Category: Construction Costs

Meme Weeding: Unions and Construction Costs

Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.

American costs are high even without unions

The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.

However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:

We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.

Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.

Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.

Non-labor problems in American transit

I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.

When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:

  1. Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
  2. Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
  3. Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
  4. Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.

Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.

But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?

In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.

So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.

The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.

Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral

While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.

The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.

The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.

Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.

There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.

FRA Reform is Here!

Six and a half years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was going to revise its passenger train regulations. The old regulations required trains to be unusually heavy, wrecking the performance of nearly every piece of passenger rolling stock running in the United States. Even Canada was affected, as Transport Canada’s regulations mirrored those south of the border. The revision process came about for two reasons: first, the attempt to apply the old rules to the Acela trains created trains widely acknowledged to be lemons and hangar queens (only 16 out of 20 can operate at any given time; on the TGV the maximum uptime is 98%), and second, Caltrain commissioned studies that got it an FRA waiver, which showed that FRA regulations had practically no justification in terms of safety.

The new rules were supposed to be out in 2015, then 2016, then 2017. Then they got stuck in presidential administration turnover, in which, according to multiple second-hand sources, the incoming Republican administration did not know what to do with a new set of regulations that was judged to have negative cost to the industry as it would allow more and lower-cost equipment to run on US tracks. After this limbo, the new rules have finally been published.

What’s in the new regulations?

The document spells out the main point on pp. 13-20. The new rules are similar to the relevant Euronorm. There are still small changes to the seats, glazing, and emergency lighting, but not to the structure of the equipment. This means that unmodified European products will remain illegal on American tracks, unlike the situation in Canada, where the O-Train runs unmodified German trains using strict time separation from freight. However, trains manufactured for the needs of the American market using the same construction techniques already employed at the factories in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden should not be a problem.

In contrast, the new rules are ignoring Japan. The FRA’s excuse is that high-speed trains in Japan run on completely dedicated tracks, without sharing them with slower trains. This is not completely true – the Mini-Shinkansen trains are built to the same standards as the Shinkansen, just slightly narrower to comply with the narrower clearances on the legacy lines, and then run through to legacy lines at lower speed. Moreover, the mainline legacy network in Japan is extremely safe, more so than the Western European mainline network.

On pp. 33-35, the document describes a commenter who most likely has read either my writings on FRA regulations or those of other people who made the same points in 2011-2, who asked for rules making it possible to import off-the-shelf equipment. The FRA response – that there is no true off-the-shelf equipment because trains are always made for a specific buyer – worries me. The response is strictly speaking true: with a handful of exceptions for piggybacks, including the O-Train, orders are always tailored to the buyer. However, in reality, this tailoring involves changes within certain parameters, such as train width, that differ greatly within Europe. Changes to parts that are uniform within Europe, such as the roofing, may lead to unforeseen complications. I don’t think the cost will be significant, but I can’t rule it out either, and I think the FRA should have been warier about this possibility.

The final worry is that the FRA states the cost of a high-speed train is $50 million, in the context of modification costs; these are stated to be $300,000 for a $50 million European high-speed trainset and $4.7 million for a Japanese one. The problem: European high-speed trainsets do not cost $50 million. They cost about $40 million. Japanese sets cost around $50 million, but that’s for a 16-car 400-meter trainsets, whereas European high-speed trainsets are almost always about 200 meters long, no matter how many cars they’re divided into. If the FRA is baking in cost premiums due to protectionism or bespoke orders, this is going to swamp the benefits of Euronorm-like regulations.

But cost concerns aside, the changes in the buff strength rules are an unmitigated good. The old rules require trainsets to resist 360-945 metric tons of force without deformation (360 for trains going up to 200 km/h, 945 beyond 200 km/h), which raises their mass by several tons per cars – and lightweight frames require even more extra mass. The new ones are based on crumple zones using a system called crash energy management (CEM), in which the train is allowed to deform as long as the deformation does not compromise the driver’s cab or the passenger-occupied interior, and this should not require extra train mass.

How does it affect procurement?

So far, the new rules, though telegraphed years in advance, have not affected procurement. With the exception of Caltrain, commuter railroads all over the country have kept ordering rolling stock compliant with the old rules. Even reformers have not paid much attention. In correspondence with Boston-area North-South Rail Link advocates I’ve had to keep insisting that schedules for an electrified MBTA must be done with modern single-level EMUs in mind rather than with Metro-North’s existing fleet, which weighs about 65 metric tons per car, more than 50% more than a FLIRT per unit of train length.

It’s too late for the LIRR to redo the M9, demanding it be as lightweight as it can be. However, New Jersey Transit’s MultiLevel III is still in the early stages, and the railroad should scrap everything and require alternate compliance in order to keep train mass (and procurement cost) under control.

Moreover, the MBTA needs new trains. If electrification happens, it will be because the existing fleet is so unreliable that it becomes attractive to buy a few EMUs to cover the Providence Line so that at least the worst-performing diesels can be retired. Under no circumstance should these trains be anything like Metro-North’s behemoths. The trains must be high-performance and as close as possible to unmodified 160 km/h single-level regional rail rolling stock, such as the DBAG Class 423, the Coradia Continental, the Talent II, or, yes, the FLIRT.

Metra is already finding itself in a bind. It enjoys its antediluvian gallery cars, splitting the difference between one and two decks in a way that combines the worst of both worlds; first-world manufacturers have moved on, and now Metra reportedly has difficulty finding anyone that will make new gallery cars. Instead, it too should aim at buying lightly modified European trains. These should be single-level and not bilevel, because bilevels take longer to unload, and Chicago’s CBD-dominant system is such that nearly all passengers would get off at one station, Millennium Station at the eastern edge of the Loop, where there are seven terminating tracks and (I believe) four approach tracks.

Ultimately, on electrified lines, the new rules permit trains that are around two thirds as heavy as the existing EMUs and have about the same power output. Substantial improvements in train speed are possible just from getting new equipment, even without taking into account procurement costs, maintenance costs, and electricity consumption. Despite its flaws, the new FRA regulation is positive for the industry and it’s imperative that passenger railroads adapt and buy better rolling stock.

Quick Note: What We Can Learn from Russian Construction Costs

There is relatively scant information in English about construction costs in Russia and China. Frustratingly, even Metro Report, which does have some information about China, has only a handful of Russian examples with their costs stated; from perusing the articles Wikipedia links to, even Russian originals rarely state the costs of subway extensions.

Fortunately, Metro Report does have an article mentioning general costs. Be warned: the costs quoted below are somewhat higher than the specific figures I’ve found for individual projects.

Tunnels, including stations and depots, cost an average of 10bn to 15bn roubles per route-km to build, with construction of an extension lasting five to six years. Cut-and-cover methods can save 2bn to 5bn roubles and up to three to four years. Additional savings could be made by using double-track bored tunnels, which first appeared in 2014-15 in St Petersburg, along with top-down station construction. At some stations in Moscow, platform arrangements are being introduced with a platform on each side of a single track so that boarding and alighting passengers do not use the same platform; this leads to a 15% to 30% saving on the overall construction cost.

