The Boston BRT initiative is pushing hard for what it calls gold standard BRT in Boston, with the support of ITDP. Backed by a Barr Foundation grant, it launched a competition for pilot routes. Two years ago to the day, Ari Ofsevit already wrote a takedown of the idea of gold standard BRT in Boston, comparing the street width in Boston to the street widths in Bogota and Mexico City. In brief, most of Bogota’s BRT network runs on streets wider than 40 meters, and the rest is still 30-something; in Boston nothing is that wide except streets that have light rail in their medians like Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street, and the key corridors have segments going below 20.
In response to this problem, here is the photo Boston BRT is using to illustrate the technology:
I am not sure where this photo was taken. Judging by the 60 speed limit sign, it can’t be in the US. What we see in the photo is 4 travel lanes in each direction (2 car, 2 bus), a generous median for the station, generous medians on both sides of the main road, and service lanes. Paris’s 80-meter-wide Cours de Vincennes has in each direction a service lane, two parking lanes, one bus lane, and three car lanes, but no median between the two main carriageways. The depicted street has to be wider, which means it’s wider in meters than most Boston arterials are in feet. It’s very wide by the standards of Mexico City, Curitiba, and Bogota.
The BRT Report for Boston depicts another picture in that flavor on PDF-p. 14. It is also painfully misleading about existing BRT lines: its blurb about Mexico City omits the fact that the city has a large, expanding subway network with almost as much ridership as New York’s, and alongside Mexico; its blurb about Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT omits all the internal problems of the line, which make Cleveland urbanists denigrate it as a poor transportation solution.
BRT is a useful tool in cities’ kit for solving transportation problems. But proponents have to be honest about the tradeoffs involves: it is cheaper than a subway but also slower, less comfortable, and more expensive to operate; and it requires difficult choices about how to allocate street space. There are many examples of BRT on streets going down to about 30 meters, and Boston BRT could have also chosen to depict even narrower streets, to be relevant to Boston. Instead, it’s engaging in subterfuge: the report is claiming that BRT is faster than light rail and implying it’s the primary transit mode in Mexico City, and by the same token, the pictures all show wide enough streets for anything.
Five years ago, I wrote about how American cities’ transit priorities cause them to underrate the neighborhoods with the best potential, which typically are also the poorer ones. Those are the in-between neighborhoods: beyond the gentrified core of the city, which is often within walking distance of the CBD in a small region, but not so far that they’re really suburbs. Instead of serving these neighborhoods, cities that want to look like they’re redeveloping build core connectors, i.e. short-range transit services within the gentrified (or gentrifying) center. I was specifically complaining about two plans, one in Providence and one in New Haven. The Providence plan involved a mixed-traffic streetcar, which has since been downgraded to a frequent bus. It’s this project that I wish to talk about in this post.
First, some background: in the 2000s and early 2010s, Rhode Island realigned I-195. This project, called Iway, rebuilt a segment of the freeway to higher standards, but also moved it so as to no longer cut off the Jewelry District from the CBD (called Downcity). Iway turned the Jewelry District from a post-industrial neighborhood to the next (possibly the only) frontier of gentrification in the city, and state elites needed to decide what to do with all this land. This led to plans to build what was in vogue in the late 2000s and early 2010s: a mixed-traffic streetcar, which would connect the Rhode Island Hospital and Jewelry District with Downcity and continue either north to the train station, or east to College Hill via the East Side Tunnel, a short bus-only tunnel cutting off a steep hill between Downcity and the Brown campus. This was from the start bad transit, and we in the Greater City community were skeptical. The plan was eventually scuttled, and the website’s registration lapsed without any redirect to the new plan, which is BRT.
The new BRT route is going between the train station and the Jewelry District. It’s planned to be very frequent, with a bus every 4-5 minutes, appropriate for the short length of the route, about 2 km between the hospital and the train station. The plan is to build open rather than closed BRT, with several branches interlining on the route. Overall, it looks like RIPTA is doing BRT right. And yet, it’s a terrible project.
The top bus corridor in Rhode Island is the R route (for Rapid), formed from the former 99 and 11 buses, which were by far the top two in ridership. It runs every 10 minutes, between Pawtucket and South Providence, serving some of the poorest parts of an already poor urban area. It has some BRT treatments, including hard-fought signal priority (Governor Carcieri vetoed it six times, and it took until the more progressive Lincoln Chafee replaced him for signal priority to go ahead). But buses run in mixed traffic, and fare collection is on-board. If any route deserves better frequency, it’s this one.
Moreover, the attempt to shoehorn multiple routes through the BRT path is compromising those routes. The R route is already detouring through the train station, which the old 99 route did not serve, and which forces a few minutes’ detour. Another bus, route 1, does not currently serve the train station, but will be rerouted once the BRT path opens; route 1 goes through the East Side tunnel, and making it detour to the train station would give it an especially circuitous path between the East Side and Downcity (the 1 already detours to enter the hospital, which is set back from the street). This, in turn, compromises the usefulness of the tunnel, which is that it interlines several routes between Downcity and Brown, which then go in different direction east of Brown.
There are potentially strong east-west corridors that could receive the R treatment. In the east, off-board fare collection on the buses using the tunnel would considerably speed up service. In the west, there are a few potentially strong routes: Broadway (carrying the 27 and 28 to Olneyville), Atwells in Federal Hill (carrying the 92 fake trolley, which runs through to the East Side and used to use the tunnel), and Westminster/Cranston (carrying the 17, 19, and 31). The highly-branched nature of the routes east of the tunnel makes through-service dicey, and this in turn is a matter of a broken bus network in East Providence. But overall, demand roughly matches that of the strongest corridor on the west, which is either Broadway or Westminster/Cranston, depending on how much branching one tolerates. This would create a second rapid bus trunk between College Hill and Olneyville. So why is the city investing in another route?
