they wouldn’t have wanted me working there anyway. But once the recruiter emailed me, I started the interview process. It went well. The company was familiar with my criticism of the initial concept and of startups’ own attempts to build it (the last link is Hyperloop One, the one before it is a different company). We talked about the technology, about which models I’d use to evaluate it, about various ways the system could be made more convenient.
People who are familiar with the interview process in the tech industry know that it is long and laborious. There are multiple rounds of interviews, with multiple people involved. Programming jobs involve something called whiteboarding, in which the interviewer will ask the interviewee to solve a coding problem on a whiteboard. I’m not a programmer, unless one counts QBASIC as programming, so I didn’t do any whiteboarding, but the same concept of interview meant there were a lot of hard on-the-spot technical questions. (In contrast, when I interviewed at Frontier, there were hard on-the-spot questions about political and social trends.)
Where I got stuck was American immigration policy. In the US, unlike in normal countries like Canada or Singapore or France, the skilled work visa process is based on a hard cap on the number of visas (called H-1B), rather than on a minimum salary requirement or a labor market analysis to make sure there are more jobs than qualified citizens, both of which criteria are easy to meet in tech. The H-1B cap is too tight – it’s oversubscribed by a factor of about 2; earlier this decade there was political consensus in the US elite that it needed to be lifted, but partisan politicking prevented this from happening. By mid-decade, even before Trump, the consensus frayed, thanks in no small part to anti-immigration reform conservatives, especially Reihan Salam (and, within the urbanist sphere, Aaron Renn). Academia and nonprofit research organizations, such as Frontier (or TransitCenter, or RPA), are exempt from the cap. Tech firms aren’t. This imposes a queue for getting a visa; HR at Hyperloop One said it would be a year, I think it would’ve been a year and a half. It took about a month to figure out whether Hyperloop One could work with me as a remote outside contractor, and when they realized they couldn’t, they had to tell me they couldn’t hire me.
My impressions of Hyperloop’s current status
Elon Musk’s original writeup was a scribble. Very little about it was salvageable. Hyperloop One is more serious. I believe that the most quotable criticism I made of the project in 2013 – the “barf ride” line – is being solved. As I said in 2013, I believe it is not too hard to solve the basic problem of curve radii; the problem is that it makes the civil engineering more expensive, by requiring more tunnels and more viaducts.
We didn’t discuss construction costs at the interview. I think of this as a point in the company’s favor, actually; they’d know that my understanding of construction costs is at too high a level, useful for policymakers but not for actual consultants or contractors. A few months ago, before this process started, I read somewhere that the company says Hyperloop would be 2/3 as expensive as conventional high-speed rail per km, up from Musk’s laughable 1/10 estimate. I’m skeptical about 2/3, but I’m willing to say “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “yeah, right.”
The capacity constraints coming from the narrow tube diameter are also a problem that I think the company is capable of solving; the cost of a wider tube is higher, but in far less than linear proportion to the extra capacity provided.
There remain two big classes of hitches, one technical and one economic. The technical hitches involve materials engineering that I don’t understand as well, regarding sway inside the tube, ground subsidence, and construction tolerances. I am channeling other critics here; some of them are experts in the field and I am inclined to trust them. I’ve always taken these issues as a black box for conventional HSR and even 500-600 km/h service (maglev or conventional – the TGV reached 574 km/h in an experiment with a special train with a higher power-to-weight ratio), but at higher speeds, they become more serious.
My default assumption is that it’s still solvable at 1000+ km/h, but requires more delicate engineering, which may drive up construction costs even further. Even in my initial writeup I was implicitly arguing the required delicate engineering was such that it was inappropriate to generalize from the costs of oil pipelines, rather than from those of maglev. But it’s possible that the required materials and safety engineering will lead to much higher construction costs, and it’s possible that more basic research is required before it’s viable.
The economic hitch is, what is Hyperloop for? The technology suffers from tension between two opposing forces. The first force is speed: as a very fast technology, Hyperloop is the most useful for long-distance travel. At the distance of Musk’s original Los Angeles-San Francisco idea, security theater and design compromises about station locations (Sylmar and the East Bay, originally) would eat up the entire travel time advantage over conventional HSR. At longer distance, such as New York-Chicago, Hyperloop would still win on time, just as planes beat HSR on time on corridors in the 1,000 km range today. The second force is that Hyperloop still requires linear infrastructure, so it becomes less cost-effective versus planes as the distance increases.
Hyperloop One is a consulting firm. I was asked at the interview about the technology’s applicability in multiple geographies, and gave my opinions (“this place is a good candidate, that place isn’t”). So the company can’t just up and decide on an initial segment, which should probably be a connection from New York (probably in Jersey City or Hoboken) to either South Florida or Chicago. Complicating things, such an initial segment would require many tens of billions of dollars of capital investment, which is not easy for a startup to do. There’s a real problem with using the tech startup model to develop capital-intensive infrastructure, and it’s possible such vactrain technology will always fall between the conventional HSR and airplane chairs. I for one will keep putting vactrains in my 22nd-century science fiction, but not in my near-future science fiction.
One of the lines I wrote in my initial post is that tech megalomaniacs believe that “people who question [the entrepreneur] and laugh at his outlandish ideas will invariably fail and end up working for him.” I recognize the irony in my almost-working for Hyperloop One.
And yet, I think it offers a valuable lesson about what I variously call sycophancy, or a courtier mentality. I mentioned this about the tech press in the first post; the national political press is less sycophantic (since it can be loyal to an opposition party or political faction, and can draw on the opposition for criticism of current leadership). But local political actors in areas without real political opposition can act like royal courtiers at times, unreasonably praising the leader and begging for scraps. I’ve criticized the RPA for this, for example here: Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new airport connector with negative transportation value, and while the area’s transit bloggers all said no, the RPA studied the idea seriously.
The connection with Hyperloop is that I hit the concept pretty hard, and still would’ve been hired but for the US’s broken immigration policy. I don’t know if it’s generalizable to tech. I know it is true in math academia, where if I make a serious criticism of someone’s research program, it’s quite likely we will then write a paper together. For example, my advisor formulated a conjecture he called Dynamical Manin-Mumford; two professors, Rochester’s Tom Tucker and UBC’s Dragos Ghioca, later my own postdoc advisor, found a counterexample, and wrote it up together with my advisor. Nowadays the different researchers in the field are trying to prove different weaker versions of the conjecture that might still be true.
