Is it possible to use a rapid transit-style system to carry light freight, such as parcels? So far no such system exists, and very few semi-relates systems exist (like pneumatic tubes for mail). But it remains an interesting potential technology, provided it is done right. Unfortunately, it is very easy to do it wrong through misunderstanding how freight or how rapid transit works. Therefore, advances in policy in this direction are good but should be done carefully.
Instead of giving people one big takeaway, I’m going to suggest a few good principles for this, motivated by both good and bad proposals.
1. Keep the tracks clear for maintenance at night
Germany’s minister of transport, CSU’s Andreas Scheuer, proposed running freight on the U-Bahn after hours. This is a terrible idea: regular nighttime closures are crucial for maintenance, and without them, maintenance costs go up and daytime reliability tanks. New York’s constant weekend service changes are the result of not shutting down overnight for maintenance nor being able to reliably single-track at nighttime headways. Berlin already runs overnight on weekends and does some daytime maintenance – “Ersatzverkehr mit Bussen” is one of the first ordinary German phrases I learned after moving here. Further encroachment on maintenance windows is not acceptable.
2. Use existing station infrastructure
The main cost in digging urban rail tunnels is the stations – boring tunnels between stations is a solved problem. This means that the main difficulty of urban rail freight is where freight gets on and off the trains. Loading and unloading container-size freight is impossible without massive station digs, all in expensive places. Having a freight car wait on a siding is not possible either – that interface between the customer and the freight railway relies on cheap land and time-insensitive shipping.
Most likely, shipping parcels by rapid transit requires using the existing stations and platforms. There is almost certainly no room at rush hour, when trains are sized to take up the entire platform interface to increase capacity. But in the daytime off-peak, there may be some room for using a portion of a subway station for parcels.
3. Keep up with passenger rail traffic
If freight trains can’t run at night, they have to slot on the same timetable as passenger trains. This isn’t a problem on the tracks – just add an EMU car loaded with parcels rather than passengers. But keeping dwell times under control is critical. Alert reader Mordy K. wrote about this, suggesting a “dynamic Rubik’s cube” that “shifts the packages around in 3D.” This is the real challenge: figure out how parcels get from the train to a designated spot on the platform or from the platform to a designated spot on the train during a 30-second dwell time.
4. Be aware of all interfaces between different systems
There are, at a minimum, five legs to a parcel trip in a city using rapid transit: origin to station, station to train, trip on train, train to station, station to destination. The boarding and alighting steps, so easy for the able-bodied passenger and even for the disabled passenger given rudimentary investment into accessibility, are difficult for a parcel of freight. Tossing a package from a train to the platform is not enough: the package needs to get to the surface for the final leg of the trip. A courier could carry it, but at a high cost – the courier’s modes of transportation for the surface legs, like the e-bike, are bad at getting down to the subway and back up, so the time and physical effort costs are high.
This in turn means that the rail transit freight system needs to be able to put parcels in a freight elevator. Elevators are not free, although they are rarely as expensive as in New York. The problem is that parcels can’t walk across the platform, so the elevator has to face the exact same place every time, which may run into construction difficulties.
5. Don’t wreck passenger rail service
Berlin runs some trains short, especially after hours. Usually the first train after the beginning of short train service is very crowded, because passenger service demand is still too high for a half-train at the typical density of daytime Berlin trains. (I say typical density because I have never seen a Berlin train as crowded as the busiest off-peak trains in Paris or New York, let alone their busiest peak trains.)
What this means is that in practice there isn’t that much space on the train for freight. Running trains every 5 minutes until later at night but then cordoning off half for freight may be feasible – right now headways rise to 10 minutes around 9 in the evening – but it’s still just a few evening and early night hours for delivery.
This principle is equally important at the stations: cordoning off parts of the platform for freight is fine, but only if it does not interfere with passenger capacity or circulation. This may further constrain where freight elevators go: whatever automated system gets parcels from the train to the elevator will have to cross passenger traffic at-grade, and driverless technology can do it but not cheaply or smoothly.
6. Aim to work with a wide range of goods
Pneumatic tube systems for mail work for mail, but modifying them for other goods isn’t trivial. In contrast, a parcel delivery system should aim to be broadly usable by many goods with a high ratio of value added to weight. Subtle differences are important at this level of detail: glass and china goods can’t be thrown on the floor, fresh food spoils if it’s left outside for too long, jewelry and electronics face a high risk of theft. The technology has to have adequate tracking, punctuality, defense from shocks, and so on.
