Category: High-Speed Rail

Philadelphia and High-Speed Rail Bypasses (Hoisted from Social Media)

I’d like to discuss a bypass of Philadelphia, as a followup from my previous post, about high-speed rail and passenger traffic density. To be clear, this is not a bypass on Northeast Corridor trains: every train between New York and Washington must continue to stop in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station or, if an in my opinion unadvised Center City tunnel is built, within the tunnel in Center City. Rather, this is about trains between New York and points west of Philadelphia, including Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and the entire Midwest. Whether the bypass makes sense depends on traffic, and so it’s an example of a good investment for later, but only after more of the network is built. This has analogs in Germany as well, with a number of important cities whose train stations are terminals (Frankfurt, Leipzig) or de facto terminals (Cologne, where nearly all traffic goes east, not west).

Philadelphia and Zoo Junction

Philadelphia historically has three mainlines on the Pennsylvania Railroad, going to north to New York, south to Washington, and west to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The first two together form the southern half of the Northeast Corridor; the third is locally called the Main Line, as it was the PRR’s first line.

Trains can run through from New York to Washington or from Harrisburg to Washington. The triangle junction northwest of the station, Zoo Junction, permits trains from New York to run through to Harrisburg and points west, but they then have to skip Philadelphia. Historically, the fastest PRR trains did this, serving the city at North Philadelphia with a connection to the subway, but this was in the context of overnight trains of many classes. Today’s Keystone trains between New York and Harrisburg do no such thing: they go from New York to Philadelphia, reverse direction, and then go onward to Harrisburg. This is a good practice in the current situation – the Keystones run less than hourly, and skipping Philadelphia would split frequencies between New York and Philadelphia to the point of making the service much less useful.

When should trains skip Philadelphia?

The advantage of skipping Philadelphia are that trains from New York to Harrisburg (and points west) do not have to reverse direction and are therefore faster. On the margin, it’s also beneficial for passengers to face forward the entire trip (as is typical on American and Japanese intercity trains, but not European ones). The disadvantage is that it means trains from Harrisburg can serve New York or Philadelphia but not both, cutting frequency to each East Coast destination. The effect on reliability and capacity is unclear – at very high throughput, having more complex track sharing arrangements reduces reliability, but then having more express trains that do not make the same stop on the same line past New York and Newark does allow trains to be scheduled closer to each other.

The relative sizes of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington are such that traffic from Harrisburg is split fairly evenly between New York on the other hand and Philadelphia and Washington on the other hand. So this really means halving frequency to each of New York and Philadelphia; Washington gets more service with split service, since if trains keep reversing direction, there shouldn’t be direct Washington-Harrisburg trains and instead passengers should transfer at 30th Street.

The impact of frequency is really about the headway relative to the trip time. Half-hourly frequencies are unconscionable for urban rail and very convenient for long-distance intercity rail. The headway should be much less than the one-way trip time, ideally less than half the time: for reference, the average unlinked New York City Subway trip was 13 minutes in 2019, and those 10- and 12-minute off-peak frequencies were a chore – six-minute frequencies are better for this.

The current trip time is around 1:20 New York-Philadelphia and 1:50 Philadelphia-Harrisburg, and there are 14 roundtrips to Harrisburg a day, for slightly worse than hourly service. It takes 10 minutes to reverse direction at 30th Street, plus around five minutes of low-speed running in the station throat. Cutting frequency in half to a train every two hours would effectively add an hour to what is a less than a two-hour trip to Philadelphia, even net of the shorter trip time, making it less viable. It would eat into ridership to New York as well as the headway rose well above half the end-to-end trip, and much more than that for intermediate trips to points such as Trenton and Newark. Thus, the current practice of reversing direction is good and should continue, as is common at German terminals.

What about high-speed rail?

The presence of a high-speed rail network has two opposed effects on the question of Philadelphia. On the one hand, shorter end-to-end trip times make high frequencies even more important, making the case for skipping Philadelphia even weaker. In practice, high speeds also entail speeding up trains through station throats and improving operations to the point that trains can change directions much faster (in Germany it’s about four minutes), which weakens the case for skipping Philadelphia as well if the impact is reduced from 15 minutes to perhaps seven. On the other hand, heavier traffic means that the base frequency becomes much higher, so that cutting it in half is less onerous and the case for skipping Philadelphia strengthens. Already, a handful of express trains in Germany skip Leipzig on their way between Berlin and Munich, and as intercity traffic grows, it is expected that more trains will so split, with an hourly train skipping Leipzig and another serving it.

With high-speed rail, New York-Philadelphia trip times fall to about 45 minutes in the example route I drew for a post from 2020. I have not done such detailed work outside the Northeast Corridor, and am going to assume a uniform average speed of 240 km/h in the Northeast (which is common in France and Spain) and 270 km/h in the flatter Midwest (which is about the fastest in Europe and is common in China). This means trip times out of New York, including the reversal at 30th Street, are approximately as follows:

Philadelphia: 0:45
Harrisburg: 1:30
Pittsburgh: 2:40
Cleveland: 3:15
Toledo: 3:55
Detroit: 4:20
Chicago: 5:20

Out of both New York and Philadelphia, my gravity model predicts that the strongest connection among these cities is by Pittsburgh, then Cleveland, then Chicago, then Detroit, then Harrisburg. So it’s best to balance the frequency around the trip time to Pittsburgh or perhaps Cleveland. In this case, even hourly trains are not too bad, and half-hourly trains are practically show-up-and-go frequency. The model also predicts that if trains only run on the Northeast Corridor and as far as Pittsburgh then traffic fills about two hourly trains; in that case, without the weight of longer trips, the frequency impact of skipping Philadelphia and having one hourly train run to New York and Boston and another to Philadelphia and Washington is likely higher than the benefit of reducing trip times on New York-Harrisburg by about seven minutes.

In contrast, the more of the network is built out, the higher the base frequency is. With the Northeast Corridor, the spine going beyond Pittsburgh to Detroit and Chicago, a line through Upstate New York (carrying Boston-Cleveland traffic), and perhaps a line through the South from Washington to the Piedmont and beyond, traffic rises to fill about six trains per hour per the model. Skipping Philadelphia on New York-Pittsburgh trains cuts frequency from every 10 minutes to every 20 minutes, which is largely imperceptible, and adds direct service from Pittsburgh and the Midwest to Washington.