This collaborative aspect is certainly true of transit blogging. I spend a lot of time talking about transit with my biggest critic, who argues my argument about construction costs is spurious and the US is only expensive due to inexperience; I also talk a lot to people who are more nitpickers than critics, like Threestationsquare. I’ve seen the same sentiment at a thinktank whose founder I criticized years ago, and my understanding is that the RPA too is familiar with my writings. But I don’t know if it’s true of government hiring as much – if the MTA, let alone anyone working for Cuomo, is interested in hiring a critic; but then again, MTA hiring has severe problems.
Still, I’d draw a lesson and tell people who write about transportation to be less afraid of being critical. It’s a natural fear; I have it too, when I have criticism for a blogger or Twitter user who I know or consider part of my in-group. But the only result of suppressing criticism is that people who have bad ideas keep promulgating them and either never realize they’re wrong (if they’re honest) or keep acquiring suckers (if they’re dishonest). People who are interested in better transportation recognize this and seek out the critic. Megalomaniacs who are interested in selling themselves suppress and ignore the critic. We know which side Hyperloop One is on; but where is New York’s political system?
The future of my work
I can’t legally work in the US, unless it’s for a cap-exempt institution, which means either a university (that ship sailed five months ago) or a thinktank. Canada is looking unlikely – a consultancy I applied for ended up hiring someone else they felt was more qualified, and Metrolinx isn’t going to hire me. My French is conversational, but not good enough to apply for Keolis’s planning positions here, of which they have plenty, including some I’m otherwise qualified for.
This means I’m going to do transportation writing full-time for the foreseeable future. My plan is to invest in this blog more to make it look nicer (two pieces I’ve recently sent out have decent graphics), and (almost certainly) start a Patreon account in which people who pitch in a few dollars a month can influence what I write about. My intention is to commit to a post every week, not counting personal stuff like this post. I don’t expect this to net me a lot of money, but together with freelancing income, it should be enough to live on in a developed country with universal health care.
I don’t like the word “genius.” When people use it unironically, what I hear is “we haven’t met many smart people, so the first one we meet looks like a genius to us.” Math academia is very good about excising the word from anyone’s vocabulary. It drills you on the idea that you’re not Manjul Bhargava or anyone of that caliber, and if you are, you’re judged by what you’ve proved, not how theoretically smart you are. The tech industry uses the term more often, alongside related terms: rock star, 10x engineer, ninja. Most of it serves to convince coders that they’re masters of the universe, that all of them are above average and half of them are in the top 10% of coders.
New York State just issued a call for proposals for a $1 million grant, dubbed the MTA Genius Transit Challenge. I sent in a request for more information, and haven’t gotten a response yet; when I do, I will probably apply, if the specs and timeframe are within what I can give, but I doubt I will get it. My suspicion is that the state is looking for a tech company to privatize something to. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants someone to tackle one of the following three problems:
- Rail signaling, in context of how to maximize the subway’s capacity in trains per hour.
- Rolling stock maintenance schedules: the state isn’t saying what the ultimate issue is, but presumably it is reliability.
- Cell service and wi-fi underground.
I doubt that the tech industry is capable of doing much on the first two issues, while the third one is a solved problem (as in cities like Singapore and Boston) that just requires installing wires. The first two issues have a lot of potential improvements, but they come from the transportation field, including service planning.
Unfortunately, the panel judging the grant is tilted toward people in the tech industry. Only one has background in rail transportation: Sarah Feinberg, former administrator of the FRA, whose background prior to working at the US Department of Transportation is in politics and tech. Two more are academic administrators, neither with background in transportation: SUNY Chancellor-elect Kristina Johnson, an engineer with background in energy and 3D graphics, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, whose background is in IT. The other five are in the tech industry; one is a professor who studies networks, with some applications to car transportation (congestion pricing) but not to rail. Missing from the panel are people who worked on ETCS, people who have developed driverless train technology, and professionals within the major rolling stock vendors.
The biggest tech fixes in New York area outside the three areas identified by Cuomo. One, train arrival boards, is already in development, with planned opening next year.
But an even bigger fix is speed: the subways in New York have permanent slow orders at some places, not because of deferred maintenance but because of past accidents. There is a railroading tradition, in the US but sometimes also elsewhere, of using slow orders to mask underlying safety issues, even when the accident in question had very little to do with speed. The subways in New York today are getting even slower, for a combination of legitimate reasons (temporary signal upgrades) and illegitimate ones (inexperienced crews assigned at the busiest times).
However, the solutions to these problems often combine many different viewpoints. Speeding up the subway involves ending the slow orders (which involves signaling, but isn’t exactly tech), improving scheduling to reduce delays at merges (which involves service planning), reallocating crews (which involves labor relations), and coming up with ways to reinstall signals with less impact to operations (which is itself a combination of signaling tech and service planning).
American tech industry titans like to think of themselves as omnicompetent; Elon Musk’s bad ideas about transportation, from Hyperloop to elevator-accessed tunnels for cars, stem from his apparent belief that he can understand everything better than anyone else. This is not how good interdisciplinary work happens; the best examples in science involve people who are specialized to the two fields they’re combining, or people in one field collaborating with people in another field. A governor that understood this would empanel people with a wider variety of fields of expertise within the transportation industry: service planning, civil engineering, signal engineering, local labor relations and regulations, rolling stock maintenance. There would be one tech person on the panel (among the existing panelists, the professor studying networks, Balaji Prabhakhar, seems the most relevant in background), rather than one non-tech person.
This sort of self-importance especially appeals to Cuomo. Cuomo is not managing the state of New York; he is running for president of the United States, which requires him to be able to say “I did that” about something. Solving big problems requires big money; reducing costs requires local tradeoffs, such as reducing construction costs by using more disruptive cut-and-cover techniques. That’s how you run a good government, but that’s not how you run a cautious political campaign for higher office, in which the other side will pounce on every negative consequence. As a result, Cuomo is hoping to solve problems using tech innovation without spending much money; but the parameters of his plan seem to guarantee that the panel can only solve small problems, without touching on the most fundamental concerns for people riding the subway.
Note: I am going to take some suggestions for post topics in the future. This post comes from a Twitter poll I ran the day before yesterday.
The Yamanote Line in Tokyo is a ring. Trains go around the ring as on any other circular rail line. However, the line is not truly circumferential, since it serves as a north-south trunk through Central Tokyo. In that way, it contrasts with fully circumferential rings, such as the Moscow Circle Line, Seoul Metro Line 2 (see update below), and the under-construction Paris Metro Line 15. It’s really a hybrid of radial and circumferential transit, despite the on-paper circular layout. In previous posts I’ve attacked one kind of mixed line and given criteria for when another kind of mixed line can work. In this post, I’m going to discuss the kind of mixed line Yamanote is: why it works, and in what circumstances other cities can replicate it.
