Category: Amtrak

Penn Station Expansion is Based on Fraud

New York is asking for $20 billion for reconstruction ($7 billion) and physical expansion ($13 billion) of Penn Station. The state is treating it as a foregone conclusion that it will happen and it will get other people’s money for it; the state oversight board just voted for it despite the uncertain funding. Facing criticism from technical advocates who have proposed alternatives that can use Penn Station’s existing infrastructure, lead agency Empire State Development (ESD) has pushed back. The document I’ve been looking at lately is not new – it’s a presentation from May 2021 – but the discussion I’ve seen of it is. The bad news is that the presentation makes fraudulent claims about the capabilities of railroads in defense of its intention to waste $20 billion, to the point that people should lose their jobs and until they do federal funding for New York projects should be stingier. The good news is that this means that there are no significant technical barriers to commuter rail modernization in New York – the obstacles cited in the presentation are completely trivial, and thus, if billions of dollars are available for rail capital expansion in New York, they can go to more useful priorities like IBX.

What’s the issue with Penn Station expansion?

Penn Station is a mess at both the concourse and track levels. The worst capacity bottleneck is the western approach across the river, the two-track North River Tunnels, which on the eve of corona ran about 20 overfull commuter trains and four intercity trains into New York at the peak hour; the canceled ARC project and the ongoing Gateway project both intend to address this by adding two more tracks to Penn Station.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread belief that Penn Station’s 21 existing tracks cannot accommodate all traffic from both east (with four existing East River Tunnel tracks) and west if new Hudson tunnels are built. This belief goes back at least to the original ARC plans from 20 years ago: all plans involved some further expansion, including Alt G (onward connection to Grand Central), Alt S (onward connection to Sunnyside via two new East River tunnel tracks), and Alt P (deep cavern under Penn Station with more tracks). Gateway has always assumed the same, calling for a near-surface variation of Alt P: instead of a deep cavern, the block south of Penn Station, so-called Block 780, is to be demolished and dug up for additional tracks.

The impetus for rebuilding Penn Station is a combination of a false belief that it is a capacity bottleneck (it isn’t, only the Hudson tunnels are) and a historical grudge over the demolition of the old Beaux-Arts station with a labyrinthine, low-ceiling structure that nobody likes. The result is that much of the discourse about the need to rebuild the station is looking for technical justification for an aesthetic decision; unfortunately, nobody I have talked to or read in New York seems especially interested in the wayfinding aspects of the poor design of the existing station, which are real and do act as a drag on casual travel.

I highlight the history of Penn Station and the lead agency – ESD rather than the MTA, Port Authority, or Amtrak – because it showcases how this is not really a transit project. It’s not even a bad transit project the way ARC Alt P was or the way Gateway with Block 780 demolition is. It’s an urban renewal project, run by people who judge train stations by which starchitect built them and how they look in renderings rather than by how useful they are for passengers. Expansion in this context is about creating the maximum footprint for renderings, and not about solving a transportation problem.

Why is it believed that Penn Station needs more tracks?

Penn Station tracks are used inefficiently. The ESD pushback even hints at why, it just treats bad practices as immutable. Trains have very long dwell times: per p. 22 of the presentation, the LIRR can get in and out in a quick 6 minutes, but New Jersey Transit averages 12 and Amtrak averages 22. The reasons given for Amtrak’s long dwell are “baggage” (there is no checked baggage on most trains), “commissary” (the cafe car is restocked there, hardly the best use of space), and “boarding from one escalator” (this is unnecessary and in fact seasoned travelers know to go to a different concourse and board there). A more reasonable dwell time at a station as busy as Penn Station on trains designed for fast access and egress is 1-2 minutes, which happens hundreds of times a day at Shin-Osaka; on the worse-designed Amtrak rolling stock, with its narrower doors, 5 minutes should suffice.

New Jersey Transit can likewise deboard fast, although it might need to throw away the bilevels and replace them with longer single-deck trains. This reduces on-board capacity somewhat, but this entire discussion assumes the Gateway tunnel has been built, otherwise even present operations do not exhaust the station’s capacity. Moreover, trains can be procured for comfortable standing; subway riders sometimes have to stand for 20-30 minutes and commuter rail riders should have similar levels of comfort – the problem today is standees on New Jersey Transit trains designed without any comfortable standing space.

But by far the biggest single efficiency improvement that can be done at Penn Station is through-running. If trains don’t have to turn back or even continue to a yard out of service, but instead run onward to suburbs on the other side of Manhattan, then the dwell time can be far less than 6 minutes and then there is much more space at the station than it would ever need. The station’s 21 tracks would be a large surplus; some could be removed to widen the platform, and the ESD presentation does look at one way to do this, which isn’t necessarily the optimal way (it considers paving over every other track to widen the platforms and permit trains to open doors on both sides rather than paving over every other track pair to widen the platforms much more but without the both-side doors). But then the presentation defrauds the public on the opportunity to do so.

Fraudulent claim #1: 8 minute dwells

On p. 44, the presentation compares the capacity with and without through-running, assuming half the tracks are paved over to widen the platforms. The explicit assumption is that through-running commuter rail requires trains to dwell 8 minutes at Penn Station to fully unload and load passengers. There are three options: the people who wrote this may have lied, or they may be incompetent, or they be both liars and incompetent.

In reality, even very busy stations unload and load passengers in 30-60 seconds at rush hour. Limiting cases reaching up to 90-120 seconds exist but are rare; the RER A, which runs bilevels, is the only one I know of at 105.

On pp. 52-53, the presentation even shows a map of the central sections of the RER, with the central stations (Gare du Nord, Les Halles, and Auber/Saint-Lazare) circled. There is no text, but I presume that this is intended to mean that there are two CBD stations on each line rather than just one, which helps distribute the passenger load better; in contrast, New York would only have one Manhattan station on through-trains on the Northeast Corridor, which requires a longer dwell time. I’ve heard this criticism over the years from official and advocate sources, and I’m sympathetic.

