Category: Good Transit

Modernizing Rail Unconference

On Sunday the 12th of July, a few of us public transit activists are going to hold a conference online called Modernizing Rail, focusing on better service and integration in the Northeastern United States. Our keynote speaker will be Vukan Vuchic, the Serbian-American UPenn transportation professor who imported German rail modernization schemas from the 1970s, including the concept of regional rail; he will speak about the history of this in the context of SEPTA, which built much of the S-Bahn infrastructure (e.g. S-Bahn through-running tunnel) but has not done many other important things such as fare integration and coordinated planning with urban transit.

Update 2020-07-04: due to a family health emergency, Vuchic cannot make it. Therefore we will have an alternate keynote address by Michael Schabas, entitled Using Business Case Analysis to Design Better Railways.

Schabas has been finding ways to make railways deliver more and cost less for 40 years, shaping urban, intercity, and high speed rail projects in Canada, England, and the USA, and operating passenger and freight railways in England and Australia. He is the author of The Railway Metropolis – how planners, politicians and developers shaped Modern London. Since 2014 he has been advising Toronto’s Metrolinx on the $20 billion upgrading and electrification of the GO Rail system, and the $28.5 billion expansion of Toronto’s subway system. Michael is a Partner in FCP, a rail strategy boutique based in the UK advising clients on rail developments and projects around the world

The keynote will be between 11 am and noon Eastern time.

After the keynote, we will hold unconference-style sessions. For people who have not seen this style before, this means that we solicit ideas from the entire body of attendees for breakout sessions, and then by consensus, depending on the number of attendees and what they are interested in, split into rooms for further discussion of the selected topics. There will be three slots for breakouts: 1-2, 2:15-3:15, 3:30-4:30 pm, all Eastern time; the number of breakouts will depend greatly on the number of attendees, which at this point we are uncertain about. The breakouts may include pure discussions or presentations, and we also solicit expressions of interest in presenting if there’s an issue you have particular interest and expertise in.

There will be more information available on social media, but to register, please complete this form. You can create an account on Journey for this if you’d like, in which case you can save your progress and come back later, but this is not a long form and you can complete it in one go without registration.

The conference will be held on Zoom, with link emailed shortly before the event takes place.

Update 2020-07-11: here is the timetable. Email us at modernizing.rail@gmail.com for the Zoom password if you’ve registered.

Some Notes About Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail

I want to follow up on what I wrote about speed zones a week ago. The starting point is that I have a version 0 map on Google Earth, which is far from the best CAD system out there, one that realizes the following timetable:

Boston 0:00
Providence 0:23
New Haven 1:00
New York 1:40
Newark 1:51
Philadelphia 2:24
Wilmington 2:37
Baltimore 3:03
Washington 3:19

This is inclusive of schedule contingency, set at 7% on segments with heavy track sharing with regional rail, like New York-New Haven, and 4% on segment with little to no track haring, like New Haven-Providence. The purpose of this post is to go over some delicate future-proofing that this may entail, especially given that the cost of doing so is much lower than the agency officials and thinktank planners who make glossy proposals think it should.

What does this entail?

The infrastructure required for this line to be operational is obtrusive, but for the most part not particularly complex. I talked years ago about the I-95 route between New Haven and southern Rhode Island, the longest stretch of new track, 120 km long. It has some challenging river crossings, especially that of the Quinnipiac in New Haven, but a freeway bridge along the same alignment opened in 2015 at a cost of $500 million, and that’s a 10-lane bridge 55 meters wide, not a 2-track rail bridge 10 meters wide. Without any tunnels on the route, New Haven-Kingston should cost no more than about $3-3.5 billion in 2020 terms.

Elsewhere, there are small curve easements, even on generally straight portions like in New Jersey and South County, Rhode Island, both of which have curves that if you zoom in close enough and play with the Google Earth circle tool you’ll see are much tighter than 4 km in radius. For the most part this just means building the required structure, and then connecting the tracks to the new rather than old curve in a night’s heavy work; more complex movements of track have been done in Japan on commuter railroads, in a more constrained environment.

There’s a fair amount of taking required. The most difficult segment is New Rochelle-New Haven, with the most takings in Darien and the only tunneling in Bridgeport; the only other new tunnel required is in Baltimore, where it should follow the old Great Circle Tunnel proposal’s scope, not the four-track double-stack mechanically ventilated bundle the project turned into. The Baltimore tunnel was estimated at $750 million in 2008, maybe $1 billion today, and that’s high for a tunnel without stations – it’s almost as high per kilometer as Second Avenue Subway without stations. Bridgeport requires about 4 km of tunnel with a short water crossing, so figure $1-1.5 billion today even taking the underwater penalty and the insane unit costs of the New York region as a given.

A few other smaller deviations from the mainline are worth doing at-grade or elevated: a cutoff in Maryland near the Delaware border in the middle of what could be prime 360 km/h territory, a cutoff in Port Chester and Greenwich bypassing the worst curve on the Northeast Corridor outside major cities, the aforementioned takings-heavy segment through Darien continuing along I-95 in Norwalk and Westport, a short bypass of curves around Fairfield Station. These should cost a few hundred million dollars each, though the Darien-Westport bypass, about 15 km long, could go over $1 billion.

Finally, the variable-tension catenary south of New York needs to be replaced with constant-tension catenary. A small portion of the line, between New Brunswick and Trenton, is being so replaced at elevated cost. I don’t know why the cost is so high – constant-tension catenary is standard around the world and costs $1.5-2.5 million per km in countries other than the US, Canada, and the UK. The Northeast Corridor is four-track and my other examples are two-track, but then my other examples also include transformers and not just wires; in New Zealand, the cost of wires alone was around $800,000 per km. Even taking inflation and four tracks into account, this should be maybe $700 million between New York and Washington, working overnight to avoid disturbing daytime traffic.

The overall cost should be around $15 billion, with rolling stock and overheads. Higher costs reflect unnecessary scope, such as extra regional rail capacity in New York, four-tracking the entire Providence Line instead of building strategic overtakes and scheduling trains intelligently, the aforementioned four-track version of the Baltimore tunnel, etc.

The implications of cheap high-speed rail

I wrote about high-speed rail ridership in the context of Metcalfe’s law, making the point that once one line exists, extensions are very high-value as a short construction segment generates longer and more profitable trips. The cost estimate I gave for the Northeast Corridor is $13 billion, the difference with $15 billion being rolling stock, which in that post I bundled into operating costs. With that estimate, the line profits $1.7 billion a year, a 13% financial return. This incentivizes building more lines to take advantage of network effects: New Haven-Springfield, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Washington-Virginia-North Carolina-Atlanta, New York-Upstate.

The problem: building extensions does require the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor that I don’t think should be in the initial scope. Boston-Washington is good for around a 16-car train every 15 minutes all day, which is very intense by global standards but can still fit in the existing infrastructure where it is two-track. Even 10-minute service can sometimes fit on two tracks, for example having some high-speed trains stop at Trenton to cannibalize commuter rail traffic – but not always. Boston-Providence every 10 minutes requires extensive four-tracking, at least from Attleboro to beyond Sharon in addition to an overtake from Route 128 to Readville, the latter needed also for 15-minute service.

More fundamentally, once high-speed rail traffic grows beyond about 6 trains per hour, the value of a dedicated path through New York grows. This is not a cheap path – it means another Hudson tunnel, and a connection east to bypass the curves of the Hell Gate Bridge, which means 8 km of tunnel east and northeast of Penn Station and another 2 km above-ground around Randall’s Island, in addition to 5 km from Penn Station west across the river. The upshot is that this connection saves trains 3 minutes, and by freeing trains completely from regional rail traffic with four-tracking in the Bronx, it also permits using the lower 4% schedule pad, saving another 1 minute in the process.

If the United States is willing to spend close to $100 billion high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor – it isn’t, but something like $40-50 billion may actually pass some congressional stimulus – then it should spend $15 billion and then use the other $85 billion for other stuff. This include high-speed tie-ins as detailed above, as well as low-speed regional lines in the Northeast: new Hudson tunnels for regional traffic, the North-South Rail Link, RegionalBahn-grade links around Providence and other secondary cities, completion of electrification everywhere a Northeastern passenger train runs

Incremental investment

I hate the term “incremental” when it comes to infrastructure, not because it’s inherently bad, but because do-nothing politicians (e.g. just about every American elected official) use it as an excuse to implement quarter-measures, spending money without having to show anything for it.

So for the purpose of this post, “incremental” means “start with $15 billion to get Boston-Washington down to 3:20 and only later spend the rest.” It doesn’t mean “spend $2 billion on replacing a bridge that doesn’t really need replacement.”

With that in mind, the capacity increases required to get from bare Northeast Corridor high-speed rail to a more expansive system can all be done later. The overtakes on Baltimore-Washington would get filled in to form four continuous tracks all the way, the ones on Boston-Providence would be extended as outlined above, the bypasses on New York-New Haven would get linked to new tracks in the existing right-of-way where needed, the four-track narrows between Newark and Elizabeth would be expanded to six in an already existing right-of-way. Elizabeth Station has four tracks but the only building in the way of expanding it to six is a parking garage that needs to be removed anyway to ease the S-curve to the south of the platforms.

However, one capacity increase is difficult to retrofit: new tracks through New York. The most natural way to organize Penn Station is as a three-line system, with Line 1 carrying the existing Hudson tunnel and the southern East River tunnels, including high-speed traffic; Line 2 using new tunnels and a Grand Central link; and Line 3 using a realigned Empire Connection and the northern East River tunnels. The station is already centered on 32nd Street extending a block each way; existing tunnels going east go under 33rd and 32nd, and all plans for new tunnels continuing east to Grand Central or across the East River go under 31st.

But if it’s a 3-line system and high-speed trains need dedicated tracks, then regional trains don’t get to use the Hell Gate Line. (They don’t today, but the state is spending very large sums of money on changing this.) Given the expansion in regional service from the kind of spending that would justify so much extra intercity rail, a 4-line system may be needed. This is feasible, but not if Penn Station is remodeled for 3 lines; finding new space for a fourth tunnel is problematic to say the least.

Future-proofing

The point of integrated timetable planning is to figure out what timetable one want to run in the future and then building the requisite infrastructure. Thus, in the 1990s Switzerland built the tunnels and extra tracks for the connections planned in Bahn 2000, and right now it’s doing the same for the next generation. This can work incrementally, but only if one knows all the phases in advance. If timetable plans radically change, for example because the politicians make big changes overruling the civil service to remind the public that they exist, then this system does not work.