Consider the following diagram:
The red and blue lines are radial. The other three are hybrids. The yellow line is radial, mostly, but skirts city center and acts as a circumferential to its west; this kind of hybrid is nearly always a bad idea. The pink line is radial, but at the eastern end bends to act as a circumferential at the eastern end; this kind of hybrid is uncommon but can work in special cases, for example if Second Avenue Subway in New York is extended west under 125th Street. The green line is a Yamanote-style ring, offering radial service through city center but also circumferential service to the south and west.
On this map, the green line ensures there is circumferential service connecting what are hopefully the major nodes just west and south of city center. It doesn’t do anything for areas north and east of it. This means that this line works better if there is inherently more demand to the west and south than to the east and north. In Tokyo, this is indeed the case: the Yamanote ring offers north-south circumferential service west of Central Tokyo, through what are now the high-density secondary business districts of Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya. East of Central Tokyo, the only really compelling destinations, judging by subway ridership, are Oshiage and Asakusa, and neither is as big as Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, or Shibuya. Toyosu has high subway ridership, but is close enough to the water that it’s hard to build a circumferential through it.
Such a mixed line also becomes more useful if the radial component is better. The radial line can’t extend very far out, since the line needs to form a ring, so it should connect to very high-density neighborhoods just a few stops outside city center, or else provide additional service on an overloaded radial trunk. The Yamanote Line benefits from looking less like a perfect circle and more like upside-down egg, with two elongated north-south legs and two short (one very short) east-west legs; it extends its radial segment slightly farther out than it would otherwise be. In Tokyo, of course, all rail lines serving the center are beyond capacity, so the Yamanote Line’s extra two tracks certainly help; in fact, the two radial lines going north and south of Tokyo Station on parallel tracks, the Tohoku and Tokaido Lines, are two of the three most overcrowded in the city. (The third is the Chuo Line.) There’s even a dedicated local line, Keihin-Tohoku, covering the inner segments of both lines, making the same stops as Yamanote where they are parallel, in addition to the more express, longer-distance Tokaido and Tohoku Main Line trains.
Finally, there should not be radials that miss the mixed line; this is always a danger with subway lines that are neither pure radials nor pure circumferentials. Yamanote avoids this problem because it’s so close to the water at Shimbashi that the north-south subway lines all curve to the west as they go south, intersecting the ring. It’s actually the east-west lines that cross the Yamanote Line without transfers, like Tozai and Hanzomon; the north-south lines intersect the line with transfers.
The obvious caveat here is that while the Yamanote Line functions very well today, historically it did not originate as a circumferential in an area that needed extra service. It was built as a bypass around Central Tokyo, connecting the Tokaido and Tohoku Line at a time when Tokaido still terminated at Shimbashi and Tohoku at Ueno. Tokyo Station only opened 30 years later, and the ring was only completed another 10 years after that. Shinjuku only grew in the first place as the junction between the Yamanote and Chuo Lines, and Ikebukuro and Shibuya grew as the terminals of interwar private suburban railways. When the line opened, in 1885, Tokyo had 1.1 million people; today, the city proper has 9.5 million and the metro area has 38 million. The early rail lines shaped the city as much as it shaped them.
Nonetheless, with the economic geography of Tokyo today, the Yamanote Line works. Even though the history is different, it’s a useful tool for mature cities seeking to build up their rail networks. Provided the principles that make for the Yamanote Line’s success apply – stronger demand for circumferential service on one side of city center than on the others, demand for supplemental inner radial service, and good connections to other lines – this layout can succeed elsewhere.
Waterfront cities should take especial note, since they naturally have one side that potentially has high travel demand and one side that has fish. In those cities, there may be value in running the radial closest to the shoreline in a ring with an inland line.
This does not mean that every waterfront city should consider such a line. On the contrary: non-examples outnumber examples.
In Toronto, using two mainline tracks and connecting them to a ring to provide subway relief could have worked, but there are no good north-south corridors for such a ring (especially on the west), and the only good east-west corridor is Eglinton, which is being built incompatible with mainline rail (and has too much independent value to be closed down and replaced with a mainline link).
In Chicago, the grid makes it hard to branch lines properly: for example, a ring leaving the Red Line heading west at Belmont would necessary have to branch before Belmont Station, cutting frequency to the busiest station in the area. Plans for a circle line from last decade also faced limited demand along individual segments, such as the north-south segment of the Pink Line parallel to Ashland; ultimately, the planned line had too small a radius, with a circumference of 16 km, compared with 34.5 for Yamanote.
In Tel Aviv, there just isn’t any compelling north-south corridor outside the center. There are some strong destinations just east of Ayalon, like the Diamond Exchange and HaTikva, but those are already served by mainline rail. Beyond that, the next batch of strong destinations, just past Highway 4, is so far from Central Tel Aviv that the line would really be two radials connected by a short circumferential, more the London Circle Line when it was a full circle than the Yamanote Line, which is just one radial.
So where would a Yamanote-style circle be useful outside Tokyo? There are semi-plausible examples in New York and Boston.
In New York, it’s at the very least plausible to cut the G off the South Brooklyn Line, and have it enter Manhattan via the Rutgers Street Tunnel, as a branch of the F, replacing the current M train. There is no track connection enabling such service, but it could be constructed just west of Hoyt-Schermerhorn; consult Vanshnookraggen’s new track map. This new G still shouldn’t form a perfect circle (there’s far too much radial demand along the Queens Boulevard Line), but there are plausible arguments why it should, with a short tunnel just west of Court Square: namely, it would provide a faster way into Midtown from Williamsburg and Greenpoint than the overcrowded L.
In Boston, there is a circumferential alignment, from Harvard to JFK-UMass via Brookline, that can get a subway, in what was called the Urban Ring project before it was downgraded to buses. Two of the busiest buses in the region, the 1 and 66, go along or near the route. An extension from Harvard east into Sullivan and Charlestown is pretty straightforward, too. Beyond Charlestown, there are three options, all with costs and benefits: keep the line a semicricle, complete the circle via East Boston and the airport, and complete the circle via the North End and Aquarium. The second option is a pure circumferential, in which South Boston, lying between East Boston and JFK-UMass, would get better service north and south than west to Downtown. The third option cuts off East Boston, the lowest-ridership of the radial legs of the subway, and offers a way into the center from South Boston and Charlestown.
Of note, neither New York nor Boston is a clear example of good use of the Yamanote-style ring. This style of mixed line is rare, depending on the existence of unusually strong circumferential demand on just one side (west in Boston, east in New York), and on the water making it hard to build regular circles. It’s an edge case; but good transit planning revolves around understanding when a city’s circumstances produce an edge case, in which the simplest principles of transit planning (“every subway line should be radial or circumferential”) do not apply.
