Category: Incompetence

Who is Being Empowered?

Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.

The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.

Politicians and civil servants

Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.

I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.

Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.

The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).

National vs. international comparisons

The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.

What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.

An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.

The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”

Is there a way out?

I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.

First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.

Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.

Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.

And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.

Is the United States Giving Up on Public Transportation?

In the last week or two, I have seen a worrying trend in multiple North American cities: transit managers and advocates who call for measures to reduce the number of people riding public transportation, all in the name of social distancing and safety from Covid-19. These ideas include limiting the number of people entering a bus, marking off seats on buses and trains to maintain a minimum distance between passengers, and using apps to limit the number of people entering a train station. Even transit activists openly say that it’s good to reduce occupancy per bus or train, they just use this as an argument for running more off-peak frequency and staggering shifts. The message from everyone is clear: public transit is dangerous, don’t ride it, especially if it is crowded.

Public transportation is not especially dangerous, but the danger that does exist is not ameliorated by any physical distancing. Trying to reduce the number of passengers on a bus or train is safety theater and non-English-speaking cities have reduced infection rates without this. Even Jarrett Walker has taken to saying that public transportation should not aim at getting high ridership, though to his credit he steers clear of saying that transit is dangerous in a pandemic.

I’ve already gone over why I don’t think the subway in New York, by a margin the dirtiest I have ridden, is the reason the city’s infection rate is so high. Instead of rehashing that, I want to focus on the converse: on cases in which people do get infected on transit. These clearly exist – my contention isn’t that trains and buses make one invulnerable to the virus, merely that they’re not any more dangerous than the places people might travel to, such as work. Does social distancing on such vehicles help?

There is an answer, in the form of a study out of China about infection on a bus. The answer is no. Here is the graphic of who was and was not infected on a bus that one infected person rode for a 100-minute roundtrip (passengers sat in the same seats on both legs of the trip):

There were 67 passengers on the bus, including the index patient; the index patient infected 23 of them. Proximity to the patient – that is, the distinction between zones 1 and 2 – is not statistically significant. The window passengers on the left side of the bus did not get infected, except the one sitting next to the index patient, but on the right side of the bus, six window seat passengers got the virus.

American and Canadian attempts to limit bus occupancy do not prevent the spread of the virus. The safe occupancy, if people do not wear masks, is 1, or maybe 2 if passengers sit at opposite ends of the vehicle. Limitations on how many passengers can ride the bus at most reduce the number of people one patient can infect, but only if the bus is so crowded that the agency would otherwise add more service. If the bus would have had 20 passengers either way, spreading them around evenly would not help.

What does work is masks. In Taipei, masks are mandatory, and Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism tells me that there is universal compliance. In Berlin, I just observed an U-Bahn train in the evening rush hour, noticeably less full than the usual by a factor of perhaps 2, but still far too full for the tastes of the American transit manager, with nearly all seats occupied and a few people standing; about 85% of the passengers wore masks covering their noses and mouths and maybe 5% more incorrectly wore a mask so as only to cover their mouths. There was a mixture of cloth and surgical masks.

I hesitate to mention Taipei and Berlin in the same sentence. Germany, a country of 83 million people, considers itself a success because it has 170,000 cases and 8,000 deaths. But Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, has had 440 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak. As of yesterday, it had had no new cases in eight days; excluding imports, it had had no new cases in 33 days. A month ago, sailors were erroneously allowed to roam the streets and only recalled to quarantine after three had tested positive; no civilians were infected, because masks were mandatory at the time even on the street.

That said, by solipsistic Western standards, Berlin is doing fairly well. Infection rates are noticeably below the German average, and while 181 people have died citywide, this is still low enough not to be detectable in the overall death rate (“excess mortality”). It joins a list of cities that had a plague but are getting it under control: it is nowhere near as good as Seoul, where train crowding is pretty extensive, but its trends seem cautiously positive.

Despite this optimistic picture painted by the success of places with high mask usage, to a large extent even if it isn’t universal, American transit managers and even advocates seem to be giving up. If the point of public transit is to exist but not get ridership, it’s much easier to push for nice-seeming networks, untethered from any passenger demand.

The general population is hearing the message loud and clear: public transit is dangerous, avoid it if at all possible. The New York Stock Exchange is therefore reopening its famously crowded indoor floor, where a superspreader event is likely if just one infected person comes in, but banning traders from getting there by public transportation. The MTA is already splurging on a McKinsey study saying it will need to spend $700-800 million to attract people back to the subway; so far, low-cost, high-impact measures like photo-ops in which the governor or the mayor wears a mask and rides the subway at rush hour surrounded by other masked riders, are not implemented, sending the same message, important people avoid public transit and so should you.

This ends in a national effort in the United States, and perhaps also Canada, to collectively give up on having any public transit. The advocates aren’t pushing back, the managers are happy with high-tech restrictions on usage, even Streetsblog talks about bike lanes instead of about getting more people on trains, and nobody stops to think, maybe there is a way to preserve transit ridership?

Take the fall in economic activity due to the demand-side recession induced by the virus. Now add the fall coming from the required mass abandonment of New York and to some extent San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, all of which have centers with too many jobs to be served by cars, taxis, or bikes. Maybe it’s possible to get people to work from home, but it’s unclear if they can maintain productivity; I have heard many more people telling me they can’t than people telling me they can, especially among parents. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the US may well fall below Taiwanese GDP per capita, and in a true crisis coming from such mass abandonment it could even drop below Germany and Sweden, which are projecting something like a 7% contraction this year due to the virus’s effects.

This is not something Americans are ready for. They’re used to being on top of the world. Even when they describe social problems that they know other countries have solved, they do this in a kind of self-deprecating way that screams to the outsider, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’re so great we’re not that bothered about fixing it.” They’re used to a world whose economic and cultural capital is New York and not Shanghai or Tokyo; they’re used to not needing to learn a foreign language and acquire fluency in foreign cultures to be viewed literate. This solipsism is to some extent pan-Western and is why the West is hurting, but the geopolitical center of the West, the monolingual country that thinks it invented freedom, looks like it’s hurting the most.