It’s not the train station. The train station itself is not a compelling transit destination. It’s too close to Downcity; even with a 5-minute bus frequency, it’s faster to walk from the central bus transfer point at Kennedy Plaza (or to the nearest point on the old 99 route on North Main or Canal) than to transfer to the right bus. It should be served by the routes for which it’s on the way, for example the northwest-bound 50, 56, and 57 routes. It’s unlikely anyone will transfer to a bus to the train station. Nor is it likely anyone will take the 1 from College Hill to the train station: walking downhill takes 15 minutes, and people going to a train station need more reliability than a mixed-traffic bus can provide. Walking uphill is more difficult, and there is less need for reliability, but even then, it seems that most people walk. This means the only real use of the train station connection is for people from the Jewelry District.
This brings me to the Jewelry District itself. The city wants to redevelop it, but it is not yet much of a destination. Nor is Providence itching for new development sites: residential rents are affordable on the East Side, and Downcity commercial property values are so low that the city’s tallest building is empty and was said at appraisal to have no value. So why the rush to give the Jewelry District better public transit than existing neighborhoods that direly need it, like South Providence, Olneyville, and Pawtucket?
The answer is contained in the title of this post. South Providence and Olneyville are in-between neighborhoods. Pawtucket is far enough away that it is getting a $40 million infill station on the Providence Line, but the state is not going to fund frequent service or integrated fares between the line and RIPTA buses. As far as Pawtucket’s predominantly poor and working-class residents are concerned, the train might as well not be there; nor will any gentrifiers move to Pawtucket for service to Boston (they get about the same travel time out of Providence and far better amenities). The focus for the city and the state is on redevelopment, and one can almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of the power brokers who passed this deal.
This neglect of the working class and of Providence’s nonwhite neighborhoods (South Providence is black, Olneyville is Hispanic) is not deliberate. But there is clear disparate impact: the Jewelry District gets BRT, South Providence and Olneyville can drop dead. Like everywhere else in the US, the power structure in Providence discourages investment in the in-between neighborhoods, even comfortable ones like the East Side. The in-between neighborhoods are intact enough that building something there is about providing transportation services, rather than about development and renaissance and the creative capital and other buzzwords. And providing services is too boring, too political, too underappreciated. Better to build something shiny and say “I did that,” even if it’s useless. What the elites consider shiny changes every few years – it was streetcars last decade and is frequent buses today – but the principle is the same: instead of investing for the benefit of residents of Providence and its inner suburbs, the state invests for the benefit of ribbon-cutters.
I don’t like the word “genius.” When people use it unironically, what I hear is “we haven’t met many smart people, so the first one we meet looks like a genius to us.” Math academia is very good about excising the word from anyone’s vocabulary. It drills you on the idea that you’re not Manjul Bhargava or anyone of that caliber, and if you are, you’re judged by what you’ve proved, not how theoretically smart you are. The tech industry uses the term more often, alongside related terms: rock star, 10x engineer, ninja. Most of it serves to convince coders that they’re masters of the universe, that all of them are above average and half of them are in the top 10% of coders.
New York State just issued a call for proposals for a $1 million grant, dubbed the MTA Genius Transit Challenge. I sent in a request for more information, and haven’t gotten a response yet; when I do, I will probably apply, if the specs and timeframe are within what I can give, but I doubt I will get it. My suspicion is that the state is looking for a tech company to privatize something to. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants someone to tackle one of the following three problems:
- Rail signaling, in context of how to maximize the subway’s capacity in trains per hour.
- Rolling stock maintenance schedules: the state isn’t saying what the ultimate issue is, but presumably it is reliability.
- Cell service and wi-fi underground.
I doubt that the tech industry is capable of doing much on the first two issues, while the third one is a solved problem (as in cities like Singapore and Boston) that just requires installing wires. The first two issues have a lot of potential improvements, but they come from the transportation field, including service planning.
Unfortunately, the panel judging the grant is tilted toward people in the tech industry. Only one has background in rail transportation: Sarah Feinberg, former administrator of the FRA, whose background prior to working at the US Department of Transportation is in politics and tech. Two more are academic administrators, neither with background in transportation: SUNY Chancellor-elect Kristina Johnson, an engineer with background in energy and 3D graphics, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, whose background is in IT. The other five are in the tech industry; one is a professor who studies networks, with some applications to car transportation (congestion pricing) but not to rail. Missing from the panel are people who worked on ETCS, people who have developed driverless train technology, and professionals within the major rolling stock vendors.
The biggest tech fixes in New York area outside the three areas identified by Cuomo. One, train arrival boards, is already in development, with planned opening next year.
But an even bigger fix is speed: the subways in New York have permanent slow orders at some places, not because of deferred maintenance but because of past accidents. There is a railroading tradition, in the US but sometimes also elsewhere, of using slow orders to mask underlying safety issues, even when the accident in question had very little to do with speed. The subways in New York today are getting even slower, for a combination of legitimate reasons (temporary signal upgrades) and illegitimate ones (inexperienced crews assigned at the busiest times).
However, the solutions to these problems often combine many different viewpoints. Speeding up the subway involves ending the slow orders (which involves signaling, but isn’t exactly tech), improving scheduling to reduce delays at merges (which involves service planning), reallocating crews (which involves labor relations), and coming up with ways to reinstall signals with less impact to operations (which is itself a combination of signaling tech and service planning).
American tech industry titans like to think of themselves as omnicompetent; Elon Musk’s bad ideas about transportation, from Hyperloop to elevator-accessed tunnels for cars, stem from his apparent belief that he can understand everything better than anyone else. This is not how good interdisciplinary work happens; the best examples in science involve people who are specialized to the two fields they’re combining, or people in one field collaborating with people in another field. A governor that understood this would empanel people with a wider variety of fields of expertise within the transportation industry: service planning, civil engineering, signal engineering, local labor relations and regulations, rolling stock maintenance. There would be one tech person on the panel (among the existing panelists, the professor studying networks, Balaji Prabhakhar, seems the most relevant in background), rather than one non-tech person.