Building a longer bypass

So far, we’ve discussed using Zoo Junction. But if there’s sufficient traffic that skipping Philadelphia shouldn’t be an onerous imposition, it’s possible to speed up New York-Harrisburg trains further. There’s a freight bypass from Trenton to Paoli, roughly following I-276; a bypass using partly that right-of-way and, where it curves, that of the freeway, would require about 70 km of high-speed rail construction, for maybe $2 billion. This would cut about 15 km from the trip via 30th Street or 10 km via the Zoo Junction bypass, but the tracks in the city are slow even with extensive work. I believe this should cut another seven or eight minutes from the trip time, for a total of 15 minutes relative to stopping in Philadelphia.

I’m not going to model the benefits of this bypass. The model can spit out an answer, which is around $120 million a year in additional revenue from faster trips relative to not skipping Philadelphia, without netting out the impact of frequency, or around $60 million relative to skipping via Zoo, for a 3% financial ROI; the ROI grows if one includes more lines in the network, but by very little (the Cleveland-Cincinnati corridor adds maybe 0.5% ROI). But this figure has a large error bar and I’m not comfortable using a gravity model for second-order decisions like this.

High-Speed Rail Doesn’t Depend on Megaregions

On my Discord channel, I was reminded of the late-2000s work by some institutional American urbanists about the concept of megaregions. Wikipedia has a good summary of the late-2000s discourse on the subject. In short, there are linear ties across the East Coast from Boston to Washington (“BosWash”), with more or less continuous suburban development in between, and some urbanists tried to generalize this concept to other agglomerations of metropolitan areas, not usually successfully. The American work on this carved most of the country’s population into 10 or 11 megaregions, sometimes annexing portions of Canada, as in the Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program:

There is a lot to critique about this map. Canada has a strong self-conception as a distinct entity from the United States; while there’s a case for lumping Vancouver with Seattle and Portland as the Pacific Northwest, lumping Toronto with the Midwest is irresponsible. The Hampton Roads region is not meaningfully a periphery of the Northeast, but is rather Southern (for example, it is heavily militarized, and the South has consistently higher enlistment rates than the Northeast). The Rio Grande Valley is not especially connected with New Orleans.

But the core of the program is to propose this as the basis of high-speed rail investment, and that’s where it fails the most visibly. When one of my Discord channel participants posted the map in the channel about high-speed rail, I started talking about my gravity model, and pointed out some patterns that emerge.

For this, consult a table of ridership between any pair of American or Canadian cities in the main connected component of my proposed map:

The table omits Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest. But it includes lines that I initially considered and rejected, going to Kansas City and Birmingham; the reason is that when I calculated it by hand I omitted very weak long-range connections such as between Boston and the Midwest, whereas the table can automatically calculate them and add them in, producing an estimate of 5 million annual riders between Boston and the entire Midwest region. These extra connections make weak lines like those to Birmingham and Kansas City appear stronger, so those lines are included; it’s plausible they could even justify a connection to Texas via both New Orleans and and Tulsa, but those are not included (and would at any case not impact the analysis below).

The following table includes some connections between two adjacent cities in the table, with their total projected passenger counts. Those are very high numbers, higher than you’d expect; this is because they lump in a great many city pairs – for example, New York-Philadelphia includes all connections from New York, Boston, and Albany to Philadelphia and points south and west, and those sum to a much higher number than just the internal trips on the Northeast Corridor, let alone just trips originating in New York and ending in Philadelphia or the reverse. Also, as a note of caution, there may be small inaccuracies if I mistakenly tabulated very weak markets like Chicago-Charlotte as going via the wrong path; they do not change the main conclusion.

City pairRidership
Boston-New York39,299,133
Boston-Springfield25,482,364
New York-Philadelphia/Harrisburg139,860,707
Philadelphia-Washington110,010,205
Washington-Richmond64,145,050
Richmond-Raleigh50,425,578
Raleigh-Greensboro42,654,519
New York-Albany57,773,629
Philadelphia-Harrisburg65,639,871
Harrisburg-Pittsburgh61,110,782
Pittsburgh-Cleveland62,352,156
Cleveland-Toledo56,482,182
Cleveland-Columbus46,046,790
Buffalo-Cleveland41,584,062

Some observations jump from this (partial) table:

  • New York-Boston is much weaker than a lot of segments that are by themselves far weaker than the Northeast Corridor. The reason for this is that a full 31.1 million annual riders on New York-Boston are internal to the Northeast Corridor, whereas the other city pairs require large swaths of the network to be built to have such high traffic.
  • From Philadelphia to points west, traffic density is fairly consistent. There’s no separation between a Northeastern and Midwestern megaregion evident in the data: Cleveland has about the same traffic density going east and west, as does Pittsburgh. Rather, it’s the connections between the East Coast and the Midwest, chiefly Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland but also the Empire corridor between Albany and Cleveland, that create high ridership.
  • Washington-Atlanta is a tail gradually weakening with distance from the Northeast Corridor, rather than an independent corridor.

Outside the US, the same observation about the irrelevance of megaregions to high-speed rail is true. The European attempt to describe a megaregion, the so-called Blue Banana, was constructed explicitly to exclude France – but the highest-traffic density intercity rail link in Europe is between Paris and the bifurcation splitting toward Lyon and Dijon. Frankfurt-Mannheim is a close second, but French intercity trains average around 220 km/h and German ones around 130 km/h depending on the line, and the actually existing high-speed rail network gets higher peak traffic density than the medium-speed one.

Ultimately, high-speed rail as a mode of transportation is a means of connecting metropolitan areas. Whether they fall into megaregions or not is immaterial – some strong links connect distinct regions, like Northeast-Midwest, with higher demand for traffic than some of the internal connections.

When Different Capital Investments Compete and When They Don’t

Advocates for mass transit often have to confront the issue of competing priorities for investment. These include some long-term tensions: maintenance versus expansion, bus versus rail, tram versus subway and commuter rail, high-speed rail versus upgraded legacy rail, electronics versus concrete. In some cases, they genuinely compete in the sense that building one side of the debate makes the other side weaker. But in others, they don’t, and instead they reinforce each other: once one investment is done, the one that is said to compete with it becomes stronger through network effects.

Urban rail capacity

Capacity is an example of when priorities genuinely compete. If your trains are at capacity, then different ways to relieve crowding are in competition: once the worst crowding is relieved, capacity is no longer a pressing concern.

This competition can include different relief lines. Big cities often have different lines that can be used to provide service to a particular area, and smaller ones that have to build a new line can have different plausible alignments for it. If one line is built or extended, the case for parallel ones weakens; only the strongest travel markets can justify multiple parallel lines.