If the United States remains uninterested in high-speed rail, then it’s fine to go ahead with a bare-bones $15 billion system. It’s good, it would generate good profits for Amtrak, it would also help somewhat with regional-intercity rail connectivity. Much of the rest of the system can be grafted on top without big changes.

But then it comes to Penn Station. It’s frustrating, because anything that brings it into focus attracts architects and architecture critics who think function should follow form. But it’s really important to make decisions soon, get to work demolishing the above-ground structures starting when the Madison Square Garden lease runs out, and move the tracks in the now-exposed stations as needed based on the design timetable.

As with everything else, it’s possible not to do it – to do one design and then change to another – but it costs extra, to the tune of multiple billions in unnecessary station reconstruction. If the point is to build high-speed rail cost-effectively, spending the same budget on more infrastructure instead of on a few gold-plated items, then this is not acceptable. Prior planning of how much service is intended is critical if costs are to stay down.

Train and Bus Cleaning

Well before the coronavirus struck, I noticed how trains in Asia were cleaner than in Europe, which are for the most part cleaner than in the United States. There are overlaps: the elevated BTS in Bangkok is similar to the cleaner cities in Europe, like London (but the underground MRT is similar to Singapore and Taipei), while the Berlin U-Bahn is similar to the cleaner American cities, like maybe Washington. But for the most part, this holds. The issue of cleanliness is suddenly looking more important now in a pandemic.

How much cleaning is necessary overall?

It is unclear. Singapore has 56,000 registered cleaners and Taipei has 5,000; even assuming Taipei just refers to the city proper, Singapore has five times as many per capita. When I visited Taipei in December it was visibly messier, and Taipei City Mall felt more lived-in than comparable underpasses in Singapore, but the City Mall was not dirty, and the Taipei MRT did not feel any dirtier than the Singapore MRT. The infection rates in both countries are very low – Taiwan’s are much lower per capita nowadays, though this has other explanations, such as higher mask usage and less international travel.

How much cleaning is necessary for specific tasks?

In Singapore, SBS Transit announced increased cleaning levels on January 30th. Cleaners disinfect vehicles and stations at the following rates:

  • Trains: every day
  • Buses: every week
  • Train stations: three times a day
  • Bus stations: every two hours

In Japan, JR East’s Shinkansen trains are cleaned at Tokyo Station in 7 minutes. There are many pieces on the subject, describing how a crew of 22, comprising one cleaner per second-class car and two to three per first-class car (“green car”), sweeps an entire train so fast. Many of the tasks are not required for metro service, but passenger density is higher in metro service than in intercity service.

One advantage of regular cleaning, say once per roundtrip, is that there hasn’t been so much time for the train (or bus) to become grimy. Two hours’ dirt is easier to pick up, sweep, or water and dry than a day’s dirt.

How much does all of this cost?

Cleaner wages track local working-class wages, and differ greatly; a city with the per capita income of New York, Paris, or London will have to pay more than one with that of Berlin or Tokyo. On top of what the English-speaking middle class thinks is an appropriate wage for an unskilled worker the agency will need to pay a premium to account for the fact that fast cleaning is a difficult job even if the required education level for it isn’t high.

What is more controllable and comparable is staffing needs. The sources for JR East’s cleaning crew productivity differ, but the reasonable ones say it’s 20 trains per day. This already accounts for downtime, so if trains aren’t quite frequent enough for there to always be some train to occupy a cleaning crew, an agency is probably still capable of squeezing 20 trains per daily crew shift. If a roundtrip with turnaround time is two hours, then this means about one cleaning crew is needed per 2.5 trainsets operated in regular service, rising to about one cleaning crew per 1.8 trainsets taking weekend days into account; this can be adjusted if a train runs peak-only, since part-time shifts are common in this sector.

How can equipment be made easier to clean?

Some materials are easier to clean than others. Transit agencies should use these in future procurement, and look into emergency orders to retrofit existing trains and buses. Metal poles are easier to clean than leather straps, and hard plastic and metal seats are easier to clean than padded ones. I suspect that bench seating is easier to clean than bucket seating, since it is possible to run a mop down the entire bench.

As with schedule planning, cleaning planning should integrate operating and capital expense optimization. That is, public transportation agencies should budget for cleaning whenever they buy a bus or train or build a train station, and make decisions on layout and materials that reduce the spread of disease and increase the efficiency of cleaning as well as maintenance and other operating costs.

What else can be done?

Hand sanitizer! Taipei and Singapore both distribute it at stations, and if I remember correctly, so does Bangkok. It made me feel less grimy, especially after long walks in Taipei or any exposure to the outdoor air pollution of Bangkok.

In addition, fomite removal is a good idea, which means any of the following:

  • Barrier-free train stations, or if not then automatic fare barriers like those of Taipei or Singapore or London rather than ones requiring pushing by hand as in New York and Paris.
  • Automatic train doors, since implemented on newer trains in Berlin and I think in the rest of Europe as an emergency measure, without requiring button pushing.
  • Disposable chopsticks for pressing buttons on elevators, as in South Korea.

Do passengers care?

Yes. I’ve taken the Berlin U-Bahn a few times in the last few weeks, to view apartments and most recently (earlier today) to buy matzos from a kosher grocery store far from my neighborhood. I don’t sit anymore, not trusting even the hard metal seats at the stations, let alone the padded cloth ones on the trains. Neither do many other riders, so there’s about the usual number of standees on the trains, trying to distribute ourselves as evenly as possible inside the train and avoid loud or space-taking passengers, even as many seats stay empty.

Would I sit if this were Singapore? Probably. As of the small hours of 2020-04-08 Europe time, Singapore has 1,500 infections and Berlin has 4,000 on two thirds the population, but a big share of Singapore’s cases are imports, and the MRT is vastly cleaner than the U- and S-Bahn here. And then there’s Taiwan, with 400 cases on a population of 24 million.

Why is this not done already?

Managers love metrics, and the costs of cleaning are much easier to quantify than the benefits. Therefore, they cut cleaning whenever there is a budget crunch. Within the English-speaking world, Singapore is a standout in cleanliness, because Lee Kuan Yew decided it was important and launched a campaign to sweep public spaces. In Japan, one of the articles about the seven-minute cleaning process talks about the history of how JR East hired a new manager who has previously been at the safety division – within the company of course, this is Japanese and not American business culture – and said manager, Teruo Yabe, improved morale by taking worker suggestions and promoting line workers to supervisory roles.

I don’t want to dunk on Anglo business culture here too much – London has cleaner trains than Berlin, and is about comparable to Paris. Nor is this quite a cultural cleave between the West and Asia, since Singaporean business culture pilfers the most authoritarian aspects of Japan (long hours, face-time culture) and the Anglosphere (at-will employment, no unions to speak of) and melds them together.

My suspicion is that low standards in the US in particular come from a sense of resignation among managers who don’t really use their own systems, and view the passengers in contempt. New York has an added sense of grit, in which people romanticize the 1970s and 80s and think enduring trash on the street, high crime rates (no longer high), delayed trains, cockroaches, rats, and drivers who play Carmageddon is part of what makes one a Real New Yorker. Consider how the New York- (and London-)suffused urban discourse treats “antiseptic” as a pejorative, viewing Singapore as a less real city because it isn’t killing thousands of its people, soon to be tens of thousands, from coronavirus.

Can Western cities get better?

Absolutely! Especially New York, which has nowhere to go but up.

Most of the positive aspects of Continental Western Europe that awe Americans, like convenient urban public transportation and six weeks of paid vacation per year, are recent, rarely going farther back than the 1970s and 80s. The Swiss planning maxims I repeat to Americans as mantras were invented in the 1980s and implemented in the 1990s and 2000s.

This is even truer of East Asia – in the 1960s Japan was middle-income and the rest of East Asia was very poor; the Shinkansen opened in 1964, but the speed and efficiency standards as we know them only go back to the 300 Series, put into service in 1992. Moreover, the state of Shinkansen cleaning was not so good 15 years ago, before JR East put Yabe in charge. The high cleanliness levels are a recent success, not some ingrained feature that goes back to the 7th century and can’t possibly be replicated elsewhere.

New York needs to look at itself in the mirror now, when it is the global center of a pandemic with death toll that will most likely surpass even the highest-end estimates of those of Wuhan. Is “antiseptic” really a bad trait for a city? If cleaning is a priority, see above for what it takes to do it right. And if it isn’t, I’m sure New York will be more than happy to have another pandemic in the future.

Mixing and Matching

In public transportation as in many other aspects, an important fact of improvement is being able to mix-and-match things that work from different sources. It’s rare to have a situation in which exact importation of one way of doing things is the best in every circumstance (and the Covid-19 crisis appears to be one of these rare situations, Korea being the best). More commonly, different comparison cases, whether they’re companies in private-sector consulting or countries in public-sector policy research, will do different things better. Knowing how to mix-and-match is an important skill in competently learning from the best.

Non-transport examples

I put this up first, but want to emphasize that this is outside my skill set so I am less certain about the examples here than in transport; I bring them up because some of the sanity checks are cleaner here.

Secondary education: high-income Asia consistently outperforms the West in international math and science tests. However, two important caveats complicate “just be like Asia” reform ideas, like the popularity of Singapore math textbooks in some segments of the American middle class. The first is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are a lot more monolingual than European countries like Germany and France, let alone smaller European countries like the Netherlands. And the second is that many things that are common to East Asia (and Singapore and Vietnam), like high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates or teachers and students, are completely absent from Finland, which is nearly the only Western country with math scores matching those of Asia. So the actual thing to learn from Asia is likely to be more technical and less about big cultural cleaves like making students wear uniforms and be more obsequious toward teachers.

Public health: whereas the Covid-19 crisis specifically still looks like a clean Asia vs. West cleave, overall public health outcomes do not. Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, but then Mediterranean Europe follows it closely. The United States, which overall has poor health outcomes, near-ties Singapore and Sweden for lowest first-world smoking rate – and even though Singapore and Sweden both have good outcomes, they both have rather unhealthy diets by (for example) Levantine standards. Public health is a more complex issue than transportation, one that unfortunately low-life expectancy developed countries like Germany and Britain, let alone the US, aren’t meaningfully trying to learn in – and it’s not even clear how easy it is to import foreign ideas into such a complex mostly-working system, in contrast with the near-tabula rasa that is American public transportation.

