Does the absolute size of a country matter for public transport planning? Usually it does not – construction costs do not seem to be sensitive to absolute size, and the basics of rail planning do not either. That Europe’s most intensely used mainline rail networks are those of Switzerland and the Netherlands, two geographically small countries, is not really about the inherent benefits of small size, but about the fact that most countries in Europe are small, so we should expect the very best as well as the very worst to be small.
But now Germany is copying Swiss and Dutch ideas of nationally integrated rail planning, in a way that showcases where size does matter. For decades Switzerland has had a national clockface schedule in which all trains are coordinated for maximum convenience of interchange between trains at key stations. For example, at Zurich, trains regularly arrive just before :00 and :30 every hour and leave just after, so passengers can connect with minimum wait. Germany is planning to implement the same scheme by 2030 but on a much bigger scale, dubbed Deutschlandtakt. This plan is for the most part good, but has some serious problems that come from overlearning from small countries rather than from similar-size France.
In accordance with best industry practices, there is integration of infrastructure and timetable planning. I encourage readers to go to the Ministry of Transport (BMVI) and look at some line maps – there are links to line maps by region as well as a national map for intercity trains. The intercity train map is especially instructive when it comes to scale-variance: it features multihour trips that would be a lot shorter if Germany made a serious attempt to build high-speed rail like France.
Before I go on and give details, I want to make a caveat: Germany is not the United States. BMVI makes a lot of errors in planning and Deutsche Bahn is plagued by delays; these are still basically professional organizations, unlike the American amateur hour of federal and state transportation departments, Amtrak, and sundry officials who are not even aware Germany has regional trains. As in London and Paris, the decisions here are defensible, just often incorrect.
Run as fast as necessary
Switzerland has no high-speed rail. It plans rail infrastructure using the maxim, run trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. Zurich, Basel, and Bern are around 100 km from one another by rail, so the federal government invested in speeding up the trains so as to serve each city pair in just less than an hour. At the time of this writing, Zurich-Bern is 56 minutes one-way and the other two pairs are 53 each. Trains run twice an hour, leaving each of these three cities a little after :00 and :30 and and arriving a little before, enabling passengers to connect to onward trains nationwide.
There is little benefit in speeding up Switzerland’s domestic trains further. If SBB increases the average speed to 140 km/h, comparable to the fastest legacy lines in Sweden and Britain, it will be able to reduce trip times to about 42 minutes. Direct passengers would benefit from faster trips, but interchange passengers would simply trade 10 minutes on a moving train for 10 minutes waiting for a connection. Moreover, drivers would trade 10 minutes working on a moving train for 10 minutes of turnaround, and the equipment itself would simply idle 10 minutes longer as well, and thus there would not be any savings in operating costs. A speedup can only fit into the national takt schedule if trains connect each city pair in just less than half an hour, but that would require average speeds near the high end of European high-speed rail, which are only achieved with hundreds of kilometers of nonstop 300 km/h running.
Instead of investing in high-speed rail like France, Switzerland incrementally invests in various interregional and intercity rail connections in order to improve the national takt. To oversimplify a complex situation, if a city pair is connected in 1:10, Switzerland will invest in reducing it to 55 minutes, in order to allow trains to fit into the hourly takt. This may involve high average speeds, depending on the length of the link. Bern is farther from Zurich and Basel than Zurich and Basel are from each other, so in 1996-2004, SBB built a 200 km/h line between Bern and Olten; it has more than 200 trains per day of various speed classes, so in 2007 it became the first railroad in the world to be equipped with ETCS Level 2 signaling.
With this systemwide thinking, Switzerland has built Europe’s strongest rail network by passenger traffic density, punctuality, and mode share. It is this approach that Germany seeks to imitate. Thus, the Deutschlandtakt sets up control cities served by trains on a clockface schedule every 30 minutes or every hour. For example, Erfurt is to have four trains per hour, two arriving just before :30 and leaving just after and two arriving just before :00 and leaving just after; passengers can transfer in all directions, going north toward Berlin via either Leipzig or Halle, south toward Munich, or west toward Frankfurt.
Flight-level zero airlines
Richard Mlynarik likes to mock the idea of high-speed rail as conceived in California as a flight-level zero airline. The mockery is about a bunch of features that imitate airlines even when they are inappropriate for trains. The TGV network has many flight-level zero airline features: tickets are sold using an opaque yield management system; trains mostly run nonstop between cities, so for example Paris-Marseille trains do not stop at Lyon and Paris-Lyon trains do not continue to Marseille; frequency is haphazard; transfers to regional trains are sporadic, and occasionally (as at Nice) TGVs are timed to just miss regional connections.
And yet, with all of these bad features, SNCF has higher long-distance ridership than DB, because at the end of the day the TGVs connect most major French cities to Paris at an average speed in the 200-250 km/h range, whereas the fastest German intercity trains average about 170 and most are in the 120-150 range. The ICE network in Germany is not conceived as complete lines between pairs of cities, but rather as a series of bypasses around bottlenecks or slow sections, some with a maximum speed of 250 and some with a maximum speed of 300. For example, between Berlin and Munich, only the segments between Ingolstadt and Nuremberg and between Halle and north of Bamberg are on new 300 km/h lines, and the rest are on upgraded legacy track.
Even though the maximum speed on some connections in Germany is the same as in France, there are long slow segments on urban approaches, even in cities with ample space for bypass tracks, like Berlin. The LGV Sud-Est diverges from the classical line 9 kilometers outside Paris and permits 270 km/h 20 kilometers out; on its way between Paris and Lyon, the TGV spends practically the entire way running at 270-300 km/h. No high-speed lines get this close to Berlin or Munich, even though in both cities, the built-up urban area gives way to farms within 15-20 kilometers of the train station.
The importance of absolute size
Switzerland and the Netherlands make do with very little high-speed rail. Large-scale speedups are of limited use in both countries, Switzerland because of the difficulty of getting Zurich-Basel trip times below half an hour and the Netherlands because all of its major cities are within regional rail distance of one another.
But Germany is much bigger. Today, ICE trains go between Berlin and Munich, a distance of about 600 kilometers, in just less than four hours. The Deutschlandtakt plan calls for a few minutes’ speedup to 3:49. At TGV speed, trains would run about an hour faster, which would fit well with timed transfers at both ends. Erfurt is somewhat to the north of the midpoint, but could still keep a timed transfer between trains to Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin if everything were sped up.
Elsewhere, DB is currently investing in improving the line between Stuttgart and Munich. Trains today run on curvy track, taking about 2:13 to do 250 km. There are plans to build 250 km/h high-speed rail for part of the way, targeting a trip time of 1:30; the Deutschlandtakt map is somewhat less ambitious, calling for 1:36, with much of the speedup coming from Stuttgart21 making the intercity approach to Stuttgart much easier. But with a straight line distance of 200 km, even passing via Ulm and Augsburg, trains could do this trip in less than an hour at TGV speeds, which would fit well into a national takt as well. No timed transfers are planned at Augsburg or Ulm. The Baden-Württemberg map even shows regional trains (in blue) at Ulm timed to just miss the intercity trains to Munich. Likewise, the Bavaria map shows regional trains at Augsburg timed to just miss the intercity trains to Stuttgart.
The same principle applies elsewhere in Germany. The Deutschlandtakt tightly fits trains between Munich and Frankfurt, doing the trip in 2:43 via Stuttgart or 2:46 via Nuremberg. But getting Munich-Stuttgart to just under an hour, together with Stuttgart21 and a planned bypass of the congested Frankfurt-Mannheim mainline, would get Munich-Frankfurt to around two hours flat. Via Nuremberg, a new line to Frankfurt could connect Munich and Frankfurt in about an hour and a half at TGV speed; even allowing for some loose scheduling and extra stops like Würzburg, it can be done in 1:46 instead of 2:46, which fits into the same integrated plan at the two ends.
The value of a tightly integrated schedule is at its highest on regional rail networks, on which trains run hourly or half-hourly and have one-way trip times of half an hour to two hours. On metro networks the value is much lower, partly because passengers can make untimed transfers if trains come every five minutes, and partly because when the trains come every five minutes and a one-way trip takes 40 minutes, there are so many trains circulating at once that the run-as-fast-as-necessary principle makes the difference between 17 and 18 trainsets rather than that between two and three. In a large country in which trains run hourly or half-hourly and take several hours to connect major cities, timed transfers remain valuable, but running as fast as necessary is less useful than in Switzerland.
The way forward for Germany
Germany needs to synthesize the two different rail paradigms of its neighbors – the integrated timetables of Switzerland and the Netherlands, and the high-speed rail network of France.