Update 5/16: commenter Threestationsquare reminds me that Seoul Metro Line 2 is the same kind of ring as Yamanote. The north leg passes through City Hall, near the northern end of the Seoul CBD, providing radial east-west service. The south leg serves a busy secondary commercial core in Gangnam, Tehran Avenue; Gangnam Station itself is the busiest in Seoul, and has sprouted a large secondary CBD.
In 2011, Clem Tillier and Richard Mlynarik put out sample schedules for modernized Caltrain service, with an applet anyone could use to construct their own timetables. I played with it, and one of the schedules I made, a trollish one, had room for local and express regional trains, but not intercity trains; intercity trains would be slotted with express regionals, and make the same stops. This was a curious exercise: intercity trains would be high-speed rail, which should not slow down to make every express regional stop. But more recently, as I’ve worked on schedules for Boston and New York, I’ve realized that when the regional trains are fast, there is merit to slotting legacy (but not high-speed) intercity trains together with them.
The origin of this pattern is the problem of slotting trains on busy railroads. There are many lines that are not really at capacity, but cannot easily combine trains that run at different speeds. One solution to the problem is to build extra tracks and give the intercity trains a dedicated pathway. This works when there is heavy intercity traffic as well as heavy regional traffic, but four-tracking a long line is expensive; Caltrain and California HSR ended up rejecting full four-tracking.
Another solution, favored for Caltrain today instead of full four-tracking, is timed overtakes. I have argued in its favor for Boston-Providence and Trenton-Stamford for high-speed rail, but it requires more timetable discipline and makes it easier for delays on one train to propagate to other trains. It should be reserved for the busiest lines, where there is still not enough traffic to justify long segments with additional tracks (that would be four tracking Boston-Providence and six-tracking Stamford-New Rochelle and Rahway-New Brunswick), but there is enough to justify doing what is required to run trains on a tight overtake schedule. It is especially useful for high-speed trains, which tend to be the most punctual, since they use the most reliable equipment and have few stops.
But on lower-ridership intercity routes, the best solution may be to force them to slow down to the speed of the fastest regional train that uses the line. On the timetable, the intercity train is treated as a regional train that goes beyond the usual outer terminal. This option is the cheapest, since no additional infrastructure is required. It also boosts frequency, relative to any solution in which the intercity train does not make regional stops: since the intercity train is using up slots, it might as well provide some local frequency when necessary. These two benefits together suggest a list of guidelines for when this pattern is the most useful:
- The intercity line shouldn’t be so busy that a slowdown of 10 or 15 minutes makes a big difference to ridership relative to the cost of overtakes. Nor should it be especially fast.
- The regional line, or the most express pattern on the regional line if it has its own local and express trains, should have wide stop spacing, such that the speed benefit of running nonstop is reduced.
- The regional line should connect long-distance destinations in their own right, and not just suburbs, so that there is some merit to connecting them to the intercity line. These destinations may include secondary cities, airports, and universities (but airports would probably be intercity stops under any pattern).
- The regional and intercity lines should be compatible in equipment, which in practice means either both should run EMUs or both should run DMUs (locomotives are obsolete for passenger services).
Both Switzerland and Japan employ this method. In Switzerland, the fastest intercity trains in the Zurich/Basel/Bern triangle run nonstop. But intercity trains going north or east of Zurich stop at the airport, interlining with regional trains to create a clockface pattern of trains going nonstop between the airport and the city.
In Japan, high-speed services run on their own dedicated tracks, with separate track gauge from the legacy network, but legacy intercity services are integrated with express regional trains. An intercity trip out of Tokyo on the Chuo Line starts out as a regular express commuter train, making the same stops as the fastest express trains: starting from Shinjuku, the Azusa sometimes stops at Mitaka, skips Kokubunji, and stops at Tachikawa and Hachijoji. Beyond Hachijoji, some trains make regional express stops, others run nonstop to well beyond the Tokyo commuter belt. On the Tokaido Line, the intercity trains (the Odoriko) skip stops that every regional train makes, but they still stop at Shinagawa and Yokohama, and sometimes in some Yokohama-area suburbs.
In North America, there are opportunities to use this scheduling pattern in New York, Boston, and Toronto; arguably some shorter-range intercity lines out of Philadelphia and Chicago, such as to Reading and Rockford, would also count, but right now no service runs to these cities.
In Toronto, GO Transit already runs service to Kitchener, 100 kilometers from Union Station. For reasons I don’t understand, service to Kitchener (and to Hamilton, a secondary industrial city 60 km from Toronto) is only offered at rush hour; in the off-peak, commuter trains only run closer in, even though usually intercity lines are less peaky than commuter lines. There is also seasonal service to Niagara Falls, 130 km from Toronto. As Metrolinx electrifies the network, higher frequency is likely, at least to Hamilton, and these trains will then become intercity trains running on a regional schedule. This works because GO Transit has very wide stop spacing, even with proposed infill stops. Niagara Falls is a leisure destination, with visitors from all over the Greater Toronto Area and not just from Downtown, so the extra stops in the Toronto suburbs are justified. Right now, Niagara Falls trains make limited stops, about the same number in the built-up area as the express trains to Hamilton but on a different pattern.
There are no infill stops planned on Lakeshore West, the commuter line to Hamilton and Niagara Falls. It is likely that future electrification and fare integration will create demand for some, slowing down trains. The line has three to four tracks (with a right-of-way wide enough for four) and is perfectly straight, so as demand grows with Toronto’s in-progress RER plan, there may be justification for local and express trains; express trains would make somewhat fewer stops than trains do today, local trains would stop every 1-2 km in the city and in Mississauga. Intercity trains could then easily fit into the express commuter slots; potential destinations include not just Hamilton and Niagara Falls, but also London.
This is unfriendly to high-speed trains. However, Canada is not building high-speed rail anytime soon; if it were, it would connect Toronto with Montreal, using Lakeshore East, and not with points west, i.e. London and Windsor. London and Windsor are small, and a high-speed connection to Toronto would be financially marginal, even with potential onward connections to Detroit and Chicago. A Toronto-Niagara Falls-Buffalo-New York route is more promising, but dicey as well. Probably the best compromise in such case is to run trains on a four-tracked Lakeshore West line at 250 km/h; the speed difference with nonstop trains running at 160 km/h allows 15-minute frequency on each pattern without overtakes, and almost allows 12 minutes. Alternatively, express trains could use the local tracks to make stops, as I’ve recommended for some difficult mixtures of local, express, and intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor in New York.
In Boston, the Northeast Corridor is of course too important as an intercity line to be slowed down by regional trains. Thus, even though in other respects it would be great for merging intercity and regional service, in practice, overtakes or four tracks are required.