The PPP conversion rate is about US$1 = 24 rubles as of 2016-7. So the overall cost quoted is supposedly around $400-600 million per km, which is very high for a European country, and overlaps the American range (though the $500 million/km American subways tend not to be in city centers). In practice, the two specific lines cited in the article are cheaper, at $310 million/km for the Line 3 extension in Saint Petersburg (which is partly underwater) and $185 million/km for the Line 2 extension in Nizhny Novgorod; but both extensions have wide stop spacing even by Russian standards, and deep underground, stations dominate construction costs.

Look more carefully at the quoted paragraph. Using side platforms rather than island platforms is stated to reduce costs by 15-30% – presumably overall costs, not just station costs. This is because the caverns are simpler, especially if the stations are built cut-and-cover. Cut-and-cover overall is supposed to save 20-30% of the cost, taking the 10-15 billion figure as correct and not the lower figures of the Saint Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod lines mentioned in the piece. If the lower figures are right, the saving is around half the cost, making cut-and-cover cost about the same as above-ground construction (an above-ground Line 1 extension is projected to cost $130 million/km).

I saw a different source, in French, make the same claim that cut-and-cover is about as expensive as elevated construction; I can’t find the reference anymore, but interested readers can Google “ciel couvert” and see if they can find the article. This was very much not the case in 1900-4, when New York was spending (in today’s money) around $39 million/km on the subway’s underground portions and $9 million/km on its elevated portions, but then again New York built els to be cheap and noisy, and it’s plausible that quieter concrete structures would cost more.

Another plausible explanation is that cut-and-cover has gotten relatively cheaper over time due to mechanization of street digging. New York and Paris built their subways with hand tools in the 1900s. Deep boring is more mechanized, but was already somewhat mechanized at the turn of the century, so it’s not surprising if the cost trajectory in the last 120 years has been more favorable to cut-and-cover. As it is, London’s early Tube lines didn’t cost more than the cut-and-cover lines of New York or Paris, nor did they cost more in the 1930s; the cost differential is thus a recent phenomenon.

Finally, on a more political point, it’s worth comparing Russia with other countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc, since they have broadly comparable incomes today and learned to build subways from the same place (i.e. the Moscow Metro and the Soviet triangle). Overall, Russian costs seem somewhat higher than in the rest of Eastern Europe: comparable to costs in Poland or a little higher, somewhat lower than Hungary (M4 was around $500 million/km), much higher than Bulgaria and Romania. Does EU membership and the package of reforms required for accession mean lower construction costs? It’s not guaranteed, but it looks like the parts of former communist Europe that joined the EU are doing better. Upper middle-income wages with good institutions can produce good results, just as the never-communist parts of Europe with comparable incomes, like Greece and Italy, have pretty low costs.

High-Speed Rail in India

India’s economic development lags China’s by about 15 years, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s beginning to construct a high-speed rail network. The first line, connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad via Surat, began construction at the end of last year, with completion targeted within four years; the two states served, Maharashtra and Gujarat, are more or less India’s two richest large states, and are also both deeply right-wing, with nearly every constituency backing Modi. There are some severe problems with the system, stemming from its use of turnkey Japanese technology. But more broadly, India’s geography is just difficult for high-speed rail, especially by comparison with other high-population density countries at similar level of development, like Pakistan and Indonesia.

Japanese technology

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is to use imported Shinkansen technology, with Japanese financing. India has a vast railway network using broad gauge, with extensive regional rail (the Mumbai Suburban Railway has 2.6 billion riders per year) as well as legacy intercity rail.

However, to maintain Shinkansen compatibility, India has chosen to use standard gauge. This is based on a misunderstanding of why HSR uses standard gauge. Spain uses near-Indian gauge on its legacy network but standard gauge on HSR to maintain compatibility with the French TGV network, and Japan has narrow gauge on the legacy network and standard gauge on Shinkansen because narrow-gauge trains can’t run as fast. Neither of these justifications applies to India, and evidently, in another country where they don’t apply, Russia, HSR is to use broad gauge. With standard gauge, India will not be able to run HSR through to the legacy network, connecting to cities beyond the initial line, such as Delhi, nor will it be able to stage future construction to build lines in phases, the way France did, with through-service to lower-speed territory.

Even worse, alone in the world, India is using the Shinkansen’s loading gauge on HSR: trains are 3.35 meters wide, enough for 5-abreast seating. Indian Railways has a loading gauge allowing 3.66 meter trains, enough for 6-abreast seating with the same compromises on comfort familiar to every airline economy passenger. I don’t know what the standards for track centers are to be on India’s HSR: Indian Railways’ manual says 5.3 meters, which is wide enough for everything, but Shinkansen standards specify 4.3 meters, which is tight enough that a future widening of the track and loading gauges may pose difficulties for passing at high speed (at low speed it’s easy, India’s legacy track centers are 4.265 meters, and standard-gauge America’s are 3.7 meters on the slower parts of the Northeast Corridor).

During construction, the decision to use the wrong-size trains is fixable. Even after service opens, if the track centers are not too narrow, it’s possible to add a third rail to permit a transition to broad gauge. If the track centers are as narrow as the Shinkansen then might still be possible, if the third rails are on the outside (it would widen the track centers by the difference between the gauges, or 23.3 cm), but then the platforms would need to be shaved for wider trains. In the medium and long runs, such gauge widening is critical as India builds out its network.

But today, so complete is India’s reliance on Japanese technology that the training for drivers will be conducted in Japan, in Japanese; train drivers will be required to speak Japanese, as the Shinkansen trainers will not all speak English. It goes without saying that without a large body of Japanese speakers, India will be forced to pay first-world or near-first-world wages, forgoing its advantage in having low labor costs.

Construction costs

The projected construction cost of the 508-kilometer line is 1.1 trillion (“lakh crore”) rupees, which is $15 billion in exchange rate terms and about $55 billion in PPP terms. Per Wikipedia, the route includes only one tunnel, a 21-km approach to Mumbai with suburban and underwater tunneling (even if the gauges were compatible, using existing tracks like TGVs is impossible due to the use of every approach track by overcrowded Suburban Railway trains). The rest of the route is predominantly elevated, but the decision to runs the trains elevated rather than at-grade is only responsible for about 10% of its cost.

Despite the complexity of such a tunnel, there is no excuse for the high construction cost. In exchange rate terms it’s reasonable. Japan’s domestic Shin-Aomori extension of the Shinkansen cost about $55 million per kilometer, including a 26 km tunnel consisting of a third of the route and additional tunnels totaling a majority of the route. More recently, Japan’s new bout of Shinkansen construction costs about $30 billion for 389 km, but tunneling is extensive, with the Hokkaido route planned to be 76% in tunnel.

With India’s complete reliance on Japanese technology, paying the same as Japan in exchange rate terms is not surprising. It’s a disaster for India, which has to pay in depreciated rupees instead of leveraging its low-cost labor, but as far as Japan is concerned, it’s a perfect copy of the domestic Shinkansen system. Similar high costs can be observed for some Asian metro projects using Japanese financing, namely Dhaka (the world’s highest-cost elevated metro, even worse than in the US) and Jakarta.

In contrast, where India improves its rail network by tapping into Indian Railways’ own expertise, costs are low. Nearly half of India’s rail network is electrified, and to save money on expensive fuel, the country is rapidly electrifying the system, targeting 100% electrification. A plan to electrify 13,675 route-km in the next four years is to cost 12,134 crore rupees, about $123,000/km in exchange rate terms or $450,000/km in PPP terms. In the developed world, $1-1.5 million/km for electrification is reasonable, and the unreasonably expensive UK, US, and Canada go up to $5-10 million/km. Left to its own devices, Indian Railways can build things cheaply.

