Two weeks ago I wrote about the Brooklyn bus redesign I’m working on with Eric Goldwyn. The MTA, which is aware of our efforts, came up with its own plan. So far details are scant; there is a presentation available online, which talks about goals (“network redesign,” “higher frequency”) but no specifics (“a more gridded network,” “6-minute off-peak frequency on the main routes”).
At least so far, the goals seem solid. The MTA has the following list of improvements:
- Redesign the network from top to bottom based on customer input, demographic changes, and travel demand analysis. Provide better connectivity and more direct service in every neighborhood
- Optimize the existing network with community consultation by removing closely-spaced and underutilized stops and making street design changes on select corridors in coordination with NYC DOT
- Expand off-peak service on strategic routes using a toolbox of service strategies including increased frequency and demand based service adjustments
- Expand Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) to allow an approaching bus to hold a green light or shorten a red light
- Seek exclusive busways on priority corridors to give buses full access in major congested areas
- Identify opportunities for new bus lanes and queue jumps in 2018
- Advocate for strengthened NYPD enforcement of bus lanes to keep bus stops and travel lanes clear throughout the system
- Recommend dedicated transit-priority traffic teams to focus enforcement in key areas to ensure buses move quickly through trouble spots
- Use Bus Lane Enforcement Cameras mounted on buses to automatically identify violations and issue tickets. Advocate for legislation to expand beyond the existing 16 authorized routes
- Install tap readers to speed up the boarding process so buses spend less time waiting at stops
- Introduce all-door boarding to allow riders to get on through any door of the bus
- Explore options for a future cashless system to maximize reductions in boarding time
- Expand fare enforcement on regular bus service to reduce evasion and restore fare revenue
The main problems only appear toward the end, with the implementation of off-board fare collection and all-door boarding. The insistence on “fare enforcement,” which could mean regular proof of payment (POP) inspections but could also mean worse, such as armed cops (not practiced in New York on SBS but practiced on some other US systems, like BART) or holding the bus during inspection (which New York does practice, unlike Berlin and other German-speaking cities). Overall I’m relatively sanguine about Andy Byford specifically – he’s not American and is not used to American levels of police militarization.
However, another aspect of the POP proposal is troubling: the connection with tap readers. The plan’s full text (which is barely more detailed than what I quote above) mentions that POP should come with the so-called New Fare Payment System, or NFPS, which New York is currently planning to roll out starting in 2019, continuing until 2023. The NFPS is based on worst industry practices cobbled from American and British ideas. Here is my second post ever, discussing the plans for smartcards in New York in 2011. New York ignored (and keeps ignoring) the smartcard implementations in a number of East Asian cities in its zeal to make people treat their credit card as a transit fare card, ensuring the agency can surveil all passengers; perhaps Americans lack the values of freedom and individual privacy of Japan and Singapore.
New York also ignored (and keeps ignoring) the POP implementations in cities with paper tickets, such as most of Central Europe. Smartcards are not required for POP: the German-speaking world has POP with paper tickets, as did Vancouver on SkyTrain and some bus lines even before the Compass Card debacle. In Singapore I saw a ticket inspection on a bus even before EZ-Link; I had a magnetic farecard at the time. Given the enormous waste coming from making passengers line up and pay the driver, it’s imperative to move toward POP as soon as possible, even if it means equipping inspectors with MetroCard readers rather than smartcard readers. MetroCard may only last for five years if the NFPS schedule doesn’t keep slipping, but handheld magnetic card readers are a cheap technology whereas making buses idle while passengers dip cards one at a time is not so cheap.
The zeal to go cash-free is the final troubling aspect of New York’s ideas about fare payment, especially when bundled with the idea that the bank card is the fare card. Not everyone has a local bank account. Tourists don’t (and even cards that are supposed to work abroad don’t always). Low-income city residents don’t, either: 11.7% of New York households have no bank account, and they disproportionately appear to be in poverty, judging by which neighborhoods they are most concentrated in. The MTA has always treated anonymous smartcards as an afterthought, and going cash-free means there is no recourse for the unbanked or even for many tourists.
Nor is cash-free operation even necessary. An on-board farebox is compatible with POP. In this system, riders can board from any door, and the driver will begin moving as soon as all passengers have boarded, even if not all passengers have paid yet. Riders with valid transfers or season passes need not do anything. Riders with a pay-per-ride smartcard and no transfer should tap their card at a validator at any bus door or bus stop (validators are cheap that blanketing the system with them is practically free). The remaining passengers should walk to the farebox and pay there; perhaps some busy stations should get fareboxes, as all SBS stops do in New York today, but if the MTA only expects a few smartcard-free, non-transfer passengers at a stop, then having them pay on board a moving bus should not be a problem.
I’d like to stress that other than the ongoing hiccups of the English-speaking world with fare payment systems (hiccups that it seems to export to Paris), the plan appears good, from what few details the MTA has released. There are plans for increasing the average distance between bus stops, adding more bus lanes, getting serious about signal preemption, raising off-peak frequency, and letting passengers board from all doors. The MTA really is noticing that its bus system is collapsing and really is making serious plans to avert a death spiral.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting a bombshell story about New York’s subway station renovation program. The MTA had a budget of $936 million for renovating 32 subway stations, but nearly the entire budget is exhausted after the MTA has spent it on only 19 stations. These renovations do not include accessibility, which New York is lagging on. I’m interviewing people in the disability rights community about New York’s problems in this area, but the smoking gun about Lhota is not that issue, on which he is no worse than anyone else. Rather, it’s that Lhota hid the fact of the cost overrun from the MTA board. Per the Journal:
On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end.