This sort of self-importance especially appeals to Cuomo. Cuomo is not managing the state of New York; he is running for president of the United States, which requires him to be able to say “I did that” about something. Solving big problems requires big money; reducing costs requires local tradeoffs, such as reducing construction costs by using more disruptive cut-and-cover techniques. That’s how you run a good government, but that’s not how you run a cautious political campaign for higher office, in which the other side will pounce on every negative consequence. As a result, Cuomo is hoping to solve problems using tech innovation without spending much money; but the parameters of his plan seem to guarantee that the panel can only solve small problems, without touching on the most fundamental concerns for people riding the subway.
A stenographer at Bloomberg is reporting an Amtrak study that says the social benefit-cost ratio of the Gateway program is about 4. Gateway, the project to quadruple the double-track line from New York to Newark, including most important the tunnel across the Hudson, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. Cost overruns have been constant and severe: it was $3 billion in the ARC era in 2003, $9 billion when Governor Chris Christie canceled it in 2010, and $13.5 billion when Amtrak took over in 2011 and renamed it Gateway. And now Amtrak is claiming that the net present value of Gateway approaches $100 billion; in a presentation from late 2016, it claims that at a 3% discount rate the benefit-cost ratio is 3.87, and compares it positively with Crossrail and California HSR. This is incorrect, and almost certainly deliberate fraud. Let me explain why.
First, the comparison with Crossrail should give everyone pause. Crossrail costs around the same as the current projection for Gateway: about $21 billion in purchasing power parity terms, but future inflation means that the $25 billion for Gateway is very close to $21 billion for Crossrail, built between 2009 and 2018. Per Amtrak, the benefit-cost ratio of Crossrail as 3.64 at the upper end – in other words, the benefits of Crossrail and Gateway should be similar. They are clearly not.
The projection for Crossrail is that it will fill as soon as it opens, with 200 million annual passengers. There is no chance Gateway as currently planned can reach that ridership level. New Jersey Transit has about 90 million annual rail riders, and NJT considers itself at capacity. This number could be raised significantly if NJT were run in such a way as to encourage off-peak ridership (see my writeup on Metro-North and the LIRR, for which I have time-of-day data), but Gateway includes none of the required operational modernization. Even doubling NJT’s ridership out of Gateway is unlikely, since a lot of ridership is Hoboken-bound today because of capacity limits on the way to New York, and Gateway would cannibalize it; only about 60 million NJT riders are taking a train to or from New York, so a more realistic projection is 60 million and not 90 million. Some additional ridership coming out of Amtrak is likely, but is unlikely to be high given Amtrak’s short trains, hauled by a locomotive so that only 5-7 cars have seats. Amtrak has an asterisk in its comparison saying the benefit-cost ratios for Crossrail and Gateway were computed by different methodologies, and apparently the methodologies differ by a factor of 3 on the value of a single rider.
That, by itself, does not suggest fraud. What does suggest fraud is the history of cost overruns. The benefits of Gateway have not materially increased in the last decade and a half. If Gateway is worth $100 billion today, it was worth $100 billion in 2011, and in 2003.
One change since 2011 is Hurricane Sandy, which filled the existing North River Tunnels with corrosive saltwater. A study on repairs recommended long-term closure, one tube at a time. But the difference is still small compared to how much Amtrak thinks Gateway is worth. The study does not claim long-term closure is necessary. Right now, crews repair the tunnels over weekends, with weekend closures, since weekend frequency is so poor it can fit on single track. The study does not say how much money could be saved with long-term closures, but the cost it cites for repairs with long-term closures is $350 million, and the cost under the current regime of weekend closures cannot be several billion dollars more expensive. The extra benefit of Gateway coming from Sandy is perhaps $1 billion, a far cry from the almost $100 billion projected by Amtrak for Gateway’s worth.
What this means is that, if Gateway really has a benefit-cost ratio approaching 4 today, then it had a benefit-cost ratio of about 7 in 2011. Amtrak did not cite any such figure at the time. In 2003 it would have have had a benefit-cost ratio approaching 25, even taking into account inflation artifacts. None of the studies claimed such a high figure. Nor did any of the elected or appointed officials in charge of the project act like it was so valuable. Construction was not rushed as it would have if the benefit-cost ratio was so high that a few years’ acceleration would have noticeable long-term consequences.
The scope of the project did not suggest an extreme benefit-cost ratio, either. ARC, then Gateway, was always just two tracks. If a two-track tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio higher than 20, then it’s very likely the next two-track tunnel has a high benefit-cost ratio as well. Even a benefit-cost ratio of 4 would lead to further plans: evidently, Transport for London is planning Crossrail 2, a northeast-southwest tunnel complementing the east-west Crossrail and north-south Thameslink. Perhaps in 2003 Port Authority thought it could not get money for two tunnels, but it still could have planned some as future phases, just as Second Avenue Subway was planned as a full line even when there was only enough money for Phase 1.
The plans for ARC included the awkward Secaucus loop bringing in trains from the Erie lines into Penn Station, with dual-mode diesel/electric locomotives. This is a kludge that makes sense for a marginal project that needs to save every penny, not for one where benefits exceed costs by more than an order of magnitude. For such a strong project, it’s better to spend more money to get it right, for example by electrifying everything. It would also have been better to avoid the loop kludge and send Erie trains to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as I have proposed in various iterations of my regional rail plan.
All of this together suggests that in 2003, nobody in charge of ARC thought it was worth $70 billion in 2003 dollars, or around $100 billion in 2017 dollars. Even in 2011, Amtrak did not think the project was worth $85 billion in 2011 dollars. It’s theoretically possible that some new analysis proves that old estimates of the project’s benefits were too low, but it’s unlikely. If such revisions were common, we would see upward and downward revisions independent of cost overruns. Some rail projects with stable costs would see their benefit-cost ratios shoot up to well more than 10. Others might be revised down below 1.