Network structure

India’s geography for high-speed rail is not easy. Mumbai, Surat, and Ahmedabad are the only three cities in the top 20 that lie on a straight line at easy HSR range. Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, and Mumbai-Chennai are all just outside the best range for HSR (and Kolkata-Chennai is well outside it), having to rely on intermediate cities like Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Kanpur for ridership. Within Uttar Pradesh, Kanpur and Lucknow are both large cities, but the line connecting them is almost perpendicular to that connecting Delhi and Kolkata, so that only one can be served on the main line. In the South, there is a similar situation with Mumbai-Chennai, via either Bangalore or Hyderabad (and there, both routes should be built as Bangalore and Hyderabad are both near-megacities). Mumbai itself requires extensive tunneling in all directions: north toward Gujarat and Delhi, south toward Pune, and possibly also northeast toward the interior cities of Maharashtra.

I drew a possible map for a nationwide network. The total length is 17,700 double-track-km. It’s about the same length as most American proposals, and less than half as much as what China aims to build by 2025, but India has four times the population of the US and far higher population density, and its density is also several times that of China. For a better comparison, consider Pakistan: it is slightly less dense than India and has about 15% India’s population, and yet two spines totaling about 1,800 km, Karachi-Lahore and Lahore-Islamabad-Peshawar, would connect nearly every major city. Lying on the Indus, much of Pakistan has a linear population distribution, facilitating rail connections.

With a difficult urban geography for HSR, India has to take especial care to reduce construction costs. This means, in turn, that it needs to rely on indigenous expertise and standards whenever possible. When imported technology is unavoidable, it needs to provide its own financing (with an annual budget of 29 trillion rupees, it can afford to do so) and force Japanese, Korean, and European vendors to compete. A Chinese-style tech transfer (read: theft) is not possible – the vendors got burned once and won’t agree to the same again – but domestic driver training, with the foreign role restricted to the rolling stock (built to Indian standards) and engineering, is essential and unlikely to bother the global industry.

The Role of Local Expertise in Construction Costs

When I first looked at construction costs, I looked exclusively at developed countries. Eventually I realized that the difference in average costs between rich and poor countries is small. But then I noticed a different pattern in the third world: some places, like India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia, spend much more than China does. Why is that? While I’ve had a bunch of different explanations over the years, I believe today that the difference concerns local expertise versus reliance on first-world consultants.

The facts, as far as I can tell, are as follows:

  • Construction costs in China are about $250 million per km, a little more than the average for Continental Europe.
  • Construction costs in post-communist Europe are all over, but are the same range as in Western Europe. Bulgaria is pretty cheap; in this post I bring up a line that costs around $200 million/km in today’s money but other extensions built this decade are cheaper, including one outer one at $50 million/km. In contrast, Warsaw’s Line 2 is quite expensive.
  • Latin American construction costs have the same range as Europe, but it seems more compressed – I can’t find either $50 million/km lines or $500 million/km ones.
  • Africa and the parts of Asia that used to be colonies have high construction costs: India and Egypt are expensive, and here I give two expensive examples from Bangladesh and Indonesia. The Lagos Metro is spending subway money on an el in the middle of a wide road and is reminiscent of American costs.
  • When the first world had comparable income levels to those of the third world today, in the early 20th century, its construction costs were far lower, around $30-50 million per underground km. First-world cost growth in the last 100 years has mostly tracked income growth – it’s been somewhat faster in New York and somewhat slower in Paris, but on average it’s been similar.

For a while, I had to contend with the possibility that Chinese autocracy is just better at infrastructure than Indian (or Bangladeshi, or Indonesian, or Nigerian) democracy. The nepotism and corruption in India are globally infamous, and it’s still well-governed compared with Indonesia and Nigeria, which have personality-based politics. But then, in the developed world, authoritarian states aren’t more efficient at construction (Singapore’s construction costs are high); moreover, post-communist democracies like Bulgaria and Romania manage low construction costs.

What I instead think the issue is is where the state’s infrastructure planning comes from. China learned from the USSR and subsequently added a lot of domestic content (such as the use of cut-and-cover in some situations) fitting its particular needs; as a result, its construction costs are reasonable. The post-communist world learned from the USSR in general. There’s a wide range, with Romania near one end and Poland near the other, but the range is comparable to that of Western Europe today. Overall it seems that Eastern Europe can competently execute methods geared to the middle-income world (as the second world was in the Cold War) as well as, thanks to assistance from the EU, the high-income world.

Latin America, too, uses domestically-developed methods. The entire region is infamous in the economic development literature for having begun an inward economic turn in the Great Depression, cutting itself off from global markets and generally stagnating. Government functions are likewise done domestically or maybe outsourced to domestic contractors (and if international ones are involved, it’s in construction, not planning). Evidently, Latin America developed bus rapid transit, a mode of transportation optimally designed for countries with low incomes (so paying armies of bus drivers is cheaper than building rail tracks) and relatively strong currencies (so importing buses from richer countries isn’t ruinously expensive).

The situation in the ex-colonies is completely different. Even relatively protectionist ones outsource much of their planning to the developed world or increasingly to China, out of a combination of cultural cringe and shortage of domestic capital. The metro lines I have data for in India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia all involve Japanese technology and planning, with no attempt to adapt the technology to local conditions. So insistent is Japan on following its domestic recipe exactly that India’s high-speed rail construction is using standard gauge rather than broad gauge and Shinaknsen-size trains rather than larger Indian trains (which are 3.7 meters wide and can fit people 6-abreast). Elsewhere, China contributes capital and planning as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and then its methods are geared toward middle income and not low income.

The correct way for countries in the per capita income range of Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh to build subways is to open up their main roads, which are often very wide, and put in four tracks in a cut-and-cover scheme similar to that of early-20th century New York. If they can elevate the tracks instead, they should use the same methods used to build Lines 2 and 6 in Paris in the early 20th century, which use concrete columns and are quiet enough that, unlike in New York, people can carry a conversation under the viaduct while a train passes. If the line needs to deviate from roads, then the city should buy property and carve up a new street (as New York did with Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue in the Village) or else learn to implement late Victorian and Edwardian London’s techniques of deep boring.

However, actually implementing Belle Epoque construction methods requires particular knowledge that international consultants don’t have. Most of these consultants’ income comes from the first world, where wages are so high that the optimal construction methods involve extensive automation, using machinery rather than battalions of navvies with shovels. The technical support required for a tunnel boring machine is relatively easy in a rich country with a deep pool of qualified engineers and mechanics and a nightmare in a poor one where all such expertise has to be imported or trained from scratch. Thus, the consultants are likely to recommend the first-world methods they are familiar with, and if they do try to adapt to low wages, they may make mistakes since they have to reinvent ideas or read historical sources (which they are typically not trained to do – they’re consultants, not historians).

The result is that even though open economies tend to grow faster overall, economies with a history of closure tend to do better on this specific topic, where international consultants are not very useful for the needs of the developing world. India in particular needs to get better at indigenizing its construction and avoid mindlessly copying the first world out of cultural cringe, because even though it is almost a middle-income country by now, its wages remain a fraction of those of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, and its future growth trajectory is very different, requiring extensive adaptations. Both the overall extent of planning and the specific construction methods must be tailored to local conditions, and so far India seems bad at both (hence the undersized, expensive high-speed trains).