“I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.
Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.
An alternative way to phrase Lhota’s own words is that he is concealing critical information from the public relevant to public spending priorities. In other words, he is defrauding the public when it comes to costs. Previously he had been merely making excuses for high construction costs (e.g. saying New York, founded in the 17th century, is old, and thus naturally has higher costs than cities founded in the Middle Ages or even in Antiquity). But now it turns out that he’s not only trying to deflect criticism, but is actively putting obstacles in front of board members, journalists, and ordinary citizens who want to discuss MTA capital expansion.
Absent democratic mechanisms for oversight of the state, the state will not engage in cost-effective projects. We know this, because the part of public policy most insulated from public criticism, the military and security in general, is the most bloated. The US is wasting a trillion and a half dollars on the F-35, and allies like Israel are wasting money buying this jet from the US military industry. It’s hard to question the costs when overconfident military commanders say “this is necessary for national security.” The intelligence community is even worse, with self-serving slogans like “our successes are private and our failures are public.”
Evidently, facing criticism over costs, domestic agencies portray their projects as necessary rather than useful, hence the weak claims that Gateway is required to avoid shutting down rail service across the Hudson. My specific criticism of the argument that Gateway is required is that the study recommending long-term shutdowns of the existing tunnels did not even attempt to provide a comparative cost of maintaining the tunnels on nights and weekends as is done today. An informed public can more easily demand an end to bad investments, and specific interest groups can highlight how they are harmed by bad spending: the Journal article mentions disability rights advocates demanding that the MTA instead spend money on putting elevators at stations to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs.
The station renovations are especially at risk of being canceled if an informed public finds their costs offensive. The benefits include better maintenance standards, but those are almost self-evidently useful but not necessary. Activists can complain about costs or demand that the money be spent elsewhere.
In Astoria, activists complain that the MTA is renovating stations at a cost of $40 million per station without even installing elevators for accessibility. In London, the cost of the Step-Free Access program is £200 million for 13 stations, or about $20 million per station, and in Paris, where only Metro Line 14 and the RER A and B are accessible, disability rights activists estimate the cost of making the remaining 300 stations accessible at €4-6 billion. This is profoundly different from the situation with tunneling costs, where London has a large premium over Paris and New York has a large premium over London. It is likely that New York can install elevators at the same cost of its top two European peers if it puts its mind to it.
However, such investments are not possible under the current leadership. If a hack like Lhota stays in charge of the MTA, there is not going to be transparency about contracting and about costs, which means that small overruns can blow out of proportion before anyone notices. In such an environment, high costs are not surprising. If New York State is interested in good, cost-effective transit, it will get rid of Lhota and replace him with an experienced transit manager with a good history regarding cost control and respect for the democratic process.
I’m visiting New York again, and the subway is noticeably deteriorating in speed and frequency. But it’s not the speed I’d like to discuss (it’s been covered in the media, both by me and by others) – it’s the weekend service changes. With its 24/7 subway service, New York relies on selective closures of line segments on nights and weekends for maintenance. Expressions like “the D is running on the F and the F is running on the D” are well-known to regular subway riders. However, I don’t think the way the MTA is choosing which lines to shut down every weekend is optimal. I wrote about how different subway lines can be used to substitute for each other in Boston last year; this year, I encountered a big change in New York that, while not as destructive as what I saw in Boston in November, was avoidable.
The trip itself was between Central Harlem and Inwood. I’m staying in Harlem near the 2 and 3 trains, and was visiting friends in Inwood near the A. The most direct path would have been to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A, but this was blocked because the A was not running north of 168th. The second best option would have been to ride the 2 or 3 to 96th and change wrong-way to the 1, but this was also blocked since the 2 and 3 were not running at all on their Harlem trunk line. The route I took was to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A up to the 1, changing at 168th Street, an inconvenient transfer involving an elevator (the 1 is deep and only elevator-accessible at 168th).
It was not an especially egregious change. The trip took around 45 minutes and was all-rail; without the changes, it would have been about half an hour. In Boston, the subway shutdowns forced me onto multiple buses in mixed traffic, and a trip that should have taken 40 minutes ended up taking maybe an hour and a half. However, the extra transfer penalty and the difficulty of finding a good all-rail route are real.
In the post about Boston, I argued that even in relatively sparse rail networks, like Boston’s, rail lines are redundant with one another. In New York, this needs no argument, judging by conversations with many New Yorkers, even ones who aren’t railfans, who recognize the extent of redundancy in the system. It would be useful to design weekend service changes to take advantage of this redundancy and not shut down multiple lines that could substitute for each other. In the case of last weekend, if a full shutdown of the 2 and 3 between 96th Street and the Bronx was unavoidable, then the other north-south lines through Upper Manhattan should not be shut down.
