Category: Incompetence

Why Free Trade in Rolling Stock is Good

Classical economics asserts that if two countries freely trade, then both gain relative to a baseline in which they don’t trade. The classical theory of comparative advantage hinges on reciprocal free trade. But more recently, economists have begun to push for entirely domestic support for free trade, arguing that reducing trade barriers is good even without reciprocation. The arguments involve corruption and misallocation of capital coming from protectionism. Whatever criticism there may be of this neoliberal conception of trade, rolling stock appears to be an example in which this conception is right.

I have previously criticized informal French protectionism in high-prestige procurement for blowing up Parisian rolling stock costs by a factor of almost 2. In Paris, my example of what could be done with the money Ile-de-France Mobilités is wasting on rolling stock was infrastructure construction, justified by the city’s very low construction costs relative to ridership (if not relative to route-length). But there’s an even better set of examples of high costs in the United States, justified on labor grounds and yet involving wastes of money disproportionate to the number of jobs created.

Last month, The American Prospect published an article about a union push to have more US rolling stock made in America, by unionized workers. The TAP article talks about a light rail vehicle order in Los Angeles for $890 million, for what the article says is 175 cars and what manufacturer Kinki Sharyo and other industry sources say is 235 cars, built at a dedicated factory in the Los Angeles exurbs. The purpose of the article is to advocate for more protectionism for the sake of American union members, so it details the wages the workers are making (about $20 an hour, up from $11 for unskilled jobs elsewhere) but does not delve into comparative costs. It’s worth asking if the costs are competitive, and the answer is that they are not.

The cost of LACMTA’s Kinki Sharyo order is $3.8 million per car; these cars are 27 meters long, so this translates to $140,000 per meter of train length. In contrast, the average cost in Europe appears to be just under $100,000 per meter, across a variety of cities and models:

The shortest trains on this list (the Citadis Compact orders, at 22-24 meters) are in the middle of the pack, so it’s unlikely there’s any nonlinearity in cost; moreover, the Compact is slightly shorter than the Kinki Sharyo trains, so no extrapolation is required, only interpolation.

The LACMTA order follows another premium-priced light rail order in the same state: as I wrote in the Bay City Beacon last year, Muni Metro’s Siemens LRV order cost about $4 million per 23-meter car, about $170,000 per meter of train length. The trains are being built at a new plant in Sacramento.

The United States has federal Buy America laws, requiring federally-funded contracts to buy domestic products provided they cost no more than 25% more than equivalent imports. However, there is no in-state purchase requirement. Owing to large New York City Subway orders, some vendors have long-established plants near New York (Kawasaki and Alstom are in-state, Bombardier is in Vermont). However, under informal pressure from activists within California to provide good local jobs, LACMTA asked bidders to open local factories. Moreover, Siemens most likely placed its plant in Sacramento rather than in lower-cost states in order to curry favor with state-funded orders.

We even see the same problem in Massachusetts, where CRRC opened a plant in Springfield for an MBTA Red and Orange Line car order. The order itself does not come at a premium – according to Metro Report the base order is about $100,000 per meter of train length and the option is $115,000, and the range of per-meter costs for subway trains is the same as that for LRVs – but it’s possibly a loss leader to help establish CRRC as a player in the American market. Even before Trump’s election, Congress investigated the order, which beat the competitors by a large margin; the competing bids were about $135,000 per meter for the base order. It says a lot about Massachusetts’ broken procurement that it takes a loss leader just to get costs down to their international levels. Nonetheless, the US premium does appear to be smaller for large subway orders than for small and medium-size LRV orders, since the extra costs of siting and setting up a factory are spread across more units.

The explicit goal of local content requirements is to create jobs. This is usually justified in terms of inequality and bleak prospects for unskilled workers. However, there is no cost-benefit calculation involved in this. According to TAP, the LACMTA order is creating 250 jobs manufacturing the trains; it doesn’t say how long they will last, but the duration of the contract is about 6 years. But the premium, about $300 million, works out to $1.2 million per job, a large multiple of total compensation to the workers. The Springfield plant has 200 jobs paying $50,000-60,000 per year, lasting 7 years across more than just the Boston contract; pro-rating to the Boston contract’s share of orders from the plant, the jobs will last around 5 years. Adding back the premium charged by the competing vendors raises the cost to $1 million per job, again a multiple of total working-class compensation.

There are two reasons why labor protectionism costs so much compared with its direct impact on working-class hiring. The first is leakage: much of the premium goes to management, including factory design and construction, or is just wasted on inefficiency (CRRC is opening a second American plant, in Chicago, instead of building everything at one plant). Some of the money goes to foreign consultants with the vendor and some stays domestic, but the domestic leakage goes to sitework and not to direct hiring.

The second reason is corruption and degradation of institutions. When the goal of public procurement is not just to buy the best product in terms of cost and quality, lobbyists make demands, like local hiring, that corrupt the process. A city that signals that the only things that matter are cost and quality will attract vendors who make the best bids in terms of cost and quality; a city that signals that the process depends on local political needs will attract vendors who make bids in order to satisfy local political actors, who as a rule don’t give a damn about good transit. Thus American agencies buy trains at a premium well beyond Buy America’s 25% limit, just because they think of cost and quality as just two of several political priorities and not as the sole legitimate bases of choosing a bidder.

