I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.
Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.
Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.
Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.
One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.
Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.
Finance and costs
This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.
In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.
He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.
In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.
Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.
Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.
First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about €5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about €5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about €2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just €800,000.
And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.
That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.
I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.
By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.
But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.
There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.
Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.
Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.
This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.
If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.
That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.
The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.
New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.
The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.
I was reticent to post about this topic; I polled it on Patreon in December and it got just under 50% while the two topics I did blog, difficult urban geography and cross-platform transfers, got 64% and 50% respectively. However, between how close the vote was and the conversation about the current state of the subway in New York, I felt obligated to explain what’s been going on. The short version is that practically the entire change in subway ridership in New York over the last generation or two has come from the off-peak, and the way American cities set their frequency guidelines off-peak amplify small changes in demand, so that a minor setback can lead to collapse and a minor boost can lead to boom.
The good news is that by setting frequency to be high even if it does not look like ridership justifies it, cities can generate a virtuous cycle on the upswing and avoid a vicious one on the downswing. However, it requires the discipline to run good service even in bad times, when bean counters and budget cutters insist on retrenchment. The Chainsaw Al school of management looks appealing in recessions or when ridership is falling, and this is precisely when people who run transit agencies must resist the urge to cut frequency to levels that lead to a positive feedback loop wrecking the system.
The key to the frequency-ridership spiral is that cutting frequency on transit makes it less useful to passengers, since door-to-door trip times are longer and less reliable. The size of this effect can be measured as the elasticity of ridership with respect to service: if increasing service provision by 1% is demonstrated to raise ridership by e%, we say that the elasticity is e.
Fortunately, this question is fundamental enough to transit that there is extensive published literature on the subject:
- In a classical TRB paper, Armando Lago, Patrick Mayworm, and Matthew McEnroe look at data from several American cities as well as one British one, disaggregating elasticity by frequency, mode (bus or commuter rail), and period (peak or off-peak). The aggregate average value is e = 0.44 for buses and e = 0.5 for commuter rail, but when frequency is better than every 10 minutes, e = 0.22 on average.
- Todd Litman of the advocacy organization VTPI has a summary mostly about fare elasticity but also service elasticity, suggesting e is in the 0.5-0.7 range in the short term and in the 0.7-1.1 range in the long term.
- A paper by Joe Totten and David Levinson includes its own lit review of several studies, including the two above, finding a range of 0.3 to 1.1 across a number of papers, with the lower figures associated with urban service and the higher ones with low-frequency suburban service. The paper’s own research, focusing on transit in Minneapolis, finds that on weekdays, e = 0.39.
One factor that I have unfortunately not seen in the papers I have read is trip length. Frequency is more important for short trips than long ones. This is significant, since when the headway is shorter relative to in-vehicle trip time we should expect lower elasticity with respect to the headway. Waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 minutes for an hour-long trip is not much of an imposition; waiting 30 minutes rather than 15 for the same trip is a greater imposition, as is waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 for a 20-minute trip.
In New York, the average unlinked subway trip is 13.5 minutes long, so the difference between 10 and 5 minutes is very large. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe cite research saying passengers’ disutility for out-of-vehicle time is 2-3 times as large as for in-vehicle time; the MTA’s own ridership screen states that this penalty is 1.75, the MBTA’s states that it is 2.25, and a study by Coen Teulings, Ioulina Ossokina, and Henri de Groot says that it is 2 in the Netherlands. Figuring that this penalty is 2, the worst-case scenario for off-peak weekday wait time in New York, 10 minutes, has passengers spending more perceived time waiting for the train than riding it, and even in the average case, 10/2 = 5 minutes, it is close. In that case, higher values of e are defensible. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe have less data about in-vehicle time elasticity and do not attempt to aggregate in- and out-of-vehicle time. But adding everything together is consistent with e = 0.8 relative to speed averaged over the total wait and in-vehicle time, and then e is maybe 0.4 relative to frequency.
The impact of service cuts
If the elasticity of ridership relative to frequency is 0.4, then cutting service by 1% means cutting ridership by 0.4%. If half the operating costs are covered by fares, then revenue drops by 0.2% of total operating expenses, so the 1% cut only saves 0.8% of the total subsidy. Achieving a 1% cut in operating costs net of fare revenue thus requires a 1.25% cut in service, which reduces ridership by 0.5%.
This may not sound too bad, but that’s because the above analysis does not incorporate fixed costs. Rail comes equipped with fixed costs for maintenance, station staffing, rolling stock, and administration, regardless of how much service the agency runs. Lisa Schweitzer uses this fact to defend Los Angeles’s MTA from my charge of high operating costs: she notes that Los Angeles runs much less service than my comparison cases in the US and Europe and thus average cost per train-km is higher even without undue inefficiency. In contrast, bus costs are dominated by driver wages, which are not fixed.
New York does not keep a headcount of transit employees in a searchable format – the Manhattan Institute’s See Through New York applet helps somewhat but is designed around shaming workers who make a lot of money through overtime rather than around figuring out how many people work (say) maintenance. But Chicago does, and we can use its numbers to estimate the fixed and variable costs of running the L.
The CTA has somewhat more than 10,000 workers, split fairly evenly between bus and rail. The rail workers include about 800 working for the director of maintenance, working on the rolling stock, which needs regular servicing and inspections regardless of how often it’s run; 550 working for facilities maintenance; (say) 400 out of 800 workers in administrative capacity like communications, general counsel, purchasing, and the chief engineer’s office; 600 workers in power and way maintenance; nearly 1,000 customer service agents; and 450 workers in flagging, switching, and the control towers. Only 500 workers drive trains, called rapid transit operators or extra board, and there may charitably be another 200 clerks, managers, and work train operators whose jobs can be cut if there is a service cut. A service cut would only affect 15% of the workers, maybe 20% if some rolling stock maintenance work can be cut.
In New York the corresponding percentage is somewhat higher than 15% since trains have conductors. Train operators and conductors together are about 13% of the NYCT headcount, so maybe 20% of subway employees, or 25% with some extra avoidable maintenance work.
What this means is that achieving a 2% cut in subsidy through reducing service requires a service cut of much more than 2%. If only 25% of workers are affected then, even without any frequency-ridership elasticity, the agency needs to cut service by 8% to cut operating costs by 2%.
The Uber effect
The combination of elasticity and fixed costs means that rail ridership responds wildly to small shocks to ridership. For a start, if the agency cuts service by 1%, then operating costs fall by 0.25%. Ridership falls by 0.4%, and thus revenue also falls by 0.4%, which is 0.2% of total operating costs. Thus operating costs net of revenue only fall by 0.05%. The only saving grace is that this is 0.05% of total operating costs; since by assumption fare revenue covers half of operating costs, this saves a full 0.1% of the public subsidy.
Read the above paragraph again: taking fixed costs and elasticity into account, cutting service by 1% only reduces the public subsidy to rail service by 0.1%. A 2% cut in subsidy in a recession requires a brutal 20% cut in service, cutting ridership by 8%. And this only works because New York overstaffs its trains by a factor of 2, so that it’s plausible that 25% of employees can be furloughed in a service cut; using Chicago numbers this proportion is at most 20%, in which case revenue falls one-to-one with operating costs and there is no way to reduce the public subsidy to rail operations through service cuts.
Of course, this has a positive side: a large increase in service only requires a modest increase in the public subsidy. Moreover, if trains have the operating costs of Chicago, which are near the low end in the developed world, then the combined impact of fixed costs and elasticity is such that the public subsidy to rapid transit does not depend on frequency, and thus the agency could costlessly increase service.