Thus, the first principle I’d like to propose for weekend shutdowns is, if one line is shut for repairs, then parallel lines should be fully open. This should cover shutdowns as well as one-way running, in which one direction is only served by express trains and passengers wishing to access local stations are told to ride an express trains and change to a local train going in the opposite direction.
In fact, given the extent of redundancy in the core, I would propose that if local service is shut down in one direction, then it should be shut down in the other direction as well. Backtracking is cumbersome and rarely worth it: stop spacing is often close enough that walking from the express stop is faster, and in Manhattan it’s usually easier to just go on a parallel line instead.
Then, to compensate for loss of service on a line that’s being closed for repairs, there should be more service on parallel lines. Subway service changes in New York, called general orders, or GOs, fall under a labor agreement in which train operators and conductors are still paid for the time they would’ve had to work if service had run normally. The MTA should negotiate a change in which those drivers and conductors can be redistributed to nearby subway lines without this counting as overtime. If express trains on a route are closed, then there should be more local service, and if a trunk line is closed, as the 2 and 3 were last weekend, then there should be more service on parallel lines (in this case, the 1, 4, 5, A, and D) to absorb the extra ridership. With reduced service, the trains can get quite busy, more so than the crowding guidelines indicate, if my weekend trips are any indication.
Finally, the MTA should build crossovers and switches to enable more efficient single-tracking. This is unlikely to work on four-track lines, since trains would have to cross three tracks to get around a work zone, but on two-track lines, including the L, the 7, and most tails outside the Manhattan core, it would be useful, especially on lines that use island platforms rather than side platforms. On the newest lines, which use bored tunnel, it’s easy to do maintenance on one track without disturbing the other track, as long as there are crossovers at regular locations. On the older lines the situation is the opposite: trains need to slow near work zones, unless some hard barriers are built between parallel tracks, but installing new crossovers is relatively easy. More shutdowns may be required to install such switches, but the subsequent benefits to making weekend trackwork easier are substantial.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has a new report out about the poor state of off-peak subway service. It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot here (e.g. here), but there’s a big difference in focus: I normally talk about midday service for efficiency reasons, and as far as I remember this is the bulk of what I discussed with report author Adam Forman, but the report itself highlights non-traditional commutes in the early morning and evening:
(depart 7-9 am)
|Early morning commuters
(depart 5-7 am)
|Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (Age 25+)||52%||31%|
|Person of Color||64%||78%|
|Work in Healthcare, Hospitality, Retail, Food Services, or Cultural industries||36%||40%|
|Growth in the Last Quarter Century||17%||39%|
Citywide, there are 1,888,000 commuters leaving to go to work between 7 and 9 am, and 711,000 leaving between 5 and 7. The latter group has to contend with much worse subway frequencies: the report has a table (chart 8) detailing the reduction in frequency, which is typically about half. The report does not say so, but an additional hurdle facing early-morning commuters is that some express trains run local: for example, the northbound A train only starts running express at 6 in the morning, forcing a substantial minority of early morning commuters to ride what’s effectively the C train.
The one saving grace in the early morning, not mentioned in the report, is that buses aren’t as slow. For example, the B6 limited takes 1:11 end-to-end at 6 am, compared with 1:26 at rush hour. However, this is a 16 km route, so even the faster speed at 6 am corresponds to an average speed of 13.7 km/h, which is not competitive with a bicycle. Moreover, in practice, slow circumferentials like the B6 are used in situations where transferring between subway lines is not viable or convenient, such as early in the morning, when subway frequencies are low; this means that far from a substitute for slower rush hour buses, early morning buses have to substitute for much faster subway lines.
The report has charts about subway and bus service by the time the route begins operation. As expected, there’s a prominent morning peak, and a slightly less prominent afternoon peak. In the evening there’s a dropoff: 350 subway runs begin around 9 pm compared with just under 600 subway runs in the morning peak, a reduction of 40%. For buses, the dropoff is larger: about 1,700 versus 3,700, a 54% reduction. The most worrying trend is that the buses peak at the same time as the subway in the afternoon, starting at 4:30 or so; in reality, buses are often a first-mile rather than a last-mile connector, which means that people returning from work typically ride the subway and then the bus, so we should expect buses to peak slightly later than trains, and drop off in the evening at a slower rate. Instead, what we see is the same peak time and a faster dropoff.
Some of this can be attributed to operating costs. Buses have lower fixed costs than trains and higher marginal costs, so the economics of running them at less busy times are weaker than those of running trains. However, in reality buses and trains in New York run as a combined system; running just the subway in the evening but not the buses means that people can’t come home from work if they live in neighborhoods not connected to the subway.
Evening frequencies on many routes are low enough that they are almost certainly negatively impacting ridership. Some individual subway routes run every 11-12 minutes in the evening, including the B, C, D, W, and 5; in the every 9-10 minutes category are the 2, 3, A, F, J, N, and R. Other than the J, these are all branches sharing track with other lines, but they branch off the trunks and recombine. A Bronx-bound rider on the 2 and 3 can only ride the 2, and a Flatbush-bound rider can choose between the 2 and a 3-to-5 transfer, both of which are infrequent. Without timed transfers, the effective frequency as experienced by the rider remains low, about every 10 minutes.
