Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.
Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.
Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.
One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.
Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.
Finance and costs
This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.
In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.
He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.
In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.
Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.
Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.
First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about €5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about €5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about €2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just €800,000.
And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.
That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.
I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.
By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.
But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.
There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.
Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.
Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.
This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.
If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.
That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.
The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.
New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.
The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.
By a more than 2-1 vote among my Patreon backers, the third installment in my series about national traditions of building urban rail is the British one, following the American and Soviet ones. While rapid transit in Britain outside London is even smaller than in the US outside New York, the British tradition is influential globally for two reasons: first, Britain invented the railway as well as urban rapid transit, and second, Britain had a vast empire much of which still looks up to it as a cultural and scientific metropole.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that all rapid transit traditions technically descend from London’s, it is worthwhile talking about the British way. What London built inspired and continues to inspire other cities, but many, mainly in the United States, Japan, and Continental Europe, diverged early, forming distinct tradition. As I noted in the post about the Soviet bloc, Moscow was heavily influenced by British engineering, and its own tradition has evolved separately but began as a more orderly way of reproducing the London Underground’s structure in the 1930s.
In taxonomy, this is called a paraphyletic group. Monophyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor, for example mammals; paraphyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor excluding certain monophyletic subgroups, for example reptiles, which exclude mammals and birds, both of which descend from the same common ancestor.
The invention of rapid transit
Like most other things Britain became known for, like constitutional government and colonialism, rapid transit evolved gradually in London. Technically, the first railway in London, 1836’s London and Greenwich, meets the definition of urban rapid transit, as trains made some local stops, ran every 20 minutes, and were grade-separated, running on brick arches. However, it is at best an ancestor of what we think of as rapid transit, since it lacked the really frequent stops of the Underground or the New York els.
The first proper rapid transit line in London, the Metropolitan line, opened in 1863. It, too, lacked some features that are standard on nearly all rapid transit systems today: most importantly, it was not self-contained, but rather had some through-service with intercity rail, and was even built dual-gauge to allow through-service with the Great Western Railway, which at the time had broad gauge. Trains ran every 10 minutes, using steam locomotives; to limit the extent of smoke in the tunnels, the line was not fully underground but had a long trench between King’s Cross and Farringdon.
The Met line and the second Underground line, 1868’s District line, were both built cut-and-cover. However, whereas Met line construction went smoothly, the District line had to carve a right-of-way, as the city did not have adequate wide streets for serving the proposed route. The areas served, Kensington and Chelsea, were even then a tony neighborhood with expensive real estate, and the construction costs exploded due to land acquisition. In today’s terms the Met line cost about $32 million per kilometer and the District $90 million, a record that among the historical lines I know of remained unbroken until New York built the Independent Subway System in the 1930s.
The Met and District met to form a circle, and in general, London loved building circular lines. In addition to what would be called the Circle line until a revision last decade, there were two circles farther out, called the Middle Circle and Outer Circle. These were run by mainline railroads; there was still no legal distinction between the two urban railroads and the mainlines, and through-service and even some freight service continued on the Met well into the 20th century, which the company used as an excuse to delay its merger with the other Underground companies.
Even electric rapid transit took time to take shape. After the bad experience with the District line, there was no more cut-and-cover in Central London. The next line to open, 1890’s Northern line, required the invention of deep boring and electric traction; it was not the first rail line to use electricity, but was the first excluding streetcars. However, while the line looked like a normal self-contained rapid transit line, it was pulled by electric locomotives; electric multiple units only came a few years later, starting haphazardly in Liverpool in 1893 (each car required separate controls) and in the more conventional way on the Chicago L in 1897.
Spontaneous order and radial network design
Among the inventions that came out of London was the radial network design. Unlike the physical inventions like underground rail and electric traction, this was not a deliberate choice. It evolved through spontaneous order, owing to the privately-funded nature of British railways. A British railway had to obtain the approval of Parliament to begin construction, which approval would also permit compulsory purchase of land along the way, but funding was entirely private. An early proposal for an underground railway, an 1860s route running what would later become the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, was approved but could not secure funding and thus was not built.