Resist the Urge to Start Small

Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.

The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.

Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.

The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.

The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.

Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.

More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.

The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.

Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.

There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.

The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.

It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.

New York Ignores Best Practices for Cleaning

MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.

How to disinfect a subway system

Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,

a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.

Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:

a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.

Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.

It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.

With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.

What New York is doing

Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.

The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.

The homelessness issue

There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.

New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.

Who is being empowered?

The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.

This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.

The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.

This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.

This is not World War Two

Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.

I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.

A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.

American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.

Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.

In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.

Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.

The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?

I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.

Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.

The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.

I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.

This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.

A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.

Who Do You Learn From?

When a city or country decides how to go about solving some problem, it will usually learn from somewhere else – either consciously as a set of best practices, or unconsciously as a sanity check. The “who do you learn from?” question is then what that somewhere else is. This is true of the ongoing corona pandemic, but also of infrastructure, which is why I want to draw this analogy.

Covid-19

In the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become obvious that Western countries do not learn from non-Western ones. I’ve heard people say that high-income Asia has responded better to the crisis before it was used to from the SARS outbreak of 2003. But SARS affected primarily China and Hong Kong, and secondarily Taiwan, Canada, and Singapore. Korea and Japan barely had any cases. And yet, Korea’s response to the crisis has drawn praise for reducing the daily infection rate through aggressive monitoring and testing. Daily growth in Korea is maybe 1%, slower than the rate of recoveries.

There is a clean cleave between rich Asian countries’ response to the virus and Western countries’. It’s not SARS, and it’s not whatever racist mythology Westerners tell themselves about Asian collectivism (in what way is the Hong Kong democracy protest movement collectivist?). What it is, is that Asians are happy to learn from other Asians. SARS normalized mask wearing in high-income Asia as a solution to poor air quality or to a contagious disease, and Koreans and Japanese picked it up from nearby countries.

Europeans and Americans, in contrast, wouldn’t stoop to learn from a civilization they look down. My American Twitter feed talked about the virus somewhat when it was raging mostly in China and then in Korea, but as soon as it hit Italy, most of it transitioned to talking about Italy. The rest of Europe didn’t think it would affect it, and even the strategies for how to deal with it are entirely European. Masks are nowhere to be found, tricks like Korea’s use of disposable chopsticks at elevators to avoid finger-pressing are nowhere to be found, testing capacity is low even in countries with strong civil service and good health care, metro stations and public buildings have no hand sanitizer. If it wasn’t invented here, it isn’t worth implementing, never mind how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Europeans will die for their civilization’s pride.

Public transportation

I went over a few national or supranational traditions of metro construction around a year to a year and a half ago, covering the United States, the Soviet bloc, and Britain. There are a few more traditions I could go over by popular request – Japanese (with influence across Asia, especially Korea), French, German, Chinese, increasingly Indian. These traditions do not neatly divide the world into spheres of influence – rather, there are places with multiple influences, like a combination of British and Japanese influence in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the Chinese system synthesizing some Soviet principles in addition to engaging in extensive domestic innovation.

I bring this complication up because when it comes to high costs, the Anglosphere seems mainly to learn from the rest of the Anglosphere, and the US almost exclusively from the US (very rarely from Canada and Britain, never from other English-speaking countries).

The Anglosphere shares certain institutions like common law, but Israel uses common law as well, and yet the Israeli rail electrification project’s communications and media coverage constantly emphasized “like Europe,” not like the English-speaking world; when it comes to how to build trains, Israel’s notion of the ideal functioning country is a pan-European medley.

Rather, the shared characteristics in the Anglosphere seem to be that these countries mostly learn from each other. The idea of road pricing was introduced to the world by the Smeed Report in 1962-4, then actually implemented in Singapore in 1975, then failed to make it to Hong Kong, then got back to London in 2003, and only then became a well-known idea in the American discourse. Moreover, in the Bloomberg-era discourse, London figured heavily, and few people mentioned Singapore and Stockholm; subsequently Milan adopted congestion pricing as well, and the American discourse has ignored it just as it has Stockholm.

Certain governance features that seem relevant to construction costs, like the privatization of state planning, are endemic to the Anglosphere. The use of public-private partnerships is widespread, more so than in other developed countries. Planning is routinely outsourced to consultants. What’s more, my vague understanding of Singapore is that for all its supposed state capacity, it’s headed in that direction too, no doubt thinking that if the US and UK are doing something then it must be good.

Obviously the importation of British and American ideas to Singapore has its limits, as we’re seeing now with the outbreak, but this importation remains widespread. In contrast, importation of Continental ideas is limited. One possible explanation is that Singaporeans view the entire West as a single culture, much as Westerners can’t tell Chinese people apart and often group the entirety of Asia together; if you don’t think there’s much of a difference between different European countries, then you will import ideas from the one that speaks English.

Why are they like this?

The West is a solipsistic civilization, and a lot of Europeans and Americans are going to die in the next few months as a result. But within the West, the United States is especially solipsistic. This does not mean it will necessarily fare worse in the outbreak than Europe – the virus reached it later, so it does have more time, measured in perhaps two weeks, to implement social distancing, ramp up testing capacity, and build emergency hospitals to reduce the death rate from infection. More fundamentally, when it comes to learning from Korea and Taiwan, the US isn’t any worse than Europe.

However, the virus is just my motivating example; my actual work is about public transportation, and there, the US is worse, because Europe has good test cases to learn from that other European countries look at and the US does not. I have seen multiple examples of this even among reformers, like the RPA report on construction costs or the GAO one, let alone among state governments (Massachusetts will simply not learn from anything outside North America).

The explanation, I think, has to do with who the process is empowering. Senior management in big American cities does not understand anything about how things work in other countries, nor do the managers have any social relationships with their peers abroad. Domestically, and sometimes even across the northern border, it’s different – a senior manager in New York has gone to national conferences and met peers from Los Angeles and Chicago and Boston and Seattle and probably also Toronto. A best practices effort that’s restricted to North America empowers such managers.