What I’m not sympathetic to is the claim that the dwell time required at Penn Station is more than the dwell time required at multiple city center stations, all combined. On the single-deck RER B, the combined rush hour dwell time at Gare du Nord and Les Halles is around 2 minutes normally (and the next station over, Saint-Michel, has 40-60 second rush hour dwells and is not in the CBD unless you’re an academic or a tourist); in unusual circumstances it might go as high as 4 minutes. The RER A’s combined dwell is within the same range. In Munich, there are six stations on the S-Bahn trunk between Hauptbahnhof and Ostbahnhof – but at the intermediate stations (with both-sides door opening) the dwell times are 30 seconds each and sometimes the doors only stay open 20 seconds; Hauptbahnhof and Ostbahnhof have longer dwell times but are not busier, they just are used as control points for scheduling.

The RER A’s ridership in 2011 was 1.14 million trips per weekday (source, p. 22) and traffic was 30 peak trains per hour and 24 reverse-peak trains; at the time, dwell times at Les Halles and Auber were lower than today, and it took several more years of ridership growth for dwell times to rise to 105 seconds, reducing peak traffic to 27 and then 24 tph. The RER B’s ridership was 983,000 per workday in 2019, with 20 tph per direction. Munich is a smaller city, small enough New Yorkers may look down on it, but its single-line S-Bahn had 950,000 trips per workday in 2019, on 30 peak tph in each direction. In contrast, pre-corona weekday ridership was 290,000 on the LIRR, 260,000 on Metro-North, and around 270,000 on New Jersey Transit – and the LIRR has a four-track tunnel into Manhattan, driving up traffic to 37 tph in addition to New Jersey’s 21. It’s absurd that the assumption on dwell time at one station is that it must be twice the combined dwell times at all city center stations on commuter lines that are more than twice as busy per train as the two commuter railroads serving Penn Station.

Using a more reasonable figure of 2 minutes in dwell time per train, the capacity of through-running rises to a multiple of what ESD claims, and through-running is a strong alternative to current plans.

Fraudulent claim #2: no 2.5% grades allowed

On pp. 38-39, the presentation claims that tracks 1-4 of Penn Station, which are currently stub-end tracks, cannot support through-running. In describing present-day operations, it’s correct that through-running must use the tracks 5-16, with access to the southern East River Tunnel pair. But it’s a dangerously false assumption for future infrastructure construction, with implications for the future of Gateway.

The rub is that the ARC alternatives that would have continued past Penn Station – Alts P and G – both were to extend the tunnel east from tracks 1-4, beneath 31st Street (the existing East River Tunnels feed 32nd and 33rd). Early Gateway plans by Amtrak called for an Alt G-style extension to Grand Central, with intercity trains calling at both stations. There was always a question about how such a tunnel would weave between subway tunnels, and those were informally said to doom Alt G. The presentation unambiguously answers this question – but the answer it gives is the exact opposite of what its supporting material says.

The graphic on p. 39 shows that to clear the subway’s Sixth Avenue Line, the trains must descend a 2.45% grade. This accords with what I was told by Foster Nichols, currently a senior WSP consultant but previously the planner who expanded Penn Station’s lower concourse in the 1990s to add platform access points and improve LIRR circulation, thereby shortening LIRR dwell times. Nichols did not give the precise figure of 2.45%, but did say that in the 1900s the station had been built with a proviso for tracks under 31st, but then the subway under Sixth Avenue partly obstructed them, and extension would require using a grade greater than 2%.

The rub is that modern urban and suburban trains climb 4% grades with no difficulty. The subway’s steepest grade, climbing out of the Steinway Tunnel, is 4.5%, and 3-3.5% grades are routine. The tractive effort required can be translated to units of acceleration: up a 4% grade, fighting gravity corresponds to 0.4 m/s^2 acceleration, whereas modern trains do 1-1.3 m/s^2. But it’s actually easier than this – the gradient slopes down when heading out of the station, and this makes the grade desirable: in fact, the subway was built with stations at the top of 2.5-3% grades (for example, see figure 7 here) so that gravity would assist acceleration and deceleration.

The reason the railroaders don’t like grades steeper than 2% is that they like the possibility of using obsolete trains, pulled by electric locomotives with only enough tractive effort to accelerate at about 0.4 m/s^2. With such anemic power, steeper grades may cause the train to stall in the tunnel. The solution is to cease using such outdated technology. Instead, all trains should be self-propelled electric multiple units (EMUs), like the vast majority of LIRR and Metro-North rolling stock and every subway train in the world. Japan no longer uses electric locomotives at all on its day trains, and among the workhorse European S-Bahn systems, all use EMUs exclusively, with the exception of Zurich, which still has some locomotive-pulled trains but is transitioning to EMUs.

It costs money to replace locomotive-hauled trains with EMUs. But it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Gateway won’t be completed tomorrow; any replacement of locomotives with EMUs on the normal replacement cycle saves capital costs rather than increasing them, and the same is true of changing future orders to accommodate peak service expansion for Gateway. Prematurely retiring locomotives does cost money, but New Jersey Transit only has 100 electric locomotives and 29 of them are 20 years old at this point; the total cost of such an early retirement program would be, to first order, about $1 billion. $1 billion is money, but it has independent transportation benefits including faster acceleration and higher reliability, whereas the $13 billion for Penn Station expansion have no transportation benefits whatsoever. Switzerland may be a laggard in replacing the S-Bahn’s locomotives with EMUs, but it’s a leader in the planning maxim electronics before concrete, and when the choice is between building a through-running tunnel for EMUs and building a massive underground station to store electric locomotives, the correct choice is to go with the EMUs.

How do they get away with this?

ESD is defrauding the public. The people who signed their names to the presentation should most likely not work for the state or any of its contractors; the state needs honest, competent people with experience building effective mass transit projects.

Those people walk around with their senior manager titles and decades of experience building infrastructure at outrageous cost and think they are experts. And why wouldn’t they? They do not respect any knowledge generated outside the New York (occasionally rest-of-US) bubble. They think of Spain as a place to vacation, not as a place that built 150 kilometers of subway 20 years ago for the same approximate cost as Second Avenue Subway phases 1 and 2. They think of smaller cities like Milan as beneath their dignity to learn about.

And what’s more, they’ve internalized a culture of revealing as little as possible. That closed attitude has always been there; it’s by accident that they committed two glaring acts of fraud to paper with this presentation. Usually they speak in generalities: the number of people who use the expression “apples-to-apples” and provide no further detail is staggering. They’ve learned to be opaque – to say little and do little. Most likely, they’re under political pressure to make the Penn Station reconstruction and expansion look good in order to generate what the governor thinks are good headlines, and they’ve internalized the idea that they should make up numbers to justify a political project (and in both the Transit Costs Project and previous reporting I’d talked to people in consulting who said they were under such formal or informal pressure for other US projects).