The upshot is that with private planning, only the strongest lines were built. The strongest travel demand was to the center of London, and thus the lines were all radial, serving either the City of London or the West End. There was no circumferential service. While there were many circles and loops, these were conceived as reverse-branches allowing some railroads to access multiple Central London terminals, or as ways to join two radials like the Met and District without having to go through the difficult process of turning a train underground in a world in which all trains had to be pulled by locomotives.
The same preponderance of radial lines can be seen in other privately-planned contexts. Today, the best-known example is the matatu network of Nairobi. It is informal transit, but has been painstakingly mapped by urbanists, and the network is entirely radial, with all lines serving city center, where the jobs requiring commuting are.
Despite the private planning, London has only a handful of missed connections between lines: it has eight, but only one, between the Met line and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, is a true miss between two lines – the other seven are between parallel outer branches or between two lines that intersect a few times in close succession but only have one transfer (namely, the Bakerloo and Met). This is not because private planners build connections spontaneously – Parliament occasionally demanded some minor route changes, including interchange stations at intersections.
The role of regional rail
Like rapid transit, regional rail evolved in London in a haphazard fashion. The London and Greenwich was a mainline railway and the Met line had some mainline through-service, and even the deep-level tube lines are compatible enough with mainline rail that there is some track-sharing, namely between the Bakerloo line and the Watford DC line. The trench between King’s Cross and Farringon was widened to four tracks and turned into a north-south through-route in the 1870s but then abandoned in the 1920s and only reactivated in the 1980s as Thameslink.
The upshot is that London ended with the bones of a regional rail network but no actual service. The ideal was self-contained Underground lines, so even when connections suggested themselves they were not pursued. For example, the original proposal for an underground line between Euston and Charing Cross involved some through-service to the railways at both ends, but when the line was finally built as the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line it was not connected to the mainline and only took over minor branches in suburban North London.
While British planners did eventually plan for through-service – plans for Crossrail date to World War Two or just afterward – by then London was not innovating but rather imitating. By the war, Berlin had already had two S-Bahn through-lines, Munich was planning one, and Tokyo had three. The modern design for Crossrail is best compared with the RER A, in a city London has treated as its primary competitor for a long time now.
Exporting London’s network design
Moscow was heavily influenced by London early on. Later on, Singapore and Hong Kong both drew on British engineering expertise. London’s status as the first city to build rapid transit may have influenced Moscow, but by the 1920s New York had surpassed it in city size as well as urban rail ridership. Moscow’s drawing on London was as I understand it accidental – the chief engineer happened to have London connections – but in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and so on the relationship is colonial, with extensive cultural cringe.
In all of these non-British cities, the British design as exported was cleaner. What I mean is, the systems have a radial structure like London, but the radii are cleaner in that two lines will generally cross just once, especially in Moscow; it’s not like London, where the Central line is always north of the District line, meeting once in a tangent at Bank and Monument, or where the Victoria line and Northern line cross twice.
Another cleaner aspect is the transfer experience. Singapore and Hong Kong both make extensive use of cross-platform transfers between otherwise perpendicular lines; London only does sporadically, on the Victoria line.
A third aspect is uniformly wide interstations. London’s average interstation is about 1.25 km, which is what I think of as the standard because it is very close to the average in Tokyo and Mexico City as well, and at the time I started tracking this statistic in the late 2000s, the Chinese systems were still small. Moscow’s average is 1.7 km, and Singapore’s is similar. Hong Kong is actually divergent there: the MTR mixes core urban lines averaging about the same as in London with the more widely-spaced historically mainline East and West Rail lines and the airport express.
The relative paucity of circumferential rail is hard to judge in the export cases. Moscow came up with the idea for the Circle Line natively; there is an urban legend that it was accidentally invented by Stalin when he left a coffee cup on the map and it stained it in the shape of a circle. Hong Kong doesn’t have much circumferential rail, but its geography is uniquely bad for such service, even more so than New York’s. Singapore does have a Circle Line, but it’s one of the two worst-designed parts of the MRT, with a reverse-branch (the other one is the self-intersecting, connection-missing Downtown Line).
