Category: Good Transit

Electronics Before Concrete, not Instead of Concrete

The Swiss slogan electronics before concrete, and related slogans like run trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible, is a reminder not to waste money. However, I worry that it can be read as an argument against spending money in general. For many years now, Cap’n Transit has complained that this slogan is used to oppose bad transit like the Gateway Tunnel and if the money is not spent on public transportation then it may be spent on other things. But in reality, the Swiss slogans, all emphasizing cost minimization, must be reconciled with the fact that Switzerland builds a lot of concrete, including extensive regional rail tunneling in Zurich and intercity rail tunneling. Electronics precedes concrete, but does not always substitute for it; it’s better to think of these planning maxims as a way to do more with a fixed amount of money, and not as a way to do the same amount of project with less money.

The extent of tunneling in Switzerland

Here is a list of tunnels built in Switzerland since the 1980s, when its modern program of integrated timetable-infrastructure-rolling stock investment began:

This is not a small program. Zurich and Geneva are not large cities, and yet they’ve build regional rail trunk tunnels – and Zurich has built two, the most of any German-speaking country, since Berlin and Hamburg only have one of their trunk lines each in tunnel, the rest running above ground. The Mattstetten-Rothrist line likewise does not run at high speed, topping at 200 km/h, because doing so would raise the cost of rolling stock acquisition without benefiting the national integrated timetable – but it was an extensive undertaking for how small Switzerland is. Per capita, Switzerland has built far more intercity rail tunnels by length than France, and may even be ahead of Germany and Italy – and that’s without taking into account the freight base tunnels.

The issue of passenger experience

It’s best to think of organization-before-electronics-before-concrete as a maxim for optimizing user experience more than anything. The system’s passengers would prefer to avoid having to loiter 20 minutes at every connection; this is why one designs timed transfers, and not any attempt to keep the budget down. The Bahn 2000 investments were made in an environment of limited money, but money is always limited – there’s plenty of austerity at the local level in the US too, it just ends up canceling or curtailing useful projects while bad ones keep going on.

In Europe, Switzerland has the highest modal split for rail measured in passenger-km, 19.3%, as of 2018; in 2019, this amounted to 2,338 km per person. The importance of rail is more than this – commuters who use trains tend to travel by train shorter than commuters who use cars drive, since they make routine errand trips on foot at short distance, so the passenger-km modal split is best viewed as an approximation of the importance of intercity rail. Europe’s #2 and #3 are Austria (12.9%) and the Netherlands (11.2%), and both countries have their own integrated intercity rail networks. One does not get to scratch 20% with a design paradigm that is solely about minimizing costs. Switzerland also has low construction costs, but Spain has even lower construction costs and it wishes it had Switzerland’s intensity of rail usage.

Optimizing organization and electronics…

A country or region whose network is a mesh of lines, like Switzerland or the Netherlands, had better adopt the integrated timed transfer concept, to ensure people can get from anywhere to anywhere without undue waiting for a connecting train and without waiting for many hours for a direct train. This includes organizational reforms in the likely case there are overlapping jurisdictions with separate bus, urban rail, and intercity rail networks. Fares should be integrated so as to be mode-neutral and offer free transfers throughout the system, and schedules should be designed to maximize connectivity.

This should include targeted investments in systems and reliability. Some of these should be systemwide, like electrification and level boarding, but sometimes this means building something at a particular delay-prone location, such as a long single-track segment or a railway junction. In all cases, it should be in the context of relentlessly optimizing operations and systems in order to minimize costs, ensure trains spend the maximum amount of time running in revenue service and the minimum amount of time sitting at a yard collecting dust, reduce the required schedule padding, etc.

…leads to concrete

Systemwide optimization invariably shows seams in the system. When Switzerland designed the Bahn 2000 network, there was extensive optimization of everything, but at the end of the day, Zurich-Bern was going to be more than an hour, which would not fit any hourly clockface schedule. Thus the Mattstetten-Rohrist line was born, not out of desire to run trains as fast as possible, but because it was necessary for the trains to run at 200 km/h most of the way between Olten and Bern to fit in an hourly takt.

The same is true of speed and capacity improvements. A faster, more reliable system attracts more passengers, and soon enough, a line designed around a train every 15 minutes fills up and requires a train every 10 minutes, 7.5 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes. An optimized system that minimizes the need for urban tunneling soon generates so much ridership that the tunnels it aimed to avoid become valuable additions to the network.

The Munich S-Bahn, for example, was built around this kind of optimization, inventing many of the principles of coordinated planning in the process. It had a clockface schedule early, and was (I believe) the first system in the world designed around a regionwide takt. It was built to share tracks with intercity and freight trains on outer branches rather than on purely dedicated tracks as in the older Berlin and Hamburg systems, and some of its outermost portions are on single-track. It uses very short signaling blocks to fit 30 trains per hour through the central tunnel in each direction. And now it is so popular it needs a second tunnel, which it is building at very high cost; area activists invoked the organization before electronics before concrete principle to argue against it and in favor of a cheaper solution avoiding city center, but at the end of the day, Munich already optimized organization and electronics, and now is the time for concrete, and even if costs are higher than they should be by a factor of 2-3, the line is worth it.

Electronics before concrete, not instead of concrete

Switzerland is not going to build a French-style national high-speed rail network anytime soon. It has no reason to – at the distances typical of such a small country, the benefits of running at 300 km/h are not large. But this does not mean its rail network only uses legacy lines – on the contrary, it actively builds bypasses and new tunnels. Right now there are plans for an S-Bahn tunnel in Basel, and for an express tunnel from Zurich to Winterthur that was removed from Bahn 2000. The same is true of other European countries that are at or near the frontier of passenger rail technology. Even the Deutschlandtakt plan, compromised as it is by fiscal austerity, by high construction costs, by a pro-car transport minister, and by NIMBYs, includes a fair amount of new high-speed rail, including for example a mostly fast path from Berlin to Frankfurt.

When you plan your rail network well, you encourage more people to use it. When you optimize the schedules, fare integration, transfer experience, and equipment, you end up producing a system that will, in nearly every case, attract considerable numbers of riders. Concrete is the next step: build those S-Bahn tunnels, those express bypasses, those grade separations, those high-speed lines. Work on organization first, and when that is good enough, build electronics, and once you have both, build concrete to make maximum use of what you have.

Costs Matter: Some Examples

A bunch of Americans who should know better tell me that nobody really cares about construction costs – what matters is getting projects built. This post is dedicated to them; if you already believe that efficiency and social return on investment matter then you may find these examples interesting but you probably are not looking for the main argument.

Exhibit 1: North America

Vancouver

I wrote a post focusing on some North American West Coast examples 5 years ago, but costs have since run over and this matters from the point of view of building more in the future. In the 2000s and 10s, Vancouver had the lowest construction costs in North America. The cost estimate for the Broadway subway in the 2010s was C$250 million per kilometer, which is below world median; subsequently, after I wrote the original post, an overrun by a factor of about two was announced, in line with real increases in costs throughout Canada in the same period.

Metro Vancouver has always had to contend with small, finite amounts of money, especially with obligatory political waste. The Broadway subway serves the two largest non-CBD job centers in the region, the City Hall/Central Broadway area and the UBC, but in regional politics it is viewed as a Vancouver project that must be balanced with a suburban project, namely the lower-performing Surrey light rail. Thus, the amount of money that was ever made available was about in line with the original budget, which is currently only enough to build half the line. Owing to the geography of the West Side, half a line is a lot less than half as good as the full line, so Vancouver’s inability to control costs has led to worse public transportation investment.

Toronto

Like Vancouver, Toronto has gone from having pretty good cost control 20 years ago to having terrible cost control today. Toronto’s situation is in fact worse – its urban rail program today is a contender for the second most expensive per kilometer in the world, next to New York. The question of whether it beats Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Manila, Qatar, and Los Angeles depends on project details, essentially on scoring which of these is geologically and geographically the hardest to build in assuming competent leadership, which is in short supply in all of these cities. I am even tempted to specifically blame the most recent political interference for the rising costs, just as the adoption of design-build in the 2000s as an in-vogue reform must be blamed for the beginning of the cost blowouts.