The way forward

With too much political support for wasting $20 billion at the state level, the federal government should step in and put an end to this. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has $66 billion for mainline rail; none of this money should go to Penn Station expansion, and the only way any money should go to renovation is if it’s part of a program for concrete improvement in passenger rail function. If New York wishes to completely remodel the platform level, and not just pave over every other track or every other track pair, then federal support should be forthcoming, albeit not for $7 billion or even half that. But it’s not a federal infrastructure priority to restore some kind of social memory of the old Penn Station. Form follows function; beautiful, airy train stations that people like to travel through have been built under this maxim, for example Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

To support good rail construction, it’s obligatory that experts be put in charge – and there aren’t any among the usual suspects in New York (or elsewhere in the US). Americans respect Germany more than they do Spain but still less than they should either; unless they have worked in Europe for years, their experience at Berlin Hbf and other modern stations is purely as tourists. The most celebrated New York public transportation appointment in recent memory, Andy Byford, is an expert (on operations) hired from abroad; as I implored the state last year, it should hire people like him to head major efforts like this and back them up when they suggest counterintuitive things.

Mainline rail is especially backward in New York – in contrast, the subway planners that I’ve had the fortune to interact with over the years are insightful and aware of good practices. Managers don’t need much political pressure to say absurd things about gradients and dwell times, in effect saying things are impossible that happen thousands of times a day on this side of the Pond. The political pressure turns people who like pure status quo into people who like pure status quo but with $20 billion in extra funding for a shinier train hall. But both the political appointees and the obstructive senior managers need to go, and managers below them need to understand that do-nothing behavior doesn’t get them rewarded and (as they accumulate seniority) promoted but replaced. And this needs to start with a federal line in the sand: BIL money goes to useful improvements to speed, reliability, capacity, convenience, and clarity – but not to a $20 billion Penn Station reconstruction and expansion that do nothing to address any of these concerns.

No New Washington Union Station, Please

A new presentation dropped for Amtrak’s plans to rebuild Union Station. It is mostly pictorial, but even the pictures suggest that this is a very low-value project, one with little to no transportation value and limited development value. The price tag is now $10 billion (it was $7 billion 10 years ago; the increase is somewhat more than cumulative inflation), but even if two zeros are cut from the budget it’s not necessarily worth it.

What are the features of good train stations?

A train station is interface between passengers and trains. Everything about their construction must serve this purpose. This includes the following features:

  • Platforms that can effectively connect to the trains (Union Station has a mix of high and low platforms; all platforms used by Northeast Corridor trains must be raised).
  • Minimum distance from platform to street or to urban transit.
  • Some concessions and seats for travelers, all in an open area.
  • Ticketing machines.
  • An information booth with maps of the area and station facilities.
  • Nothing more.

In particular, lavish waiting halls not only waste of money but also often have negative transport value, as they either force passenger to walk longer between street and platform or steer them to take an option that involves a longer walk; the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York is an example of the latter failure. Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a rare example of a major urban station built recently in a rich country, has extensive shopping, but it’s all designed around fast street-platform and S-Bahn-intercity connections.

What are the features of Washington Union Station expansion?

The presentation highlights the following features:

  • A new concourse beneath the platforms.
  • A new concourse on H Street with a prominent headhouse, with bus and streetcar connections.
  • An enclosed bus facility.
  • Underground parking.
  • Future air rights development.

All of the above are wasteful. Connections to H Street can be handled through direct egress points from the platforms to the street, and passengers can get between H Street and the main historic station via those egress points and the platforms themselves. The platforms are key circulation spaces at a train station and using them for passenger movements is normal; I can see an argument against that if the platforms are unusually narrow or crowded, as is the case in New York, but in Washington there is no such excuse.

Nor is Union Station a major node for city buses. Washington’s surface transit network serves the station, but it’s not a major bus node – only a handful of buses terminate there and they don’t run frequently – and even if it were, a surface bus loop akin to what Ostbahnhof has in Berlin would have sufficed. Thus, the bus infrastructure should be descoped, and buses should keep using the streets.

So, none of the transit connections have any value. Parking, moreover, has negative value, as it encourages access to the area by car, displacing transit trips. Union Station already has a Metro connection as well as some surface transit. Better rail operations would also improve commuter rail access for intercity rail riders. Unfortunately, the plan does not improve those operations, nor is there any plan for much needed capital investment to go alongside better mainline rail operations, such as Virginia electrification and high platforms.

What about the air rights?

They are a poor use of money. Building towers on top of active railyards is more difficult and more expensive than building them on firma. Hudson Yards projects in New York came in at around $12,000 per square meter in hard costs, twice the cost of Manhattan skyscrapers on firma except those associated with the World Trade Center, which were unusually costly.

Nor is the location just north of the historic Union Station so desirable that developers would voluntarily pay the railyard premium to be there. The commercial center of Washington is well to the west of the site, comprising Metro Center and Farragut. More office towers around Union Station would be nice for rebalancing and for generating demand for future mainline rail improvements, but the place for them is on firma around the existing station and not on top of the approach tracks.

What should be done?

The plan should be rejected in its entirety and no further funding should be committed to it. Good transit activists should demand that spending on public transportation and intercity rail go to those purposes and not toward building unnecessary train halls. Moreover, it is unlikely the managers at Amtrak who pushed for it and who still are the client for the project understand modern rail operations, nor is it likely that they will ever learn. With neither need nor use for the project, it should be canceled and the people involved in its management and supervision laid off.

The Northeastern United States Wants to Set Tens of Billions on Fire Again

The prospect of federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is getting every agency salivating with desires for outside money for both useful and useless priorities. Northeastern mainline rail, unfortunately, tilts heavily toward the useless, per a deep dive into documents by New York-area activists, for example here and here.

Amtrak is already hiring project management for Penn Station redevelopment. This is a project with no transportation value whatsoever: this is not the Gateway tunnels, which stand to double capacity across the Hudson, but rather a rebuild of Penn Station to add more tracks, which are not necessary. Amtrak’s current claim is that the cost just for renovating the existing station is $6.5 billion and that of adding tracks is $10.5 billion; the latter project has ballooned from seven tracks to 9-12 tracks, to be built on two levels.