7. Be aware of the competition
Delivery by rapid transit is not the only alternative to trucks for cross-city shipping. Delivery by drone is in active development, both surface drones and flying drones. Surface drones have good synergy with trains, since surface drones are slow and make better first- and last-mile connections. But flying drones are in direct competition, since they work well at a range of a few kilometers rather than a few hundreds of meters. Flying drones so far only work at extremely high value-to-weight ratios, but if they become more widespread, it’s useful to think of how urban rail can compete.
I launched a Patreon poll about construction cost posts, offering three options: signaling and electrification, rolling stock, and historical costs. Signaling and electrification won with 29 votes to historical costs’ 20 and rolling stock’s 6. This post covers signaling, and a subsequent post will cover electrification.
I was hoping to have a good database of the cost of installing train protection systems. Instead, I only have a few observations. Most metro lines in the world have searchable construction costs given a few minutes on Google, and a fair number of rolling stock orders are reported alongside their costs on Railway Gazette and other trade publications. In contrast, recent numbers for signaling are hard to get.
The gold standard for mainline rail signaling is European Train Control System, or ETCS; together with a specified GSM communications frequency it forms the European Rail Traffic Management System, or ERTMS. It’s a system designed to replace incompatible national standards that are often nearing the end of their lives (e.g. Germany expects that every person qualified to maintain its legacy LZB system will retire by 2026). It’s of especial interest to high-speed lines, since they are new and must be signaled from scratch based on the highest available standard, and to freight lines, since freight rail competes best over long distances, crossing national borders within Europe. Incompatible standards between countries are one reason why Europe’s freight rail mode share is weaker than that of the US, China, or Russia (which is Eurasian rather than European when it comes to freight rail).
As with every complex IT project, installation has fallen behind expectations. The case of Denmark is instructive. In 2008, Denmark announced that it would install ETCS Level 2 on its entire 2,667-km network by 2020, at the cost of €3.2 billion, or about $1.5 million per route-km. This was because, unlike both of its neighbors, Denmark has a weak legacy rail network outside of the Copenhagen S-tog, with little electrification and less advanced preexisting signaling than LZB. Unfortunately, the project has been plagued with delays, and the most recent timetable calls for completion by 2030. The state has had to additionally subsidize equipping locomotives with ETCS, but the cost is so far low, around $100,000 per locomotive or a little more.
That said, costs in Denmark seem steady, if anything slightly lower than budgeted, thanks to a cheap bid in 2011-2. The reason given for the delay is that Banedanmark changed its priorities and is now focusing on electrification. But contracts for equipping the tracks for ETCS are being let, and the cost per kilometer is about €400,000, or $500,000. The higher cost quoted above, $1.5 million per km, includes some fixed development costs and rolling stock costs.
Outside Denmark, ETCS Level 2 installation continues, but not at a nationwide scale, even in small countries. In 2010, SNCB rejected the idea of near-term nationwide installation, saying that the cost would be prohibitive: €4.68 billion for a network of 3,607 km, about $1.6 million per route-km. This cost would have covered not just signaling the tracks but also modifying interlockings; it’s not purely electronics but also concrete.
The Netherlands is planning extensive installation as well. As per Annex V of an EU audit from last year (PDF-pp. 58-59), the projected cost is around $2 million per route-km; the same document also endorses Denmark’s original budget, minus a small reduction as detailed above due to unexpectedly favorable bids. Locomotive costs are said to be not about $100,000 but €300,000 for new trainsets or €500,000 for retrofitting older trainsets.
A cheaper version, ETCS Level 1, is also available. I do not know its cost. Switzerland is about to complete the process of a nationwide installation. It permits a trainset equipped with just ETCS equipment and no other signaling to use the tracks, improving interoperability. However, it is an overlay on preexisting systems, so it is only a good fit in places with good preexisting signaling. This includes Switzerland, Germany, and France, but not Denmark or other countries with weak legacy rail networks, including the US. The Northeast Corridor’s ACSES system is similar to ETCS Level 1, but it’s an overlay on top of a cab signaling system installed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1930s.
Comparing this with American costs is difficult. American positive train control, or PTC, uses lower-capacity overlay signaling, nothing like ETCS Level 2. One article claims that the cost per track-km (not route-km) on US commuter rail is about $260,000. On the MBTA, the projected cost is $517 million for 641 km, or $800,000 per route-km; on the LIRR it’s $1 billion for 513 route-km, or $1.9 million per route-km. Observe that the LIRR is spending about as much on a legacy tweak as Denmark and the Netherlands are on a high-capacity system built from scratch.