What we actually see is different. Megaprojects have official estimates on their benefit-cost ratios in a narrow band: never less than 1 or else they wouldn’t be built, never more than 4 or 5 or else people might disbelieve the numbers. In an environment of stable costs, this would make a lot of sense: all the 10+ projects have been built a long time ago, so the rail extensions on the table today are more marginal. But in an environment of rapid cost escalation, the fact that benefits seem to grow with the costs is not consistent with any honest explanation. The best explanation for this is that, desperate for money for its scheme to build Gateway, Amtrak is defrauding the public about the project’s benefits.
Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.
Since the 2015-9 capital plan, the New York MTA had been including the second phase of Second Avenue Subway in its capital plan, without a clear estimate of its projected cost. The rumors said the cost would be about $5 billion. A new media story finally gives an official cost estimate: $6 billion. The total length of the project, from 96th Street and 2nd Avenue to 125th Street and Lexington, is about 2.7 km. At $2.2 billion per km, this sets a new world record for subway construction costs, breaking that of the first phase of the same line, which only cost $1.7 billion per km. See a compendium of past posts here to look how these projects stack up. For people not interested in combing through multiple old posts of mine, the short version is that outside the Anglosphere, subway tunnels typically cost $100-300 million per km, with outliers in both directions, but even inside the Anglosphere, costs are in the mid-to-high hundreds of million per km.
In some way, the high cost of SAS phase 2 is more frustrating than that of phase 1. This is because 1 km of the 2.7 km of route preexists. SAS construction began in the 1970s, but was halted due to New York’s financial crisis. In East Harlem, some actual tunnel segments were dug, roughly between the proposed station locations at 96th, 106th, 116th, and 125th Streets; Wikipedia has a more detailed list. Construction of phase 2 thus involves just the stations, plus a short bored segment under 125th Street to get from Second Avenue to Lexington, for a connection to the 4, 5, and 6 trains.
Not having to build tunnels between the stations is beneficial, not as a cost saver in itself but as a way to reduce station costs. In phase 1, it appears that most costs were associated with the stations themselves; if I remember correctly, the cost breakdown was 25% for each of three new stations, and 25% for the tunnels in between. The reason is that the stations are quite deep, while the tunneling in between is bored, to reduce surface disruption. Deep stations are more expensive because they require more excavation, while tunnel boring costs depend more on soil type and how much infrastructure is in the way than on depth. Counting the extra expense of stations, bored subways cost more per km than cut-and-cover subways, but create less surface disruption away from station sites, which is why this method was chosen for phase 1. In contrast, in phase 2, most construction is stations, which would favor a shallow cut-and-cover solution.
Unfortunately, according to rumors, it appears that the MTA now judges it impossible to use the preexisting tunnels in phase 2. If this is true, then this would explain the higher cost (though it would justify $400 million per km, not $2.2 billion): they’d have to build underneath those tunnels. But if this is true then it suggests severe incompetence in the planning stage, of the kind that should get senior employees fired and consultants blacklisted.
The reason is that Second Avenue Subway was planned as a single line. The Environmental Impact Statement was for the full line, including the proposed construction techniques. The phasing was agreed on by then; there was only enough state money for phase 1. This isn’t an unexpected change of plans. I’d understand if in the 2000s it was found that tunnels from the 1970s were not usable; this happened further south, in phase 4, where a preexisting tunnel under Chrystie Street was found to be difficult to use. But in the 2000s the SAS studies signed off on using the tunnels in Harlem, and what seems to be happening is that phase 1, built according to the specifications of the same study, is too deep for using the tunnels.
At $6 billion, this line shouldn’t be built. I know that it goes to a low-income, underserved neighborhood, one that I’ve attacked New York before for taking years to equip with bike lanes (scroll down to my comments here). But the ridership projection is 100,000 per weekday, and $60,000 per weekday rider is too much. Phase 1, providing an underrated east-west connection and serving a denser neighborhood, is projected to get 200,000, for a projection of around $25,000 per weekday rider, which isn’t terrible, so it’s a justified project even if the costs could be an order of magnitude lower.
Were costs lower, it would be possible to build subways to many more low-income neighborhoods in New York. A 125th Street crosstown line, extending phase 2 of SAS, would provide Harlem with crucial east-west connectivity. Subways under Nostrand and Utica Avenues would serve a mixture of working- and middle-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A subway under Northern Boulevard in Queens, connecting to phases 3 and 4 of SAS, would serve one of the poorest parts of Queens. A network of tramways would improve surface transit in the South Bronx. Triboro Line would connect poor areas like the South Bronx and East New York with richer ones like Astoria. New York could achieve a lot, especially for its most vulnerable residents, if it could construct subways affordably.
But in a world in which subways cost $60,000 per weekday rider and $2.2 billion per km, New York cannot extend the subway. If it has money in its budget for investment, it should look into things other than transportation, such as social housing or schools. Or it could not borrow money at all to pay for big projects, and in lieu of the money spent on interest, reduce taxes, or increase ongoing social spending.
Given persistent high costs, I would recommend shelving SAS and future rail extensions in New York, including the Gateway tunnel, until costs can be drastically cut. There’s no shortage of worthy priorities for scarce budget in New York, both city and state. Health care in the US is too expensive by a factor of 2, not 10, and transfer payments have near-100% efficiency no matter what; it’s possible to exhaust the tax capability of a state or city just on these two items. Perhaps the need to compete with other budget priorities would get the MTA to cut waste.
In 2009, studies began for a replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel. This tunnel, located immediately west of Baltimore Penn Station, has sharp curves, limiting passenger trains to about 50 km/h today. The plan was a two-track passenger rail tunnel, called the Great Circle Tunnel since it would sweep a wide circular arc; see yellow line here. It would be about 3 kilometers and cost $750 million, on the high side for a tunnel with no stations, but nothing to get too outraged about. Since then, costs have mounted. In 2014, the plan, still for two tracks, was up to $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Since then, costs have exploded, and the new Final Environmental Impact Statement puts the project at $4 billion. This is worth getting outraged about; at this cost, even at half this cost, the tunnel should not be built. However, unlike in some other cases of high construction costs that I have criticized, here the problem is not high unit costs, but pure scope creep. The new scope should be deleted in order to reduce costs; as I will explain, the required capacity is well within the capability of two tracks.