In contrast, a best practices effort that goes global disempowers the most powerful people in politics and the bureaucracy. They are monolingual, so they can’t easily contradict what people say in a report that talks about how things work in Paris or Tokyo or Madrid or Stockholm. They are unlikely to have lived abroad, or if they did, it was so long ago their knowledge is no longer relevant. They have no established relationships with their peers. They are useless in such a process, and they know it.

I was on a diversity panel at Intercon called Gaming as the Other, I believe in 2015. There were me as the immigrant (just about the only 1st-and-not-1.5th-generation immigrant in a community numbering in the low hundreds), a second-generation Chinese-American, and two black Americans. We discussed different issues relevant to this 95% white community, and at some point, someone from the audience asked me a very good question: “Alon, do you feel excluded when we talk about American pop culture references?” I thought about it a little and said no, I can usually fill in the gaps – I don’t feel excluded when the Americans know something I don’t but when I know something they don’t, because I know they will not respect my knowledge. The two black Americans did not connect to this; the Chinese-American did, bringing up a school in Chinatown in Manhattan that split over traditional vs. simplified characters, a distinction few non-Chinese people would understand.

It’s likely that the single biggest institutional barrier to improving public transportation in the United States is not exactly bureaucratic inertia, but rather than the improvements do not tap onto the agreed-upon skillset of the most powerful people. The political appointees are of no use. Some managers are, but not many, especially not at the top levels. At planning agencies it’s often the junior people who are most useful. Why should a manager listen to an underling?

What Europe Can Learn From Asia

Most of what I write about is what North America can learn from Europe, but the rich countries of Asia are extremely important as well. But what’s more interesting is knowledge sharing between Western Europe and the rich countries of East Asia. These two centers of passenger rail technology have some reciprocal exchange programs, but still learn less from each other than they should.

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak made the topic of Western learning from East Asia especially important. To be clear, none of the examples I’m going to talk about in this post is about the virus itself or at all about public health. But the sort of reaction in democratic East Asia that’s staved off the infection, compared with the failure of the West to do much in time, is instructive. When the virus was just in China, nobody in the West cared. I went to a comedy night in Berlin a month ago and it was the Asian comic who joked about how all they needed was to cough and the white people gave them space; it was still viewed as an exclusively Asian epidemic. By the same token, Korea’s success in reducing infections has made it to parts of Western media, but implementation still lags, leading to an explosion of deaths in Italy and perhaps soon France and the US. Hong Kong (from the bottom up) and Taiwan (with government assistance) have limited infection through social distancing and mask wearing, and the West refuses to adopt either.

If it’s Asian, Europeans as well as Americans view it as automatically either inferior or irredeemably foreign. Whatever the reasoning is, it’s an excuse not to learn. Unlike the United States, Europe has pretty good public transportation in the main cities, and a lot of domestic innovations that are genuinely better than what Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do; thus, it can keep going on like this without visible signs of stagnation. Nonetheless, what Japan has, and to some extent the other rich Asian countries, remains a valuable lesson, which good public transport advocates and managers must learn to adopt to the European case.

Urban rail and regional rail: network design

Tokyo and Seoul both have stronger S-Bahn networks than any European city. This is not just an artifact of size. Paris and London are both pretty big, even if they’re still only about a third as big as Tokyo. In Tokyo, the infrastructure for urban and regional rail is just far better-integrated, and has been almost from the start. Among the 13 Tokyo subway lines, only three run as pure metro lines, separate from all other traffic: Ginza, Marunouchi, Oedo. The other 10 are essentially S-Bahn tunnels providing through-service between different preexisting commuter lines: the Asakusa Line connects the Keisei and Keikyu systems, the Hibiya Line connects the Tobu Skytree Line with Central Tokyo and used to through-run to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, etc.

This paradigm of cross-regional traffic is so strong that on lines that do not have convenient commuter lines to connect to, there are suburban tails built just to extend them farther out. The Tozai Line hooks into a reverse-branch of the Chuo Line to the west, but to the east has little opportunity for through-service, and therefore most trains continue onto an extension called the Toyo Rapid Railway.

On the JR East network, there are a few subway connections to, but for the most part the network has its own lines to Central Tokyo. This is an early invention of mainline rail through-running, alongside the Berlin S-Bahn; the Yamanote ring was completed in 1925. Further investment in through-service since then has given more lines dedicated tracks through Central Tokyo, for capacity more than anything else.

The issue is not just that there are many through-running lines. Tokyo has 15-16 through-running trunks, depending on how one counts, and Paris, a metro area about one third the size, will soon have 4.5. It’s not such a big difference. Rather, Tokyo’s through-running lines function well as a metro within the city in ways the Berlin S-Bahn, the Paris RER, the Madrid Cercanías, and any future London Crossrail lines simply don’t.

What’s more, future investment plans in Europe do not really attempt to turn the commuter rail network into a useful metro within the city. Berlin has a strong potential northwest-southeast S-Bahn route forming a Soviet triangle with the two existing radial trunks, but it’s not being built, despite proposals by online and offline advocates; instead, current S21 plans call for duplicating north-south infrastructure. In Paris, the RER C doesn’t really work well with the other lines, the RER E extension plans are a mess, and most of the region’s effort for suburban rail expansion is spent on greenfield driverless metro and not on anything with connections to legacy mainlines. In London, the subsurface Underground lines are historically a proto-S-Bahn, with some mainline through-service in the 19th century, but they are not really used this way today even though there is a good proposal by railfans.

While Europe generally does the longer-distance version of regional rail better than Japan, the vast majority of ridership is S-Bahn-type, and there, Japan absolutely crushes. What’s more, Korea has learned from Japan’s example, so that the Seoul Subway Line 1 is an S-Bahn and many other lines are very long-range; Seoul’s per capita rail ridership is much lower than Paris’s, but is increasing fast, as South Korea is a newly-industrialized country still building its infrastructure at low cost to converge to Western incomes.