The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.
I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.
SNCF is Losing Money
The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.
Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).
In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.
The Spinetta Axe
The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.
But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).
There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.
The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.
And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.
SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.
This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.
Efficiencies not Mentioned
The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.
Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.
Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.
Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.
The Impetus for Cost Control
The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.
The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.
This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.
A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.
In 2009, studies began for a replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel. This tunnel, located immediately west of Baltimore Penn Station, has sharp curves, limiting passenger trains to about 50 km/h today. The plan was a two-track passenger rail tunnel, called the Great Circle Tunnel since it would sweep a wide circular arc; see yellow line here. It would be about 3 kilometers and cost $750 million, on the high side for a tunnel with no stations, but nothing to get too outraged about. Since then, costs have mounted. In 2014, the plan, still for two tracks, was up to $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Since then, costs have exploded, and the new Final Environmental Impact Statement puts the project at $4 billion. This is worth getting outraged about; at this cost, even at half this cost, the tunnel should not be built. However, unlike in some other cases of high construction costs that I have criticized, here the problem is not high unit costs, but pure scope creep. The new scope should be deleted in order to reduce costs; as I will explain, the required capacity is well within the capability of two tracks.
First, some background, summarized from the original report from 2009, which I can no longer find: Baltimore was a bottleneck of US rail transportation in the mid-19th century. In the Civil War, there was no route through the city; Union troops had to lug supplies across the city, fighting off mobs of Confederate sympathizers. This in turn is because Baltimore’s terrain is quite hilly, with no coastal plain to speak of: the only flat land on which a railroad could be easily built was already developed and urbanized by the time the railroad was invented. It took until the 1870s to build routes across the city, by which time the US already had a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, intense competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) ensured that each company would built its own tunnel. The two-track B&P is the PRR tunnel; there’s also a single-track freight tunnel, originally built by the B&O, now owned by CSX, into which the B&O later merged.
Because of the duplication of routes and the difficult geography, the tunnels were not built to high standards. The ruling grade on the B&P is higher than freight railroads would like, 1.34% uphill departing the station, the steepest on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) south of Philadelphia. This grade also reduces initial acceleration for passenger trains. The tunnel also has multiple sharp curves, with the curve at the western portal limiting trains today to 30 mph (about 50 km/h). The CSX tunnel, called Howard Street Tunnel, has a grade as well. The B&P maintenance costs are high due to poor construction, but a shutdown for repairs is not possible as it is a key NEC link with no possible reroute.
In 2009, the FRA’s plan was to bypass the B&P Tunnel with a two-track passenger rail tunnel, the Great Circle Tunnel. The tunnel would be a little longer than the B&P, but permit much higher speeds, around 160 km/h, saving Acela trains around 1.5 minutes. Actually the impact would be even higher, since near-terminal speed limits are a worse constraint for trains with higher initial acceleration; for high-performance trains, the saving is about 2-2.5 minutes. No accommodation was made for freight in the original plan: CSX indicated lack of interest in a joint passenger and freight rail tunnel. Besides, the NEC’s loading gauge is incompatible with double-stacked freight; accommodating such trains would require many small infrastructure upgrades, raising bridges, in addition to building a new tunnel.
In contrast, the new plan accommodates freight. Thus, the plan is for four tracks, all built to support double-stacked freight. This is despite the fact that there is no service plan that requires such capacity. Nor can the rest of the NEC support double-stacked freight easily. Of note, Amtrak only plans on using this tunnel under scenarios of what it considers low or intermediate investment into high-speed rail. Under the high-investment scenario, the so-called Alternative 3 of NEC Future, the plan is to build a two-track tunnel under Downtown Baltimore, dedicated to high-speed trains. Thus, the ultimate plan is really for six tracks.
Moreover, as pointed out by Elizabeth Alexis of CARRD, a Californian advocacy group that has criticized California’s own high-speed rail cost overruns, the new tunnel is planned to accommodate diesel trains. This is because since 2009, the commuter rail line connecting Baltimore and Washington on the NEC, called the MARC Penn Line, has deelectrified. The route is entirely electrified, and MARC used to run electric trains on it. However, in the last few years MARC deelectrified. There are conflicting rumors as to why: MARC used the pool of Amtrak electric locomotives, and Amtrak is stopping maintaining them as it is getting new locomotives; Amtrak is overcharging MARC on electricity; MARC wants fleet compatibility with its two other lines, which are unelectrified (although the Penn Line has more ridership than both other lines combined). No matter what, MARC should immediately reverse course and buy new electric trains to use on the Penn Line.