However, all other intercity-range commuter lines in Boston should consider running as regular commuter trains (electrified, of course) once they enter MBTA territory. These include potential trains to Hyannis on Cape Cod, 128 km from South Station; Manchester, 91 km from North Station; and Springfield, 158 km from South Station; as well as existing trains to Portland, 187 km from North Station. Hyannis, Manchester, and Portland all feed into very fast regional lines: my sample schedule and map have trains to Hyannis averaging 107 km/h and trains to Manchester averaging 97 km/h. Trains to Haverhill, the farthest point on the line to Portland with any Boston-bound commuter traffic, average 88 km/h.
Springfield is more difficult. The Worcester Line is slower, partly because of curves, partly because of very tight stop spacing in the core built-up area. Once under-construction infill is complete, Auburndale, 17 km out of South Station, will be the 7th station out, and another infill station (Newton Corner) is perennially planned; my schedule assumes 3 additional stations, making Auburndale the 11th station out. On the line to Hyannis, the 11th station out, Buzzards Bay, is at the Cape Cod Canal, 88 km out. There is room for four tracks for a short segment in Allston, but in the suburbs there is no room until past Auburndale, which constrains any future high-speed rail plan to Albany. Low-speed intercity trains would have to slow down to match commuter rail speed, because the alternative is to run commuter rail too infrequently for the needs of the line. Average speed from South Station to Worcester is 70 km/h, even with express diesels today, so it’s not awful, but here, slowing down intercity trains is a less bad option rather than a good one.
In New York, as in Boston, intercity trains fit in regional slots away from the Northeast Corridor. Already today there are intercity trains running on the LIRR, to the eastern edge of Long Island, much too distant from the city for commuter traffic. Those trains run nonstop or almost nonstop, and are infrequent; if the entire LIRR were electrified, and express trains were eliminated, locals could match the express speed today thanks to reduced schedule padding, and then some trains could continue to Greenport and Montauk providing perhaps hourly service. Service to Danbury and Waterbury on Metro-North is of similar characteristics.
The New Jersey end is more interesting. Right now, there is no significant intercity service there, unless you count the Port Jervis Line. However, New Jersey Transit is currently restoring service on the Lackawanna Cutoff as far as Andover, and there remain proposals to run trains farther, to Delaware Water Gap and Scranton. Those would be regular express diesel trains on the Morris and Essex Lines, presumably stopping not just at Hoboken but also at important intermediate stations like Newark Broad Street, Summit, and Morristown.
If service were electrified, those trains could run, again on the same pattern as the fastest trains that can fit the Morristown Line (where I don’t think there should be any express trains), going to New York and onward to whichever destination is paired with the shorter-range commuter trains on the line. The same is true of other potential extensions, such as to Allentown, or, the favorite of Adirondacker in comments, a line to West Trenton and onward to Philadelphia via the West Trenton SEPTA line. There’s not much development between the edge of the built-up suburban area at Raritan and either Allentown or the Philadelphia suburbs; but intercity trains, averaging around 90 km/h, could succeed in connecting New York with Allentown or with the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, where a direct train doing the trip in an hour and a half would be competitive with a train down to 30th Street Station with a high-speed rail connection.
The characteristics of intercity lines that favor such integration with regional lines vary. In all cases, these are not the most important intercity lines, or else they would get dedicated tracks, or overtakes prioritizing their speed over that of commuter trains. Beyond that, it depends on the details of intercity and regional demand. But by default, if an intercity line is relatively short (say, under 200 km), and not so high-demand that 200+ km/h top speeds would be useful, then planners should attempt to treat it as a regional line that continues beyond the usual terminus. Alternatively, the commuter line could be thought of as a short-turning version of the intercity line. Planners and good transit advocates should include this kind of timetabling in their toolbox for constructing integrated regional rail schedules.
A recent discussion on Twitter about the through-running plan offered by ReThinkNYC got me thinking about an aspect American through-running crayonistas neglect on their maps: the branch-to-trunk ratio. It’s so easy to draw many branches converging on one trunk: crayon depicts a map and not a schedule, so the effects on branch frequency and reliability are hard to see.
In contrast with crayonista practice, let us look at the branch-to-trunk ratio on existing through-running commuter networks around the developed world:
The RER has 5 lines, of which 4 are double-ended and 1 (the E) is single-ended, terminating in the Paris CBD awaiting an extension to the other side. They have the following numbers of branches:
RER A: 3 western branches, 2 eastern branches.
RER B: 2 northern branches, 2 southern branches; on both sides, one of the two branches gets 2/3 of off-peak traffic, with half the trains running local and half running express.
RER C: 3 western branches, 4 eastern branches; one of the eastern branches, which loops around as a circumferential to Versailles, is planned to be closed and downgraded to a tram-train.
RER D: 1 northern branch, 3 southern branches; the map depicts 4 southern branches, but only 3 run through, and the fourth terminates at either Juvisy or Gare de Lyon.
RER E: 2 eastern branches; the ongoing western extension does not branch, but is only planned to run 6 trains per hour at the peak, so some branching may happen in the future.
The RER B and D share tracks between Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare du Nord, but do not share station platforms.
Thameslink has 3 southern branches. To the north it doesn’t currently branch, but there is ongoing construction connecting it to more mainlines, and next year it will gain 2 new northern branches, for a total of 3. Crossrail will have 2 eastern branches and 2 western branches. Crossrail 2 is currently planned to have 3 northern branches and 4 southern branches.
Berlin has 2 radial trunk routes: the east-west Stadtbahn, and the North-South Tunnel. The Stadtbahn has three S-Bahn routes: S5, S7, S75. The North-South Tunnel also has three: S1, S2, S25. Each of these individual routes combines one branch on each side, except the S75, which short-turns and doesn’t go all the way to the west.
Berlin also has the Ringbahn. The Ringbahn’s situation is more delicate: S41 and S42 run the entire ring (one clockwise, one counterclockwise), but many routes run on subsegments of the ring, with extensive reverse-branching. At two points, three services in addition to the core S41-42 use the Ringbahn: S45, S46, and S47 on the south, and S8, S85, and S9 on the east.
There is a two-track central tunnel, combining seven distinct branches (S1-8, omitting S5). S1 and S2 further branch in two on the west.
The excessive ratio of branches to trunks has created a serious capacity problem in the central tunnel, leading to plans to build a second tunnel parallel to the existing one. This project has been delayed for over ten years, with mounting construction costs, but is finally planned to begin construction in 2 days, with expected completion date 2026. At more than €500 million per underground kilometer, the second tunnel is the most expensive rail project built outside the Anglosphere; were costs lower, it would have been built already.