High investment levels in rail transport are of particular importance in Germany. For too long, planning in Germany has assumed the country would be demographically stagnant, even declining. There is less justification for investment in infrastructure in a country with the population growth rate of Italy or of last decade’s Germany than in one with the population growth rate of France, let alone one with that of Australia or Canada. However, the combination of refugee resettlement and a very strong economy attracting European and non-European work migration is changing this calculation. Even as the Ruhr and the former East Germany depopulate, we see strong population growth in the rich cities of the south and southwest as well as in Berlin.
The increased concentration of German population in the big cities also tilts the best planning in favor of the metropolitan-centric paradigm of France. Fast trains between Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich gain value if these three cities grow in population whereas the smaller towns between them that the trains would bypass do not.
The Deutschlandtakt’s fundamental idea of a national integrated timed transfer schedule is good. However, a country the size and complexity of Germany needs to go beyond imitating what works in Switzerland and the Netherlands, and innovate in adapting best practices for its particular situation. People keep flying domestically since the trains take too long, or they take buses if the trains are too expensive and not much faster. Domestic flights are not a real factor in the Netherlands, and barely at all in Switzerland; in Germany they are, so trains must compete with them as well as with flexible but slow cars.
The fact that Germany already has a functional passenger rail network argues in favor of more aggressive investment in high-speed rail. The United States should probably do more than just copy Switzerland, but with nonexistent intercity rail outside the Northeast Corridor and planners who barely know that Switzerland has trains, it should imitate rather than innovating. Germany has professional planners who know exactly how Germany falls short of its neighbors, and will be leaving too many benefits on the table if it decides that an average speed of about 150 km/h is good enough.
Germany can and should demand more: BMVI should enact a program with a budget in the tens of billions of euros to develop high-speed rail averaging 200-250 km/h connecting all of its major cities, and redo the Deutschlandtakt plans in support of such a network. Wedding French success in high-speed rail and Swiss and Dutch success in systemwide rail integration requires some innovative planning, but Germany is capable of it and should lead in infrastructure construction.
In the last year, Massachusetts has been studying something called the Rail Vision, listing several alternatives for commuter rail modernization. This has been independent of the North-South Rail Link study, and one of the options that the Rail Vision considered was full electrification. Unfortunately, the report released yesterday severely sandbags electrification, positing absurdly high costs. The state may well understand how bad its report is – at least as of the time of this writing, it’s been scrubbed from the public Internet, forcing me to rely on screencaps.
In short: the alternative that recommends full system electrification was sandbagged so as to cost $23 billion. This is for electrification, systems, and new equipment; the NSRL tunnel is not included. All itemized costs cost a large multiple of their international cost. The Americans in my feed are even starting to make concessions to extremely expensive projects like the Caltrain electrification, since the proposed MBTA electrification is even costlier than that.
But the telltale sign is not the cost of the wires, but rolling stock. The report asserts that running electrified service requires 1,450 cars’ worth of electric multiple units (“EMUs”), to be procured at a cost of $10 billion. More reasonable figures are 800 and $2 billion respectively.
Why 1,450 cars?
The all-electric option assumes that every line in the system will get a train every 15 minutes, peak and off-peak. What counts as a line is not clear, since some of the MBTA’s commuter lines have branches – for example, the Providence and Stoughton Lines share a trunk for 24 km, up to Canton Junction. However, we can make reasonable assumptions about which branches are far enough out; overall rolling stock needs are not too sensitive to these assumptions, as most lines are more straightforward.
The MBTA is capable of turning trains in 10 minutes today. In making schedules, I’ve mostly stuck to this assumption rather than trying to go for 5-minute turnarounds, which happen in Germany all the time (and on some non-mainline American subways); occasionally trains steal 1-2 minutes’ worth of turnaround time, if there’s a longer turn at the other end. Thus, if the one-way trip time is up to 50 minutes, then 8 trainsets provide 15-minute service.
To me, high-frequency regional rail for Boston means the following peak frequencies:
Providence/Stoughton: a train every 15 minutes on each branch. Service south of Providence is spun off to a Rhode Island state service, making more stops and running shorter trains as demand is weaker than commuter volumes to Boston. With this assumption, the Providence Line requires 7-8 trainsets. The Stoughton Line, with the South Coast Rail expansion to New Bedford and Fall River, each served every half hour, requires around 9-10. Say 18 sets total.
Worcester: the big question is whether to exploit the fast acceleration of EMUs to run all-local service or mix local and express trains on tracks in Newton that will never be quadrupled unless cars are banned. The all-local option has trains doing Boston-Worcester in just under an hour, so 9-10 trainsets are required. The mixed option, with a train every 15 minutes in each pattern, and local trains only going as far as Framingham, requires 14 sets, 8 express and 6 local.
Franklin/Fairmount: a train every 15 minutes on the Franklin Line, entering city center via the Fairmount Line, would do the trip in around 50 minutes. It may be prudent to run another train every 15 minutes on the Fairmount Line to Readville, a roughly 17-minute trip by EMU (current scheduled time with diesel locomotives: 30 minutes). Overall this is around 12 trainsets.
Old Colony Lines: there are three lines, serving very low-density suburbs. The only destinations that are interesting for more than tidal commuter rail are Plymouth, Brockton, Bridgewater State, and maybe an extension to Cape Cod. Each branch should get a train every 30 minutes, interlining to a train every 10 from Quincy Center to the north. About 10-12 trainsets are needed (2 more if there’s an hourly train out to Cape Cod); this is inefficient because with three branches, it’s not possible to have all of them depart South Station at :05 and :35 and arrive :25 and :55, so even if there’s a train every 15 minutes per branch, the requirement doesn’t double.
Fitchburg Line: a local train to Wachusett every 15 minutes would require around 12 sets (75 minutes one-way). The number may change a little if there’s an overlay providing service every 7.5 minutes to Brandeis, or if trains beyond South Acton only run every half hour.
Lowell Line: an EMU to Lowell would take about 27 minutes, depending on the stop pattern; 5 trainsets provide 15-minute frequency.
Haverhill Line: an EMU to Haverhill running the current route (not via the Wildcat Branch) would take about 40 minutes, so 7 trainsets provide a train every 15 minutes.
Eastern Lines: like the Old Colony Lines, this system has very low-density outer branches, with only one semi-reasonable outer anchor in Newburyport. Trains should run to Beverly every 10 minutes, and then one third should turn, one third should go to Rockport, and one third should go to Newburyport. With the same inherent inefficiency in running this service on a symmetric schedule as the Old Colony, around 10-12 sets are needed.
This is about 90 sets total. At eight cars per set, and with a spare ratio of 11%, the actual requirement is 800 cars, and not 1,450. The difference with the state’s assumption is likely that I’m assuming trains can run at the acceleration rates of modern EMUs; perhaps the state thinks that EMUs are as slow and unreliable as diesel locomotives, so a larger fleet is necessary to provide the same service.
Rolling stock costs
Reducing the cost of infrastructure is complicated, because it depends on local factors. But reducing the cost of industrial equipment is easy, since there are international vendors that make modular products. Factories all over Europe, Japan, and South Korea make this kind of equipment, and the European factories barely require any modifications to produce for the American market under current federal regulations.
It is not hard to go to Railway Gazette and search for recent orders for EMUs; names of trainsets include Talent, FLIRT, Mireo (cost information here) and Coradia. The linked Coradia order is for €96,500 per meter of train length, the other three orders are for about €70,000. A US-length (that is, 25 meters) car would cost around $2.5 million at this rate. 800 cars times $2.5 million equals $2 billion, not the $10 billion the MBTA claims.
Railway Gazette also discusses a maintenance contract: “Vy has awarded Stadler a contract worth nearly SFr100m for the maintenance in 2020-24 of more than 100 five-car Flirt EMUs.” These trains are 105 meters long; scaled to US car length, this means the annual maintenance cost of an EMU car is around $50,000, or $40 million for the entire fleet necessary for electrified service.
The actual net cost is even lower, since the MBTA needs to replace its rolling stock very soon anyway. If the choice is between 800 EMUs and a larger diesel fleet, the EMUs are cheaper; in effect, the rolling stock cost of electrification is then negative.
Why are they like this?
I struggle to find a problem with Boston’s transportation network that would not be alleviated if Massachusetts’ secretary of transportation Stephanie Pollack and her coterie of hacks, apparatchiks, and political appointees were all simultaneously fired.
There is a chain of command in the executive branch of the Massachusetts state government. Governor Charlie Baker decides that he does not want to embark on any big project, such as NSRL or rail electrification, perhaps because he is too incompetent to manage it successfully. He then intimates that such a project is unaffordable. Secretary Pollack responds by looking for reasons why the project is indeed unaffordable. Under pressure to deliver the required results, the planners make up outrageously high figures: they include fleet replacement in the electrified alternative but not in the unelectrified one (“incremental cost”), and then they lie about the costs by a factor of five.