Freight trains are more complicated – all US freight trains are dieselized, even under catenary, because of a combination of unelectrified yards and Amtrak’s overcharging on electric rates. However, if freight through the Great Circle Tunnel is desired, Amtrak should work with Norfolk Southern on setting up an electric district, or else Norfolk Southern should negotiate trackage rights on CSX’s existing tunnel. If more freight capacity is desired, private companies NS and CSX can spend their own money on freight tunnels.
In contrast, a realistic scenario would ignore freight entirely, and put intercity and regional trains in the same two-track tunnel. The maximum capacity of a two-track high-speed rail line is 12 trains per hour. Near Baltimore Penn the line would not be high-speed, so capacity is defined by the limit of a normal line, which is about 24 tph. If there is a service plan under which the MARC Penn Line could get more than 12 tph at the peak, I have not seen it. The plans I have seen call for 4 peak tph and 2 off-peak tph. There is a throwaway line about “transit-like” service on page 17, but it’s not clear what is meant in terms of frequency.
Regardless of what the state of Maryland thinks MARC could support, 12 peak regional tph through Baltimore is not a reasonable assumption in any scenario in which cars remain legal. The tunnels are not planned to have any stations, so the only city station west of Baltimore Penn is West Baltimore. Baltimore is not a very dense city, nor is West Baltimore, most famous for being the location of The Wire, a hot location for transit-oriented development. Most of Baltimore’s suburbs on the Penn Line are very low-density. In any scenario in which high-speed rail actually fills 12 tph, many would be long-range commuters, which means people who live in Baltimore and work in Washington would be commuting on high-speed trains and not on regional trains. About the upper limit of what I can see for the Penn Line in a realistic scenario is 6 tph peak, 3-4 tph off-peak.
Moreover, there is no real need to separate high-speed and regional trains for reasons of speed. High-speed trains take time to accelerate from a stop at Baltimore: by the portal, even high-acceleration sets could not go much faster than 200 km/h. An in-tunnel speed limit in the 160-180 km/h area only slows down high-speed trains by a few seconds. Nor does it lead to any noticeable speed difference with electrified regional trains, which would reduce capacity: modern regional trains like the FLIRT accelerate to 160 km/h as fast as the fastest-accelerating high-speed train, the N700-I, both having an acceleration penalty of about 25 seconds.
The upshot is that there is no need for any of the new scope added since 2009. There is no need for four tracks; two will suffice. There is no need to design for double-stacked freight; the rest of the line only accommodates single-stacked freight, and the NEC has little freight traffic anyway. Under no circumstances should diesel passenger trains be allowed under the catenary, not when the Penn Line is entirely electrified.
The new tunnel has no reason to cost $4 billion. Slashing the number of tunnels from four to two should halve the cost, and reducing the tunnels’ size and ventilation needs should substantially reduce cost as well. With the potential time gained by intercity and regional trains and the reduced maintenance cost, the original budget of $750 million is acceptable, and even slightly higher costs can be justified. However, again because the existing two-track capacity can accommodate any passenger rail volume that can be reasonably expected, the new tunnel is not a must-have. $4 billion is too high a cost, and good transit activists should reject the current plan.
As the ongoing attempt to build a Hyperloop tube in California is crashing due to entirely foreseen technical problems, the company trying to raise capital for the project, Hyperloop One, is looking at other possibilities in order to save face. A few come from other passenger routes: Stockholm-Helsinki is one option, and another is the Dubai-Abu Dhabi, which looks like it may happen thanks to the regime’s indifference to financial prudence. Those plans aren’t any better or worse than the original idea to build it in California. But as part of their refusal to admit failure, the planners are trying to branch into express freight service. Hyperloop freight is especially egregious, in a way that’s interesting not only as a way of pointing out that tech entrepreneurs don’t always know what they’re doing, but also because of its implications for freight service on conventional high-speed rail.
First, let’s go back to my most quoted line on Hyperloop. In 2013 I called it a barf ride, because the plan would subject passengers to high acceleration forces, about 5 m/s^2 (conventional rail tops at 1.5 m/s^2, and a plane takes off at 3-4 m/s^2). This is actually worse for freight than for passengers, which is why the speed limits on curves are lower for freight trains than for passenger trains: as always, see Martin Lindahl’s thesis for relevant European standards. Freight does not barf, but it does shift, potentially dangerously; air freight is packed tightly in small pellets. Existing freight trains are also almost invariably heavier than passenger trains, and the heavier axle loads make high cant deficiency more difficult, as the added weight pounds the outer rail.