This is relevant to the Uber effect – namely, the research arguing that the introduction of ride-hailing apps, i.e. Uber and Lyft, reduces transit ridership. I was skeptical of Bruce Schaller’s study to that effect since it came out two years ago, since the observed reduction in transit ridership in New York in 2016 was a large multiple of the increase in total taxi and ride-hailing traffic once one concentrated on the off-peak and weekends, when the latter rose the most.
But if small shocks to ridership are magnified by the frequency-ridership spiral, then the discrepancy is accounted for. If a shock cuts ridership by 1%, which could be slower trains, service disruptions due to maintenance, or the Uber effect, then revenue falls 1% and the subsidy has to rise 1% to compensate. To cover the subsidy through service cuts requires a 10% cut in service, further cutting ridership by 4%.
Off-peak service guidelines
The above analysis is sobering enough. However, it assumes that service cuts and increases are uniformly distributed throughout the day. This is not the actual case for American transit agency practice, which is to concentrate both cuts and increases in the off-peak.
Unfortunately, cuts in off-peak service rather than at rush hour do not touch semi-fixed labor costs. The number of employees required to run service is governed by the peak, so running a lot of peak service without off-peak service leads to awkward shift scheduling and poor crew utilization. Higher ratios of peak to base frequency correlate with lower total service-hours per train driver: in addition to the examples I cite in a post from 2016, I have data for Berlin, where the U-Bahn’s peak-to-base ratio is close to 1, and there are 829 annual service-hours per driver.
I discussed the fact that the marginal cost of adding peak service is several times that of adding off-peak service in a post from last year. However, even if we take rolling stock acquisition as a given, perhaps funded by a separate capital plan, marginal crew costs are noticeably higher at the peak than off-peak.
In New York, the rule is that off-peak subway frequency is set so that at the most crowded point of each route, the average train will be filled to 125% seated capacity; before the round of service cuts in 2010 this was set at 100%, so the service cut amounted to reducing frequency by 20%. The only backstop to a vicious cycle is that the minimum frequency on weekdays is set at 10 minutes; on weekends I have heard both 10 and 12 minutes as the minimum, and late at night there is a uniform 20-minute frequency regardless of crowding.
Peak frequency is governed by peak crowding levels as well, but much higher crowding than 125% is permitted. However, the busiest lines are more crowded than the guidelines and run as frequently as there is capacity for more trains, so there is no feedback loop there between ridership and service.
The saving grace is that revenue is less sensitive to off-peak ridership, since passengers who get monthly passes for their rush hour trips ride for free off-peak. However, this factor requires there to be substantial enough season pass discounts so that even rush hour-only riders would use them. Berlin, where U-Bahn tickets cost €2.25 apiece in bundles of 4 and monthly passes cost €81, is such a city: 18 roundtrips per month are enough to justify a monthly. New York is not: with a pay-per-ride bonus a single ride costs $2.62 whereas a 30-day pass costs $121, so 23.1 roundtrips per month are required, so the breakeven point requires a roundtrip every weekday and every other weekend.
New York subway ridership evolution
The subway’s crisis in the 1970s reduced ridership to less than 1 billion, a level not seen since 1918. This was on the heels of a steady reduction in ridership over the 1950s and 60s, caused by suburbanization. In 1991, ridership was down to 930 million, but the subsequent increase in reliability and fall in crime led to a 24-year rally to a peak of 1,760 million in 2015.
Throughout this period, there was no increase in peak crowding. On the contrary. Look at the 1989 Hub Bound Report: total subway ridership entering Manhattan south of 60th Street between 7 and 10 am averaged about 1 million, down from 1.1 million in 1971 – and per the 2016 report, the 2015 peak was only 922,000. Between 1989 and 2015, NYCT actually opened a new route into Manhattan, connecting the 63rd Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line; moreover, a preexisting route, the Manhattan Bridge, had been reduced from four tracks to two in 1986 and went back to four tracks in 2004.
Nor was there much of an increase in mode share. The metropolitan statistical area’s transit mode share for work trips rose from 27% in 2000 to 30% in 2010. In the city proper it rose from 52% in 1990 to 57% in 2016. No: more than 100% of the increase in New York subway ridership between 1991 and 2015 was outside the peak commute hours, and nearly 100% of it involved non-work trips. These trips are especially affected by the frequency-ridership spiral, since frequency is lower then, and thus a mild positive shock coming from better maintenance, a lower crime rate, and perhaps other factors translated to a doubling in total ridership, and a tripling of off-peak ridership. Conversely, today, a very small negative shock is magnified to a minor crisis, even if ridership remains well above the levels of the 1990s.
The way out
Managers like peak trains. Peak trains are full, so there’s no perception of wasting service on people who don’t use it. Managers also like peak trains because they themselves are likelier to ride them: they work normal business hours, and are rich enough to afford cars. That current NYCT head Andy Byford does not own a car and uses the city’s transit network to get around scandalizes some of the longstanding senior managers, who don’t use their own system. Thus, the instinct of the typical manager is to save money by pinching pennies on off-peak service.
In contrast, the best practice is to run more service where possible. In Berlin, nearly all U-Bahn trains run every 5 minutes flat; a few lines get 4-minute peak service, and a few outer ends and branches only get half-service, a train every 10 minutes. At such high frequency, the frequency-ridership spiral is less relevant: an increase to a train every 4 minutes would require increasing service by 25%, raising costs by around 5% (Berlin’s one-person crews are comparable to Chicago’s, not New York’s), but not result in a significant increase in ridership as the shorter headway is such a minute proportion of total travel time. However, New York’s 10-minute off-peak frequency is so low that there is room to significantly increase ridership purely by running more service.
In 2015 I criticized the frequency guidelines in New York on the grounds of branching: a complexly branched system must run interlined services at the same frequency, even if one branch of a trunk line is somewhat busier than the other. However, the frequency-ridership spiral adds another reason to discard the current frequency guidelines. All branches in New York should run at worst every 6 minutes during the daytime, yielding 3-minute frequency on most trunks, and the schedules should be designed to avoid conflicts at junctions; non-branching trunk lines, that is the 1, 6, 7, and L trains, should run more frequently, ideally no more than every 4 minutes, the lower figure than in Berlin following from the fact that the 1 and 6 trains are both local and mostly serve short trips.
Moreover, the frequency should be fixed by a repeating schedule, which should be clockface at least on the A train, where the outer branches would only get 12-minute frequency. If ridership increases by a little, trains should be a little more crowded, and if it decreases by a little, they should be a little less crowded. Some revision of schedules based on demand may be warranted but only in the long run, never in the short run. Ideally the system should aim at 5-minute frequency on every route, but as the N, R, and W share tracks, this would require some deinterlining in order to move more service to Second Avenue.
This increase in frequency is not possible if politicians and senior managers respond to every problem by cutting service while dragging their feet about increasing service when ridership increases. It requires proactive leadership, interested in increasing public transit usage rather than in avoiding scandal. But the actual monetary expense required for such frequency is not large, since large increases in frequency, especially in the off-peak, mostly pay for themselves through extra ridership. The initial outlay required to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one is not large; all that is required is interest from the people in charge of American transit systems.
Fresh off the election, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has proposed an ambitious infrastructure plan, dubbed 30-30-30, in which train travel between New York and Stamford, Stamford and New Haven, and New Haven and Hartford would be cut to 30 minutes. With an average speed of about 110 km/h, this is only about half the average speed typical of high-speed rail, but still slightly higher than that of the Northeast Regional between New York and Washington, which is competitive with cars and buses provided there is enough capacity.