Good transit activists can pressure the state, but the state has no interest in building good transit. The do-nothing governor enjoys no-build options and multi-billion dollar tweaks – anything that isn’t transformative is good to him. The do-nothing state legislature enjoys this situation, since it is no more capable of managing such a project, and having a governor who says no to everything enables it to avoid taking responsibility.
I’ve written a lot about the importance of radial network design for urban metros, for examples here, here, here, here, and here. In short, an urban rail network should look something like the following diagram:
That is, every two radial routes should intersect exactly once, with a transfer. In this post I am going to zoom in on a specific feature of importance: the location of the intersection points. In most cities, the intersection points should be as close as possible to the center, first in order to serve the most intensely developed location by all lines, and second in order to avoid backtracking.
The situation in Berlin
Here is the map of the central parts of Berlin’s U- and S-Bahn network, with my apartment in green and three places I frequently go to in red:
(Larger image can be found here.)
The Ring is severed this month due to construction: trains do not run between Ostkreuz, at its intersection with the Stadtbahn, and Frankfurter Allee, one stop to the north at the intersection with U5. As a result, going to the locations of the two northern red dots requires detours, namely walking longer from Warschauer Strasse to the central dot, and making a complex trip via U7, U8, and U2 to the northern dot.
But even when the Ring is operational, the Ring-to-U2 trip to the northern dot in Prenzlauer Berg is circuitous, and as a result I have not made it as often as I’d have liked; the restaurants in Prenzlauer Berg are much better than in Neukölln, but I can’t go there as often now. The real problem is not just that the Ring is interrupted due to construction, but that the U7-U2 connection is at the wrong place for the city’s current geography: it is too far west.
As with all of my criticism of Berlin’s U-Bahn network layout, there is a method to the madness: most of the route of U7 was built during the Cold War, and if you assumed that Berlin would be divided forever, the alignment would make sense. Today, it does not: U7 comes very close to U2 in Kreuzberg but then turns southwest to connect with the North-South Tunnel, which at the time was part of the Western S-Bahn network, running nonstop in the center underneath Mitte, then part of the East.
On hindsight, a better radial design for U7 would have made it a northwest-southeast line through the center. West of the U6 connection at Mehringdamm it would have connected to the North-South Tunnel at Anhalter Bahnhof and to U2 at Mendelssohn Park, and then continued west toward the Zoo. That area between U1/U2 and Tiergarten Park is densely developed, with its northern part containing the Cold War-era Kulturforum, and in the Cold War the commercial center of West Berlin was the Zoo, well to the east of the route of U7.
Avoiding three-seat rides
If the interchange points between lines are all within city center, then the optimal route between any two points is at worst a two-seat ride. This is important: transfers are pretty onerous, so transit planners should minimize them when it is reasonably practical. Two-seat rides are unavoidable, but three-seat rides aren’t.
The two-seat ride rule should be followed to the spirit, not the letter. If there are two existing lines with a somewhat awkward transfer, and a third line is built that makes a three-seat ride better than connecting between those two lines, then the third line is not by itself a problem, and it should be built if its projected ridership is sufficient. The problem is that the transfer was at the wrong location, or maybe at the right location but with too long a walk between the platforms.
Berlin’s awkward U-Bahn network is such that people say that the travel time between any two points within the Ring is about 30 minutes, no matter what. When I tried pushing back, citing a few 20-minute trips, my interlocutors noted that with walking time to the station, the inevitable wait times, and transfers, my 20-minute trips were exceptional, and most were about 30 or slightly longer.
The value of an untimed transfer rises with frequency. Berlin runs the U-Bahn every 5 minutes during the daytime on weekdays and the S-Bahn mostly every 5 minutes (or slightly better) as well; wait times are shorter in a city like Paris, where much of the Metro runs every 3 minutes off-peak, and only drops to 5 or 6 minutes late in the evening, when Berlin runs trains every 10 minutes. However, Parisian train frequencies are only supportable in huge cities like Paris, London, and Tokyo, all of which have very complex transfers, as the cities are so intensely built that the only good locations for train platforms require long walks between lines.
New York of course has the worst of all worlds: a highly non-radial subway network with dozens of missed connections, disappointing off-peak frequencies, and long transfer corridors in Midtown. In New York, three-seat rides are ubiquitous, which may contribute to weak off-peak ridership. Who wants to take three separate subway lines, each coming every 10 minutes, to go 10 kilometers between some residential Brooklyn neighborhood and a social event in Queens?
Boston has been on a commuter rail infill binge lately; it has opened four stations on the Fairmount Line this decade, with general success, and is now eying the Worcester Line, where the MBTA has already opened a single in-city station called Boston Landing. The next station to be opened is called West Station, serving Allston, a middle-class urban neighborhood home to Boston University. Unfortunately, the West Station project has suffered from budget and schedule overruns: the current projection is $90 million, where past stations in the area have opened for about $15-25 million each, and construction will start next decade and only wrap up by 2040.
The cause of the extreme cost is poor design. The station as currently proposed is an overbuilt mess. It is development-oriented transit, sited next to an area that Harvard wishes to redevelop as a new campus, and the compromises made between good rail service, intermodal bus-rail connections, and encouraging development make the project fail at all of its objectives. The idea of an infill station in Allston is solid and the MBTA should keep working on the project, but it should do it right – that is, maximize passenger utility while also slashing the budget by a factor of about 4.
I encourage readers to look at a presentation about the status of the project from May, and at another presentation from June, which was sent to members of the media and neighborhood.
Intermodal integration done wrong
The West Station site is roughly in the center of the new development. Unfortunately, it is poorly-located relative to the street network. With its hierarchy of major and minor streets, Boston is not forgiving to wrong station siting: buses would have to meander to reach the site.
The busiest bus in the area, and among the busiest in the region, is the 66. See image below:
The Red and Green Lines of the subway are in their respective colors (and the Green Line’s branches are surface light rail), the Worcester Line is in purple with its existing stations marked alongside the proposed West Station site, and the 66 bus is in black. The dashed purple line is the disused Grand Junction Railroad – see below for more explanation.
North of the West Station site, the bus could still reach the platforms relatively easily, as the plan includes mapping new streets over the entire site. But to the south, the streets are narrow and practically unusable. All north-south through-traffic is funneled through Harvard Avenue – anything else would meander at speeds not much higher than that of walking.
What’s more, the zigzag in the image above comes from a detour to the center of Allston, called Union Square. The West Station site would move service farther away from Union Square, forcing it to either abandon its single busiest stop or have a more circuitous route. Serving both West Station and Union Square requires running two separate north-south bus routes sharing much of their southern legs, which is bad for frequency. Already the 66 runs every 10 minutes off-peak in one direction and every 14 in the other; this is worse than the minimum acceptable on such a key route, and any further reduction in frequency through route splitting is unacceptable.
Finally, the station design as shown in the presentations includes ample room for bus bays, so that buses can terminate at the station. Such a layout may be appropriate at the center of a small town with timed bus-rail transfers; in the middle of the city, it is pointless. The 66 crosses the rail tracks and has no use for terminal berths. Nor is there any need for terminating buses running parallel to the tracks – passengers could walk to another train station on the Worcester Line or on the Green Line.
The MBTA has never released any public plan for a bus redesign around West Station. It talks about intermodal transfers but refuses to give any details, and it’s likely these details don’t even exist yet. There are occasional excuses, such as intercity buses (why would they terminate there instead of continuing to South Station?), buses to Kendall Square (they don’t need bus bays either), and buses to Longwood (Longwood is south of the Worcester Line and would be better-served by a commuter rail-to-Green Line transfer near Fenway Park).
Track design for maximum conflict
The latest option for West Station is called the flip option. The diagrams below are from the June presentation, pp. 8-10, going west to east:
There are to be two bypass tracks (“WML Express”), located where the current mainline is. There are also to be three tracks with station access, both on the other side of the railyard. The tracks serving the platforms cross the bypass tracks in a flat junction, forcing dependency between the inbound and outbound schedule. The flat junction is not especially quick, either – it is a long ladder track, requiring inbound local trains to South Station to make two slow diverging moves in succession.
The MBTA is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on station platforms in Newton turning the line into full double-track all the way from Boston to Worcester, freeing the schedule from such dependency, but at the same time it’s planning to add new conflicts.
While the diagrams label two tracks as freight tracks, there is little to no freight on that portion of the line. A freight rail spur in the area, serving Houghton Chemical, was just removed in preparation for the project. The line can and should be designed exclusively around the needs of regional passenger trains, for which the most important thing is continuous operation of double track, preferably with no flat junctions with oncoming traffic, and not any ancillary frills.