Rolling stock

Tokyo outdoes the closest things to its peers in the West in S-Bahn network design. Japan is equally superior when it comes to the rolling stock technology itself. It has all of the following features:

  • Low cost. Finding information about rolling stock costs in Japan is surprisingly hard, but Wikipedia claims the 10000 Series cost 1.2 billion yen per 10-car, 200-meter train, which is around $60,000/meter, compared with a European range that clusters around $100,000.
  • Low weight – see table here. European trains are heavier, courtesy of different buff strength regulations that are not really needed for safety, as Japanese trains have lower death tolls per p-km than European ones thanks to accident avoidance.
  • All-MU configuration – Japan has a handful of locomotives for passenger service for the few remaining night trains, and runs all other trains with EMUs and sometimes DMUs. Parts of Europe, like Britain, have made this transition as well, but Zurich still runs locomotives on the S-Bahn.

The one gap is that Europe is superior in the long-range regional rail segment with a top speed of 160-200 km/h. But Japanese trains are better at the more urban end up to 100 km/h thanks to their low cost and weight and at the high-speed end of 300+ km/h thanks to low cost and weight (again) and better performance.

Shinkansen equipment is also more technically advanced than European high-speed trains in a number of ways, in addition to its lower mass and cost. The N700-I has a power-to-weight ratio of 26.74 kW/t, whereas European trains are mostly in the low 20s. Japanese train noses are more aerodynamic due to stringent noise regulations and city-center stations, and the trains are also better-pressurized to avoid ear popping in tunnels. As a result, the Shinkansen network builds single-bore double-track tunnels hardly bigger than each individual bore in a twin-bore European rail tunnel, helping reduce cost relative to Japan’s heavily mountainous geography. The EU should permit such trains on its own tracks to improve service quality.

The Shinkansen

The Shinkansen works better than European high-speed rail networks in a few ways, in addition to rolling stock. Some of it is pure geographic luck: Japanese cities mostly lie on a single line, making it easy to have a single trunk serve all of them. However, a few positive decisions improve service beyond what pure geography dictates, and should be studied carefully in Britain, Germany, and Italy.

  • Trains run through city centers with intermediate stops rather than around them. This slightly slows down the trains, because of the stop penalty at a city, and sometimes a slightly slowdown for an express train. This is especially important in Britain, which is proposing an excessively branched system for High Speed 2, severely reducing frequency on key connections like London-Birmingham and London-Manchester.
  • Trains run on dedicated tracks, apart from the Mini-Shinkansen. This was enforced by a different track gauge, but a sufficiently strong national network should run on dedicated tracks even with the same gauge. This is of especial importance in Germany, which should be building out its network to the point of having little to no track-sharing between high-speed and legacy trains, which would enable high-speed trains to run more punctually.
  • Train stations are through-stations (except Tokyo, which is almost set up to allow through-service and errs in not having any). If the legacy station is a terminal, like Aomori, or is too difficult to serve as a through-station, like Osaka, then the train will serve a near-downtown station a few km away, like Shin-Aomori 4 km from Aomori and Shin-Osaka 4 km from Osaka. Germany does this too at Kassel and has long-term plans to convert key intermediate terminals into through-stations, but France and Italy both neglect this option even when it is available, as in Tours and Turin.
  • Rolling stock is designed for high capacity, including fast egress. There is no cafe car – all cars have seats. There are two wide door pairs per car, rather than just one as on the TGV. There is full level boarding with high platforms. Express trains dwell even at major stations for only about a minute, compared with 5 minutes on the TGV and even slower egress at the Paris terminals. Trains turn at the terminals in 12 minutes, reducing operating expenses.
  • Pricing is simple and consistent, without the customer-hostile yield management practices of France, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe.

Reliability

Japan is renowned for its train punctuality. As far as I can tell, this comes from the same place as Switzerland: system design is centered around eliminating bottlenecks. Thus it’s normal in both Japan and Switzerland to leave some key commuter lines single-track if the frequency they run allows timed meets; both countries also employ timed overtakes between local and express trains on double track.

Where I think Japan does better than Switzerland is the use of track segregation to reduce delays. Captive trains are easier to control than highly-branched national rail networks. In Switzerland, there is no room for such captive trains – the entire country has fewer people than Tokyo, and the city of Zurich has fewer people than many individual Tokyo wards. But a big country could in effect turn long lines into mostly separated systems to improve punctuality. This goes against how the S-Bahn concept works in the German-speaking world, but the Tokyo and Seoul lines are in effect metros at a larger scale, even more so than the RER A and B or the Berlin S-Bahn. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Britain could all learn from this example.

The heavy emphasis on punctuality in Japanese railroad culture has been blamed for a fatal rail accident. But even with that accident, Japanese rail safety far surpasses Europe’s, approaching 80 billion passenger-km per on-board passenger fatality where Europe appears to be in the low teens.

Is this everything?

Not quite. I will write a companion piece about what Asia can learn from Europe eventually. For one, East Asia appears to optimize its rail operating culture to huge cities, much like France and Britain, and thus its smaller cities have less per capita rail usage than similar-size Central European ones; on this list, compare Fukuoka, Busan, and Sapporo with Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Rome, Frankfurt, Barcelona, and Hamburg. Europe is also better when it comes to 160-200 km/h regional rail.

However, the bulk of intercity rail traffic even in Europe is on high-speed trains, an area in which Europe has more to learn from Japan than vice versa. Similarly, the bulk of individual boardings on trains are on metro and short-range S-Bahn trains even in the German-speaking world; there there is a lot of learning to be done in both directions, but at the end of the day, Tokyo has higher rail usage than Paris and London.

MAGA Trains

American railfans are full of nostalgia for a past era when American trains were great. So much of the discussion among industry insiders, railfans, and advocates is about how to make American railroads great again, how to return to the mid-20th century era of American domination. This is not correct history: while American railroads were in fact in a pretty good position from the 1920s to the 50s, they were not competitive with mass motorization and air travel, and trying to imitate what they were like then has no chance of competing with cars or planes. The story of American railroads has to be understood not as decline but as stagnation: operations, technology, and management stagnated, and this is what led to ridership decline. Instead of indulging in a MAGA fantasy about past greatness, it is important for the United States to implement all the innovations of the last half century that it has missed out on, innovations coming from East Asia and Western Europe.