For 30-30-30 to truly be cost-effective, the plan needs to speed up trains with relatively little infrastructure investment, at a cost measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Is that feasible? The topline answer is yes. All three segments can be done in the specified amount of time. North of New Haven, there are generous margins, but 30-minute travel times will rely on electrifying the Shuttle and running high-quality electric trains. South of New Haven, each segment has just seconds to spare to achieve the governor’s goal, and no big-ticket capital investment would be needed, but the plan will require a complete overhaul in Metro-North operations.
Some additional repairs are needed on tracks straight enough to allow trains to run at 160 km/h, which are today only maintained to allow 75 mph, or 120 km/h. The state may also need to procure lighter trains, able to accelerate faster than the current equipment. On a fast schedule, with few intermediate stops, the difference with the current M8 trains is small, but in practice north of Stamford, where trains are likely to make many stops, the difference would be noticeable.
Most of all, reliability must improve enough that is possible to remove the extensive schedule padding in the timetable today. Metro-North is in a perpetual maintenance cycle. At any time there is a slow zone somewhere on the tracks, with generous schedule padding on top of it. Maintenance must be switched to the nighttime, as is practiced on high-speed lines in Japan and France and on subways everywhere in the world outside New York, in order to improve daytime reliability.
The simulation of train performance
In order to figure out the best possible trip times, I made a table of speed zones on the New Haven Line, from Grand Central to New Haven. But instead of using current speed zones, which are very conservative, I looked for the maximum speed that is feasible within the current right-of-way.
The most important rule I followed is no curve modifications, even modifications that are likely to happen under any high-speed rail scenario. While some capital investment may still be required, it is entirely within existing rights-of-way.
In the simulation, I used code outputting slow penalties for trains based on prescribed performance characteristics. For this, I used two sets of characteristics. The first, is for the M8 trains used by Metro-North today. The second is an average of modern European regional trains, such as the Stadler FLIRT, the Alstom Coradia, the Bombardier Talent 2, the CAF Civity, and the Siemens Mireo. Because they are much lighter-weight, all have about 50% better acceleration than the M8 at any speed. Both sets of trains can reach the same top speed, 160 km/h, but when the M8 slows down from top speed to make a station stop, the extra acceleration and deceleration time add another 69 seconds to the trip, compared with only 46 seconds on the European regional trains.
That said, the proposed schedule has few intermediate stops, and even with frequent slowdowns due to curves, the total difference in time between the two sets of trains is about two minutes. So, while I would urge Connecticut to buy modern trains at its next procurement, based on the latest revision in FRA regulations permitting lightly-modified European trains, the present-day rolling stock is good enough, it’s just much heavier than it needs to be.
While I did not assume any curve modifications, I did assume that trains could run faster on curves than they do today. The New Haven Line has conservative values for the permitted centrifugal force acting on trains. I explain more about this in a previous post about trains in Connecticut, but the relevant figures are about 8” of total equivalent cant on the New Haven Line today, or about 200 mm, whereas light trackwork increasing total cant and already-existing regulatory changes above the rails could raise this to 12” on existing trains, about 300 mm, and even more on tilting trains like the Acela. The difference between 200 and 300 mm of total equivalent cant corresponds to a 22% increase in speed; the formula is .
Moreover, in some areas the maximum speeds are even lower than one might assume based on curve radius and current permitted curve speeds. These include the movable bridges over the waterways, which have very low speed limits even when the tracks are mostly straight; if the bridges physically cannot accommodate faster trains then they should be replaced, a capital investment already on the state and the region’s official wishlist.
In addition to speed limits imposed by curves and bridges, there is a uniform speed limit of 90 mph (145 km/h) on the New York segment of the line and 75 mph on the Connecticut segment. This is entirely a matter of poor maintenance: the right-of-way geometry could support higher speed today in some places, even without curve modifications.
Finally, trains today go at excruciatingly slow speed in the throat heading into the bumper tracks at Grand Central, 10 miles per hour. This is bad practice: even with bumper tracks, German train throats with complex switches are capable of 70 km/h. This change alone would save about 4 minutes. Overall, trains today are scheduled to take about 11-12 minutes between Grand Central and Harlem, and the proposed schedule cuts this down to 5-6.
The proposed schedule
I am attaching a spreadsheet with exact speed zones, rounded down in 5 km/h increments. People who wish to see what’s behind the timetable I’m proposing can go look there for intermediate times. These may be especially useful to people who want to see what happens if more stops on the Lower New Haven Line are included. For example, one might notice that all technical travel times are padded 7%, as is standard practice in Switzerland, and that trains dwell exactly 30 seconds at each station, which is observed on busy commuter lines in Zurich as well as Paris.
I am including two stopping patterns: regional and intercity. Regional trains make the same stops as the Upper New Haven Line trains do today, plus New Rochelle. Intercity trains only make a few stops beyond Stamford, with a stopping pattern close to that of Amtrak. In addition, I am including two different sets of rolling stock: the current M8, and lighter, faster-accelerating European trainsets. The difference in the regional train pattern is noticeable, while that in the intercity one is less so.
Finally, at stations, it’s possible to state the scheduled the time the train arrives at the station or the one it departs. At all intermediate stations, the timetable below states the arrival time, unlike the attached spreadsheet, which uses departure times to permit calculating exact average speeds.
|Stop||Regional, M8||Regional, euro||Intercity, M8||Intercity, euro|
In theory, achieving the governor’s proposed timetable is easier north of New Haven. The Hartford Line is a straight route. Most of it has a top speed of 80 mph, and outside the approaches to New Haven and Hartford, the speed restrictions are caused by arbitrarily slowdowns for grade crossings rather than by constrained geometry.
However, in practice, the line is in poor state of repair. Grade crossings are unprotected. The entire line is not electrified, and there are no plans to electrify it, for reasons that can only be explained as an allergy that North American railroaders have to electrification. The stations have low platforms, which are not accessible to people in wheelchairs without labor-intensive, time-consuming lift operations—and even if there are no riders with disabilities, it just takes longer for passengers to board from low platforms.
The above schedule assumes 7% padding and 30-second dwell times at stations, but such assumptions only work when the equipment is reliable, and when there are wide doors letting passengers on the train with level boarding or at worst short steps. Traditional commuter lines pulled by diesel locomotives, serving low-platform stations with narrow doors, have to be much slower. Clem Tillier‘s example timetable for Caltrain requires 15% padding and 45-second dwell times with today’s diesel operations—and at rush hour some station dwells stretch over minutes due to the railroad’s uniquely high number of passengers with bicycles.
The good news is that electrification and high platforms are, in the grand scheme of things, cheap. Amtrak electrified the Northeast Corridor between New Haven and Boston at $3.5 million per kilometer in the 1990s, adjusted for inflation; at that cost, wiring the entire New Haven-Springfield shuttle would run up to $350 million. Moreover, Boston has been equipping a number of commuter rail stations with high platforms in order to provide wheelchair accessibility, and in ordinary circumstances, the costs have been on the order of $6-10 million per station. This entire package on the Hartford Line would be cheaper than replacing any of the movable bridges on the New Haven Line.
Moreover, upgrading grade crossings with four-quadrant gates, which make it impossible for cars to drive around the gates while they are closed, is affordable as well—and would permit the towns along the route to institute quiet zones, eliminating the loud train horns. In Boulder, the same installation costs about $500,000 per grade crossing for quad gates and another $300,000 for an alternative to horns; in federal regulations, quad gates are good up to 110 mph. There are 23 level crossings between New Haven and Hartford and another 11 between Hartford and Springfield; $30 million would upgrade them all.