At the same time, it’s worth viewing which aspects British-influenced systems are getting rid of when designing cleaner version of the Underground. The most important is regional rail. Singapore has none: it has a legacy narrow-gauge rail line to Malaysia, but has never made an effort to take control of it and develop it as an urban regional rail line.
Another negative aspect exported by London is the preponderance of deep boring. I made the same complaint when discussing the Soviet bloc: while London is poor in wide arterials that a cut-and-cover subway could go underneath, Moscow is rich in them, and the same is true of Singapore.
Does this work?
London invented rapid transit as we know it, but it did so gradually and with many seams. In some sense, asking if this works is like asking if rapid transit as a technology works, for which the answer is that it is a resounding success. But when it comes to the details, it’s often the case that London has accidental successes as well as accidental mistakes.
In particular, the fact that London almost invented regional rail is a source of endless frustration and extensive retro-crayon. The Met line is almost a 19th-century Crossrail, the Widened Lines are almost a 19th-century Thameslink, and so on. Instead, as time went on the trend has been toward more self-contained lines, which is good for reliability but not when there are self-contained slow tracks of mainlines to hook into, as is planned for Crossrail and as has sporadically been the case for the Watford DC line.
The British focus on radial systems has generally been good. To the extent London has underused metro lines, it’s not because they are poorly-routed as some of the lines in Paris are, but because they serve areas that have many urban rail lines and not a lot of population density; London is not a dense city, going back to the Victorian era, when it standardized on the rowhouse as the respectable urban housing form rather than the mid-rise apartment of Continental Europe or New York.
To the credit of British-influenced planning, Singapore has managed to fit a circumferential line into its system with good connections, just with an awkward reverse-branch. London’s own circumferential transit, that is the Overground, misses a large number of Underground connections due to its separate origin in freight bypasses and mainline rail reverse-branches, where Parliament saw no point in requiring interchange stations the way it did on the Tube. However, the cleaner version seen in Singapore only misses connections involving the Downtown Line, not the Circle Line.
What is perhaps the worst problem with the British style of design is the construction cost. The Northern line was not expensive – in today’s terms it cost around $35 million per km, give or take. However, after WW2 a gap opened between the cost of cut-and-cover and bored metros. The Milan method for cut-and-cover built a subway for around $45 million per km a few years before London bored the Victoria Line for $110 million. Britain exported its more expensive method, which must be treated as one factor behind high construction costs in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand; in New Zealand the regional rail tunnel is expensive even as electrifying the system was not.
In the future, cities that wish to build urban rail would be wise to learn from the network design pioneered by London. Urban rail should serve city centers, with transfers – and as in the subsequent refinements of cities that adapted London’s methods to their own needs, there should be some circumferential transit as well. But if mainlines are available, it would be wise to use them and run trains through on the local tracks where available. Moreover, it would be unwise to conduct deep boring under wide streets; elevated or cut-and-cover construction is well-suited for such avenues, causing some street disruption but producing considerable less expensive lines.
All reform agendas run into the same problem: someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more politically powerful than the entrenched interests that need reform. The big political incentive for a leader is to swoop in to fix an organization that is broken and get accolades for finally making government work. But whether this work depends on what exactly is broken. If the fish rots from the tail, and better management can fix things, then reformist politicians have an easy time. The problem is that if the fish rots from the head – that is, if the problem is the political leaders themselves – then there is no higher manager that can remove underperforming workers. My contention is that when it comes to poor American public transit practices, the fish usually rots from the head.
Whither fixing construction costs?
I wrote my first comment documenting high New York construction costs at the end of 2009. By 2011 this turned into my first post in my series here with some extra numbers. By the time I jumped from commenting to blogging, the MTA had already made a reference to its high costs in a 2010 report called Making Every Dollar Count (p. 11): “tunneling for the expansion projects has cost between three and six times as much as similar projects in Germany, France and Italy.” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been plagiarizing my 2011 post since 2013.
However, the early recognition has not led to any concrete action. There has not been any attention even from leaders who could gain a lot of political capital from being seen as fixing the problem, such as governors in California, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as successive New York mayors. That Governor Cuomo himself has paid little attention to the subway can be explained in terms of his unique personal background from a car-oriented city neighborhood, but when it’s multiple governors and mayors, it’s most likely a more systemic issue.