The United States leads the world in higher education costs. The unsubsidized cost of a college degree at a good public university is about $100,000; at CUNY, which provides a good quality of degrees even if it’s so underfunded that classrooms aren’t supplied with chalk, it’s about $75,000. Stipends at the level of a good graduate program add another $30,000 or so per year. For around $200,000 per person, California could send low-income workers to college and pay for their living expenses for the duration of the degree, whereupon they will be able to get unsubsidized jobs paying much more than $20 per hour. For workers who can’t go to college, trade school is another option, offering decently-paying jobs for much lower cost since they take much less time. There is no need to lade the transit capital budget with what should be state or federal retraining grants; given the massive difference in cost, even the loss of matching funds (i.e. other people’s money) can leave the state or the city better off.

The problem is that there is no political incentive to think in such terms. Part of it is the corruption of institutions, as I mentioned already: labor groups see an opportunity to create jobs from a budget that from a local perspective is other people’s money. Another part is political prestige: romantics like old jobs (farmer, builder, truck driver, coal miner, baker, factory worker), which have had enough time to percolate into the national psyche, and since these jobs are old, they’re likely to be at the low end of the value-added ladder.

Absent very strong rules forbidding protectionism in procurement, this corruption will continue: evidently, Paris insists on buying expensive bespoke trains and somehow manages to get them manufactured within France, even though EU rules against interstate dumping are much stronger than US rules. Rules at the highest level are required to discourage such behavior (although Paris might still waste money on bespoke trains, just ones that can be made in Poland). Congress can and should stop funding any local or state agency that takes in-state content into account in procurement; the US is one democratic country, not fifty mercantile fiefdoms, and should use its status as a superstate with a large internal market to universalize good governance.

Why is Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 So Expensive?

I am only loosely following the news about the second phase of Second Avenue Subway. The project, running from 96th Street to 125th, with a short segment under 125th to Lexington, passing under the 4, 5, and 6 trains, is supposed to be cheap. In the 1970s, work began on Second Avenue Subway before the city went bankrupt, and there are extant tunnel segments built cut-and-cover in East Harlem between the station sites. The stations need to be dug, but the plan dating back to 2003 was to build them cut-and-cover as well, with local disruption for only a few blocks around 106th, 116th, and 125th Streets. Only one part would be difficult: going deep under 125th, under the preexisting subway. And yet, costs are very high, and the design seems to be taking a wrong turn.

In the early 2000s, the cost projections were $3.7 billion for phase 1 (actual cost: $5 billion, but much of the difference is inflation), and $3.3 billion for phase 2 (projected cost: at least $6 billion). Since then, there have been changes. For about a year I heard rumors that the preliminary engineering had been done wrong, and it was impossible to use the preexisting tunnel segments. Then I heard that no, it’s actually possible to use the existing tunnels. But a few days ago I heard that even though it’s possible, the MTA is now planning to demolish the existing tunnels and build the entire project deep underground using tunnel-boring machines.

With the information generally given out at community meetings, it’s hard to know what’s exactly going on. However, the fact that the MTA is talking about this suggests extreme disinterest in cost control. Cut-and-cover construction is cheaper than TBMs, per a 1994 paper looking at French urban rail costs since the 1970s. The tradeoff is that it forces rail lines to go underneath streets, which is disruptive to pedestrians and merchants, or demolish private property. Fortunately, Second Avenue is a wide, straight throughfare, and requires no such demolitions, while the disruption would be localized to areas that are scheduled to get subway stops as part of the project. Metro extensions here and in a number of other European cities are constructing stations cut-and-cover and the tunnels between them with TBMs; Metro Line 12’s online documents state that station construction involves just 18 months of digging.

It’s possible that the need to turn to 125th Street is messing up the plan to do everything cut-and-cover. While the turn itself can be done with minimal demolitions (the inside of the curve has a few small buildings, and there’s also an alignment slightly farther east that goes under vacant land while maintaining a 90-meter curve radius), going underneath the Lexington Avenue Line requires diving deep, and then there is no advantage to cut-and-cover. Building cut-and-cover under existing lines is difficult, and in that case, TBMs are warranted.

If the problem is 125th Street, then I would propose extending phase 2 and then breaking it apart into two subphases. Phase 2.0 would be cut-and-cover and open stations at 106th, 116th, and possibly 125th and 2nd temporarily. Phase 2.5 would involve driving TBMs under 125th Street all the way to Broadway; this could be done with a large-diameter TBM, with the platforms contained within the bore and vertical access dug so as to avoid the intersecting north-south subways. 125th Street has 30,000 crosstown bus boardings according to the MTA, which would make it the busiest bus corridor in the city per km: 10,000 per km, compared with 8,000 on the busiest single route, the M86. It is a priority for subway expansion, and if it’s for some reason not possible to easily build from 96th and 2nd to 125th and Lex in one go then the entire project should be extended to 125th and Broadway, at somewhat higher cost and far higher benefits.