But it can also include the conflict between building relief lines and providing extra capacity by other means, such as better signaling. The combination of conventional fixed block signaling and conventional operations is capable of moving maybe 24 trains per hour at the peak, and some systems struggle even with less – Berlin moves 18 trains per hour on the Stadtbahn, and has to turn additional peak trains at Ostbahnhof and make passengers going toward city center transfer. Even more modern signals struggle in combination with too complex branching, as in New York and some London lines, capping throughput at the same 24 trains per hour. In contrast, top-of-line driverless train signaling on captive metro lines can squeeze 42 trains per hour in Paris; with drivers, the highest I know of is 39 in Moscow, 38 on M13 in Paris, and 36 in London. Put another way, near-best-practice signaling and operations are equivalent in capacity gain to building half a line for every existing line.

Reach and convenience

In contrast with questions of capacity, questions of system convenience, accessibility, reliability, and reach show complementarity rather than competition. A rail network that is faster, more reliable, more comfortable to ride, and easier to access will attract more riders – and this generates demand for extensions, because potential passengers would be likelier to ride in such case.

In that sense, systematic improvements in signaling, network design, and accessibility do not compete with physical system expansion in the long run. A subway system with an elevator at every station, platform edge doors, and modern (ideally driverless) signaling enabling reliable operations and high average speeds is one that people want to ride. The biggest drawback of such a system is that it doesn’t go everywhere, and therefore, expansion is valuable. Expansion is even more valuable if it’s done in multiple directions – just as two parallel lines compete, lines that cross (such as a radial and a circumferential) reinforce each other through network effects.

This is equally true of buses. Interventions like bus shelter interact negatively with higher frequency (if there’s bus shelter, then the impact of wait times on ridership is reduced), but interact positively with everything else by encouraging more people to ride the bus.

The interaction between bus and rail investments is positive as well, not negative. Buses and trains don’t really compete anywhere with even quarter-decent urban rail. Instead, in such cities, buses feed trains. Bus shelter means passengers are likelier to want to ride the bus to connect the train, and this increases the effective radius of a train station, making the case for rail extensions stronger. The same is true of other operating treatments for buses, such as bus lanes and all-door boarding – bus lanes can’t make the bus fast enough to replace the subway, but do make it fast enough to extend the subway’s range.

Mainline rail investments

The biggest question in mainline rail is whether to build high-speed lines connecting the largest cities on the French or Japanese model, or to invest in more medium-speed lines to smaller cities on the German or especially Swiss model. German rail advocates assert the superiority of Germany to France as a reason why high-speed rail would detract from investments in everywhere-to-everywhere rail transport.

But in fact, those two kinds of investment complement each other. The TGV network connects most secondary cities to Paris, and this makes regional rail investments feeding those train stations stronger – passengers have more places to get to, through network effects. Conversely, if there is a regional rail network connecting smaller cities to bigger ones, then speeding up the core links gives people in those smaller cities more places to get to within two, three, four, five hours.

This is also seen when it comes to reliability. When trains of different speed classes can use different sets of track, it’s less likely that fast trains will get stuck behind slow ones, improving reliability; already Germany has to pad the intercity lines 20-25% (France: 10-14%; Switzerland: 7%). A system of passenger-dedicated lines connecting the largest cities is not in conflict with investments in systemwide reliability, but rather reinforces such reliability by removing some of the worst timetable conflicts on a typical intercity rail system in which single-speed class trains never run so often as to saturate a line.

Recommendation: invest against type

The implication of complementarity between some investment types is that a system that has prioritized one kind of investment should give complements a serious look.

For example, Berlin has barely expanded the U-Bahn in the last 30 years, but has built orbital tramways, optimized timed connections (for example, at Wittenbergplatz), and installed elevators at nearly all stations. All of these investments are good and also make the case for U-Bahn expansion stronger to places like Märkisches Viertel and Tegel.

In intercity rail, Germany has invested in medium-speed and regional rail everywhere but built little high-speed rail, while France has done the opposite. Those two countries should swap planners, figuratively and perhaps even literally. Germany should complete its network of 300 km/h lines to enable all-high-speed trips between the major cities, while France should set up frequent clockface timetables on regional trains anchored by timed connections to the TGV.

Deutsche Bahn’s Meltdown and High-Speed Rail

A seven-hour rail trip from Munich to Berlin – four and a half on the timetable plus two and a half of sitting at and just outside Nuremberg – has forced me to think a lot more about the ongoing collapse of the German intercity rail network. Ridership has fully recovered to pre-corona levels – in May it was 5% above 2019 levels, and that was just before the nine-euro monthly ticket was introduced, encouraging people to shift their trips to June, July, and August to take advantage of what is, among other things, free transit outside one’s city of residence. But at the same time, punctuality has steadily eroded this year:

It’s notable that the June introduction of the 9€ ticket is invisible in the graphic for intercity rail; it did coincide with deterioration in regional rail punctuality, but the worst problems are for the intercity trains. My own train was delayed by a mechanical failure, and then after an hour of failed attempts to restart it we were put on a replacement train, which spent around an hour sitting just outside Nuremberg, and even though it skipped Leipzig (saving 40 minutes in the process), it arrived at Berlin an hour and a half behind its schedule and two and a half behind ours.

Sometimes, those delays cascade. It’s not that high ridership by itself produces delays. The ICEs are fairly good at access and egress, and even a full train unloads quickly. Rather, it’s that if a train is canceled, then the passengers can’t get on the next one because it’s full beyond standing capacity; standing tickets are permitted in Germany, but there are sensors to ensure the train’s mass does not exceed a maximum level, which can be reached on unusually crowded trains, and so a train’s ability to absorb passengers on canceled trains as standees is limited.

But it’s not the short-term delays that I’m most worried about. One bad summer does not destroy a rail network; riders can understand a few bad months provided the problem is relieved. The problem is that there isn’t enough investment, and what investment there is is severely mistargeted.

Within German discourse, it’s common to assert superiority to France and Southern Europe in every possible way. France is currently undergoing an energy crisis, because the heat wave is such that river water cannot safely cool down its nuclear power plants; German politicians have oscillated between using this to argue that nuclear power is unreliable and the three remaining German plants should be shut down and using this to argue that Germany should keep its plants open as a gesture of magnanimity to bail out France.

Rail transport features a similar set of problems. France has a connected network of high-speed lines, nearly all of which are used to get between Paris and secondary cities. Germany does not – it has high-speed lines but the longest connection between major cities allowing more than 200 km/h throughout is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km.

Red = 300 km/h, yellow = 250 km/h, blue = 200 km/h, gray = <200 km/h; the Stuttgart-Ulm line will open later this year

The natural response of most German rail advocates is to sneer at the idea of high-speed rail; France has genuine problems with punctuality, neglect of legacy rail lines, and poor interconnections between lines (it has nothing like the hourly or two-hour clockface timetables of German intercity rail), and those are all held as reasons why Germany has little to learn from France. Instead, those advocates argue, Germany should be investing in network-wide punctuality, because reliability matters more than speed.

