Ten years ago, Amtrak began putting out its outrageously expensive proposals for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Already then, when it asked for $10 billion to barely speed up trains, there was a glaring problem with coordination: Amtrak wanted hundreds of millions of dollars to three-track the Providence Line so that its trains could overtake the MBTA’s commuter trains between Providence and Boston, even though the same benefit could be obtained for cheaper by building strategic overtakes and electrifying the MBTA so that its trains would run faster. Unfortunately, Amtrak has not only displayed no interest in coordinating better service with the MBTA this way, but has just actively blocked the MBTA.
The issue at hand is MBTA electrification: the MBTA runs an exclusively diesel fleet. These trains are slow, polluting, and unreliable. Lately they have had breakdowns every few thousand kilometers, whereas electric trains routinely last multiple hundreds of thousands of kilometers between breakdowns. The current scheduled trip time between Boston and Providence is about 1:10 on the MBTA with a total of nine stops, whereas Amtrak’s southbound trains do the same trip in 35 minutes with three stops, leading to a large schedule difference between the trains, requiring overtaking. Fortunately, modern electric multiple units, or EMUs, could make the same stops as the MBTA in about 45 minutes, close enough to Amtrak that Amtrak could speed up its trains without conflict.
The MBTA would benefit from electrification without any reference to Amtrak. Connecting Boston and Providence in 45 minutes rather than 70 has large benefits for suburban and regional travelers, and the improved reliability means trains can follow the schedule with fewer unexpected surprises. The line is already wired thanks to Amtrak’s investment in the 1990s, and all that is required is wiring a few siding and yard tracks that Amtrak did not electrify as it does not itself use them. With the diesel locomotives falling apart, the MBTA has begun to seriously consider electrifying.
Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs. The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line. As a result, it neglected any solution involving buying new EMUs or even leasing them from other railroads for a pilot project. It’s only looking at electric locomotives, whose travel time benefits are about half as large as those of EMUs.
And yet, Amtrak is blocking even the half-measures. The MBTA sought to lease electric locomotives from Amtrak, which uses them on its own trains; Amtrak quoted an unreasonably high monthly price designed to get the MBTA to lose interest. As of last week, the MBTA put the plan to lease electric locomotives for its electrification pilot on hold. No plans for purchase of rolling stock are currently active, as the MBTA is worried about lead time (read: having to actually write down and execute a contract) and does not know how to buy lightly-modified European products on the open market.
As far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant. Yes, such a speedup would improve Amtrak’s own scheduling, removing a few minutes from the Northeast Corridor’s travel time that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Amtrak has time and time again displayed little interest in running fast trains. All it wants is money, and if it can ask for money without having to show anything for it, then all the better. Coordinating schedules with other railroads is hard, and only improves the experience of the passengers and not Amtrak’s managers.
The MBTA’s decisionmaking is understandable, in contrast, but still questionable. It was worth asking; the MBTA is no worse for having received an unreasonable offer. However, it is imperative that the MBTA understand that it must be more proactive and less hesitant. It must electrify, and commit a real budget to it rather than a pilot. This means immediately raising the platforms on the stations of the Providence Line that do not yet have level boarding and buying (not leasing) modern EMUs, capable of running fast schedules.
Even with some infill, there are only seven low-platform stations on the mainline and two on the branch to Stoughton, none in a constrained location where construction is difficult. This is at most a $100 million project, excluding the trains themselves. The MBTA could operate the Providence Line with seven to eight trainsets providing service every 15 minutes and the Stoughton Line with another four providing the same. Procuring trains for such service would cost another $250 million or so, but the MBTA needs to buy new rolling stock anyway as its diesel locomotives are past the end of their useful lives, and buying EMUs would pay for itself through higher ridership and lower operating expenses coming from much faster trips.
The MBTA is fortunately salvageable. It has a serious problem in that the state leadership is indecisive and noncommittal and prefers a solution that can be aborted cheaply to one that provides the best long-term financial and social return on investment. However, it is seriously looking in the right direction, consisting of better equipment providing higher-quality service to all passengers.
Amtrak is unfortunately not salvageable. An intercity railroad whose reaction to a commuter railroad’s attempt to improve service for both systems is to overcharge it on rolling stock proves that it is ignorant of, indifferent to, and incurious about modern rail operations. A chain of managers from the person who made the decision to offer the MBTA bad lease terms upward must be removed from their positions if there is any hope for improved intercity rail in the Northeastern United States.
When the Gateway tunnel project began at the start of this decade, it was justified on the same grounds as the older ARC project: more capacity for trains across the Hudson. This justification continued even after the existing tunnels suffered damage in Hurricane Sandy. As costs mounted and it became clear there was no political will to round up $25 billion of federal and state money for capacity, the arguments changed. An engineering report softly recommended long-term tunnel closure for maintenance, without comparing the cost of new tunnels to that of continuing to close the tunnels one tube at a time on weekends, and subsequently both the funding requests and the press releases shifted in tone to “we must close the tunnels or else they’ll collapse.” Unfortunately, this racket is now spreading to other parts of the American mainline rail network – namely, Amtrak and its high-speed rail program.
Case in point: in an internal report, leaked to the press via a belated public records request, Amtrak fearmongers about the impact of rising sea levels on its infrastructure. Bloomberg helpfully includes maps of rising sea levels inundating part of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure in low-lying parts of Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland.