Transportation in cities of different sizes

Alexander Rapp’s excellent list of metro areas ranked by what he calls frequent rapid transit ridership – that is, trains and buses that run every 20 minutes or better and are either grade separated or have absolute crossing priority with gates – showcases patterns that vary by population.

On the one hand, Tokyo is far and away the highest-ridership city in the world, even per capita. It has around 400 annual rail trips per capita. My recollection, for which I don’t really have a reliable source, is that 60% of work trips in the Tokyo region are done by rail (this data may be here but copy-paste for translation doesn’t work), a higher share than in major European capitals, which mostly top in the 40s.

On the other hand, this situation flips for smaller cities, in the 2-5 million metro population range. Sapporo appears to have maybe 120 annual trips per capita, and Fukuoka probably even less. In Korea, likewise, Seoul has high ridership per capita, though not as high as Paris, let alone Tokyo, but Busan has 100 trips per capita and Daegu 65. In contrast, Stockholm approaches 200 trips per capita (more including light rail), Vienna maybe 180 (growing to 220 with a much wider definition including trams), Hamburg 170, Prague 200 (more like 300 with trams), Munich maybe 230.

This doesn’t seem to be quite a West vs. Asia cleave. There is probably a shadow-of-giants effect in Japan leading smaller cities to use methods optimized for Tokyo; it’s visible in Britain and France, where Stockholm- and Munich-size cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Lyon have far weaker transit systems. The US has this effect too – New York underperforms peer megacities somewhat, but smaller cities, imitating New York in many ways, are absolutely horrendous by the standards of similar-size European or East Asian cities. Nonetheless, the shadow of giants is not an immutable fact making it impossible for a Sapporo or Birmingham or Lyon to have the rail usage of a Stockholm – what is necessary is to recognize this effect and learn more from similar-size success stories than from the far larger national capital.

Construction costs and benefits

Construction costs are not a clean cleave across cultural regions. The distinction between the West and Asia is invisible: the worst country in the world is the United States, but the second worst appears to be Singapore. Excluding the English-speaking countries, there is a good mix on both sides: Korea, Spain, Italy, and the Nordic countries all have low costs, while Taiwan and the Netherlands have particularly high ones.

Moreover, countries that are good at construction are not always good at operations. As far as I can tell from deanonymizing CoMET data, Madrid has slightly higher metro operating costs than London, Paris, and Berlin, PPP$7/car-km vs. PPP$6, with generally high-construction cost Tokyo appearing to hit $5.

This is not even just costs, but also the ability to build lines that people ride. Tokyo is pretty good at that. Spain is not: the construction costs of the high-speed rail network are consistently lower than anywhere else in the world, but ridership is disappointing. There is no real integration between the AVE network and legacy trains, and there is a dazzling array of different trains each with separate fares, going up to seven incompatible categories, a far cry from the national integration one sees in Switzerland.

There is likely to be a clear answer to “who is best at optimizing construction costs, operating costs, and ridership?”: the Nordic countries. However, even there, we see one worrying issue: for one, Citybanan is expensive by the standards of the Eje Transversal (though not by those of the RER E or especially the second Munich S-Bahn tunnel), which may indicate difficulty in building the kind of multistory tunneling that bigger cities than Stockholm must contend with. Thus, while “be like Sweden” is a good guideline to costs, it is not a perfect one.

Optimizing frequency

The world leader in high-frequency public transportation is Paris. Its driverless Métro lines, M1 and M14 and soon to be M4, run a train every 85 seconds in actual service at rush hour. This is an artifact of its large size: M1 has such high ridership, especially in comparison with its length, that it needs to squeeze every last train out of the signaling system, unlike Berlin or Milan or Madrid or Stockholm. London and Moscow run at very high frequency as well for the same reason, reaching a train every 100 seconds in London and one every 92 in Moscow.

Tokyo, sadly, is not running so frequently. Its trains are packed, but limited to at best one every 120 seconds, many lines even 150, like New York. One possible explanation is that trains in Tokyo are so crowded that peak dwell times must be long, limiting throughput; long dwell times have led to reductions in RER A frequency recently. However, trains and platforms in Tokyo have good interior design for rapid boarding and alighting. Moreover, one can compare peak crowding levels in Tokyo by line with what we know is compatible with a train every 100 seconds in London, and a bunch of Tokyo subway lines aren’t more crowded than London’s worst. More likely, the issue is that Japanese signaling underperforms European systems and is the process of catching up; another aspect of signaling, automation, is also more advanced in France than in Japan (although Seoul, Taipei, and Singapore all have driverless metros).

This way, cities that are either extremely expensive to build in, like London and Moscow, or about average, like Paris, show the way forward in ways that cities that do other things better do not. It’s important to thus simultaneously learn the insights of small cities in reducing operating and construction costs and maintaining high-ridership systems, like the Nordic capitals, and those of megacities in automation and increasing throughput.

Can mixing and matching work?

Why not? In small cities with successful systems, it can’t be due to some deeply-ingrained culture – what do Stockholm, Zurich, Prague, Munich, and Budapest even have in common, other than being European? They’re not all national capitals or even all national primate cities, a common excuse New Yorkers give for why New York cannot have what London and Paris have.

Likewise, what exactly about French culture works to equip Métro lines with signals allowing 42 trains per hour per direction that cannot be adopted without also adopting real problems France has with small-city regional rail, fare integration, or national rail scheduling?

These are, ultimately, technical details. Some are directly about engineering, like Parisian train frequency. Some involve state institutions that lead to low construction costs in Spain, Korea, and the Nordic countries – but on other metrics, it’s unclear these three places have state capacity that is lacking in high-cost Taiwan, Germany, and the Netherlands. So even things that aren’t exactly about engineering are likely to boil down to fairly technical issues with how contracts are written up, how much transit agencies invest in in-house engineering, and so on.

There’s a huge world out there. And an underperforming transit agency – say, any in the United States – had better acquire all the knowledge it can possibly lay its hands on, because so many problems have already been solved elsewhere. The role of the locals is not to innovate; it’s to figure out how to imitate different things at once and make them work together. It’s not a trivial task, but every pattern suggests to me it’s doable given reasonable effort.

Public Transport and Infectious Diseases

This is a rough set of guidelines for how to make public transport networks more resilient to infectious diseases. While this post is inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic, some of what I’m going to discuss here is relevant to infections in general, both seasonal flu and future generational epidemics.

I’m aiming mainly at people who work for public transport authorities and can act to epidemic-proof their systems in the future, but some of the guidelines may be helpful for riders. The key takeaway is that public officials probably should not want to shut down the system or discourage people from riding it; thus, as a rider you probably shouldn’t avoid the trains except insofar that you should avoid most places you’d take them to, like crowded offices and events.

Finally, let me be clear: my expertise on public health approaches zero. I have a fair amount of general knowledge of how different urban rail systems operate, but more about network design and costs than public health. To the extent I’m ahead of anyone else on this issue, it’s that I’ve seen so much wanton incuriosity in the West (especially the US) toward Asian practices, and therefore asked around for East Asian practices rather than trying to learn worst industry practices from Europe and North America.

The scope of this post

The scope of what best industry practices are on epidemic prevention is, roughly, the high-income major cities of East Asia, plus Singapore. China is excluded on purpose: a country that arrests doctors for telling the public about the coronavirus isn’t really where you want to get disease prevention tips from. Instead, the low infection rates so far in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and South Korea’s ability to control the infection through mass testing after the explosion in cases at the Shincheonji church, suggest that those countries should be the models. Japan may be a good example as well, but the state is undertesting, so the full extent, while apparently lower than in Western countries, may be understated.

I have talked to people in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul to understand the situation on the ground there. In Taipei and the cities of Japan I have not, and am relying on media report; I know I have commenters who live in Japan, so if you have anything to say about the efforts there then please do speak up and contribute, regarding both the measures taken and current infection rates.

This is necessarily a volatile situation. It’s possible that in a month, Germany and France will have controlled the infection while the rich countries of Asia will look as dire as Lombardy looks right now. I don’t think such an inversion is at all likely, but ultimately, I am describing the best information available as of 2020-3-11.

Do people need to stop taking mass transit?

Probably not. I emphasize probably because the different in-scope cities are reacting differently, and we don’t yet know for certain whether avoiding the trains is correlated with greater safety from infection.

In Singapore, life goes on. I have family there; I’m told that the MRT is not less crowded than the usual at rush hour, but the buses are definitely less crowded. The estimate I heard is that 1/3 to 1/2 of the population on the street is wearing surgical masks. Instead of shutting down schools and offices, the state imposed a mandatory quarantine on people arriving from early-infected countries including China, and went as far as revoking the green card of a permanent resident who violated the quarantine.

Update 2020-3-12: my sibling reports that, first, the mask-wearers are largely Chinese, not ethnic minorities like Malays and Indians, and second, ridership on the MRT is noticeably down at rush hour, with some empty seats where normally trains are standing-room only.

In Hong Kong, it is exactly the opposite. The state is not terribly relevant – the population does not trust it. There was early caution due to social memory of SARS, leading to rapid social distancing, closing down schools, offices, and public events. I’ve asked Lyman Stone and Trey Menefee for their impressions. They both said the MTR is empty nowadays, and Lyman reminded me that ridership was down even before the epidemic on account of a popular boycott in response to the company’s collaboration with regime security. The total social distancing means people travel little, but when they do, it’s often by TNC, leading to a lot of Uber traffic; drivers even put hand sanitizer in the back of their cars and make an effort to clean the interior well, to attract passengers afraid of catching the disease.

In Seoul, the situation is different, in that there was a big flare of the epidemic thanks to the so-called patient 31, a member of Shincheonji, who transmitted the virus around the group. Until a few days ago, Korea was the #2 country in the world in confirmed cases, after China, but Italy and Iran have since overtaken it and the US is poised to overtake it soon too. But new infections are down thanks to an aggressive regime of testing. Public transportation is still in operation – Min-Jae Park, an NYU student from Korea who has been working with me and Eric Goldwyn on our construction costs project, said that there is noticeably less ridership according to family but also,

Yesterday, there has been a group of confirmed cases in a same workplace including commuters via transit to and from Seoul. The government did declare that it is almost impossible track back individual patients to show if transit is a hazardous environment. However, since the early stages, the national and local  transit authorities has been aggressively sanitized the public realm especially in transit. Additionally, the ridership of the transit decreased overall, as the remote working culture started to become naturalized.