The result is that Toronto is building less stuff. It’s been planning a U-shaped Downtown Relief Line for decades, since only the Yonge-University-Spadina (“YUS”) line serves downtown proper and is therefore overcrowded. However, it’s not really able to afford the full line, and hence it keeps downgrading it with various iterations, right now to an inverted L for the Ontario Line project.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles’s costs, uniquely in the United States, seemed reasonable 15 years ago, and no longer are. This, as in Canada, can be seen in building less stuff. High-ranking officials at Los Angeles Metro explained to me and Eric that the money for capital expansion is bound by formulas decided by referendum; there is a schedule for how to spend the money as far as 2060, which means that anything that is not in the current plan is not planned to be built in the next 40 years. Shifting priorities is not really possible, not with how Metro has to buy off every regional interest group to ensure the tax increases win referendums by the required 2/3 supermajority. And even then, the taxes imposed are rising to become a noticeable fraction of consumer spending – even if California went to majority vote, its tax capacity would remain very finite.

New York

The history of Second Avenue Subway screams “we would have built more had costs been lower.” People with deeper historic grounding than I do have written at length about the problems of the Independent Subway System (“IND”) built in the 1920s and 30s; in short, construction costs were in today’s terms around $140 million per km, which at the time was a lot (London and Paris were building subways for $30-35 million/km), and this doomed the Second System. But the same impact of high costs, scaled to the modern economy, is seen for the current SAS project.

The history of SAS is that it was planned as a single system from 125th Street to Hanover Square. The politician most responsible for funding it, Sheldon Silver, represented the Lower East Side. But spending capacity was limited, and in particular Silver had to trade that horse for East Side Access serving Long Island, which was Governor George Pataki’s base. The package was such that SAS could only get a few billion dollars, whereas at the time the cost estimate for the entire 13-km line was $17 billion. That’s why SAS was chopped into four phases, starting on the Upper East Side. Silver himself signed off on this in the early 2000s even though his district would only be served in phase four: he and the MTA assumed that there would be further statewide infrastructure packages and the entire line would be complete by 2020.

Exhibit 2: Israel

Israel is discussing extending the Tel Aviv Metro. It sounds weird to speak of extensions when the first line is yet to open, but that line, the Red Line, is under construction and close enough to the end that people are believing it will happen; Israelis’ faith that there would ever be a subway in Tel Aviv was until recently comparable to New Yorkers’ faith until the early 2010s that Second Avenue Subway would ever open. The Red Line is a subway-surface Stadtbahn, as is the under-construction Green Line and the planned Purple Line. But metropolitan Tel Aviv keeps growing and is at this point an economic conurbation of about 3-4 million people, with a contiguous urban core of 1.5 million. It needs more. Hence, people keep discussing additions. The Ministry of Finance, having soured on the Stadtbahn idea, bypassed the Ministry of Transport and introduced a complementary three-line underground driverless metro system.

The cost of the system is estimated at 130-150 billion shekels, which is around $39 billion. This is not a sum Israelis are used to seeing for a government project. It’s about two years’ worth of IDF spending, and Israeli is a militarized society. It’s about 10% of annual GDP, which in American or EU-wide terms would be $2 trillion. The state has many competing budget priorities, and there are so many other valid claims on the state coffers. It is therefore likely that the metro project’s construction will stretch over many years, not out of planning latency but out of real resource limits. People in Israel understand that Gush Dan has severe traffic congestion and needs better transportation – this is not a point of political controversy in a society that has many. But this means the public is willing to spend this amount of money over 15-20 years at the shortest. Were costs to double, in line with the costs in most of th Anglosphere, it would take twice as long; were they to fall in half, in line with Mediterranean Europe, it would take half as long.

Exhibit 3: Spain

As the country with the world’s lowest construction costs for infrastructure, Spain builds a lot of it, everywhere. This includes places where nobody else would think to build a metro tunnel or an airport or a high-speed rail line; Spain has the world’s second longest high-speed rail network, behind China. Many of these lines probably don’t even make sense within a Spanish context – RENFE at best operationally breaks even, and the airports were often white elephants built at the peak of the Spanish bubble before the 2008 financial crisis.

One can see this in urban rail length just as in high-speed rail. Madrid Metro is 293 km long, the third longest in Europe behind London and Moscow. This is the result of aggressive expansion in the 1990s and 2000s; new readers are invited to read Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup of how when he was Madrid Metro’s CEO he built tunnels so cheaply. Expansion slowed down dramatically after the financial crisis, but is starting up again; the Spanish economy is not good, but when one can build subways for €100 million per kilometer, one can build subways that other cities would not. In addition to regular metros, Madrid also has regional rail tunnels – two of them in operation, going north-south, with a third under construction going east-west and a separate mainline rail tunnel for cross-city high-speed rail.

Exhibit 4: Japan

Japan practices economic austerity. It wants to privatize Tokyo Metro, and to get the best price, it needs to keep debt service low. When the Fukutoshin Line opened in 2008, Tokyo Metro said it would be the system’s last line, to limit depreciation and interest costs. The line amounted to around $280 million/km in today’s money, but Tokyo Metro warned that the next line would have to cost $500 million/km, which was too high. The rule in Japan has recently been that the state will fund a subway if it is profitable enough to pay back construction costs within 30 years.

Now, as a matter of politics, on can and should point out that a 30-year payback, or 3.3% annual interest, is ridiculously high. For one, Japan’s natural interest rate is far lower, and corporations borrow at a fraction of that interest; JR Central is expecting to be paying down Chuo Shinkansen debt until the 2090s, for a project that is slated to open in full in the 2040s. However, if the state changes its rule to something else, say 1% interest, all that will change is the frontier of what it will fund; lines will continue to be built up to a budgetary limit, so that the lower the construction costs, the more stuff can be built.

Conclusion: the frontier of construction

In a functioning state, infrastructure is built as it becomes cost-effective based on economic growth, demographic projections, public need, and advances in technology. There can be political or cultural influences on the decisionmaking process, but they don’t lead to huge swings. What this means is that as time goes by, more infrastructure becomes viable – and infrastructure is generally built shortly after it becomes economically beneficial, so that it looks right on the edge of viability.

This is why megaprojects are so controversial. Taiwan High-Speed Rail and Korea Train Express are both very strong systems nowadays. Total KTX ridership stood at 89 million in 2019 and was rising on the eve of corona, thanks to Korea’s ability to build more and more lines, for example the $69 million/km, 82% underground SRT reverse-branch. THSR, which has financial data on Wikipedia, has 67 million annual riders and is financially profitable, returning about 4% on capital after depreciation, before interest. But when KTX and THSR opened, they both came far below ridership projections, which were made in the 1990s when they had much faster economic convergence before the 1997 crisis. They were viewed as white elephants, and THSR could not pay interest and had to refinance at a lower rate. Taiwan and South Korea could have waited 15 years and only opened HSR now that they have almost fully converged to first-world Western incomes. But why would they? In the 2000s, HSR in both countries was a positive value proposition; why skip on 15 years of good infrastructure just because it was controversially good then and only uncontroversially good now?

In a functioning state, there is always a frontier of technology. The more cost-effective construction is, the further away the frontier is and the more infrastructure can be built. It’s likely that a Japan that can build subways for Korean costs is a Japan that keeps expanding the Tokyo rail network, because Japan is not incompetent, just austerian and somewhat high-cost. The way one gets more stuff built is by ensuring costs look like those of Spain and Korea and not like those of Japan and Israel, let alone those of the United States and Canada.

When Should Cities Separate Short- and Long-Range Commuter Rail?

There’s a big difference between the various regional rail proposals I’ve made for New York and similar examples in Paris and Berlin: the New York maps go a lot further, and incorporate the entirety of regional rail, whereas the RER and the Berlin S-Bahn both focus on shorter-range, higher-frequency lines, with separate trains for longer-range service, generally without through-running. A number of New York-area rail advocates have asked me why do this, often suggesting shorter-range alternatives. Yonah Freemark made a draft proposal many years ago in which through-running trains went as far as New Brunswick, White Plains, and a few other suburbs at that range, on the model of the RER. But I believe my modification of the system used here and in Paris is correct for New York as well as the other American cities I’ve proposed regional rail in.

The reason boils down to a track shortage making it difficult to properly segregate S-Bahn/RER-type service from RegionalBahn/Transilien-type service. These are two different things in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, and Crossrail in London is likewise planned to run separately from longer-range trains, but in Zurich and on Thameslink in London these blend together. Separate operations require four-track mainlines without any two-track narrows at inconvenient places; otherwise, it’s better to blend. And in New York, there are no usable four-track mainlines. Philadelphia and Chicago have them, but not on any corridor where it’s worth running a separate RegionalBahn, which is fundamentally a short-range intercity train, and not a suburban train.