What Bloomberg does not say is that the Northeast Corridor is slightly elevated over the parts shown as inundated, due to river crossings. There’s even an attached photo of the station in Wilmington, clearly showing the train running above ground on a viaduct, at what looks like about five meters above sea level. There are no photos from other areas along the corridor, but regular riders as well as people looking closely at satellite photos will know that through the flood-prone parts of Secaucus, the Northeast Corridor is already on a berm, crossing over intersecting roads, and the same is true in most of Connecticut. On Google Earth, the lowest-lying parts of the route, passing through southeastern Connecticut and parts of Maryland, are 3-4 meters above sea level.
The rub is that a sea level rise of 3-4 meters is globally catastrophic to an extent that doesn’t make Amtrak any of the top thousand priorities. Cities would be flooded, as helpfully shown by photos and images depicting the railroad running above street level. Entire countries would be wiped off the map, like the Maldives. Low-lying coastal floodplains, so crucial for high-intensity agriculture, would disappear. In Bangladesh alone, a sea level rise of a single meter would flood 17.5% of the country, which with today’s demographics would displace about 25 million people; the sea level rise required to threaten the Northeast Corridor is likely to produce a nine-figure global refugee crisis.
To Amtrak’s credit, it’s somewhat pushing back against the apocalyptic language – for now. The Bloomberg article tries to demagogue about how unconcerned Amtrak is with climate change-related flooding, but at least the quotes given in the piece suggest Amtrak views this as a concern, just not one it’s going to talk about while the president openly says climate change is a Chinese conspiracy. Once the political winds will shift, Amtrak as portrayed by a close reading of the article will presumably shift its rhetoric.
However, the credit Amtrak gets for not pushing this line right now is limited. Sarah Feinberg, a former FRA administrator who was also on the panel for Governor Cuomo’s MTA genius grant competition, is described as saying talking about climate change won’t fly in Congress. In other words, in Feinberg and Amtrak’s view, “we need money to flood-proof the Northeast Corridor” is not a preposterous proposition, but a demand to be reserved until the Democrats are in charge of the federal government.
In the 2000s, Amtrak fired David Gunn from his position as CEO, since he wouldn’t succumb to political pressure to skimp on maintenance in order to achieve on-paper profitability so that Amtrak could be privatized. In his stead, the Amtrak board installed the more pliable Joe Boardman. Then Obama replaced Bush and economic stimulus replaced domestic spending cuts, and suddenly Amtrak discovered a backlog of maintenance, demanding billions of dollars that could have built 350 km/h high-speed rail between Boston and Washington already for state of good repair instead. The backlog has increased ever since, as it became clear Amtrak could just ask for more money without having to show any work for it as long as it was couched in language about maintenance.
The same mentality is still in place today. The required response of the American transportation complex to climate change: an immediate end to any public spending on roads and airports and massive spending on public transportation, intercity rail, and electric car charging stations, in that order. Amtrak has a role to play in advocating for more rail use as mitigation of transportation emissions, which are currently the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
However, responding this way would require Amtrak to run better service. It would require it to stop playing agency turf games with other railroad agencies – after all, the planet does not care who owns which piece of track on the Northeast Corridor. It would require it to show visible improvements in speed, capacity, coverage, and reliability. It is not capable of producing these improvements and neither do other federal organs dealing with passenger rail, such as the FRA-led NEC Future effort. Thus, it is preparing the way to argue for a massive increase in spending that is explicitly not designed to produce any tangible benefit.
There is a way forward, but not with any of the people in charge today. They are incapable of managing large projects or even smoothly running a railroad in regular service, and should be replaced by people who have the required experience. Feinberg is a political operative who before her appointment as FRA head in 2015 had no background in transportation; evidently, together with the other judges of the genius grant she greenlit manifestly impossible projects.
Evidently, when New York City Transit hired a chair with a strong transportation background, namely Andy Byford, suddenly plans became more than just the state of good repair black hole plus court-mandated accessibility retrofits. Byford insists on specific positive improvements, which lay riders can judge in the coming decade as they see more elevator access and higher train frequency, provided his plan’s very high cost is funded.
With Amtrak, in contrast, there is only a black hole. There is an extremely expensive high-speed rail plan out there, but the first segment Amtrak wants to build, Gateway, wouldn’t provide any tangible benefit in speed or even capacity (the current state of Gateway is a $11 billion tunnel without additional surface tracks, so the two-track bottleneck would remain). A project that was once a critical capacity increase has since been downgraded into the state of good repair black hole, in which many tens of billions of dollars can disappear without showing anything. As the NEC Future process evolves, any calls for high-speed rail in the Northeast are likely to evolve in the same direction: no improvement, just endless money poured on the same service quality as today, justified in terms of adaptation or resilience.
Six and a half years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was going to revise its passenger train regulations. The old regulations required trains to be unusually heavy, wrecking the performance of nearly every piece of passenger rolling stock running in the United States. Even Canada was affected, as Transport Canada’s regulations mirrored those south of the border. The revision process came about for two reasons: first, the attempt to apply the old rules to the Acela trains created trains widely acknowledged to be lemons and hangar queens (only 16 out of 20 can operate at any given time; on the TGV the maximum uptime is 98%), and second, Caltrain commissioned studies that got it an FRA waiver, which showed that FRA regulations had practically no justification in terms of safety.
The new rules were supposed to be out in 2015, then 2016, then 2017. Then they got stuck in presidential administration turnover, in which, according to multiple second-hand sources, the incoming Republican administration did not know what to do with a new set of regulations that was judged to have negative cost to the industry as it would allow more and lower-cost equipment to run on US tracks. After this limbo, the new rules have finally been published.
What’s in the new regulations?