Another potential problem is cant. Normally, canting the tracks provides free sideways acceleration: provided the cant can be maintained, no component of the train or tracks feels the extra force. Cant deficiency, in contrast, is always felt by the tracks and the frame of the train; tilting reduces the force felt in the interior of the train, but not on the frame or in the track. At Hyperloop’s proposed speed and curve radius, getting to 5 m/s^2 force felt in the interior of the train, toward the floor, requires extensive canting. Unfortunately, this means the weight vector would point sideways rather than down, which the lightweight elevated tube structure would transmit to concrete pylons, which have high compressible strength but low tensile strength. This restricts any such system to carrying only very lightweight cargo, of mass comparable to that of passengers. This is less relevant to conventional high-speed rail and even maglev, which use more massive elevated structures, but conversely the problem of high forces on the outer rail ensures cant deficiency must be kept low.
Taken together, this means that high-speed freight can’t be of the same type as regular freight. Hyperloop One, to its credit, understands this. The managers are furiously trying to find freight – any kind of freight – that can economically fit. This has to involve materials with a high ratio of value to mass, for example perishable food, jewelry, and mail. SNCF ran dedicated TGV mail trains for 31 years, but decided to discontinue the service last year, in the context of declining mail volumes.
High-speed freight has a last mile problem. Whereas high-speed passenger service benefits from concentration of intercity destinations near the center of the city or a handful of tourist attractions, high-speed freight service has to reach the entire region to be viable. Freight trains today are designed with trucks for last-mile distribution; starting in the 1910s, industry dispersed away from waterfronts and railyards. The combination of trucks and electrification led to a form of factory building that is land-intensive and usually not found in expensive areas. Retail is more centralized than industry, but urban supermarkets remain local, and suburban ones are either local or auto-oriented hypermarkets. Even urban shopping malls as in Singapore are designed around truck delivery. The result is that high-speed freight must always contend with substantial egress time.
Let us now look at access time. How are goods supposed to get from where they’re made to the train station? With passengers, there are cars and connecting transit at the home end. There’s typically less centralization than at the destination end, but in a small origin city like the secondary French and Japanese cities, travel time is not excessive. In a larger city like Osaka it takes longer to get to the train station, but car ownership is lower because of better public transit, which increases intercity rail’s mode share. On freight, the situation is far worse: industry is quite dispersed and unlikely to be anywhere near the tracks, while the train station is typically in a congested location. Conventional rail can build a dedicated freight terminal in a farther out location (for example, auto trains in Paris do not use Gare de Lyon but Bercy); an enclosed system like Hyperloop can’t.
And if industry is difficult to centralize, think of farmed goods. Agriculture is the least centralized of all economic activities; this is on top of the fact that of all kinds of retail, supermarkets are the most local. Extensive truck operations would be needed, just as they are today. And yet, outside analysts are considering perishables as an example of a good where Hyperloop could compete.
With that in mind, any speed benefits coming from high-speed freight services vanish. There are diminishing returns to speed. Since the cost of extra speed does not diminish, there’s always a point where reducing travel time stops being useful, since the effect on door-to-door travel time is too small to justify the extra expense. The higher the total access plus egress time is, the sooner this point is reached, and in freight, the total access and plus egress time is just too long.
In passenger service, the problem of Hyperloop is that it tries to go just a little bit too far beyond conventional high-speed rail. The technical problems are resolvable, at extra cost, and in a few decades, vactrains (probably based on maglev propulsion rather than Elon Musk’s air bearings) may become viable for long-distance passenger rail.
In freight, the situation is very different. Successful freight rail companies, for example the Class I railroads in North America, China Railways, and Russian Railways, make money off of hauling freight over very long distances at low cost. Quite often this is because the freight in question is so heavy that even without substantial fuel taxes, trucks cannot compete on fuel or on labor costs; this is why Western Europe’s highest freight rail mode share is found in Sweden, with its heavy iron ore trains, and in Switzerland, Finland, Austria, with their long-distance freight across the Alps or toward Russia. Increasing speed is not what the industry wants or needs: past US experiments with fast freight did not succeed financially. The fastest, highest-cost mode of freight today, the airplane, has very low mode share, in contrast with the popularity of planes and high-speed trains in passenger service.