Scale maps

Here is a map of the Berlin S-Bahn (in black) and U-Bahn (in red) overlaid on the New York metropolitan area.

The reach of the S-Bahn here is about comparable to the size of New York City, not that of the metropolitan area. Even taking into account that Berlin is a smaller city, the scope is different. Service to suburbs that are not directly adjacent to Berlin the way Potsdam is is provided by hourly RegionalBahn trains, which do not form a neat network of a frequent north-south and a frequent east-west line through city center.

Here is the same map with the Paris Métro and RER; a branch of the RER D runs off the map but not much, and the RER E branches going east, still within the map box, go further but only every half hour off-peak.

The Parisian Transilien lines are not shown; they all terminate at the legacy stations, and a few have frequent trunks, generally within the scope of the box, but they don’t form axes like the east-west RER A and north-south RER B.

So what I’m proposing is definitely a difference, since I’ve advocated for through-running everything in New York, including trains going from Trenton to New Haven. Why?

Four-track lines and track segregation

In most of Berlin, the infrastructure exists to keep local and longer-range rail traffic separate. The Stadtbahn has four tracks, two for the S-Bahn and two for all other traffic. The North-South Tunnel has only two tracks, dedicated to S-Bahn service; the construction of Berlin Hauptbahnhof involved building new mainline-only tunnels with four tracks. Generally, when the S-Bahn takes over a longer line going out of Berlin, the line has four tracks, or else it is not needed for intercity service. The most glaring exception is the Berlin-Dresden line – the historic line is two-track and given over to the S-Bahn, requiring intercity trains to go around and waste 20 minutes, hence an ongoing project to four-track the line to allow intercity trains to go directly.

In Paris, there are always track paths available. Among the six main intercity terminals, the least amount of infrastructure is four-track approaches, at Gare de Lyon and Gare d’Austerlitz, with two tracks given over to the RER and two to everything else. Of note, the entirety of the Austerlitz network has been given to the RER, as has nearly all of the Lyon network, which is why the lines go so far to the south. The other terminals have more: Saint-Lazare and Nord each have 10 tracks, making segregation very easy. Only subsidiary regional-only stations have two-track approaches, and those are entirely given over to the RER, forming the eastern part of the RER A, the southern part of the RER B, and the western part of the RER C.

New York has a shortage of approach tracks. The reason for this is that historically the mainlines mostly terminated outside Manhattan, so the four-track approaches only went as far as Newark, Jersey City, etc. The LIRR has a four-track mainline into Penn Station from the east, which is why I’ve advocated for some segregation, but even that should eventually involve the express trains via East Side Access through-running to New Jersey; see the second map in this post.

On the New Jersey side there are plans for four tracks with new tunnels across the Hudson, but two tracks have to be shared with intercity trains, and there’s no easy way to neatly separate service into two S-Bahn tracks and two RegionalBahn tracks. In the short run, two of these tracks would have to include trains diverting west to the Morris and Essex Lines, which have a three-track main and therefore cannot segregate their own locals and expresses. In the long run, with the M&E system given its own tunnel across the Hudson, you could theoretically do two local and two express tracks, but that runs into a different issue, which is that east of Penn Station, there are two paths to New Rochelle, both of which have local stops.

The issue of having two paths between the city center station and an important suburban junction, both with local stations, is also a problem in London. North of the Thames, most mainlines are at least four-track, making segregation easy, hence the plans for Crossrail. The only exception is the Lea Valley lines. But in South London, lines are two-track – historically, railways that needed more capacity did not widen one line to four tracks but instead built a parallel two-track lines with its own local stations, often arranging the local stations in a loop. The result is a morass of merging and diverging lines reducing capacity, and London is only slowly disentangling it. In either case, it makes segregation difficult; Thameslink can’t just take over the slow lines the way Crossrail is, and therefore there are Thameslink trains going as far as Bedford and Brighton.

What does this mean?

It’s somewhat unusual for New York to get a regional rail network in which every train, even ones going to distinct cities like New Haven, is part of a central system of through-running. But it’s not unheard of – Thameslink works like this, so does the Zurich S-Bahn, and so does Israel’s national network with its Tel Aviv through-running – and it’s an artifact of a real limitation of the region’s mainline rail system.

But this should not be viewed as a negative. New York really does have suburban sprawl stretching tens of kilometers out. It should have suburban rail accompanying all these suburbs, and wherever possible, it should run on a schedule that is useful to people who are not just 1950s-style 9-to-5 commuters. Moreover, New York lacks either the vast terminals of Paris or the Ringbahn’s mushroom concept, which means trains from outer suburbs have nowhere to go but Manhattan, so they might as well be turned over into a through-running system.

Who Should Bear the Risk in Infrastructure Projects?

The answer to the question is the public sector, always. It’s okay to have private-sector involvement in construction, but the risk must be borne by the public sector, or else the private sector will just want more money to compensate for the extra risk.

The biggest piece of evidence for this is emerging out of our construction costs project, so it will appear in the report and not in a blog post. But for now, I’d like to point out examples from media, the academic literature, and one interview of particular interest.

PPP, Gangnam style

A transportation planner in Korea named Abdirashid Dahir has been giving Eric and me a lot of detailed information about Korean construction costs. We were already aware that Line 9 in Seoul had been built as a PPP, but what we learned was more complicated.

Line 9 is a partnership – the last P in PPP. This means, part of the construction is done by the private sector, and part by the public sector, namely the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The private consortium, led by Hyundai, was responsible for the design and for the construction of the systems, including the tracks, signaling, and rolling stock. SMG was responsible for the civil infrastructure. The total cost of the first phase was 1,167.7 billion won for 25.5 km, split as 492.2 billion in municipal construction and 675.8 billion in private investment.

The importance of this split is that civil infrastructure is the least certain part of underground construction. There are always geotechnical surprises, most small, a few potentially leading to large cost and schedule overruns. These are especially likely during station construction – the tunnels in between tend to be simpler with modern TBMs. Systems, in contrast, are relatively straightforward. Installing rail tracks is the same task regardless of whether it’s in solid rock in an exurban area that has no significant archeology, or through sand that had to be frozen, partly underwater, in the oldest parts of Berlin.

The upshot here is that while low-cost countries do use PPPs, this project keeps the riskiest aspects of construction public and not private. Privatization is fine for less risky, more commoditized situations.

How private bidders respond to risk

Two examples come to mind, both from the United States.

First, in New York, Brian Rosenthal’s seminal New York Times article cited Denise Richardson of the General Contractors’ Association saying that the contractors are barely making any profit and are bidding high because of risks imposed on them by the public sector. I don’t think this is a very high-quality source – it’s extremely biased, for one – but in context, it makes some sense.

Second, we do have more quantifiable data on this, thanks to the work of the Stanford Graduate School of Business economist Shosh Vasserman and Hoover Institute economist Valentin Bolotnyy. They look at highway maintenance contracts in Massachusetts and compare scaling auctions, in which the contracts are itemized, with lump sum auctions, in which they are not. Based on actual differences in price and estimates of contractor risk-aversion, they estimate that itemizing saves 10% of the cost through lower risk.

Supporting structures for public-sector risk assumption

There’s always the problem of moral hazard. Of note, even with this problem, costs are lower with itemized contracts in Massachusetts than with lump-sum contracts. But this does suggest a number of ways to reduce costs through better risk management:

  • Itemized contracts, in enough detail that changes do not need litigation.
  • Fixed profit rates – Spanish contracts are done with a fixed profit rate over the items named in the bid.
  • Public oversight – there needs to be tighter supervision of risky things, which most likely means no PPPs for civil infrastructure.

It is unfortunate that American trends in the last 20 years have been away from those principles and toward greater privatization of the state, and equally unfortunate that American (and British) soft power has led to similar reforms in the wrong direction in the rest of the Anglosphere. But it’s possible to do better and imitate Korean practices to get Korean costs.

More on Station Costs

Talking to Marco Chitti about the history of Italian construction always fills me with hope. He’s been gathering data about metro construction in Milan and Rome, and told Elif, Eric, and me about the issue of building through constrained areas. Historic city centers are constrained because tunneling can damage buildings – the first two lines in Milan, built in the 1950s and 60s at abnormally low costs, caused some damage to buildings, since they involved cut-and-cover under streets only 12-15 meters wide. The good news is that tunneling with a tunnel boring machine is fine now. Stations remain an enormous challenge – but the conversation did fill me with optimism about future construction in cities that were not global imperial capitals 2,000 years ago.