The importance of a good maintenance regime
In Switzerland, schedules are padded by 7% over the technical travel time, to permit trains to recover from delays. By American standards, this is a low figure: the LIRR’s schedules are padded by 20-30%, and I have personally seen an express New Haven Line train do Stamford-Grand Central in about 15% less than the scheduled trip time.
Switzerland achieves high punctuality with relatively tight scheduling by making sure delays do not propagate. Railroad junctions are grade-separated when possible, and if not then they are equipped with pocket tracks to allow trains to wait without delaying crossing traffic. To achieve comparable reliability, Metro-North should grade-separate its most important junctions: Shell, where the line joins with the Northeast Corridor tracks carrying Amtrak (and soon Penn Station Access); and Stam, where the New Canaan Branch joins. It could potentially also grade-separate Berk, where the Danbury Branch joins, and Devon, where the Waterbury Branch joins, but the traffic at these junctions is lighter and delayed branch trains can wait without disturbing mainline trains.
Moreover, like the rest of Europe as well as Japan, Switzerland conducts maintenance at night. The daytime maintenance with work zones that are a common sight on American passenger railroads are unknown on most European railroads. Only mixed lines running high-speed passenger trains in the day and freight at night have to schedule trains next to active work zones, and those are indeed much harder to maintain.
The laws of physics are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. If it’s possible to maintain tracks adequately during four-hour nighttime windows in Europe, it’s possible to do the same in the United States. Freight traffic on the Northeast Corridor is lighter than on many Swiss mainlines, and while passenger traffic at rush hour is very heavy, in the off-peak it is considerably lighter than on the urban commuter rail line trunks of Zurich. While four Metro-North trains run between New York and Stamford every off-peak hour, as does a single Amtrak train, ten Zurich S-Bahn trains run per hour between Zurich and Winterthur, as do six interregional and intercity trains.
The importance of maintenance was underscored in a recent article describing an independent plan to drastically cut travel times through better track standards, spearheaded by Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County and authored by San Francisco consultant Ty Lin and former Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti. In response to their plan, CDOT said it was not possible—and to emphasize this fact, the article notes that an upcoming schedule revision will slow down the trains by 6 to 10 minutes due to trackwork delays.
The one thing that the state must avoid is funneling any money into State of Good Repair (SOGR) programs. SOGR is a black hole permitting incompetent officials to spend capital money without anything to show for it: agencies around the country have SOGR programs decade after decade and somehow their stated maintenance backlogs never shrink.
Instead, 30-30-30 is the closest thing to a true program for what SOGR is supposed to be. Were the tracks in good shape, and were speeds on curves in line with modern railroading practices in other developed countries, express trains would take exactly half an hour to travel between Grand Central and Stamford and between Stamford and New Haven. So 30-30-30 is really setting a standard for a program that, up until now, has only served as an excuse for CDOT to do nothing.
It’s not yet clear what CDOT and Metro-North’s reaction to 30-30-30 will be. Is the governor’s goal achievable? Absolutely, give or take a few minutes. Is it achievable on a reasonable budget? Definitely. Are the managers who have let train schedules slip over the years, as their counterparts in New York have, capable of running the trains punctually enough in order to meet the timetable? That is the big question mark.
By a more than 2-1 vote among my Patreon backers, the third installment in my series about national traditions of building urban rail is the British one, following the American and Soviet ones. While rapid transit in Britain outside London is even smaller than in the US outside New York, the British tradition is influential globally for two reasons: first, Britain invented the railway as well as urban rapid transit, and second, Britain had a vast empire much of which still looks up to it as a cultural and scientific metropole.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that all rapid transit traditions technically descend from London’s, it is worthwhile talking about the British way. What London built inspired and continues to inspire other cities, but many, mainly in the United States, Japan, and Continental Europe, diverged early, forming distinct tradition. As I noted in the post about the Soviet bloc, Moscow was heavily influenced by British engineering, and its own tradition has evolved separately but began as a more orderly way of reproducing the London Underground’s structure in the 1930s.
In taxonomy, this is called a paraphyletic group. Monophyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor, for example mammals; paraphyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor excluding certain monophyletic subgroups, for example reptiles, which exclude mammals and birds, both of which descend from the same common ancestor.
The invention of rapid transit
Like most other things Britain became known for, like constitutional government and colonialism, rapid transit evolved gradually in London. Technically, the first railway in London, 1836’s London and Greenwich, meets the definition of urban rapid transit, as trains made some local stops, ran every 20 minutes, and were grade-separated, running on brick arches. However, it is at best an ancestor of what we think of as rapid transit, since it lacked the really frequent stops of the Underground or the New York els.
The first proper rapid transit line in London, the Metropolitan line, opened in 1863. It, too, lacked some features that are standard on nearly all rapid transit systems today: most importantly, it was not self-contained, but rather had some through-service with intercity rail, and was even built dual-gauge to allow through-service with the Great Western Railway, which at the time had broad gauge. Trains ran every 10 minutes, using steam locomotives; to limit the extent of smoke in the tunnels, the line was not fully underground but had a long trench between King’s Cross and Farringdon.
The Met line and the second Underground line, 1868’s District line, were both built cut-and-cover. However, whereas Met line construction went smoothly, the District line had to carve a right-of-way, as the city did not have adequate wide streets for serving the proposed route. The areas served, Kensington and Chelsea, were even then a tony neighborhood with expensive real estate, and the construction costs exploded due to land acquisition. In today’s terms the Met line cost about $32 million per kilometer and the District $90 million, a record that among the historical lines I know of remained unbroken until New York built the Independent Subway System in the 1930s.
The Met and District met to form a circle, and in general, London loved building circular lines. In addition to what would be called the Circle line until a revision last decade, there were two circles farther out, called the Middle Circle and Outer Circle. These were run by mainline railroads; there was still no legal distinction between the two urban railroads and the mainlines, and through-service and even some freight service continued on the Met well into the 20th century, which the company used as an excuse to delay its merger with the other Underground companies.
Even electric rapid transit took time to take shape. After the bad experience with the District line, there was no more cut-and-cover in Central London. The next line to open, 1890’s Northern line, required the invention of deep boring and electric traction; it was not the first rail line to use electricity, but was the first excluding streetcars. However, while the line looked like a normal self-contained rapid transit line, it was pulled by electric locomotives; electric multiple units only came a few years later, starting haphazardly in Liverpool in 1893 (each car required separate controls) and in the more conventional way on the Chicago L in 1897.
Spontaneous order and radial network design
Among the inventions that came out of London was the radial network design. Unlike the physical inventions like underground rail and electric traction, this was not a deliberate choice. It evolved through spontaneous order, owing to the privately-funded nature of British railways. A British railway had to obtain the approval of Parliament to begin construction, which approval would also permit compulsory purchase of land along the way, but funding was entirely private. An early proposal for an underground railway, an 1860s route running what would later become the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, was approved but could not secure funding and thus was not built.
The upshot is that with private planning, only the strongest lines were built. The strongest travel demand was to the center of London, and thus the lines were all radial, serving either the City of London or the West End. There was no circumferential service. While there were many circles and loops, these were conceived as reverse-branches allowing some railroads to access multiple Central London terminals, or as ways to join two radials like the Met and District without having to go through the difficult process of turning a train underground in a world in which all trains had to be pulled by locomotives.