So far, there has not been a substantial case that proves that transit needs to be reduced or shut down, but we shall see how the yesterday’s case turns out. I will update to you if any policy change comes up relating to the virus, but I think that is probably the last thing the government want to do in scale of national lockdown Italy did.

My other source on Korea’s response is Nick Plott, a.k.a. Tasteless, a popular esports caster. In a short video about the virus and its effect on esports, he mentions the effect on Korea, and says that public transport in Seoul is deserted. My hunch is that Min-Jae’s take, although second-hand, is more accurate than Tasteless’s, and public transport in Seoul still has a fair amount of ridership, if not nearly so much as before the pandemic.

Update 2020-3-12: Min-Jae clarifies that as of the morning of the 13th Korea time, there is a shift to private transport even though the government says public transport is safe; he guesses ridership is down 20-30%.

In the big cities of Japan, ridership is down, though not by much relative to the magnitude of the crisis. The media quotes 10-20% declines in ridership on the Yamanote Line and on lines around Osaka, and 20-30% declines in ridership on the Nagoya subway. Maciej Ceglowski is visiting Japan and reports that the trains in Kyoto “are not crowded at all,” adding that about 3/4 of the people wear masks. Japanese office culture is resistant to working from home, as is I think office culture elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, and this has hampered social distancing efforts.

Finally, in Taipei, I do not have any information regarding public transport usage during the pandemic. That said, some circumstantial evidence that it is still going on is that the region has just opened a new circumferential line, the Yellow Line, and even let passengers ride for free for the first month, getting more than a million riders in 25 days, which is low but not outrageously so for a new circumferential line.

How can mass transit be made less infectious in the future?

There are two ways passengers can infect other passengers in public. The first is directly, through coughing, sneezing, or casual touching combined with touching one’s own face. The second is through intermediate surfaces, called fomites in epidemiology, such as poles, seats, door handles. Neither disease vector can be eliminated, but there are design elements that can greatly reduce both.

Infrared sensors for temperature checks

It’s possible to take people’s temperatures passively using infrared sensors. Taipei installed such sensors at one MRT station and is about to do so at six additional central stations. People with fever above 38 degrees will not be allowed into the station, and people with temperature between 37.5 and 38 degrees will have to undergo an ear temperature check to confirm that they do not have a fever. I saw this system at the airport when I visited Taipei three months ago, where it was used to screen passengers with fever.

This system requires all station entrances to be staffed. This may be expensive in smaller cities, but as a temporary measure during an epidemic, it’s fully justified. If you’re the government, you can afford to bust the budget in an emergency to make sure people can travel around the city without contracting a fatal disease.

Temperature checks will miss asymptomatic cases, but this is fine. The epidemiologist-turned-data-scientist Maria Ma summarizes the best available research on Covid-19: while asymptomatic transmission is possible, it requires much closer contact than being together on a train.

Hand sanitizer

Every station entrance should have hand sanitizer in sufficient quantities for the expected passenger traffic. Some office and university buildings already have this solution, even in the West; this is especially common in Singapore. My recollection of Taipei is that it had hand sanitizer at stations even in December, but I am not completely certain this was from Taipei and not Singapore or Bangkok.

Fomite reduction

Seoul offers disposable chopsticks for pressing elevator buttons. In the short run, transit agencies that use button-operated doors, such as those of Berlin and Paris, should do the same at stations and inside train cars, space permitting. In the long run, European agencies should be more like Asian (or North American) ones and have automatic doors opening at every stop.

In the long run, it’s also beneficial to design train interiors to inhibit the spread of viruses and bacteria. Some materials catch bacterial and viral infections more than others – for example, a 2015 study by Biranjia-Hurdoyal, Deerpaul and Permal finds that synthetic purses have far more bacteria than leather or cloth ones; this should be equally true of train seats. Moreover, the poles should be coated with copper, as it has biocidal and antiviral properties – a 2013 study by Salgado et al finds that coating ER surfaces with copper reduces the risk hospital-acquired infections, from 12.3% to 7.1% when all infections are included or from 8.1% to 3.4% excluding MRSA and VRE.

Fare barriers and station entrances should be designed to minimize fomites. The best option here is not used in Asia: no fare barriers at all, with proof-of-payment fare enforcement. But the smartcard systems and automatic fare barriers so common around Asia are a good second best, as they do not involve physical contact with foreign objects. The worst options are metal turnstiles that passengers turn with their hands, cage-style turnstiles, or heavy doors that passengers must push on their way out; these are found in New York and Paris, and should be replaced to reduce the spread of disease in the future.

Regular cleaning

Transport companies should clean their vehicles and stations regularly. This may not be realistic at bus stops, but is realistic on buses and trains and at all train stations. That ten-year-old piece of gum stuck to the floor of your New York subway station is not by itself a vector for a virus that only spread to humans three months ago, but if it’s still there, then so is the tissue thrown yesterday by someone who just got sick.

Seoul is using drones to spray disinfectant on hard-to-reach surfaces, such as playgrounds. This can also be used at railyards and elevated rail stations to speed up the process.

Employee safety

The guidelines above are designed for passenger safety. What about employee safety? This, I believe, is a smaller problem, at least in countries that are advanced enough to have good sick leave. It is notable that even in Hong Kong, trains are running, albeit the buses run at lower frequency as people are staying home.

A train driver works sitting alone in a cab separated from where passengers are is not at great risk, and neither is a bus driver separated by a glass screen. There is risk of worker-to-worker infection, especially if drop-in crews are common to control turnaround times, but it’s easier to test workers for fever and send sick ones home with pay than to deploy infrared sensors at every station entrance. As an additional layer of safety on top of temperature checks and generous sick leave, agencies should clean train and bus driver cabs between every crew change.

It’s workers who are together all the time who should not be going to work – that is, the head office. Planners, schedulers, managers, and clerical workers can work remotely, albeit at reduced productivity. Making regular plans to reduce infections during flu season, and planning how to respond to bigger epidemic threats in advance, is therefore useful since it doesn’t stress planning capacity at a time when productivity is the lowest.

What Europe Can Learn From Asia

Most of what I write about is what North America can learn from Europe, but the rich countries of Asia are extremely important as well. But what’s more interesting is knowledge sharing between Western Europe and the rich countries of East Asia. These two centers of passenger rail technology have some reciprocal exchange programs, but still learn less from each other than they should.

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak made the topic of Western learning from East Asia especially important. To be clear, none of the examples I’m going to talk about in this post is about the virus itself or at all about public health. But the sort of reaction in democratic East Asia that’s staved off the infection, compared with the failure of the West to do much in time, is instructive. When the virus was just in China, nobody in the West cared. I went to a comedy night in Berlin a month ago and it was the Asian comic who joked about how all they needed was to cough and the white people gave them space; it was still viewed as an exclusively Asian epidemic. By the same token, Korea’s success in reducing infections has made it to parts of Western media, but implementation still lags, leading to an explosion of deaths in Italy and perhaps soon France and the US. Hong Kong (from the bottom up) and Taiwan (with government assistance) have limited infection through social distancing and mask wearing, and the West refuses to adopt either.

If it’s Asian, Europeans as well as Americans view it as automatically either inferior or irredeemably foreign. Whatever the reasoning is, it’s an excuse not to learn. Unlike the United States, Europe has pretty good public transportation in the main cities, and a lot of domestic innovations that are genuinely better than what Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do; thus, it can keep going on like this without visible signs of stagnation. Nonetheless, what Japan has, and to some extent the other rich Asian countries, remains a valuable lesson, which good public transport advocates and managers must learn to adopt to the European case.

Urban rail and regional rail: network design

Tokyo and Seoul both have stronger S-Bahn networks than any European city. This is not just an artifact of size. Paris and London are both pretty big, even if they’re still only about a third as big as Tokyo. In Tokyo, the infrastructure for urban and regional rail is just far better-integrated, and has been almost from the start. Among the 13 Tokyo subway lines, only three run as pure metro lines, separate from all other traffic: Ginza, Marunouchi, Oedo. The other 10 are essentially S-Bahn tunnels providing through-service between different preexisting commuter lines: the Asakusa Line connects the Keisei and Keikyu systems, the Hibiya Line connects the Tobu Skytree Line with Central Tokyo and used to through-run to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, etc.

This paradigm of cross-regional traffic is so strong that on lines that do not have convenient commuter lines to connect to, there are suburban tails built just to extend them farther out. The Tozai Line hooks into a reverse-branch of the Chuo Line to the west, but to the east has little opportunity for through-service, and therefore most trains continue onto an extension called the Toyo Rapid Railway.

On the JR East network, there are a few subway connections to, but for the most part the network has its own lines to Central Tokyo. This is an early invention of mainline rail through-running, alongside the Berlin S-Bahn; the Yamanote ring was completed in 1925. Further investment in through-service since then has given more lines dedicated tracks through Central Tokyo, for capacity more than anything else.

The issue is not just that there are many through-running lines. Tokyo has 15-16 through-running trunks, depending on how one counts, and Paris, a metro area about one third the size, will soon have 4.5. It’s not such a big difference. Rather, Tokyo’s through-running lines function well as a metro within the city in ways the Berlin S-Bahn, the Paris RER, the Madrid Cercanías, and any future London Crossrail lines simply don’t.

What’s more, future investment plans in Europe do not really attempt to turn the commuter rail network into a useful metro within the city. Berlin has a strong potential northwest-southeast S-Bahn route forming a Soviet triangle with the two existing radial trunks, but it’s not being built, despite proposals by online and offline advocates; instead, current S21 plans call for duplicating north-south infrastructure. In Paris, the RER C doesn’t really work well with the other lines, the RER E extension plans are a mess, and most of the region’s effort for suburban rail expansion is spent on greenfield driverless metro and not on anything with connections to legacy mainlines. In London, the subsurface Underground lines are historically a proto-S-Bahn, with some mainline through-service in the 19th century, but they are not really used this way today even though there is a good proposal by railfans.