First, some background, summarized from the original report from 2009, which I can no longer find: Baltimore was a bottleneck of US rail transportation in the mid-19th century. In the Civil War, there was no route through the city; Union troops had to lug supplies across the city, fighting off mobs of Confederate sympathizers. This in turn is because Baltimore’s terrain is quite hilly, with no coastal plain to speak of: the only flat land on which a railroad could be easily built was already developed and urbanized by the time the railroad was invented. It took until the 1870s to build routes across the city, by which time the US already had a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, intense competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) ensured that each company would built its own tunnel. The two-track B&P is the PRR tunnel; there’s also a single-track freight tunnel, originally built by the B&O, now owned by CSX, into which the B&O later merged.
Because of the duplication of routes and the difficult geography, the tunnels were not built to high standards. The ruling grade on the B&P is higher than freight railroads would like, 1.34% uphill departing the station, the steepest on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) south of Philadelphia. This grade also reduces initial acceleration for passenger trains. The tunnel also has multiple sharp curves, with the curve at the western portal limiting trains today to 30 mph (about 50 km/h). The CSX tunnel, called Howard Street Tunnel, has a grade as well. The B&P maintenance costs are high due to poor construction, but a shutdown for repairs is not possible as it is a key NEC link with no possible reroute.
In 2009, the FRA’s plan was to bypass the B&P Tunnel with a two-track passenger rail tunnel, the Great Circle Tunnel. The tunnel would be a little longer than the B&P, but permit much higher speeds, around 160 km/h, saving Acela trains around 1.5 minutes. Actually the impact would be even higher, since near-terminal speed limits are a worse constraint for trains with higher initial acceleration; for high-performance trains, the saving is about 2-2.5 minutes. No accommodation was made for freight in the original plan: CSX indicated lack of interest in a joint passenger and freight rail tunnel. Besides, the NEC’s loading gauge is incompatible with double-stacked freight; accommodating such trains would require many small infrastructure upgrades, raising bridges, in addition to building a new tunnel.
In contrast, the new plan accommodates freight. Thus, the plan is for four tracks, all built to support double-stacked freight. This is despite the fact that there is no service plan that requires such capacity. Nor can the rest of the NEC support double-stacked freight easily. Of note, Amtrak only plans on using this tunnel under scenarios of what it considers low or intermediate investment into high-speed rail. Under the high-investment scenario, the so-called Alternative 3 of NEC Future, the plan is to build a two-track tunnel under Downtown Baltimore, dedicated to high-speed trains. Thus, the ultimate plan is really for six tracks.
Moreover, as pointed out by Elizabeth Alexis of CARRD, a Californian advocacy group that has criticized California’s own high-speed rail cost overruns, the new tunnel is planned to accommodate diesel trains. This is because since 2009, the commuter rail line connecting Baltimore and Washington on the NEC, called the MARC Penn Line, has deelectrified. The route is entirely electrified, and MARC used to run electric trains on it. However, in the last few years MARC deelectrified. There are conflicting rumors as to why: MARC used the pool of Amtrak electric locomotives, and Amtrak is stopping maintaining them as it is getting new locomotives; Amtrak is overcharging MARC on electricity; MARC wants fleet compatibility with its two other lines, which are unelectrified (although the Penn Line has more ridership than both other lines combined). No matter what, MARC should immediately reverse course and buy new electric trains to use on the Penn Line.
Freight trains are more complicated – all US freight trains are dieselized, even under catenary, because of a combination of unelectrified yards and Amtrak’s overcharging on electric rates. However, if freight through the Great Circle Tunnel is desired, Amtrak should work with Norfolk Southern on setting up an electric district, or else Norfolk Southern should negotiate trackage rights on CSX’s existing tunnel. If more freight capacity is desired, private companies NS and CSX can spend their own money on freight tunnels.
In contrast, a realistic scenario would ignore freight entirely, and put intercity and regional trains in the same two-track tunnel. The maximum capacity of a two-track high-speed rail line is 12 trains per hour. Near Baltimore Penn the line would not be high-speed, so capacity is defined by the limit of a normal line, which is about 24 tph. If there is a service plan under which the MARC Penn Line could get more than 12 tph at the peak, I have not seen it. The plans I have seen call for 4 peak tph and 2 off-peak tph. There is a throwaway line about “transit-like” service on page 17, but it’s not clear what is meant in terms of frequency.
Regardless of what the state of Maryland thinks MARC could support, 12 peak regional tph through Baltimore is not a reasonable assumption in any scenario in which cars remain legal. The tunnels are not planned to have any stations, so the only city station west of Baltimore Penn is West Baltimore. Baltimore is not a very dense city, nor is West Baltimore, most famous for being the location of The Wire, a hot location for transit-oriented development. Most of Baltimore’s suburbs on the Penn Line are very low-density. In any scenario in which high-speed rail actually fills 12 tph, many would be long-range commuters, which means people who live in Baltimore and work in Washington would be commuting on high-speed trains and not on regional trains. About the upper limit of what I can see for the Penn Line in a realistic scenario is 6 tph peak, 3-4 tph off-peak.
Moreover, there is no real need to separate high-speed and regional trains for reasons of speed. High-speed trains take time to accelerate from a stop at Baltimore: by the portal, even high-acceleration sets could not go much faster than 200 km/h. An in-tunnel speed limit in the 160-180 km/h area only slows down high-speed trains by a few seconds. Nor does it lead to any noticeable speed difference with electrified regional trains, which would reduce capacity: modern regional trains like the FLIRT accelerate to 160 km/h as fast as the fastest-accelerating high-speed train, the N700-I, both having an acceleration penalty of about 25 seconds.
The upshot is that there is no need for any of the new scope added since 2009. There is no need for four tracks; two will suffice. There is no need to design for double-stacked freight; the rest of the line only accommodates single-stacked freight, and the NEC has little freight traffic anyway. Under no circumstances should diesel passenger trains be allowed under the catenary, not when the Penn Line is entirely electrified.