This is complete overkill. New train stations in big cities are uncommon, but they do exist, and where tracks are tunneled, the standard is two platform tracks per approach tracks. This is how Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep section goes: the North-South Main Line is four tracks, and the station has eight, on four platforms. Stuttgart 21 is planned in the same way. In the best case, each of the approach track splits into two tracks and the two tracks serve the same platform. Penn Station has 21 tracks and, with the maximal post-Gateway scenario, six approach tracks on each side; therefore, extra tracks are not needed. What’s more, bundling 12 platform tracks into a project that adds just two approach tracks is pointless.

This is a combined $17 billion that Amtrak wants to spend with no benefit whatsoever; this budget by itself could build high-speed rail from Boston to Washington.

Or at least it could if any of the railroads on the Northeast Corridor were both interested and expert in high-speed rail construction. Connecticut is planning on $8-10 billion just to do track repairs aiming at cutting 25-30 minutes from the New York-New Haven trip times; as I wrote last year when these plans were first released, the reconstruction required to cut around 40 minutes and also upgrade the branches is similar in scope to ongoing renovations of Germany’s oldest and longest high-speed line, which cost 640M€ as a once in a generation project.

In addition to spending about an order of magnitude too much on a smaller project, Connecticut also thinks the New Haven Line needs a dedicated freight track. The extent of freight traffic on the line is unclear, since the consultant report‘s stated numbers are self-contradictory and look like a typo, but it looks like there are 11 trains on the line every day. With some constraints, this traffic fits in the evening off-peak without the need for nighttime operations. With no constraints, it fits on a single track at night, and because the corridor has four tracks, it’s possible to isolate one local track for freight while maintenance is done (with a track renewal machine, which US passenger railroads do not use) on the two tracks not adjacent to it. The cost of the extra freight track and the other order-of-magnitude-too-costly state of good repair elements, including about 100% extra for procurement extras (force account, contingency, etc.), is $300 million for 5.4 km.

I would counsel the federal government not to fund any of this. The costs are too high, the benefits are at best minimal and at worst worse than nothing, and the agencies in question have shown time and time again that they are incurious of best practices. There is no path forward with those agencies and their leadership staying in place; removal of senior management at the state DOTs, agencies, and Amtrak and their replacement with people with experience of executing successful mainline rail projects is necessary. Those people, moreover, are mid-level European and Asian engineers working as civil servants, and not consultants or political appointees. The role of the top political layer is to insulate those engineers from pressure by anti-modern interest groups such as petty local politicians and traditional railroaders who for whatever reasons could not just be removed.

If federal agencies are interested in building something useful with the tens of billions of BIL money, they should instead demand the same results seen in countries where the main language is not English, and staff up permanent civil service run by people with experience in those countries. Following best industry practices, $17 billion is enough to renovate the parts of the Northeast Corridor that require renovation and bypass those that require greenfield bypasses; even without Gateway, Amtrak can squeeze a 16-car train every 15 minutes, providing 4,400 seats into Penn Station in an hour, compared with around 1,700 today – and Gateway itself is doable for low single-digit billions given better planning and engineering.

How to Spend Money on Public Transport Better

After four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, here’s how I think it’s possible to do better. Compare what I’m proposing to posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, federal aid to operations, and a bad Green New Deal proposal by Yonah Freemark.

If you’re thinking how to spend outside (for example, federal) money on local public transportation, the first thing on your mind should be how to spend for the long term. Capital spending that reduces long-term operating costs is one way to do it. Funding ongoing operating deficits is not, because it leads to local waste. Here are what I think some good guidelines to do it right are.

Working without consensus

Any large cash infusion now should work with the assumption that it’s a political megaproject and a one-time thing; it may be followed by other one-time projects, but these should not be assumed. High-speed rail in France, for example, is not funded out of a permanent slush fund: every line has to be separately evaluated, and the state usually says yes because these projects are popular and have good ROI, but the ultimate yes-no decision is given to elected politicians.

It leads to a dynamic in which it’s useful to invest in the ability to carry large projects on a permanent basis, but not pre-commit to them. So every agency should have access to public expertise, with permanent hires for engineers and designers who can if there’s local, state, or federal money build something. This public expertise can be in-house if it’s a large agency; smaller ones should be able to tap into the large ones as consultants. In France, RATP has 2,000 in-house engineers, and it and SNCF have the ability to build large public transport projects on their own, while other agencies serving provincial cities use RATP as a consultant.

It’s especially important to retain such planning capacity within the federal government. A national intercity rail plan should not require the use of outside consultants, and the federal government should have the ability to act as consultant to small cities. This entails a large permanent civil service, chosen on the basis of expertise (and the early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience) and not politics, and yet the cost of such a planning department is around 2 orders of magnitude less than current subsidies to transit operations in the United States. Work smart, not hard.

However, investing in the ability to build does not mean pre-committing to build with a permanent fund. Nor does it mean a commitment to subsidizing consumption (such as ongoing operating costs) rather than investment.

Funding production, not consumption

It is inappropriate to use external infusions of cash for operations and, even worse, maintenance. When maintenance is funded externally, local agencies react by deferring maintenance and then crying poverty whenever money becomes available. Amtrak fired David Gunn when the Bush administration pressured it to defer maintenance in order to look profitable for privatization and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman, and then when the Obama stimulus came around Boardman demanded billions of dollars for state of good repair that should have built a high-speed rail program instead.

This is why American activists propose permanent programs – but those get wasted fast, due to surplus extraction. A better path forward is to be clear about what will and will not be funded, and putting state of good repair programs in the not-funded basket; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework’s negotiations were right to defund the public transit SOGR bucket while keeping the expansion bucket.