The reason phase 1 was so expensive is that the stations were mined from small digs, rather than built cut-and-cover as is more usual. The idea was to limit street disruption; instead there was street disruption lasting 5 years rather than 1.5, just at small bore sites at 72nd and 86th rather than throughout the station boxes’ footprints. The TBM drive and systems cost together $260 million per kilometer, compared with $125 million on Paris’s Metro Line 1 extension, but the stations cost $750 million each, compared with $110 million.

It’s crucial that the MTA not repeat this mistake in phase 2, and it’s crucial that area transit activists hold the MTA’s feet to the fire and demand sharp cost control. Even taking the existing premiums as a given, cut-and-cover stations should not cost more than $200 million each, which means phase 2 as planned should cost $600 million for stations, about $330 million for systems, and another $350 million for overheads. At $1.3 billion this still represents high cost per kilometer, about $500 million, but it’s based on actual New York cost items, which means it’s plausible today. There is no excuse for $6 billion.

The MTA’s Bus Redesign Plan

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Brooklyn bus redesign I’m working on with Eric Goldwyn. The MTA, which is aware of our efforts, came up with its own plan. So far details are scant; there is a presentation available online, which talks about goals (“network redesign,” “higher frequency”) but no specifics (“a more gridded network,” “6-minute off-peak frequency on the main routes”).

At least so far, the goals seem solid. The MTA has the following list of improvements:

  • Redesign the network from top to bottom based on customer input, demographic changes, and travel demand analysis. Provide better connectivity and more direct service in every neighborhood
  • Optimize the existing network with community consultation by removing closely-spaced and underutilized stops and making street design changes on select corridors in coordination with NYC DOT
  • Expand off-peak service on strategic routes using a toolbox of service strategies including increased frequency and demand based service adjustments
  • Expand Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) to allow an approaching bus to hold a green light or shorten a red light
  • Seek exclusive busways on priority corridors to give buses full access in major congested areas
  • Identify opportunities for new bus lanes and queue jumps in 2018
  • Advocate for strengthened NYPD enforcement of bus lanes to keep bus stops and travel lanes clear throughout the system
  • Recommend dedicated transit-priority traffic teams to focus enforcement in key areas to ensure buses move quickly through trouble spots
  • Use Bus Lane Enforcement Cameras mounted on buses to automatically identify violations and issue tickets. Advocate for legislation to expand beyond the existing 16 authorized routes
  • Install tap readers to speed up the boarding process so buses spend less time waiting at stops
  • Introduce all-door boarding to allow riders to get on through any door of the bus
  • Explore options for a future cashless system to maximize reductions in boarding time
  • Expand fare enforcement on regular bus service to reduce evasion and restore fare revenue

The main problems only appear toward the end, with the implementation of off-board fare collection and all-door boarding. The insistence on “fare enforcement,” which could mean regular proof of payment (POP) inspections but could also mean worse, such as armed cops (not practiced in New York on SBS but practiced on some other US systems, like BART) or holding the bus during inspection (which New York does practice, unlike Berlin and other German-speaking cities). Overall I’m relatively sanguine about Andy Byford specifically – he’s not American and is not used to American levels of police militarization.

However, another aspect of the POP proposal is troubling: the connection with tap readers. The plan’s full text (which is barely more detailed than what I quote above) mentions that POP should come with the so-called New Fare Payment System, or NFPS, which New York is currently planning to roll out starting in 2019, continuing until 2023. The NFPS is based on worst industry practices cobbled from American and British ideas. Here is my second post ever, discussing the plans for smartcards in New York in 2011. New York ignored (and keeps ignoring) the smartcard implementations in a number of East Asian cities in its zeal to make people treat their credit card as a transit fare card, ensuring the agency can surveil all passengers; perhaps Americans lack the values of freedom and individual privacy of Japan and Singapore.

New York also ignored (and keeps ignoring) the POP implementations in cities with paper tickets, such as most of Central Europe. Smartcards are not required for POP: the German-speaking world has POP with paper tickets, as did Vancouver on SkyTrain and some bus lines even before the Compass Card debacle. In Singapore I saw a ticket inspection on a bus even before EZ-Link; I had a magnetic farecard at the time. Given the enormous waste coming from making passengers line up and pay the driver, it’s imperative to move toward POP as soon as possible, even if it means equipping inspectors with MetroCard readers rather than smartcard readers. MetroCard may only last for five years if the NFPS schedule doesn’t keep slipping, but handheld magnetic card readers are a cheap technology whereas making buses idle while passengers dip cards one at a time is not so cheap.

The zeal to go cash-free is the final troubling aspect of New York’s ideas about fare payment, especially when bundled with the idea that the bank card is the fare card. Not everyone has a local bank account. Tourists don’t (and even cards that are supposed to work abroad don’t always). Low-income city residents don’t, either: 11.7% of New York households have no bank account, and they disproportionately appear to be in poverty, judging by which neighborhoods they are most concentrated in. The MTA has always treated anonymous smartcards as an afterthought, and going cash-free means there is no recourse for the unbanked or even for many tourists.