The Grand Junction tangential
The MBTA has grandiose plans to use the Grand Junction Railroad to allow trains from Allston and points west to avoid South Station entirely. The Grand Junction provides a bypass to the west of Downtown Boston, which currently sees no passenger service but is used for non-revenue moves between the South Station and North Station networks. There are periodic plans to reactive service so as to enable trains from the west to serve Cambridge and North Station instead. In the flip option, all local trains are required to go to the Grand Junction or switch back to the mainline using the ladder track.
Consult the following table, sourced to OnTheMap, for the number of jobs accessible within walking distance of the various station sites:
|South Station||Essex, Tremont, State, the harbor||119,191|
|Back Bay||Hereford, Belvidere, Columbus, Arlington, Storrow||62,513|
|Kendall||Binney, Third, Wadsworth, Memorial, Mass Ave, Windsor, Bristol||29,248|
|North Station||Blossom, Cambridge, State, Prince, the river||33,232|
Jobs accessible on the existing mainline outnumber ones accessible via the Grand Junction by a factor of about three. It is not technically sound to avoid city center on an urban rail line, much less a suburban one. Only if the line is a consistent circumferential line is there a good reason to go around the center.
A far-future subway duplicating the 66 route may succeed. The same may be true of a shuttle using the Grand Junction, but such shuttle may well need extensive new track – West Station is not necessarily the best south-of-Charles footprint (turning east toward BU to form a loop with a future North-South Rail Link is better). In contrast, the current plan for diversion of Newton trains toward a secondary job center and away from Downtown Boston has no chance of getting substantial ridership.
The railyard as an obstacle
For a project so focused on redevelopment, West Station does not do a good job encouraging construction in the area. It plans to keep the railyard in the middle, and even forces local and express trains to go on opposite sides of it. But the railyard is an obstacle not only to sound railway operations but also to redevelopment.
Building anything over rail tracks is complicated. New York supplies a few such examples: the link mentions the difficulties of Atlantic Yards, and to that I will add that the construction of the Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/m^2, compared with $3,000-6,000 for Manhattan supertall office towers on firma. Hudson Yards has managed to be financially successful, albeit with tax breaks, but it’s located right outside Midtown Manhattan. Allston’s location is not so favored. The cost penalty of building over railyards is likely to make air rights unviable.
There is still an extensive portion of the site that’s on firma. However, if the point is to maximize redevelopment potential, the city and the state must discard any plans for air rights. The railyard should go in order to increase the buildable area.
In lieu of parking at a railyard in a desirable near-center location, trains should circulate back and forth between Boston and Worcester. The MBTA keeps saddling itself with capital costs because it likes running trains one-way to Downtown Boston in the morning and then back to the suburbs in the afternoon, parking them near South Station midday. This is bad practice – trains are not just for suburban salarymen’s commutes. Urban infill stations in particular benefit from high all-day frequency and symmetric service. If the MBTA needs space for train parking, it should sell the railyard in Allston and charge Allston land prices, and instead buy space in Framingham and Worcester for Framingham and Worcester land prices.
West Station, done right
Thanks to delays and cost overruns, West Station is still in preliminary design. There is plenty of time to discard the flip option as well as the original plan in favor of a route that maximizes intermodal connections at minimum cost. A better West Station should have all of the following features:
- A simple four-track design, either with two stopping tracks and two bypass tracks or four stopping tracks and two island platforms, depending on long-term plans for train timetables
- High design speed, as high as the rest of the line for nonstop trains, as the tracks are straight and do not require any speed restriction
- Retention of double-track rail service throughout construction, even at the cost of more disruption to the Massachusetts Turnpike
- No at-grade conflicts in opposing directions: tracks should go slow-fast-fast-slow or fast-slow-slow-fast rather than slow-slow-fast-fast
- No bus bays: crosstown buses (that is, the 66) should stop on the street crossing the station right above the tracks, with vertical circulation directly from the bus stop to the platform in order to minimize transferring time
- Subject to site availability, platforms reaching Cambridge Street for a connection to the present-day 66 and a shorter walk to Union Square
- Elimination of the railyard to make more room for development, and if the line needs more yard space, then the state should find cheaper land for it in Framingham and Worcester
There is no reason for such a project to cost more than past infill stations built in Boston, which have cost around $15-25 million, about the same range as Berlin. By removing unnecessary scope, the MBTA can make West Station not only cheaper and easier to build but also more useful for passengers. The idea of an infill commuter rail station in Allston is good and I commend the MBTA for it, but the current plan is overbuilt and interferes with good rail and bus operations and needs to be changed immediately, in advance of engineering and construction.
New York is engaging in the process of redesigning its urban bus network borough by borough. The first borough is the Bronx, with an in-house redesign; Queens is ongoing, to be followed by Brooklyn, both outsourced to firms that have already done business with the MTA. The Bronx redesign draft is just out, and it has a lot of good and a great deal of bad.
What does the redesign include?
Like my and Eric Goldwyn’s proposal for Brooklyn, the Bronx redesign is not just a redrawing of lines on a map, but also operational treatments to speed up the buses. New York City Transit recognizes that the buses are slow, and is proposing a program for installing bus lanes on the major streets in the Bronx (p. 13). Plans for all-door boarding are already in motion, to be rolled out after the OMNY tap card is fully operational; this is incompetent, as all-door boarding can be implemented with paper tickets, but at this stage this is a delay of just a few years, probably about 4 years from now.
But the core of the document is the network redesign, explained route by route. The map is available on p. 14; I’d embed it, but due to file format issues I cannot render it as a large .png file, so you will have to look yourselves.
The shape of the network in the core of the Bronx – that is, the South Bronx – seems reasonable. I have just one major complaint: the Bx3 and Bx13 keep running on University Avenue and Ogden Avenue respectively and do not interline, but rather divert west along Washington Bridge to Washington Heights. For all of the strong communal ties between University Heights and Washington Heights, this service can be handled with a high-frequency transfer at the foot of the bridge, which has other east-west buses interlining on it. The subway transfer offered at the Washington Heights end is low-quality, consisting of just the 1 train at the GWB bus station; a University-Ogden route could instead offer people in University Heights a transfer to faster subway lines at Yankee Stadium.
Outside the South Bronx, things are murkier. This is not a damn by faint praise: this is an acknowledgement that, while the core of the Bronx has a straightforward redesign since the arterials form a grid, the margins of the Bronx are more complicated. Overall the redesign seems fairly conservative – Riverdale, Wakefield, and Clasons Point seem unchanged, and only the eastern margin, from Coop City down to Throgs Neck, sees big changes.
The issue of speed
Unfortunately, the biggest speed improvement for buses, stop consolidation, is barely pursued. Here is the draft’s take on stop consolidation:
The spacing of bus stops along a route is an important factor in providing faster and more reliable bus service. Every bus stop is a trade-off between convenience of access to the bus and the speed and reliability of service. New York City buses spend 27 percent of their time crawling or stopped with their doors open and have the shortest average stop distance (805 feet/245 m) of any major city. London, which has the second closest stop spacing of peer cities, has an average distance between stops of 1,000 ft/300 m.
Bus stop spacing for local Bronx routes averages approximately 882 feet/269 meters. This is slightly higher than the New York City average, but still very close together. Close stop spacing directly contributes to slow buses and longer travel times for customers. When a bus stops more frequently along a route, exiting, stopping, and re-entering the flow of traffic, it loses speed, increases the chance of being stopped at a red traffic signal, and adversely affects customers’ travel time. By removing closely-spaced and under-utilized stops throughout the Bronx, we will reduce dwell time by allowing buses to keep moving with the flow of traffic and get customers where they need to go faster.
Based on what I have modeled as well as what I’ve seen in the literature, the optimal bus stop spacing for the Bronx, as in Brooklyn, is around 400-500 meters. However, the route-by-route descriptions reveal very little stop consolidation. For example, on the Bx1 locals, 3 out of 93 stops are to be removed, and on the Bx2, 4 out of 99 stops are to be removed.
With so little stop consolidation, NYCT plans to retain the distinction between local and limited buses, which reduces frequency to either service pattern. The Bx1 and Bx2 run mostly along the same alignment on Grand Concourse, with some branching at the ends. In the midday off-peak, the Bx1 runs limited every 10 minutes, with some 12-minute gaps, and the Bx2 runs local every 9-10 minutes; this isn’t very frequent given how short the typical NYCT bus trip is, and were NYCT to eliminate the local/limited distinction, the two routes could be consolidated to a single bus running every 4-5 minutes all day.
