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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Refreshments||Willingness to Pay|
|Coffee machine (relative to no service at all)||3-6%|
|Free coffee and tea in each car||6%|
|Food and drink trolley||11%|
|Restaurant with hot food||17%|
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.
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.
American railfans are full of nostalgia for a past era when American trains were great. So much of the discussion among industry insiders, railfans, and advocates is about how to make American railroads great again, how to return to the mid-20th century era of American domination. This is not correct history: while American railroads were in fact in a pretty good position from the 1920s to the 50s, they were not competitive with mass motorization and air travel, and trying to imitate what they were like then has no chance of competing with cars or planes. The story of American railroads has to be understood not as decline but as stagnation: operations, technology, and management stagnated, and this is what led to ridership decline. Instead of indulging in a MAGA fantasy about past greatness, it is important for the United States to implement all the innovations of the last half century that it has missed out on, innovations coming from East Asia and Western Europe.
American railroads were private until Amtrak took over intercity operations and states took over commuter rail operations, which happened well after the terminal decline in ridership. There was intense competition between rival companies, at times leading to physical violence. There was no coordination of operations between different railroads, no coordination with municipal public transportation systems, no attempt at seamless passenger experience. What was the point? This system evolved in the early 20th century, when there was no competition from other modes, only from other railroads.
Over time, most of the rest of the developed world has learned to coordinate different modes of public transportation better, to compete with cars. This usually occurred under nationalized mainline rail companies, but even when companies remained separate, as with the division between municipal subways (e.g. the Berlin U-Bahn) and national railways (e.g. the S-Bahn), or with the separate BLS system around and south of Bern, there has been integration. There is fare and schedule coordination in German cities across rail and bus operators, and even better coordination in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The US remains fixated on competition, and thus there is no fare integration, but rather relationships between different operators are adversarial. In Chicago, the mayor opposes integration between the municipal L and the regionally-owned Metra commuter rail system, since the city does not own Metra. Every time Amtrak has to share territory with a commuter railroad, one side is screwing the other out of something, whether it’s Amtrak overcharging on electricity or Metro-North arbitrarily slowing Amtrak down. In Boston, there is no integration between city-focused MBTA service, which includes commuter rail, and buses in outlying cities, called RTAs (regional transit authorities); the MBTA is simply uninterested in matching fares or schedules, and is not even integrating its own buses with its commuter trains.
Switzerland has higher rail usage than every place I know of once one controls for city size. Zurich’s modal split may not be as favorable to public transportation as Paris or London’s, but is a world better than that of any French or British city of similar size. Switzerland got to this point through a stingy political process in which planners had to stretch every franc, substituting organizational capacity for money. Thus, construction in the 1990s used the following principles of value engineering:
- Infrastructure, rolling stock, and the timetable should be planned together (the magic triangle), since decisions on each affect the other two.
- Trains should run as fast as necessary for transfer windows, overtakes, meets on single track, etc. Infrastructure should likewise be only as expansive as necessary – if the timetable does not have trains on a given single track meeting, this segment does not need to be doubled.
- Trains should have timed transfers at major cities, to enable everywhere-to-everywhere travel. Connecting buses should be timed with the regional trains at major suburban nodes.
- Electronics before concrete: it’s cheaper to resignal a line to have short headways and high speeds than to add tracks and tunnels.
These principles do not exist in the United States. Worse, too many American activists, even ones who are pretty good on related issues, do not believe it’s even possible to implement them. “This isn’t Switzerland or Japan” is a common refrain. There’s growing understanding among American cycling advocates that 50 years ago the Netherlands wasn’t as bike-friendly as it is today; there sadly isn’t such understanding regarding the state of rail coordination in Switzerland until about the 1990s.
While Switzerland manages to build its Knot System at low cost, leading to sharp increases in rail usage in the 2000s and 2010s, Americans are unable to do the same. Activists propose massive spending, which the political system is unwilling to fund. Nor is the political system interested in adapting low-cost solutions for infrastructure coordination, since the sort of apparatchiks who governors like appointing to head state agencies can’t implement them; we all know what happened last time a foreigner got appointed to a major position and succeeded too much. The way forward is right there, and the entire American political system, from every governor down to most activists, either is ignorant of it or explicitly rejects it.
Amtrak runs slower than it used to on most lines. Trip times on the Northeast Corridor south of New York are if anything slightly slower than they were in the 1970s in the early days of the Metroliner. The corridor and long-distance service outside the Northeast are considerably slower. For example, the Super Chief took 39:45 between Chicago and Los Angeles, whereas its current Amtrak version, the Southwest Chief, takes 43:10. At shorter range, the Chicago-St. Louis trains take 5:20 today, compared with 4:55 in the 1930s. This has led too many Americans to assume that there has been technological regression and that the main focus should be on restoring midcentury service levels rather than on moving forward.