The document spells out the main point on pp. 13-20. The new rules are similar to the relevant Euronorm. There are still small changes to the seats, glazing, and emergency lighting, but not to the structure of the equipment. This means that unmodified European products will remain illegal on American tracks, unlike the situation in Canada, where the O-Train runs unmodified German trains using strict time separation from freight. However, trains manufactured for the needs of the American market using the same construction techniques already employed at the factories in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden should not be a problem.
In contrast, the new rules are ignoring Japan. The FRA’s excuse is that high-speed trains in Japan run on completely dedicated tracks, without sharing them with slower trains. This is not completely true – the Mini-Shinkansen trains are built to the same standards as the Shinkansen, just slightly narrower to comply with the narrower clearances on the legacy lines, and then run through to legacy lines at lower speed. Moreover, the mainline legacy network in Japan is extremely safe, more so than the Western European mainline network.
On pp. 33-35, the document describes a commenter who most likely has read either my writings on FRA regulations or those of other people who made the same points in 2011-2, who asked for rules making it possible to import off-the-shelf equipment. The FRA response – that there is no true off-the-shelf equipment because trains are always made for a specific buyer – worries me. The response is strictly speaking true: with a handful of exceptions for piggybacks, including the O-Train, orders are always tailored to the buyer. However, in reality, this tailoring involves changes within certain parameters, such as train width, that differ greatly within Europe. Changes to parts that are uniform within Europe, such as the roofing, may lead to unforeseen complications. I don’t think the cost will be significant, but I can’t rule it out either, and I think the FRA should have been warier about this possibility.
The final worry is that the FRA states the cost of a high-speed train is $50 million, in the context of modification costs; these are stated to be $300,000 for a $50 million European high-speed trainset and $4.7 million for a Japanese one. The problem: European high-speed trainsets do not cost $50 million. They cost about $40 million. Japanese sets cost around $50 million, but that’s for a 16-car 400-meter trainsets, whereas European high-speed trainsets are almost always about 200 meters long, no matter how many cars they’re divided into. If the FRA is baking in cost premiums due to protectionism or bespoke orders, this is going to swamp the benefits of Euronorm-like regulations.
But cost concerns aside, the changes in the buff strength rules are an unmitigated good. The old rules require trainsets to resist 360-945 metric tons of force without deformation (360 for trains going up to 200 km/h, 945 beyond 200 km/h), which raises their mass by several tons per cars – and lightweight frames require even more extra mass. The new ones are based on crumple zones using a system called crash energy management (CEM), in which the train is allowed to deform as long as the deformation does not compromise the driver’s cab or the passenger-occupied interior, and this should not require extra train mass.
How does it affect procurement?
So far, the new rules, though telegraphed years in advance, have not affected procurement. With the exception of Caltrain, commuter railroads all over the country have kept ordering rolling stock compliant with the old rules. Even reformers have not paid much attention. In correspondence with Boston-area North-South Rail Link advocates I’ve had to keep insisting that schedules for an electrified MBTA must be done with modern single-level EMUs in mind rather than with Metro-North’s existing fleet, which weighs about 65 metric tons per car, more than 50% more than a FLIRT per unit of train length.
It’s too late for the LIRR to redo the M9, demanding it be as lightweight as it can be. However, New Jersey Transit’s MultiLevel III is still in the early stages, and the railroad should scrap everything and require alternate compliance in order to keep train mass (and procurement cost) under control.
Moreover, the MBTA needs new trains. If electrification happens, it will be because the existing fleet is so unreliable that it becomes attractive to buy a few EMUs to cover the Providence Line so that at least the worst-performing diesels can be retired. Under no circumstance should these trains be anything like Metro-North’s behemoths. The trains must be high-performance and as close as possible to unmodified 160 km/h single-level regional rail rolling stock, such as the DBAG Class 423, the Coradia Continental, the Talent II, or, yes, the FLIRT.
Metra is already finding itself in a bind. It enjoys its antediluvian gallery cars, splitting the difference between one and two decks in a way that combines the worst of both worlds; first-world manufacturers have moved on, and now Metra reportedly has difficulty finding anyone that will make new gallery cars. Instead, it too should aim at buying lightly modified European trains. These should be single-level and not bilevel, because bilevels take longer to unload, and Chicago’s CBD-dominant system is such that nearly all passengers would get off at one station, Millennium Station at the eastern edge of the Loop, where there are seven terminating tracks and (I believe) four approach tracks.
Ultimately, on electrified lines, the new rules permit trains that are around two thirds as heavy as the existing EMUs and have about the same power output. Substantial improvements in train speed are possible just from getting new equipment, even without taking into account procurement costs, maintenance costs, and electricity consumption. Despite its flaws, the new FRA regulation is positive for the industry and it’s imperative that passenger railroads adapt and buy better rolling stock.
Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).
When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.
But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.
Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.
But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.
The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.
Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.
In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.
Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.
Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.
The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.
If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.
Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.
Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.
The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.
When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.
In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.
I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,
- A post about MBTA-HSR compatibility
- A post about Metro-North-HSR compatibility between New York and New Rochelle
- A compendium of cost saving measures I called NEC, 90% Cheaper, back when Amtrak’s budget for it was only $150 billion
- A followup about capacity in the New York commuter belt
- A look at track-sharing around Washington Union Station
- A criticism of Amtrak’s lack of integration between rolling stock and infrastructure plans
- Another look at planning coordination
- A criticism of NEC Future’s overpriced plan ($300 billion for full-fat HSR!)
- A very long and detailed look at New Rochelle-Greens Farms
Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.
To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.
In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.
The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.
Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.
Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.
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.
In 2009, studies began for a replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel. This tunnel, located immediately west of Baltimore Penn Station, has sharp curves, limiting passenger trains to about 50 km/h today. The plan was a two-track passenger rail tunnel, called the Great Circle Tunnel since it would sweep a wide circular arc; see yellow line here. It would be about 3 kilometers and cost $750 million, on the high side for a tunnel with no stations, but nothing to get too outraged about. Since then, costs have mounted. In 2014, the plan, still for two tracks, was up to $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Since then, costs have exploded, and the new Final Environmental Impact Statement puts the project at $4 billion. This is worth getting outraged about; at this cost, even at half this cost, the tunnel should not be built. However, unlike in some other cases of high construction costs that I have criticized, here the problem is not high unit costs, but pure scope creep. The new scope should be deleted in order to reduce costs; as I will explain, the required capacity is well within the capability of two tracks.
First, some background, summarized from the original report from 2009, which I can no longer find: Baltimore was a bottleneck of US rail transportation in the mid-19th century. In the Civil War, there was no route through the city; Union troops had to lug supplies across the city, fighting off mobs of Confederate sympathizers. This in turn is because Baltimore’s terrain is quite hilly, with no coastal plain to speak of: the only flat land on which a railroad could be easily built was already developed and urbanized by the time the railroad was invented. It took until the 1870s to build routes across the city, by which time the US already had a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, intense competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) ensured that each company would built its own tunnel. The two-track B&P is the PRR tunnel; there’s also a single-track freight tunnel, originally built by the B&O, now owned by CSX, into which the B&O later merged.
Because of the duplication of routes and the difficult geography, the tunnels were not built to high standards. The ruling grade on the B&P is higher than freight railroads would like, 1.34% uphill departing the station, the steepest on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) south of Philadelphia. This grade also reduces initial acceleration for passenger trains. The tunnel also has multiple sharp curves, with the curve at the western portal limiting trains today to 30 mph (about 50 km/h). The CSX tunnel, called Howard Street Tunnel, has a grade as well. The B&P maintenance costs are high due to poor construction, but a shutdown for repairs is not possible as it is a key NEC link with no possible reroute.
In 2009, the FRA’s plan was to bypass the B&P Tunnel with a two-track passenger rail tunnel, the Great Circle Tunnel. The tunnel would be a little longer than the B&P, but permit much higher speeds, around 160 km/h, saving Acela trains around 1.5 minutes. Actually the impact would be even higher, since near-terminal speed limits are a worse constraint for trains with higher initial acceleration; for high-performance trains, the saving is about 2-2.5 minutes. No accommodation was made for freight in the original plan: CSX indicated lack of interest in a joint passenger and freight rail tunnel. Besides, the NEC’s loading gauge is incompatible with double-stacked freight; accommodating such trains would require many small infrastructure upgrades, raising bridges, in addition to building a new tunnel.
In contrast, the new plan accommodates freight. Thus, the plan is for four tracks, all built to support double-stacked freight. This is despite the fact that there is no service plan that requires such capacity. Nor can the rest of the NEC support double-stacked freight easily. Of note, Amtrak only plans on using this tunnel under scenarios of what it considers low or intermediate investment into high-speed rail. Under the high-investment scenario, the so-called Alternative 3 of NEC Future, the plan is to build a two-track tunnel under Downtown Baltimore, dedicated to high-speed trains. Thus, the ultimate plan is really for six tracks.
Moreover, as pointed out by Elizabeth Alexis of CARRD, a Californian advocacy group that has criticized California’s own high-speed rail cost overruns, the new tunnel is planned to accommodate diesel trains. This is because since 2009, the commuter rail line connecting Baltimore and Washington on the NEC, called the MARC Penn Line, has deelectrified. The route is entirely electrified, and MARC used to run electric trains on it. However, in the last few years MARC deelectrified. There are conflicting rumors as to why: MARC used the pool of Amtrak electric locomotives, and Amtrak is stopping maintaining them as it is getting new locomotives; Amtrak is overcharging MARC on electricity; MARC wants fleet compatibility with its two other lines, which are unelectrified (although the Penn Line has more ridership than both other lines combined). No matter what, MARC should immediately reverse course and buy new electric trains to use on the Penn Line.
Freight trains are more complicated – all US freight trains are dieselized, even under catenary, because of a combination of unelectrified yards and Amtrak’s overcharging on electric rates. However, if freight through the Great Circle Tunnel is desired, Amtrak should work with Norfolk Southern on setting up an electric district, or else Norfolk Southern should negotiate trackage rights on CSX’s existing tunnel. If more freight capacity is desired, private companies NS and CSX can spend their own money on freight tunnels.
In contrast, a realistic scenario would ignore freight entirely, and put intercity and regional trains in the same two-track tunnel. The maximum capacity of a two-track high-speed rail line is 12 trains per hour. Near Baltimore Penn the line would not be high-speed, so capacity is defined by the limit of a normal line, which is about 24 tph. If there is a service plan under which the MARC Penn Line could get more than 12 tph at the peak, I have not seen it. The plans I have seen call for 4 peak tph and 2 off-peak tph. There is a throwaway line about “transit-like” service on page 17, but it’s not clear what is meant in terms of frequency.