The Tokyo rail network is highly branched, and many lines reverse-branch using the subway. However, most core JR East lines have little branching. The three local lines (Yamanote, Chuo-Sobu, Keihin-Tohoku) don’t branch at all. Of the rapid lines, Chuo has two branches, and Tokaido and Yokosuka don’t branch. Moreover, the Chuo branch point, Tachikawa, is 37 km from Tokyo.
The northern and eastern lines branch more, but the effective branch-to-trunk ratio is reduced via reverse-branching. To the east, the Sobu Line has 5 branches, but they only split at Chiba, 39 km east of Tokyo. The Keiyo Line has 3 branches: the Musashino outer ring, and two eastern branches that also host some Sobu Line trains. The services to the north running through to Tokaido via the Tokyo-Ueno Line have 3 branches – the Utsunomiya, Takasaki, and Joban Lines – but some trains terminate at Ueno because there’s no room on the Tokyo-Ueno trunk for them. The services using the Yamanote Freight Line (Saikyo and Shonan-Shinjuku) have 2 southern branches (Yokosuka and Tokaido) and 3 northern ones (Utsunomiya, Takasaki, and a third Saikyo-only branch).
Conversely, all of these lines mix local and express trains on two tracks, with timed overtakes, except for the three non-branching local lines. The upper limit, beyond which JR East only runs local trains, appears to be 19 or 20 trains per hour, and near this limit local trains are consistently delayed 4 minutes at a time for overtakes.
Implications for Through-Running: Boston
In Boston, there are 7 or 8 useful southern branches: Worcester, Providence, Stoughton, Fairmount, the three Old Colony Lines, and Franklin if it’s separate from Fairmount. The Stoughton Line is planned to be extended to New Bedford and Fall River, making 8 or 9 branches, but the intercity character of the extension and the low commute volumes make it possible to treat this as one branch for scheduling purposes. To the north, there are 5 branches today (Fitchburg, Lowell, Haverhill, Newburyport, Rockport), but there are 2 decent candidates for service restoration (Peabody and Woburn).
The North-South Rail Link proposal has four-tracks, so the effective branch-to-trunk ratio is 3.5. It is not hard to run service every 15 minutes peak and every 30 off-peak with this amount of branching, and there’s even room for additional short-turn service on urban lines like Fairmount or inner Worcester and Fitchburg. But this comes from the fact that ultimately, Boston regional rail modernization would create an RER C and not an RER A, using my typology as explained on City Metric and here.
There are several good corridors for an RER A-type service in Boston, but those have had subway extensions instead: the Red Line to Braintree, the Orange Line to Malden, and now the Green Line Extension to Tufts. The remaining corridors could live with double service on an RER C-type service, that is, service every 7.5 minutes at the peak and every 15 off-peak. For this reason, and only for this reason, as many as 4 branches per trunk are acceptable in Boston.
Implications for Through-Running: New York
Let us go back to the original purpose of this discussion: New York through-running crayon. I have previously criticized plans that use the name Crossrail because it sounds modern but only provide a Thameslink or RER C. Independently of other factors, the ReThinkNYC plan has the same issues. It attempts to craft a sleek, modern regional rail system exclusively out of the existing Penn Station access tunnels plus a future tunnel across the Hudson.
Where Boston has about 7 commuter rail branches on each side, New York has 9 on Long Island (10 counting the Central Branch), 6 in Metro-North territory east of the Hudson, and 9 in New Jersey (11 counting the Northern Branch and West Shore Railroad). Moreover, one branch, the Hudson Line, has a reverse branch; where the Keiyo/Sobu reverse-branching in Tokyo and the Grand Central/Penn Station Access reverse-branching on the New Haven Line offer an opportunity to provide more service to a highly-branched line, the Hudson Line is a single line without branches.
The upshot is that even a four-track trunk, like the one proposed by both the RPA’s Crossrail NY/NJ plan and ReThinkNYC, cannot possibly take over all commuter lines. The frequency on each branch would be laughable. This is especially bad on the LIRR, where the branch point is relatively early (at Jamaica). The schedule would be an awkward mix of trains bound for the through-running system, East Side Access, and perhaps Downtown Brooklyn, if the LIRR doesn’t go through with its plan to cut off the Atlantic Branch from through-service and send all LIRR trains to Midtown Manhattan. Schedules would be too dependent between trains to each destination, and reliability would be low. ReThinkNYC makes this problem even worse by trying to shoehorn all of Metro-North, even the Harlem and Hudson Lines, into the same system, with short tunneled connections to the Northeast Corridor.
On the New Jersey side, the situation is easier. This is because two of the key branch points – Rahway and Summit – are pretty far out, respectively 33 and 37 km from Penn Station. The population density on branches farther out is lower, which means a train every 20 or 30 minutes off-peak is not the end of the world.
The big problem is the attempt to link the Erie lines into the same system. This makes too many branches, not to mention that the Secaucus loop between the Erie lines and the Northeast Corridor is circuitous. The original impetus behind my crayon connecting the South Side LIRR at Flatbush with the Erie lines via Lower Manhattan is that the Erie lines point naturally toward Lower Manhattan, and not toward Midtown. But this is also an attempt to keep the branch-to-trunk ratio reasonable.
The first time I drew New York regional rail crayon, I aimed at a coherent-looking system. The Hudson Line reverse-branched, and I was still thinking in terms of peak trains-per-hour count rather than in terms of a consistent frequency, but the inner lines looked like a coherent RER-style network. But the Hoboken-Flatbush tunnel still had 5 branches on the west, and the Morris and Essex-LIRR line, without a dedicated tunnel, had 4 to the east. My more recent crayon drops the West Shore Line, since it has the most freight traffic, leaving 4 branches, of which 1 (Bergen County) can easily be demoted to a shuttle off-peak, keeping base frequency on all branches acceptable without overserving the trunk; by my most recent crayon, there are still 4 branches, but there’s a note suggesting a way to cut this to 3 branches by building a new trunk. Moreover, several branches are reduced to shuttles (Oyster Bay, Waterbury) or circumferential tram-trains (West Hempstead) to avoid overloading the trunks. There’s a method behind the madness: in normal circumstances, there should not be more than 3 branches per double-track trunk.
I am not demanding that the RPA or ReThinkNYC put forth maps with multiple new trunk lines. The current political discussion is about Gateway, which is just 1 trunk line; it’s possible to also include what I call line 3 (i.e. the Empire Connection), which just requires a short realignment of an access track to Penn Station, but the lines to Lower Manhattan still look fanciful. New York has high construction costs, and the main purpose of my maps is to show what is possible at normal construction costs. But it would be useful for the studios to understand issues of frequency, reliability, and network coherence. This means no Secaucus loop, no attempt to build one trunk line covering all or almost all commuter lines, and not too many branches per trunk.