None of this requires deep analysis; in response to Hyperloop One’s interest in freight, an expert in logistics asked “why do we need to move cargo at 500 mph?“. The problem is one of face. The entrepreneurs in charge of Hyperloop One cannot admit that they made a mistake, to themselves, to their investors, or to the public. They are bringing the future to the unwashed masses, or so they think, and this requires them to ignore any problem until after it’s been solved, and certainly not to admit failure. Failure is for ordinary people, not for would-be masters of the universe. The announcement of the grand project is always more bombastic and always reaches more people than the news of its demise. It’s on those of us who support good transit and good rail service to make sure the next half-baked idea gets all the skepticism and criticism it deserves.
Peter Brassard’s proposal for a very frequent-stop mainline train in Rhode Island received comments both here and on Greater City, dealing with issues from rolling stock to station choice to scheduling. Some are fairly trivial, some aren’t. The upshot is that the project is technically feasible, but requires political head-bashing, especially with regards to scheduling.
First, the easy part: if the line is only to run between Central Falls and Warwick, then the rolling stock should be electric; this both improves performance and eliminates a political bottleneck, because the EMU market is larger than the DMU market, and in case FRA regulations do not change and obtaining a waiver is too expensive, there are M8s ready to use. The M8s are heavier than is ideal, but their performance is to my knowledge imperceptibly worse than that of noncompliant trains in the speed range appropriate for the short stop spacing, up to about 100 km/h.
Scheduling is the problem, because there has to be track sharing with something. The line is three-tracked: there are two tracks for Amtrak, also used by the MBTA north of Providence Station, and one track for freight. The line used to be four-tracked, but was reduced to three tracks in the 1990s in order to widen the track centers and allow the Acelas to tilt. Further reduction in track centers is not acceptable: at 4 meters (more precisely 13′) the distance is shorter than the standards for greenfield construction in Europe and even Japan. Track center standards are laxer on lower-speed segments, as the trackage through Providence is, but tilting becomes unsafe for an Acela-wide train. (The Pendolino is 37 cm narrower than the Acela.)
The alternative is to slightly widen the right-of-way at certain overpasses to allow four tracks, for a minimum of 20 meters with 4-meter track centers; some work, including widening, is already required to make room for platforms, and many of the most constrained locations, such as Olneyville at 18 meters, are station stop sites. It’s this construction that would most likely be the bulk of the project cost. At much lower cost, it would also allow electrification of the full corridor, making EMUs a feasible rolling stock choice for the local trains.
With four tracks, the question becomes, what regional rail should share tracks with. The choice is between intercity trains, which are currently slow but could be sped up, and freight trains. Both require political maneuvering, because neither Amtrak nor the Providence and Worcester has operating practices that are compatible with punctual passenger service. (Amtrak is more easily reformable, but an Amtrak that’s been so reformed is an Amtrak that runs trains much faster on the Northeast Corridor, increasing the regional/intercity speed difference).
I contend that it’s actually more correct to share tracks with freight. The sharpest curves are at stations, and so no superelevation is needed, but even if it were, allowing 100 km/h passenger trains could be accommodated with minimal freight train cant excess (about 25 mm at 50 km/h). More importantly, freight and local passenger rail have similar average speeds. The speed profile is different – freight is steady and slow, local passenger rail attains higher speeds but makes frequent stops – but when headways are long enough, this is not a problem.
On page 46 of the Providence Foundation study on a similar passenger line, we see that there aren’t many freight trains, so headways are determined by passenger trains. The freight schedule on page 48 of the same study suggests that freight and passenger train speeds would be very similar. It has trains doing Pawtucket-Warwick in 23 minutes; modern EMUs with a top speed of 100 km/h (losing 45 seconds to each station stop) and making the proposed stops would do the same in 25 minutes, with 7% padding. The local passenger train is a hair faster than the freight train on the Providence-Pawtucket and Cranston-Warwick segments, in both cases by less than a minute, and a bit slower on the Providence-Cranston segment, where station spacing is denser. This is close enough that I believe that 15-minute passenger train frequency is no barrier to track sharing. Potentially even 10-minute frequency can be accommodated. It requires freight trains to be somewhat timetabled, but they’d have a window of several minutes to enter between each pair of successive passenger trains, and missing their window would not delay them by more than 15 minutes. There is, then, no technical barrier to sharing tracks with freight.