Organization

American railroads were private until Amtrak took over intercity operations and states took over commuter rail operations, which happened well after the terminal decline in ridership. There was intense competition between rival companies, at times leading to physical violence. There was no coordination of operations between different railroads, no coordination with municipal public transportation systems, no attempt at seamless passenger experience. What was the point? This system evolved in the early 20th century, when there was no competition from other modes, only from other railroads.

Over time, most of the rest of the developed world has learned to coordinate different modes of public transportation better, to compete with cars. This usually occurred under nationalized mainline rail companies, but even when companies remained separate, as with the division between municipal subways (e.g. the Berlin U-Bahn) and national railways (e.g. the S-Bahn), or with the separate BLS system around and south of Bern, there has been integration. There is fare and schedule coordination in German cities across rail and bus operators, and even better coordination in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The US remains fixated on competition, and thus there is no fare integration, but rather relationships between different operators are adversarial. In Chicago, the mayor opposes integration between the municipal L and the regionally-owned Metra commuter rail system, since the city does not own Metra. Every time Amtrak has to share territory with a commuter railroad, one side is screwing the other out of something, whether it’s Amtrak overcharging on electricity or Metro-North arbitrarily slowing Amtrak down. In Boston, there is no integration between city-focused MBTA service, which includes commuter rail, and buses in outlying cities, called RTAs (regional transit authorities); the MBTA is simply uninterested in matching fares or schedules, and is not even integrating its own buses with its commuter trains.

Planning coordination

Switzerland has higher rail usage than every place I know of once one controls for city size. Zurich’s modal split may not be as favorable to public transportation as Paris or London’s, but is a world better than that of any French or British city of similar size. Switzerland got to this point through a stingy political process in which planners had to stretch every franc, substituting organizational capacity for money. Thus, construction in the 1990s used the following principles of value engineering:

  • Infrastructure, rolling stock, and the timetable should be planned together (the magic triangle), since decisions on each affect the other two.
  • Trains should run as fast as necessary for transfer windows, overtakes, meets on single track, etc. Infrastructure should likewise be only as expansive as necessary – if the timetable does not have trains on a given single track meeting, this segment does not need to be doubled.
  • Trains should have timed transfers at major cities, to enable everywhere-to-everywhere travel. Connecting buses should be timed with the regional trains at major suburban nodes.
  • Electronics before concrete: it’s cheaper to resignal a line to have short headways and high speeds than to add tracks and tunnels.

These principles do not exist in the United States. Worse, too many American activists, even ones who are pretty good on related issues, do not believe it’s even possible to implement them. “This isn’t Switzerland or Japan” is a common refrain. There’s growing understanding among American cycling advocates that 50 years ago the Netherlands wasn’t as bike-friendly as it is today; there sadly isn’t such understanding regarding the state of rail coordination in Switzerland until about the 1990s.

While Switzerland manages to build its Knot System at low cost, leading to sharp increases in rail usage in the 2000s and 2010s, Americans are unable to do the same. Activists propose massive spending, which the political system is unwilling to fund. Nor is the political system interested in adapting low-cost solutions for infrastructure coordination, since the sort of apparatchiks who governors like appointing to head state agencies can’t implement them; we all know what happened last time a foreigner got appointed to a major position and succeeded too much. The way forward is right there, and the entire American political system, from every governor down to most activists, either is ignorant of it or explicitly rejects it.

Technology

Amtrak runs slower than it used to on most lines. Trip times on the Northeast Corridor south of New York are if anything slightly slower than they were in the 1970s in the early days of the Metroliner. The corridor and long-distance service outside the Northeast are considerably slower. For example, the Super Chief took 39:45 between Chicago and Los Angeles, whereas its current Amtrak version, the Southwest Chief, takes 43:10. At shorter range, the Chicago-St. Louis trains take 5:20 today, compared with 4:55 in the 1930s. This has led too many Americans to assume that there has been technological regression and that the main focus should be on restoring midcentury service levels rather than on moving forward.

In reality, high speeds in the middle of the 20th century came from the facts that express passenger trains were highly profitable and used by important people and so had priority over all other traffic, and that superelevation was set high for these trains; both of these aspects collapsed as riders and high-value shippers decided driving and flying were better than taking 5-hour train rides, so the profit center shifted to low-value freight. Today, getting high passenger ridership is plausible at high-speed rail speeds, but that requires getting Chicago-St. Louis down to 2 hours, not 5 hours, and having excellent connections to local and regional public transportation at both ends.

Nor was midcentury rolling stock good by current standards. Electric locomotives in Europe weigh around 90 tons. American ones weigh a little more, still in compliance with superseded FRA regulations enacted just after WW2. But the locomotives from just before these regulations weighed far more: the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG1 weighed 215 metric tons. Europe has achieved weight reductions over generations of innovation since, and Japan has achieved even more impressive reductions; 215 tons would get you 2/3 of the way to a 10-car EMU set in Tokyo.

Worse, even in the middle of the 20th century, the US was no longer at the technological forefront of rail service. The civil service formation following the German Revolution brought forth a new railway law and new technology, such as the tangential switch, since adopted throughout Continental Europe; the US mostly sticks with secant switches built to late-19th century specs. In the 1950s the differences between German and American rail technology weren’t huge, but they were there. Since then they’ve gradually widened – in the 1960s Germany came up with LZB signaling, while the US was at best stuck on 1930s signaling, federal regulations on the matter leading to lower top speeds than to the adoption of automatic train protection.

There seems to be general ignorance of the advances that the US has not been part of. Rail managers ask questions like “does Europe have positive train control?” (yes, ETCS is already a second-generation system, we just call this automatic train protection instead of positive train control) or say “Europe doesn’t have the ADA” (accessibility laws here are comparable to American ones and overall the public transportation networks here are on average more accessible). In technology as in organization, the MAGA mentality for trains refuses to admit that there are innovations abroad to learn from.