How much frequency is there, anyway?
The draft document says that consolidating routes will allow higher frequency. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to figure out what higher frequency means. There is a table on p. 17 listing which routes get higher frequency, but no indication of what the frequency is – the reader is expected to look at it route by route. As a service to frustrated New Yorkers, here is a single table with all listed frequencies, weekday midday. All figures are in minutes.
|Route||Headway today||Proposed headway|
|Bx38 (28 variant)||17||discontinued|
|Bx42 (40 variant)||20||cut to a shuttle, 15|
A few cases of improving frequency on a trunk are notable, namely on the Bx28/38 and Bx40/42 pairs, but other problem spots remain, led by the Bx1/2 and the local and limited variants on some routes.
The principle of interchange
A transfer-based bus network can mean one of two things. The first, the one usually sold to the public during route redesigns, is a grid of strong routes. This is Nova Xarxa in Barcelona, as well as the core of this draft. Eric’s and my proposal for Brooklyn consists entirely of such a grid, as Brooklyn simply does not have low-density tails like the Bronx, its southern margin having high population density all the way to the boardwalk.
But then there is the second meaning, deployed on networks where trunk routes split into branches. In this formulation, instead of through-service from the branches to the trunk, the branches should be reduced to shuttles with forced transfers to the trunk. Jarrett Walker’s redesign in Dublin, currently frozen due to political opposition (update: Jarrett explains that no, it’s not really frozen, it’s in revision after public comments), has this characteristic. Here’s a schematic:
The second meaning of the principle of interchange is dicey. In some cases, it is unavoidable – on trains, in particular, it is possible to design timed cross-platform transfers, and sometimes it’s just not worth it to deal with complex junctions or run diesels under the catenary. On buses, there is some room for this principle, but less than on trains, as a bus is a bus, with no division into different train lengths or diesels vs. electrics. Fundamentally, if it’s feasible to time the transfers at the junctions, then it’s equally possible to dispatch branches of a single route to arrive regularly.
New York’s bus network is already replete with the first kind of interchange, and then the question is where to add more of it on the margins. But the Bronx draft includes some of the second, justified on the grounds of breaking long routes to improve reliability. Thus, for example, there is a proposed 125th Street crosstown route called the M125, which breaks apart the Bx15 and M100. Well, the Bx15 is a 10.7 km route, and the M100 is an 11.7 km route. The Bx15 limited takes 1:15-1:30 end to end, and the M100 takes about 1:30; besides the fact that NYCT should be pushing speedup treatments to cut both figures well below an hour, if routes of this length are unreliable, the agency has some fundamental problems that network redesign won’t fix.
In the East Bronx, the same principle of interchange involves isolating a few low-frequency coverage routes, like the Bx24 and Bx29, and then making passengers from them transfer to the rest of the network. The problem is that transferring is less convenient on less frequent buses than on more frequent ones. The principle of interchange only works at very high frequency – every 8 minutes is not the maximum frequency for this but the minimum, and every 4-6 minutes is better. It would be better to cobble together routes to Country Club and other low-density neighborhoods that can act as tails for other trunk lines or at least run to a transfer point every 6-8 minutes.
Is any of this salvageable?
The answer is yes. The South Bronx grid is largely good. The disentanglement of the Bx36 and Bx40 is particularly commendable: today the two routes zigzag and cross each other twice, whereas under any redesign, they should turn into two parallel lines, one on Tremont and one on 180th and Burnside.
But outside the core grid, the draft is showing deep problems. My semi-informed understanding is that there has been political pressure not to cut too many stops; moreover, there is no guarantee that the plans for bus lanes on the major corridors will come to fruition, and I don’t think the redesign’s service hours budget takes this into account. Without the extra speed provided by stop consolidation or bus lanes, there is not much room to increase frequency to levels that make transfers attractive.
In 2017, an Amtrak Cascades train derailed outside Seattle. The train driver sped on a curve and the heavy locomotive derailed, dragging the trains with it, as had happened in 2013 in New York and in 2015 in Philadelphia. The primary culprit was the tardy installation of automatic train protection (“positive train control”), which would have prevented overspeed: the Philadelphia accident happened shortly before that section of track was scheduled to get PTC, the New York accident happened on a line with weaker protection against running red signals but not against overspeed, and the Seattle accident happened on a line not-yet equipped with PTC but with ongoing installation.
Despite the similarity, the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, just released after a year and a half’s investigation, are different: it demands that Amtrak withdraw the passenger cars used. Those cars are tilting trains manufactured by Talgo, running on a waiver from federal regulations that have since changed. They are not what led to the derailment, and evidently the crash was less deadly than the New York crash (which killed 4) as well as the Philadelphia one (which killed 8). And yet, the NTSB wants these coaches removed where it said no such thing about the coaches used at previous accidents.
Rolling stock that is designed to avoid derailments at curves should focus on getting its center of gravity under control. Diesel locomotives have high centers of gravity, limiting their speed on curves. The standard measure for how fast a train can go on curves is called cant deficiency, and de facto has the conversion rate of 150 mm = 1 m/s^2 of lateral acceleration in the plane of the tracks (which may be banked, so the acceleration in the horizontal plane is larger). Top-of-the-line tilting trains in Europe can safely take curves at 300 mm cant deficiency, at which point the limiting factor isn’t passenger safety, but the complexity of maintaining the equipment’s tilt system. The Amtrak Talgos are less powerful – their tilt system allows only about 180 mm, but their center of gravity is so low that they could go much faster without derailing, just with a lot of passenger discomfort over the centrifugal force.
In contrast, the heavy diesel locomotive is limited to 6″ of cant deficiency, as its center of gravity is so high that going much faster could risk derailment, as indeed happened. Electric trains have no such problem – the Acelas do 7″ every day, and could have done 9″, but as with the Talgos the limit is passenger comfort and not train toppling. In fact, some non-tilting trains in Europe run about as fast on curves as the Amtrak Cascades service does, and FRA regulations from 2010 even suggest that modern non-tilting trains could do about 6″ of cant deficiency.
I bring all of this up to explain that the Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.
What’s more, the regulators who compared European and American designs for rolling stock have come to the same conclusion. This underlay the tests Caltrain used to argue in front of the FRA for its waiver to get rolling not compliant with the FRA’s then-current regulations demanding heavy trains designed around static buff strength; this would later underlie the FRA’s own rule change, now permitting lightly-modified European imports on American tracks.
So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.
Foreign ideas threaten Americans, especially incurious Americans. Americans are not used to not being in the center of the world. They have many reactions to the fact that when it comes to transportation, the global centers of innovation are elsewhere. Some believe private cars are just superior. Others do not but still deny the need for trains, for example elements in tech media who cover Elon Musk as if he were God. And yet others assert that the US actually has amazing rail service on a variety of specious grounds – freight, safety, unique history. All of these are excuses made to avoid learning from foreigners.
The United States should treat its mainline passenger rail as a tabula rasa. Its ridership is a rounding error by European and Asian standards, and this is in large part due to the failure of management to modernize over the last few generations. An American regulator, investigator, or manager who neither knows how to adapt best industry practices, none of which is domestic, nor has any interest in learning, has no business working in the industry. Moreover, to reinforce the need to learn from the best, the NTSB should begin an exchange program with European and East Asian regulators; exchange programs among railroads in Western Europe, Russia, and Japan already exist, but to my knowledge American railroads do not participate in them.
The lessons from the Cascades crash are the same as those from the New York and Philadelphia crash, and drawing different lessons is prima facie evidence of irrational prejudice against foreign design elements that in fact work better than domestic ones. The people at the NTSB who authored the recommendation to get rid of the Talgos have just shown themselves to be incurious about practices in parts of the world with better rail safety. Thus, they should all be immediately dismissed from their jobs and replaced by people who are more informed. Any day they keep their jobs is a signal that the NTSB will be an obstacle to any program to make American passenger rail not only faster, more convenient, and more reliable, but also safer for passengers and employees.
Ten years ago, Amtrak began putting out its outrageously expensive proposals for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Already then, when it asked for $10 billion to barely speed up trains, there was a glaring problem with coordination: Amtrak wanted hundreds of millions of dollars to three-track the Providence Line so that its trains could overtake the MBTA’s commuter trains between Providence and Boston, even though the same benefit could be obtained for cheaper by building strategic overtakes and electrifying the MBTA so that its trains would run faster. Unfortunately, Amtrak has not only displayed no interest in coordinating better service with the MBTA this way, but has just actively blocked the MBTA.