This isn’t how other top metro systems work – in Paris the trains on Metro Line 9, not one of the top lines in the system, come every 7 minutes at 10 or 11 at night. The RER is less frequent on individual branches, but the individual branch points are all outside the city except on the RER C, sometimes well outside it. Other than on the RER C heading west, the branch points are at worst 6 km outside the center (at Vincennes), more typically 10 km (such as Nanterre and Bourg-la-Reine), and at best 16-18 km out (Aulnay and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges). In New York, the R and W branch at Lexington and 60th, a little more than 2 km outside Times Square, and the Q and N branch even earlier; the A-B-C-D branch and recombine at Columbus Circle, and branch again at 145th Street, 8.5 km out of Port Authority. This branching affects a majority of bedroom communities in the city, including almost the entire Bronx, much of Upper Manhattan, all of Queens except the 7, and Central and Southern Brooklyn.
To my knowledge, there is no public study of the effect of frequency on ridership. Occasionally there are ridership screens that incorporate it, but the examples I know are designed around the needs of specific project studies. There can be rules of thumb about frequency at different scales (the smaller the scale, the higher the minimum frequency is), but without more careful analysis, I can only bring up some best industry practices. It does not seem common to run metro trains every 10 minutes in the evening. On the Piccadilly line, there are 22 northbound trains departing Leicester Square between 9 and 10 in the evening, of which 19 go all the way to Cockfosters. On the Central line, 24 trains depart Oxford Circus eastbound, 9 going to Epping (in Essex, 31 km from Oxford Circus and 27 km from Bank), and another 13 serving Newbury Park, in outer East London.
Evening service also has one more complication: it serves several distinct markets. There are commuters working non-traditional hours, themselves split into shift workers and professionals who work late (I spoke to several Manhattan lawyers who told me that they work from 10 in the morning to 8 in the evening). There are tourists and local leisure travelers, some coming late from work after dinner and some coming from a non-work destination. Non-work trips don’t always have the same centers as work trips: in London, non-work trips are dominated by the West End, with little contribution from the City, whereas in New York, presumably Lower Manhattan punches below its weight while Union Square punches above its weight. New York already takes care of non-work trips in the evening, with high frequencies on the 1, L, and 42nd Street Shuttle (“GS” in chart 8), but its frequency guidelines are unfriendly to commuters who are working late.
A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.
The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.
The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.
The crank Idea: lengthening trains
The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.
The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than
Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.
The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.
The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,
[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.
This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.
The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.
The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name
New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.
The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.
Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.
The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.
While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.
New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.
The judges don’t know any better
Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.
I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.
Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.
Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).
Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).
When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.
But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.
Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.
But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.
The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.
Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.
In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.
Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.
Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.
The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.
If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.
Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.
Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.
The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.
When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.
In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.
I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,
- A post about MBTA-HSR compatibility
- A post about Metro-North-HSR compatibility between New York and New Rochelle
- A compendium of cost saving measures I called NEC, 90% Cheaper, back when Amtrak’s budget for it was only $150 billion
- A followup about capacity in the New York commuter belt
- A look at track-sharing around Washington Union Station
- A criticism of Amtrak’s lack of integration between rolling stock and infrastructure plans
- Another look at planning coordination
- A criticism of NEC Future’s overpriced plan ($300 billion for full-fat HSR!)
- A very long and detailed look at New Rochelle-Greens Farms
Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.
To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.
In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.
The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.
Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.
Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.
Paris is building a suburban Metro expansion, consisting of 200 km of which 160 are underground, carrying automated trains. This program, dubbed Grand Paris Express, is intended to provide circumferential service in the inner suburbs (on future Metro Lines 15, 16, and 18) and some additional radial service from the suburbs into Central Paris (on future Line 17 and extensions of Lines 11 and 14). The estimated cost was about €25 billion in 2012 prices – about average for a European subway. But now a bombshell has dropped: the cost estimate should be revised upward by 40%, to €35 billion for the 200 km GPX scheme and €38 billion for GPX plus related projects (such as GPX contribution to the RER E extension). You can read it in English-language media on Metro Report, but more detail is available in French-language media, such as Le Monde, and in the original report by the Cour des Comptes, the administrative court charged with auditing government finances. The goal of this post is to suggest how Ile-de-France should react to the cost overruns, using best industry practices from neighboring countries.
First, it’s worthwhile to look at the problems the Cour des Comptes report identifies. It includes a moderate amount of scope creep, on page 40, which helped raise the budget by €3.5 billion between 2013 and 2017:
- €592 million for separate maintenance facilities at Aulnay for M15 and the other lines (M14, M16, M17).
- €198 million for interoperability between two segments of M15 in the south and east; the original plan made M15 not a perfect circle but a pinch, without through-service between south and east, and building connections to permit through-running at the southeast costs extra.
- €167 million for a second railyard for storing trains on M15 East.
On page 47, there is a breakdown of the larger cost overrun accumulated in 2017, by segment. The bulk of the overrun comes from new risk assessments: whereas the budget in early 2017 was €22.4 billion plus €2.8 billion for contingency, the new cost estimate is €27.7 billion plus €7 billion for contingency. This is a combination of geological risk and management risk: the report criticizes the project for lacking enough management to oversee such a large endeavor, and recommends target costs for each segment as well as better cost control to reduce risk.