Moreover, all funding should be tied to using the money prudently – hence the production, not consumption part. This can be capital funding, with the following priorities, in no particular order:

  • Capital funding that reduces long-term operating costs, for example railway electrification and the installation of overhead wires (“in-motion charging“) on bus trunks.
  • Targeted investments that improve the transit experience. Bus shelter is extremely cost-effective on this point and a federal program to fund it at a level of around $15,000/stop (not more – it’s easy to make local demands that drive it up to $50,000) would have otherworldly social rates of return. Washington bureaucrats are loath to be this explicit about what to do – they try to speak in circumlocutions, saying “standards for bus stops” instead of just funding shelter, or “transit asset management” instead of just committing to not playing the SOGR game.
  • Accessibility upgrades. This require close federal control to eliminate local waste, because much of the money would be going to New York, which has a long-term problem of siphoning accessibility money to other priorities like adding station access points or repairing stations, and has a uniquely incompetent local environment when it comes to construction costs.
  • Planning aid for improving bus-rail interface; these two modes are often not planned together in American cities, and commuter rail is not planned in conjunction with other modes. San Jose, for example, has a proposal for large expansion of bus service, part of which is parallel to Caltrain; the local agency, VTA, owns one third of Caltrain and could expand rail service within the county and integrate it with bus service better, but does not do so.
  • Rail automation, to reduce long-term operating costs. Bus automation could go in this bucket too but is at this point too speculative; save it for one or two stimuli in the future.

Avoiding local extraction

Local government has very little democratic legitimacy. It’s based on informal power arrangements, in which direct elections play little role; partisan elections are rare and instead primaries reign with severe democratic deficits (for example, it’s hard to form any kind of base for opposition to challenge a sitting New York mayor or governor). Without national ideology to guide it, it is the domain of cranks and people with the time and leisure to attend community meetings on weekdays at 3 pm. Local community takes its illegitimate power and thieves what others create, whether it is the market or the state.

Recognizing this pattern means that federal funding should not under any circumstances coddle local arrangements. If, for example, California cannot spend money cost-effectively because it is constrained by referendum, federal funding can be used to bypass this system, but never work under its rules. If the local business community is traumatized by cut-and-cover construction in the distant past, the feds should insist that subway money that they give will be used for cut-and-cover instead of mined stations.

The typical surplus extraction pattern concerns car dominance. State DOTs are in effect highway departments; transit planning is siloed, usually at separate agencies. They use their power to demand the diversion of transit money to roads. For example, in Tampa, a plan to increase bus service led to a DOT demand to pave the routes with concrete lanes at transit agency expense (with federal or state transit funding). The list of BRT projects that were just highway widenings is regrettably too long. The feds should actively demand to keep transit funding for transit, and not roads, social services, policing, or other priorities.

In particular, the feds should give money for some bus improvements, but demand that agencies prioritize the bus over the car. No bus lanes? No signal priority? No money. Similarly, they should demand they engage in internal efficiency measures like stop consolidation and all-door boarding with proof of payment ticket collection, which a larger and more expert FTA can give technical assistance for.

It may also be prudent to give transitional resources, up to a certain point. Funding private-sector retraining for workers displaced by automation is good, and in some limited cases public-sector retraining, as long as it doesn’t turn into workfare (there is no way for the subway in New York to absorb redundant conductors or surplus maintenance staff). If moderate amounts of capital funding are required for bus improvements, such as traffic signal upgrades to have active control and conditional TSP, then they are good investments as well.

Conclusion

Funding public transportation is useful, provided there is enough of a connection between the source of funds and the management thereof that the money is not wasted. A larger and more technocratic federal government is an ideal organ for this, with enough planning power to propose bus network redesigns, rail planning, integrated fare systems, and intermodal coordination. It can and should have technical priorities – shelter is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit for American bus systems – and state them clearly rather than hiding behind bureaucratic phrases (again, “transit asset management” is a real phrase).

It’s fundamentally an investment rather than consumption. And as with all investments, it’s important to ensure one invests in the right thing and the right people. A local transit agency with a track record of successful projects, short lead times from planning to completion, technical orientation, and the ability to say no to highway departments and other organs that extract surplus is a good investment. One that instead genuflects before antisocial groups that launch nuisance lawsuits is not so good an investment, and funding for such an agency should be contingent on improvement in governance of the kind that will make local notables angry.

Quick Note: California Gets Electrification Wrong

Caltrans has a new plan to make its intercity rail fleet zero-emission. The snag: it rejects electrification as infeasible and is instead looking for hydrogen fuel cell trains. I do not think any of the people who were involved in this study is competent enough to keep working in this field, and it’s important to explain why.

I refer readers to the electrification report we at TransitMatters put out a few months ago. It talks about the costs and benefits of overhead wire, and goes over some case studies of some electrification projects, some good (Trondheim), some okay (Israel, Denmark), and some examples of what not to do (Caltrain, Toronto). Since then I’ve seen additional data of electrification costs out of Italy, where they’re near the bottom of our range.

Our report also goes into alternatives to wire and why they’re infeasible. Hydrogen is not even remotely close. The largest order as of 2019 was 27 trains for the Rhine-Main region, each 54 meters long, for 500M€, or around 343,000€ per linear meter; single-level EMUs typically cost around 80,000€/m in Europe. It’s infant technology with wanting performance and its cost is not worth it compared with the cost of wiring the trains.

Instead, Caltrans thinks that overhead wires are infeasible. It does not publish cost estimates; those estimates would be based on the failure of Caltrain and not on successes in non-English-speaking countries (or even in Britain, with high but not fire-everyone costs), because nobody at Caltrans who has any authority knows or cares.

To make it worse, Caltrans says electrification “has right-of-way implications.” In other words, it requires space for poles and this is supposed to be difficult. In reality, it isn’t. A short distance from the tracks is needed for poles, but the rights-of-way in the state are not especially constrained; Caltrain, in a fairly dense suburban area, did not have that problem, but rather had problems with the execution of the design and with unusual standards for pole placement.

It’s a perennial problem in the United States that rail managers and agency heads are allergic to electrification. It’s a foreign concept, literally. They don’t travel – when they do they think of it as a vacation, not as work to see how countries with an order of magnitude more rail ridership per capita do it. None of the people they know knows, either. Nor are they technically apt or curious – they come from a managerial culture in which speaking of technical details is low-prestige, and making excuses and talking about politics are high-prestige. Fresh master’s graduates in Europe know more than they ever will. They are useless, and they know it.