The way forward: imitate, don’t innovate

The United States can innovate in public transportation, but only if it imitates better countries first. It needs to learn what works in Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Finland, Austria. It needs to learn how to plan around cooperation between different agencies and operators, how to integrate infrastructure and technology, how to use 21st-century engineering.

There are great places where such imitation could work. I work a lot on Boston-related issues at TransitMatters; New England has high population density, a wealthy and growing urban core in Boston, ample legacy rail infrastructure, and town centers that work more like Central European suburban sprawl (albeit at lower density) than like structureless Californian or Texan sprawl. But it can’t move forward without rejecting MAGA fantasies and replacing them with a program of learning from what works here and in Japan. There are so many projects under discussion of limited or no value, and some even with negative value, like anything that interacts with the hobby freight railroad Pan Am.

Instead, the tendency in the United States is to do anything to avoid learning from outside North America. Plans for intercity rail improvement outside the Northeast and California are steeped with MAGA language about restoring midcentury rail. Plans in New York spend far too much time on midcentury expansion plans and far too little on understanding cost explosion factors dating to the 1920s. Regional rail plans vaguely nod to European S-Bahns, but are generally filtered through several layers, mainly Philadelphia’s implementation. Anything that touches freight invites kludges that European planners no longer use for cost or maintenance reasons.

This tendency has to end. Meiji Japan didn’t join the first world by closing itself to foreign inventions – quite the opposite. The US needs to understand that the path to a future with better American transportation lies not in America’s past, but in Europe and East Asia’s present. The history isn’t one of American decline and renaissance through rediscovery of ancient learning, but one of American insularity and stagnation, to which the solution is to adapt technologies that work elsewhere.

China Won’t Save You

The construction costs of Britain’s just-approved domestic high-speed rail network, High Speed 2, are extreme. The headline costs are, in 2019 figures, £80.7-88.7 billion per the Oakervee review, with one estimate going up to £106.6 billion, all for a system only 530 km in length in mostly flat terrain. This includes rolling stock, but that is less than 10% of the projected cost. At the end of the day, Britain has decided to spend around $200 million per kilometer, a cost comparable to that of base tunnels and mostly-tunneled high-speed lines.

And now the People’s Republic of China has offered to build the entire thing for cheaper with a 5-year timeline, and everyone acts as if it’s a serious offer. So let me dust off my construction costs database and tell you: the PRC won’t save you. There is no alternative to developing good internal cost control. This requires learning from lower-cost countries, but Chinese high-speed rail construction costs are not really low.

Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are both building metros. Hanoi uses Chinese financing, HCMC uses Japanese financing. Both have very high construction costs – my database has HCMC’s 13% underground Line 1 at $320 million/km, 82% underground Line 2 phase 1 at $535 million/km, and 84% underground Line 5 phase 1 at $590 million/km, whereas Hanoi’s 74% underground Line 2A is $215 million/km and 32% underground Line 3 is $365 million/km.

The system in Hanoi has been plagued with delays. Line 2A was supposed to be operational by 2016. Construction was only completed in 2018, but the line is yet to open. Testing is ongoing, but Chinese experts couldn’t return to Vietnam after the Chinese New Year holiday because of the coronavirus quarantine. The South China Morning Post has compared the Hanoi project negatively with that of HCMC, which is for the most part on time, if expensive.

Like many developing-world cities, HCMC is paying more for a subway tunnel than Japan pays at home; to get to the cost range of HCMC in Japan, one needs to go to complex regional rail tunnels in Tokyo dipping under multiple older tunnels in city center. In that it is no different from Dhaka or Jakarta. The primary explanation must be that importing Japanese technology means using techniques optimized for a high-skill, high-wage labor force and cheap domestic capital, rather than ones optimized for a low-skill, low-wage labor force and expensive imported capital.

But that does not explain why the Hanoi Metro is so expensive. Chinese metros cost less (though not universally – Shanghai’s construction costs are rising fast): I want to say about $250 million/km on average, about the same as the non-Chinese global median, but the actually big set of data is unpublished so you guys can’t nitpick my sources yet. So what’s going on here? Vietnam is poorer than China, but the difference is not so big. It’s about half as rich as the PRC. It’s comparable to Europe, where Romania and Bulgaria are about half as rich as Western Europe, and they have low construction costs, lower than parts of Eastern Europe closer to Western incomes.

Chinese high-speed rail

The construction costs of high-speed rail in the PRC are fairly high, especially in its richer parts. The costs remain lower than those of tunnel-heavy lines like those of Italy, Japan, and South Korea, but by low-tunnel standards, they are high.

There is a perception that Chinese costs are low, but it comes from using the wrong currency conversion. Here, for example, is a World Bank report on the subject:

[P. 39] Figure 4.1 shows the construction cost of 60 projects. The average cost of a double-track HSR line (including signaling, electrification, and facilities) is about Y 139 million/km (US$20.6 million/km) for a 350 kph HSR line, about Y 114 million (US$16.9 million) for a 250 kph HSR line, and about Y 104 million (US$15.4 million) for a 200 kph HSR line. These costs are at least 40 percent cheaper than construction costs in Europe (European Court of Auditors 2018, 35).

The problem is, the exchange rate of $1 = ¥6.75 is incorrect. The OECD’s PPP conversion factor today is much higher, $1 = ¥3.5; for high-speed lines built a decade ago, it would be even higher, about $1 = ¥3.3, with ten years of American inflation since. Using the correct modern rate, the cost is about $40 million per kilometer, which is not lower than in Europe but rather higher. Beijing-Shanghai, as far as I can tell a ¥220 billion project for 1,318 km of which just 16 km are in tunnel, rises to $50 million per km, and more like $60 million per km in today’s money. It’s still cheaper than High Speed 2, but more expensive than every Continental Europe high-speed line that isn’t predominantly in tunnel, like Bologna-Florence.

There are all these longwinded explanations for why the PRC does things cheaper and faster than the first world, and they are completely false. China is not cheap to build in, especially not high-speed rail. The only reason Chinese costs aren’t even higher is that Eastern China is pretty flat. Even then, China has not taken advantage of this flatness to build tracks at-grade to minimize costs. Instead, it has built long viaducts at high cost, in contrast with the at-grade approach that has kept French LGV costs reasonable.