Reducing the scope of GPX to limit its cost is thankfully easy. For a while now I have puzzled over the inclusion of M18 and M17 (which the report calls M17 North, since M17 South is shared with M16 and M14 in an awkward branch). Whereas M15 is a circular line just outside city limits, serving La Defense and many other major inner-suburban nodes, and M16 is another (semi-)circular alignment to the northeast of M15, M18 is a southwestern circumferential far from any major nodes, connecting Versailles, Massy-Palaiseau, and Orly on a circuitous alignment. Between the major nodes there is very little, and much of what it does connect to is already parallel to the RER B and to one branch of the RER C, which is being replaced with an orbital tram. The suburbs served are high-income and have high car ownership, and transit dependence is unlikely, making M18 an especially weak line.
M17 North is weak as well. It is a weird line, an underground radial connecting to Charles-de-Gaulle, already served by the RER B and by the under-construction CDG Express money waste. The route is supposed to be faster than the RER B, but it is no more direct, and makes more stops – the RER B runs a nonstop train between Gare du Nord and the airport every 15 minutes off-peak. It serves hotels near Saint-Lazare better using the connection to M14, but the RER B serves these hotels, as well as the hotels near Etoile, using a wrong-way transfer at Chatelet-Les Halles with the RER A.
The Cour des Comptes report itself does not recommend pruning these two lines, but its cost-benefit calculations per line on page 29 suggest that they should be deleted. On page 30 it says outright that the cost-benefit calculation for M18 is unfavorable. But on page 29 we see that the benefit-cost ratio of M18, not counting contingency costs, is barely higher than 1, and that of M17 North is a risky 1.3. In contrast, M15 South, the section already under construction, has a benefit-cost ratio of 1.7. M15 West has a ratio of 2.3, M15 East 1.5, M14 South 2.1, and M16 about 2. The M11 eastern extension is not included on the list.
Blog supporter Diego Beghin brought up on social media that M17 and M18 are already most at risk, and local elected officials are seeking assurances from the state that these lines will not be canceled. However, given their low potential ridership, the state should cancel them over local objections. Their combined cost is €4.9 billion, or €6.3 billion with contingency, about the same as the total cost overrun since early 2017.
Instead of pouring concrete on tunnels through lightly-developed high-income southwestern suburbs and on a third express route to the airport, the region should learn from what Germany and Switzerland have had to do. Germany has higher construction costs than France, which has forced it to prioritize projects better. Swiss construction costs seem average or below average, but the entire country has only two-thirds the population of Ile-de-France, and the public’s willingness to subsidize transit as a social service is much smaller than that of the French public. Hence the Swiss slogan, electronics before concrete (and its German extension, organization before electronics before concrete).
The M18 route already has a mainline rail route paralleling it – one of the branches of the RER C. This is an awkward branch, allowing trains from Versailles to enter the core trunk from either east or west, and ridership is so low that SNCF is downgrading it to an orbital tram-train. Thus, there is no need for a new Versailles-Massy connection. Two more destinations of note, Orsay and Orly, are also not necessary. Orsay is notable for its university, but there is already a connection from the university to Massy-Palaiseau and the city via the RER B with a little bit of walking to the station, and the connection to Versailles isn’t important enough to justify building a new line. Orly is a major airport, with about 90,000 travelers per day, but most of the traffic demand there is to the city (which it will connect to via the M14 South extension), and not to Versailles. While many tourists visit Versailles, this is just one stop on their journey, and their hotels are in the city or perhaps near Eurodisney in Marne-la-Vallee.
The M17 route is a more complex situation. The only new stops are Le Mesnil-Amelot, beyond the airport, with little development; Le Bourget-Aeroport, on the wrong side of a freeway; and Triangle de Gonesse, which is farmland. All three are development sites rather than places with existing demand, and development can be built anywhere in the region. However, the new airport-city connection is interesting, as relief for the RER B.
That said, there are better ways to relieve the RER B. The RER B has trains running nonstop between the airport and the city, but only off-peak. At the peak, trains run local every six minutes, with another branch (to Mitry-Claye) also getting a train every six minutes. The trains are very crowded, with obstructed corridors and not enough standing space in the vestibules, and with 20 trains per hour on the RER B and another 12 on the RER D, delays are common. Fixing this requires some improvement in organization, and some in concrete.
The concrete (and electronics) improvement is easier to explain: the shared RER B and D tunnel is a bottleneck and should be quadrupled. With four tracks rather than two, there would be space for more RER B as well as RER D trains; 24 trains per hour on each would be easy to run, and 30 would be possible with moving-block signaling of the same kind used on the RER A. This would provide more capacity not just to the northeast, around Aulnay-sous-Bois, but also north and northwest, since the RER D could take over more branches currently used by Transilien H.
The cost of quadrupling the tunnel is hard to estimate. Local rail advocate group ADUTEC explains the problem. In 2003 a proposal was estimated to cost €700 million, but construction would disrupt service, and in 2013 a study proposed new stations platforms at Les Halles for the RER D, raising the project’s cost to €2-4 billion. ADUTEC instead proposes building one track at a time to avoid disruption without building new platforms, saying this option should be studied more seriously; the cost estimate has to be higher than €700 million (if only because of inflation), but should still not be multiple billions.