The same preponderance of radial lines can be seen in other privately-planned contexts. Today, the best-known example is the matatu network of Nairobi. It is informal transit, but has been painstakingly mapped by urbanists, and the network is entirely radial, with all lines serving city center, where the jobs requiring commuting are.
Despite the private planning, London has only a handful of missed connections between lines: it has eight, but only one, between the Met line and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, is a true miss between two lines – the other seven are between parallel outer branches or between two lines that intersect a few times in close succession but only have one transfer (namely, the Bakerloo and Met). This is not because private planners build connections spontaneously – Parliament occasionally demanded some minor route changes, including interchange stations at intersections.
The role of regional rail
Like rapid transit, regional rail evolved in London in a haphazard fashion. The London and Greenwich was a mainline railway and the Met line had some mainline through-service, and even the deep-level tube lines are compatible enough with mainline rail that there is some track-sharing, namely between the Bakerloo line and the Watford DC line. The trench between King’s Cross and Farringon was widened to four tracks and turned into a north-south through-route in the 1870s but then abandoned in the 1920s and only reactivated in the 1980s as Thameslink.
The upshot is that London ended with the bones of a regional rail network but no actual service. The ideal was self-contained Underground lines, so even when connections suggested themselves they were not pursued. For example, the original proposal for an underground line between Euston and Charing Cross involved some through-service to the railways at both ends, but when the line was finally built as the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line it was not connected to the mainline and only took over minor branches in suburban North London.
While British planners did eventually plan for through-service – plans for Crossrail date to World War Two or just afterward – by then London was not innovating but rather imitating. By the war, Berlin had already had two S-Bahn through-lines, Munich was planning one, and Tokyo had three. The modern design for Crossrail is best compared with the RER A, in a city London has treated as its primary competitor for a long time now.
Exporting London’s network design
Moscow was heavily influenced by London early on. Later on, Singapore and Hong Kong both drew on British engineering expertise. London’s status as the first city to build rapid transit may have influenced Moscow, but by the 1920s New York had surpassed it in city size as well as urban rail ridership. Moscow’s drawing on London was as I understand it accidental – the chief engineer happened to have London connections – but in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and so on the relationship is colonial, with extensive cultural cringe.
In all of these non-British cities, the British design as exported was cleaner. What I mean is, the systems have a radial structure like London, but the radii are cleaner in that two lines will generally cross just once, especially in Moscow; it’s not like London, where the Central line is always north of the District line, meeting once in a tangent at Bank and Monument, or where the Victoria line and Northern line cross twice.
Another cleaner aspect is the transfer experience. Singapore and Hong Kong both make extensive use of cross-platform transfers between otherwise perpendicular lines; London only does sporadically, on the Victoria line.
A third aspect is uniformly wide interstations. London’s average interstation is about 1.25 km, which is what I think of as the standard because it is very close to the average in Tokyo and Mexico City as well, and at the time I started tracking this statistic in the late 2000s, the Chinese systems were still small. Moscow’s average is 1.7 km, and Singapore’s is similar. Hong Kong is actually divergent there: the MTR mixes core urban lines averaging about the same as in London with the more widely-spaced historically mainline East and West Rail lines and the airport express.
The relative paucity of circumferential rail is hard to judge in the export cases. Moscow came up with the idea for the Circle Line natively; there is an urban legend that it was accidentally invented by Stalin when he left a coffee cup on the map and it stained it in the shape of a circle. Hong Kong doesn’t have much circumferential rail, but its geography is uniquely bad for such service, even more so than New York’s. Singapore does have a Circle Line, but it’s one of the two worst-designed parts of the MRT, with a reverse-branch (the other one is the self-intersecting, connection-missing Downtown Line).
At the same time, it’s worth viewing which aspects British-influenced systems are getting rid of when designing cleaner version of the Underground. The most important is regional rail. Singapore has none: it has a legacy narrow-gauge rail line to Malaysia, but has never made an effort to take control of it and develop it as an urban regional rail line.
Another negative aspect exported by London is the preponderance of deep boring. I made the same complaint when discussing the Soviet bloc: while London is poor in wide arterials that a cut-and-cover subway could go underneath, Moscow is rich in them, and the same is true of Singapore.
Does this work?
London invented rapid transit as we know it, but it did so gradually and with many seams. In some sense, asking if this works is like asking if rapid transit as a technology works, for which the answer is that it is a resounding success. But when it comes to the details, it’s often the case that London has accidental successes as well as accidental mistakes.
In particular, the fact that London almost invented regional rail is a source of endless frustration and extensive retro-crayon. The Met line is almost a 19th-century Crossrail, the Widened Lines are almost a 19th-century Thameslink, and so on. Instead, as time went on the trend has been toward more self-contained lines, which is good for reliability but not when there are self-contained slow tracks of mainlines to hook into, as is planned for Crossrail and as has sporadically been the case for the Watford DC line.
The British focus on radial systems has generally been good. To the extent London has underused metro lines, it’s not because they are poorly-routed as some of the lines in Paris are, but because they serve areas that have many urban rail lines and not a lot of population density; London is not a dense city, going back to the Victorian era, when it standardized on the rowhouse as the respectable urban housing form rather than the mid-rise apartment of Continental Europe or New York.
To the credit of British-influenced planning, Singapore has managed to fit a circumferential line into its system with good connections, just with an awkward reverse-branch. London’s own circumferential transit, that is the Overground, misses a large number of Underground connections due to its separate origin in freight bypasses and mainline rail reverse-branches, where Parliament saw no point in requiring interchange stations the way it did on the Tube. However, the cleaner version seen in Singapore only misses connections involving the Downtown Line, not the Circle Line.
What is perhaps the worst problem with the British style of design is the construction cost. The Northern line was not expensive – in today’s terms it cost around $35 million per km, give or take. However, after WW2 a gap opened between the cost of cut-and-cover and bored metros. The Milan method for cut-and-cover built a subway for around $45 million per km a few years before London bored the Victoria Line for $110 million. Britain exported its more expensive method, which must be treated as one factor behind high construction costs in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand; in New Zealand the regional rail tunnel is expensive even as electrifying the system was not.
In the future, cities that wish to build urban rail would be wise to learn from the network design pioneered by London. Urban rail should serve city centers, with transfers – and as in the subsequent refinements of cities that adapted London’s methods to their own needs, there should be some circumferential transit as well. But if mainlines are available, it would be wise to use them and run trains through on the local tracks where available. Moreover, it would be unwise to conduct deep boring under wide streets; elevated or cut-and-cover construction is well-suited for such avenues, causing some street disruption but producing considerable less expensive lines.
California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke his piece, and California HSR is most likely dead. His state of the state speech tried to have it both ways, and his chief of staff insisted that no, he had not just canceled the HSR project, but his language suggests he’s not going to invest any more money or political capital in going beyond the Central Valley. Lisa Schweitzer put it best when she talked about his sense of priorities.
I actually don’t want to talk about the costs of the project; an article about this topic will appear in the Bay City Beacon any day now, and I will update this post with a link when it does. Rather, I want to talk about alignments. For those of you who’ve been reading me since the start, this means reopening some topics that involved tens of thousands of comments’ worth of flamewars on California HSR Blog.
What they should be building
As before, red denotes HSR with top speed of 350 km/h outside the built-up areas of the largest cities, and blue denotes legacy lines with through-service. I ask that people not overinterpret pixel-level alignments. The blue alignment in Southern California is the legacy route taken by Amtrak, the one in the Bay Area is a legacy line from Fremont to San Jose that some area transit advocates want a Caltrain extension on (and if it’s unavailable then it can be deleted with a forced transfer to BART), the one in the far north of the state is the freight line up to Redding.