So they avoid that technology using whatever excuses that they can find. Hydrogen feels to them like they’re innovative; they’re not, US mainline passenger rail is a joke, but they think they are because the notion that the US is a technological laggard doesn’t come naturally to them, since in many fields, none of which is public-sector, the US really is at the technological frontier. Nor are they qualified to tell the difference between mature and experimental tech, which is why they think electrification is not affordable and hydrogen trains at four times the upfront acquisition cost and an unproven maintenance cost are.

The only long-term solution to this recurrent problem is removing the people involved. I don’t have direct experience with California the way I do with the Northeast, but between what I know of the Northeast and what Richard Mlynarik and others have said of California, what’s likely is that the top people do not know what an EMU is, the traditional railroaders think electric wires are for toy trains, and the analysts have never once written an alternatives analysis in which the outcome was not politically pre-decided.

Quick Note: Do Costs Ever Go Down?

Bad agencies have a ratchet process in costs: they can go up, but not down. If there’s a cost saving, it does not reduce the budget, but only cancels out with unspecified cost increases. Agency heads and politicians trumpet their value engineering while costs never go down, leading to premium-cost, substandard quality projects.

Case in point: the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel replacement project. The project used to be $750 million, in the 2000s, as a two-track passenger rail tunnel. Over the next decade, this turned into a four-track system with mechanical ventilation for diesel freight trains and enough clearance for double-stacked freight; costs ran over to $4 billion. Well, two months ago Amtrak announced a scope reduction back to two tracks, which it claims would save a billion dollars, cutting cost to… $4 billion.

This is not the first time this happens. Value engineering in California has had the same effect: every attempt to reduce scope – the blended plan for Northern California, plus various design compromises in both the Bay Area and the Central Valley – has failed to reduce costs. At most, they’ve prevented further cost overruns.

And in New York, the removal of the cavern underneath Penn Station in the planning process between the canceled ARC tunnel and the Gateway tunnel did not reduce costs at all. The cost estimate was $10 billion, much of which was the cavern; the cost estimate now is $10 billion for the bare tunnel with less scope than before. ARC was canceled on the grounds of potential cost overruns, and yet as soon as it took over the project, even while descoping the cavern, Amtrak presided over further increases in costs due to extras (Penn South, etc.).

It’s as if once there’s a number circulating out there, it will be spent, no matter what. If there’s a surplus, it will be blown on unspecified extras or on sheer inefficiency. Why spend $3 billion when the political system has already indicated that $4 billion is okay? Thus, 4-1 = 4, and, no doubt, if further value engineering is identified, the cost will stay $4 billion.

At no point does anyone say, okay, if there’s a cost saving, here’s the next slate of projects that the money can be spent on. Nor is there any proactive value engineering. Costs are only a problem insofar as they prevent the political system from saying yes, but even then, if there’s a number out there, even an outlandish one that nobody will say yes to (such as $117 billion for medium-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor), then it is the number. Any cuts from that are against inherently moral workers, communities, etc., in the service of inherently immoral outsiders and experts.

Amtrak’s Continued Ignorance

There was a congressional hearing about high-speed rail. Henry Miller in comments here took notes – thanks for this, much appreciated! The overall content was lacking; the politicians seemed like they were spinning their wheels, not because they themselves were bad (Reps. Tom Malinowski, Peter DeFazio, and Seth Moulton all raised interesting issues) but because they were getting ignorant advice from the witnesses, none of whom has any experience in successful high-speed rail networks. Among those, Amtrak deserves the most demerits, and its head, William Flynn, should lose his job purely over that testimony, if the reporting of what he said is accurate.

Flynn, based on both what Henry said in comments and on reporting in Politico Pro, said that Amtrak needs a trust fund on the model of that for American highways – and said that this is “the most important lesson we can learn” from countries with high-speed rail.

The rub is that countries with high-speed rail do not in fact have such trust funds. Financing models vary by country, but do not look like the American highway trust fund. For example, French LGVs are funded line-by-line, with the decision on each specific line taken at the highest level of government, with financing coming either purely from the public sector (as with the LGV Est) or from a higher-cost PPP (as with the LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique).

To understand why, it’s important to understand the relationship between politics and the civil service in functioning, high-capacity states. Politicians make big decisions on spending priorities, and then the civil service implements those decisions. There is little political input on routing decisions, and the exceptions where there is tend to have the worst, highest-cost programs. So the planning is done by the civil service, which then presents a preliminary design for politicians. But the elected politicians have the final word on the yes-no decision whether to fund, and can also ask for high-level modifications (“reduce the budget,” “give the unions the wage increases they demand,” etc.).

The American highway trust fund inverts this principle. Going back to Thomas MacDonald, federal highway builders had internal sources of money without having to ask elected politicians for regular appropriations. In contrast, politicians exerted considerably petty power over routing. For example, in Twentieth-Century Sprawl, Owen Gutfreund points out that in the early planning for what became the Interstate highways, the FDR administration reduced the scope of roads to be built in Vermont from four planned routes to two in retaliation for its voting Republican in 1936. In The Big Roads, Earl Swift also notes that MacDonald himself did not think the Interstates could pay for themselves through tolls, but, due to pressure by politicians to write a positive report, the resulting report’s coauthor proposed toll-free motorways instead, hence the prohibition on tolling Interstates. MacDonald himself was fired by the Eisenhower administration for expressing concern that the roads were hollowing out the American rail network and proposing cars-and-trains investment instead of cars-only.

And here we have Amtrak’s CEO not only supporting that model, but also lying that this model is how high-speed rail has been built. In reality, no such trust funds exist anywhere with high-speed rail. I don’t know why Flynn says such a thing, which not only is verifiably wrong, but also has no reason to be believed in the first place – there is no grain of truth to it, no trust fund-like model for high-speed rail megaprojects.

As with most such fraud, he is probably lying to himself and not just to the people who pay his salary. Americans, as a collective, are wantonly ignorant of the rest of the world. The only time they interact with the rest of the world, especially countries that don’t speak English, is through intermediaries in international consulting, who get the skewed sample of world projects that invite in international consultants, omitting the bulk of public works built in states with in-house design capacity. Individual Americans can be knowledgeable, but their knowledge is not respected, even by people who profess their interest in state capacity. Thus, no matter how smart individual Americans can get, collectively America remains incurious.