The issue at hand is MBTA electrification: the MBTA runs an exclusively diesel fleet. These trains are slow, polluting, and unreliable. Lately they have had breakdowns every few thousand kilometers, whereas electric trains routinely last multiple hundreds of thousands of kilometers between breakdowns. The current scheduled trip time between Boston and Providence is about 1:10 on the MBTA with a total of nine stops, whereas Amtrak’s southbound trains do the same trip in 35 minutes with three stops, leading to a large schedule difference between the trains, requiring overtaking. Fortunately, modern electric multiple units, or EMUs, could make the same stops as the MBTA in about 45 minutes, close enough to Amtrak that Amtrak could speed up its trains without conflict.
The MBTA would benefit from electrification without any reference to Amtrak. Connecting Boston and Providence in 45 minutes rather than 70 has large benefits for suburban and regional travelers, and the improved reliability means trains can follow the schedule with fewer unexpected surprises. The line is already wired thanks to Amtrak’s investment in the 1990s, and all that is required is wiring a few siding and yard tracks that Amtrak did not electrify as it does not itself use them. With the diesel locomotives falling apart, the MBTA has begun to seriously consider electrifying.
Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs. The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line. As a result, it neglected any solution involving buying new EMUs or even leasing them from other railroads for a pilot project. It’s only looking at electric locomotives, whose travel time benefits are about half as large as those of EMUs.
And yet, Amtrak is blocking even the half-measures. The MBTA sought to lease electric locomotives from Amtrak, which uses them on its own trains; Amtrak quoted an unreasonably high monthly price designed to get the MBTA to lose interest. As of last week, the MBTA put the plan to lease electric locomotives for its electrification pilot on hold. No plans for purchase of rolling stock are currently active, as the MBTA is worried about lead time (read: having to actually write down and execute a contract) and does not know how to buy lightly-modified European products on the open market.
As far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant. Yes, such a speedup would improve Amtrak’s own scheduling, removing a few minutes from the Northeast Corridor’s travel time that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Amtrak has time and time again displayed little interest in running fast trains. All it wants is money, and if it can ask for money without having to show anything for it, then all the better. Coordinating schedules with other railroads is hard, and only improves the experience of the passengers and not Amtrak’s managers.
The MBTA’s decisionmaking is understandable, in contrast, but still questionable. It was worth asking; the MBTA is no worse for having received an unreasonable offer. However, it is imperative that the MBTA understand that it must be more proactive and less hesitant. It must electrify, and commit a real budget to it rather than a pilot. This means immediately raising the platforms on the stations of the Providence Line that do not yet have level boarding and buying (not leasing) modern EMUs, capable of running fast schedules.
Even with some infill, there are only seven low-platform stations on the mainline and two on the branch to Stoughton, none in a constrained location where construction is difficult. This is at most a $100 million project, excluding the trains themselves. The MBTA could operate the Providence Line with seven to eight trainsets providing service every 15 minutes and the Stoughton Line with another four providing the same. Procuring trains for such service would cost another $250 million or so, but the MBTA needs to buy new rolling stock anyway as its diesel locomotives are past the end of their useful lives, and buying EMUs would pay for itself through higher ridership and lower operating expenses coming from much faster trips.
The MBTA is fortunately salvageable. It has a serious problem in that the state leadership is indecisive and noncommittal and prefers a solution that can be aborted cheaply to one that provides the best long-term financial and social return on investment. However, it is seriously looking in the right direction, consisting of better equipment providing higher-quality service to all passengers.
Amtrak is unfortunately not salvageable. An intercity railroad whose reaction to a commuter railroad’s attempt to improve service for both systems is to overcharge it on rolling stock proves that it is ignorant of, indifferent to, and incurious about modern rail operations. A chain of managers from the person who made the decision to offer the MBTA bad lease terms upward must be removed from their positions if there is any hope for improved intercity rail in the Northeastern United States.
Berlin has a deceptively simple S-Bahn network. There’s the Ringbahn circling city center. There’s the elevated east-west Stadtbahn, which has two tracks dedicated to S-Bahn service and two for everything else, including longer-range regional trains and intercity trains. And there’s the two-track North-South Tunnel, which only carries S-Bahn traffic; longer-range traffic uses the four-track north-south mainline through Berlin Hauptbahnhof, whereas the North-South Tunnel intersects the Stadtbahn one station east of Hauptbahnhof, at Friedrichstrasse.
The main S-Bahn capacity needs in Berlin are east-west; meanwhile, the North-South mainline is underfull, with Wikipedia listing around 7 trains per hour. And yet, Berlin’s big S-Bahn capital project is a new tunnel, dubbed S21, adding yet another north-south track pair through Hauptbahnhof. Fortunately, the project is salvageable, but only if the city and the federal government act quickly, within a few years, to change yet-unbuilt phases to run in the right direction.
Berlin urban rail traffic map
Here is a map of traffic demand on every interstation on the combined Berlin U- and S-Bahn network (source, p. 6):
The numbers are in thousands of passengers per weekday in both directions combined.
The U-Bahn is in blue. It’s a weird-looking network because two lines (U7, running northwest-southeast in the west, and U9, running north-south also in the west) were built in the Cold War to serve West Berlin’s center around Kurfürstendamm, whereas the S-Bahn and the older U-Bahn lines serve the historic center. Since reunification, Germany has made an effort to move the Berlin central business district back to the historic center, and S21 is to reinforce that, serving the western end of Mitte.
Unfortunately, as we see in the green lines, that’s not where the pressing S-Bahn capacity needs are. First, the Stadtbahn is busier than the North-South Tunnel. Second, the busiest branches heading into the city come from the east, with substantially more traffic than from the north and south.
And then there’s the Görlitz Railway. It is the line heading to the southeast, without its own trunk line through the city – it reverse-branches to the two directions of the Ringbahn. Moreover, going north there’s additional reverse-branching, to the Stadtbahn (S9) and around the Ring to the northern branches (S8, S85), with each service running only every 20 minutes. Total traffic across these services is quite high, 107,000 weekday passengers, compared with 144,000 on the Prussian Eastern Railway (S5, S7, S75; S5 is the mainline), 128,000 between the two branches feeding the North-South Tunnel from the south, and 133,000 between the two branches feeding the North-South Tunnel from the north. The brief segment where S9 runs alongside the Ring has 184,000 weekday passengers, the city’s busiest.
S21: what Berlin is actually building
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a new station. It only opened in 2006, when the North-South Intercity Line opened. The new four-track line has ample capacity for additional S-Bahn traffic, but nonetheless it hosts no S-Bahn trains in regular service. Instead, there are plans for two additional S-Bahn tracks, mostly in tunnel, parallel to the line, with service to Hauptbahnhof:
The map does not show the phasing. The segment from the Ringbahn in the north down to Hauptbahnhof is just about complete, with opening expected soon. The segment from Hauptbahnhof to Potsdamer Platz, which contrary to the map is to be nonstop, is in early stages of construction, and Wikipedia says it is expected to open in 2023.
Farther south of Potsdamer Platz is still not under construction, and frankly should not be built as is. The only real addition this would give to the network is the stop at Gleisdreieck, where the line intersects the east-west U1; the North-South Tunnel intersects U1 without a connection, the only place in the city where there is a missed U-Bahn/S-Bahn connection unless one counts the marginal U9/Stadtbahn miss in which the next station, Zoologischer Garten, is a transfer.
However, the North-South Main Line’s tunnel portal lies just south of Gleisdreieck, and thus it should be feasible if nontrivial to add platforms there for two of the tracks. Farther south, at Yorckstrasse, it is well outside the portal and adding platforms should be fairly easy.
Görlitz Railway S-Bahn: what Berlin should be building
A radial rail network with three lines should aim to have them meet at a triangle in city center. Berlin has two S-Bahn radial lines, and S21 is to add a third. Instead of running parallel to the North-South Tunnel, it should provide a third trunk line. North of Potsdamer Platz the route is already baked in, but farther south, the Görlitz Railway route is a perfect legacy line to link to. It is quite busy, and the likely locations of the intermediate stops between existing infrastructure and Potsdamer Platz are busy U-Bahn stations in their own right.
I was delighted to see this already discussed on the technical transit blog Zukunft Mobilität. It has a long list of potential Berlin rail extensions, some in accordance with current long-term plans, some not. It specifically criticizes S21 for duplicating existing infrastructure, and proposes an extension to the southeast, mentioning that there were plans to that effect in the 1930s. There are two variants, one through Hermannplatz and one through the old route of the Görlitz Railway.
A higher-zoom 11 MB image is available here.