Why Are Canadian Construction Costs So High?

When I lived in Vancouver, I was enthusiastic about SkyTrain, which combined high service levels with relatively low construction costs. At the time, the budget for the 12-kilometer Broadway subway from VCC-Clark to UBC was $3 billion (all figures are in Canadian dollars, so subtract 20% for US PPP equivalents). The cost per km was average for a non-English-speaking country, and very low for an English-speaking one, and the corridor has high population and job density. With a ridership projection of 350,000, it was by a large margin North America’s most cost-effective rail extension.

Since then, costs have sharply risen. TransLink lost its referendum and had to scramble for funding, which it got from the new Trudeau administration – but the money was only sufficient to build half the line, between VCC-Clark and Arbutus. With the latest cost overrun, the budget is now $2.83 billion for 5.6 km: C$500 million per kilometer. This is barely below average for a North American subway, and very high for a Continental European one. I tried reaching out to TransLink before the overrun was announced, trying to understand how it was building subways for less money than the rest of North America, but while the agency knew who I am and what I was querying, it didn’t respond; now I know why.

Outside Vancouver, costs are high as well. In Toronto, there are several subway projects recently built or proposed, all expensive.

The least expensive is the Vaughan extension of the Yonge-University-Spadina Line. It opened last year, after a two-year delay, at the cost of $3.2 billion for 8.6 km, or C$370 million per kilometer. Andy Byford, then the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, now New York City Transit chief, was credited with limiting the cost overruns after problems began. The line is an outward extension into low-density suburbia, and construction has no reason to be difficult. The source also cites the expected ridership: 24 million per year by 2020, or about 80,000 per weekday, for a total of $40,000 per rider, a high though not outrageous figure.

More expensive is the Scarborough subway. Toronto has an above-ground rapid transit line connecting Scarborough with Kennedy on the Bloor-Danforth Line, using the same technology as SkyTrain but with a driver. But unlike Vancouver, Toronto is unhappy with the technology and has wanted to replace the entire line. Originally the plan was to replace it with light rail, but subsequently the plans have changed to a subway. The current plan is to build a 6.4-km nonstop extension of the Bloor-Danforth Line, which would cost $3.35 billion, or C$520 million per kilometer. While this is still slightly below average by American standards, the dominant factor for construction costs in New York is the stations, which means a long subway tunnel with just one new station should be cheap. At the per-item costs of Paris, the line should cost US$1.07 billion, or about C$1.35 billion. At those of Second Avenue Subway, it should cost US$3.3 billion, or about C$4.1 billion. In other words, Toronto is building a subway for almost the same costs as New York, taking station spacing into account, through much lower-density areas than the Upper East Side.

Finally, Toronto has long-term plans for a Downtown Relief Line, providing service to the CBD without using the Yonge-University-Spadina Line. The estimated cost in 2016 dollars is $4-4.4 billion (source, PDF-p. 31), but this assumes faster-than-inflation cost escalation already, and adjusted only for inflation this is higher, about $5-5.5 billion. Per PDF-p. 15 the line would have 6.25-6.7 km of tunnel, for a total cost of about C$800 million per kilometer. The DRL is planned to go under older subways and serve Downtown Toronto, contributing to its higher cost, but the stations are to be constructed cut-and-cover. Despite using cheap construction methods, Toronto is thus about to build an extremely expensive subway.

While I’ve drawn a distinction between costs in English- and non-English-speaking countries, or between common and civil law countries Montreal’s costs are solidly common law Anglophone even though Quebec is Francophone and uses civil law. A 5.8 km extension of the Blue Line is budgeted at $3.9 billion, a total of C$670 million per kilometer. The Blue Line is circumferential, and the extension would extend it further out, but the residential areas served are fairly dense, around 10,000 people per square kilometer on adjacent census tracts.

The last case is Ottawa, where costs are less clear. Ottawa is replacing its BRT line with light rail, which includes a short city center tunnel, called the Confederation Line. The cost is $2.1 billion and the length of the line is 12.5 km, of which 2.5 is in tunnel and the rest is on the surface. The overall project is more expensive, at $3.6 billion, but that includes related works on other lines. I don’t know the portion of the Confederation Line’s cost that’s attributed to the tunnel, so any estimate for tunneling cost has to rely on estimates for the underground premium over surface transit. In Vancouver the original estimate for Broadway rail had a 2.5:1 premium, which would make the cost of the tunnel $320 million per km; however, a more common premium is 6:1, which would raise the cost of the tunnel to $500 million per km.

I don’t know why Canada is so expensive; I’m less familiar with the details of its subway extensions than I am with those of either the US or the UK. The fact that Toronto manages to have very high construction costs even while using cheap methods (cut-and-cover stations, or long nonstop segments) is worrying, since it casts doubt on the ability of high-cost cities to rein in expenses by using cut-and-cover stations rather than mining.

Moreover, the social reasons leading to degradation of civil service in the US are less relevant to Canada. There is less hyperlocal empowerment than in the US and stronger provinces relative to both the federal government and municipalities. Anecdotally I have also found Canadians less geographically solipsistic than Americans. If I had to guess I would say that Canadians look to the US as a best practices model, just as Americans in various cities do to other American (and sometimes Canadian) cities, and if they look at foreign models they look at the UK. Montreal used Paris as a model when it first built its Metro, but more recently its ideas about using France as a model have devolved into no-bid contracts.

Massachusetts Sandbags the North-South Rail Link

Boston has two main train stations: South Station, and North Station. Both are terminals, about 2 km apart, each serving its own set of suburbs; as a result, over the last few decades there have been calls to unify the system with a regional rail tunnel connecting the two systems. This tunnel, called the North-South Rail Link, or NSRL, would have been part of the Big Dig if its costs hadn’t run over; as it were, the Big Dig reserved space deep underground for two large bores, in which there is clean dirt with no archeological or geotechnical surprises. The NSRL project had languished due to Massachusetts’ unwillingness to spend the money on it, always understood to be in the billions, but in the last few years the pressure to build it intensified, and the state agreed to fund a small feasibility study.

A presentation of the draft study came out two days ago, and is hogwash. It claims on flimsy pretext that NSRL would cost $17 billion for the tunnel alone. It also makes assumptions on service patterns (such as manual door opening) that are decades out of date not just in Europe and East Asia but also in New York. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, discusses it here; there’s a livestream as well as a link to a presentation of the draft study.

The content of the study is so weak that it has to have been deliberate. The governor does not want it built because of its complexity, no matter how high its benefits. Thus, the state produced a report that sandbags a project it doesn’t want to build. People should be fired over this, starting with planners at the state’s Office of Transportation Planning, which was responsible for the study. The way forward remains full regional rail modernization. As for the cost estimate, an independent study by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government estimates it at about $5 billion in today’s money; the new study provides no evidence it would be higher. I urge good transit activists in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to demand better of their civil servants.