In reality, high speeds in the middle of the 20th century came from the facts that express passenger trains were highly profitable and used by important people and so had priority over all other traffic, and that superelevation was set high for these trains; both of these aspects collapsed as riders and high-value shippers decided driving and flying were better than taking 5-hour train rides, so the profit center shifted to low-value freight. Today, getting high passenger ridership is plausible at high-speed rail speeds, but that requires getting Chicago-St. Louis down to 2 hours, not 5 hours, and having excellent connections to local and regional public transportation at both ends.
Nor was midcentury rolling stock good by current standards. Electric locomotives in Europe weigh around 90 tons. American ones weigh a little more, still in compliance with superseded FRA regulations enacted just after WW2. But the locomotives from just before these regulations weighed far more: the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG1 weighed 215 metric tons. Europe has achieved weight reductions over generations of innovation since, and Japan has achieved even more impressive reductions; 215 tons would get you 2/3 of the way to a 10-car EMU set in Tokyo.
Worse, even in the middle of the 20th century, the US was no longer at the technological forefront of rail service. The civil service formation following the German Revolution brought forth a new railway law and new technology, such as the tangential switch, since adopted throughout Continental Europe; the US mostly sticks with secant switches built to late-19th century specs. In the 1950s the differences between German and American rail technology weren’t huge, but they were there. Since then they’ve gradually widened – in the 1960s Germany came up with LZB signaling, while the US was at best stuck on 1930s signaling, federal regulations on the matter leading to lower top speeds than to the adoption of automatic train protection.
There seems to be general ignorance of the advances that the US has not been part of. Rail managers ask questions like “does Europe have positive train control?” (yes, ETCS is already a second-generation system, we just call this automatic train protection instead of positive train control) or say “Europe doesn’t have the ADA” (accessibility laws here are comparable to American ones and overall the public transportation networks here are on average more accessible). In technology as in organization, the MAGA mentality for trains refuses to admit that there are innovations abroad to learn from.
The way forward: imitate, don’t innovate
The United States can innovate in public transportation, but only if it imitates better countries first. It needs to learn what works in Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Finland, Austria. It needs to learn how to plan around cooperation between different agencies and operators, how to integrate infrastructure and technology, how to use 21st-century engineering.
There are great places where such imitation could work. I work a lot on Boston-related issues at TransitMatters; New England has high population density, a wealthy and growing urban core in Boston, ample legacy rail infrastructure, and town centers that work more like Central European suburban sprawl (albeit at lower density) than like structureless Californian or Texan sprawl. But it can’t move forward without rejecting MAGA fantasies and replacing them with a program of learning from what works here and in Japan. There are so many projects under discussion of limited or no value, and some even with negative value, like anything that interacts with the hobby freight railroad Pan Am.
Instead, the tendency in the United States is to do anything to avoid learning from outside North America. Plans for intercity rail improvement outside the Northeast and California are steeped with MAGA language about restoring midcentury rail. Plans in New York spend far too much time on midcentury expansion plans and far too little on understanding cost explosion factors dating to the 1920s. Regional rail plans vaguely nod to European S-Bahns, but are generally filtered through several layers, mainly Philadelphia’s implementation. Anything that touches freight invites kludges that European planners no longer use for cost or maintenance reasons.
This tendency has to end. Meiji Japan didn’t join the first world by closing itself to foreign inventions – quite the opposite. The US needs to understand that the path to a future with better American transportation lies not in America’s past, but in Europe and East Asia’s present. The history isn’t one of American decline and renaissance through rediscovery of ancient learning, but one of American insularity and stagnation, to which the solution is to adapt technologies that work elsewhere.
Public transportation companies may have the ability to raise fares arbitrarily based on market demands, for examples British buses outside London and American freight railroads. Or they may be subject to regulations capping the fare, for example Japanese railroads. Mixed systems exist as well, such as British rail fares. In Britain, the privatized, mostly deregulated approach is so commonly accepted that a Conservative recently called Labour dangerous socialists for proposing municipalizing bus systems, as in such socialist states as the US, Japan, Germany, etc. In reality, in the case of rail specifically (and perhaps buses as well), there’s a theoretical case with some empirical backing for why reasonable fare caps as in Japan can lead to more investment and more capacity, whereas wholly unregulated fares lead to hoarding and capacity cuts to create shortages.