The problem is that the sneering at France is completely unjustified. A French government investigation into punctuality in 2019-20 found that yes, French intercity trains suffered from extensive delays – but in 2019 intercity trains were on-time at the terminus 77.4% of the time, compared with 73.8% in Germany. Germany did better in 2020 when nobody was riding, but went back to 75% in 2021 as ridership began to recover. High-speed trains were the most punctual in Spain and the Netherlands, where they do not run on classical lines for significant stretches, unlike in France, Germany, or Italy.

Moreover, German trains are extremely padded. Der Spiegel has long been a critic of poor planning in German railways, and in 2019 it published a comparison of the TGV and ICE. The selected ICE connections were padded more than 20%; only Berlin-Munich was less, at 18%. The TGV comparisons were padded 11-14%; these are all lines running almost exclusively on LGVs, like Paris-Bordeaux, rather than the tardier lines running for significant distances on slow lines, like Paris-Nice. And even 11-14% is high; Swiss planning is 7% on congested urban approaches, with reliability as the center of the country’s design approach, while JR East suggested 4% for Shinkansen-style entirely dedicated track in its peer review of California High-Speed Rail.

Thus, completing a German high-speed rail network is not an opposed goal to reliability. Quite to the contrary, creating a separate network running only or almost only ICEs to connect Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, the main cities of the Rhine-Ruhr, Frankfurt, Munich, and Stuttgart means that there is less opportunity for delays to propagate. A delayed regional train would not slow down an intercity train, permitting not just running at high punctuality but also doing so while shrinking the pad from 25% to 7%, which offers free speed.

Cutting the pad to 7% interacts especially well with some of the individual lines Germany is planning. Hanover-Bielefeld, a distance of 100 km, can be so done in 27-28 minutes; this can be obtained from looking at the real performance specs of the Velaro Novo, but also from a Japanese sanity check, as the Nagoya-Kyoto distance is not much larger and taking the difference into account is easy. But the current plan is to do this in 31 minutes, just more than half an hour rather than just less, complicating the plan for regular timed connections on the half-hour.

German rail traffic is not collapsing – quite to the contrary. DB still expects to double intercity ridership by the mid-2030s. This requires investments in capacity, connectivity, speed, and reliability – and completing the high-speed network, far from prioritizing speed at the expense of the other needs, fulfills all needs at once. Half-hourly trains could ply every connection, averaging more than 200 km/h between major cities, and without cascading delays they would leave the ongoing summer of hell in the past. But this requires committing to building those lines rather than looking for excuses for why Germany should not have what France has.

Quick Note: Why Not Fly?

I was asked a deceptively simple question on Twitter: why would people bother with taking a train when flying is available? In my (admittedly primitive) modeling for high-speed rail ridership in the US, I’m including some nontrivial ridership and revenue coming from cities at a distance that people do fly, like Boston-Washington, New York-Cleveland, and so on. What gives?

The simplest answer is that evidently people do take trains at such distances. Statista has some examples, all with more rail than air travel; an Air2Rail paper by Arie Bleijenberg has some numbers within Europe in Annex B. The main factor is rail travel time, with a malus for markets with poor rail connectivity (such as anything crossing the Channel). When trains take four hours, as on Paris-Toulon, they have a small majority of the travel market (source, p. 14 – look at the 2009 numbers, the 2023 numbers being a speculation); Paris-Nice manages to have respectable modal split even at 5.5 hours.

But that answer is frustrating. Why do people take trains for 4-5 hours when it’s possible to fly in an hour?

The first answer is door-to-door travel time. This includes all of the following features:

  • Airports are far from city centers whereas train stations are almost universally within them; even taking into account that most people don’t live in city center, they tend to have easier access to the train station than to the airport, and then destinations are massively centralized in the city.
  • Trains have no security theater to delay passengers, and passengers can get from the station entrance to the platform in 10 minutes if the station is exceptionally labyrinthine and they’re unfamiliar with its layout and two minutes if it’s not or they are.
  • Passengers with luggage can take it on the train and don’t have to be further delayed for baggage claim.

All of these features work to make trains more pleasant than planes even when the door-to-door trip times are equal. The sequential queuing for security and then boarding on a plane is a hassle in addition to extra time; of note, in the Air2Rail link, the most glaring underperformance in high-speed rail modal split relative to trip times is for routes crossing the Channel, because they have such queuing courtesy of British paranoia about terrorism in the Chunnel and also charge higher fares.

The advantages of planes over trains are elsewhere. First, planes are faster airport-to-airport than trains are station-to-station, and as a result, a longer distances they are much faster door-to-door and therefore dominant. And second, trains travel in lines whereas planes travel point-to-point; it’s not hard to come up with city pairs that have no reason to have an even semi-direct high-speed railway between them even though they are at rail-appropriate range, for example Nice-Geneva (290 km) or Cincinnati-Charlotte (540 km).

But once the lines exist, they should get substantial passenger traffic – and the modal split with air is very well-documented in the literature and the overall traffic is still fairly well-modeled as well.

How Many Tracks Do Train Stations Need?

A brief discussion on Reddit about my post criticizing Penn Station expansion plans led me to write a very long comment, which I’d like to hoist to a full post explaining how big an urban train station needs to be to serve regional and intercity rail traffic. The main principles are,

  • Good operations can substitute for station size, and it’s always cheaper to get the system to be more reliable than to build more tracks in city center.
  • Through-running reduces the required station footprint, and this is one of the reasons it is popular for urban commuter rail systems.
  • The simpler and more local the system is, the fewer tracks are needed: an urban commuter rail system running on captive tracks with no sharing tracks with other traffic and with limited branching an get away with smaller stations than an intercity rail station featuring trains from hundreds of kilometers away in any direction.

The formula for minimum headways

On subways, where usually the rush hour crunches are the worst, trains in large cities run extremely frequently, brushing up against the physical limitation of the tracks. The limit is dictated by the brick wall rule, which states that the signal system must at any point assume that the train ahead can turn into a brick wall and stop moving and the current train must be able to brake in time before it reaches it. Cars, for that matter, follow the same rule, but their emergency braking rate is much faster, so on a freeway they can follow two seconds apart. A metro train in theory could do the same with headways of 15 seconds, but in practice there are stations on the tracks and dealing with them requires a different formula.