Nor is cash-free operation even necessary. An on-board farebox is compatible with POP. In this system, riders can board from any door, and the driver will begin moving as soon as all passengers have boarded, even if not all passengers have paid yet. Riders with valid transfers or season passes need not do anything. Riders with a pay-per-ride smartcard and no transfer should tap their card at a validator at any bus door or bus stop (validators are cheap that blanketing the system with them is practically free). The remaining passengers should walk to the farebox and pay there; perhaps some busy stations should get fareboxes, as all SBS stops do in New York today, but if the MTA only expects a few smartcard-free, non-transfer passengers at a stop, then having them pay on board a moving bus should not be a problem.

I’d like to stress that other than the ongoing hiccups of the English-speaking world with fare payment systems (hiccups that it seems to export to Paris), the plan appears good, from what few details the MTA has released. There are plans for increasing the average distance between bus stops, adding more bus lanes, getting serious about signal preemption, raising off-peak frequency, and letting passengers board from all doors. The MTA really is noticing that its bus system is collapsing and really is making serious plans to avert a death spiral.

Joe Lhota Admits Defrauding the Public About Costs

The Wall Street Journal is reporting a bombshell story about New York’s subway station renovation program. The MTA had a budget of $936 million for renovating 32 subway stations, but nearly the entire budget is exhausted after the MTA has spent it on only 19 stations. These renovations do not include accessibility, which New York is lagging on. I’m interviewing people in the disability rights community about New York’s problems in this area, but the smoking gun about Lhota is not that issue, on which he is no worse than anyone else. Rather, it’s that Lhota hid the fact of the cost overrun from the MTA board. Per the Journal:

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end.

“I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

An alternative way to phrase Lhota’s own words is that he is concealing critical information from the public relevant to public spending priorities. In other words, he is defrauding the public when it comes to costs. Previously he had been merely making excuses for high construction costs (e.g. saying New York, founded in the 17th century, is old, and thus naturally has higher costs than cities founded in the Middle Ages or even in Antiquity). But now it turns out that he’s not only trying to deflect criticism, but is actively putting obstacles in front of board members, journalists, and ordinary citizens who want to discuss MTA capital expansion.

Absent democratic mechanisms for oversight of the state, the state will not engage in cost-effective projects. We know this, because the part of public policy most insulated from public criticism, the military and security in general, is the most bloated. The US is wasting a trillion and a half dollars on the F-35, and allies like Israel are wasting money buying this jet from the US military industry. It’s hard to question the costs when overconfident military commanders say “this is necessary for national security.” The intelligence community is even worse, with self-serving slogans like “our successes are private and our failures are public.”

Evidently, facing criticism over costs, domestic agencies portray their projects as necessary rather than useful, hence the weak claims that Gateway is required to avoid shutting down rail service across the Hudson. My specific criticism of the argument that Gateway is required is that the study recommending long-term shutdowns of the existing tunnels did not even attempt to provide a comparative cost of maintaining the tunnels on nights and weekends as is done today. An informed public can more easily demand an end to bad investments, and specific interest groups can highlight how they are harmed by bad spending: the Journal article mentions disability rights advocates demanding that the MTA instead spend money on putting elevators at stations to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The station renovations are especially at risk of being canceled if an informed public finds their costs offensive. The benefits include better maintenance standards, but those are almost self-evidently useful but not necessary. Activists can complain about costs or demand that the money be spent elsewhere.

In Astoria, activists complain that the MTA is renovating stations at a cost of $40 million per station without even installing elevators for accessibility. In London, the cost of the Step-Free Access program is £200 million for 13 stations, or about $20 million per station, and in Paris, where only Metro Line 14 and the RER A and B are accessible, disability rights activists estimate the cost of making the remaining 300 stations accessible at €4-6 billion. This is profoundly different from the situation with tunneling costs, where London has a large premium over Paris and New York has a large premium over London. It is likely that New York can install elevators at the same cost of its top two European peers if it puts its mind to it.

However, such investments are not possible under the current leadership. If a hack like Lhota stays in charge of the MTA, there is not going to be transparency about contracting and about costs, which means that small overruns can blow out of proportion before anyone notices. In such an environment, high costs are not surprising. If New York State is interested in good, cost-effective transit, it will get rid of Lhota and replace him with an experienced transit manager with a good history regarding cost control and respect for the democratic process.

More on Weekend Service Changes and Redundancy

I’m visiting New York again, and the subway is noticeably deteriorating in speed and frequency. But it’s not the speed I’d like to discuss (it’s been covered in the media, both by me and by others) – it’s the weekend service changes. With its 24/7 subway service, New York relies on selective closures of line segments on nights and weekends for maintenance. Expressions like “the D is running on the F and the F is running on the D” are well-known to regular subway riders. However, I don’t think the way the MTA is choosing which lines to shut down every weekend is optimal. I wrote about how different subway lines can be used to substitute for each other in Boston last year; this year, I encountered a big change in New York that, while not as destructive as what I saw in Boston in November, was avoidable.