I’m stealing the economic model for this post from Paul Krugman, who used it to explain the California blackouts of 2000-1. The demand curve is inelastic: the demand is 1,000 units at $20/unit, decreasing to 900 units at $1,000/unit, at which point the curve goes flat. The supply curve is a constant $20/unit, but the market is oligopolistic (say, there are very high barriers to entry because building your own power plant is hard), and there are 5 producers, each with 200 units. If the price is regulated at $20/unit, each producer will supply 200 units. If the price is unregulated, then each producer alone gets an incentive to hold back production, since 100*1000 > 200*20, and then production will be curtailed to 900 units.
The model is simplified in a number of ways: real supply curves slope up; the part about demand going flat at 900 units is unrealistic and exists purely to avoid dealing with optimizing where at 800-something units each producer has an incentive to go back to producing more; capacity constraints involve escalating production costs rather than a God-given restriction on the number of suppliers and their capacity. But with all these caveats, it fits markets that have the following characteristics:
- There are steep barriers to entry, for example if large amounts of capital are required to enter (to build a power plant, set up a rail operating company, etc.).
- Demand is highly inelastic.
- Adding new capacity is expensive.
The issue of capacity
In rail, we can start plugging real numbers for both demand elasticity and the cost of new capacity.
In the above model the price elasticity is -0.0244 in the 900-1,000 units range, which is ridiculously inelastic, on purpose so as to highlight how the model works. TCRP Report 95 says the elasticity in a number of large cities studied is about -0.18, and a VTPI review in a mixture of cities and circumstances (peak vs. off-peak, bus vs. rail, etc.) asserts a short-term average of about -0.3. Unregulated fares will lead to supply reductions if the elasticity times the number of producers is more than -1 (or less than 1 if you flip signs); if no producer has <18% of the market, there will be supply restrictions under unregulated fares, just as a monopolist will hold back supply and raise fares if demand is inelastic.
The cost of new capacity of course depends on the line and the characteristics of competition between different railroads. It’s higher in Japan, where separate railroads run their own lines and trains, than in Britain, where different companies franchise to run trains on the same tracks. But even in Britain, getting a franchise requires a commitment to running service for many years. The significance of this is that the long-run public transport ridership elasticity with respect to fare is more elastic (VTPI recommends a range of -0.6 to -0.9), with a few estimates even going below -1.
For the purposes of this section, we do not distinguish capital from operating costs. Thus, the cost of new capacity is not given in units of capital costs, but in units of operating costs: if increasing service by 1% raises operating expenses by 2% counting the extra investment required, then we say the supply elasticity is 2. Note that supply curves slope up so the elasticity is always positive, but the elasticity can be below 1, for example if economies of scale are more important than the need to invest in new capacity.
Set the following variables: u is quantity of service, r is total revenue (thus, fare is r/u), c is total costs. The railroad is assumed profitable, so r > c. We are interested in the change in profit based on quantity of service, i.e.
The important thing to note is that price controls keep dr/du higher in an oligopoly (but not in a competitive environment, like housing – a single landlord can’t meaningfully create a housing shortage). With price controls, we get
whereas without price controls, with elasticity , we get
And likewise, with supply elasticity , we get
Note, moreover, that price controls as construed in Japan let operating companies recover profits, letting them raise prices if they invest in more capacity, so that dr/du is actually higher than r/u.
The real world
I do not know to what extent the lack of fare regulation on many British trains contributes to capacity shortages. However, there is some evidence that the same situation is holding back investment in the United States, on Amtrak. Amtrak is a monopolist facing some fare regulations, for example congressional rules limiting the spread between the lowest and highest fares on a given train, but within its ability to set its own capacity in the medium run, it has relatively free hand, and in fact a strong incentive to maximize fares, in order to subsidize money-losing trains outside the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak generally runs the trains it has on the Northeast Corridor, without explicitly holding back on capacity. However, this is in an environment with very low utilization rates. There are 20 Acela trainsets, but only 16 run in service at a given time, giving them the moniker “hangar queens.” There is no real interest within Amtrak at raising speed just enough to be able to run consistent service intervals, for example hourly with two trainsets coupled to form a 16-car train south of New York. Nor is there any interest in making small investments to permit such long trainsets to run – most Acela stops from New York to the south have platforms long or almost long enough for such trains, but the rest need to be lengthened, within right-of-way so that the cost is positive but low.
In the future, capacity cliffs may prove serious enough to stymie American passenger rail development. Right now the main obstacle are Amtrak itself and obstructive commuter railroads such as Metro-North, but assuming competent, profit-maximizing investment plans, it is not so expensive to invest in capacity and speed so as to permit around 4 long high-speed trains per hour north of New York (or even New Haven) and 6 south of it. But then the next few trains per hour require further bypasses, for example four-tracking most of the Providence Line. High supply elasticity – let’s say around 2 – is plausible. Then eventually a dedicated pathway to intercity trains through New York becomes necessary, raising supply elasticity even higher. In an environment with uncapped, profit-maximizing fares, a rational Amtrak management may well just keep what it has and jack up prices rather than build more capacity.