But this project, while solving the capacity problems on the RER to the north and south in the medium term, doesn’t help connect passengers to the airport. On the contrary: more RER B traffic would make it harder to fit express trains between the local trains. Already there is little speed difference between local and express trains, about four minutes with nine skipped stations. This isn’t because the trains accelerate so quickly (they don’t) or because the maximum line speed is so low (the maximum speed on the line is 110-120 km/h). Rather, it’s because otherwise the express trains would catch up with local trains, on the airport branch or on the Mitry branch.
Fortunately, the route between the approach to Gare du Nord and Aulnay-sous-Bois, where the two RER B branches diverge, has four tracks. Right now, two are used by the RER, and two by other trains, including Transilien K but also the odd intercity train. The organizational fix is then clear: the four tracks should be reassigned so that all local trains get two tracks and all express trains (including intercities and Transilien but also airport express trains) get the other two. There is very little intercity traffic on the route, which carries no TGVs, and Transilien K has only a handful of peak trains and can be folded into the RER B.
With four tracks between Gare du Nord and Aulnay, express trains could go at full speed, saving about a minute for each skipped stop. But they shouldn’t go nonstop to the airport. They should serve Aulnay, giving it fast trains to the center. Passenger boardings by time of day are available for the SNCF-owned portion of the RER and Transilien here; Aulnay is the busiest station on the RER B north of Gare du Nord, with about 20% more weekday boardings than the second busiest (Stade de France) and 25% more morning peak boardings than the second busiest (La Courneuve). If express trains stop there, then it will free more space on local trains for the stations closer in, which would permit a service plan with half local trains and half express trains, each coming every 4-5 minutes. Today the inner stations get a local train every 3 minutes, so this is a service cut, but letting express trains handle demand from Aulnay out, on the airport branch as well as the Mitry and Transilien K branch, would mean passengers wouldn’t clog the local trains as much.
Potentially this could also reduce the demand for M16, whose northern segment, currently planned to be interlined with M14 and M17, is radial rather than circumferential. The entire M16 has a high benefit-cost ratio, but this could change in the presence of more RER B and D capacity. It may even be prudent to consider canceling M15 East and rerouting the remainder of M16 to complete the circle, a Line 15 consisting of the segments planned as M15 South, M15 West, and M16.
The study shows there is demand for two circumferentials in the east and northeast (M15 East and M16), but if RER B improvements rob M16 of its usefulness as a radial then this may change. If RER B improvements reduce the benefit-cost ratio of M16 below 1.5, then it should be canceled as well; with a budget of €4.4 billion plus another €1.2 billion in contingency, M16 could fund radial improvements that are more useful elsewhere. M15 East is a more coherent circumferential, with connections to Metro lines, whereas M16 is too far out.
But despite lack of coherence, M16 serves key destinations on the RER B. By default, the plan for GPX should be canceling M17 North and M18, and instead quadrupling the RER B and D tunnel and running more north-south RER service. Further cost overruns should be limited by the mechanisms the Cour des Comptes proposes, including tighter oversight of the project; without M17, there also may be room for removing ancillary scope, such as the Aulnay railyard.
For years, the RER A’s pride was that it was running 30 trains per hour through its central segment in the peak direction (and 24 in the reverse-peak direction). With two branches to the east and three to the west, it would run westbound trains every 2 minutes between 8 and 9 in the morning on the seven-station shared trunk line. Moreover, those trains are massive, unlike the trains that run on the Metro: 224 meters long, and bilevel. To allow fast boarding and alighting at the central stations, those trains were uniquely made with three very wide doors per side, and two bilevel segments per car; usually there are two doors near the ends of the car and a long bilevel segment in between. But now the RER A can no longer run this schedule, and recently announced a cut to 24 peak trains per hour. The failure of the RER A’s bilevel rolling stock, called the MI 2N or MI 09, should make it clear to every transit agency mulling high-throughput urban rail, including RER A-style regional rail, that all trains should be single-level.
On most of the high-traffic regional rail lines of the world, the trains are single-level and not bilevel. The reasoning is that the most important thing is fast egress in the CBD at rush hour. For the same reason, the highest-traffic regional rail lines tend to have multiple CBD stops, to spread the load among several stations. The Chuo Rapid Line squeezes 14 trains in the peak half-hour into Tokyo Station, its only proper CBD station, discharging single-deck trains with four pairs of doors per 20-meter-long car onto a wide island platform with excellent vertical circulation. Bilevels are almost unheard of in Japan, except on Green Cars, first-class cars that are designed to give everyone a seat at a higher price point; on these cars, there aren’t so many passengers, so they can disembark onto the platform with just two doors, one per end of the car.
Outside Japan (and Korea, where the distinction between the subway and regional rail is even fuzzier), the busiest regional rail system is the RER. The RER A runs bilevels, but the most crowded line while the RER A was running 30 tph was the RER B, which runs 20 tph, through a tunnel shared with the RER D, which runs 12 bilevel tph. Outside Paris, the busiest European regional rail systems are in London (where bilevels are impossible because of restricted clearances), and in Berlin, Madrid, and Munich, all of which run single-level trains. Berlin and Munich moreover have three door pairs per 17-to-18-meter car. Munich squeezes 30 tph through its central tunnel, with seven distinct branches. Other than the RER A, it’s the less busy regional services that use bilevels: the RER C, D, and E; the commuter trains in Stockholm; the Zurich S-Bahn and other Swiss trains; Dutch regional trains; and many low-performance French provincial TERs, such as the quarter-hourly trains in the Riviera.