Tunneling costs

The study says that the cost of a four-track NSRL tunnel under the Big Dig would be $17 billion in 2028 dollars. In today’s money, this is $12 billion (the study assumes 3.5% annual cost escalation rather than inflation-rate cost escalation). It claims to be based on best practices, listing several comparable tunnels, both proposed and existing:

  • California High-Speed Rail tunnels (average estimated cost about $125 million per km, not including overheads and contingency)
  • Crossrail (see below on costs)
  • The M-30 highway tunnel in Madrid (average cost about $125 million per km of bored tunnel in the mid-2000s, or around $150 million/km in today’s money)
  • The canceled I-710 tunnel in California (at 7.2 km and $5.6 billion, $780 million per km
  • The Spoortunnel Pannerdensch Kanaal (around $200 million in today’s money for 1.6 km of bore, or $125 million per km)

Unlike the other tunnels on the list, Crossrail has stations frustrating any simple per km cost analysis. The headline cost of Crossrail is £15 billion; however, I received data from a freedom of information request showing that the central (i.e. underground) portion is only £11.6 billion and the rest is surface improvements, and of this cost the big items are £2.2 billion for tunneling, £4.1 billion for stations, £1 billion for tracks and systems, and £2.7 billion for overheads and land acquisition. The tunneling itself is thus around $150 million per km, exclusive of overheads and land (which add 30% to the rest of the project). All of this is consistent with what I’ve found in New York: tunneling is for the most part cheap.

With the exception of Crossrail, the above projects consist of two large-diameter bores. The mainline rail tunnels (California HSR and Pannerdensch Kanaal) are sized to provide plenty of free air around the train in order to improve aerodynamics, a feature that is desirable at high speed but is a luxury in a constrained, low-speed urban rail tunnel. The highway tunnels have two large-diameter bores in order to permit many lanes in each direction. The plan for NSRL has always been two 12-meter bores, allowing four tracks; at the per-km boring cost of the above projects, this 5 kilometer project should cost perhaps a billion dollars for tunneling alone.

The stations are typically the hard part. However, NSRL has always been intended to use large-diameter tunnels, which can incorporate the platforms within the bore, reducing their cost. Frequent commenter Ant6n describes how Barcelona used such a tunnel to build Metro Lines 9 and 10, going underneath the older lines; the cost of the entire project is around $170 million per km, including a cost overrun by a factor of more than 3. Vertical access is likely to be more difficult in Boston under the Big Dig than in Barcelona, but slant shafts for escalators are still possible. At the worst case scenario, Crossrail’s station costs are of an order of magnitude of many hundreds of millions of dollars each, and two especially complex ones on Crossrail 2 are £1.4 billion each; this cost may be reasonable for Central Station at Aquarium, but not at South Station or North Station, where there is room for vertical and slant shafts.

It’s possible that the study made a factor-of-two error, assuming that since the mainline rail comparison projects have two tracks, their infrastructure is sized for two urban rail tracks, where in reality a small increase in tunnel diameter would permit four.

Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government came up with an estimate of $5.9 billion in 2025 dollars for a four-track, three-station NSRL option, which is about $5 billion today. Their methodology involves looking at comparable tunneling projects around the world, and averaging several averages, one coming from American cost methodology plus 50% contingency, and two coming from looking at real-world cost ranges (one American, one incorporating American as well as rest-of-world tunnels). Their list of comparable projects includes some high-cost ones such as Second Avenue Subway, but also cheaper ones like Citybanan, which goes deep underneath Central Stockholm with mined tunnels under T-Centralen and Odenplan, at $350 million per km in today’s money.

But the MassDOT study disregarded the expertise of the Kennedy School researchers, saying,

Note: The Harvard Study did not include cost for the tunnel boring machine launch pit and only accounted for 2.7 miles of tunneling (the MassDOT studies both accounted for 5 miles of tunneling), and no contingency for risk.

This claim is fraudulent. The Kennedy School study looks at real-world costs (thus, including contingency and launch pit costs) as well as at itemized costs plus 50% contingency. Moreover, the length of the NSRL tunnel, just under 5 km, is the same either way; the MassDOT study seems to be doubling the cost because the project has four tracks, an assumption that is already taken into account in the Kennedy School study. This, again, is consistent with a factor-of-two error.

Moreover, the brazenness of the claim that a study that explicitly includes contingency does not do so suggests that MassDOT deliberately sabotaged NSRL, making it look more expensive than it is, since the top political brass does not want it. Governor Baker said NSRL looks expensive, and Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack is hostile as well; most likely, facing implicit pressure from above, MassDOT’s overburdened Office of Transportation Planning scrubbed the bottom of the barrel to find evidence of absurdly high costs.

Electrification costs

Massachusetts really does not want or understand electrification. Even some NSRL supporters believe electrification to be an expensive frill that would sink the entire project and think that dual-mode locomotives are an acceptable way to run trains in a developed country in the 2010s.

In fact, dual-mode locomotives’ weak performance serves to raise tunneling costs. Struggling to accelerate at 0.3 m/s^2 (or 0.03 g), they cannot climb steep grades: both the Kennedy School and MassDOT studies assume maximum 3% grades, whereas electric multiple units, with initial acceleration of 1.2 m/s^2, can easily climb 4% and even steeper grades (in theory even 10%, in practice the highest I know of is 7%, and even 5% is rare), permitting shorter and less constrained tunnels.

As a result of its allergy to electrification, MassDOT is only proposing wiring between North Station and the next station on each of the four North Side lines, a total of 22.5 route-km. This choice of which inner segments to electrify excludes the Fairmount Line, an 8-stop 15 km mostly self-contained line through low-income, asthma-riven city neighborhoods (source, PDF-pp. 182 and 230). Even the electrification the study does agree to, consisting of about 30 km of the above surface lines plus the tunnels themselves, is projected to cost $600 million. Nowhere in the world is electrification so expensive; the only projects I know of that are even half as expensive are a pair of disasters, one coming from a botched automation attempt on the Great Western Main Line and one coming from poor industry practices on Caltrain.

A more reasonable American budget, based on Amtrak electrification costs from the 1990s, would be somewhat less than $2 billion for the entire MBTA excluding the already-wired Providence Line; this is the most familiar electrification scheme to the Bostonian reader or planner. At French or Israeli costs, the entire MBTA commuter rail system could be wired for less than a billion dollars.

Another necessary element is conversion to an all-EMU fleet, to increase performance and reduce operating costs. Railway Gazette reports that a Dutch benchmarking study found that the lifecycle costs of EMUs are half as high as those of diesel multiple units. As the MBTA needs to replace its fleet soon anyway, the incremental cost of electrification of rolling stock is negative, and yet the study tacks in $2.4 billion on top of the $17 billion for tunneling for vehicles.

A miscellany of incompetence

In addition to the sandbagged costs, the study indicates that the people involved in the process do not understand modern railroad operations in several other ways.

First, door opening. While practically everywhere else in the first world doors are automatic and opened with the push of a button, the MBTA insists on manual door opening. The MassDOT study gives no thought to high platforms and automatic doors (indeed, the Old Colony Lines are already entirely high-platform, but some of their rolling stock still employs manual door opening), and assumes manual door opening will persist even through the NSRL tunnels. Each train would need a squad of conductors to unload in Downtown Boston, and the labor costs would frustrate any attempt to run frequently (the study itself suggests hourly off-peak frequency; in Paris, RER lines run every 10-20 minutes off-peak).

Second, capacity. The study says a two-track NSRL would permit 17 trains per hour in each direction at the peak, and a four-track NSRL would permit 21. The MBTA commuter rail network is highly branched, but not more so than the Munich S-Bahn (which runs 30 at the peak on two tracks) and less so than the Zurich S-Bahn (which before the Durchmesserlinie opened ran either 20 or 24 tph through the two-track tunnel, I’m not sure which).