While Europe generally does the longer-distance version of regional rail better than Japan, the vast majority of ridership is S-Bahn-type, and there, Japan absolutely crushes. What’s more, Korea has learned from Japan’s example, so that the Seoul Subway Line 1 is an S-Bahn and many other lines are very long-range; Seoul’s per capita rail ridership is much lower than Paris’s, but is increasing fast, as South Korea is a newly-industrialized country still building its infrastructure at low cost to converge to Western incomes.

Rolling stock

Tokyo outdoes the closest things to its peers in the West in S-Bahn network design. Japan is equally superior when it comes to the rolling stock technology itself. It has all of the following features:

  • Low cost. Finding information about rolling stock costs in Japan is surprisingly hard, but Wikipedia claims the 10000 Series cost 1.2 billion yen per 10-car, 200-meter train, which is around $60,000/meter, compared with a European range that clusters around $100,000.
  • Low weight – see table here. European trains are heavier, courtesy of different buff strength regulations that are not really needed for safety, as Japanese trains have lower death tolls per p-km than European ones thanks to accident avoidance.
  • All-MU configuration – Japan has a handful of locomotives for passenger service for the few remaining night trains, and runs all other trains with EMUs and sometimes DMUs. Parts of Europe, like Britain, have made this transition as well, but Zurich still runs locomotives on the S-Bahn.

The one gap is that Europe is superior in the long-range regional rail segment with a top speed of 160-200 km/h. But Japanese trains are better at the more urban end up to 100 km/h thanks to their low cost and weight and at the high-speed end of 300+ km/h thanks to low cost and weight (again) and better performance.

Shinkansen equipment is also more technically advanced than European high-speed trains in a number of ways, in addition to its lower mass and cost. The N700-I has a power-to-weight ratio of 26.74 kW/t, whereas European trains are mostly in the low 20s. Japanese train noses are more aerodynamic due to stringent noise regulations and city-center stations, and the trains are also better-pressurized to avoid ear popping in tunnels. As a result, the Shinkansen network builds single-bore double-track tunnels hardly bigger than each individual bore in a twin-bore European rail tunnel, helping reduce cost relative to Japan’s heavily mountainous geography. The EU should permit such trains on its own tracks to improve service quality.

The Shinkansen

The Shinkansen works better than European high-speed rail networks in a few ways, in addition to rolling stock. Some of it is pure geographic luck: Japanese cities mostly lie on a single line, making it easy to have a single trunk serve all of them. However, a few positive decisions improve service beyond what pure geography dictates, and should be studied carefully in Britain, Germany, and Italy.

  • Trains run through city centers with intermediate stops rather than around them. This slightly slows down the trains, because of the stop penalty at a city, and sometimes a slightly slowdown for an express train. This is especially important in Britain, which is proposing an excessively branched system for High Speed 2, severely reducing frequency on key connections like London-Birmingham and London-Manchester.
  • Trains run on dedicated tracks, apart from the Mini-Shinkansen. This was enforced by a different track gauge, but a sufficiently strong national network should run on dedicated tracks even with the same gauge. This is of especial importance in Germany, which should be building out its network to the point of having little to no track-sharing between high-speed and legacy trains, which would enable high-speed trains to run more punctually.
  • Train stations are through-stations (except Tokyo, which is almost set up to allow through-service and errs in not having any). If the legacy station is a terminal, like Aomori, or is too difficult to serve as a through-station, like Osaka, then the train will serve a near-downtown station a few km away, like Shin-Aomori 4 km from Aomori and Shin-Osaka 4 km from Osaka. Germany does this too at Kassel and has long-term plans to convert key intermediate terminals into through-stations, but France and Italy both neglect this option even when it is available, as in Tours and Turin.
  • Rolling stock is designed for high capacity, including fast egress. There is no cafe car – all cars have seats. There are two wide door pairs per car, rather than just one as on the TGV. There is full level boarding with high platforms. Express trains dwell even at major stations for only about a minute, compared with 5 minutes on the TGV and even slower egress at the Paris terminals. Trains turn at the terminals in 12 minutes, reducing operating expenses.
  • Pricing is simple and consistent, without the customer-hostile yield management practices of France, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe.

Reliability

Japan is renowned for its train punctuality. As far as I can tell, this comes from the same place as Switzerland: system design is centered around eliminating bottlenecks. Thus it’s normal in both Japan and Switzerland to leave some key commuter lines single-track if the frequency they run allows timed meets; both countries also employ timed overtakes between local and express trains on double track.

Where I think Japan does better than Switzerland is the use of track segregation to reduce delays. Captive trains are easier to control than highly-branched national rail networks. In Switzerland, there is no room for such captive trains – the entire country has fewer people than Tokyo, and the city of Zurich has fewer people than many individual Tokyo wards. But a big country could in effect turn long lines into mostly separated systems to improve punctuality. This goes against how the S-Bahn concept works in the German-speaking world, but the Tokyo and Seoul lines are in effect metros at a larger scale, even more so than the RER A and B or the Berlin S-Bahn. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Britain could all learn from this example.

The heavy emphasis on punctuality in Japanese railroad culture has been blamed for a fatal rail accident. But even with that accident, Japanese rail safety far surpasses Europe’s, approaching 80 billion passenger-km per on-board passenger fatality where Europe appears to be in the low teens.

Is this everything?

Not quite. I will write a companion piece about what Asia can learn from Europe eventually. For one, East Asia appears to optimize its rail operating culture to huge cities, much like France and Britain, and thus its smaller cities have less per capita rail usage than similar-size Central European ones; on this list, compare Fukuoka, Busan, and Sapporo with Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Rome, Frankfurt, Barcelona, and Hamburg. Europe is also better when it comes to 160-200 km/h regional rail.

However, the bulk of intercity rail traffic even in Europe is on high-speed trains, an area in which Europe has more to learn from Japan than vice versa. Similarly, the bulk of individual boardings on trains are on metro and short-range S-Bahn trains even in the German-speaking world; there there is a lot of learning to be done in both directions, but at the end of the day, Tokyo has higher rail usage than Paris and London.

Gap Fillers

The United States is in the process of mandating an innovation commonly seen in Central Europe to guarantee train accessibility: the gap filler, also called the train-mounted extender. When there is a significant gap between the train and the platform, most passengers can still board fairly easily, but passengers who use wheelchairs may get stuck and passengers who have strollers, walkers, or heavy luggage may have difficulties. It is not always possible to reduce the gap to an acceptably narrow level, and therefore some trains have automatic gap fillers mounted on the train extending toward the platform.

What is the gap filler?

Here is a 10-second video of operations in Zurich. The gap filler is mounted on the train and extends over the platform, creating a continuous surface with gentle enough slope that people in wheelchairs can get on unaided. Without gap fillers, sometimes the train-platform gap is too wide and people can get stuck. If the gap gets wide enough, then even able-bodied passengers are at risk of falling through it.

There are also similar operations in Paris and various parts of Germany, though not Berlin. European railroads even use gap fillers when there is no level boarding, to prevent people from falling into the gap between the train and the platform, or to create an external step if the same train serves platforms with different heights one or two steps apart.

Why not just build trains with shorter gaps?

Train widths are not standardized in Europe – the loading gauge in theory permits trains to be 3.15 meter wide, but this is net of curves, so a rigid carbody always has to be somewhat narrower, especially if it is long. That by itself bakes in 10-15 cm gaps.

Two additional effects can create gaps. First, if the train platform is on a curve, then the distance between the most distant point on the train and the platform must increase even if the loading gauge is not defined on a curve. Second, wheels wear out over time, which may create a small vertical gap; if the vertical gap is more than about 2 centimeters then a substantial minority of wheelchair users can’t traverse it (see Barcelona’s universal accessibility plan, PDF-p. 14), and if it is more than 4.5 cm then a majority can’t. Even metro systems, which have level boarding, sometimes have big gaps because of these two effects, requiring manual bridge plates that lengthen station dwells.

Gaps and the United States

The American loading gauge is far more standardized than the European one, since the US is one country and Europe is not. Nonetheless, large gaps exist, for multiple reasons:

  1. The standards for platforms include generous margins: the distance between the track center and a high platform is by law 5′ 7″, and a train is at most 10′ 8″ wide (usually 10′ to 10′ 6″), so the laws already require gaps of at a minimum 3″ (76 mm, about the maximum passengers in wheelchairs can reliably cross) and often 4-7″ (10-18 cm).
  2. The American loading gauge is defined on straight track. Curved platforms require larger horizontal gaps, and as a result many agencies prefer not to build curved platforms at all, even where it is the best design compromise.
  3. There is some amount of oversize freight; the military wishes for a network with generous enough loading gauge to carry tanks.

Gap fillers were unfortunately unknown until recently. MassDOT even used the need for oversize freight as an excuse not to raise the platforms on commuter trains. Instead, American solutions included expensive gauntlet tracks or just keeping platforms low and inaccessible.

Fortunately, once an American implementation of the gap filler existed, namely on Brightline in South Florida, American regulators learned of the existence of this technology, and are now considering mandating it.

Conclusion

There are two conclusions from this story.

The first is that gap fillers are a good technology and more passenger railroads should use them to improve accessibility, not just for passengers in wheelchairs but also ones with strollers or luggage or who are at risk of falling through the gap. The US should aim for universal adoption of this technology nationwide.

The second is that once a good public transportation innovation does reach the United States, it can spread nationally more easily, as globally incurious but nationally curious administrators have a domestic example to look at. This is an example with train-mounted extenders, but the same may be said of fare integration, clockface timetables, lightweight EMUs, and so on. The first agency to adopt any such measure can expect visits from other agencies aiming to learn from its success.

How to Do Coordinated Public Transport Planning

I’d like to share an example of how to implement coordinated planning for public transportation, using an example of something I’ve been working on with TransitMatters in and around Boston. Right now we’re writing schedules and proposing concrete investments including electrification on each commuter line into Boston; the process is different for each line, but the first line we’ve launched the document for, the Worcester Line, is illustrative in itself. You can find the file here and the broader proposal here; the first link bundles two separate documents, of which the Worcester proposal is the second. I’ve harped a lot on using the Swiss model for better regional rail, and here is one example of how to get a city whose rail technology is stuck in the 1930s to have what Zurich has.

Slogans and principles

I’ve harped on a few Swiss and Swiss-adjacent slogans before:

Organization before electronics before concrete. Investments in more tracks, tunnels, and so on should come last as they are expensive, and beforehand agencies should improve signaling and electrify as it is much cheaper. Moreover, fixing organizational issues, for example writing good schedules and integrating planning between different agencies, should come before anything else, as it requires planners to do more work but is otherwise cost-free.