Uniquely among bilevels, the RER A’s MI 2N (and later MI 09) was designed as a compromise between in-vehicle capacity and fast egress. There are three triple-width door pairs per car, allowing three people to enter or exit at once: one to the lower level, one to the upper level, one to the intermediate vestibule. The total number of door pairs per unit of train length is almost as high as on the RER B (30 in 224 meters vs. 32 in 208), and the total width of these doors is much more than on the RER B, whose doors are only double-wide.
Unfortunately, even with the extra doors, the MI 09 has ultimately not offered comparable egress times to single-level trains. Present-day peak dwell times on both the RER A and B are about 50-60 seconds at Les Halles; here, the RER B, with its prominent Gare du Nord-to-Les Halles peak in the morning, is in a more difficult urban geography than the RER A, with four stations that could plausibly lay claim to the CBD (Les Halles, Auber, Etoile, La Defense). The RER B has long had problems with maintaining the schedules, due to the 32 tph segment shared with the RER D, using traditional fixed-block signaling; the RER A in contrast has a moving-block system called SACEM. But now the RER A has problems with schedule reliability too, hence the cut in peak frequency.
The problem is that it’s not just the number of doors that determines how fast people can get in and out. It’s also how quickly passengers can get from the rest of the train’s interior to the doors. Metro systems optimize for this by having longitudinal seats, with their backs to the sides of the train, creating a large, relatively unobstructed interior compartment for people to move in; Japanese regional trains do the same. European regional trains still have transverse seating, facing forward and backward, and sometimes the corridors are so narrow that queues form on the way to the vestibules, where the doors are. The RER A actually has less obstructed corridors than the RER B. The problem is that it’s still a bilevel.
Bilevel design inherently constrains capacity on the way to the door, because the stairs from the two decks to the intermediate level, where the door is, are choke points. They are by definition only half a train wide. They are also slow, especially on the way down, for safety reasons. When the train is very crowded, people can’t just push on the way up or down the way they can on a flat train floor. If passengers get off their seats in the upper and lower levels well in advance and make their way to the intermediate-level vestibules then they can alight more quickly, but on a train as crowded as the RER A, the vestibule is already full, and people resort to sitting on the stairs at rush hour, obstructing passageways even further.
As a result, RATP is now talking about extending peak dwells at the central stations to 105 seconds, to stabilize the schedules. Relative to 60-second dwells, this is 45 seconds of padding per station; with about 3 minutes between successive stations in the central segment, this is around 25% pad (on top of the already-existing pad!), a level worthy of American commuter trains rather than of Europe’s busiest commuter rail line.
What’s more, this unique design cost the region a lot of money: Wikipedia says the MI 09’s base order was €3.06 million per 22.5-meter car, and the option went up to €4.81 million per car. In contrast, German operators have purchased the high-performance single-level Coradia Continental and Talent 2 for €1.25-1.5 million euros per 18-meter car (see orders in 2014, 2016, and 2017); these trains have a top speed of 160 km/h and the power-to-weight ratio of a high-speed train, necessary for fast acceleration on regional lines with many stops. Even vanilla bilevel trains, with two end-car door pairs, are often more expensive: at the low end the Regio 2N is €7.06 million per 94-meter trainset, at the higher end the high-performance KISS is around €3 million per 25-meter car (about 2.7 in Sweden, 3-3.5 in Azerbaijan), and the Siemens Desiro Double Deck produced for the Zurich S-Bahn in 2003 was around €3 million per 25-meter car as well.
High-traffic regional railroads that wish to improve capacity can buy bilevel trains if they’d like, but need to understand the real tradeoffs. Average bilevel trains, with a serious decrease in capacity coming from having long upper- and lower-level corridors far from the doors, can cost 50-100% more than single-level trains. They offer much more capacity within each train (the KISS offers about 30% more seats per meter of train length, with a small first-class section, than the FLIRT), but the reduction in capacity measured in trains per hour cancels most of the benefits, except in cases where peak dwells don’t matter as much, as in Zurich with its two platform tracks per approach track. In terms of capacity per unit cost, they remain deficient.
The MI 09 was supposed to offer slightly less seated capacity per unit of train length and equivalent egress capacity to single-level trains, but in practice it offers much less egress capacity, at much higher cost, around 2.5-3 times as high as single-level trains. If RATP had bought single-level trains instead of the MI 09, optimized for fast egress via less obstructed passageways, it would have had about €2.5 billion more. Since the cost of extending the RER E from Saint-Lazare to La Defense and beyond is about that high, the region would have had money to obtain far more capacity for east-west regional travel already.
The American or Canadian reader may think that this analysis is less relevant to the United States and Canada, where the entire commuter rail ridership in all cities combined is about the same as that of just the RER A and B. Moreover, with higher US construction costs, the idea of saving money on trains and then diverting it to tunnels is less applicable than in Paris. However, two important American factors make the need to stop running bilevels even more pertinent than in Europe: CBD layout, and station construction costs.