The trip itself was between Central Harlem and Inwood. I’m staying in Harlem near the 2 and 3 trains, and was visiting friends in Inwood near the A. The most direct path would have been to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A, but this was blocked because the A was not running north of 168th. The second best option would have been to ride the 2 or 3 to 96th and change wrong-way to the 1, but this was also blocked since the 2 and 3 were not running at all on their Harlem trunk line. The route I took was to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A up to the 1, changing at 168th Street, an inconvenient transfer involving an elevator (the 1 is deep and only elevator-accessible at 168th).

It was not an especially egregious change. The trip took around 45 minutes and was all-rail; without the changes, it would have been about half an hour. In Boston, the subway shutdowns forced me onto multiple buses in mixed traffic, and a trip that should have taken 40 minutes ended up taking maybe an hour and a half. However, the extra transfer penalty and the difficulty of finding a good all-rail route are real.

In the post about Boston, I argued that even in relatively sparse rail networks, like Boston’s, rail lines are redundant with one another. In New York, this needs no argument, judging by conversations with many New Yorkers, even ones who aren’t railfans, who recognize the extent of redundancy in the system. It would be useful to design weekend service changes to take advantage of this redundancy and not shut down multiple lines that could substitute for each other. In the case of last weekend, if a full shutdown of the 2 and 3 between 96th Street and the Bronx was unavoidable, then the other north-south lines through Upper Manhattan should not be shut down.

Thus, the first principle I’d like to propose for weekend shutdowns is, if one line is shut for repairs, then parallel lines should be fully open. This should cover shutdowns as well as one-way running, in which one direction is only served by express trains and passengers wishing to access local stations are told to ride an express trains and change to a local train going in the opposite direction.

In fact, given the extent of redundancy in the core, I would propose that if local service is shut down in one direction, then it should be shut down in the other direction as well. Backtracking is cumbersome and rarely worth it: stop spacing is often close enough that walking from the express stop is faster, and in Manhattan it’s usually easier to just go on a parallel line instead.

Then, to compensate for loss of service on a line that’s being closed for repairs, there should be more service on parallel lines. Subway service changes in New York, called general orders, or GOs, fall under a labor agreement in which train operators and conductors are still paid for the time they would’ve had to work if service had run normally. The MTA should negotiate a change in which those drivers and conductors can be redistributed to nearby subway lines without this counting as overtime. If express trains on a route are closed, then there should be more local service, and if a trunk line is closed, as the 2 and 3 were last weekend, then there should be more service on parallel lines (in this case, the 1, 4, 5, A, and D) to absorb the extra ridership. With reduced service, the trains can get quite busy, more so than the crowding guidelines indicate, if my weekend trips are any indication.

Finally, the MTA should build crossovers and switches to enable more efficient single-tracking. This is unlikely to work on four-track lines, since trains would have to cross three tracks to get around a work zone, but on two-track lines, including the L, the 7, and most tails outside the Manhattan core, it would be useful, especially on lines that use island platforms rather than side platforms. On the newest lines, which use bored tunnel, it’s easy to do maintenance on one track without disturbing the other track, as long as there are crossovers at regular locations. On the older lines the situation is the opposite: trains need to slow near work zones, unless some hard barriers are built between parallel tracks, but installing new crossovers is relatively easy. More shutdowns may be required to install such switches, but the subsequent benefits to making weekend trackwork easier are substantial.

Off-Peak Subway Service in New York

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has a new report out about the poor state of off-peak subway service. It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot here (e.g. here), but there’s a big difference in focus: I normally talk about midday service for efficiency reasons, and as far as I remember this is the bulk of what I discussed with report author Adam Forman, but the report itself highlights non-traditional commutes in the early morning and evening:

Traditional commuters
(depart 7-9 am)
Early morning commuters
(depart 5-7 am)
Median Income $42,300 $35,000
Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (Age 25+) 52% 31%
Foreign Born 47% 56%
Person of Color 64% 78%
Work in Healthcare, Hospitality, Retail, Food Services, or Cultural industries 36% 40%
Growth in the Last Quarter Century 17% 39%

Citywide, there are 1,888,000 commuters leaving to go to work between 7 and 9 am, and 711,000 leaving between 5 and 7. The latter group has to contend with much worse subway frequencies: the report has a table (chart 8) detailing the reduction in frequency, which is typically about half. The report does not say so, but an additional hurdle facing early-morning commuters is that some express trains run local: for example, the northbound A train only starts running express at 6 in the morning, forcing a substantial minority of early morning commuters to ride what’s effectively the C train.

The one saving grace in the early morning, not mentioned in the report, is that buses aren’t as slow. For example,  the B6 limited takes 1:11 end-to-end at 6 am, compared with 1:26 at rush hour. However, this is a 16 km route, so even the faster speed at 6 am corresponds to an average speed of 13.7 km/h, which is not competitive with a bicycle. Moreover, in practice, slow circumferentials like the B6 are used in situations where transferring between subway lines is not viable or convenient, such as early in the morning, when subway frequencies are low; this means that far from a substitute for slower rush hour buses, early morning buses have to substitute for much faster subway lines.