The mid-2000s environmental impact study claims that Los Angeles-San Francisco via Altamont Pass would take 2:36 nonstop. The Tejon route I’m drawing is 12 minutes faster, so in theory this is 2:24. But three express stops in the middle, even in lower-speed territory right near Los Angeles and San Francisco, lead to somewhat longer trip times, as do various design compromises already made to reduce costs. My expectation is that the alignment drawn is about 2:45 on LA-SF and somewhat less on LA-Sacramento, on the order of 2:15 nonstop.
Why Tejon and not the Tehachapis
There are two ways to get between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. The first is the alignment taken by the I-5, called the Grapevine or Tejon Pass. The second is to detour far to the east via Palmdale and Tehachapi Pass. The alignment I drew is Tejon, that chosen by the HSR Authority is the Tehachapis.
Clem Tillier made a presentation about why Tejon is far superior. It is shorter, reducing trip times by about 12 minutes. It is less expensive, since the shorter length of the route as well as the reduced tunneling requirement means fewer civil structures are required; Clem’s presentation cites a figure of $5 billion, but with recent overruns I’ve heard a figure closer to $7 billion.
The exact cost of either alignment depends on standards. Unlike Northeastern passenger rail efforts, which are based on bad American design standards that recommend very shallow grades, ideally no more than 1.5-2%, California HSR uses a generic European standard of up to 3.5%, the same as in France. However, 3.5% is a conservative value, designed around TGVs, which almost uniquely in the HSR world have separate power cars. Distributed traction, that is EMUs, has higher initial acceleration and can climb steeper grades. One German HSR line goes up to 4%, and only the EMU ICE 3 train is allowed to use it, not the ICE 1 and 2, which have power cars like the TGVs. Even 5% is achievable far from stations and slow zones, which would reduce tunneling requirements even further.
In the mid-2000s, it was thought that the Tehachapi alignment could be done with less tunneling than Tejon. Only one 3.5% alignment through Tejon was available without crossing a fault line underground, so Tehachapi seemed safer. But upon further engineering, it became clear more tunneling was needed through Soledad Canyon between Los Angeles and Palmdale, while the Tejon alignment remained solid. The HSR Authority resisted the calls to shift to Tejon, and even sandbagged Tejon in its study, for two reasons:
1. Los Angeles County officials favored the Tehachapi route in order to develop Palmdale around the HSR station.
2. A private real estate company called Tejon Ranch planned to build greenfield development near the Tejon HSR route called Tejon Mountain Village, and opposed HSR construction on its property.
As Clem notes, the market capitalization of Tejon Ranch is about an order of magnitude less than the Tehachapi-Tejon cost difference. As for the county’s plans for Palmdale, spending $5 billion on enabling more sprawl in Antelope Valley is probably not the state’s highest priority, even if an HSR station for (optimistically) a few thousand daily travelers in a region of 400,000 exists to greenwash it.
Why follow the coast to San Diego
Two years ago I wrote an article for the Voice of San Diego recommending electrifying the Los Angeles-San Diego Amtrak line and running trains there faster, doing the trip in about 2 hours, or aspirationally 1:45. Amtrak’s current trip time is 2:48-2:58 depending on time of day.
The alignment proposed by the HSR Authority instead detours through the Inland Empire. The good thing about it is that as a greenfield full-speed route it can actually do the trip faster than the legacy coast line could – the plan in the 2000s was to do it in 1:18, an average speed of about 190 km/h, on account of frequent curves limiting trains to about 250 km/h. Unfortunately, greenfield construction would have to be postponed to phase 2 of HSR, after Los Angeles-San Francisco was complete, due to costs. Further design and engineering revealed that the route would have to be almost entirely on viaducts, raising costs.
If I remember correctly, the estimated cost of the HSR Authority’s proposed alignment to San Diego was $10 billion in the early 2010s, about $40 million per kilometer (and so far Central Valley costs have been higher). Even excluding the Los Angeles-Riverside segment, which is useful for HSR to Phoenix, this is around $7 billion for cutting half an hour out of trips from Los Angeles and points north to San Diego. Is it worth it? Probably not.
What is more interesting is the possibility of using the Inland Empire detour to give San Diego faster trips to Phoenix and Las Vegas. San Diego-Riverside directly would be around 45 minutes, whereas via Los Angeles it would be around 2:20.
However, the same question about the half hour’s worth of saving on the high-speed route can equally be asked about connecting San Diego to Las Vegas and Phoenix. These are three not especially large, not especially strong-centered cities. The only really strong center generating intercity travel there is the Las Vegas Strip, and there San Diego is decidedly a second-order origin compared with Los Angeles; the same is even true of San Francisco, which could save about 40 minutes to Las Vegas going via Palmdale and Victorville, or 55 minutes via Mojave and Barstow.
Ultimately, the non-arboreal origin of money means that the $7 billion extra cost of connecting Riverside to San Diego is just too high for the travel time benefits it could lead to. There are better uses of $7 billion for improving connectivity to San Diego, including local rail (such as a light rail tunnel between city center and Hillcrest, branching out to Mid-City and Kearny Mesa) and a small amount of extra money on incrementally upgrading the coast line.
Why Altamont is better than Pacheco
I’m leaving the most heated issue to last: the route between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. I am not exaggerating when I am saying tens of thousands of comments have been written in flamewars on California HSR Blog over its ten years of existence; my post about political vs. technical activists treated this flamewar as almost a proxy for which side one was on.
The route I drew is Altamont Pass. It carries I-580 from Tracy to Livermore, continuing onward to Pleasanton and Fremont. It’s a low pass and trains can go over the pass above-ground, and would only need to tunnel further west in order to reach Fremont and then cross the Bay to Redwood City. Many variations are possible, and the one studied in the mid-2000s was not the optimal one: the technical activist group TRANSDEF, which opposes Pacheco, hired French consultancy SETEC to look at it and found a somewhat cheaper and easier-to-construct Altamont alignment than the official plan. The biggest challenge, tunneling under the Bay between Fremont and Redwood City, is parallel to a recently-built water tunnel in which there were no geotechnical surprises. Second-hand sources told me at the beginning of this decade that such a rail tunnel could be built for $1 billion.
Pacheco Pass is far to the south of Altamont. The route over that pass diverges from the Central Valley spine in Chowchilla, just south of Merced, and heads due west toward Gilroy, thence up an alignment parallel to the freight line or US 101 to San Jose. The complexity there is that the pass itself requires tunneling as the terrain there is somewhat more rugged than around Altamont.
As far as connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco goes, the two alignments are equivalent. The old environmental impact reports stated a nonstop trip time of 2:36 via Altamont and 2:38 via Pacheco; Pacheco is somewhat more direct but involves somewhat more medium-speed running in suburbia, so it cancels out. The early route compromises, namely the Central Valley route, affected Altamont more than Pacheco, but subsequent compromises in the Bay Area are the opposite; nonetheless, the difference remains small. However, Pacheco is superior for service between Los Angeles and San Jose, where it is about 10 minutes faster, while Altamont is superior for service between the Bay Area and Sacramento, where it is around an hour faster and requires less additional construction to reach Sacramento.
As with the Tehachapis, the Authority sandbagged the alignment it did not want. San Jose-based HSR Authority board member Rod Diridon wanted Pacheco for the more direct route to Los Angeles, perhaps realizing that if costs ran over or the promised federal and private funding did not materialize, all three of which would indeed happen, the spur to San Jose was the easiest thing to cut, leaving the city with a BART transfer to Fremont. Consequently, the Authority put its finger on the study’s scale: it multiplied the frequency effect on passenger demand by a factor of six, to be able to argue that splitting trains between two Bay Area destinations would reduce ridership; it conducted public hearings in NIMBY suburbs near Altamont but not in ones near Pacheco; and early on it even planned to build San Francisco-San Jose as its first segment, upgrading Caltrain in the meantime.