New York is an enormous city. It has 14 subway trunk lines, and many are full all day and overcrowded at rush hour. That, alone, suggests it should have multiple commuter rail trunk lines supplementing the subway at longer-range scale. It’s fine to build one trunk line at a time, as London is doing – these aren’t small projects, and there isn’t always the money for an entire network. But it’s important to resist the temptation to make the one line look more revolutionary than it is.
The simplest train schedules are when every train makes every stop. This means there are no required overtakes, and no need for elaborate track construction except for reasons of capacity. In nearly all cities in the world, double-track mainlines with flying junctions for branches are enough for regional rail. Schedule complexity comes from branching and short-turns, and from the decision which lines to join together, but it’s then possible to run independently-scheduled lines, in which delays don’t propagate. I have worked on a map as part of a proposal for Boston, and there, the only real difficulty is how to optimize turnaround times..
But then there’s New York. New York is big enough that some trunk lines have and need four tracks, introducing local and express patterns. It also has reverse-branching on some lines: the Hudson Line and New Haven Line can serve either Penn Station or Grand Central, and there are key urban stations on the connections from either station to either line. The presence of Jamaica Station makes it tempting to reverse-branch the LIRR. Everything together makes for a complex map. I talked in 2014 about a five- or six-line system, and even there, without the local/express artifacts, the map looks complicated. Key decisions turn out to depend on rolling stock, on scheduling, and on decisions made about intercity rail fares.
Here is what I drew last week. It’s a six-line map: lines 1 and 2 connect the Northeast Corridor on both sides plus logical branches and the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR, line 3 connects Hempstead with the Empire Corridor, line 4 connects the Harlem Line with the Staten Island Railway as a north-south trunk, line 5 connects the Erie Lines with the South Side LIRR lines, line 6 connects the Morris and Essex Lines with the LIRR Main Line.
As I indicated in the map’s text, there are extra possible lines, going up to 9; if I revised the map to include one line, call it line 7, I’d connect the Northern Branch and West Shore Railroad to a separate tunnel under 43rd Street, going east and taking over the LIRR portions of line 3; then the new line 3 would connect the Hudson Line with the Montauk Line (both Lower Montauk and the Babylon Branch) via an East River Tunnel extension. The other options are at this point too speculative even for me; I’m not even certain about line 6, let alone line 7, let alone anything else.
But the real difficulty isn’t how to add lines, if at all. It’s the reverse branch of lines 1 and 2. These two lines mostly go together in New Jersey and on the New Haven Line, but then take two different routes to Manhattan. The difficulty is how to assign local and express trains. The map has all line 1 trains going local: New Brunswick-Port Washington, or Long Branch-Stamford. Line 2 trains are a mix of local and express. This is a difficult decision, and I don’t know that this is the right choice. Several different scheduling constraints exist:
- Intercity trains should use line 1 and not line 2. This is for two reasons: the curve radius between Penn Station and Grand Central might be too tight for Shinkansen trains; and the Metro-North trunk north of Grand Central has no room for extra tracks, so that the speed difference between intercity and regional trains (e.g. no stop at Harlem-125th) would limit capacity. For the same reason, line 1 only has a peak of 6 trains per hour on the Northeast Corridor east of where the Port Washington Branch splits.
- Since not many regional trains can go between New Rochelle and Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor, they should provide local service – express service should all go via Grand Central.
- There are long segments with only four tracks, requiring track sharing between intercity trains and express regional trains. These occur between New Rochelle and Rye, and between the end of six-tracking in Rahway and New Brunswick. See details and a sample schedule without new Hudson tunnels here. This encourages breaking service so that in the Manhattan core, it’s the local trains that share tunnel tracks with intercity trains, while express trains, which share tracks farther out, are less constrained.
- Express trains on the New Jersey side should stay express on the New Haven Line, to provide fast service on some plausible station pairs like Newark-Stamford or New Rochelle-New Brunswick. Flipping local and express service through Manhattan means through-riders would have to transfer at Secaucus (which is plausible) or Penn Station (which is a bad idea no matter how the station is configured).
- There should be infill stops in Hudson County: at Bergenline Avenue for bus connections and the high local population density, and just outside the portal, at the intersection with the Northern Branch. These stops should be on line 2 (where they can be built new) and not line 1 (where the tunnels would need to be retrofitted), and trains cannot skip them, so the line that gets these stops should run locals.
It is not possible to satisfy all constraints simultaneously. Constraint 5 means that in New Jersey, line 2 should be local and line 1 should be express. Constraint 4 means the same should be true on the Metro-North side. But then constraints 2 and 3 encourage making line 1 local, especially on the Metro-North side. Something has to give.
On the map, the compromise is that there’s an infill stop at Bergenline but not at the intersection with the Northern Branch (which further encourages detaching the Northern Branch from line 5 and making it part of a Midtown-serving line 7). So the line 2 express trains are one stop slower than the line 1 locals between Newark and New York, which is not a huge problem.
The scheduling is still a problem, The four-track segment through Elizabeth between the six-track segments around Newark Airport and in Linden and Rahway has to be widened to six tracks; the four-track segment between the split with the North Jersey Coast Line and Jersey Avenue can mix three speed classes, with some express trains sharing tracks with intercity trains and others with local trains, but it’s not easy. At least on the Connecticut side, any high-speed rail service requires so many bypasses along I-95 that those bypasses can be used for overtakes.
At this point, it stops being purely about regional rail scheduling. The question of intercity rail fares becomes relevant: can people take intercity trains within the metro area with no or limited surcharge over regional trains? If so, then constraint 4 is no longer relevant: nobody would take regional trains on any segment served by intercity trains. In turn, there would be demand for local intercity trains, stopping not just at New Haven, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia, but also at Stamford, New Rochelle, perhaps Metropark (on new express platforms), and Trenton. In that case, the simplest solution is to flip lines 1 and 2 in New Jersey: line 1 gets the express trains to Trenton and the trains going all the way to Bay Head, line 2 gets the locals to Jersey Avenue, the Raritan Valley Line trains, and the Long Branch short-turns.
This, in turn, depends on rolling stock. Non-tilting high-speed trains could easily permit passengers with unreserved seats to pay commuter rail fare. On tilting trains, this is dicier. In Germany, tilting trains with unreserved tickets (ICE-T) have a computer constantly checking whether the train is light enough to be allowed to tilt, and if it is too heavy, it shuts down the tilt mechanism. This should not be acceptable for the Northeast Corridor. This might not be necessary for tilting Shinkansen (which are so light to begin with this isn’t a problem, and they do sell unreserved tickets in Japan), but it’s necessary for Pendolinos and for the Avelias that Amtrak just ordered. Selling reserved tickets at commuter rail fares is another option, but it might not be plausible given peak demand into New York.