Worse, the FMCB itself is dumbfounded by the proposed peak frequency – in the wrong direction. While FMCB chair Joe Aiello tried explaining how modern regional rail in Tokyo works, other members didn’t get it; one member dared ask whether 17 tph is even possible on positive train control-equipped tracks. My expectations of Americans are low enough that I am not surprised they are unaware that many lines here and in Japan have automatic train protection systems (ETCS here, various flavors of ATC in Japan) that meet American PTC standards and have shorter minimum headways than every 3-4 minutes. But the North River Tunnels run 24-25 peak tph into Manhattan, using ASCES signaling, the PTC system Amtrak uses on the Northeast Corridor; the capacity problems at Penn Station are well-known to even casual observers of American infrastructure politics.

A state in which the FMCB members didn’t really get what their chair was saying about modern operations is going to propose poor operating practices going forward. MassDOT’s study assumes low frequency, and, because there is no line-wide electrification except on the Providence Line and eventually South Coast Rail (where electrification is required for wetland remediation), very low performance. MassDOT’s conception of NSRL has no infill stops, and thus no service to the bulk of the contiguous built-up area of Boston. Without electrification or high platforms, it cannot achieve high enough speeds to beat cars except in rush hour traffic. Limiting the stop penalty is paramount on urban rail, and level boarding, wide doors, and EMU acceleration combine to a stop penalty of about 55 seconds at 100 km/h and 75 seconds at 160 km/h; in contrast, the MBTA’s lumbering diesel locomotives, tugging coaches with narrow car-end doors with several steps, have a stop penalty of about 2.5 minutes at 100 km/h.

Going forward

The presentation makes it very clear what the value of MassDOT’s NSRL study is: at best none, at worst negative value through muddying the conversation with fraudulent numbers. The Office of Transportation Planning is swamped and could not produce a good study. The actual control was political: Governor Baker and Secretary of Transportation Pollack do not want NSRL, and both the private consultant that produced the study and the staff that oversaw it did what the politicians expected of them.

Heads have to roll if Massachusetts is to plan good public transportation. The most important person good transit activists should fight to remove is the governor; however, he is going to be easily reelected, and replacing the secretary of transportation with someone who does not lie to the public about costs is an uphill fight as well. Replacing incompetent civil servants elsewhere is desirable, but the fish rots from the head.

Activists in Rhode Island may have an easier time, as the state is less hostile to rail, despite the flop of Wickford Junction; they may wish to demand the state take lead on improving service levels on the Providence Line, with an eye toward forcing future NSRL plans to incorporate good regional rail practices. In New Hampshire, provided the state government became less hostile to public investment, activists could likewise demand high-quality commuter rail service, with an eye toward later connecting a North Station-Nashua-Manchester line to the South Side lines.

But no matter what, good transit activists cannot take the study seriously as a planning study. It is a political document, designed to sandbag a rail project that has high costs and even higher benefits that the governor does not wish to manage. Its cost estimates are not only outlandish but brazenly so, and its insistence that the Kennedy School study does not include contingency is so obviously incorrect that it must be considered fraud rather than a mistake. Nothing it says has any merit, not should it be taken seriously. It does not represent the world of transportation planning, but rather the fantasies of a political system that does not understand public transportation.

Why Free Trade in Rolling Stock is Good

Classical economics asserts that if two countries freely trade, then both gain relative to a baseline in which they don’t trade. The classical theory of comparative advantage hinges on reciprocal free trade. But more recently, economists have begun to push for entirely domestic support for free trade, arguing that reducing trade barriers is good even without reciprocation. The arguments involve corruption and misallocation of capital coming from protectionism. Whatever criticism there may be of this neoliberal conception of trade, rolling stock appears to be an example in which this conception is right.

I have previously criticized informal French protectionism in high-prestige procurement for blowing up Parisian rolling stock costs by a factor of almost 2. In Paris, my example of what could be done with the money Ile-de-France Mobilités is wasting on rolling stock was infrastructure construction, justified by the city’s very low construction costs relative to ridership (if not relative to route-length). But there’s an even better set of examples of high costs in the United States, justified on labor grounds and yet involving wastes of money disproportionate to the number of jobs created.

Last month, The American Prospect published an article about a union push to have more US rolling stock made in America, by unionized workers. The TAP article talks about a light rail vehicle order in Los Angeles for $890 million, for what the article says is 175 cars and what manufacturer Kinki Sharyo and other industry sources say is 235 cars, built at a dedicated factory in the Los Angeles exurbs. The purpose of the article is to advocate for more protectionism for the sake of American union members, so it details the wages the workers are making (about $20 an hour, up from $11 for unskilled jobs elsewhere) but does not delve into comparative costs. It’s worth asking if the costs are competitive, and the answer is that they are not.

The cost of LACMTA’s Kinki Sharyo order is $3.8 million per car; these cars are 27 meters long, so this translates to $140,000 per meter of train length. In contrast, the average cost in Europe appears to be just under $100,000 per meter, across a variety of cities and models:

The shortest trains on this list (the Citadis Compact orders, at 22-24 meters) are in the middle of the pack, so it’s unlikely there’s any nonlinearity in cost; moreover, the Compact is slightly shorter than the Kinki Sharyo trains, so no extrapolation is required, only interpolation.

The LACMTA order follows another premium-priced light rail order in the same state: as I wrote in the Bay City Beacon last year, Muni Metro’s Siemens LRV order cost about $4 million per 23-meter car, about $170,000 per meter of train length. The trains are being built at a new plant in Sacramento.

The United States has federal Buy America laws, requiring federally-funded contracts to buy domestic products provided they cost no more than 25% more than equivalent imports. However, there is no in-state purchase requirement. Owing to large New York City Subway orders, some vendors have long-established plants near New York (Kawasaki and Alstom are in-state, Bombardier is in Vermont). However, under informal pressure from activists within California to provide good local jobs, LACMTA asked bidders to open local factories. Moreover, Siemens most likely placed its plant in Sacramento rather than in lower-cost states in order to curry favor with state-funded orders.

We even see the same problem in Massachusetts, where CRRC opened a plant in Springfield for an MBTA Red and Orange Line car order. The order itself does not come at a premium – according to Metro Report the base order is about $100,000 per meter of train length and the option is $115,000, and the range of per-meter costs for subway trains is the same as that for LRVs – but it’s possibly a loss leader to help establish CRRC as a player in the American market. Even before Trump’s election, Congress investigated the order, which beat the competitors by a large margin; the competing bids were about $135,000 per meter for the base order. It says a lot about Massachusetts’ broken procurement that it takes a loss leader just to get costs down to their international levels. Nonetheless, the US premium does appear to be smaller for large subway orders than for small and medium-size LRV orders, since the extra costs of siting and setting up a factory are spread across more units.

The explicit goal of local content requirements is to create jobs. This is usually justified in terms of inequality and bleak prospects for unskilled workers. However, there is no cost-benefit calculation involved in this. According to TAP, the LACMTA order is creating 250 jobs manufacturing the trains; it doesn’t say how long they will last, but the duration of the contract is about 6 years. But the premium, about $300 million, works out to $1.2 million per job, a large multiple of total compensation to the workers. The Springfield plant has 200 jobs paying $50,000-60,000 per year, lasting 7 years across more than just the Boston contract; pro-rating to the Boston contract’s share of orders from the plant, the jobs will last around 5 years. Adding back the premium charged by the competing vendors raises the cost to $1 million per job, again a multiple of total working-class compensation.