Regardless of what the state of Maryland thinks MARC could support, 12 peak regional tph through Baltimore is not a reasonable assumption in any scenario in which cars remain legal. The tunnels are not planned to have any stations, so the only city station west of Baltimore Penn is West Baltimore. Baltimore is not a very dense city, nor is West Baltimore, most famous for being the location of The Wire, a hot location for transit-oriented development. Most of Baltimore’s suburbs on the Penn Line are very low-density. In any scenario in which high-speed rail actually fills 12 tph, many would be long-range commuters, which means people who live in Baltimore and work in Washington would be commuting on high-speed trains and not on regional trains. About the upper limit of what I can see for the Penn Line in a realistic scenario is 6 tph peak, 3-4 tph off-peak.
Moreover, there is no real need to separate high-speed and regional trains for reasons of speed. High-speed trains take time to accelerate from a stop at Baltimore: by the portal, even high-acceleration sets could not go much faster than 200 km/h. An in-tunnel speed limit in the 160-180 km/h area only slows down high-speed trains by a few seconds. Nor does it lead to any noticeable speed difference with electrified regional trains, which would reduce capacity: modern regional trains like the FLIRT accelerate to 160 km/h as fast as the fastest-accelerating high-speed train, the N700-I, both having an acceleration penalty of about 25 seconds.
The upshot is that there is no need for any of the new scope added since 2009. There is no need for four tracks; two will suffice. There is no need to design for double-stacked freight; the rest of the line only accommodates single-stacked freight, and the NEC has little freight traffic anyway. Under no circumstances should diesel passenger trains be allowed under the catenary, not when the Penn Line is entirely electrified.
The new tunnel has no reason to cost $4 billion. Slashing the number of tunnels from four to two should halve the cost, and reducing the tunnels’ size and ventilation needs should substantially reduce cost as well. With the potential time gained by intercity and regional trains and the reduced maintenance cost, the original budget of $750 million is acceptable, and even slightly higher costs can be justified. However, again because the existing two-track capacity can accommodate any passenger rail volume that can be reasonably expected, the new tunnel is not a must-have. $4 billion is too high a cost, and good transit activists should reject the current plan.
A year ago, based on a leak from Senator Charles Schumer’s office, I attacked Amtrak for paying double for its new high-speed trains – $2.5 billion for 28 trainsets, about $11 million per car. Amtrak at the time denied the press release, saying it was still in the process of selecting a bidder. However, last week Amtrak announced the new order, confirming Schumer’s leak. The trainsets are to cost $2 billion, or $9 million per car, with an additional $500 million spent on other infrastructure. The vendor is Alstom, which is branding all of its export products under the umbrella name Avelia; this train is the Avelia Liberty.
You can see a short promotional video for the trains here and read Alstom’s press release here. Together, they make it obvious why the cost is so high – about twice as high per car as that of Eurostar’s Velaro order, and three times as high as that of the shorter-lived N700 Shinkansen. The Avelia Liberty is a bespoke train, combining features that have not been seen before. Technical specs can also be seen in Alstom’s press kit. The Avelia Liberty will,
- Have a top speed of 300 km/h.
- Have articulated bogies.
- Be capable of 7 degrees of tilt, using the same system as in Alstom’s Pendolino trainset.
In particular, the combination of high speed and high degree of tilt, while technically feasible, does not exist in any production train today. It existed in prototype form, as a tilting TGV, but never made it to mass production. The Pendolino has a top speed of 250 km/h, and the ICE-T has a top speed of 240 km/h. Faster tilting trains do not tilt as much: Talgo claims the Talgo 350 is capable of lateral acceleration of 1.2 m/s^2 in the plane of the train, which corresponds to 180 mm of cant deficiency, achievable with 2-3 degrees of tilt; the tilting Shinkansen have moderate tilting as well, which the JRs call active suspension: the N700 tilts 1 degree, and appears capable of 137 mm of cant deficiency (270 km/h on 2.5 km curves with 200 mm cant), whereas the E5 and E6 tilt 2 degrees, and appear capable of 175 mm (in tests they were supposed to do 360 km/h on 4 km curves with 200 mm cant, but only run at 320 km/h for reasons unrelated to track geometry).
I have argued before, primarily in comments, that a train capable of both high speed and high degree of tilt would be useful on the Northeast Corridor, but not at any price. Moreover, the train is not even planned to run at its advertised top speed, but stay limited to 257 km/h (160 mph), which will only be achievable on short segments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Amtrak has no funded plan to raise the top speed further: the plans for constant-tension catenary in New Jersey are the only funded item increasing top speed. There is no near-term plan on the horizon to obtain such funding – on the contrary, Amtrak’s main priority right now is the Gateway tunnel, providing extra capacity and perhaps avoiding a station throat slowdown, but not raising top speed.
Running trains at 300 km/h on the segments that allow the highest speeds today, or are planned to after the speedup in New Jersey, would save very little time (75 seconds in New Jersey, minus acceleration and deceleration penalties). Making full use of high top speed requires sustaining it over long distances, which means fixing curves in New Jersey that are not on the agenda, installing constant-tension catenary on the entire New York-Washington segment and not just over 40 km of track in New Jersey to eliminate the present-day 215 km/h limit, and building a bypass of the entire segment in southeastern Connecticut along I-95. None of these is on the immediate agenda, and only constant-tension catenary is on the medium-term agenda. Hoping for future funding to materialize is not a valid strategy: the trains would be well past the midpoint of their service lives, and spend many years depreciating before their top speed could be used.