And as with the Tehachapis, the chosen route turned out to be worse than imagined. Subsequent business plans revealed more tunneling was needed. The route through San Jose itself was compromised with curvy viaducts, and the need to blend regional and intercity traffic on the Caltrain route forced further slowdowns in intercity train speed, from a promised 30 minutes between San Francisco and San Jose to about 45. The most recent business plan even gave up on high speed between Gilroy and San Jose and suggested running on the freight mainline in the initial operating stage, at additional cost and time given Union Pacific’s hostility to passenger rail.
What is salvageable?
The HSR Authority has made blunders, perhaps intentionally and perhaps not, that complicate any future project attempting to rescue the idea of HSR. In both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, delicate timetabling is needed to blend regional and intercity rail. Heavy freight traffic interferes with this scheduling, especially as Union Pacific demands unelectrified track, generous freight slots, and gentle grades for its weak diesel locomotives, frustrating any attempt to build grade-separations cheaply by using 3-4% grades. Caltrain’s trackage rights agreement with UP contained a guillotine clause permitting it to kick freight off the line if it changed in favor of an incompatible use, originally intended to permit BART to take over the tracks; Caltrain gave up this right. UP is not making a profit on the line, where it runs a handful of freight trains per day, but the industrial users insisted on freight rail service.
Likewise, the Central Valley segment has some route compromises baked in, although these merely raise costs rather than introducing forced slowdowns or scheduling complications. A future project between Merced, the northern limit of current construction, and Sacramento, could just spend more time early on negotiating land acquisitions with the farmers.
It is in a way fortunate that in its incompetence, the HSR Authority left the most important rail link in the state – Los Angeles-Bakersfield – for last. With no construction on the Tehachapi route, the state will be free to build Tejon in the future. It will probably need to buy out Tejon Mountain Village or add some more tunneling, but the cost will still be low compared with that of the Palmdale detour.
Ultimately, the benefits of HSR increase over time as cities increase in size, economic activity, and economic connectivity. The Shinkansen express trains ran hourly in 1965; today, they run six times per hour off-peak and ten at the peak. Going back even earlier, passenger traffic on the London Underground at the beginning of the 20th century was not impressive by today’s standards. The fact that national rail traffic plummeted in most developed countries due to the arrival of mass motorization should not distract from the fact that overall travel volumes are up with economic growth, and thus, in a growing area, the case for intercity rail investment steadily strengthens over time.
Chickenshit governors like Newsom, Andrew Cuomo, and Charlie Baker are not an immutable fact of life. They are replaced after a few terms, and from time to time they are replaced by more proactive leaders, ones who prefer managing big-ticket public projects successfully to canceling them or scaling them back on the grounds that they are not competent enough to see them through.
Yesterday, I tweeted this proposal for a high-speed rail network for the eastern half of the United States:
I’d like to go over what the map means and address questions that have appeared on Twitter.
The color scheme
Red denotes high-speed lines, with a top speed in the 300-360 km/h range, not including the occasional enforced slow zone. The average speed would be around 225-250 km/h in the Northeast, where the routes are all compromised by existing infrastructure, and 300 km/h in the Midwest, where flat expanses and generous rail rights-of-way into the major cities should allow the same average speeds achieved in China. The South is intermediate, due to the rolling terrain and extensive suburban sprawl in the Piedmont.
Yellow denotes high-speed lines as well, but they are more marginal (in the linked tweet this is purple, but yellow is friendlier to the colorblind). This means that I expect much lower social return on investment there, so whether these lines could succeed depends on the price of fuel, trends in urban sprawl, and construction costs within the normal first-world range. Some of these lines, namely Atlanta-New Orleans and the connection from Savannah to Jacksonville, should be legacy lines if HSR does not pan out; others, like Kansas City-Oklahoma City, are unlikely to be worth it.
Blue denotes legacy lines that are notable for the network. It does not include the entire set of legacy intercity lines the US should be running, but does include all lines that I believe should get through-service to high-speed lines; but note that some lines, like Minneapolis-Duluth and Charleston-Greenville, do not have through-service. Some of these lines are potentially very strong, like New Haven-Springfield as a Northeast Corridor extension. Others are marginal, like Binghamton-Syracuse, which Adirondacker has recurrently criticized in comments on the grounds that New York-Syracuse is much faster on HSR and the intermediate cities are too small to justify more than a bus.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Some of the alignments may not be optimal, and one of the red lines, Albany-Montreal, can plausibly be reclassified as yellow due to the weakness of travel markets from the United States to Montreal.
The schedules I’m proposing are fast – all faster than in Germany and Italy, many faster than in France and Spain. The reason for this is the long expanses between American cities. Germany and Italy have high population density, which is in theory good for HSR, but in practice means the closely-spaced cities yields lines with a lot of route compromises. In Britain people who advocate for the construction of High Speed 2 complain that England’s population density is too high, making it harder to build lines through undeveloped areas (that is, farms) between big cities the way France and Spain did.
Out of New York, the target trip times are:
- Boston: 1:40
- Philadelphia: 0:40
- Washington: 1:35
- Albany: 0:55, an hour minus half a turnaround time, useful for Swiss run-trains-as-fast-as-necessary timetabling
- Syracuse: 1:50
- Rochester: 2:25
- Buffalo: 2:45
- Toronto: 3:20
- Harrisburg: 1:20
- Pittsburgh: 2:30
- Cleveland: 3:10
- Richmond: 2:15
- Raleigh: 3:10
- Charlotte: 4:05
- Atlanta: 5:30
- Birmingham: 6:15, probably no direct service from New York except at restricted times of day, but hourly or 30-minute service to Atlanta
Out of Chicago, they are:
- Milwaukee: 0:30
- Minneapolis: 2:30
- St. Louis: 1:30
- Kansas City: 2:50
- Indianapolis: 0:55
- Cincinnati: 1:30
- Louisville: 1:35
- Nashville: 2:35
- Atlanta: 4:00
- Toledo: 1:15
- Detroit: 1:35
- Toronto: 2:55
- Cleveland: 1:50
- Buffalo: 2:50
For the most part, there should be a stop in each metropolitan area. What counts as a metropolitan area remains a question; truly multicore regions can get one stop per core, for example there should definitely be a stop in Newark in addition to New York, and South Florida should have individual stops for Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. On the Northeast Corridor, what I think the optimal express stopping pattern is is one stop per state, with additional local trains making some extra stops like New London, Stamford, New Rochelle, and Trenton; Wilmington can be a local or an express stop – whether the infrastructure required to skip it at speed is worth it is a close decision.
On most lines, multiple stopping patterns are unlikely to be worth it. The frequency wouldn’t be high in the first place; moreover, the specific stations that are likely candidates for local stops are small and medium-size cities with mostly short-range travel demand, so serving them on a train stopping less than hourly is probably not going to lead to high ridership. Among the lines coming out of Chicago, the only one where I’m comfortable prescribing multiple stopping patterns is the one headed east toward Cleveland and Detroit.