There are two reasons why labor protectionism costs so much compared with its direct impact on working-class hiring. The first is leakage: much of the premium goes to management, including factory design and construction, or is just wasted on inefficiency (CRRC is opening a second American plant, in Chicago, instead of building everything at one plant). Some of the money goes to foreign consultants with the vendor and some stays domestic, but the domestic leakage goes to sitework and not to direct hiring.

The second reason is corruption and degradation of institutions. When the goal of public procurement is not just to buy the best product in terms of cost and quality, lobbyists make demands, like local hiring, that corrupt the process. A city that signals that the only things that matter are cost and quality will attract vendors who make the best bids in terms of cost and quality; a city that signals that the process depends on local political needs will attract vendors who make bids in order to satisfy local political actors, who as a rule don’t give a damn about good transit. Thus American agencies buy trains at a premium well beyond Buy America’s 25% limit, just because they think of cost and quality as just two of several political priorities and not as the sole legitimate bases of choosing a bidder.

The United States leads the world in higher education costs. The unsubsidized cost of a college degree at a good public university is about $100,000; at CUNY, which provides a good quality of degrees even if it’s so underfunded that classrooms aren’t supplied with chalk, it’s about $75,000. Stipends at the level of a good graduate program add another $30,000 or so per year. For around $200,000 per person, California could send low-income workers to college and pay for their living expenses for the duration of the degree, whereupon they will be able to get unsubsidized jobs paying much more than $20 per hour. For workers who can’t go to college, trade school is another option, offering decently-paying jobs for much lower cost since they take much less time. There is no need to lade the transit capital budget with what should be state or federal retraining grants; given the massive difference in cost, even the loss of matching funds (i.e. other people’s money) can leave the state or the city better off.

The problem is that there is no political incentive to think in such terms. Part of it is the corruption of institutions, as I mentioned already: labor groups see an opportunity to create jobs from a budget that from a local perspective is other people’s money. Another part is political prestige: romantics like old jobs (farmer, builder, truck driver, coal miner, baker, factory worker), which have had enough time to percolate into the national psyche, and since these jobs are old, they’re likely to be at the low end of the value-added ladder.

Absent very strong rules forbidding protectionism in procurement, this corruption will continue: evidently, Paris insists on buying expensive bespoke trains and somehow manages to get them manufactured within France, even though EU rules against interstate dumping are much stronger than US rules. Rules at the highest level are required to discourage such behavior (although Paris might still waste money on bespoke trains, just ones that can be made in Poland). Congress can and should stop funding any local or state agency that takes in-state content into account in procurement; the US is one democratic country, not fifty mercantile fiefdoms, and should use its status as a superstate with a large internal market to universalize good governance.

Construction Costs: Electrification

Continuing from last week’s post about signaling costs, here is what I’ve found about electrification costs.

Like signaling, electrification usually doesn’t make the industry press, and therefore there are fewer examples than I’d like. Moreover, the examples with concrete costs are all in countries where infrastructure costs are high: the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, New Zealand. However, a check using general reported French costs (as opposed to a specific project) suggests there is no premium in Israel and New Zealand over France, even though both countries’ urban rail tunneling projects are more expensive than Parisian Metro and RER extensions.

In the UK, the recent electrification project has stalled due to extreme cost overruns. Finding exact cost figures by segment is difficult in most of the country, but there are specific figures in the Great Western. Financial Times reports the cost of the Great Western project at £2.8 billion, covering 258 km of intercity mainline (mostly double-track, some four-track) and what I believe to be 141 km of commuter rail lines in South Wales, working from Wikipedia’s graphic and subtracting the canceled electrification to Swansea. In PPP dollars it’s around $10 million per km, but the cost may include items I exclude elsewhere in this post, such as rolling stock. For reference, in the late 2000s the project was estimated at £640 million, but costs then tripled, as the plan to automate wire installation turned out not to work. Taking the headline cost as that of the last link, £1.74 billion, the cost is $6.1 million per km, but there have been further overruns since (i.e. the Swansea cancellation).

In the US, there are three projects that I have numbers for. The most expensive of the three is Caltrain electrification, an 80 km project whose headline cost is $1.9 billion. But this includes rolling stock and signaling, and in particular, the CBOSS signaling system has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Electrification infrastructure alone is $697 million, or $8.5 million per km. The explanations I’ve read for this high figure include indifference to best practices (e.g. electrification masts are spaced 50 meters apart where 80 meters is more common) and generally poor contracting in the Bay Area.

The other two US projects are more remote, in two different ways. One is California High-Speed Rail: with the latest cost overrun, the projected electrification cost is $3.7 billion (table 4, PDF-p. 14). The length of route to be electrified is unclear: Phase 1, Los Angeles to San Francisco with a short branch up to Merced, is a little more than 700 km, but 80 km of that route is Caltrain, to which the high-speed rail fund is only contributing a partial amount. If the denominator is 700 km then the cost is $5.3 million per km.

The other remote US project is Amtrak’s electrification of the New Haven-Boston segment of the Northeast Corridor in the late 1990s. Back then, the 250-km double-track route was electrified for $600 million, which is $2.4 million per km, or about $3.5 million per km adjusted for inflation.

In Canada, Toronto is in the process of electrifying most of its regional rail network. The current project includes 262 route-km and has a headline cost of $13.5 billion, but according to rail consultant Michael Schabas, this includes new track, extensive junction modification, unnecessary noise walls (totaling $1 billion), and nearly 100% in contingency just because on the original budget the benefit-cost ratio seemed too good to be true. In a 2013 study, the infrastructure cost of full electrification was estimated at $2.37 billion for 450 route-km in 2010 Canadian dollars. In today’s American dollars it’s about $4.5 million per km.

In France, a report that I can no longer find stated that a kilometer of electrification cost a million euros, in the context of the electrification of a single-track legacy branch to Sables d’Olonne, used by some TGV services. While trying to find this report, I saw two different articles claiming the cost of electrification in France to be a million euros per double-track kilometer. The latter article is from 2006, so the cost in today’s money is a little higher, perhaps as high as $1.5 million per km; the article specifically says the cost includes bridge modification to permit sufficient clearances for catenary.

In Israel, the majority of the national network is currently being electrified, and I’ve argued elsewhere for a completist approach owing to the country’s small size, high density, and lack of rail connections with its neighbors. The project has been delayed due to litigation and possibly poor contractor selection, but a recent article on the subject mentions no cost overrun from the original budget of 3 billion shekels, about $750 million, for 600 km of double-track. This is $1.25 million per km and includes not just wire and substations but also 23 years’ worth of maintenance. This may be similar to the Danish ETCS project, which has been severely delayed but is actually coming in slightly under budget.

In New Zealand, the one electrification project recently undertaken, that of the Auckland regional rail network, cost $80 million in infrastructure. This is New Zealand dollars, so in US terms this is closer to $55 million. The total length of the network is about 80 route-km and 200 track-km, making the cost about $700,000 per km. But the project includes much more than wire: the maintenance facility, included in the Israeli figure, cost another NZ $100 million, and it is unclear whether bridge modifications were in the infrastructure contract or tendered separately.