What’s more, there has been plenty of time to come up with an actionable agenda, and to see it pay dividends to help catapult the career of whichever politician can take credit. The MTA report came out 9 years ago. An ambitious, forward-thinking politician could have investigated the issue and come up with ways to reduce costs in this timeframe – and in the region alone, four politicians in the relevant timeframe (Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Cuomo, and Governor Christie) had obvious presidential ambitions.
Evidently, there has been action whenever a political priority was threatened. The LIRR had long opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project, on the grounds that by sending trains through a tunnel used by the LIRR, Metro-North would impinge on its turf. As it was a visible project and a priority for Cuomo, Cuomo had to remove the LIRR’s obstruction, and thus fired LIRR President Helena Williams in 2014.
So what’s notable is that construction costs did not become a similar political priority, even though rhetoric of government effectiveness and fighting waste is ubiquitous on the center-left, center, and center-right.
That successive powerful American leaders have neglected to take on construction costs suggests that there is no benefit to them in fixing the problem. The question is, who benefits from high costs, then?
The answer cannot be that these politicians are all corrupt. The inefficiency in construction does not go to any serious politician’s pockets. Corruption might, but that requires me to believe that all relevant mayors and governors take bribes, which I wouldn’t believe of Italy, let alone the United States. One or two crooks could plausibly lead to cost explosion in one place, but it is not plausible that every serious politician in the New York area in the last decade has been both corrupt and in on the exact same grift.
Another answer I’d like to exclude is powerful interest groups. For example, if the main cause of high American construction costs were unions, then this would explain why governors all over the more liberal states don’t make an effort to build infrastructure more cheaply. However, there are enough high-cost states with right-wing politics and anti-union laws. The other entrenched interest groups are quite weak nationwide, for example planners, who politicians of all flavors love to deride as unelected bureaucrats.
The pattern of competence and incompetence
In my dealings with New York, I’ve noticed a pattern: the individual planners I talk to are curious, informed, and very sharp, and I don’t just mean the ones who leak confidential information to me. This does not stop at the lower levels: while most of my dealings with planners were with people who are my age or not much older, one of my sources speaks highly of their supervisor, and moreover my interactions with senior planners at the MTA when Eric Goldwyn and I pitched our bus redesign were positive. Eric also reports very good interactions with bus drivers and union officials.
In contrast, the communications staff is obstructive and dishonest. Moreover, the most senior layer of management is simply incompetent. Adam Rahbee describes it as “the higher up you get, the less reasonable people are” (my paraphrase, not a direct quote); he brings up work he proposed to do on reworking on the subway schedules, but the head of subway operations did not have the budget to hire an outside consultant and the higher-up managers did not even know that there was a problem with trains running slower than scheduled (“running time”).
A number of area observers have also noticed how MTA head Ronnie Hakim, a Cuomo appointee, was responsible to much of the recent spate of subway slowdowns. Hakim, with background in law rather than operations, insisted speed should not be a priority according to Dan Rivoli’s sources. The operations staff seem to hate her, judging by the number and breadth of anonymous sources naming her as one of several managers who are responsible for the problem.
The pattern is, then, that the put-upon public workers who run the trains day in, day out are fine. It’s the political appointees who are the problem. I don’t have nearly so many sources at other transit agencies, but what I have seen there, at least in Boston and San Francisco, is consistent with the same pattern.
Quite often, governors who aim to control cost institute general hiring freezes, via managers brought in from the outside, even if some crucial departments are understaffed. For example, Boston has an epidemic of bus bunching, is staffed with only 5-8 dispatchers at a given time, and can’t go up to the necessary 15 or so because of a hiring freeze. The 40 or so full-time dispatchers who are needed to make up the difference cost much less than the overtime for bus drivers coming from the bunching, to say nothing of the extra revenue the MBTA could get if, with the same resources, its buses ran more punctually. In the name of prudence and saving money, the MBTA wastes it.