What’s more, if substantial bypasses are built, the value of tilting decreases. In advance of the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) ordered 29 trainsets, without tilting, replacing the tilting Pendolino trains that go through the older tunnel. SBB said tilting would only offer minimal time reduction. The eventual cost of this order: about $36 million per trainset as long as 8 US cars. On the entire Northeast Corridor, the place where tilting does the most to reduce travel time is in Connecticut, and if the eastern half of the tracks in the state are bypassed on I-95, tilting loses value. West of New Haven, tilting is not permitted at all, because of Metro-North’s rules for trains using its tracks; on that segment, tilting will always be valuable, because of the difficulty of finding good rights-of-way for bypasses not involving long tunnels, but to my knowledge Amtrak has not made any move to lift the restriction on tilting. Even with the restriction lifted, a 300+ km/h train with moderate tilting, like the N700 or E5/6 or the Talgo AVRIL, could achieve very fast trip times, with only a few minutes of difference from a hypothetical train with the same top speed and power-to-weight ratio and 7 degrees of tilt. It may still be worth it to develop a train with both high speed and a high degree of tilt, but again, not at any cost, and certainly not as the first trainset to use the line.
Another issue is reliability. The Pendolino tilt system is high-maintenance and unreliable, and this especially affects the heavier Acela. SBB’s rejection of tilting trains was probably in part due to the reliability issues of previous Pendolino service across the Alps, leading to long delays. Poor reliability requires more schedule padding to compensate, and this reduces the advantage gained from faster speed on curves. While tilting trains are overall a net positive on curvy routes like the Connecticut segment of the Northeast Corridor, they are probably not useful in any situation in which 300 km/h top speeds are achievable for a meaningful length of time. This goes double for the Avelia Liberty, which is not a proven Pendolino but a new trainset, sold in a captive market that cannot easily replace it if there are maintenance issues.
In my post a year ago, I complained that Amtrak’s specs were conservative, and did not justify the high cost. I stand behind that assessment: the required trip times are only moderate improvements over the current schedule. At least between New York and Boston, the improvement (9 minutes plus stop penalty at New London) is less than the extent of end-of-line schedule padding, which is at least 10 minutes from Providence to Boston for northbound trains. However, to achieve these small trip time improvements, Amtrak elected to demand exacting specs from the trainsets, leading to high equipment costs.
In 2013, I expounded on this very decision by borrowing a Swiss term: the triangle of rolling stock, infrastructure, and timetable. Planning for all three should be integrated. For example, plans for increases in capacity through infrastructure improvements should be integrated with plans for running more trains, with publicly circulated sample schedules. In this case, the integration involves rolling stock and infrastructure: at low infrastructure investment, as is the case today, there is no need for 300 km/h trainsets, whereas at high investment, high top speed is required but 7-degree tilt is of limited benefit. Instead of planning appropriately based on its expectations of near-term funding, Amtrak chose to waste about a billion dollars paying double for trainsets to replace the Acela.
Amtrak’s plan for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, at a cost of about $290 billion depending on the exact alternative chosen, is unacceptably costly. I went into some details of where excess cost comes from in an older post. In this post, I hope to start a series in which I focus on a specific part of the Northeast Corridor and propose a cheaper alternative than what the NEC Future plan assumes is necessary. The title is taken from a post of mine from four years ago; since then, the projected costs have doubled, hence the title is changed from 90% cheaper to 95% cheaper. In this post, I am going to focus on untangling Frankford Junction.
Frankford Junction is one of the slowest parts of the Northeast Corridor today south of New York. It has a sharp S-curve, imposing a speed limit of 50 mph, or 80 km/h. While worse slowdowns exist, they are all very close to station throats. For example, Zoo Junction just north of Philadelphia 30th Street Station has a curve with radius about 400 meters and an interlocking, so that superelevation is low. The speed limit is low (30 mph, or 50 km/h), but it’s only about 2 km out of the station; it costs about 2 minutes, and with proper superelevation and tilting the speed limit could be doubled, reducing the time cost to 25 seconds. In contrast, Frankford Junction is about 13 km out of 30th Street Station; an 80 km/h restriction there, in the middle of what could be a 200 km/h zone, makes it uneconomic for trains to accelerate to high speed before they clear the junction. This impacts about 4 km, making it a 108-second slowdown, which can be mitigated by either more tilting or a wider curve. In reality, a mixture is required.
The NEC Future plan for high-speed rail, the $290 billion Alternative 3, avoids the Frankford Junction S-curve entirely by tunneling under Center City and building a new HSR station near Market East, a more central location than 30th Street; see PDF-pp. 19, 20, and 78 of Appendix A of the environmental impact statement. This option should be instantly disposed of: 30th Street is close enough to the Philadelphia CBD, and well-connected enough to the region by public transit, that it is no worse a station choice than Shin-Osaka. The Tokaido Shinkansen could not serve Osaka Station as a through-station without tunneling; since Japan National Railways wanted to be able to extend HSR onward, as it eventually did with the Sanyo Shinkansen, it chose to serve Osaka via a new station, Shin-Osaka, 3 km away from the main station. Given the expense of long tunnels under Philadelphia, the slightly less optimal station today should be retained as good enough.
A lower-powered plan providing some HSR functionality, Alternative 2, does not include a new tunnel under Philadelphia, but instead bypasses Frankford Junction. On Appendix A, this is on PDF-pp. 19, 20, and 70. Unfortunately, the bypass is in a tunnel, which appears to be about 4 kilometers. The tunnel has to cross under a minor stream, Frankford Creek, adding to the cost. Instead, I am going to propose an alignment that bypasses the tunnel, with moderate takings, entirely above ground.