Takt and symmetry. If a train leaves your station going eastbound at 7:14 am and the schedule is every half hour, then a train leaves your station going eastbound at :14 and :44 all day, every day; this is also called a clockface schedule. If there’s additional service during rush hour, it should fit into the takt, e.g. more trains coming at :29 and :59 for 2 morning hours and 2 afternoon hours. By the same token, trains going westbound should serve your station at :16 and :46, since 60-14 = 46. This means the overtakes, meets on a single-track line, etc. all occur at consistent places.

The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The plan must account for all three sides of the triangle simultaneously, in order to optimize investment. For example, if additional tracks are required for timed overtakes, then the agency should know what trains it’s going to run and how frequent it’s going to run them in order to know where the overtakes are needed. With a takt, the overtakes will be at consistent location where the region can target investment.

Run trains as fast as necessary. Increases in speed should be designed around making timed connections and limiting train downtime. One refinement on a suburban line is that the stop spacing should depend on the schedule: if the one-way trip time is 52 minutes then a short turnaround makes an hour and additional stops are difficult to fit in, whereas if it is 46 minutes then the turnaround is longer and there is room for more stops.

The knot system: knots (or nodes, same word in German) occur at major stations at regular intervals – at a minimum an interval equal to half the systemwide takt frequency. If trains run half-hourly, then a station with service at :00 and :30 or with service at :15 and :45 will be served in both directions at the same time, so it’s a good place for bus and train connections. This works in both planning directions: if the schedule happens to place a knot at a station then buses should go there, and conversely if a city is a major node then the schedule should be written to a place a knot there.

What we propose for Worcester

The proposal as written calls for two service patterns, one express and one local. At rush hour, both run every 15 minutes. Off-peak, the express pattern drops to 30-minute frequency, but the local pattern stays at 15 minutes, as it serves Boston neighborhoods and Newton, close enough in that high off-peak ridership can be expected. With electrification and high platforms, the following schedule is feasible:

Station Km-point Local Express
Boston South 0 0:04 0:11
Back Bay 2.1 0:07 0:14
Lansdowne (Fenway Park) 4 0:09 0:16
West (Allston) 6.2 0:12
Boston Landing 7.5 0:14
Newton Corner 11.3 0:17 0:21
Newtonville 13.3 0:19
West Newton 15.2 0:21
Auburndale 16.9 0:23
Wellesley Farms 20.3 0:26
Wellesley Hills 21.8 0:28
Wellesley Square 23.8 0:30
Natick 28.5 0:34
West Natick 32.1 0:36
Framingham 34.3 0:39 0:32
Ashland 40.5 0:36
Southborough 44.2 0:40
Westborough Center 51.5 0:44
Grafton 58.7 0:49
Worcester 71.3 0:56

Express trains overtake locals at Wellesley Farms; there are plans for triple-tracking Wellesley (and farther west, but it’s not necessary). At Framingham, locals take 12 minutes to turn, which means there needs to be a non-revenue move around 0:41 westbound to a yard just west of Framingham to avoid getting in the way of express trains at :43 and :47 before getting back to Framingham at 0:49 to collect passengers; triple-tracking Framingham is also an option but is more expensive.

How it fits the principles

Let’s go over the Swiss principles one by one and see how this all fits.

Organization before electronics before concrete. As presented the plan includes elements of all three: organization is better-timed schedules and the potential use of the yard as a pocket track to avoid triple-tracking Framingham, electronics is electrification, concrete is the triple track. The electronics-concrete order is important – without the triple track but with electrification, EMUs can still do Boston-Worcester in around 57 minutes with the above stops, or 55 without infill at West Station and Newton Corner, either of which is faster than the fastest express trains today. The ultimate in concrete in the Boston area is the North-South Rail Link, which should come only after full electrification and related modernization steps, such as high platforms.

Takt and symmetry. The timetable is on a takt and symmetric, to ensure the overtake takes place at a manageable spot in Wellesley. It would be easier to change the offset slightly and overtake around West Newton, but there the tracks are in a constrained location where triple-tracking is prohibitively expensive. Note also that with the above timetable, the westbound overtake is at :11, :26, :41, :56, and the eastbound overtake is at :04, :19, :34, :49, which means it requires triple-tracking but not four-tracking.

The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The timetable is calibrated around the performance specs of the latest EMUs, like Coradias, Mireos, Talent 3s, and FLIRTs. The high acceleration capabilities of these trains let a local train leave Boston just 7 minutes ahead of the next express train, and still keep up through double-track narrows in Newton until Wellesley Farms, the sixth station skipped.

Run trains as fast as necessary. Without onward connections beyond Worcester, transfers between trains are not really a factor. Thus, what matters is tight turnaround times to keep trains moving and earning revenue rather than loitering at the terminal. The local train spends 35 out of 45 minutes running, and the express train 45 out of 60.

The knot system. Knots occur wherever trains stop around :00, :15, :30, and :45. The word around includes a few minutes of wiggle time, especially at a terminal, where transfers are unidirectional. Thus Worcester is a knot at :00, with a few minutes of rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfer. Framingham is a knot at :30, as long as the buses get there before :28 to transfer to eastbound express trains and depart after :32 to accommodate transfers from westbound express trains. On local trains, Newton Corner may be a knot, with a connecting bus shuttle to Watertown.

Bus nodes

Framingham and Worcester already exist as bus nodes, and in both cities, the main city bus hub is already the train station. The next step is to integrate the schedules. The rule is generally that bus timetabling should follow rail timetabling, because trains require more infrastructure whereas buses can be moved more easily; there are exceptions, but not many.

The principles for bus design on the Zurich model aren’t as catchy as for rail design, but they are still useful and generally worth learning:

One ticket for all. Fares must be totally integrated. If a train makes two stops in the same zone (for example, Framingham and West Natick), it should charge the same as a bus. A train ticket should be valid within the entire zone traversed, which includes bus transfers. The same fare media should be used on all modes – and they should be paper tickets with no surveillance, not Boston’s ongoing smartcard disaster (“AFC 2.0”). Fare integration requires a mechanism for sharing revenue across agencies, but this is organization, and is doable under the aegis of the Massachusetts state government, with revenue allocated to agencies based on periodic counts to ascertain ridership (Berlin’s are every 3 years).

Timed transfers. Suburban buses should come every half hour, on a takt of course, with timed transfers to the trains at the relevant knot. Worcester’s bus agency, WRTA, does not do this at all – bus #1 runs on an hourly takt, but other routes may run every 50 minutes or every 75. Framingham’s, MWRTA, has 65-minute headways, and a route that runs to a Green Line station rather than much closer to a commuter rail station.

High vehicle utilization. If the bus takes around 25 minutes to reach its outlying destination, then two vehicles serve one route, and if it takes 40 minutes, then three vehicles do. Buses should run as fast as necessary as well, deleting meanders, installing queue jump lanes, and shortening the route in order to squeeze inside a timetable with short turnaround times.

Connections between different train stations. A bus can connect two different train stations, either on the same line or on different lines. It should be timed at both ends, though it if runs parallel to the train, then it’s fine to time only right-way connections (e.g. eastbound bus to eastbound train, westbound bus to westbound train), which do not require knots.

New England High- and Low-Speed Rail

After drawing a map of an integrated timed transfer intercity rail network for the state of New York, people asked me to do other parts of the United States. Here is New England, with trains running every 30 minutes between major cities:

New England is a much friendlier environment for intercity rail growth than Upstate New York, but planning there is much more delicate. The map thus has unavoidable omissions and judgment calls, unlike the New York map, which straightforwardly follows the rule of depicting intercity lines but not suburban lines like the Long Island network. I ask that people not flame me about why I included X but not Y without reading the following explanations.

The tension between S-Bahn and ITT planning

The S-Bahn concept involves interlining suburban rail lines through city center to provide a high-frequency urban trunk line. For example, trains from a number of East Berlin neighborhoods and Brandenburg suburbs interline to form the Stadtbahn: in the suburbs, they run every 10 or 20 minutes, but within the Ring, they combine to form a diameter running regularly every 3:20 minutes.

The integrated transfer timetable concept instead involves connecting different nodes at regular intervals, typically half an hour or an hour, such that trains arrive at every node just before a common time and leave just after, to allow people to transfer. In a number of major Swiss cities, intercity trains arrive a few minutes before the hour every 30 minutes and depart a few minutes after, so that people can connect in a short amount of time.

S-Bahn and ITT planning are both crucial tools for good rail service, but they conflict in major cities. The ITT requires all trains to arrive in a city around the same time, and depart a few minutes later. This forces trains from different cities to have different approach tracks; if they share a trunk, they can still arrive spaced 2-3 minutes apart, but this lengthens the transfer window. The idea of an S-Bahn trunk involves trains serving the trunk evenly, which is not how one runs an ITT.

Normally, this is no problem – ITTs are for intercity trains, S-Bahns are for local service. But this becomes a problem if a city is so big that its S-Bahn network grows to encompass nearby city centers. In New York, the city is so big that its shadow reaches as far as Eastern Long Island, New Haven, Poughkeepsie, and Trenton. Boston is smaller but still casts shadows as far as southern New Hampshire and Cape Cod.

This is why I don’t depict anything on Long Island on my map: it has to be treated as the extension of an S-Bahn system, and cannot be the priority for any intercity ITT. This is also true of Danbury and Waterbury: both are excellent outer ends for an electrified half-hourly regional rail system, but setting up the timed transfers with the New Haven Line (which should be running every 10 minutes) and with high-speed rail (which has no reason to stop at the branch points with either Danbury or Waterbury) is infeasible. In Boston I do depict some lines – see below on the complications of the North-South Rail Link.

The issue of NSRL

The North-South Rail Link is a proposed north-south regional rail tunnel connecting Boston’s North and South Stations. Current plans call for a four-track tunnel extending across the river just north of North Station, about 4.5 km of route; it should cost $4 billion including stations, but Massachusetts is so intent on not building it lies that the cost is $12 billion in 2018 dollars.

In common American fashion, NSRL plans are vague about how service is to run through the tunnel. There are some promises of running intercity trains in addition to regional ones; Amtrak has expressed some interest in running trains through from the Northeast Corridor up to the northern suburbs and thence to Maine. However, we are not engaging in bad American planning for the purposes of this post, but in good Central European planning, and thus we must talk about what trains should run and design the tunnel appropriately.