The point of this exercise is that the best transit planning requires integrating all aspects: rolling stock, timetable, infrastructure, and even pricing. Questions like “can intercity trains charge people commuter rail fares for unreserved tickets?” affect express regional service, which in turn affects which branch connects to which trunk line.
Ultimately, this is the reason I draw expansive maps like this one. Piecemeal planning, line by line, leads to kludges, which are rarely optimized for interconnected service. New York is full of examples of poor planning coming from disintegrated planning, especially on Long Island. I contend that the fact that, for all of the Gateway project’s scope creep and cost escalations, there’s no proposed stop at Bergenline Avenue, is a prime example of this planning by kludge. To build the optimal line 2, the region really needs to know where lines 3-6 should go, and right now, there’s simply none of this long-term planning.
A stenographer at Bloomberg is reporting an Amtrak study that says the social benefit-cost ratio of the Gateway program is about 4. Gateway, the project to quadruple the double-track line from New York to Newark, including most important the tunnel across the Hudson, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. Cost overruns have been constant and severe: it was $3 billion in the ARC era in 2003, $9 billion when Governor Chris Christie canceled it in 2010, and $13.5 billion when Amtrak took over in 2011 and renamed it Gateway. And now Amtrak is claiming that the net present value of Gateway approaches $100 billion; in a presentation from late 2016, it claims that at a 3% discount rate the benefit-cost ratio is 3.87, and compares it positively with Crossrail and California HSR. This is incorrect, and almost certainly deliberate fraud. Let me explain why.
First, the comparison with Crossrail should give everyone pause. Crossrail costs around the same as the current projection for Gateway: about $21 billion in purchasing power parity terms, but future inflation means that the $25 billion for Gateway is very close to $21 billion for Crossrail, built between 2009 and 2018. Per Amtrak, the benefit-cost ratio of Crossrail as 3.64 at the upper end – in other words, the benefits of Crossrail and Gateway should be similar. They are clearly not.
The projection for Crossrail is that it will fill as soon as it opens, with 200 million annual passengers. There is no chance Gateway as currently planned can reach that ridership level. New Jersey Transit has about 90 million annual rail riders, and NJT considers itself at capacity. This number could be raised significantly if NJT were run in such a way as to encourage off-peak ridership (see my writeup on Metro-North and the LIRR, for which I have time-of-day data), but Gateway includes none of the required operational modernization. Even doubling NJT’s ridership out of Gateway is unlikely, since a lot of ridership is Hoboken-bound today because of capacity limits on the way to New York, and Gateway would cannibalize it; only about 60 million NJT riders are taking a train to or from New York, so a more realistic projection is 60 million and not 90 million. Some additional ridership coming out of Amtrak is likely, but is unlikely to be high given Amtrak’s short trains, hauled by a locomotive so that only 5-7 cars have seats. Amtrak has an asterisk in its comparison saying the benefit-cost ratios for Crossrail and Gateway were computed by different methodologies, and apparently the methodologies differ by a factor of 3 on the value of a single rider.
That, by itself, does not suggest fraud. What does suggest fraud is the history of cost overruns. The benefits of Gateway have not materially increased in the last decade and a half. If Gateway is worth $100 billion today, it was worth $100 billion in 2011, and in 2003.
One change since 2011 is Hurricane Sandy, which filled the existing North River Tunnels with corrosive saltwater. A study on repairs recommended long-term closure, one tube at a time. But the difference is still small compared to how much Amtrak thinks Gateway is worth. The study does not claim long-term closure is necessary. Right now, crews repair the tunnels over weekends, with weekend closures, since weekend frequency is so poor it can fit on single track. The study does not say how much money could be saved with long-term closures, but the cost it cites for repairs with long-term closures is $350 million, and the cost under the current regime of weekend closures cannot be several billion dollars more expensive. The extra benefit of Gateway coming from Sandy is perhaps $1 billion, a far cry from the almost $100 billion projected by Amtrak for Gateway’s worth.
What this means is that, if Gateway really has a benefit-cost ratio approaching 4 today, then it had a benefit-cost ratio of about 7 in 2011. Amtrak did not cite any such figure at the time. In 2003 it would have have had a benefit-cost ratio approaching 25, even taking into account inflation artifacts. None of the studies claimed such a high figure. Nor did any of the elected or appointed officials in charge of the project act like it was so valuable. Construction was not rushed as it would have if the benefit-cost ratio was so high that a few years’ acceleration would have noticeable long-term consequences.
The scope of the project did not suggest an extreme benefit-cost ratio, either. ARC, then Gateway, was always just two tracks. If a two-track tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio higher than 20, then it’s very likely the next two-track tunnel has a high benefit-cost ratio as well. Even a benefit-cost ratio of 4 would lead to further plans: evidently, Transport for London is planning Crossrail 2, a northeast-southwest tunnel complementing the east-west Crossrail and north-south Thameslink. Perhaps in 2003 Port Authority thought it could not get money for two tunnels, but it still could have planned some as future phases, just as Second Avenue Subway was planned as a full line even when there was only enough money for Phase 1.
The plans for ARC included the awkward Secaucus loop bringing in trains from the Erie lines into Penn Station, with dual-mode diesel/electric locomotives. This is a kludge that makes sense for a marginal project that needs to save every penny, not for one where benefits exceed costs by more than an order of magnitude. For such a strong project, it’s better to spend more money to get it right, for example by electrifying everything. It would also have been better to avoid the loop kludge and send Erie trains to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as I have proposed in various iterations of my regional rail plan.
All of this together suggests that in 2003, nobody in charge of ARC thought it was worth $70 billion in 2003 dollars, or around $100 billion in 2017 dollars. Even in 2011, Amtrak did not think the project was worth $85 billion in 2011 dollars. It’s theoretically possible that some new analysis proves that old estimates of the project’s benefits were too low, but it’s unlikely. If such revisions were common, we would see upward and downward revisions independent of cost overruns. Some rail projects with stable costs would see their benefit-cost ratios shoot up to well more than 10. Others might be revised down below 1.
What we actually see is different. Megaprojects have official estimates on their benefit-cost ratios in a narrow band: never less than 1 or else they wouldn’t be built, never more than 4 or 5 or else people might disbelieve the numbers. In an environment of stable costs, this would make a lot of sense: all the 10+ projects have been built a long time ago, so the rail extensions on the table today are more marginal. But in an environment of rapid cost escalation, the fact that benefits seem to grow with the costs is not consistent with any honest explanation. The best explanation for this is that, desperate for money for its scheme to build Gateway, Amtrak is defrauding the public about the project’s benefits.