In brief, to minimize trip times without excessive construction, it is best to use the highest superelevation and cant deficiency that HSR technology supports today. The maximum superelevation is 200 mm, on the Tokaido Shinkansen (link, PDF-p. 41); there were plans to raise superelevation to 200 mm on the Tohoku Shinkansen, to permit a maximum speed of 360 km/h, but they were shelved as that speed created problems unrelated to superelevation, including noise, pantograph wear, and long braking distances. The maximum cant deficiency on existing trainsets capable of more than 300 km/h is about 180 mm, including the E5/E6 Shinkansen and the Talgo 350 and Talgo AVRIL. Tilting trains capable of nearly 300 mm cant deficiency exist, but are limited to 250 km/h so far. With 200 mm superelevation and 175 mm cant deficiency, speed in meters per second equals square root of (2.5 * curve radius in meters); the minimum curve radius for 200 km/h is then 1,235 meters.
An S-curve requires some distance to reverse the curve, to avoid shocking the train and the passengers with a large jerk, in which they suddenly change from being flung to the right to being flung to the left. If you have ridden a subway, sitting while the train was decelerating, you must have noticed that as the train decelerated, you felt some force pushing you forward, but once the train came to a complete stop, you’d be pulled backward. This is the jerk: your muscles adjusted to being pushed forward and resisting by pulling backward, and once the train stopped, they’d pull you back while adjusting back to the lack of motion. This is why S-curves built a long time ago, before this was well-understood, impose low speed limits.
With today’s computer-assisted design and engineering, it’s possible to design perfect S-curves with constant, low jerk. The limits are described in the above link on PDF-pp. 30 and 38. With the above-described specs, both sets of standards described in the link require 160 meters of ramp. For a single transition from tangent track to a fully superelevated curve, this can be modeled very accurately as 80 meters of straight track plus the circular curve (half the transition spiral is within the curve); the displacement from an actual spiral curve is small. For an S-curve, this requires double the usual transition, so 160 meters of tangent track between the two circles; bear in mind that this distance grows linearly with speed, so on full-speed 360 km/h track, nearly 300 meters are required.
Here is a drawing of two circles and a tangent track between them. The curve of course consists only of a short arc of each circle. The straight segment is a little less than 700 meters, which permits a gentle spiral. The curves have radius 1,250 meters. Takings include a charter school, a wholesale retailer, an auto shop, and what appears to be industrial parking lots, but as far as I can tell no residences (and if I’m wrong, then very few residences, all very close to industrial sites). The charter school, First Philadelphia Preparatory, is expanding, from 900 students in 2012-3 to an expected 1,800 in 2018-9. School construction costs in Pennsylvania are high, and $100 million is expected for a school of that size; see also table 5 on PDF-p. 7 here for national figures. The remaining takings are likely to cost a fraction of this one. Even with the high cost of takings, it is better to realign about 2 kilometers of track above-ground, at perhaps $150 million, than to build 4 km of tunnel, at $1.5 billion; both figures are based on cost items within the NEC Future documents. This represents a saving of about 83% over Alternative 2, which is projected to cost $116-121 billion excluding rolling stock (PDF-p. 42 of chapter 9 of the EIS).
Given the long spiral length, it may be feasible to avoid the charter school entirely. This would probably require shrinking curve radius slightly, permitting 180 or 190 km/h rather than 200 km/h. However, the travel time cost is measured in seconds: with about 11 km from the end of Zoo Junction to the northern end of Frankford Junction, of which 1 is required just to accelerate to speed, the difference between 200 and 180 km/h is 20 seconds. Further savings, reducing this time difference, are possible if the speed limit without taking the school is 190, or if trains accelerate to 200, decelerate to curve speed, and accelerate again to the north. This option would improve the cost saving over Alternative 2 to about 90%.
The correct way forward for affordable improvement of the Northeast Corridor is to look for ways in which expensive infrastructure can be avoided. If a tunnel can be replaced by a viaduct at the cost of a few extra takings, it should be. If an expensive undertaking can be avoided at the cost of perhaps 10 seconds of extra travel time, then it probably should be avoided. There should be some idea of how much it’s acceptable to spend per minute of marginal travel time saving, by segment: the New York-Philadelphia segment has the heaviest traffic and thus should have the highest maximum cost per unit of time saved. But even then, $100 million for 20 seconds is probably too high, and $100 million for 10 seconds is certainly too high.
Two recent news items have driven home the point that American construction costs are out of control. The first is the agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey to fund the Gateway project, at a cost of $20 billion. The second is the release of more detailed environmental impact studies for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; I previously expressed tepidly positive sentiment toward the NEC Future concept, but now there are concrete cost projections: the only full HSR option, Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. As such, I am going to ignore other issues in this post, such as whether to serve Hartford on the mainline or not: they are real issues, but are secondary concerns to the outrageous cost figures.
Although both Gateway and NEC Future have extreme costs – too high for me to be able to support either project – the causes of those high costs are different. Gateway includes not just a new tunnel across the Hudson but also substantial unnecessary scope in Penn Station South; however, I suspect that even if the scope is pared down to the minimum required to provide four tracks from Newark to New York, the budget would still be very high. The bare Gateway tunnel (including Penn South) is to my understanding $14-16 billion; the maximum cost that can be justified by the extra ridership, unless additional operating improvements (which can be done today) are in place, is about $7 billion. As with Second Avenue Subway, there is a real problem of high unit costs. I emphasize that there is too much scope in Gateway, but the scope alone cannot explain why 5 km of tunnel cost many billions, when expensive non-US projects such as Crossrail top at a billion dollars per km and the geologically more complex Marmaray tunnel cost (in PPP terms) about $400 million per km.