The alternative, sharing tracks with intercity trains, is more dubious. Although less construction is required, the speed difference is larger. Instead of taking 23 minutes between Pawtucket and the airport, optimized intercity trains would take 8:45, including padding and a station stop at Providence. They can pass local trains at Providence, at the cost of slowing them down by several minutes while they wait to be overtaken, but even between Providence and the airport, travel time would be 5 minutes for intercity trains and 17 for regional trains.
If there’s four-tracking in Warwick, or two stops are dropped, then it’s tight but doable. Otherwise, it’s not; 12 minutes is too long a window for 15-minute service. It would require an extra terminating track at Warwick, but that would be needed anyway. The problem then is that local Rhode Island trains and MBTA trains would interfere with each other at Providence because both would dwell at the station for too long.
Interlining the two services and having MBTA trains make local stops in Providence is possible, and in conjunction with the two-overtake schedule for Boston-Providence naturally yields a three-overtake schedule. The problem is that the more overtakes there are the more reliability suffers. If an hourly freight train misses a window and needs to be delayed 15 minutes, it’s no big deal; if the goods couldn’t take a 15-minute delay, the train would be sufficiently punctual to make the window. If a passenger train misses a window, it requires the train behind it to slow down and this is not recoverable if the schedule is so tight.
When it’s unavoidable it’s best to just invest in running trains on schedule, but in this case a three-overtake schedule is avoidable. Thus track-sharing with freight is the correct option, leaving intercity trains to have a track that’s entirely theirs south of Providence, as this shuttle concept would almost certainly take over Wickford Junction service if necessary. It conveniently also allows higher regional rail frequency should the need ever arise, and because the scheduling is loose makes it easier to shoehorn another line into this system.
Over at Pennsylvania HSR, Samuel Walker reminds us that the dominance of coal for US freight traffic slows down passenger trains, and this has a social cost in addition to the direct costs of coal mining and burning. But another post of his, regarding cant deficiency, suggests more problems coming from mixing modern passenger trains with very heavy freight. Coal trains slow all other traffic in three different ways, of which just one is the conventional schedule conflict, and even that means more than just slowing down intercity trains.
Schedule conflict reduces not just speed, but also span and punctuality. The Northstar Line in Minnesota shares track with BNSF’s Northern Transcon; since the line is freight-primary, there’s no room for off-peak service, and passenger trains can’t extend to the line’s natural terminus in St. Cloud, not without constructing additional tracks. Similarly, in Houston, plans for a commuter line to Galveston included peak-only service from the start.
Second, independently of scheduling, slow trains force faster trains to slow down by limiting the amount of superelevation that can be used. As a reminder: on curves, they bank the track, with the outer rail above the inner rail, to partly counter centrifugal force. If they do not cant the train enough, there’s cant deficiency; if they cant too much, there’s cant excess. Although there are strict limits for cant excess (in Sweden, 100 mm, or 70 on tighter curves), stricter than for cant deficiency (150 mm for a non-tilting passenger train, give or take), technically commuter trains could safely run at higher cant excess; however, for freight trains, high cant excess is unsafe because loads could shift, and the higher axle load means trains would chew up the inner track. Very heavy trains first require the track to have a lower minimum speed, and second have an even more limited cant excess because of the damage they’d cause to the track (about 2″, or 50 mm, in US practice). Walker links to a US standard guideline that uniformly assumes 3″ cant; greenfield high-speed lines go up to 180-200 mm.
And third, heavy freight trains damage tracks regardless. Coal trains also limit the amount of revenue the railroad gets out of each train, leaving limited money for maintenance, and are not time-sensitive, giving railroads no reason to perform adequate maintenance. To compensate, industry practices have to be less than perfect: cant and cant deficiency are less than the maximum permitted by right-of-way geometry and minimum speed, and freight railroads require barriers between their track and passenger track to protect from inevitable freight derailments. Even then the US safety level is well below what’s achieved anywhere else in the world with trustworthy statistics.
Of course, coal provides a great boon to the freight railroads. It’s a captive market. The railroads could price out coal and focus on higher-value intermodal traffic. Some of the lines that already focus on intermodal traffic are friendlier to passenger service, such as the FEC.
However, realistically, the end of coal is only going to come from environmental regulations. Those same regulations would apply to oil, inducing a mode shift from trucks to rail. The coal trains that would stop running would be replaced by trains carrying higher-value goods. The details depend on what the purpose and kind of environmental regulations are, but today’s environmental movement is heavily focused on climate change and not as concerned with local environmental justice, so loss of coal traffic due to a high carbon tax or local air pollution tax, both of which would also affect oil and gas, is much likelier than loss of coal traffic due to restrictions on mountaintop removal and air quality regulations at mining sites, which would not. (Of course oil causes plenty of damage to the biosphere, but the mainstream environmental movement is much more concerned with effects on humans than on other organisms.)