With metro-style stations, without extra tracks, the governing formula is,

\mbox{headway } = \mbox{stopping time } + \mbox{dwell time } + \mbox{platform clearing time }

Platform clearing time is how long it takes the train to clear its own length; the idea of the formula is that per the brick wall rule, the train we’re on needs to begin braking to enter the next station only after the train ahead of ours has cleared the station.

But all of this is in theory. In practice, there are uncertainties. The uncertainties are almost never in the stopping or platform clearing time, and even the dwell time is controllable. Rather, the schedule itself is uncertain: our train can be a minute late, which for our purpose as passengers may be unimportant, but for the scheduler and dispatcher on a congested line means that all the trains behind ours have to also be delayed by a minute.

What this means that more space is required between train slots to make schedules recoverable. Moreover, the more complex the line’s operations are, the more space is needed. On a metro train running on captive tracks, if all trains are delayed by a minute, it’s really not a big deal even to the control tower; all the trains substitute for one another, so the recovery can be done at the terminal. On a mainline train running on a national network in which our segment can host trains to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Munich, Zurich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Paris, trains cannot substitute for one another – and, moreover, a train can be easily delayed 15 minutes and need a later slot. Empty-looking space in the track timetable is unavoidable – if the schedule can’t survive contact with the passengers, it’s not a schedule but crayon.

How to improve operations

In one word: reliability.

In two words: more reliability.

Because the main limit to rail frequency on congested track comes from the variation in the schedule, the best way to increase capacity is to reduce the variation in the schedule. This, in turn, has two aspects: reducing the likelihood of a delay, and reducing the ability of a delay to propagate.

Reducing delays

The central insight about delays is that they may occur anywhere on the line, roughly in proportion to either trip time or ridership. This means that on a branched mainline railway network, delays almost never originate at the city center train station or its approaches, not because that part of the system is uniquely reliable, but because the train might spend five minutes there out of a one-hour trip. The upshot is that to make a congested central segment more reliable, it is necessary to invest in reliability on the entire network, most of which consists of branch segments that by themselves do not have capacity crunches.

The biggest required investments for this are electrification and level boarding. Both have many benefits other than schedule reliability, and are underrated in Europe and even more underrated in the United States.

Electrification is the subject of a TransitMatters report from last year. As far as reliability is concerned, the LIRR and Metro-North’s diesel locomotives average about 20 times the mechanical failure rate of electric multiple units (source, PDF-pp. 36 and 151). It is bad enough that Germany is keeping some outer regional rail branches in the exurbs of Berlin and Munich unwired; that New York has not fully electrified is unconscionable.

Level boarding is comparable in its importance. It not only reduces dwell time, but also reduces variability in dwell time. With about a meter of vertical gap between platform and train floor, Mansfield has four-minute rush hour dwell times; this is the busiest suburban Boston commuter rail station at rush hour, but it’s still just about 2,000 weekday boardings, whereas RER and S-Bahn stations with 10 time the traffic hold to a 30-second standard. This also interacts positively with accessibility: it permits passengers in wheelchairs to board unaided, which both improves accessibility and ensures that a wheelchair user doesn’t delay the entire train by a minute. It is fortunate that the LIRR and (with one peripheral exception) Metro-North are entirely high-platform, and unfortunate that New Jersey Transit is not.

Reducing delay propagation

Even with reliable mechanical and civil engineering, delays are inevitable. The real innovations in Switzerland giving it Europe’s most reliable and highest-use railway network are not about preventing delays from happening (it is fully electrified but a laggard on level boarding). They’re about ensuring delays do not propagate across the network. This is especially notable as the network relies on timed connections and overtakes, both of which require schedule discipline. Achieving such discipline requires the following operations and capital treatments:

  • Uniform timetable padding of about 7%, applied throughout the line roughly on a one minute in 15 basis.
  • Clear, non-discriminatory rules about train priority, including a rule that a train that’s more than 30 minutes loses all priority and may not delay other trains at junctions or on shared tracks.
  • A rigid clockface schedule or Takt, where the problem sections (overtakes, meets, etc.) are predictable and can receive investment. With the Takt system, even urban commuter lines can be left partly single-track, as long as the timetable is such that trains in opposite directions meet away from the bottleneck.
  • Data-oriented planning that focuses on tracing the sources of major delays and feeding the information to capital planning so that problem sections can, again, receive capital investment.
  • Especial concern for railway junctions, which are to be grade-separated or consistently scheduled around. In sensitive cases where traffic is heavy and grade separation is too expensive, Switzerland builds pocket tracks at-grade, so that a late train can wait for a slot without delaying cross-traffic.

So, how big do train stations need to be?

A multi-station urban commuter rail trunk can get away with metro-style operations, with a single station track per approach track. However, the limiting factor to capacity will be station dwell times. In cases with an unusually busy city center station, or on a highly-interlinked regional or intercity network, this may force compromises on capacity.

In contrast, with good operations, a train station with through-running should never need more than two station tracks per approach track. Moreover, the two station tracks that each approach track splits into should serve the same platform, so that if there is an unplanned rescheduling of the train, passengers should be able to use the usual platform at least. Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep tracks are organized this way, and so is the under-construction Stuttgart 21.

Why two? First, because it is the maximum number that can serve the same platform; if they serve different platforms, it may require lengthening dwell times during unscheduled diversions to deal with passenger confusion. And second, because every additional platform track permits, in theory, an increase in the dwell time equal to the minimum headway. The minimum headway in practice is going to be about 120 seconds; at rush hour Paris pushes 32 trains per hour on the shared RER B and D trunk, which is not quite mainline but is extensively branched, but the reliability is legendarily poor. With a two-minute headway, the two-platform track system permits a straightforward 2.5-minute dwell time, which is more than any regional railway needs; the Zurich S-Bahn has 60-second dwells at Hauptbahnhof, and the Paris RER’s single-level trains keep to about 60 seconds at rush hour in city center as well.

All of this is more complicated at a terminal. In theory the required number of tracks is the minimum turn time divided by the headway, but in practice the turn time has a variance. Tokyo has been able to push station footprint to a minimum, with two tracks at Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line (with 28 peak trains per hour) and, before the through-line opened, four tracks on the Tokaido Main Line (with 24). But elsewhere the results are less optimistic; Paris is limited to 16-18 trains per hour at the four-track RER E terminal at Saint-Lazare.

At Paris’s levels of efficiency, which are well below global best practices, an unexpanded Penn Station without through-running would still need two permanent tracks for Amtrak, leaving 19 tracks for commuter traffic. With the Gateway tunnel built, there would be four two-track approaches, two from each direction. The approaches that share tracks with Amtrak (North River Tunnels, southern pair of East River Tunnels) would get four tracks each, enough to terminate around 18 trains per hour at rush hour, and the approaches that don’t would get five, enough for maybe 20 or 22. The worst bottleneck in the system, the New Jersey approach, would be improved from today’s 21 trains per hour to 38-40.