This is the most acute in mainline rail. I suspect that this relates to the rail industry’s highway envy. For a railroader like Flynn, steeped in a culture that is technologically and institutionally reactionary and looks back to its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the enemy, that is the Interstate system, is the obvious model for how to build. That this model produced severe cost overruns on the highways themselves does not matter; that treating rails institutionally like roads is inappropriate does not matter; that systems that get as much ridership in two days (cf. JR East) as Amtrak gets in an entire year and deliver a profit to their shareholders doing so work differently does not matter. The future, which is not in the United States in this field and hasn’t been in 60 years, is one in which people like Flynn do not even qualify for an internship.

And if Flynn wouldn’t qualify for an internship, why is he allowed to be the CEO? He should lose his job. The people who briefed him should lose their jobs. It is likely that full replacement of Amtrak’s planning staff and possibly the line workers too would be a big win for riders. Even total liquidation could well be a net positive relative to status quo: most Amtrak routes have no social value, and the one route that does, the Northeast Corridor, could well produce a more competent institution from among the ashes.

Without liquidation, it is still advisable to sideline Amtrak until it can be put out of its delayed customers’ misery. The best way forward institutionally is to set up an agency responsible for all Northeastern passenger rail operations, to subsume and replace Amtrak and the commuter rail operators. It will be run by people who can speak to the difference between French, German, and Japanese high-speed rail operating models, and who know how to implement integrated timed transfer networks and intermodal fare integration. It will buy imported equipment if there is no domestic equivalent for a similar price, and use standard European or East Asian methods for track geometry machines, signaling (ACSES is thankfully an Americanized variant of the European standard, ETCS), safety systems, timetabling, and so on. The United States has no shortage of dedicated people who speak Spanish, and secondarily Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, or French.

Moreover, since in many cases the knowledge does exist among Americans but isn’t valued, it is important to let American civil servants interview for such an agency. I expect that most would come from an urban transit background, where in my experience the people are more curious than in mainline rail. But American railroaders too could join if they demonstrate sufficient knowledge of advanced-world operations.

That said, under no circumstances should the organizational culture be allowed to turn into anything like present-day American railroading. Current workers who do not qualify for this agency are to be laid off, perhaps with a pro-rated pension for partial service, and told to seek private-sector work. Flynn himself has no role to play in any successful rail agency. He must go, and it’s almost certain that the rest of Amtrak’s management should as well. Every day he stays in his job is a day American railroading plans based on assumptions that can be easily verified to be fraudulent.

The United States Needs to Learn How to Learn

I just saw an announcement from November of 2020 in which the Federal Transit Administration proposes to study international best practices… in on-demand public transit.

It goes without saying that the international best practice in on-demand micromobility is “don’t.” The strongest urban public transport networks that I know of range from not making any use of it to only doing so peripherally, like Berlin. In fact, both France and Germany have rules on taxis that forbid Uber from pricing itself below the regulated rates; Japan, too, banned Uber from operating after it tried to engage in the usual adversarial games with the state that it is so familiar with from the US.

And yet, here we see an FTA program attempting to learn from other countries not how to write a rail timetable, or how to modernize regional rail, or how to design a coordinated infrastructure plan, or how to integrate fares, or how to do intermodal service planning, or how to build subways affordably. It’s perhaps not even aware of those and other concepts that make the difference between the 40% modal split of so many big and medium-size European cities and the 10-15% modal splits that non-New York American cities top at.

Instead, the FTA is asking about a peripheral technology that markets itself very aggressively to shareholders and VCs so that it can ask for more money to fund its losses.

Earlier today I saw a new announcement of congressional hearings about high-speed rail. There are 12 witnesses on the list, of whom none has any experience with actual high-speed rail. They’re American politicians plus people who either run low-speed trains (Amtrak, Brightline) or promise new vaporware technology (Hyperloop*2, Northeast Maglev). American politicians and their staffers are not that stupid, and know that there are strong HSR programs in various European and Asian countries, and yet, in the age of Zoom, they did not think to bring in executives from JR East, DB, SNCF, SBB, etc., or historians of these systems, to discuss their challenges and recommendations.

I bring up these two different examples from the FTA and Congress because the US has trouble with learning from other places. It’s not just that it barely recognizes it needs to do so; it’s that, having not done so in the past, it does not know how to. It does not know how to form an exchange program, or what questions to ask, or what implementation details to focus on. Hearing of a problem with a public agency, its first instinct is to privatize the state to a consultancy staffed by the agency’s retirees, who have the same groupthink of the current publicly-employed managers but collect a higher paycheck for worse advice.

Worse, this is a nationwide problem. Amtrak can and should fully replace its senior management with people who know how to run a modern intercity railroads, who are not Americans. But then middle management will still think it knows better and refuse to learn what a tropical algebra is or how it is significant for rail schedule planning. They do not know how to learn, and they do not recognize that it’s a problem. This percolates down to planners and line workers, and I don’t think Americans are ready for a conversation about full workforce replacement at underperforming agencies.

This will not improve as long as the United States does not reduce its level of pride to that typical of Southern Europe or Turkey. When you’re this far behind, you cannot be proud. It’s hard with American wages being this high – the useless managers even in the public sector earn more than their Northern European counterparts and therefore will not naturally find Northern Europe to have any soft power over them. Wearing sackcloth and ashes comes more naturally with Italian or Spanish wages. But it’s necessary given how far behind the US is, and bringing in people who are an American’s ideal of what a manager ought to be rather than people who know how to run a high-speed passenger railroad is a step backward.