The rub is that Boston’s location makes NSRL great for local traffic and terrible for intercity traffic. When it comes to local traffic, Boston is right in the middle of its metropolitan region, just offset to the east because of the coast. The populations of the North Side and South Side suburbs are fairly close, as are their commuter volumes into Boston. Current commuter rail ridership is about twice as high on the South Side, but that’s because South Station’s location is more central than North Station’s. NSRL really is a perfect S-Bahn trunk tunnel.

But when it comes to intercity traffic, Boston is in the northeast corner of the United States. There are no major cities north of Boston – the largest such city, Portland, is a metro area of 600,000. In contrast, going south, New York should not be much more than an hour and a half away by high-speed rail. Thus, high-speed rail has no business running through north of Boston – the demand mismatch south and north is too high.

Since NSRL is greatly useful for regional traffic but not intercity traffic, the physical infrastructure should be based on S-Bahn and not ITT principles, even though the regional network connects cities quite far away. For one, the tunnel should require all trains to make all stops (South Station, Aquarium, North Station) for maximum local connectivity. High-speed trains can keep feeding South Station on the surface, while all other traffic uses the tunnel.

But on the North Side, feeding North Station on the surface is not a good idea for intercity trains. The station is still awkwardly just outside city center. It also offers no opportunity to transfer to intercity trains to the most important city of all, New York.

The only resolution is to treat trains to Portland and New Hampshire as regional trains that just go farther than normal. The Nashua-Manchester-Concord corridor is already as economically linked to Boston as Providence and Worcester, and there are plans for commuter rail service there already, which were delayed due to political opposition to spending money on trains from New Hampshire Republicans after their 2010 election victory. Portland is more speculative, but electric trains could connect it with Boston in around an hour and a half to two hours. These trains would be making suburban stops north of Boston that an intercity train shouldn’t normally make, but it’s fine, the Lowell Line has wide stop spacing and the intermediate stops are pretty important post-industrial cities. At Portland, passengers can make a timed connection to trains to Bangor, on the same schedule but with shorter trainsets as the demand north of Portland is much weaker.

On the map, I also depict Boston-Cape Cod trains, which like Boston-Concord trains are really suburban trains but going farther. Potentially, the branch to Cape Cod – the Middleborough branch of the Old Colony Lines – could even run through with the Lowell Line, either the branch to Concord or the Wildcat Branch to Haverhill and Portland. Moreover, the sequencing of the branches should aim to give short connections to Boston-Albany high-speed trains as far as reasonable.

The issue of the Northeast Corridor

The Northeast Corridor wrecks the ITT plan in two ways, one substantial and one graphical.

The snag is that there should be service on legacy track running at a maximum speed of 160-200 km/h in addition to high-speed service on high-speed tracks. There may be some track sharing between New York and New Haven to reduce construction costs, using timed overtakes instead of full track segregation, but east of New Haven the high-speed trains should run on a new line near I-95 to bypass the Shore Line’s curves, and the Shore Line should be running electric regional trains to connect to the intermediate cities.

The graphical problem is that the distance between where the legacy route is and where the high-speed tracks should be is short, especially west of New Haven, and depicting a red line and a blue line together on the map is not easy. I will eventually post something at much higher resolution than 1 pixel = 500 meters. This also affects long-distance regional lines that I’d like to depict on the map but connect only to legacy trains on the Northeast Corridor, that is the Danbury and Waterbury Branches.

For planning purposes, figure that both run every half hour all day, are electric, run through to and beyond New York as branches of the New Haven Line, and are timed to have reasonable connections to high-speed trains to Albany and points north in New York. Figure the same for trains between New Haven and Providence, with some additional runs in the Providence suburbs giving 15-minute urban frequencies to such destinations as Olneyville and Cranston.

The substantial issue is that the Northeast Corridor is far too high-demand for a half-hourly ITT. Intercity trains run between New York and Boston better than hourly today, and that’s taking twice as long as a TGV and charging 2.5-4 times as much. My unspoken assumption when planning how everything should fit together is that there should be a 400-meter long train every 15 minutes on the corridor past New Haven, spaced evenly around Boston to overtake regional trains to Providence at consistent locations. Potentially, there should be more local trains taking around 1:50 and more express trains taking around 1:35, and then all timed transfers should be to the local trains.

On the New Haven Line, too, regional rail demand is much more than a train every half hour. Trains run mostly every half hour today, with management that is flagrantly indifferent to off-peak service, and trip times that are about 50% longer than they should be. Nonetheless, best practice is to set up timed transfers such that various branches all connect to the same train, so that passengers can connect between different branches. This mostly affects Waterbury; it’s useful to ensure that Waterbury trains arrive at Bridgeport with a short transfer to a train toward New Haven that offers a quick connection to trains to points north and east.

Planning HSR around timed connections

Not counting lines that are in the Boston sphere, or the lines around Albany, which I discussed two weeks ago, there are three lines proposed for timed connection to high-speed rail: New London-Norwich, Providence-Worcester-Fitchburg, Springfield-Greenfield.

All three are regional lines, not intercity lines. They are not optimized for intercity speed, but instead make a number of local urban and suburban stops. This is especially true of Springfield-Northampton-Greenfield, a line that Sandy Johnston and I have been talking about since 2014. A Springfield-Greenfield line with 1-2 intermediate stops might be able to do a one-way trip in around 39 minutes, at which point a 45-minute operator schedule may be feasible with a very tight turnaround regime – but there’s enough urban demand along the southern half of the route that adding stops to make it about 50 minutes with a one-hour operator schedule is better.

The Providence-Worcester line is likewise slower than it could be if it were just about Providence and Worcester. The reason is that high-speed rail compresses distances along its route. Providence-Boston by high-speed rail is about 22 minutes nonstop, including schedule contingency. Boston-Worcester is about the same – slower near Boston because of scheduling difficulties along the Turnpike and the inner Worcester Line, faster near the outer end because Worcester has no chance of getting a city center station but rather gets a highway station. Now, passengers have a range of transfer penalties, and to those who are averse to connections and have a high personal penalty, the trip between the two cities is more attractive directly than via Boston. But there are enough passengers who’d make the trip via Boston that the relative importance of intermediate points grows: Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Uxbridge, Millbury. In that situation, the importance of frequency grows (half-hourly is a must, not hourly) and that of raw speed diminishes.

The onward connection to Fitchburg is about three things. First, connecting Providence with Fitchburg. Second, connecting Worcester with Fitchburg. And third, connecting Fitchburg with the high-speed line. This makes investments into higher speed more valuable, since Fitchburg’s importance is high compared with that of points between Worcester and Fitchburg. The transfer between the line and high-speed rail should be timed in the direction of Fitchburg-to-Albany first of all, and Providence-to-Albany second of all, as the connections from the endpoints to Boston are slower than direct commuter trains.

The presence of this connection also forces the Worcester station to be at the intersection with the line to Providence. Without this connection, it may be better to site the station slightly to the west, at 290 rather than 146, as the area already has Auburn Mall.

Finally, the New London-Norwich line is a pure last-mile connector from the New London train station, which is forced to be right underneath the I-95 bridge over the river, to destinations to the north. The northern anchor is Norwich opposite the historic center, but the main destination is probably the Mohegan Sun casino complex. Already there are many buses connecting passengers from New York to the casino. The one-way trip time should be on the order of 21-22 minutes, but with a turnaround it’s a 30-minute schedule, and the extension south to the historic center of New London is for completeness; with a timed connection, trains could get between Penn Station and Norwich in around 1:20 counting connection time, and between Penn Station and Mohegan Sun in maybe 5 minutes less.

What about Vermont?

Vermont’s situation is awkward. Burlington is too far north and too small to justify a connection to high-speed rail by itself. A low-speed connection might work, but the line from Burlington south points toward Rutland and not New York, and connecting it onward requires reversing direction. If Vermont had twice its actual population this might be viable, but it doesn’t.

But Vermont is right between New York and Montreal. I generally don’t show New York-Montreal high-speed rail on my maps. It’s a viable line, but people in both cities severely overrate it, especially compared with New York-Toronto; I have to remind readers this whenever I write about international high-speed trains. In the event such a line does open, Burlington is the only plausible location for a Vermont stop – everything else is too small, even towns that historically did have rail service, like Middlebury. Rutland could get a line running partly on high-speed track and partly on legacy track taking it down to Glens Falls or Saratoga Springs to transfer to onward destinations, or maybe Albany if trains run 2-3 minutes apart in pairs every 30 minutes.

Current plans for Vermont try to connect it directly to Boston via New Hampshire, and that is wrong. The Vermonter route is mountainous from Greenfield to Burlington; trains will never be competitive with driving there. Another route under occasional study going into Boston from the north was even included on a 2009 wishlist of high-speed rail routes, under the traditional American definition of high-speed rail as “train that is faster than a sports bicycle.” That route, crossing mountains in both New Hampshire and Vermont, is even worse. The north-south orientation of the mountains in both states forces east-west routes to either stick to the lowlands or consolidate to strong enough routes that high-speed rail tunnels are worthwhile.

How much does this cost?

As always, I am going to completely omit the Northeast Corridor from this cost analysis; an analysis of that will happen later, and suffice is to say, the benefit-cost ratio if there’s even semi-decent cost control is extremely high.

With that in mind, the central pieces of this program are high-speed lines from Boston to Albany and from New Haven to Springfield, in a T system. The 99 km New Haven-Springfield line, timetabled at 45 minutes including turnaround and maybe 36 minutes in motion, is on the slow side for high-speed rail, as it is short and has a crucial intermediate station in Hartford. It does not need any tunnels or complex viaducts, and property takings are nonzero but light; the cost should not be higher than about $2-2.5 billion, utilizing legacy track for much of the way.

The Boston-Albany line is much costlier. It’s 260 km, and crosses the aforementioned north-south mountains in Western Massachusetts. Tunnels are unavoidable, including a few kilometers of digging required just west of Springfield to avoid a slowdown on suburban curves. At the Boston end, tunneling may also be unavoidable next to the Turnpike. The alternative is sharing a two-track narrows with the MBTA Worcester Line in Newton; it’s possible if the trains run no more than every 15 minutes, which is a reasonable short-term imposition but may be too onerous in the longer term if better service builds up more demand for commuter rail frequency in Newton. My best guess is that without Newton, the line needs around 20 km of tunnel and can piggyback on 35 km of existing lines at both ends, for a total cost in the $6-8 billion range. This figure is sensitive to whether my 20 km estimate is correct, but not too sensitive – at 40 it grows to maybe $9 billion, at 0 it shrinks to $4.5 billion.