The dashed lines denote under-construction lines, including S21 to Potsdamer Platz, the 4.5-kilometer Siemens Railway to the northwest, and the U5-U55 connection. Dotted lines denote lines I am proposing: either variant connecting S21 toward the southeast, paired with the Siemens Railway as well as two new-build lines through the area of Tegel Airport, which is slated for redevelopment after the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport finally opens. Two branches are depicted toward Tegel, one toward airport grounds to be redeveloped, and one going farther north taking over S25; there are already discussions of a rapid transit line to Tegel, branching off of U6, but this option does not force the outer parts of U6 to contend with reduced frequency.
The two branches should of course not both be built. The main advantage of the southern option is that it hits Hermannplatz, one of the busiest stations in the system: the above diagram of rail ridership shows a large change in U8 demand north and south of the station, and a factsheet from 2010 asserts that it is the second busiest U-Bahn station, closely behind Alexanderplatz. In effect, it functions as an express link from Neukölln to city center. U8 isn’t especially crowded – nothing in Berlin is – but it’s busiest than the North-South Tunnel; this link is at least as justified as the S21 tunnel to the south. This would require about 7 km of tunnel. While S-Bahn tunnels cost more than U-Bahn tunnels, this is deliberately an express line, so keeping costs down to the per-km level of the U5-U55 connection (€525 million for 2.2 km) is reasonable, making it a €1.8 billion project or thereabout.
The northern option works differently. It doesn’t hit anything as interesting as Hermannplatz on the way, but it does serve Alt-Treptow, one of the bigger rapid transit deserts inside the Ring. The infill station would also break what is the second or third longest interstation on the Ring. Closer in, it has better coverage in the center – Checkpoint Charlie offers another CBD station in addition to Potsdamer Platz. The cost is more of an open question here. From Görlitzer Bahnhof to Potsdamer Platz it’s about 4 km; east of Görlitzer Bahnhof it’s plausible that the line could reuse the Görlitz Railway’s right-of-way and run elevated, or at worst underground with cut-and-cover. However, the per km cost of the tunnel would be higher, since proportionately more of it is in city center, and it has the same number of stations over shorter length; my vague guess is somewhat less than €1.5 billion.
The Berlin S-Bahn would become a system with three radial lines, meeting at Hauptbahnhof, Friedrichstrasse, and Potsdamer Platz. All reverse-branching would cease: the various branches on the Görlitz Railway, including the existing ones as well as an under-construction one to the airport-to-be, would feed into the S-Bahn trunk, rather than to the Ring or the Stadtbahn. The removal of S25 from the North-South Tunnel would create space for the S8 and S85 services in Pankow to use the North-South Tunnel instead of diverting to the Ring and Görlitz Railway. Potentially, the North-South Tunnel could also be realigned to serve Gleisdreieck, as depicted on the map. Finally, with S9 removed from the Stadtbahn, there would be room to beef up service on S3 and/or end the current practice in which S75 trains from the east stop at Ostbahnhof rather than running through.
Germany isn’t perfect
Writing about North America, I talk a lot about how it can Germanize its regional rail network. But it’s important to understand that while far better than North America, Germany is not perfect. It makes mistakes of many kinds: some involving high construction costs, some involving schedule slips, some involving unnecessary prestige projects. These can mostly be prefaced by “by Continental standards,” though the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport disaster is bad even by the standards of the Anglosphere and its billion-dollars-per-kilometer subways.
The Berlin S-Bahn is a case in point. It has a pretty hefty peak-to-base ratio by German standards – the Ring lines (S41 and S42) run every 5 minutes peak and every 10 off-peak, and a number of other lines have a peak-to-base ratio of 2 as well. It also has a peculiarity in that S75 trains only run east of Ostbahnhof; I can’t tell if there’s a problem with track capacity or demand mismatch, but if it’s the former then it’s strange since peak S-Bahn traffic on the Stadtbahn is only 18 trains per hour (Munich achieves 30 through its central tunnel, with much higher crowding levels), and if it’s the latter then it’s again strange – why not run through to Westkreuz like S5?
S21 is another of these little mistakes. It’s a prestige project on the heels of the construction of Hauptbahnhof, rather than a solution to a transportation need. There are six north-south tracks through Berlin between the S-Bahn and the mainline and they’re not anywhere near capacity; the mind boggles at why anyone would add seventh and eighth tracks before adding fifth and sixth east-west tracks.
Fortunately, the mistake is fixable. Germany’s dragging infrastructure timeline means that there’s often room for modifications to make things more useful. The airport is a lost cause, but S21 is not. From Potsdamer Platz south there’s a good option that adds S-Bahn service exactly where it is needed and simplifies citywide schedules by making it feasible to eliminate reverse-branching. In lieu of building more autobahns, Berlin should commit to building the southeastern extension via Alt-Treptow or Neukölln.
Many years ago, probably even before I started this blog, I visited family in Hamden, a suburb of New Haven. I took the bus from Union Station. When it was time to go back to New York, I timed myself to get to the bus that would make my train, but it rained really hard and there was no shelter. The time passed and as the bus didn’t come, I sought refuge from the rain under a ceiling overhang at a store just behind the bus stop, in full view of the road. A few minutes later, the bus went through the station at full speed, not even slowing down to see if anyone wanted to get on, and to get to my train I had to hitchhike, getting a ride from people who saw that I was a carless New Yorker.
Fast forward to 2018. My Brooklyn bus redesign plan with Eric Goldwyn calls for installing shelter everywhere, which I gather is a long-term plan for New York but one that the city outsourced to a private advertising firm, with little public oversight over how fast the process is to take. When I asked about the possibility of reducing costs by consolidating stops I was told there is no money for shelter, period. It was not a big priority for us in the plan so we didn’t have costs off-hand, but afterward I went to check and found just how cheap this is.
Streetsblog lists some costs in peripheral American cities, finding a range of $6,000-12,000 per stop for shelter. Here‘s an example from Florida for $10,000 including a bench. In Providence I asked and was told “$10,000-20,000.” In Southern California a recent installation cost $33,000 apiece. I can’t find European costs for new installation, but in London replacing an existing shelter with a new one is £5,700, or $8,000.
So let’s say the costs are even somewhat on the high American side, $15,000. What are the benefits?
I’ve found one paper on the subject, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, entitled Perception of Waiting Time at Transit Stops and Stations. The key graph is reproduced below:
The gender breakdown comes from the fact that in unsafe neighborhoods, women perceive waits as even longer than the usual penalty, whereas in safe ones there is no difference between women and men.
The upshot is that if the wait time is 10 minutes, then passengers at a stop with a bench and shelter perceive the wait as 15 minutes, and if there’s also real-time information then this shrinks to 11 minutes. If there are no amenities, then passengers perceive a 15-minute wait when they’ve waited just 6.5 minutes and an 11-minute wait when they’ve waited just 4. In other words, to estimate the impact of shelter we can look at the impact of reducing waits from 10 minutes to 6.5, and if there’s also real-time info then it’s like reducing waits to 4 minutes.
If the wait is 5 minutes then the impact is similar. With bench and shelter the perceived wait is 8.5 minutes, equivalent to a 3-minute wait without any amenities; with real-time information, the perceived wait is 6.5 minutes, equivalent to a 2-minute wait without amenities. There is some scale-dependence, but not too much, so we can model the impact of shelter as equivalent to that of increasing frequency from every 10 minutes to every 6.5 minutes (without real-time displays) or every 4 minutes (with real-time displays).
I have some lit review of ridership-frequency elasticity here. On frequent buses it is about 0.4, but this is based on the assumption that frequency is 7.5-12 minutes, not 4-6 minutes. At the low end this is perhaps just 0.3, the lowest found in the literature I’ve seen. To avoid too much extrapolation, let’s take the elasticity to be 0.3. Fan-Guthrie-Levinson suggests shelter alone is equivalent to a 50-66% increase in frequency, say 60%; thus, it should raise ridership by 15%. With real-time info, make this increase 30%.
What I think of as the upper limit to acceptable cost of capital construction for rail is $40,000-50,000 per weekday rider; this is based on what makes activists in Paris groan and not on first principles. But we can try to derive an equivalent figure for buses. On the one hand, we should not accept such high costs for bus projects, since buses have higher operating expenses than rail. But this is not relevant to shelter, since it doesn’t increase bus expenses (which are mostly driver labor) and can fund its ongoing maintenance from ads. On the other hand, a $40,000/rider rail project costs somewhat more per new rider – there’s usually some cannibalization from buses and other trains.
But taking $40,000/rider as a given, it follows that a bus stop should be provided with shelter if it has at least ($15,000/$40,000)/0.15 = 2.5 weekday boardings. If the shelter installation includes real-time info then the denominator grows to 0.3 and the result falls to 1.25 weekday boardings.