TBM technology

Tunnel-boring machines have advanced to the point of being archeology-safe. Italian heritage protection laws from the 2000s forbid any risk to historic buildings and historic sites, but TBM technology at this point allows preserving artifacts. It involves injecting a gel ahead of the cutting edge, which is not supposed to be a cost-raiser.

The result is that tunneling is cheap. This is not a matter of low wages – in fact, Marco cites higher wages for Italian skilled workers who staff TBMs, up to €4,500 a month net, which rises to about €9,000 gross with social contributions. These are based on a nationwide scale that only weakly varies with location, which helps explain why Naples costs are not low despite the region’s low incomes.

Station construction

Station construction costs vary immensely by location. In Rome, on the same project, stations in a suburban part of the city might be €60-70 million. This does not mean construction is trivially easy: Rome’s suburbs still often host historic sites, having been home to patrician villas in Antiquity, and in fact the word suburb dates to that era. However, it’s relatively safe, and I don’t think Line C ran into such sites.

Then in the most constrained parts of the city, things are different. The extension plans for Line C deeper into city center have station costs in the €400-600 million range. This is not what things cost everything within Rome, or even everywhere within the densely-built parts of the city. But the Line C extension passes through the most historic sites. An already-under construction segment will go to the Colosseum, and a planned extension deeper into city center is to go to Piazza Venezia, at the Wedding Cake, and it is that station that is projected to cost €600 million.

The reason for the high cost is that it is not possible to do archeology- and building-safe cut-and-cover. Piazza Venezia doesn’t quite have enough room for a cut-and-cover dig of a full-length station. It is fed by a wide street, the Via Fori Imperali, and I asked Marco why not build cut-and-cover there, but he pointed out that the street goes through the historic Forum. It is in fact elevated over the ruins; any cut-and-cover there would endanger the Forum, and is not acceptable.

Without cut-and-cover, the only alternative is to mine the stations. Rome investigated the option of large-diameter TBMs on the Barcelona L9 model and found it infeasible, since the tunnels are so big they might themselves cause some building damage. Once the stations are mined from a small shaft, their costs explode. Second Avenue Subway built stations using the same method, and had similar per-station construction costs.

The good news

Mined station construction is in practically all cases not necessary. New Yorkers talk about the city’s high built-up density as a reason why costs are high. But in terms of actual stuff in the way of a tunnel, there’s less in New York than in Rome or Istanbul, which has even lower construction costs.

In fact, there is a line in Rome that is rather similar in urban geography to Second Avenue Subway: the Line B1 branch. It runs under a 27 meter wide street flanked by modern buildings that are about 9 stories tall above ground but also have underground parking, Italy having such a car culture that the middle class expects to own cars even in Rome. The cost: €527 million for 3.9 km, in 2010-15.

Moreover, the hard rock in New York should make it easier to build stations while maintaining building safety. Manhattan’s schist is brittle and therefore requires concrete lining, unlike the more uniform gneiss of Stockholm, famously forming natural arches that are pretty to look at from within the tunnels. However, it is still better soil for construction than the sand of Berlin’s U5 extension, to be opened next month, or the alluvial soil of Amsterdam.

The explanation Marco gives concerning station construction is physical and not institutional. This means it should transplant well into another setting – which it does!

In Berlin, the city-center U5 extension, including U55, is in today’s money around €240 million/km. The stations look like cut-and-cover to me, and if they’re not then it comes from severe NIMBYism since the line goes under the very wide Unter den Linden, but one of the stations is basically under the river and another is under U6 and involves moving the U6 station, and the sandy soil is genuinely bad to tunnel through. Suburban extensions in Berlin, with easy cut-and-cover stations, are consistently in the €100-150 million/km range, which is barely higher than the non-Forum Italian range. So Berlin looks fine, and just needs to invest resources into U- and S-Bahn extensions and not into extending the A 100 motorway.

Can New York have what Italy has?

Almost certainly! Second Avenue is not an old or narrow street by Italian standards. Nor are any of the other streets slated for subway construction in New York, such as Nostrand, Utica, and even 125th. Importing construction techniques from Italy and Germany should be feasible. There may be problems with local politics – New Yorkers absolutely hate admitting that another city may be better than theirs in any way, and this makes learning harder. But it is not impossible, and so far there do not seem to be any physical or economic obstacles to doing so.

The German Way of Building Rapid Transit

Continuing my series on different traditions of building urban rapid transit, today it’s time for Germany and Austria, following the posts on the US, the Soviet bloc, Britain, and France. Germany had a small maritime empire by British and French standards and lost it all after World War 1, but has been tremendously influential on its immediate neighbors as a continental power. This is equally true of rapid transit: Germany and Austria’s rail traditions have evolved in a similar direction, influential also in Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium to varying extents.

S-Bahns and U-Bahns

Germany is one of the origins of urban regional rail, called S-Bahn here in contrast with the U-Bahn subway. The first frequent urban rail service in the world appeared in London in 1836, but trains ran every 20 minutes and the stop spacing was only borderline urban. Berlin in contrast innovated when it opened the east-west elevated Stadtbahn in 1882, running frequent steam trains with local spacing.

As elevated steam-powered urban rail, the Stadtbahn was not particularly innovative. New York had already been running such service on its own els going back to 1872. But the Stadtbahn differed in being integrated into the mainline rail system from the start. Berlin already had the Ringbahn circling the city’s then-built up area to permit freight trains to go around, but it still built the Stadtbahn with four tracks, two dedicated to local traffic and two to intercity traffic. Moreover, it was built to mainline rail standards, and was upgraded over time as these standards changed with the new national rail regulation of 1925. This more than anything was the origin of the concept of regional rail or S-Bahn today.

Vienna built such a system as well, inspired by many sources, including Berlin, opening in 1898. Hamburg further built a mainline urban rail connection between Hauptbahnhof and Altona, electrifying it in 1907 to become the first electrified S-Bahn in the world. Copenhagen, today not particularly German in its transportation system, built an S-Bahn in the 1930s, naming it S-tog after the German term.

However, German cities that built such S-Bahn systems would also build separate U-Bahn systems. U-Bahns in Germany have short stop spacing and tend to mostly serve inner areas: for example, on this map of Munich, the U-Bahn is in blue, and the trams are in red. Berlin has some farther-reaching U-Bahn lines, especially U7, a Cold War line built when the West got the U-Bahn and the East got the S-Bahn; had the city not been divided, it’s unlikely it would have been built at all.

Some of the early U-Bahns were even elevated, similarly to New York subway lines and a few Paris Métro lines. Hamburg’s operator is even called Hochbahn in recognition of the elevated characteristic of much of its system. Like Paris and unlike New York, those elevated segments are on concrete viaducts and not steel structures, and therefore the trains above are not very noisy, generally quieter than the cars at street level.

Light rail and Stadtbahns

The early els of Berlin and Vienna were called Stadtbahn when built in the 19th century, but since the 1960s, the term has been used to refer to mixed subway-surface systems.

Germany had long been a world leader in streetcar systems – the first electric streetcar in the world opened in Berlin in 1881. But after World War Two, streetcars began to be viewed as old-fashioned and just getting in the way of cars. West German cities generally tore out their streetcars in their centers, but unlike American or French cities, they replaced those streetcars with Stadtbahn tunnels and retained the historic streetcar alignments in outer neighborhoods feeding those tunnels.

The closure of the streetcars was not universal. Munich and Vienna retained the majority of their tram route-length, though they did close lines parallel to the fully grade-separated U-Bahn systems both cities built postwar. Many smaller cities retained their trams, like Augsburg and Salzburg, though this was generally more consistent in the Eastern Bloc, which built very little rapid transit (East Berlin) or severed itself from the German planning tradition and Sovietized (Prague, Budapest).

The Stadtbahn concept is also extensively used in Belgium, where it is called pre-metro; the Vienna U-Bahn and even the generally un-German Stockholm T-bana both have pre-metro history, only later transitioning to full grade separation. Mixed rapid transit-streetcar operations also exist in the Netherlands, but not in the consistent fashion of either the fast-in-the-center-slow-outside Stadtbahn or its fast-outside-slow-in-the-center inverse, the Karlsruhe model of the tram-train.

Network design

Rail network design in German-speaking cities is highly coordinated between modes but is not very systematic or coherent.