A Penn Station with through-running does not have the 38-40 trains per hour limit. Rather, the approach tracks would become the primary bottleneck, and it would take an expansion to eight approach tracks on each side for the station itself to be at all a limit.

Intercity Rail Frequency and the Perils of Market Segmentation

SNCF loves market segmentation. Run by airline execs, the company loves to create different trains for different classes of people. Not only do individual trains have opaque pricing run on the basis of yield management, in which similar seats on the same train at the same time of day and day of week may have different fares, but also there are separately-branded trains for separate fare classes, the higher-fare InOui and the lower-fare OuiGo. On international trains, SNCF takes it to the limit and thus Eurostar and Thalys charge premium fares (both about twice as high as domestic TGVs per passenger-km) and don’t through-ticket with domestic TGVs. This has gotten so bad that in Belgium, some advocates have proposed a lower-priced service on the legacy Paris-Brussels line, which would have to be subsidized owing to the high cost of low-speed intercity rail service.

But why is market segmentation on rail so bad? The answer has to do with frequency and cost structures that differ from those of airlines. Both ensure that the deadweight loss from market segmentation exceed any gains that could be made from extracting consumer surplus.

The issue of frequency

A segmented market like that of domestic TGVs reduces frequency on each segment. To maintain segmentation, SNCF has to make the segments as difficult to substitute for each other as possible. OuiGo serves Marne-la-Vallée instead of Gare de Lyon and forcing passengers onto a 20-minute RER connection, or even longer if they’re arriving in Paris and the wave of 1,000 TGV riders creates long lines at the ticketing machines; on other LGVs it serves the traditional Parisian station and thus the segments are more substitutable.

The situation of Eurostar and Thalys reduces frequency as well: the high fares discourage ridership and send much of it to intercity buses or suppress travel. Fewer riders, or fewer riders per segment as in the case of domestic TGVs, lead to fewer trains. What’s the impact of this on ridership?

The literature on high-speed rail ridership elasticities has some frequency estimates. In Couto’s thesis (PDF-p. 225), it is stated that passenger rail ridership has an elasticity of 0.53 with respective to overall service provision. There are also multiple papers estimating the elasticity with respect to travel time: in Cascetta-Coppola the elasticity ranges from -1.6 to -2.2, in Börjesson it is -1.12, and in a Civity report it is stated based on other work that it is -0.8 to -2. The lowest values in Börjesson are associated with the premium-fare AVE, while the range for the original TGV, priced at the same level as the slower trains it replaced, is -1.3 to -1.6. The upshot is that halving frequency through market segmentation reduces ridership by a factor of 2^0.53 = 1.44, which is far more than the benefit yield management is claimed to have, which is a 4% increase in revenue per SNCF’s American proposals from 2009.

Why are trains different?

Planes and buses happily use yield management. High-speed trains do not, except for those run by SNCF or RENFE – and ridership in France isn’t really higher than in fixed-fare Northern Europe or East Asia while ridership in Spain is much lower. Why the difference?

The reason has to do with the ratio of waiting time to trip time. Thalys connects Paris and Brussels in 1.5 hours, every half hour at rush hour and every 2 hours midday. At rush hour, frequency is sort of noticeable; off-peak, it dominates travel time. This is nothing like planes – even short-distance trips involve hours of access, waiting, and egress time, and therefore trips are not usually spontaneous, and day trips are rare except for business travelers.

Buses, finally, are so small that a market like New York-Philadelphia supports multiple competitors each running frequently, and passenger behavior is such that different companies are substitutable, so that the effective frequency is multiple buses per hour.

Cost structure and bad incentives

It’s typical to price high-speed rail higher than legacy rail, even when otherwise there is no yield management. This is bad practice. The operating costs of high-speed rail are lower than those of slow trains. The crew is paid per hour; electricity costs are in theory higher at higher speed but in practice greenfield high-speed lines are constant 300 km/h cruises whereas legacy lines have many acceleration and deceleration cycles; high-speed trainsets cost much more than conventional ones (by a factor of about 2 in Europe) but also depreciate by the hour and not by the km and therefore are somewhat cheaper per seat-km.

This is comparable to the bad practice, common in the United States and in developing and newly-industrialized countries, of pricing urban rail higher than a bus. The metro is nicer for consumers than a bus, but it also has far lower operating costs and therefore a wise transit agency will avoid incentivizing passengers to take buses and instead use integrated fares. The same is true for slow and fast trains: the solution proposed by the Belgian advocates is to incentivize passengers to take a high-cost, low-price train over a low-cost, high-price one, and therefore is no solution at all.

Moreover, the cost structure of trains is different from that of planes. Planes don’t pay much for fixed infrastructure; in effect, every plane trip costs money, and then the challenge is to fill all the seats. High-speed railways instead pay a lot for infrastructure, while their above-the-rails costs are a few cents per passenger-km (€0.06/seat-km on the TGV, including trainset costs and a lot of labor inefficiency). Their challenge is how to fill the tracks with trains, not how to fill the trains with passengers. This is why the fixed clockface frequency common in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands is so powerful: the off-peak trains are less full, but that’s fine, as the marginal operating cost of an off-peak train is low.

Just lower the fares

Bear in mind that frequency is not exogenous – it is set based on demand. This means that anything that affects ridership has its impact magnified by the frequency-ridership spiral. An exogenous shock, such as improvement in trip time or fare reduction, is magnified through the spiral, by a factor of 1/(1-0.53) = 2.13. In other words, every elasticity estimated in isolation must be multiplied by a factor of about 2.

And once this is understood, suddenly the optima for service look very different from what Thalys has settled on. The optimum is to charge fares to pay infrastructure costs but not much more – especially if you’re SNCF and the railway workers’ union will extract all further profit through strikes, as it did 10 years ago. And this means making sure that except at very busy times, known in advance, Paris-Brussels tickets should be 30€, not 50-100€.

The Northeastern United States Wants to Set Tens of Billions on Fire Again

The prospect of federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is getting every agency salivating with desires for outside money for both useful and useless priorities. Northeastern mainline rail, unfortunately, tilts heavily toward the useless, per a deep dive into documents by New York-area activists, for example here and here.