Governor Ned Lamont’s plan for speeding up trains between New York, New Haven, and Hartford seems to have fallen by the wayside, but Metro-North and the Connecticut Department of Transportation are still planning for future investments. Several high-level officials met with the advocates from the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, and the results are unimpressive – they have made false statements out of ignorance of not just best practices outside North America but also current federal regulations, including the recent FRA reform.
The meeting link is a video and does not have a searchable transcript, so I’m going to give approximate timestamps and ask that people bear with me. At several points, highly-paid officials make statements that are behind the times, unimaginative, or just plain incorrect. The offenders are Richard Andreski, the bureau chief of public transportation for CDOT, who according to Transparency.CT earns a total of $192,000 a year including fringe benefits, and Glen Hayden, Metro-North’s vice president of engineering, who according to See Through NY earns an annual base salary of $219,000.
20-25 minutes: there’s a discussion, starting a few minutes before this timestamp, about Metro-North’s future rolling stock procurement. In addition to 66 M8 electric multiple units (EMUs), the railroad is planning to buy 60 unpowered railcars. Grilled about why buy unpowered railcars rather than multiple units, such as diesel multiple units (DMUs), Andreski said a few questionable things. He acknowledged that multiple units accelerate faster than locomotive-hauled trains, but said that this was not needed on the lines in question, that is the unpowered Metro-North branch lines, Shore Line East, and the New Haven-Hartford line. In reality, the difference, on the order of 45 seconds per stop at a top speed of 120 km/h (55 seconds if the top speed is 144 km/h), and electrification both massively increases reliability and saves an additional 10 seconds per stop (or 30 if the top speed is 144).
More worryingly, Andreski talks about the need for flexibility and the installed base of diesel locomotives. He suggests unpowered cars are more compatible with what he calls the train of the future, which runs dual-mode. Dual-mode trains today are of low quality, and the innovation in the world focuses on single-mode electric trains, with a growing number of railroads electrifying as well as transitioning to multiple units. Metro-North itself is a predominantly EMU-based railroad – running more EMUs, especially on the already-wired Shore Line East, is more compatible with its existing infrastructure and maintenance regime than keeping low-performing diesel branches and running diesel under catenary on the trunk line.
1:14-1:17: Andreski states that the 60 unpowered single-level cars should cost about $250 million, slightly more than $4 million per car. When a reader of this blog noted that in the rest of the world, a 25-meter multiple-unit costs $2.5 million, Andreski responded, “this is not accurate.” The only trouble is, it is in fact accurate; follow links to contracts reported in Railway Gazette in the rolling stock cost section of this post. It is not clear whether Andreski is lying, ignorant, or in a way both, that is making a statement with reckless disregard for whether it is true.
Hayden then chimes in, talking about FRA regulations, saying that they’re different from American ones, so European and Asian prices differ from American ones, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he just threw Andreski under the bus – Andreski said that multiple-units do not cost $2.5 million per car and if a public contract says they do then it’s omitting some extra costs. The only problem is, FRA regulations were recently revised to be in line with European ones, with specific eye toward permitting European trains to run on American tracks with minimal modifications, measured in tens of thousands of dollars of extra cost per car. In a followup conversation off-video, Hayden reiterated that position to longtime reader Roger Senserrich – he had no idea FRA regulations had been revised.
Hayden’s response also includes accessibility requirements. Those, too, are an excuse, albeit a slightly defensible one: European intercity trains, which are what American tourists are most likely to have experience with, are generally inaccessible without the aid of conductors and manual boarding plates. However, regional trains are increasingly fully accessible, at a variety of floor heights, and it’s always easier to raise the floor height to match the high platforms of the Northeast Corridor than to lower it to match those of low-platform networks like Switzerland’s.
1:45: asked about why Metro-North does not run EMUs on the wired Shore Line East, a third official passes the buck to Amtrak, saying that Amtrak is demanding additional tests and the line is Amtrak’s rather than Metro-North’s property. This is puzzling, as 1990s’ Amtrak planned around electrification of commuter rail service east of New Haven, to the point of constructing its substations with room for expansion if the MBTA were ever interested in running electric service on the Providence Line. It’s possible that Amtrak today is stalling for the sake of stalling, never mind that commuter rail electrification would reduce the speed difference with its intercity trains and thus make them easier to schedule and thus more reliable. But it’s equally possible that CDOT is being unreasonable; at this point I would not trust either side of any Amtrak-commuter rail dispute.
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.