The coordination means that different lines work together, even across modes. In the post about France, I noted that the Paris Métro benefited from coordinated planning from the start, so that on the current network, there is only one place where two lines cross without a transfer. This is true, but there are unfortunately many places where a Métro line and an RER line cross without a transfer; the central RER B+D tunnel alone crosses three east-west Métro lines without a transfer. In Berlin, in contrast, there are no missed connections on the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn, and only one between the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, which S21 plans do aim to fix. Hamburg has two missed connections on the U-Bahn and one between the U- and S-Bahn. Munich has no missed connections at all.

But while the lines work well as a graph, they are not very coherent in the sense of having a clear design paradigm. Berlin is the most obvious example of this, having an U-Bahn that is neither radial like London or Moscow nor a grid like Paris. This is not even a Cold War artifact: U6 and U8 are parallel north-south lines, and have been since they opened in the 1920s and early 20s. Hamburg and Vienna are haphazard too. Munich is more coherent – its U-Bahn has three trunk lines meeting in a Soviet triangle – but its branching structure is weird, with two rush hour-only reverse-branches running as U7 and U8. The larger Stadtbahn networks, especially Cologne, are a hodgepodge of mergers and splits.

Fares

The German planning tradition has distinguishing characteristics that are rare in other traditions, particularly when it comes to fare payment – in many other respects, the Berlin U-Bahn looks similar to the Paris Métro, especially if one ignores regional rail.

Proof of payment: stations have no fare barriers, and the fare is enforced entirely with proof of payment inspections. This is common globally on light rail (itself partly a German import in North America) and on European commuter rail networks, but in Germany this system is used even on U-Bahns and on very busy S-Bahn trunks like Munich and Berlin’s; in Paris there’s POP on the RER but only in the suburbs, not in the city.

Unstaffed stations: because there are no fare barriers, stations do not require station agents, which reduces operating expenses. In Berlin, most U-Bahn stations have a consistent layout: an island platform with a stairway exit at each end. This is also common in the rest of the German-speaking world. Because there is no need for fare barriers, it is easy to make the stations barrier-free – only one elevator is needed per station, and thus Berlin is approaching fully wheelchair accessibility at low cost, even though it’s contemporary with New York (only 25% accessible) and Paris (only 3% accessible, the lowest among major world metros).

Fare integration: fares are mode-neutral, so riding an express regional train within the city costs the same as the U-Bahn or the bus, and transfers are free. This is such an important component of good transit that it’s spreading across Europe, but Germany is the origin, and this is really part of the coordination of planning between U- and S-Bahn service.

Zonal fares: fares are in zones, rather than depending more granularly on distance as is common in Asia. Zones can be concentric and highly non-granular as in Berlin, concentric and granular as in Munich, or non-concentric as in Zurich.

Monthly and annual discounts: there is a large discount for unlimited monthly tickets, in order to encourage people to prepay and not forget the fare when they ride the train. There are even annual tickets, with further discounts.

No smartcards: the German-speaking world has resisted the nearly global trend of smartcards. Passengers can use paper tickets, or pay by app. This feature, unlike many others, has not really been exported – proof-of-payment is common enough in much of Northern and Central Europe, but there is a smartcard and the fare inspectors have handheld card readers.

Verkehrsverbund: the Verkehrsverbund is an association of transport operators within a region, coordinating fares first of all, and often also timetables. This way, S-Bahn services operated by DB or a concessionaire and U-Bahn and bus services operated by a municipal corporation can share revenue. The first Verkehrsverbund was Hamburg’s, set up in 1965, and now nearly all of Germany is covered by Verkehrsverbünde. This concept has spread as a matter of fare integration and coordinated planning, and now Paris and Lyon have such bodies as well, as does Stockholm.

Germany has no head

The American, Soviet, British, and French traditions all rely on exports of ideas from one head megacity: New York, Moscow, London, Paris. This is not at all true of the German tradition. Berlin was the richest German city up until World War 2, and did influence planning elsewhere, inspiring the Vienna Stadtbahn and the re-electrification of the Hamburg S-Bahn with third rail in the late 1930s. But it was never dominant; Hamburg electrified its S-Bahn 20 years earlier, and the Rhine-Ruhr region was planning express regional service connecting its main cities as early as the 1920s.

Instead, German transportation knowledge has evolved in a more polycentric fashion. Hamburg invented the Verkehrsverbund. Munich invented the postwar S-Bahn, with innovations like scheduling a clockface timetable (“Takt”) around single-track branches. Cologne and Frankfurt opened the first German Stadtbahn tunnels (Boston had done so generations earlier, but this fell out of the American planning paradigm). Karlsruhe is so identified with the tram-train that this technology is called the Karlsruhe model. Nuremberg atypically built a fully segregated U-Bahn, and even more atypically was a pioneer of driverless operations, even beating Paris to be the first city in the world to automate a previously-manual subway, doing so in 2010 vs. 2012 for Paris.

There’s even significant learning from the periphery, or at least from the periphery that Germany deigns acknowledge, that is its immediate neighbors, but not anything non-European. Plans for the Deutschlandtakt are based on the success of intercity rail takt planning in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, and aim to build the same system at grander scale in a larger country.

The same polycentric, headless geography is also apparent in intercity rail. It’s not just Germany and Switzerland that build an everywhere-to-everywhere intercity rail system, in lieu of the French focus on connecting the capital with specific secondary cities. It’s Austria too, even though Vienna is a dominant capital. For that matter, the metropolitan area of Zurich too is around a fifth of the population of Switzerland, and yet the Swiss integrated timed transfer concept is polycentric.

Does this work?

On the most ridiculously wide definition of its metropolitan area, Vienna has 3.7 million people, consisting of the city proper and of Lower Austria. In 2012, it had 922 million rail trips (source, PDF-p. 44); the weighted average work trip modal split in these two states is 40% (source, PDF-p. 39). In reality, Vienna is smaller and its modal split is higher. Zurich, an even smaller and richer city, has a 30% modal split. Mode shares in Germany are somewhat lower – nationwide Austria’s is 20%, Germany’s is 16% – but still healthy for how small German cities are. Hamburg and Stuttgart both have metropolitan public transport modal splits of 26%, and neither is a very large city – their metro areas are about 3.1 and 2.6 million, respectively. Munich is within that range as well.

In fact, in the developed world, one doesn’t really find larger modal splits than these in the 2 million size class. Stockholm is very high as well, as are 1.5th-world Prague and Budapest, but one sees certain German influences in all three, even though for the most part Stockholm is its own thing and the other two are Soviet. Significantly higher rates of public transport usage exist in very large Asian cities and in Paris, and Germany does deserve demerits for its NIMBYism, but NIMBYism is not why Munich is a smaller city than Taipei.

To the extent there’s any criticism of the German rapid transit planning tradition, it’s that construction costs lately have been high by Continental European standards, stymieing plans for needed expansion. Märkisches Viertel has been waiting for an extension of U8 for 50 years and it might finally get it this decade.

The activist sphere in Germany is especially remarkable for not caring very much about U-Bahn expansion. One occasionally finds dedicated transport activists, like Zukunft Mobilität, but the main of green urbanist activism here is bike lanes and trams. People perceive U- and S-Bahn expansion as a center-right pro-car plot to remove public transit from the streets in order to make more room for cars.

The high construction costs in Germany and the slow, NIMBY-infused process are both big drags on Germany’s ability to provide better public transportation in the future. It’s plausible that YIMBYer countries will overtake it – that Korean and Taiwanese cities of the same size as Munich and Hamburg will have higher modal splits than Munich and Hamburg thanks to better transit-oriented development. But in the present, the systems in Munich and Zurich are more or less at the technological frontier of urban public transportation for cities of their size class, and not for nothing, much of Europe is slowly Germanizing its public transport planning paradigm.

Governance in Rich Liberal American Cities

Matt Yglesias has a blog post called Make Blue America Great Again, about governance in rich liberal states like New York and California. He talks about various good government issues, and he pays a lot of attention specifically to TransitMatters and our Regional Rail project for the Boston region, so I feel obliged to comment more on this.

The basic point Matt makes is that the quality of governance in rich liberal American states is poor, and as a result, people do not associate them with wealth very consistently. He brings up examples about the quality of schools and health care, but his main focus is land use and transportation: the transportation infrastructure built in New York, California, etc. is expensive and not of high quality, and tight zoning regulations choke housing production.

That said, I think there’s a really important screwup in those states and cities that Matt misses: the problem isn’t (just) high costs, but mostly total unwillingness to do anything. Do-nothing leaders like Charlie Baker, Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, and Bill de Blasio aren’t particularly interested in optimizing for costs, even the first two, who project an image of moderation and reason.