Amtrak is already hiring project management for Penn Station redevelopment. This is a project with no transportation value whatsoever: this is not the Gateway tunnels, which stand to double capacity across the Hudson, but rather a rebuild of Penn Station to add more tracks, which are not necessary. Amtrak’s current claim is that the cost just for renovating the existing station is $6.5 billion and that of adding tracks is $10.5 billion; the latter project has ballooned from seven tracks to 9-12 tracks, to be built on two levels.

This is complete overkill. New train stations in big cities are uncommon, but they do exist, and where tracks are tunneled, the standard is two platform tracks per approach tracks. This is how Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep section goes: the North-South Main Line is four tracks, and the station has eight, on four platforms. Stuttgart 21 is planned in the same way. In the best case, each of the approach track splits into two tracks and the two tracks serve the same platform. Penn Station has 21 tracks and, with the maximal post-Gateway scenario, six approach tracks on each side; therefore, extra tracks are not needed. What’s more, bundling 12 platform tracks into a project that adds just two approach tracks is pointless.

This is a combined $17 billion that Amtrak wants to spend with no benefit whatsoever; this budget by itself could build high-speed rail from Boston to Washington.

Or at least it could if any of the railroads on the Northeast Corridor were both interested and expert in high-speed rail construction. Connecticut is planning on $8-10 billion just to do track repairs aiming at cutting 25-30 minutes from the New York-New Haven trip times; as I wrote last year when these plans were first released, the reconstruction required to cut around 40 minutes and also upgrade the branches is similar in scope to ongoing renovations of Germany’s oldest and longest high-speed line, which cost 640M€ as a once in a generation project.

In addition to spending about an order of magnitude too much on a smaller project, Connecticut also thinks the New Haven Line needs a dedicated freight track. The extent of freight traffic on the line is unclear, since the consultant report‘s stated numbers are self-contradictory and look like a typo, but it looks like there are 11 trains on the line every day. With some constraints, this traffic fits in the evening off-peak without the need for nighttime operations. With no constraints, it fits on a single track at night, and because the corridor has four tracks, it’s possible to isolate one local track for freight while maintenance is done (with a track renewal machine, which US passenger railroads do not use) on the two tracks not adjacent to it. The cost of the extra freight track and the other order-of-magnitude-too-costly state of good repair elements, including about 100% extra for procurement extras (force account, contingency, etc.), is $300 million for 5.4 km.

I would counsel the federal government not to fund any of this. The costs are too high, the benefits are at best minimal and at worst worse than nothing, and the agencies in question have shown time and time again that they are incurious of best practices. There is no path forward with those agencies and their leadership staying in place; removal of senior management at the state DOTs, agencies, and Amtrak and their replacement with people with experience of executing successful mainline rail projects is necessary. Those people, moreover, are mid-level European and Asian engineers working as civil servants, and not consultants or political appointees. The role of the top political layer is to insulate those engineers from pressure by anti-modern interest groups such as petty local politicians and traditional railroaders who for whatever reasons could not just be removed.

If federal agencies are interested in building something useful with the tens of billions of BIL money, they should instead demand the same results seen in countries where the main language is not English, and staff up permanent civil service run by people with experience in those countries. Following best industry practices, $17 billion is enough to renovate the parts of the Northeast Corridor that require renovation and bypass those that require greenfield bypasses; even without Gateway, Amtrak can squeeze a 16-car train every 15 minutes, providing 4,400 seats into Penn Station in an hour, compared with around 1,700 today – and Gateway itself is doable for low single-digit billions given better planning and engineering.

German Rail Traffic Surges

DB announced today that it had 500,000 riders across the two days of last weekend. This is a record weekend traffic; May is so far 5% above 2019 levels, representing full recovery from corona. This is especially notable because of Germany’s upcoming 9-euro ticket: as a measure to curb high fuel price from the Russian war in Ukraine, during the months of June, July, and August, Germany is both slashing fuel taxes by 0.30€/liter and instituting a national 9€/month public transport ticket valid not just in one’s city of domicile but everywhere. In practice, rail riders respond by planning domestic rail trips for the upcoming three months; intercity trains are not covered by the 9€ monthly pass, but city transit in destination cities is, so Berliners I know are planning to travel to other parts of Germany during the window when local and regional transit is free, displacing trips that might be undertaken in May.

This is excellent news, with just one problem: Germany has not invested in its rail network enough to deal with the surge in traffic. Current traffic is already reaching projections made in the 2010s for 2030, when most of the Deutschlandtakt is supposed to go into effect, with higher speed and higher capacity than the network has today. Travel websites are already warning of capacity crunches in the upcoming three months of effectively free regional travel (chaining regional trains between cities is possible and those are covered by the 9€ monthly pass). Investment in capacity is urgent.

Sadly, such investment is still lagging. Germany’s intercity rail network rarely builds complete high-speed lines between major cities. The longest all-high-speed connection is between Cologne and Frankfurt, 180 km apart. Longer connections always have significant slow sections: Hamburg-Hanover remains slow due to local NIMBY opposition to a high-speed line, Munich’s lines to both Ingolstadt and Augsburg are slow, Berlin’s line toward Leipzig is upgraded to 200 km/h but not to full high-speed standards.

Moreover, plans to build high-speed rail in Germany remain compromised in two ways. First, they still avoid building completely high-speed lines between major cities. For example, the line from Hanover to the Rhine-Ruhr is slow, leading to plans for a high-speed line between Hanover and Bielefeld, and potentially also from Bielefeld to Hamm; but Hamm is a city of 180,000 people at the eastern margin of the Ruhr, 30 km from Dortmund and 60 from Essen. And second, the design standards are often too slow as well – Hanover-Bielefeld, a distance that the newest Velaro Novo trains could cover in about 28 minutes, is planned to be 31, compromising the half-hourly and hourly connections in the D-Takt. Both of these compromises create a network that 15 years from now is planned to have substantially lower average speeds than those achieved by France 20 years ago and by Spain 10 years ago.

But this isn’t just speed, but also capacity. An incomplete high-speed rail network overloads the remaining shared sections. A complete one removes fast trains from the legacy network except in legacy rail terminals where there are many tracks and average speeds are never high anyway; Berlin, for example, has four north-south tracks feeding Hauptbahnhof with just six trains per hour per direction. In China, very high throughput of both passenger rail (more p-km per route-km than anywhere in Europe) and freight rail (more ton-km per route-km than the United States) through the removal of intercity trains from the legacy network to the high-speed one, whose lines are called passenger-dedicated lines.