The political issue at hand, besides the easy to explain but hard to implement matter of avoiding catastrophic climate change, is what freight railroads are used to. Their entire business model is geared toward relatively low-value goods. A steep carbon tax is a risk: it should raise their mode share of total value of goods transported, which is currently 4% (see also figure 4.3 here), but it would come from a new set of goods, with requirements and challenges different from those of the current mix. The railroads would have to reintroduce fast freight, which most haven’t run in decades, and refine it to deal with the needs of shippers today. It’s not only a headache for the managers, but also a substantial risk of failure – perhaps rival railroads would be able to get all the traffic because they’d adapt to the new market faster, perhaps shippers would change their factory placement to move goods over shorter distances, perhaps they would not be able to cope with the immediate increase in fuel costs, etc.
Because of this, freight railroads may end up fighting a policy that would most likely benefit them. Although they represent a critical part of an emission reduction strategy, and are all too happy to point out that they consume much less fuel than trucks, fuel is a major cost to them, and coal is big business for them. These are not tech startups; these are conservative businesses that go back to the 19th century. Heavy coal trains then add a political cost as well: they help turn an industry that could be a major supporter of climate change legislation neutral or hostile to the idea.
It’s a commonplace among some environmentalists that an oil- or carbon-constrained world is one where it’s prohibitively expensive to ship food long distances, and therefore people should eat local. For example, James Kunstler argues that cities will shrink and people will return to locally grown agriculture. For the benefit of society, let me debunk this fantasy with some hard numbers.
Suppose the price of diesel rises by $20 per gallon – $5.25 per liter. This is somewhat higher than the E3 Network‘s 95th-percentile estimate for the economically correct carbon tax in 2050, and twice as high as the estimate for 2010. It could come about due to an apocalyptic oil shock, though such a world and a world with a very high carbon tax are mutually exclusive. Today’s Class I freight trains are capable of moving about 450 short tons of freight one mile on one gallon of diesel – about 170 ton-km per liter. (Large cargo ships are about equally efficient, so this holds equally well over oceans.)
Let’s now look at rice, a very cheap retail food item that can’t be grown in every climate and is thus vulnerable to an increase in price that’s essentially constant per unit of weight. Under the above assumptions, shipping rice from Arkansas to New York, a distance of about 2,000 km, would require an extra $60 per ton. The actual retail price of rice in the US is around $1,700 per ton, so the oil shock would raise the price of transporting rice long-distance about 3.5%. First- and last-mile transportation at both ends uses trucks and would become much more expensive, but this would be equally true of long-distance food shipping and locally grown food.
This actually overstates the supposed problem of shipping food across regions, because high fuel prices lead to both higher efficiency and lower consumption. In 2009 BNSF said it would take $10 billion to electrify its mainline network, including purchasing dual-mode locomotives, and pegged the breakeven point for such a venture at $4/gallon gas. A carbon tax would also cause the source of such electricity to shift to greener sources than coal.
While locavores insist on shaving off the small, small portion of their carbon footprint coming from food transportation, many ignore the much larger issue of what they eat. Not all – the environmental movement is full of vegetarians – but the attitude that buying local is more helpful to the environment than avoiding red meat is sufficiently widespread that it’s important to note that the opposite is the truth.
Everyone should read the study linked in the above paragraph. Even when accounting for the full transportation cycle of food, including fertilizer and other materials, transportation is a small percentage of food emissions. Ruminant animals emit large quantities of methane; large mammals hog feed and thus require more fertilizer and energy to grow; manure adds more emissions of nitrous oxides and methane. As a result, red meat consumed in the US emits 22.1 kg-equivalent of CO2 per kg. The average carbon cost posited by E3 – $400 per ton, one fifth the apocalyptic amount used in the rice transportation calculation – would tax red meat $9 per kg, $4 per pound, roughly doubling its retail price.
The original purpose of this blog was to give me a domain name to upload things related to transit. The resource I was uploading was track maps of the New York area due to Rich E Green, whose site unexpectedly vanished last month without caching the maps on Google. Here are the maps I’d saved or gotten from helpful commenters:
NEC in Maryland and DC
If you have any of the rest of the maps, please send them over so that I can make them publicly available again.
Update: all links scrubbed 12/7 by the author’s request, due to copyright issues.