The Regional Rail proposal’s political obstacles are not exactly a matter of cost. It’s not that this should cost $4 billion (without the North-South Rail Link) but it was estimated at $15 billion and therefore there’s no will to do it. No: the Baker administration seems completely uninterested in governing, and has published two fraudulent studies making up high costs for both the North-South Rail Link and rail electrification, as well as a more recent piece of fraud making up high costs for Boston-Springfield intercity rail. The no comes first, and the high costs come second.

This history – no first, then high costs – is also the case for New York’s subway accessibility program. The MTA does not want it; the political system does not care either. Therefore, when disability rights advocates do force some investment, the MTA makes up high costs, often through bundling unnecessary investments that it does want, like rebuilding station interiors, and charging these projects to the accessibility account. A judge can force an agency to build something, but not to build it competently and without siphoning money.

I want to emphasize that this does not cover all cases of high American costs. Second Avenue Subway, for example, is not the result of such a sandbag: everyone wants it built, but the people in charge in New York are not competent enough to build it affordably. This does accord with Matt’s explanation of poor Northeastern and West Coast governance. But not everything does, and it’s important to recognize what’s going on.

The other important point is that these do-nothing leaders are popular. Baker is near-tied for the most popular governor in the United States with another do-nothing Northeastern moderate Republican, Maryland’s Larry Hogan. Andrew Cuomo’s approval rate has soared since he got 43,000 people in the state killed in the corona crisis.

People who live in New York may joke that the city has trash on the street and cockroaches in apartments, but they’re pretty desensitized to it. They politically identify as Democrats, and once corona happened they blamed Trump, as did many people elsewhere in the United States, and forgave Democrats who mismanaged the crisis like Cuomo. Baker and Hogan are of course Republicans, but they perform a not-like-the-other-Republicans persona, complete with open opposition to Trump, and therefore Massachusetts Democrats who have a strong partisan identity in federal elections are still okay with do-nothing Republicans. People who really can’t stand the low quality of public services leave.

Construction cost reform is pretty drastic policy, requiring the destruction of pretty powerful political forces – the system of political appointments, state legislators and mayors with a local rather than national-partisan identity, NIMBYs, politically-connected managers, the building trades, various equity consultants (such as many Los Angeles-area urbanists). They are not legally strong, and a governor with a modicum of courage could disempower them, but to be a moderate in the United States means to be extremely timid and technologically conservative. Matt himself understands that last point, and has pointed this out in connection with moderates who hold the balance of power in the Senate, like Joe Manchin and Susan Collins, but use it only to slightly shrink proposed changes and never to push a positive agenda of their own.

So yes, this is a construction cost crisis, but it’s not purely that. A lot of it is a broader crisis of political cowardice, in which non-leftist forces think government doesn’t work and then get elected and prove it (and leftists think real change comes from bottom-up action and the state is purely for sinecures, courtesy of the New Left). I warned in the spring that corona is not WW2 – the crisis is big enough to get people to close ranks behind leaders, but not to get them to change anything important. These states are rich; comfortable people are not going to agitate for the destruction of just about every local political power structure just to get better infrastructure.

Tram-Trains

I recently covered the Stadtbahn, a mode of rail transportation running as rapid transit (almost always a subway) in city center and as a tramway farther out. The tram-train is the opposite kind of system: it runs as a tramway within the city, but as rapid transit farther out. There’s a Human Transit blog post about this from 2009, describing how it works in Karlsruhe, which invented this kind of service pattern. Jarrett is bearish on the tram-train in most contexts, giving a list of required patterns that he says is uncommon elsewhere. It’s worth revising this question, because while the tram-train is not very useful in an American context, it is in countries with discontinuous built-up areas, including Germany and the Netherlands but also Israel. Israeli readers may be especially interested in how this technology fits the rail network away from the Tel Aviv region.

What is a tram-train?

Let’s dredge the 2*2 table from the Stadtbahn post:

Slow in centerFast in center
Slow in outlying areasTramwayStadtbahn
Fast in outlying areasTram-trainRapid transit

The terms fast and slow are again relative to general traffic. The Paris Métro averages 25 km/h, less than some mixed-traffic buses in small cities, but it still counts as fast because the speed in destinations accessed per hour is very high.

Be aware that I am using the terms Stadtbahn and tram-train to denote two different things, but in Karlsruhe the system is locally called Stadtbahn. German cities use the term Stadtbahn to mean “a tramway that doesn’t suck,” much as American cities call a dazzling variety of distinct things light rail, including lines in all four cells of the above table. Nonetheless, in this post I am keeping my terminology distinct, using the advantage of switching between different languages and dialects.

Tram-trains and regional rail

The Karlsruhe model involves trains running on mainline track alongside mainline trains, diverging to dedicated tramway tracks in the city, to connect Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhof with city center around Marktplatz. This also includes lines that do not touch the mainline, like S2, but still run with higher-quality right-of-way separation outside city center; but most lines run on mainline rail part of the way.

North American light rail lines, with the exception of the Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Stadtbahn systems, tend to run as tram-trains, but never have this regional rail tie-in. They run on entirely dedicated tracks, which has two important effects, both negative. First, it increases construction costs. And second, it means that the shape of the network is much more a skeletal tramway map than the more complicated combination of an S-Bahn and a tramway that one sees in Karlsruhe. San Diego has a short segment sharing tracks with freight with time separation, but the shape of the network isn’t any different from that of other American post-1970s light rail systems, and there’s an ongoing extension parallel to a mainline railroad that nonetheless constructs a new right-of-way.

In this sense, the Karlsruhe model can be likened to a cheaper S-Bahn. S-Bahn systems carve new right-of-way under city center to provide through-service whenever the historic city station is a terminus, such as in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, or German-inspired Philadelphia. They can also build new lines for more expansive service, higher capacity, or a better connection to city center, like the second S-Bahn trunk in Hamburg; Karlsruhe itself is building a combined road and rail tunnel, the Kombilösung, after a generation of at-grade operation. The tram-train is then a way to achieve some of the same desirable attributes but without spending money on a tunnel.

It follows that the tram-train is best when it can run on actual regional rail tracks, with good integration with the mainline system. It is a lower-speed, lower-cost version of a regional rail tunnel, whereas the North American version running on dedicated tracks is a lower-cost version of a subway. Note also that regional rail can be run at different scales, the shorter and higher-frequency end deserving the moniker S-Bahn; the Karlsruhe version is long-range, with S1 and S11 reaching 30 km south of city center and S5 reaching 70 km east.

Where is a tram-train appropriate?

Jarrett’s 2009 post lays down three criteria for when tram-trains work:

  • The travel market must be small enough that an S-Bahn tunnel is not justified.
  • The destination to be served isn’t right next to the rail mainline.
  • The destination to be served away from the mainline is so dominant that it’s worthwhile running at tramway speeds just to get there and there aren’t too many people riding the line beyond it.

The center of Karlsruhe satisfies the second and third criteria. It is borderline for the first – the region has maybe a million people, depending on definitions, and the city proper has 312,000 people; the Kombilösung is only under-construction now and was not built generations ago, unlike S-Bahn tunnels in larger cities like Munich.

Jarrett points out that in the urban world he’s most familiar with, consisting of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it is not common for cities to satisfy these criteria. He does list exceptions, for example Long Beach, where the Blue Line runs in tramway mode before heading into Los Angeles on a mostly grade-separated right-of-way, whereupon it goes back into the surface in Downtown LA before heading into an under-construction tunnel. But overall, this is not common. City centers tend to be near the train station, and in the United States there’s such job sprawl that just serving one downtown destination is not good enough.

That said, the Long Beach example is instructive, because it is not the primary city in its region – Los Angeles is. I went over the issue of outlying S-Bahn tunnels a year ago, specifying some places where they are appropriate in Israel. The tram-train must be a key tool in the planner’s box as a cheaper, lower-capacity, lower-speed version of the same concept, diverging from the mainline in tramway mode in order to serve a secondary center. Karlsruhe itself is a primary urban center – the only time it’s the secondary node is when it connects to Mannheim, and that train doesn’t use the tramway tracks – but a secondary tram-train connection is being built in outlying areas there, namely Heilbronn.

Different models of urban geography

In the American model of urban geography, cities are contiguous blobs. Stare at, for example, Chicago – you’ll see an enormous blob of gray stretching in all directions. Parkland is mostly patches of green in between the gray, or sometimes wedges of green alternating with wedges of gray, the gray following commuter railroads and the green lying in between. Boundaries between municipalities look completely arbitrary on a satellite map.