The situation with NEC Future is different, in two ways. First, if Gateway cuts a zero from the budget, I will consider it a solid project, perhaps even an inexpensive one given the wide river crossing. (For reference, in 2003 the projected cost was $3 billion). In contrast, if NEC Future cuts a zero from its budget, I will still consider it too expensive – perhaps worth it because of the benefits of HSR, but certainly too high to be built without further inquiry. $29 billion for 720 km is justified for a line with a fair amount of tunneling and entirely greenfield construction, whereas the NEC has long segments that are already nearly ready for HSR and requires very little tunneling.
But second, and more importantly, NEC Future’s unit costs are not high. Read appendix B.06, which discusses cost: on PDF-p. 28 it breaks down cost by item, and other than the tunnels, which at $400-500 million per km are several times as expensive as intercity rail tunnels usually are, the infrastructure items’ per-km costs are reasonable. And the NEC doesn’t require much tunneling in the first place: Connecticut may be hilly, but HSR can climb 3.5% grades and ride on top of the hills, and only in Bridgeport is tunneling really necessary. Make it perhaps 5 km of required tunneling, all around Bridgeport. When I said $10 billion would build full-fat HSR on the NEC, I assumed $200-250 million per km for the Bridgeport tunnel. I also assumed $750 million for new tunnels in Baltimore, whose cost has since risen to $4 billion in part due to extra scope (4 tracks rather than 2). So 2 extra billions come from more expensive tunneling, and 278 extra billions come from bloated scope. Perhaps a subset of the 278 comes from high unit costs for systems and electrification, but these are not the main cost drivers, and are also quite easy to copy from peer developed countries. In the rest of this post, I will document some of the unnecessary scope. I emphasize that while Alternative 3 is the worst, the cost projection for Alternative 1, at $50 billion, is still several times the defensible cost of improvements.
Let us turn to chapter 4, the alternatives analysis, and start on PDF-p. 54. Right away, we see the following wasteful scope in Alternative 2:
- Full four-tracking on the Providence Line, instead of strategic overtakes as detailed here.
- A bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which at a radius of 1,746 meters imposes only a mild speed restriction on trains with E5 and Talgo tilt capability, 237 km/h.
- An entirely new tunnel from Penn Station to Sunnyside, adding a third East River tunnel even though the LIRR is not at capacity now, let alone after East Side Access opens.
- A tunnel under Philadelphia, so as to serve the city at Market East rather than 30th Street Station.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks in New Jersey parallel to the NEC, rather than scheduling commuter trains on existing local tracks as detailed here.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks alongside much of the New Haven Line, even in areas where the existing alignment is too too curvy.
- Extensive tunneling between New Haven and Providence (see PDF-pp. 69-70 and 75), even in Alternative 1, even though HSR trains can climb the grades on the terrain without any tunnels outside the Providence built-up area if the tracks go west.
Alternative 2 also assumes service connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Providence, which I do not think is the optimal alignment (it’s slightly more expensive and slower), but is defensible, unlike the long proposed tunnels under Philadelphia, totaling around 30 km. The overall concept is also far more defensible than the tunnel-heavy implementation.
Alternative 3 adds the following unnecessary scope (see PDF-pp. 58 and 76-83):
- Full six-tracking between New York and Philadelphia and between Baltimore and Washington.
- Tunnel-heavy alignment options bypassing the New Haven Line, including inland options via Danbury or a tunnel across the Long Island Sound.
- The new Baltimore tunnels are longer and include a new Baltimore CBD station, where the existing station is at the CBD’s periphery.
- If I understand correctly, new platforms at New York Penn Station under the existing station.
- Tunnels under the built-up area of Boston.
According to the cost breakdown, at-grade track costs $20 million per km, embankments cost $25 million per km, elevated track costs about $80 million per km, and tunnels cost $400 million per km. When I draw my preferred alignments, I assume the same cost elements, except tunnels are cheaper, at $200 million per km. (I also add 20% for overheads on top of these base costs, whereas these documents add contingency on top of that.) This should bias the NEC Future toward above-ground options.
Instead, look at the maps in appendix A. Alternative 3 is PDF-pp. 76-81. The options for getting out of the New York urban area include an almost entirely tunneled inland alignment, and a tunnel under the Long Island Sound; making small compromises on trip time by using the New Haven Line, and making up time elsewhere by using better rolling stock, is simply not an option to the planners.
Let’s go back to Gateway now. Although the cost premium there is not as outrageous as for NEC Future, it is a good case study in what the US will fund when it thinks the project is necessary and when there is sufficient lobbying. Paris has the political will to spend about $35 billion on Grand Paris Express, and London is spending $22 billion on Crossrail and is planning to spend much more on Crossrail 2. Between Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, the PATH terminal, East Side Access, and now Gateway, New York is planning to have spent $43 billion on public transit by the middle of next decade. And now people are talking about Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The political will to build both rapid transit and HSR in the US exists; the government spends tens of billions on it. But due to poor cost effectiveness, what the US gets for its money is almost nothing.
The $20 billion that the federal government and both states are willing to set on fire for Gateway prove that, were there a plan to build HSR so that trains would go between Boston and Washington in three and a half hours on a budget of $10-15 billion, it would be funded. This is not a marginal case, where the best plan still elicits groans from anti-tax conservatives: those conservatives ride trains between New York and Washington and want them to be faster. Instead, it is purely about excessive costs. Gateway’s $20 billion could build the tunnel and also full HSR on the NEC, and the $290 billion that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people. It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control. 95% cost savings are possible here, and this is the only thing advocates for better intercity rail in the US should be focusing on.