The report has charts about subway and bus service by the time the route begins operation. As expected, there’s a prominent morning peak, and a slightly less prominent afternoon peak. In the evening there’s a dropoff: 350 subway runs begin around 9 pm compared with just under 600 subway runs in the morning peak, a reduction of 40%. For buses, the dropoff is larger: about 1,700 versus 3,700, a 54% reduction. The most worrying trend is that the buses peak at the same time as the subway in the afternoon, starting at 4:30 or so; in reality, buses are often a first-mile rather than a last-mile connector, which means that people returning from work typically ride the subway and then the bus, so we should expect buses to peak slightly later than trains, and drop off in the evening at a slower rate. Instead, what we see is the same peak time and a faster dropoff.

Some of this can be attributed to operating costs. Buses have lower fixed costs than trains and higher marginal costs, so the economics of running them at less busy times are weaker than those of running trains. However, in reality buses and trains in New York run as a combined system; running just the subway in the evening but not the buses means that people can’t come home from work if they live in neighborhoods not connected to the subway.

Evening frequencies on many routes are low enough that they are almost certainly negatively impacting ridership. Some individual subway routes run every 11-12 minutes in the evening, including the B, C, D, W, and 5; in the every 9-10 minutes category are the 2, 3, A, F, J, N, and R. Other than the J, these are all branches sharing track with other lines, but they branch off the trunks and recombine. A Bronx-bound rider on the 2 and 3 can only ride the 2, and a Flatbush-bound rider can choose between the 2 and a 3-to-5 transfer, both of which are infrequent. Without timed transfers, the effective frequency as experienced by the rider remains low, about every 10 minutes.

This isn’t how other top metro systems work – in Paris the trains on Metro Line 9, not one of the top lines in the system, come every 7 minutes at 10 or 11 at night. The RER is less frequent on individual branches, but the individual branch points are all outside the city except on the RER C, sometimes well outside it. Other than on the RER C heading west, the branch points are at worst 6 km outside the center (at Vincennes), more typically 10 km (such as Nanterre and Bourg-la-Reine), and at best 16-18 km out (Aulnay and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges). In New York, the R and W branch at Lexington and 60th, a little more than 2 km outside Times Square, and the Q and N branch even earlier; the A-B-C-D branch and recombine at Columbus Circle, and branch again at 145th Street, 8.5 km out of Port Authority. This branching affects a majority of bedroom communities in the city, including almost the entire Bronx, much of Upper Manhattan, all of Queens except the 7, and Central and Southern Brooklyn.

To my knowledge, there is no public study of the effect of frequency on ridership. Occasionally there are ridership screens that incorporate it, but the examples I know are designed around the needs of specific project studies. There can be rules of thumb about frequency at different scales (the smaller the scale, the higher the minimum frequency is), but without more careful analysis, I can only bring up some best industry practices. It does not seem common to run metro trains every 10 minutes in the evening. On the Piccadilly line, there are 22 northbound trains departing Leicester Square between 9 and 10 in the evening, of which 19 go all the way to Cockfosters. On the Central line, 24 trains depart Oxford Circus eastbound, 9 going to Epping (in Essex, 31 km from Oxford Circus and 27 km from Bank), and another 13 serving Newbury Park, in outer East London.

Evening service also has one more complication: it serves several distinct markets. There are commuters working non-traditional hours, themselves split into shift workers and professionals who work late (I spoke to several Manhattan lawyers who told me that they work from 10 in the morning to 8 in the evening). There are tourists and local leisure travelers, some coming late from work after dinner and some coming from a non-work destination. Non-work trips don’t always have the same centers as work trips: in London, non-work trips are dominated by the West End, with little contribution from the City, whereas in New York, presumably Lower Manhattan punches below its weight while Union Square punches above its weight. New York already takes care of non-work trips in the evening, with high frequencies on the 1, L, and 42nd Street Shuttle (“GS” in chart 8), but its frequency guidelines are unfriendly to commuters who are working late.

The MTA Genius Challenge is as Bad as Expected

A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.

The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.

The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.

The crank Idea: lengthening trains

The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.

The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.

The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.

The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,

[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.

This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.

The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.

The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name

New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.

The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.

Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.

The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.

While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.

New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.

The judges don’t know any better

Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.

I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.

Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.

Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).

New Hudson Tunnels Are Canceled. Again.

Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).

When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.

But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.

Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.

But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.

The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.

Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.

In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.

Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.

Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.

The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.

If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.

Why Northeast Corridor Privatization is Doomed to Failure

Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.

Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.

The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.

When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.

In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.

I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,

Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.

To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.

In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.

The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.

Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.

Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.