In the German model of urban geography, it’s different. Look at Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, or Stuttgart – the built-up area is surrounded by green, and then there are various suburban towns with parkland or farmland in between. This goes even beyond the greenbelt around London – there’s real effort at keeping all these municipalities distinct.

I don’t want to give the impression that the United States is the weird one. The contiguous model in the United States is also common in France – Ile-de-France is one contiguous built-up area. That’s how despite being clearly a smaller metropolitan region than London, Paris has the larger contiguous population – see here, WUP 2007, and see also how small the German and Dutch urban areas look on that table. Urban agglomeration in democratic East Asia is contiguous as in the US and France. Canada looks rather American to me too, especially Vancouver, the city both Jarrett and I are the most familiar with, while Toronto has a greenbelt.

This distinction moreover has to be viewed as a spectrum rather than as absolutes. Boston, for example, has some of the German model in it – there’s continuous urbanization with inner suburbs like Cambridge and Newton, but beyond Route 128, there are many small secondary cities with low density between them and the primary center. Conversely, Berlin is mostly American or French; the few suburbs it has outside city limits are mostly contiguous with the city’s built-up area, with the major exception of Potsdam.

The relevance of this distinction is that in the German or Dutch model of urban geography, it’s likely that a railway will pass through a small city rather far from its center, fulfilling the second criterion in Jarrett’s post. Moreover, this model of independent podlike cities means that there is likely to be a significant core, which fulfills the third criterion. The first criterion is fulfilled whenever this is not the center of a large metropolitan area.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Karlsruhe model has spread to the Netherlands. This is not a matter of similarity in transport models: the Netherlands differs from the German-speaking world, for examples it does not have monocentric S-Bahns or S-Bahn tunnels and it builds train stations with bike parking where Germany lets people bring bikes on trains. Nonetheless, the shared model of distinct municipalities makes tram-train technology attractive in South Holland.

Israel and tram-trains

In Israel, there are very few historic railways. A large share of construction is new, and therefore has to either swerve around cities or tunnel to enter them, or in a handful of cases run on elevated alignments. Israel Railways and local NIMBYs have generally preferred swerving.

Moreover, the urban layout in Israel is very podlike. There do exist contiguous areas of adjacent cities; Tel Aviv in particular forms a single blob of gray with Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Bni Brak, Petah Tikva, Bat Yam, and Holon, with a total population of 1.5 million. But for the most part, adjacent cities are buffered with undeveloped areas, and the cities jealously fight to stay this way despite extensive developer pressure.

The final important piece in Israel’s situation is that despite considerable population growth, there is very little rail-adjacent transit-oriented development. The railway was an afterthought until the Ayalon Railway opened in 1993, and even then it took until last decade for mainline rail to be a significant regional mode of transport. The state aggressively builds new pod-towns without any attempt to expand existing towns toward the railway.

The upshot is that all three of Jarrett’s criteria for tram-trains are satisfied in Israel, everywhere except in and around Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is large enough for a fully grade-separated route, i.e. the already-existing Ayalon Railway. Moreover, because Tel Aviv needs full-size trains, anything that is planned to run through to Tel Aviv, even as far as Netanya and Ashdod, has to be rapid transit, using short tunnels and els to reach city centers where needed. A tram-train through Ashdod may look like a prudent investment, but if the result is that it feeds a 45 meter long light rail vehicle through the Ayalon Railway then it’s a waste of precious capacity.

But Outside Tel Aviv, the case for tram-trains is strong. One of my mutuals on Twitter brings up the Beer Sheva region as an example. The mainline going north has a station called Lehavim-Rahat, vaguely tangent to Lehavim, a ways away from Rahat. It could get two tramway branches, one diverging to the built-up area of Lehavim, a small suburb that is one of Israel’s richest municipalities, and the other to Rahat, one of Israel’s poorest. There are also interesting options of divergence going south and east, but they suffer from being so far from the mainline the network would look scarcely different from an ordinary tramway.

Beer Sheva itself would benefit from tramways with train through-service as well. The commercial center of the city is close to the train station, but the university and the hospital aren’t, and are not even that close to the subsidiary Beer Sheva North station. The station is also awkwardly off-center, lying southeast of the city’s geographic center, which means that feeding buses into it with timed transfers screws internal connections. So tramway tracks on Rager Boulevard, cutting off Beer Sheva North for regional trains, would do a lot to improve regional connectivity in Beer Sheva; intercity trains should naturally keep using the existing line.

In the North, there are similar examples. Haifa is not going to need the capacity of full-size trains anytime soon, which makes the case for various branches diverging into smaller cities to provide closer service in tramway mode strong. Unlike in Beer Sheva, the case for doing so in the primary center is weak. Haifa’s topography is the stuff of nightmares, up a steep hill with switchback streets. The mainline already serves the Lower City well, and climbing the hill is not possible.

This creates an interesting situation, in which the technology of the tram-train in the North can be used to serve secondary cities like Kiryat Ata and Tirat Carmel and maybe enter the Old City of Acre, but the operational pattern is really that of a Stadtbahn – fast through Haifa and up most of the Krayot, slow through smaller suburbs.

Stadtbahn Systems

I made an off-hand remark about subway-surface systems, called Stadtbahn in German (as is, confusingly, the fully grade-separated east-west Berlin S-Bahn line), regarding a small three-line single-tail network that Brooklyn could build. I also talked about it in a little more detail last year. I want to go more deeply into this now. It’s a public transportation typology that’s almost nonexistent outside Germany and Belgium; Tel Aviv is building one line, and the US has three but two of those are from more than 100 years ago. But there are interesting examples of good places to use this technology elsewhere, especially elsewhere in Europe.

What is the Stadtbahn?

The Stadtbahn (“city rail”), or the subway-surface line in US usage, is an urban line running light rail vehicles, with grade separation in city center and street running outside city center. All examples I know of are in fact underground in city center, but elevated lines or lines running in private rights-of-way could qualify too, and in Cologne, there’s a semi-example over a bridge dropping to the surface at both ends.

It’s best illustrated as a 2*2 grid:

 Slow in centerFast in center
Slow in outlying areasTramwayStadtbahn
Fast in outlying areasTram-trainRapid transit

The terms fast and slow are relative to general traffic, so a mixed-traffic bus in a low-density city that averages 30 km/h is slow whereas the Paris Métro, which averages 25 km/h, is fast; the speed in km/h may be higher on the bus, but the speed in destinations accessed per hour is incomparably higher on the Métro.

The tram-train is confusingly also called Stadtbahn in Germany, for example in Karlsruhe; this is nearly every light rail built in North America. It is not the topic of this post.

What is the purpose of the Stadtbahn?

Historically, Stadtbahn systems evolved out of pure surface tramways. City center congestion made the streetcars too slow, so transit agencies put the most congested segments underground. This goes back to Boston in 1897 with the Tremont Street Subway and Philadelphia in 1906 with the Subway-Surface Lines. The contrast both in that era and in the era of Stadtbahn construction in Germany from the 1960s to the 80s is with pure subways, which are faster but cost more because the entire route must be underground.

Stadtbahns always employ surface branching. This is for two reasons. First, there’s more capacity underground than on the surface, so the higher-capacity rapid transit segment branches to multiple lower-capacity tramways to permit high throughput. And second, there’s generally less demand on the outer segments than in the center – lines with very strong demand all the way tend to turn into full subways.

This is therefore especially useful for cities that are not huge. In a city the size of Cologne or Stuttgart or Hanover, there isn’t and will never be demand for a rapid transit system with good citywide coverage. Instead, there is something like a sector principle. For example, in Cologne, the Deutz side of the city, on the right bank of the Rhine, has service to city center on the S-Bahn, on tramway lines over the Deutzer Bridge branching on the surface, and on tramway lines over the Mülheimer and Severin Bridges feeding into the north-south ring Stadtbahn. Smaller cities have simpler systems – Hanover for has three underground trunk lines meeting at one central station, and Dortmund has three meeting in a Soviet triangle. This maintains good coverage even without the budget for many rapid transit lines.

Where are Stadtbahns appropriate?