Estimating the costs of the blue lines on the map is harder. All of them are, by the standard of high-speed rail, very cheap per kilometer. A track renewal machine on a one-third-in-tunnel German high-speed line can do track rebuilding for about a million euros per single-track-kilometer. All of these lines would also need to be electrified from scratch, for $1.5-3 million per kilometer. Stations would need to be built, for a few million apiece. My first-order estimate is $1 billion for the three blue connector lines and about the same for Boston-Portland-Bangor; the Hyannis and Concord lines would go in a regional rail basket. The NSRL tunnel should be $4 billion or not much more, and not what Massachusetts wants voters to believe it is to justify its decision not to build it.

The reason for the relatively limited map (e.g. no Montreal service) is that these lines are not such slam dunks that they’re worth it at any price. Cost control is paramount, subject to the bare minimum of good service (e.g. electrification and level boarding). For what I think a fair cost is, those lines are still good, providing fast connectivity across New England from most places to most other places. Moreover, the locations of the major nodes, like Worcester and Springfield, allow timing bus interchanges as well, providing further connections to various suburbs and city neighborhoods.

The red high-speed lines are flashy, but the blue ones are important too. That’s the key takeaway from planning in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, all of which have high rail usage without great geography for intercity rail. Trains should be planned coherently as a network, with all parts designed in tandem to maximize connectivity. This isn’t just about going between Boston and Springfield or Boston and Albany or New Haven and Springfield, but also the long tail of weaker markets using timed connections, like New Haven-Amherst, Brockton-Worcester, Dover-Providence, Stamford-Mohegan Sun, and so on. A robust rail network based on ITT design principles could make all of these and many more connections at reasonable cost and speed.

Turnover and the TGV

The TGV network put France at the forefront of European intercity rail technology for decades. Early investments, starting in 1981 with high-speed tracks between Paris and Lyon, led to explosive growth in ridership throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. But since then, usage has stagnated. Domestic ridership in 2009 and 2010 was 100 million; so was domestic ridership in 2016, on a larger network. There was a 10% increase in 2017 when the line to Bordeaux opened, but in 2018 ridership stagnated again. In the late 2000s, there was more ridership on the TGV than on the intercity trains in Germany; now, German intercity trains approach 150 million annual riders, and are not far behind the TGV in passenger-kilometers, Germany running slower trains and thus averaging shorter trips.

I’ve heard a number of different explanations for why TGV ridership has not increased in the last ten years, many of which involve management; I, too, complain about managers who are recruited from the airline industry. But I submit that there’s a deeper, conceptual reason: the TGV is only workable for thick markets, mostly connecting Paris with a major provincial city. Trains run mostly nonstop, and there is no seat turnover. From the 1980s to the late 2000s, ridership rose as more cities were connected to Paris, but then those markets were mostly saturated, and new markets cannot be served adequately.

The TGV hit a wall about ten years ago. This is important, because as the busiest high-speed rail network outside of China and Japan, it has a lot of cachet. Politicians and rail planners propose programs that look much like the TGV network. This is of especial importance in the United Kingdom, which is replicating the TGV’s operating paradigm with the under-construction High-Speed 2 project; in the United States, the geography of the Northeast Corridor has meant that plans look more like the Japanese paradigm, which works better both in general and in the Northeast’s specific context.

Turnover

In Japan, Germany, and the United States (by which I mean the Northeast Corridor), trains stop at many major cities on one route.

The fastest Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto. Tokyo-Osaka passengers ride end to end, but many riders go between Tokyo or Osaka and Nagoya, so the seat turns over. Some of these trains continue west to Hakata, with such intermediate stops as Okayama and Hiroshima. The upshot is that the trains don’t just connect these cities to Tokyo, but also to one another. The size of Tokyo means there is demand for very high frequency to Shin-Osaka and decent frequency to Hakata; passengers on intermediate city pairs like Nagoya-Okayama or Kyoto-Hiroshima benefit from infrastructure that those city pairs could never justify on their own.

In Germany, intercity trains generally serve more than two major cities too. Like in France and unlike in Japan and the US, some major cities have stub-end stations, most notably Frankfurt; trains do not skip these cities, but rather serve them, reverse direction in about 5 minutes, and continue. Passengers may reserve seats but do not have to do so, so each seat has an electronic display showing for which portion of the trip it is free for the use of any passenger with an unreserved ticket.

France works by a different principle. Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, but trains do not serve all three cities. Trains from Paris to Lyon do not continue to Marseille; trains from Paris to Marseille rarely stop at the Lyon airport and never stop at Lyon Part-Dieu, which is on a branch from the Paris-Marseille mainline. There are separate trains between Lyon and Marseille, running generally hourly. Hourly frequency is workable on a line that takes about 1:40 end to end, but is not great.

At least Lyon and Marseille are on the same line coming out of Paris. Trains between Lyon and Lille, 3-3.5 hours apart on opposite sides of Paris, have service gaps of 2-2.5 hours most of the day. Lyon-Strasbourg trains on the LGV Rhin-Rhône lose money – the two cities alone do not have the ridership to fill trains, and there are no transfers with other cities nor larger intermediate cities than Mulhouse.

It’s too late for Paris 21

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a through-station with service to cities all over Germany; every intercity train to Berlin serves Hauptbahnhof, regardless of which direction it comes from. This is common elsewhere in Germany, too. The second most important stub-end station, Stuttgart, is currently being replaced with an underground through-station at great cost, in a controversial project called Stuttgart 21. The most important, Frankfurt, long had plans for a similar through-station dubbed Frankfurt 21, and recently the federal government announced new plans for such a project.

Paris could have built a Paris 21, or Paris Hauptbahnhof, in the 1970s or 80s. When the city designed the RER, it ripped up Les Halles to build the Chatelet-Les Halles transfer point. The station is palatial: 25 meters underground, with 7 tracks and 4 platforms, 2 of which are 17 meters wide. This was so expensive that the Auber-Nation segment of the RER A, consisting of 6 km of tunnel and the Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare de Lyon RER stations, cost in today’s money around $750 million per km, a record that is yet to be surpassed in a non-English-speaking country.

Planning for the TGV only began in earnest in the late 1970s; the RER was constructed in the late 1960s and 70s, Les Halles opening in 1977. Perhaps the initial omission of intercity tracks was understandable. But the RER D opened in the early 1990s, and by then SNCF should have known it would have a national TGV network. It could have at the very least spent some money on having 2 platforms and 4 tracks at Les Halles dedicated to intercity trains, running through from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. But it didn’t, and now there’s so much regional traffic that repurposing any part of Les Halles for intercity trains is impossible. Moreover, given the cost of the station in the 1970s, a future Paris 21 project would be unaffordable.

Transfers

The TGV has to live with infrastructure decisions made 30 years ago. Given this reality, some of the kludges of the system today are understandable. And yet, even in outlying areas, there are no scheduled connections with either other TGVs or regional trains. Paris-Nice TGVs are timed to just miss TERs to Monaco and Ventimiglia. The Mâcon TGV station is located at just the wrong place for a transfer to a future extension of the LGV Rhin-Rhône south to Lyon. Other than Part-Dieu and Lille-Europe, major secondary cities do not have urban stations designed for through-service.

The contrast here is partly with German or Japanese practice: Japan built Shin-Osaka to enable through-service from east to west of Osaka without spending too much money tunneling into city center, and Germany serves Kassel at Wilhelmshöhe instead of at Hauptbahnhof since Hauptbahnhof is a stub-end station.

But the contrast is even more with the practice of smaller European countries. Switzerland and the Netherlands do not have anything as voluminous as Paris-Lyon, so they had to design their intercity rail networks around everywhere-to-everywhere travel from the start. Switzerland, too, had much less growth in the 2010s than in the 2000s, but ridership and p-km both grew, and are continuing to grow. What’s more, Switzerland has not tapped out its strongest markets: Lausanne, Luzern, and Geneva are still poorly integrated into the national timed transfer plan.

Getting it right from the start

France boxed itself into a corner. Its high-speed rail infrastructure is designed to connect provincial cities to Paris but not to one another. In some places, it’s possible to retrofit something more usable with the construction of new transfer points and the planning of better timetables. But elsewhere, as in Paris, it is too hard. This suggests that other countries that look to France as a model learn not only from the success of the TGV but also its more recent failures, and get it right from the start.

Any of the following lessons are useful to Britain and to other countries that are building large high-speed rail networks:

  • Try to limit branching, to make sure city pairs have adequate frequency. This is especially important on shorter city pairs, such as London-Birmingham, planned to take 38 minutes, and Birmingham-Manchester, planned to take 40 minutes. Adding a few minutes to the trip time of through-trains is fine if it makes the difference between hourly and half-hourly frequencies, or even half-hourly and quarter-hourly frequencies.
  • Place stations at good points for transfers to other trains. This includes trains on the same network, for which the best locations are branch points, and legacy trains, for which the best locations are major legacy stations and junctions. For example, the largest cities of the East Midlands – Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester – lie on a Y-shaped system, so it would be valuable to place a hub station at the node of the Y; the currently planned East Midlands Hub is 3.5 km north of the node, not on the leg of any of the three main cities.
  • If there is a major city with service going in multiple directions, make sure it has a single through-station, even if constructing one requires a new tunnel. This is less relevant to Britain, since London is at the south end of the network, but is relevant to Italy, which needs to convert multiple urban terminals into through-stations, and Spain, which is doing so at Madrid and Barcelona already, at a fraction of the cost of Stuttgart 21.
  • At short range, run trains as fast as necessary – that is, spend a lot of resources on getting trip times between major nodes to be just less than an hour, half an hour, or an hour and a half, but don’t worry too much about 55 vs. 40 minutes in most circumstances. This way, passengers can interchange at major nodes in a short time.

For a generation, the TGV was the envy of the rest of Europe. But it tapped out the strong markets that it was designed around, and now SNCF has its work cut out for it adapting to the needs of other city-to-city travel markets. Other big countries had better take heed and do it right from the start to avoid boxing themselves the way France did.