Grand Paris Express Cost Overruns: Organization Before Electronics Before Concrete

Paris is building a suburban Metro expansion, consisting of 200 km of which 160 are underground, carrying automated trains. This program, dubbed Grand Paris Express, is intended to provide circumferential service in the inner suburbs (on future Metro Lines 15, 16, and 18) and some additional radial service from the suburbs into Central Paris (on future Line 17 and extensions of Lines 11 and 14). The estimated cost was about €25 billion in 2012 prices – about average for a European subway. But now a bombshell has dropped: the cost estimate should be revised upward by 40%, to 35 billion for the 200 km GPX scheme and €38 billion for GPX plus related projects (such as GPX contribution to the RER E extension). You can read it in English-language media on Metro Report, but more detail is available in French-language media, such as Le Monde, and in the original report by the Cour des Comptes, the administrative court charged with auditing government finances. The goal of this post is to suggest how Ile-de-France should react to the cost overruns, using best industry practices from neighboring countries.

First, it’s worthwhile to look at the problems the Cour des Comptes report identifies. It includes a moderate amount of scope creep, on page 40, which helped raise the budget by €3.5 billion between 2013 and 2017:

  • €592 million for separate maintenance facilities at Aulnay for M15 and the other lines (M14, M16, M17).
  • €198 million for interoperability between two segments of M15 in the south and east; the original plan made M15 not a perfect circle but a pinch, without through-service between south and east, and building connections to permit through-running at the southeast costs extra.
  • €167 million for a second railyard for storing trains on M15 East.

On page 47, there is a breakdown of the larger cost overrun accumulated in 2017, by segment. The bulk of the overrun comes from new risk assessments: whereas the budget in early 2017 was €22.4 billion plus €2.8 billion for contingency, the new cost estimate is €27.7 billion plus €7 billion for contingency. This is a combination of geological risk and management risk: the report criticizes the project for lacking enough management to oversee such a large endeavor, and recommends target costs for each segment as well as better cost control to reduce risk.

Reducing the scope of GPX to limit its cost is thankfully easy. For a while now I have puzzled over the inclusion of M18 and M17 (which the report calls M17 North, since M17 South is shared with M16 and M14 in an awkward branch). Whereas M15 is a circular line just outside city limits, serving La Defense and many other major inner-suburban nodes, and M16 is another (semi-)circular alignment to the northeast of M15, M18 is a southwestern circumferential far from any major nodes, connecting Versailles, Massy-Palaiseau, and Orly on a circuitous alignment. Between the major nodes there is very little, and much of what it does connect to is already parallel to the RER B and to one branch of the RER C, which is being replaced with an orbital tram. The suburbs served are high-income and have high car ownership, and transit dependence is unlikely, making M18 an especially weak line.

M17 North is weak as well. It is a weird line, an underground radial connecting to Charles-de-Gaulle, already served by the RER B and by the under-construction CDG Express money waste. The route is supposed to be faster than the RER B, but it is no more direct, and makes more stops – the RER B runs a nonstop train between Gare du Nord and the airport every 15 minutes off-peak. It serves hotels near Saint-Lazare better using the connection to M14, but the RER B serves these hotels, as well as the hotels near Etoile, using a wrong-way transfer at Chatelet-Les Halles with the RER A.

The Cour des Comptes report itself does not recommend pruning these two lines, but its cost-benefit calculations per line on page 29 suggest that they should be deleted. On page 30 it says outright that the cost-benefit calculation for M18 is unfavorable. But on page 29 we see that the benefit-cost ratio of M18, not counting contingency costs, is barely higher than 1, and that of M17 North is a risky 1.3. In contrast, M15 South, the section already under construction, has a benefit-cost ratio of 1.7. M15 West has a ratio of 2.3, M15 East 1.5, M14 South 2.1, and M16 about 2. The M11 eastern extension is not included on the list.

Blog supporter Diego Beghin brought up on social media that M17 and M18 are already most at risk, and local elected officials are seeking assurances from the state that these lines will not be canceled. However, given their low potential ridership, the state should cancel them over local objections. Their combined cost is €4.9 billion, or €6.3 billion with contingency, about the same as the total cost overrun since early 2017.

Instead of pouring concrete on tunnels through lightly-developed high-income southwestern suburbs and on a third express route to the airport, the region should learn from what Germany and Switzerland have had to do. Germany has higher construction costs than France, which has forced it to prioritize projects better. Swiss construction costs seem average or below average, but the entire country has only two-thirds the population of Ile-de-France, and the public’s willingness to subsidize transit as a social service is much smaller than that of the French public. Hence the Swiss slogan, electronics before concrete (and its German extension, organization before electronics before concrete).

The M18 route already has a mainline rail route paralleling it – one of the branches of the RER C. This is an awkward branch, allowing trains from Versailles to enter the core trunk from either east or west, and ridership is so low that SNCF is downgrading it to an orbital tram-train. Thus, there is no need for a new Versailles-Massy connection. Two more destinations of note, Orsay and Orly, are also not necessary. Orsay is notable for its university, but there is already a connection from the university to Massy-Palaiseau and the city via the RER B with a little bit of walking to the station, and the connection to Versailles isn’t important enough to justify building a new line. Orly is a major airport, with about 90,000 travelers per day, but most of the traffic demand there is to the city (which it will connect to via the M14 South extension), and not to Versailles. While many tourists visit Versailles, this is just one stop on their journey, and their hotels are in the city or perhaps near Eurodisney in Marne-la-Vallee.