Cities should consider this technology in the following cases:

  • The city should not be too big. Tel Aviv is too big for this, and people in Israel are starting to recognize this fact and, in addition to the under-construction three-line Stadtbahn system are proposing a larger-scale three-line fully grade-separated metro system. If the city is big enough, then a full metro system is justified.
  • There should be a definitive city center for substantial traffic to funnel to. The purpose of the Stadtbahn is to have comparable throughput to that of a metro, albeit with shorter trains.
  • There should be wide swaths of sectors of the city where having multiple parallel lines is valuable. This, for example, is the case in cities that are not exceptionally dense and cannot expect transit-oriented development to completely saturate one metro corridor.
  • The street network should not be too gridded, because then the sector-based branching is more awkward, and the combination of rapid transit to city center and a surface transit grid can be powerful, as in Toronto.
  • There should be too much city center congestion for a pure surface system to work, for example if most streets are very narrow and traffic funnels to the few streets that can use

These circumstances are all common to German urbanism: city centers here are strong, but residential density peaks at 15,000/km^2 or thereabouts in near-center neighborhoods and drops to 3,000-6,000/km^2 farther out. Moreover, Germany lacks huge cities, and of the largest four urban cores – Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt – three have full rapid transit systems. Finally, grids are absent here except at very small scale, as in Mannheim.

However, these are not unique features to Germany. They’re common around Europe. European cities are not very big, and the only ones that can genuinely fill any subway line with transit-oriented development are a handful of very big, very rich ones like London and Paris. Even Stockholm and Munich have to be parsimonious; they have have full metro systems with branching.

The French way of building rapid transit does not employ the Stadtbahn, and perhaps it should. In a city the size of Bordeaux or Nice, putting a tramway underground in city center and then constructing new branches to expand access would improve coverage a lot.

This is likely also the case in Italian cities below the size class of Milan or Rome. Many of these cities are centered around Renaissance cores with very narrow streets, which are nonetheless auto-centric with impossibly narrow sidewalks, Italy having nearly the highest car ownership in Europe. Finding one to three good corridors for a subway and then constructing tramways funneling into them would do a lot to speed up public transit in those cities. Bologna, for example, is planning a pure surface tramway, but grade-separated construction in the historic center would permit trams to have decent coverage there without having to slow down to walking speed.

Are there good examples outside Europe?

Yes! From my original post from 2016, here is one proposal for New York:

The B41 could be a tramway going between City Hall and Kings Plaza, using two dedicated lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge. In that case, the line would effectively act as subway-surface, or more accurately elevated-surface: a surface segment in Brooklyn, a grade-separated segment between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Subway-surface lines should branch, as all current examples do (e.g. Boston Green Line, Muni Metro, Frankfurt U-Bahn), because the subway component has much higher capacity than the surface components. This suggests one or two additional routes in Brooklyn, which do not have strong buses, but may turn into strong tramways because of the fast connection across the river to Manhattan. The first is toward Red Hook, which is not served by the subway and cut off from the rest of the city by the Gowanus Expressway. Unfortunately, there is no really strong corridor for it – the streets are not very wide, and the best for intermediate ridership in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens require additional twists to get into the core of Red Hook. Court Street might be the best compromise, but is annoyingly a block away from the F/G trains, almost but not quite meeting for a transfer. The second possible route is along Flushing Avenue toward the Navy Yard; it’s not a strong bus by itself, but the possibility of direct service to Manhattan, if a Flatbush tramway preexists, may justify it.

Note that this proposal is opportunistic: Brooklyn Bridge just happens to be there and point in the right direction for at least one strong surface route in Brooklyn, and conversely would connect too awkwardly to the subway. In a city the size of New York, Stadtbahn lines must be opportunistic – if the region intentionally builds new river crossings then they must carry the highest-capacity mode of transportation, which is rapid transit, not a light rail variant.

American cities smaller than New York are often very big by European standards, but also very decentralized. This hurts the Stadtbahn as a mode – it really only works for a monocentric city, because if there are multiple centers, then all but the primary one get slow transit. The Rhine-Ruhr notably uses the S-Bahn, which is rapid transit, to connect its various cities, and only run Stadtbahn service internally to each center, like Cologne or Dortmund.

There are a number of places in the United States where burying a light rail line in city center is advisable, but this is for the most part conversion of a tram-train to rapid transit, for examples in Portland and Dallas. The only example that come to mind of a decent Stadtbahn in the US that doesn’t already exist is Pittsburgh, converting the BRT system to rail.

Outside the United States, I get less certain. Canada is bad geography for a Stadtbahn because of its use of grid networks; Ottawa may be good for a Stadtbahn using the Confederation Line tunnel, but that’s probably it. Australia may be better, combining decently strong city centers with very low residential density; transit-oriented development potential there is very high, but it could plausibly come around multiple distinct corridors as well as regional rail stations. Melbourne’s tramways thus may be a candidate for Stadtbahn conversion.

In both East Asia and in the developing world, it’s likely best to just build full metros. East Asian cities are big and have high rates of housing construction (except Hong Kong). I can see a Stadtbahn succeed in Taichung, extending the under-construction Green Line on the surface and building intersecting lines, but that’s probably it. Kaohsiung already has a (very underused) subway, what I think is Daejeon’s best next corridor on top of Line 1 and the planned Line 2 is unusually bad for a Stadtbahn because the streets are too gridded west of the center, Daegu is too gridded as well.

A similar set of drawbacks is also true for the developing world. The urban population of the developing world tends to cluster in huge cities. Moreover, these cities tend to have high residential density but low city center job concentration; the Addis Ababa light rail is bad at serving people’s work trips because so few people work in the center. Finally, the developing world has high rates of increase in urbanization, which make future-proofing systems with higher capacity more valuable.

Some Examples of Falling Costs

Question. Are there any historical examples of construction costs actually falling in a city, rather than just rising slower than elsewhere?

Answer. Yes! Not many, though.

I know of three examples, but the first is fairly irrelevant and is included here for completeness.

Example 1. London’s District line, going by Wikipedia data, cost 3 million pounds, which in today’s money translates to $90 million per kilometer. This was astonishingly expensive, and even today London Underground extensions, as opposed to Crossrail, cost less than that relative to British GDP per capita. The reason for the high cost: the line was built cut-and-cover without any street to go under, so it needed to carve a new right-of-way through Kensington, demolishing houses in an expensive area. No further cut-and-cover lines were built. Costs fell to about $30 million per kilometer with the invention of deep-bore tunneling a generation later; today, bored tunnel costs more than cut-and-cover, but with the technology of the late 19th and early 20th century, this was not the case.

Example 2. Milan built its first two lines very cheaply; in today’s money, M1 cost around $50 million per kilometer. It was built using a method invented specifically for the city’s narrow Renaissance streets called the Milan method or cover-and-cut, allowing vertical construction with retaining walls rather than sloped ones that require more street width. M2 was very cheap as well, but M3’s costs were much higher, I believe around $250 million per km in today’s money, built in the 1980s at the peak of Milanese corruption. Costs fell dramatically after a series of anti-corruption prosecutions that put much of the Italian political elite in prison. The Passante Railway was in today’s money around $140 million per km, not all underground, but it’s regional rail with difficult city center construction under three older lines. The more recent lines, M5 and M4 (in this order), run up to $120-160 million per km.

Example 3. Istanbul began building its subway system with M2, M3, and M4; the first Istanbul Metro line, M1, is light rail and its original section had very little tunneling. It used Italian designs and costs were low, not much more than $100 million per kilometer, but subsequently value engineering has led to slightly lower costs. The city had a learning process in which it reduced station footprints to save money, engaged in more extensive prior engineering before putting out new lines to bid, and generally gained experience in managing a project. Newer lines have cost slightly less, for example around $80 million/km for M5, all underground.

The angle of cleaning up corruption and building up state capacity is probably relevant – probably. Italy and Turkey remain very corrupt and clientelist states. In Turkey, the former mayor of Istanbul openly said he was going to prioritize metro construction in neighborhoods that voted for AKP, and then when the opposition won the city election the state stopped giving it money for new lines; construction goes on because the new mayor went to the European Investment Bank for financing. In Italy, for all the clientelism elsewhere, public-sector engineering is fiercely depoliticized and professionalized nowadays.

I might even speculate, without much knowledge yet (we’re still early in the work in Istanbul and even earlier in Milan), that Southern Europe may have such reputation for corruption that it has mundane mechanisms that professionalize public works. The clientelism in Turkey as far as we can tell extends to macro-level decisions of where to build lines, and evidently Istanbul managed to identify alternative sources of financing to the Erdoganist state.

If I’m right, then these same mechanisms of anti-corruption and public-sector professionalization can also be replicated in other parts of the world with state capacity problems. This cannot possibly be everything – Milan reduced its costs from levels that were not extremely high, and Istanbul was cheap from the start – but it does point in a more optimistic direction.