In New York, there are 13,000 bus stops, so on average there are around 180 boardings per stop. Even in Rhode Island, where apparently the standard is that a bus stop gets shelter at 50 boardings (and thus there is very little shelter because apparently it’s more important to brand a downtown trunk as a frequent bus), there are 45,000 weekday riders and 3,000 stops, so at 15 riders per stop it should be fine too put up shelter everywhere.
The only type of stop where I can see an exception to this rule is alighting-only stops. If a route is only used in a peak direction, for example toward city center or away from city center, then the outbound stops may be consistently less used to the point of not justifying shelter. But even that notion is suspicious, as American cities with low transit usage tend to have weak centers and a lot of job and retail sprawl. It’s likely that a large majority of bus stops in Rhode Island and all stops within Providence proper pass the 2.5 boardings rule, and it’s almost guaranteed that all pass the 1.25 boardings rule. And that’s even before consolidating stops, which should be done to improve bus speed either way.
At least based on the estimates I’ve found, installing bus shelter everywhere is a low-hanging fruit in cities where this is not already done. In the situation of New York, this is equivalent to spending around $550 per new weekday rider on transit – maybe somewhat more if the busier stops already have shelter, but not too much more (and actually less if there’s stop consolidation, which there should be). Even in that of Providence, the spending is equivalent to about $6,600 per rider without stop consolidation, or maybe $3,000 with, which is much better than anything the state will be able to come up with through the usual channels of capital expansion.
If it’s not done, the only reason for it is that transit agencies just don’t care. They think of buses as a mode of transportation of last resort, with a punishing user experience. Cities, states, and transit agencies can to a large extent decide what they have money for, and letting people sit and not get drenched is just not a high priority, hence the “we don’t have money” excuse. The bosses don’t use the buses they’re managing and think of shelter as a luxury they can’t afford, never mind what published transportation research on this question says.
The phrase security theater refers to the elaborate selling of airport security to the public through humiliating spectacle, like making people take off their shoes, with no safety value whatsoever. By the same token, prudence theater is the same kind of ritual of humiliating people, often workers, in the name of not wasting money. Managers who engage in prudence theater will refuse pay hikes and lose the best employees in the process, institute hiring freezes at understaffed departments and wonder why things aren’t working, and refuse long-term investments that look big even if they have limited risk and high returns. This approach is endemic to authoritarian managers who do not understand the business they are running – such as a number of do-nothing political leaders who make decisions regarding public transit.
I’ve talked a bunch about this issue in the context of capital investment, for example Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, California’s Gavin Newsom, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and New York‘s Andrew Cuomo, using phrases such as “Chainsaw Al” and “do-nothing.” But here I want to talk specifically about operations, because there is an insidious kind of prudence theater there: the hiring freeze. The MBTA and MTA both have hiring freezes, though thankfully New York is a little more flexible about it.
Both New York and Boston have very high operating costs, for both subways and buses. They have extensive overstaffing in general, but that does not extend to overstaffing at every department. On the contrary, some departments are understaffed. Adam Rahbee told me a year and a half ago that subway operations planning in New York was short on workers, in contrast to the overstaffed department he saw in London. Of course London on average has much lower costs than New York, but individual departments can still be short on manpower even in otherwise-overstaffed cities. If anything, leaving one department understaffed can cause inefficiencies at adjacent departments, making them in effect overstaffed relative to the amount of service they can offer.
Buses require active supervision by a centralized control center that helps drivers stay on schedule. New York currently has 20 dispatchers but is planning an increase to 59, in tandem with using new technology. Boston has 5 at any given time, and needs to staff up to 15, which involves increasing hiring to about 40 full-time workers and doing minor rearrangement of office space to give them a place to work. With too few dispatchers, drivers end up going off-schedule, leading to familiar bunching, wasting hundreds of bus drivers’ work in order to save money on a few tens of supervisors.
I went over the issue of bus bunching in a post from last summer, but for the benefit of non-technical readers, here is a diagram that explains in essence what the problem of chaos is:
The marble on top of the curve is unlikely to stay where it is for a long time, because any small disturbance will send it sliding down one side or the other. Moreover, it’s impossible to predict in advance which direction the marble will land in, because a disturbance too small to see will compound to a big one over time.
Chaotic systems like this are ubiquitous: weather is a chaotic system, which is why it’s not possible to predict it for more than about two weeks in advance – small changes compound in unexpected directions. Unfortunately, bus service is a chaotic system too. For the bus to be on schedule is an unstable equilibrium. If the bus runs just a little behind, then it will have to pick up more passengers on its way, as passengers who would have just missed the bus will instead just make it. Those extra passengers will take some extra time to board, putting the bus even further behind, until the bus behind it finally catches it and the two buses leapfrog each other in a platoon.
There are ways to mitigate this problem, including dedicated bus lanes and off-board fare collection. But they do not eliminate it – they merely slow it down, increasing the time it takes for a bus to bunch.
The connection between dispatching and chaotic bus schedules may not be apparent, but it is real. The transportation engineering academic community has had to deal with the question of how to keep buses on schedule; here, here, and here are three recent examples. The only real way to keep buses on schedule is through active control – that is, dispatching. A dispatcher can tell a driver that the bus is too far ahead and needs to slow down, or that it is behind and the driver should attempt to speed up. If the traffic light system is designed for it, the dispatcher can also make sure a delayed bus will get more green lights to get back on track, a technology called conditional signal priority, or CSP. This contrasts with unconditional transit signal priority, or TSP, which speeds up buses but does not preferentially keep them evenly spaced to prevent bunching.
Moreover, some of the people who have done academic work on this topic have gone on to work in the transit industry, whether for the MBTA (such as David Maltzan and Joshua Fabian) or for thinktanks or private companies (such as Chris Pangilinan). Specific strategies to keep the buses on track include CSP giving delayed buses more green lights, holding buses at the terminal so that they leave evenly spaced, and in some cases even holding at mid-route control points. Left to their own devices, buses will bunch, requiring constant correction by a competent dispatching department with all the tools of better data for detection of where bunching may occur as well as control over the city’s streetlights.
Managers’ point view vs. passengers’ point of view
When I talk to transit riders about their experiences, I universally hear complaints. The question is just a matter of what they complain about. In suburban Paris people complain plenty about the RER, talking about crowding and about how the system isn’t as frequent or reliable as the Metro. These are real issues and indicate what Ile-de-France Mobilités should be focusing its attention on.
Americans in cities with public transit talk about bunching. In New York I’ve routinely sighted platoons of two buses even on very short routes, where such problems should never occur, like the 3 kilometer long M86. A regular rail user who talked to me a few months ago mentioned three-bus platoons in Brooklyn on a route that has a nominal frequency of about 10 minutes.
From the perspective of the transit operator or the taxpayer, if buses are scheduled to arrive every ten minutes, that’s an expenditure of six buses per hour. From that of the rider, if the buses in fact come in platoons of two due to bunching, then the effective frequency is 20 minutes, and most likely the bus they ride on will be the more crowded one as well. What looks like a service improvement to managers who never take the system they’re running may offer no relief to the customers on the ground.
I wish my mockery of transit managers who don’t use their own system were facetious, but it’s not. In New York, some of the more senior managers look at NYCT chief Andy Byford askance for not owning a car and instead using the subway to get to places. Planner job postings at North American transit agencies routinely require a driver’s license and say that driving around the city is part of the job. Ignorant of both the science of chaos and the situation on the ground, the managers and politicians miss low-hanging fruits while waxing poetic about the need to save money.
Is anything being done?
In New York there are some positive signs, such as the increase in the number of dispatchers. The warm reception Eric Goldwyn and I got from some specific people at the MTA is a good sign as well. The problem remains political obstruction by a governor and mayor who don’t know or care to know about good practices. Cuomo’s constant sidelining of Byford has turned into a spectacle among New York transit journalists.
In Boston, the answer is entirely negative. Last week’s draft of the Focus40 plan, released by the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB), unfortunately entirely omits dispatching and operational supervision from its scope. It includes a variety of investments for the future, some of which are welcome, such as the Red-Blue Connector. But it reduces the issue of bus timetable keeping to a brief note in the customer experience section that mentions “Computer Aided Dispatch / Automatic Vehicle Location technology.” Good data is not a bad thing, but it is not everything. Warm bodies are required to act on this data.
Thus prudence theater continues. Massachusetts will talk about reform before revenue and about spending money wisely, but it is run by people with little knowledge of public transportation and no interest in acquiring said knowledge. Its approach to very real issues of high costs is to cut, even when there are parts of the system that are underfunded and undermanned. Staffing up to 15 dispatchers at a time, raising the headcount to about 40 full-time workers, would have the same effect on ridership as literally hundreds of bus drivers through better control. Will the administration listen? As usual, I hope for the best but have learned to expect the worst.