The new tunnel has no reason to cost $4 billion. Slashing the number of tunnels from four to two should halve the cost, and reducing the tunnels’ size and ventilation needs should substantially reduce cost as well. With the potential time gained by intercity and regional trains and the reduced maintenance cost, the original budget of $750 million is acceptable, and even slightly higher costs can be justified. However, again because the existing two-track capacity can accommodate any passenger rail volume that can be reasonably expected, the new tunnel is not a must-have. $4 billion is too high a cost, and good transit activists should reject the current plan.
As the ongoing attempt to build a Hyperloop tube in California is crashing due to entirely foreseen technical problems, the company trying to raise capital for the project, Hyperloop One, is looking at other possibilities in order to save face. A few come from other passenger routes: Stockholm-Helsinki is one option, and another is the Dubai-Abu Dhabi, which looks like it may happen thanks to the regime’s indifference to financial prudence. Those plans aren’t any better or worse than the original idea to build it in California. But as part of their refusal to admit failure, the planners are trying to branch into express freight service. Hyperloop freight is especially egregious, in a way that’s interesting not only as a way of pointing out that tech entrepreneurs don’t always know what they’re doing, but also because of its implications for freight service on conventional high-speed rail.
First, let’s go back to my most quoted line on Hyperloop. In 2013 I called it a barf ride, because the plan would subject passengers to high acceleration forces, about 5 m/s^2 (conventional rail tops at 1.5 m/s^2, and a plane takes off at 3-4 m/s^2). This is actually worse for freight than for passengers, which is why the speed limits on curves are lower for freight trains than for passenger trains: as always, see Martin Lindahl’s thesis for relevant European standards. Freight does not barf, but it does shift, potentially dangerously; air freight is packed tightly in small pellets. Existing freight trains are also almost invariably heavier than passenger trains, and the heavier axle loads make high cant deficiency more difficult, as the added weight pounds the outer rail.
Another potential problem is cant. Normally, canting the tracks provides free sideways acceleration: provided the cant can be maintained, no component of the train or tracks feels the extra force. Cant deficiency, in contrast, is always felt by the tracks and the frame of the train; tilting reduces the force felt in the interior of the train, but not on the frame or in the track. At Hyperloop’s proposed speed and curve radius, getting to 5 m/s^2 force felt in the interior of the train, toward the floor, requires extensive canting. Unfortunately, this means the weight vector would point sideways rather than down, which the lightweight elevated tube structure would transmit to concrete pylons, which have high compressible strength but low tensile strength. This restricts any such system to carrying only very lightweight cargo, of mass comparable to that of passengers. This is less relevant to conventional high-speed rail and even maglev, which use more massive elevated structures, but conversely the problem of high forces on the outer rail ensures cant deficiency must be kept low.
Taken together, this means that high-speed freight can’t be of the same type as regular freight. Hyperloop One, to its credit, understands this. The managers are furiously trying to find freight – any kind of freight – that can economically fit. This has to involve materials with a high ratio of value to mass, for example perishable food, jewelry, and mail. SNCF ran dedicated TGV mail trains for 31 years, but decided to discontinue the service last year, in the context of declining mail volumes.
High-speed freight has a last mile problem. Whereas high-speed passenger service benefits from concentration of intercity destinations near the center of the city or a handful of tourist attractions, high-speed freight service has to reach the entire region to be viable. Freight trains today are designed with trucks for last-mile distribution; starting in the 1910s, industry dispersed away from waterfronts and railyards. The combination of trucks and electrification led to a form of factory building that is land-intensive and usually not found in expensive areas. Retail is more centralized than industry, but urban supermarkets remain local, and suburban ones are either local or auto-oriented hypermarkets. Even urban shopping malls as in Singapore are designed around truck delivery. The result is that high-speed freight must always contend with substantial egress time.
Let us now look at access time. How are goods supposed to get from where they’re made to the train station? With passengers, there are cars and connecting transit at the home end. There’s typically less centralization than at the destination end, but in a small origin city like the secondary French and Japanese cities, travel time is not excessive. In a larger city like Osaka it takes longer to get to the train station, but car ownership is lower because of better public transit, which increases intercity rail’s mode share. On freight, the situation is far worse: industry is quite dispersed and unlikely to be anywhere near the tracks, while the train station is typically in a congested location. Conventional rail can build a dedicated freight terminal in a farther out location (for example, auto trains in Paris do not use Gare de Lyon but Bercy); an enclosed system like Hyperloop can’t.
And if industry is difficult to centralize, think of farmed goods. Agriculture is the least centralized of all economic activities; this is on top of the fact that of all kinds of retail, supermarkets are the most local. Extensive truck operations would be needed, just as they are today. And yet, outside analysts are considering perishables as an example of a good where Hyperloop could compete.
With that in mind, any speed benefits coming from high-speed freight services vanish. There are diminishing returns to speed. Since the cost of extra speed does not diminish, there’s always a point where reducing travel time stops being useful, since the effect on door-to-door travel time is too small to justify the extra expense. The higher the total access plus egress time is, the sooner this point is reached, and in freight, the total access and plus egress time is just too long.
In passenger service, the problem of Hyperloop is that it tries to go just a little bit too far beyond conventional high-speed rail. The technical problems are resolvable, at extra cost, and in a few decades, vactrains (probably based on maglev propulsion rather than Elon Musk’s air bearings) may become viable for long-distance passenger rail.
In freight, the situation is very different. Successful freight rail companies, for example the Class I railroads in North America, China Railways, and Russian Railways, make money off of hauling freight over very long distances at low cost. Quite often this is because the freight in question is so heavy that even without substantial fuel taxes, trucks cannot compete on fuel or on labor costs; this is why Western Europe’s highest freight rail mode share is found in Sweden, with its heavy iron ore trains, and in Switzerland, Finland, Austria, with their long-distance freight across the Alps or toward Russia. Increasing speed is not what the industry wants or needs: past US experiments with fast freight did not succeed financially. The fastest, highest-cost mode of freight today, the airplane, has very low mode share, in contrast with the popularity of planes and high-speed trains in passenger service.