The PRC doesn’t even build things particularly quickly. Total actual construction time from start to finish per line segment is 4-6 years per Wikipedia’s list, which is comparable to recent LGVs. What is true is that China has been building many lines at once, and each line is long, but this is a matter of throughput, not latency. The limit to throughput is money; the PRC made a political decision to spend a lot of it at once as stimulus in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and by the same token, the UK has just made a political decision to spend just less than £100 billion on High Speed 2, in a trickle so that the system will take 15+ years to complete.

Why are they like this?

The myth of hyper-efficient Chinese construction seems never to die; I’ve seen it from the first days of this blog, e.g. then-US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2012. It relates to a mythology that I think is mostly part of Anglo-American culture, of the tension between freedom and efficiency. The English-speaking world in this mythology is the epitome of freedom, with a gradation of less free, more efficient paces: Germany, then Japan, then finally China. It’s a world in which people’s ideas of what totalitarianism looks like come from reading George Orwell and not from hearing about the real-life Soviet Union’s comic incompetence – the gerontocracy, the court politics, the drunk officials, the technologically reactionary party apparatchiks – all of which was happening in real time in Nazi Germany too, which was fighting less efficiently than the UK and US did.

It’s equally a world in which people think rights Germans and Japanese take for granted, like various privacy protections, do not even register as important civil liberties. I dare any reader to try explaining to a British or American transit manager that really, no, you do not need our data, Central Europe manages to plan better than you without smartcards tracking users’ every move and storing the data in servers with infosec that screams “steal me.” Nor do Americans make much of an effort to import policing regimes from democracies with one twentieth their rate of police shootings per capita.

China’s incompetence is now visible to the entire world, in the form of a virus outbreak that local officials flailed about for a month, too afraid to acknowledge mistakes lest they take the fall for them. And yet it’s easier for American and British business leaders and politicians to point to China as an example to emulate than to Pareto-better France or Germany.

If anything, High Speed 2 is low-key overlearning some French lessons, leading to inferior infrastructure planning – but it’s messing up key details leading to cost explosion, such as “don’t build new signature urban train stations.” But my suspicion is that French and German rail experts will point out all those details. To us, if Britain changes some detail in a way that isn’t truly justified by local conditions, we will point it out – and push back when British blowhards try to explain to use that they do things differently because they’re morally superior to us. British people know this – they know they can’t pull rank. Americans are the same, except even less capable of dealing with other nations as equals than the British are.

The way forward

High Speed 2 is a mess, largely because of the cost. To move forward, talking to China about how it’s built high-speed rail may be useful, but it can’t be the primary comparison, not when Continental Europe is right here and does things better and cheaper. For Asian help, Japan has some important lessons about good operations and squeezing maximum use out of limited urban space. A lot of scope can be removed. A lot more can be modified slightly to connect to regional lines better.

More conceptually, Britain has a problem with costs and benefits chasing each other. If benefits are too high, the political system responds with sloppy cost control, for example by lading the project with ancillary side projects that someone wants or by giving in to NIMBY opposition. If the costs are too high, the political system responds with scrounging extra benefits, for example counting the consumer surplus of high-speed rail travelers as a benefit, by which standard every government subsidy to anyone has a benefit-cost ratio of at least 1.

Bringing in the PRC won’t help. It’s value-engineering theater, rather than the hard work required to coordinate infrastructure and timetable planning or to tell Home Counties NIMBYs that the state is not in the business of guaranteeing their views; there is so much tunneling on the proposed line that isn’t really necessary. None of the countries that builds trains cheaply did so by selling its civil service for spare parts; why would Britain be any different?

Turnover and the TGV

The TGV network put France at the forefront of European intercity rail technology for decades. Early investments, starting in 1981 with high-speed tracks between Paris and Lyon, led to explosive growth in ridership throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. But since then, usage has stagnated. Domestic ridership in 2009 and 2010 was 100 million; so was domestic ridership in 2016, on a larger network. There was a 10% increase in 2017 when the line to Bordeaux opened, but in 2018 ridership stagnated again. In the late 2000s, there was more ridership on the TGV than on the intercity trains in Germany; now, German intercity trains approach 150 million annual riders, and are not far behind the TGV in passenger-kilometers, Germany running slower trains and thus averaging shorter trips.

I’ve heard a number of different explanations for why TGV ridership has not increased in the last ten years, many of which involve management; I, too, complain about managers who are recruited from the airline industry. But I submit that there’s a deeper, conceptual reason: the TGV is only workable for thick markets, mostly connecting Paris with a major provincial city. Trains run mostly nonstop, and there is no seat turnover. From the 1980s to the late 2000s, ridership rose as more cities were connected to Paris, but then those markets were mostly saturated, and new markets cannot be served adequately.

The TGV hit a wall about ten years ago. This is important, because as the busiest high-speed rail network outside of China and Japan, it has a lot of cachet. Politicians and rail planners propose programs that look much like the TGV network. This is of especial importance in the United Kingdom, which is replicating the TGV’s operating paradigm with the under-construction High-Speed 2 project; in the United States, the geography of the Northeast Corridor has meant that plans look more like the Japanese paradigm, which works better both in general and in the Northeast’s specific context.

Turnover

In Japan, Germany, and the United States (by which I mean the Northeast Corridor), trains stop at many major cities on one route.

The fastest Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto. Tokyo-Osaka passengers ride end to end, but many riders go between Tokyo or Osaka and Nagoya, so the seat turns over. Some of these trains continue west to Hakata, with such intermediate stops as Okayama and Hiroshima. The upshot is that the trains don’t just connect these cities to Tokyo, but also to one another. The size of Tokyo means there is demand for very high frequency to Shin-Osaka and decent frequency to Hakata; passengers on intermediate city pairs like Nagoya-Okayama or Kyoto-Hiroshima benefit from infrastructure that those city pairs could never justify on their own.