Streaming the Biden Infrastructure Plan

I streamed my thoughts about the Biden infrastructure plan, and unlike previous streams, I uploaded this to YouTube. I go into more details (and more tangents) on video, but, some key points:

  • Out of the nearly $600 billion in the current proposal that is to be spent on transportation, public transportation is only $190 billion: $80 billion for intercity rail, $85 billion for (other) public transit, $25 billion for zero-emissions buses. This 2:1 split between cars and transit is a change from the typical American 4:1, but in Germany it’s 55:42 and that’s with right-wing ministers of transport.
  • Some of the spending on the car bucket is about electric vehicles, including $100 billion in consumer subsidies, but that’s still car spending. People who don’t drive don’t qualify for these subsidies. It’s an attempt to create political consensus by still spending on roads and not just public transit while saying that it’s green, but encouraging people to buy more cars is not particularly green, and there’s no alternative to sticks like fuel taxes in addition to carrots.
  • The $25 billion for zero-emissions buses is likely to go to battery-electric buses, which are still in growing pains and don’t function well in winter. In California, in fact, trolleybuses are funded from the fixed infrastructure bucket alongside light rail and subways and are ineligible for the bucket of funding for zero-emissions buses. It is unknown whether in-motion charging qualifies for this bucket; it should, as superior technology that functions well even in places with harsh winters.
  • The $85 billion for public transit splits as $55 billion for state of good repair (SOGR) and only $30 billion for expansion (including $5 billion for accessibility). This is a terrible idea: SOGR is carte blanche for agencies that aim to avoid public embarrassment rather than provide useful service to spend money without having to promise anything to show for it, and Amtrak in particular cycles between deferring maintenance and then crying poverty when money becomes available. Federal money should go to expansion alone; a state or local agency that doesn’t set aside money for maintenance now isn’t going to do so in the future, and periodic infusions of SOGR money create moral hazard by encouraging maintenance deferral in good times.
  • The Amtrak money is a total waste; in particular, Amtrak wants $39 billion for the Northeast Corridor while having very little to show for it, preferring SOGR, climate resilience, and agency turf battles over the Gateway project over noticeable improvements in trip times, reliability, or capacity.
  • The expansion money is not by itself bad, and in fact should grow by $55 billion at the expense of SOGR, but I worry about cost control. I’m just not sure how to express it in Washington policy language, as opposed to agency-level language regarding in-house design, more flexible procurement, civil service independence, adoption of foreign best practice and not just domestic practices, keeping station footprints small, using cut-and-cover more, and so on.

You should go watch the whole thing, which has some on-screen links to the breakdowns above, but it’s a 1:45 video.

No Cafe Cars, Please

European and American intercity train planning takes it as a given that every train must have a car dedicated to cafeteria service. This is not the only way to run trains – the Shinkansen doesn’t have cafe cars. Cafe cars waste capacity that could instead be carrying paying passengers. This is the most important on lines with capacity limitations, like the Northeast Corridor, the West Coast Main Line, the LGV Sud-Est, and the ICE spine from the Rhine-Ruhr up to Frankfurt and Mannheim. Future high-speed train procurement should go the Shinkansen route and fill all cars with seats, to maximize passenger space.

How much space do cafe cars take?

Typically, one car in eight is a cafe. The standard European high-speed train is 200 meters long, and then two can couple to form a 400-meter train, with two cafes since the two 200-meter units are separate and passengers can’t walk between them. In France, the cars are shorter than 25 meters, but a TGV has two locomotives and eight coaches in between, so again one eighth of the train’s potential passenger space does not carry passengers but rather a support service. Occasionally, the formula is changed: the ICE4 in Germany is a single 12-car, 300-meter unit, so 1/12 of the train is a cafe, and in the other direction, the Acela has six coaches one of which is a cafe.

A 16-car Shinkansen carries 1,323 passengers; standard class has 5-abreast seating, but even with 4-abreast seating, it would be 1,098. The same length of a bilevel TGV is 1,016, and a single-level TGV is 754. The reasons include the Shinkansen’s EMU configuration compared with the TGV’s use of locomotives, the lack of a cafe car in Japan, somewhat greater efficiency measured in seat rows per car for a fixed train pitch, and a smaller share of the cars used for first class. An intermediate form is the Velaro, which is an EMU but has a cafe and three first-class cars in eight rather than the Shinkansen’s three in 16; the Eurostar version has 902 seats over 16 cars, and the domestic version 920.

The importance of the first- vs. second-class split is that removing the cafe from a European high-speed train means increasing seated capacity by more than just one seventh. The bistro car is an intermediate car rather than an end car with streamlining and a driver’s cab, and if it had seats they’d be second- and not first-class. A German Velaro with the bistro replaced by a second-class car would have around 1,050 seats in 16 cars, almost even with a 4-abreast Shinkansen even with four end cars rather than two and with twice as many first-class cars.

How valuable are cafes to passengers?

The tradeoff is that passengers prefer having a food option on the train. But this preference is not absolute. It’s hard to find a real-world example. The only comparison I am aware of is on Amtrak between the Regional (which has a cafe) and the Keystone (which doesn’t), and Regional fares are higher on the shared New York-Philadelphia segment but those are priced to conserve scarce capacity for profitable New York-Washington passengers, and at any rate the shared segment is about 1:25, and perhaps this matters more on longer trips.

Thankfully, the Gröna Tåget project in Sweden studied passenger preferences in more detail in order to decide how Sweden’s train of the future should look. It recommends using more modern seats to improve comfort, making the seats thinner as airlines do in order to achieve the same legroom even with reduced pitch, and a number of other changes. The question of cafes in the study is presented as unclear, on PDF-p. 32:

Food and RefreshmentsWillingness to Pay
Coffee machine (relative to no service at all)3-6%
Free coffee and tea in each car6%
Food and drink trolley11%
Cafeteria14%
Restaurant with hot food17%

Put another way, the extra passenger willingness to pay for a cafeteria compared with nothing, 14%, is approximately equal to the increase in capacity on a Velaro coming from getting rid of the bistro and replacing it with a second-class car. The extra over a Shinkansen-style trolley is 3%. Of course, demand curves slope down, so the gain in revenue from increasing passenger capacity by 14% is less than 14%, but fares are usually held down to a maximum regulatory level and where lines are near capacity the increase in revenue is linear.

Station food

Instead of a bistro car, railroads should provide passengers with food options at train stations. In Japan this is the ekiben, but analogs exist at major train stations in Europe and the United States. Penn Station has a lot of decent food options, and even if I have to shell out $10 for a pastrami sandwich, I don’t think it’s more expensive than a Tokyo ekiben, and at any rate Amtrak already shorts me $90 to travel to Boston. The same is true if I travel out of Paris or Berlin.

Even better, if the station is well-designed and placed in a central area of the city, then passengers can get from the street to the platform very quickly. At Gare de l’Est, it takes maybe two minutes, including time taken to print the ticket. This means that there is an even broader array of possible food options by buying on the street, as I would when traveling out of Paris. In that case, prices and quality approach what one gets on an ordinary street corner, without the premium charged to travelers when they are a captive market. The options are then far better than what any bistro car could produce, without taking any capacity away from the train at all.