None of this requires deep analysis; in response to Hyperloop One’s interest in freight, an expert in logistics asked “why do we need to move cargo at 500 mph?“. The problem is one of face. The entrepreneurs in charge of Hyperloop One cannot admit that they made a mistake, to themselves, to their investors, or to the public. They are bringing the future to the unwashed masses, or so they think, and this requires them to ignore any problem until after it’s been solved, and certainly not to admit failure. Failure is for ordinary people, not for would-be masters of the universe. The announcement of the grand project is always more bombastic and always reaches more people than the news of its demise. It’s on those of us who support good transit and good rail service to make sure the next half-baked idea gets all the skepticism and criticism it deserves.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, negotiations in New Jersey between Governor Chris Christie and the state legislature have resulted in a significant increase in the state fuel tax. The money will raise $16 billion for funding the eight-year Transportation Trust Fund plan, and be matched with federal funds to bring the amount up to $32 billion. Unfortunately, the money is being wasted. Details of most of the plan remain vague, but it appears most of the money will go to road repair; for all I know, $4 billion a year is a reasonable amount for this. But one component of the plan is extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system north into Bergen County, along the Northern Branch. This is at best a marginal project, and in the long run would make regional rail modernization in Northern New Jersey more difficult.
Despite its name, the HBLR only operates in Hudson County. Plans for extension into Bergen County along the Northern Branch still play an outsized political role due to the name of the line, but have not been realized yet. Right now, the line is partly the light rail system of Jersey City, and partly a circumferential line linking dense areas west of the Hudson, as somewhat of a circumferential. As such, it is a combination of a radial and circumferential. The Northern Branch would send it 13 km farther north into suburbia, terminating in Englewood, a town center with a fraction of the job density of the Jersey City CBD. Projected weekday ridership is 21,000, a little more than 1,500 per km, weak for an urban light rail line. (The HBLR’s existing ridership is 54,000 per weekday on 55 km of route.)
The original cost estimate of the Northern Branch extension was $150 million, low for the length of the line. While reactivating a closed commuter rail like the Northern Branch should be cheaper, the line is single-track still hosts some freight service, so light rail would have to build new tracks in the same right-of-way, raising the cost range to that of urban light rail. Unfortunately, the cost rapidly escalated: by 2009 it was up to $800-900 million, and in 2015, after the proposal was shortened to its current length from an 18 km proposal going deeper into the Bergen County suburbs, the cost was up to $1 billion. The cost per rider is still much better than that of the Gateway Tunnel, but it makes the project marginal at best.
While the high cost may be surprising, at least to the reader who is unused to the expense of building in or near New York, the limited ridership is not. The original plan, going beyond Englewood, would have terminated the line in Tenafly, a wealthy suburb where my advisor at Columbia used to live. Many people in Tenafly objected to that plan, not so much on the usual NIMBY grounds of traffic and noise as on the grounds that the line would not be of much use to them. They were interested in taking public transit to go to Manhattan, and the HBLR system would not be of any use. Of course, Columbia professors would not be using a rail network that went directly to Midtown or Lower Manhattan, but most of the suburb’s Manhattan-bound residents work in the CBD and not at Columbia.
I would probably not be this adamantly against the Northern Branch project if it were just one more over-budget light rail line at $45,000 per projected rider. The US has no shortage of these. Rather, it’s the long-term effect on regional rail.
The Northern Branch would make a good commuter rail line, going from Pavonia (or possibly Hoboken) north to Nyack, connecting to the HBLR at its present-day northern terminus, with about the same stop spacing as the proposed HBLR extension. Potentially it could even get a loop similar to the proposed Secaucus loop of the Gateway project allowing it to enter Penn Station directly. An even better connection would involve a second tunnel between Pavonia, Lower Manhattan, and Atlantic Terminal on the LIRR, with a new transfer station at the junction of the Northern Branch and the Northeast Corridor. Consult this map, depicting the inner segments of various potential commuter lines: the Northern Branch is the easternmost yellow line, the Northeast Corridor is in red and green.
The importance of the Northern Branch for regional rail is threefold. First, the easternmost line in North Jersey today, the Pascack Valley Line, misses a large swath of territory farther east, which is covered by the Northern Branch and by the West Shore Line. The West Shore Line actually passes through somewhat denser suburbs, with more Manhattan-bound commuters, but is a major freight route, whereas the Northern Branch has little freight traffic, which can be scheduled around passenger trains or even kicked out. Second, again shared with the West Shore Line, the Northern Branch provides a north-south line in Hudson County west of Bergen Hill, where there is suitable land for transit-oriented development. And third, the terminus, Nyack, is a town center with a walkable core.
I wouldn’t really object to making the Northern Branch light rail if it were cheap. At the original cost estimate of $150 million, I would be mildly annoyed by the lack of long-term thinking, but I’d also recognize that the cost per rider was low, and at worst the state would have to redo a $150 million project. At $1 billion, the calculus changes considerably; it’s a significant fraction of what a tunnel under the Hudson should cost (though not what it does cost given the extreme amount of scope creep).
High costs, as I said in 2011, should not be an excuse to downgrade transit projects to a cheaper, less useful category (such as from a subway to light rail). In this case we see the opposite happen: high costs are a reason to reject a downgraded project, since the cost per rider is no longer low enough to justify shrugging off the long-term effect on regional rail restoration.
A recent New Jersey Transit train accident, in which one person was killed and more than a hundred was injured, has gotten people thinking about US rail safety again. New Jersey has the second lowest fuel tax in the US, and to avoid raising it, Governor Chris Christie cut the New Jersey Transit budget (see PDF-pp. 4-5 here); perhaps in reaction to the accident, Christie is announcing a long-in-the-making deal that would raise the state’s fuel tax. But while the political system has been discussing funding levels, transit advocates have been talking about regulations. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether positive train control could have prevented the accident, which was caused by overspeed. And on Twitter, people are asking whether Federal Railroad Administration regulations helped protect the train from greater damage, or instead made the problem worse. It’s the last question that I want to address in this post.