The M17 route is a more complex situation. The only new stops are Le Mesnil-Amelot, beyond the airport, with little development; Le Bourget-Aeroport, on the wrong side of a freeway; and Triangle de Gonesse, which is farmland. All three are development sites rather than places with existing demand, and development can be built anywhere in the region. However, the new airport-city connection is interesting, as relief for the RER B.

That said, there are better ways to relieve the RER B. The RER B has trains running nonstop between the airport and the city, but only off-peak. At the peak, trains run local every six minutes, with another branch (to Mitry-Claye) also getting a train every six minutes. The trains are very crowded, with obstructed corridors and not enough standing space in the vestibules, and with 20 trains per hour on the RER B and another 12 on the RER D, delays are common. Fixing this requires some improvement in organization, and some in concrete.

The concrete (and electronics) improvement is easier to explain: the shared RER B and D tunnel is a bottleneck and should be quadrupled. With four tracks rather than two, there would be space for more RER B as well as RER D trains; 24 trains per hour on each would be easy to run, and 30 would be possible with moving-block signaling of the same kind used on the RER A. This would provide more capacity not just to the northeast, around Aulnay-sous-Bois, but also north and northwest, since the RER D could take over more branches currently used by Transilien H.

The cost of quadrupling the tunnel is hard to estimate. Local rail advocate group ADUTEC explains the problem. In 2003 a proposal was estimated to cost €700 million, but construction would disrupt service, and in 2013 a study proposed new stations platforms at Les Halles for the RER D, raising the project’s cost to €2-4 billion. ADUTEC instead proposes building one track at a time to avoid disruption without building new platforms, saying this option should be studied more seriously; the cost estimate has to be higher than €700 million (if only because of inflation), but should still not be multiple billions.

But this project, while solving the capacity problems on the RER to the north and south in the medium term, doesn’t help connect passengers to the airport. On the contrary: more RER B traffic would make it harder to fit express trains between the local trains. Already there is little speed difference between local and express trains, about four minutes with nine skipped stations. This isn’t because the trains accelerate so quickly (they don’t) or because the maximum line speed is so low (the maximum speed on the line is 110-120 km/h). Rather, it’s because otherwise the express trains would catch up with local trains, on the airport branch or on the Mitry branch.

Fortunately, the route between the approach to Gare du Nord and Aulnay-sous-Bois, where the two RER B branches diverge, has four tracks. Right now, two are used by the RER, and two by other trains, including Transilien K but also the odd intercity train. The organizational fix is then clear: the four tracks should be reassigned so that all local trains get two tracks and all express trains (including intercities and Transilien but also airport express trains) get the other two. There is very little intercity traffic on the route, which carries no TGVs, and Transilien K has only a handful of peak trains and can be folded into the RER B.

With four tracks between Gare du Nord and Aulnay, express trains could go at full speed, saving about a minute for each skipped stop. But they shouldn’t go nonstop to the airport. They should serve Aulnay, giving it fast trains to the center. Passenger boardings by time of day are available for the SNCF-owned portion of the RER and Transilien here; Aulnay is the busiest station on the RER B north of Gare du Nord, with about 20% more weekday boardings than the second busiest (Stade de France) and 25% more morning peak boardings than the second busiest (La Courneuve). If express trains stop there, then it will free more space on local trains for the stations closer in, which would permit a service plan with half local trains and half express trains, each coming every 4-5 minutes. Today the inner stations get a local train every 3 minutes, so this is a service cut, but letting express trains handle demand from Aulnay out, on the airport branch as well as the Mitry and Transilien K branch, would mean passengers wouldn’t clog the local trains as much.

Potentially this could also reduce the demand for M16, whose northern segment, currently planned to be interlined with M14 and M17, is radial rather than circumferential. The entire M16 has a high benefit-cost ratio, but this could change in the presence of more RER B and D capacity. It may even be prudent to consider canceling M15 East and rerouting the remainder of M16 to complete the circle, a Line 15 consisting of the segments planned as M15 South, M15 West, and M16.

The study shows there is demand for two circumferentials in the east and northeast (M15 East and M16), but if RER B improvements rob M16 of its usefulness as a radial then this may change. If RER B improvements reduce the benefit-cost ratio of M16 below 1.5, then it should be canceled as well; with a budget of €4.4 billion plus another €1.2 billion in contingency, M16 could fund radial improvements that are more useful elsewhere. M15 East is a more coherent circumferential, with connections to Metro lines, whereas M16 is too far out.

But despite lack of coherence, M16 serves key destinations on the RER B. By default, the plan for GPX should be canceling M17 North and M18, and instead quadrupling the RER B and D tunnel and running more north-south RER service. Further cost overruns should be limited by the mechanisms the Cour des Comptes proposes, including tighter oversight of the project; without M17, there also may be room for removing ancillary scope, such as the Aulnay railyard.