North American CBDs are higher-rise than European ones – even monocentric cities like Stockholm have few city center skyscrapers. The job density in Paris’s job-densest arrondissement (the 2nd) is about 50,000/km^2, and it’s higher in its western end but still only about comparable to Philadelphia’s job density around Suburban Station. Philadelphia has three central stations in the SEPTA commuter rail tunnel, but only Suburban is really in the middle of peak job density; Market East is just outside the highest-intensity zone, and 30th Street Station is well outside it. In Boston, only two proper CBD stations are feasible in the North-South Rail Link, South Station and Aquarium. In New York, Penn Station isn’t even in the CBD (forcing everyone to get off and connect to the subway), and only 1-2 Midtown stations are feasible in regional rail proposals, Penn and Grand Central. Some of these stations, especially Penn and Grand Central, benefit from multiple platform tracks per approach track in any plan, but in Boston this is not feasible.
The other issue is station construction costs. High construction costs in the US mean that spending more money on trains to avoid spending money on infrastructure is more economic, but conversely they also make it harder to build anything as station-rich as the RER A, the Munich S-Bahn tunnel, or Crossrail. They also make stations with multiple platform tracks harder to excavate; this is impossible to do in a large-diameter TBM. This makes getting egress capacity right even more important than in Europe.
New York and Philadelphia meandered into the correct rolling stock, because of clearance restrictions in New York and the lack of a domestic manufacturing base for bilevel EMUs. Unfortunately, they still try to get it wrong: New Jersey Transit is buying bilevel EMUs (the first FRA-compliant ones). Railroads that aren’t electrified instead got used to bilevel unpowered coaches, and get bilevel EMUs: Caltrain is getting premium-price KISSes (about the only place where this is justifiable, since there are sharp capacity limits on the line, coming from mixing local and express trains on two tracks), and the Toronto RER (with only one CBD station at Union Station) is also planning to buy bilevel EMUs once electrification is complete.
Paris’s MI 09 mistake is not deadly. The RER E extension to the west will open in a few years and relieve the RER A either way. Being large and rich can paper over a lot of problems. North American cities are much poorer than Paris when wages are deflated to tunnel construction costs, and this means that one mistake in choice of alignment or rolling stock can have long-lasting consequences for service quality. Learning from the most forward-thinking and successful public transit operators means not just imitating their successes but identifying and avoiding their failures.
Most subway lines are more or less straight, in the sense of going north-south, east-west, or something in between. However, some deviate from this ideal: for example, circular lines. Circular lines play their own special role in the subway network, and the rest of this post will concern itself only with radial lines. Among the radials, lines are even more common, but some lines are kinked, shaped like an L or a U. Here’s a diagram of a subway system with a prominently U-shaped line:
Alert readers will note the similarity between this diagram and my post from two days ago about the Washington Metro; the reason I’m writing this is that Alex Block proposed what is in effect the above diagram, with the Yellow Line going toward Union Station and then east along H Street.
This is a bad idea, for two reasons. The first is that people travel in lines, not in Us. Passengers going from the west end to the east end will almost certainly just take the blue line, whereas passengers going from the northwest to the northeast will probably drive rather than taking the red line. What the U-shaped layout does it put a one-seat ride on an origin-and-destination pair on which the subway is unlikely to be competitive no matter what, while the pairs on which the subway is more useful, such as northeast to southwest, require a transfer.
The second reason is that if there are U- and L-shaped lines, it’s easy to miss transfers if subsequent lines are built:
The purple line has no connection to the yellow line in this situation. Were the yellow and red line switched at their meeting point, this would not happen: the purple line would intersect each other subway line exactly once. But with a U-shaped red line and a yellow line that’s not especially straight, passengers between the purple and yellow lines have a three-seat ride. Since those lines are parallel, origin-and-destination pairs between the west end of the purple line and east end of the yellow line or vice versa require traveling straight through the CBD, a situation in which the subway is likely to be useful, if service quality is high. This would be perfect for a one-seat or two-seat ride, but unfortunately, the network makes this a three-seat ride.
The depicted purple line is not contrived. Washington-based readers should imagine the depicted purple line as combining the Columbia Pike with some northeast-pointing route under Rhode Island Avenue, maybe with an additional detour through Georgetown not shown on the diagram. This is if anything worse than what I’m showing, because the purple/red/blue transfer point is then Farragut, the most crowded station in the city, with already long walks between the two existing lines (there isn’t even an in-system transfer between them.). Thus the only direct connection between the western end of the purple line (i.e. Columbia Pike) and what would be the eastern end of the yellow line (i.e. H Street going east to Largo) requires transferring at the most crowded point, whereas usually planners should aim to encourage transfers away from the single busiest station.
When I created my Patreon page, I drew an image of a subway network with six radial lines and one circle as my avatar. You don’t need to be a contributor to see the picture: of note, each of the two radials intersects exactly once, and no two lines are tangent. If the twelve ends of six lines are thought of as the twelve hours on a clock, then the connections are 12-6, 1-7, 2-8, 3-9, 4-10, and 5-11. As far as possible, this is what subway networks should aspire to; everything else is a compromise. Whenever there is an opportunity to build a straight line instead of a U- or L-shaped lines, planners should take it, and the same applies to opportunities to convert U- or L-shaped lines to straight ones by switching lines at intersection points.