The risk aversion pattern
The above section has two examples of political interference making operations worse: a hiring freeze at the MBTA (and also at the MTA), and Ronnie Hakim deemphasizing train speed out of fear of lawsuits. There is a third example, concerning capital planning: Cuomo’s interference with the L shutdown, well covered by local sources like Second Avenue Sagas, in which the governor effectively took sides in an internal dispute against majority opinion just because engineering professors in the minority had his ear. All three examples have a common thread: the negative political interference is in a more risk-averse direction – hiring fewer people, running slower trains, performing ongoing maintenance with kludges rather than a long-term shutdown.
The importance of risk-aversion is that some of the problems concerning American construction costs are about exactly that. Instead of forcing agencies that fight turf battles to make nice, political leaders build gratuitous extra infrastructure to keep them on separate turf, for example in California for high-speed rail. Only when these turf battles risk a visible project, such as the LIRR’s opposition to Penn Station Access, do the politicians act. Costs are not so visible, so politicians let them keep piling, using slush funds and raiding the rest of the budget.
In New York, the mined stations, too, are a problem of risk-aversion. Instead of opening up portions of Second Avenue for 18 months and putting it platforms, the MTA preferred to mine stations from a smaller dig, a five-year project that caused less street disruption over a longer period of time. An open dig would invite open political opposition from within the neighborhood; dragging it over five years may have caused even more disruption, but it was less obtrusive. The result: while the tunneling for Second Avenue Subway was about twice as expensive as in Paris, the stations were each seven times as expensive. The overall multiplier is a factor of seven because overheads were 11 times as expensive, and because the stop spacing on Second Avenue is a bit narrower than on the Paris Metro extension I’m comparing it with.
In contrast with the current situation in New York, what I keep proposing is politically risky. It involves expanding public hiring, not on a massive level, but on a level noticeable enough that if one worker underperforms, it could turn into a minor political scandal in which people complain about big government. It involves promoting smart insiders as well as hiring smart outsiders – and those outsiders should have industry experience, like Andy Byford at New York City Transit today, not political experience, like the MBTA’s Luis Ramirez or the FRA’s Sarah Feinberg; by itself, hiring such people is not risky, but giving them more latitude to operate is, as Cuomo discovered when Byford began proposing his own agenda for subway investment.
On the engineering level, it involves more obtrusive construction: tunnels and els, not bus lanes that are compromised to death – and the tunnels may involve cut-and-cover at stations to save money. Regional rail is obtrusive politically, as modernization probably requires removal of many long-time managers who are used to the current way of doing things (in Toronto, the engineers at GO Transit obstructed the RER program, which was imposed from Metrolinx), and in New York the elimination of Long Island and the northern suburbs’ respective feudal ownership of the LIRR and Metro-North. The end result saves money, but little kings of hills will object and even though American states have the power to overrule them, they don’t want the controversy.
The fish rots from the head
American transportation infrastructure does not work, and is getting worse. The costs of building more of it are extremely high, and seem to increase with every construction cycle. Operating costs for public transit run the gamut, but in the most important transit city, New York, they are the highest among large world cities, and moreover, the cheapest option for extending high-quality public transit to the suburbs, regional rail, is not pursued except in Silicon Valley and even there it’s a half-measure.
The problems are political. Heavyweight politicians could use their power to force positive reforms, but in a number of states where they’ve been able to do so on favorable terms, they’ve done no such thing. On the contrary, political influence has been negative, installing incompetent or dishonest managers and refusing to deal with serious long-term problems with operations and maintenance.
The reason politicians are obstructive is not that there’s no gain in improving the state of public services. On the contrary, there is a huge potential upside to getting credit for eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and delivering government projects for much cheaper than was thought possible. But they look at minor controversies that could come from bypassing local power brokers, who as a rule have a fraction of the influence of a governor or big city mayor, or from building bigger projects than the minimum necessary to be able to put their names or something, and stop there.
One animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head: the worst abuses come from the top, where politicians prefer slow degradation of public services to a big change that is likely to succeed but risks embarrassment or scandal. The other animal analogy is that, through a system that rewards people who talk big and act small, American politics creates a series of chickenshit leaders.
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:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
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.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.