In Germany, intercity trains generally serve more than two major cities too. Like in France and unlike in Japan and the US, some major cities have stub-end stations, most notably Frankfurt; trains do not skip these cities, but rather serve them, reverse direction in about 5 minutes, and continue. Passengers may reserve seats but do not have to do so, so each seat has an electronic display showing for which portion of the trip it is free for the use of any passenger with an unreserved ticket.

France works by a different principle. Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, but trains do not serve all three cities. Trains from Paris to Lyon do not continue to Marseille; trains from Paris to Marseille rarely stop at the Lyon airport and never stop at Lyon Part-Dieu, which is on a branch from the Paris-Marseille mainline. There are separate trains between Lyon and Marseille, running generally hourly. Hourly frequency is workable on a line that takes about 1:40 end to end, but is not great.

At least Lyon and Marseille are on the same line coming out of Paris. Trains between Lyon and Lille, 3-3.5 hours apart on opposite sides of Paris, have service gaps of 2-2.5 hours most of the day. Lyon-Strasbourg trains on the LGV Rhin-Rhône lose money – the two cities alone do not have the ridership to fill trains, and there are no transfers with other cities nor larger intermediate cities than Mulhouse.

It’s too late for Paris 21

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a through-station with service to cities all over Germany; every intercity train to Berlin serves Hauptbahnhof, regardless of which direction it comes from. This is common elsewhere in Germany, too. The second most important stub-end station, Stuttgart, is currently being replaced with an underground through-station at great cost, in a controversial project called Stuttgart 21. The most important, Frankfurt, long had plans for a similar through-station dubbed Frankfurt 21, and recently the federal government announced new plans for such a project.

Paris could have built a Paris 21, or Paris Hauptbahnhof, in the 1970s or 80s. When the city designed the RER, it ripped up Les Halles to build the Chatelet-Les Halles transfer point. The station is palatial: 25 meters underground, with 7 tracks and 4 platforms, 2 of which are 17 meters wide. This was so expensive that the Auber-Nation segment of the RER A, consisting of 6 km of tunnel and the Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare de Lyon RER stations, cost in today’s money around $750 million per km, a record that is yet to be surpassed in a non-English-speaking country.

Planning for the TGV only began in earnest in the late 1970s; the RER was constructed in the late 1960s and 70s, Les Halles opening in 1977. Perhaps the initial omission of intercity tracks was understandable. But the RER D opened in the early 1990s, and by then SNCF should have known it would have a national TGV network. It could have at the very least spent some money on having 2 platforms and 4 tracks at Les Halles dedicated to intercity trains, running through from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. But it didn’t, and now there’s so much regional traffic that repurposing any part of Les Halles for intercity trains is impossible. Moreover, given the cost of the station in the 1970s, a future Paris 21 project would be unaffordable.

Transfers

The TGV has to live with infrastructure decisions made 30 years ago. Given this reality, some of the kludges of the system today are understandable. And yet, even in outlying areas, there are no scheduled connections with either other TGVs or regional trains. Paris-Nice TGVs are timed to just miss TERs to Monaco and Ventimiglia. The Mâcon TGV station is located at just the wrong place for a transfer to a future extension of the LGV Rhin-Rhône south to Lyon. Other than Part-Dieu and Lille-Europe, major secondary cities do not have urban stations designed for through-service.

The contrast here is partly with German or Japanese practice: Japan built Shin-Osaka to enable through-service from east to west of Osaka without spending too much money tunneling into city center, and Germany serves Kassel at Wilhelmshöhe instead of at Hauptbahnhof since Hauptbahnhof is a stub-end station.

But the contrast is even more with the practice of smaller European countries. Switzerland and the Netherlands do not have anything as voluminous as Paris-Lyon, so they had to design their intercity rail networks around everywhere-to-everywhere travel from the start. Switzerland, too, had much less growth in the 2010s than in the 2000s, but ridership and p-km both grew, and are continuing to grow. What’s more, Switzerland has not tapped out its strongest markets: Lausanne, Luzern, and Geneva are still poorly integrated into the national timed transfer plan.

Getting it right from the start

France boxed itself into a corner. Its high-speed rail infrastructure is designed to connect provincial cities to Paris but not to one another. In some places, it’s possible to retrofit something more usable with the construction of new transfer points and the planning of better timetables. But elsewhere, as in Paris, it is too hard. This suggests that other countries that look to France as a model learn not only from the success of the TGV but also its more recent failures, and get it right from the start.

Any of the following lessons are useful to Britain and to other countries that are building large high-speed rail networks:

  • Try to limit branching, to make sure city pairs have adequate frequency. This is especially important on shorter city pairs, such as London-Birmingham, planned to take 38 minutes, and Birmingham-Manchester, planned to take 40 minutes. Adding a few minutes to the trip time of through-trains is fine if it makes the difference between hourly and half-hourly frequencies, or even half-hourly and quarter-hourly frequencies.
  • Place stations at good points for transfers to other trains. This includes trains on the same network, for which the best locations are branch points, and legacy trains, for which the best locations are major legacy stations and junctions. For example, the largest cities of the East Midlands – Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester – lie on a Y-shaped system, so it would be valuable to place a hub station at the node of the Y; the currently planned East Midlands Hub is 3.5 km north of the node, not on the leg of any of the three main cities.
  • If there is a major city with service going in multiple directions, make sure it has a single through-station, even if constructing one requires a new tunnel. This is less relevant to Britain, since London is at the south end of the network, but is relevant to Italy, which needs to convert multiple urban terminals into through-stations, and Spain, which is doing so at Madrid and Barcelona already, at a fraction of the cost of Stuttgart 21.
  • At short range, run trains as fast as necessary – that is, spend a lot of resources on getting trip times between major nodes to be just less than an hour, half an hour, or an hour and a half, but don’t worry too much about 55 vs. 40 minutes in most circumstances. This way, passengers can interchange at major nodes in a short time.

For a generation, the TGV was the envy of the rest of Europe. But it tapped out the strong markets that it was designed around, and now SNCF has its work cut out for it adapting to the needs of other city-to-city travel markets. Other big countries had better take heed and do it right from the start to avoid boxing themselves the way France did.