So to deal with the traffic surge, Germany needs to make sure it invests in intercity rail capacity immediately. This means all of the following items:

  • Building all the currently discussed high-speed lines, like Frankfurt-Mannheim, Ulm-Augsburg (Stuttgart-Ulm is already under construction), and Hanover-Bielefeld.
  • Completing the network by building high-speed lines even where average speeds today are respectable, like Berlin-Halle/Leipzig and Munich-Ingolstadt, and making sure they are built as close to city center as possible, that is to Dortmund and not just Hamm, to Frankfurt and not just Hanau, etc.
  • Purchasing 300 km/h trains and not just 250 km/h ones; the trains cost more but the travel time reduction is noticeable and certain key connections work out for a higher-speed D-Takt only at 300, not 250.
  • Designing high-speed lines for the exclusive use of passenger trains, rather than mixed lines with gentler freight-friendly grades and more tunnels. Germany has far more high-speed tunneling than France, not because its geography is more rugged, but because it builds mixed lines.
  • Accelerating construction and reducing costs through removal of NIMBY veto points. Groups should have only two months to object, as in Spain; current practice is that groups have two months to say that they will object but do not need to say what the grounds for those objections are, and subsequently they have all the time they need to come up with excuses.

Trains are not Planes

Trains and planes are both scheduled modes of intercity travel running large vehicles. Virgin runs both kinds of services, and this leads some systems to treat trains as if they are planes. France and Spain are at the forefront of trying to imitate low-cost airlines, with separately branded trains for different classes of passengers and yield management systems for pricing; France is even sending the low-cost OuiGo brand to peripheral train stations rather than the traditional Parisian terminals. This has not worked well, and unfortunately the growing belief throughout Europe is that airline-style competition on tracks is an example of private-sector innovation to be nourished. I’d like to explain why this has failed, in the context of trains not being planes.

How do trains and planes differ?

All of the following features of trains and planes are relevant to service planning:

TrainsPlanes
Stations are located in city center and are extremely inconvenient to moveAirports can be located in a wider variety of areas in the metro area, never in the center
Timetables can be accurate to the minuteTimetables are plus or minus an hour
Linear infrastructureAirport infrastructure
High upfront costs, low variable costsHigh upfront costs but also brutal variable costs in fuel
Door-to-door trip times in the 1.5-5 hour rangeDoor-to-door trip times starting around 3 hours counting security and other queues
In a pinch, passengers can standStanding is never safe
Interface with thousands of local train stationsAll interface with local transport is across a strict landside/airside divide
Travel along a line, so there’s seat turnover at intermediate stopsPoint-to-point travel – multi-city hops on one plane are rare because of takeoff and landing costs

Taken together, these features lead to differences in planning and pricing. Plane and train seats are perishable – once the vehicle leaves, an unsold seat is dead revenue and cannot be packaged for later. But trains have low enough variable costs that they do not need 100% seat occupancy to turn a profit – the increase in cost from running bigger trains is small enough that it is justified on other grounds. Conversely, trains can be precisely scheduled so as to provide timed connections, whereas planes cannot. This means the loci of innovation are different for these two technologies, and not always compatible.

What are the main innovations of LCCs?

European low-cost carriers reduce cost per seat-km to around 0.05€ (source: the Spinetta report). They do so using a variety of strategies:

  • Using peripheral, low-amenity airports located farther from the city, for lower landing fees (and often local subsidies).
  • Eliminating such on-board services as free meals.
  • Using crew for multiple purposes, as both boarding agents and air crew.
  • Flying for longer hours, including early in the morning and later at night, to increase equipment utilization, charging lower fares at undesirable times.
  • Running a single class of airplane (either all 737 or all 320) to simplify maintenance.

They additionally extract revenue from passengers through hidden fees only revealed at the last moment of purchase, aggressive marketing of on-board sales for ancillary revenue, and an opaque yield management system. But these are not cost cutting, just deceptive marketing – and the yield management system is in turn a legacy carrier response to the threat of competition from LCCs, which offer simpler one-way fares.

How are LCC innovations relevant to trains?

On many of the LCC vs. legacy carrier distinctions, daytime intercity trains have always been like LCCs. Trains sell meals at on-board cafes rather than providing complimentary food and drinks; high-speed rail carriers aim at fleet uniformity as much as practical, using scale to reduce unit maintenance costs; trains have high utilization rates using their low variable operating costs.

On others, it’s not even possible to implement the LCC feature on a railroad. SNCF is trying to make peripheral stations work on some OuiGo services, sending trains from Lyon and Marseille to Marne-la-Vallée and reserving Gare de Lyon for the premium-branded InOui trains. It doesn’t work: the introduction of OuiGo led to a fall in revenue but no increase in ridership, which on the eve of corona was barely higher than on the eve of the financial crisis despite the opening of three new lines. The extra access and egress times at Marne-la-Vallée and the inconvenience imposed by the extra transfer with long lines at the ticketing machines for passengers arriving in Paris are high enough compared with the base trip time so as to frustrate ridership. This is not the same as with air travel, whose origins are often fairly diffuse because people closer to city center can more easily take trains.

What innovations does intercity rail use?

Good intercity train operating paradigms, which exist in East Asia and Northern Europe but not France or Southern Europe, are based on treating trains as trains and not as planes (East Asia treats them more like subways, Northern Europe more like regional trains). This leads to the following innovations:

  • Integration of timetable and infrastructure planning, taking advantage of the fact that the infrastructure is built by the state and the operations are either by the state or by a company that is so tightly linked it might as well be the state (such as the Shinkansen operators). Northern European planning is based on repeating hourly or two-hourly clockface timetables.
  • Timed connections and overtakes, taking advantage of precise timetabling.
  • Very fast turnaround times, measured in minutes; Germany turns trains at terminal stations in 3-4 minutes when they go onward, such as from north of Frankfurt or Leipzig to south of them with a reversal of the train direction, and Japan turns trains at the end of the line in 12 minutes when it needs to.
  • Short dwell times at intermediate stops – Shinkansen trains have 1-minute dwell times when they’re not sitting still at a local station waiting to be overtaken by an express train.
  • A knot system in which trips are sped up so as to fit into neat slots with multiway timed connections at major stations – in Switzerland, trains arrive at Zurich, Basel, and Bern just before the hour every half hour and depart just after.
  • Fare systems that reinforce spontaneous trips, with relatively simple fares such that passengers don’t need to plan trips weeks in advance. East Asia does no yield management whatsoever; Germany does it but only mildly.

All of these innovations require public planning and integration of timetable, equipment, and infrastructure. These are also the exact opposite of the creeping privatization of railways in Europe, born of a failed British ideological experiment and a French railway that was overtaken by airline executives bringing their own biases into the system. On a plane, my door-to-door time is so long that trips are never spontaneous, so there’s no need for a memorable takt or interchangeable itineraries; on a train, it’s the exact opposite.