FRA regulations mandate that US passenger trains be able to withstand considerable force without deformation, much more so than regulations outside North America. This has made American (and Canadian) passenger trains heavier than their counterparts in the rest of the world. This was a major topic of discussion on this blog in 2011-2: see posts here and here for an explanation of FRA regulations, and tables of comparative train weights here and here. As I discussed back then, FRA regulations do not prevent crumpling of passenger-occupied space better than European (UIC) regulations do in a collision between two trains, except at a narrow range of relative speeds, about 20-25 mph (30-40 km/h); see PDF-pp. 60-63 of a study by Caltrain, as part of its successful application for waivers from the most constraining FRA regulations. To the extent people think FRA regulations have any safety benefits, it is purely a stereotype that regulations are good, and that heavier vehicles are safer in crashes.
All of this is old discussions. I bring this up to talk about the issue of systemwide safety. Jacob Anbinder, accepting the wrong premise that FRA regulations have real safety benefits, suggested on Twitter that rail activists should perhaps accept lower levels of rail safety in order to encourage mode shift from much more dangerous cars toward transit. This is emphatically not what I mean: as I said on Twitter, the same policies and practices that lead to good train safety also lead to other good outcomes, such as punctuality. They may seem like a tradeoff locally within each country or region, but globally the correlation goes the other way.
In 2011, I compiled comparative rail safety statistics for the US (1 dead per 3.4 billion passenger-km), India (1 per 6.6 billion), China (1 per 55 billion), Japan (1 per 51 billion), South Korea (1 per 6.7 billion), and the EU (1 per 13 billion), based on Wikipedia’s lists of train accidents. The number for India is an underestimate, based on general reports of Mumbai rail passenger deaths, and I thought the same was true of China. Certainly after the Wenzhou accident, the rail activists in the developed world that I had been talking to stereotyped China as dangerous, opaque, uninterested in passengers’ welfare. Since then, China has had a multi-year track record without such accidents, at least not on its high-speed rail network. Through the end of 2015, China had 4.3 billion high-speed rail passengers, and by 2015 its ridership grew to be larger than the rest of the world combined. I do not have statistics for high-speed passenger-km, but overall, the average rail trip in China, where there’s almost no commuter rail, is about 500 km long. If this is also true of its high-speed rail network, then it’s had 2.15 trillion high-speed passenger-km, and 1 fatality per 54 billion. This is worse than the Shinkansen and TGV average of zero fatalities, but much better than the German average, which is weighed down by Eschede. (While people stereotype China as shoddy, nobody so stereotypes Germany despite the maintenance problems that led to the Eschede accident.)
I bring up China’s positive record for two reasons. First, because it is an example of how reality does not conform to popular stereotypes. Both within China and in the developed world, people believe China makes defective products, cheap in every sense of the term, and compromises safety; the reality is that, while that is true of China’s general environmental policy, it is not true of its rail network. And second, China does not have buff strength requirements for trains at all; like Japan, it focuses on collision avoidance, rather than on survivability.
The importance of the approaches used in Japan and on China’s high-speed rail network is that it provides safety on a systemwide level. By this I do not mean that it encourages a mode shift away from cars, where fatality rates are measured in 1 per hundreds of millions of passenger-km and not per tens of billions. Rather, I mean that the entire rail network is easier to run safely when the trains are lighter.
It is difficult to find exact formulas for the dependence of maintenance costs on train weight. A discussion on Skyscraper City, sourced to Bombardier, claims track wear grows as the cube of axle load. One experiment on the subject, at low speeds and low-to-moderate axle loads, finds a linear relationship in both axle load and speed. A larger study finds a relationship with exponents of 3-5 in both dynamic axle load and speed. The upshot is that at equal maintenance cost, lighter trains can be run faster, or, at equal speed, lighter trains make it easier to maintain the tracks.
The other issue is reliability. As I explained on Twitter, the same policies that promote greater safety also make the system more reliable, with fewer equipment failures, derailments, and slowdowns. On the LIRR, the heavy diesel locomotives have a mean distance between failures of 20,000-30,000 km, and the medium-weight EMUs 450,000 (see PDF-pp. 21-22 here). The EMUs that run on the LIRR (and on Metro-North), while heavier than they should be because of FRA requirements, are nonetheless pretty good rolling stock. But in Tokyo, one rolling stock manufacturer claims a mean distance between failures of 1.5 million km. While within Japan, the media responds to fatal accidents by questioning whether the railroads prioritize the timetable over safety, the reality is that the overarching focus on reliability that leads to low maintenance costs and high punctuality also provides safety.
In the US, especially outside the EMUs on the LIRR and Metro-North, the situation is the exact opposite. The mean distance between failures for the LIRR’s diesel locomotives is not unusually low: on the MBTA, the average is about 5,000 km, and even on the newest locomotives it’s only about 20,000 (State of the Commuter Rail System, PDF-pp. 8-9). The MBTA commuter rail system interacts with freight trains that hit high platforms if the boxcars’ doors are left open, which can happen if vandals or train hoppers open the doors; as far as I can tell, the oversize freight on the MBTA that prevents easy installation of high platforms systemwide is not actually oversize, but instead veers from the usual loading gauge due to such sloppiness.
Of course, given a fixed state of the infrastructure and the rolling stock, spending more money leads to more safety. This is why Christie’s budget cuts are important to publicize. Within each system, there are real tradeoffs between cost control and safety; to Christie, keeping taxes low is more important than smooth rail operations, and insofar as it is possible to attribute political blame for such low-probability events as fatal train accidents, Christie’s policies may be a contributing factor. My contention here is different: when choosing a regulatory regime and an overarching set of operating practices, any choice that centers high performance and high reliability at the expense of tradition will necessarily be safer. The US rail community has a collective choice between keeping doing what it’s doing and getting the same result, and transitioning operating practices to be closer to the positive results obtained in Japan; on safety, there is no tradeoff.