The big takeaway from this dataset, taking French costs as the average (which they are when it comes to infrastructure), is that Israel and New Zealand, both small countries that use extensive foreign expertise, do not pay a premium, unlike the US, UK, and Canada. In the UK, there is a straightforward explanation: Network Rail attempted to automate the process to cut costs, and the automation failed, creating problems that blew up the budget. Premature automation is a general problem in industry: analysts have blamed it for Tesla’s production problems.

In the US and Canada, the construction cost problem is generally severe. However, it’s important to note that at NZ$2.8-3.4 billion for 3.4 km of tunnel, Auckland’s tunneling cost, around US$600 million per km, isn’t much lower than Toronto’s and is actually slightly higher than the Bay Area’s. My explanation for high costs in Israel, India, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong used to be their shared English common law heritage, but this is contradicted by the lack of any British premium over French costs in the middle of the 20th century. An alternative explanation, also covering some high-cost civil law third-world countries like Indonesia and Egypt, is that these countries all prefer outside consultants to developing public-sector expertise, which in the richer countries is ideologically associated with big government and in the poorer ones doesn’t exist due to problems with corruption. (China and Latin America are corrupt as well, but their heritages of inward-looking development did create local expertise; after the Sino-Soviet split, China had to figure out how to build subways on its own.)

But Israel Railways clearly has no domestic expertise in electrification. The political system is so unused to this technology that earlier this decade I saw activists on the center-left express NIMBY opposition to catenary, citing bogus concerns over radiation, a line of attack I have never seen in California, let alone the Northeastern US. Nor is Israel Railways good at contracting: the constant delays, attributed to poor contractor choice, testify to that. The political hierarchy supports rail electrification as a form of modernization, but Transport Minister Israel Katz is generally hostile to public transit and runs for office with a poster of his face against a background of a freeway interchange.

What’s more likely in my view is that Israel and New Zealand, with no and very little preexisting electrification respectively, invited experts to design a system from scratch based on best industry practices. I’m unfamiliar with the culture of New Zealand, but Israel has extensive cultural cringe with respect to what Israelis call מדינה מתוקנת (“medina metukenet”), an unbroken country. The unbroken country is a pan-first-world mishmash of American, European, and sometimes even East Asian practices. Since the weakness of American rail is well-known to Israelis, Israel has just imported European technology, which in this case appears easy to install, without the more particular sensitivities of urban tunneling (the concrete side of the electronics before concrete maxim). In contrast, the US is solipsistic, insisting on using domestic ideas (designed by consultants, not civil servants). Canada, as far as I can tell, is as solipsistic as the US: its world extends to Canada and the US; Schabas himself had to introduce British ideas of frequent regional rail service to a bureaucracy that assumed regional rail must be run according to North American peak-only practices.

All of this is speculation based on a small number of cases, so caveat emptor. But it’s fairly consistent with infrastructure construction costs, so long as one remembers that the scope for local variation is smaller in electrification and systems than in civil infrastructure (for one, the scope for overbuilding is much more limited). It suggests that North America could reduce its electrification costs dramatically by expanding its worldview to incorporate the same European (or Asian) companies that build its trains and use European (or Asian) standards.

Construction Costs: Signaling

I launched a Patreon poll about construction cost posts, offering three options: signaling and electrification, rolling stock, and historical costs. Signaling and electrification won with 29 votes to historical costs’ 20 and rolling stock’s 6. This post covers signaling, and a subsequent post will cover electrification.

I was hoping to have a good database of the cost of installing train protection systems. Instead, I only have a few observations. Most metro lines in the world have searchable construction costs given a few minutes on Google, and a fair number of rolling stock orders are reported alongside their costs on Railway Gazette and other trade publications. In contrast, recent numbers for signaling are hard to get.

The gold standard for mainline rail signaling is European Train Control System, or ETCS; together with a specified GSM communications frequency it forms the European Rail Traffic Management System, or ERTMS. It’s a system designed to replace incompatible national standards that are often nearing the end of their lives (e.g. Germany expects that every person qualified to maintain its legacy LZB system will retire by 2026). It’s of especial interest to high-speed lines, since they are new and must be signaled from scratch based on the highest available standard, and to freight lines, since freight rail competes best over long distances, crossing national borders within Europe. Incompatible standards between countries are one reason why Europe’s freight rail mode share is weaker than that of the US, China, or Russia (which is Eurasian rather than European when it comes to freight rail).

As with every complex IT project, installation has fallen behind expectations. The case of Denmark is instructive. In 2008, Denmark announced that it would install ETCS Level 2 on its entire 2,667-km network by 2020, at the cost of €3.2 billion, or about $1.5 million per route-km. This was because, unlike both of its neighbors, Denmark has a weak legacy rail network outside of the Copenhagen S-tog, with little electrification and less advanced preexisting signaling than LZB. Unfortunately, the project has been plagued with delays, and the most recent timetable calls for completion by 2030. The state has had to additionally subsidize equipping locomotives with ETCS, but the cost is so far low, around $100,000 per locomotive or a little more.

That said, costs in Denmark seem steady, if anything slightly lower than budgeted, thanks to a cheap bid in 2011-2. The reason given for the delay is that Banedanmark changed its priorities and is now focusing on electrification. But contracts for equipping the tracks for ETCS are being let, and the cost per kilometer is about €400,000, or $500,000. The higher cost quoted above, $1.5 million per km, includes some fixed development costs and rolling stock costs.

Outside Denmark, ETCS Level 2 installation continues, but not at a nationwide scale, even in small countries. In 2010, SNCB rejected the idea of near-term nationwide installation, saying that the cost would be prohibitive: €4.68 billion for a network of 3,607 km, about $1.6 million per route-km. This cost would have covered not just signaling the tracks but also modifying interlockings; it’s not purely electronics but also concrete.

The Netherlands is planning extensive installation as well. As per Annex V of an EU audit from last year (PDF-pp. 58-59), the projected cost is around $2 million per route-km; the same document also endorses Denmark’s original budget, minus a small reduction as detailed above due to unexpectedly favorable bids. Locomotive costs are said to be not about $100,000 but €300,000 for new trainsets or €500,000 for retrofitting older trainsets.

A cheaper version, ETCS Level 1, is also available. I do not know its cost. Switzerland is about to complete the process of a nationwide installation. It permits a trainset equipped with just ETCS equipment and no other signaling to use the tracks, improving interoperability. However, it is an overlay on preexisting systems, so it is only a good fit in places with good preexisting signaling. This includes Switzerland, Germany, and France, but not Denmark or other countries with weak legacy rail networks, including the US. The Northeast Corridor’s ACSES system is similar to ETCS Level 1, but it’s an overlay on top of a cab signaling system installed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s.

Comparing this with American costs is difficult. American positive train control, or PTC, uses lower-capacity overlay signaling, nothing like ETCS Level 2. One article claims that the cost per track-km (not route-km) on US commuter rail is about $260,000. On the MBTA, the projected cost is $517 million for 641 km, or $800,000 per route-km; on the LIRR it’s $1 billion for 513 route-km, or $1.9 million per route-km. Observe that the LIRR is spending about as much on a legacy tweak as Denmark and the Netherlands are on a high-capacity system built from scratch.