Another consideration in the stop spacing is where most passengers are expected to travel. If there is a dominant city pair, then it can get express trains, which is the justification for express trains on the Northeast Corridor and on Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-Cleveland. However, in Upstate New York, there is no such dominant city pair: travel demand from New York to Toronto is not much more than to Buffalo (the air travel market is around a million people annually, whereas New York-Buffalo is 600,000) even though Toronto is a lot bigger, so there’s little point in skipping Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo to speed up end-to-end trips.
Ultimately, stops don’t cost that much time. In 360 km/h territory, a late-model Shinkansen has a stop penalty of a little under 3 minutes excluding dwell time – figure about 4 minutes with dwell. Those minutes add up on short-range lines with a lot of stops, but as long as it’s restricted to about a stop every 150 km or more in high-speed territory, this should be fine.
Highland gaps in service
Several people on Twitter complained about the lack of service to West Virginia and Arkansas. West Virginia is a politically distinguished part of the US nowadays, a metonym for white working-class decline centered on the coal industry, and as a result people notice it more than they do Midwestern poverty, let alone Southern or Western poverty. Poor cities are often served by red lines on my map, if they are between larger cities: Youngstown and Bowling Green are both noticeably poorer than Charleston, West Virginia, and Lafayette, Killeen-Temple, and Erie are barely richer. In the West, not depicted on my map, Pueblo, Chico, and Redding are all as poor as Charleston and are on standard wishlists for upgraded legacy rail while Tucson is a hair poorer and probably should get a full HSR extension of Los Angeles-Phoenix.
The reason Appalachia is underserved is the highland topography. Construction costs go up sharply once tunnels are needed; the route through Pennsylvania connects New York and Philadelphia with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, which are big enough urban centers to justify the expense, but additional routes would connect smaller cities. Washington awkwardly gets poor service to the Midwest; a yellow line between Baltimore and Harrisburg may be prudent, but a blue line is not, since the legacy line is so curvy that a high-speed detour through Philadelphia would still be faster. The Piedmont South gets a red line parallel to the mountains and some branches, but nothing that justifies going over the mountains.
Legacy rail additions are still plausible. Amtrak connects Charleston with Cincinnati in 5 hours, but cutting this to about 3.5 should probably be feasible within existing right-of-way, provided CSX does not mind faster passenger rail on its tracks; thence, Chicago-Cincinnati would take around 1.5 hours. However, the negotiations with CSX may be difficult given the line’s use by slow, heavy freight; the blue lines shown on my map are mostly not important freight mainlines.
In Arkansas, the question is whether a line to Little Rock is justifiable. The yellow route between Atlanta and Dallas could plausible detour north through Memphis and Little Rock instead of the depicted direct alignment; Atlanta-Dallas is about the same distance as New York-Chicago, a trip of about 5 hours, so the line would have to survive based on intermediate markets, making the less direct route better. On the other hand, Memphis and Little Rock are small, and while Atlanta and Dallas are big, they’re nowhere near the size of New York, and have very weak centers, encouraging driving rather than riding paid transportation whether it’s a train or plane.
Regional rail additions
As I said above, the blue line list is not intended to be exhaustive. I suspect it is exhaustive among long-range intercity lines, not counting yellow routes like Dallas-Oklahoma City or Atlanta-New Orleans. I was specifically asked about Amtrak’s City of New Orleans route, connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, since there is no trace of it on the map beyond the Chicago-St. Louis HSR. There could certainly be a high-speed line down to Memphis, which would place the city around 3 hours from Chicago. However, Memphis is not a large city; St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans have all stagnated in the last hundred years, making them weaker candidates for HSR than they were for legacy rail in the postwar era.
In contrast with the deliberate omission of the City of New Orleans routes, there are many regional lines that could be added. In the Northeast, a number of lines are every bit as valuable candidates for a national map as Boston-Portland, including Boston-Cape Cod, Boston-Manchester, New York-Allentown, Philadelphia-Allentown, and maybe Syracuse-Watertown with a timed HSR connections. Boston-Portland could have through-service to the Northeast Corridor or it could not, depending on timetabling in the North-South Rail Link tunnel; my current position is that it should only have through-service to other regional lines, but it’s a close decision.
Outside the Northeast there may be strong in-state networks. I showed the one in South Carolina since it substitutes for lines that I think are just a little too weak to even be in yellow, connecting North Carolina directly with Jacksonville, as well as the one in Wisconsin, based on through-service to HSR to Chicago. But Michigan can have an in-state network, either electrified or unelectrified, connecting cities orthogonally to HSR, and maybe also an electrified spine running the current Wolverines route with through-service to HSR. Indiana can have interregional lines from Indianapolis to outlying cities, but there would need to be more stuff in the center of Indianapolis for such service to attract drivers. Florida has some decent regional lines, even with how unusually weak-centered its cities are, for example Tampa-St. Petersburg and Tampa-Sarasota.
In a few places, the alignment is either vague or questionable. In the Northeast the biggest question is whether to serve Hartford on the mainline. I dealt with that issue years ago, and my answer has not changed: probably not. The second biggest is which alignment to take across the Appalachians in Pennsylvania; this requires a detailed engineering survey and the line I drew is merely a placeholder, since further design is required to answer questions about the precise costs and benefits of serving intermediate cities like State College and Altoona.
By far the biggest criticism I’ve gotten about macro alignment concerns how to get between the Midwest and the Northeast. The alignment I drew connects Chicago with points east via Cleveland. Due to the decline of Cleveland and slow growth of Columbus in its stead, multiple people have posited that it’s better to draw the red line well to the south, passing via Fort Wayne and Columbus. This would give Columbus fast service to Chicago, in not much more than 1:30, and also connect Pittsburgh better with Columbus, Cincinnati, and plausibly Louisville.
The problem with the Columbus route is that Detroit exists. The drawn alignment connects Pittsburgh with Detroit in about 1:35 and New York with Detroit in about 4:05, in addition to the fast connection to Chicago. A legacy connection in Fort Wayne would slow Chicago-Detroit to about 2:50, nearly doubling the trip time between the Midwest’s two largest cities; it would lengthen New York-Detroit to around 6 hours via Pennsylvania; the route via Canada would take a little more than 4 hours, but might not even exist without the ability to connect it west to Chicago – Canadian HSR studies are skeptical about the benefits of just Toronto-Windsor.
In contrast, the new city pairs opened by the Columbus alignment, other than Chicago-Columbus, involve small, weak-centered cities. Detroit is extremely weak-centered as well, but Chicago and New York are not, which means that suburban drivers will still drive to the train station to catch a ride to Chicago or New York if HSR is available; in contrast, city pairs like Pittsburgh-Cincinnati are very unlikely to get substantial rail mode share without completely revamping the way the geography of jobs in American cities is laid out.
Changing the geography of the nation
In one of the interminable Green New Deal papers, there was some comment about having HSR obviate the need for air travel. This proposition is wrong and misses what makes HSR work here and in Japan, South Korea, and China. The median distance of a domestic American air trip is well above the point beyond which HSR stops being competitive with air travel.
Counting only city pairs at a plausible HSR range of around 4-5 hours, maybe a bit more for New York-Atlanta, my estimate is that about 20-25% of domestic US air trips can be substituted by rail. This excludes city pairs at plausible HSR distance on which there will never be any reason to build HSR, like El Paso-Albuquerque, Minneapolis-Denver, and Charlotte-Columbus. Higher-end estimates, closer to 25% than to 20%, require all the yellow lines and a few more, as well as relying on some long-range city pairs that happen to be on the way of relatively direct HSR and have no direct air traffic.
However, the fact that people will continue flying until vactrains are invented does not make HSR useless or unnecessary. After all, people fly within Europe all the time, even within individual countries like France. Not only do people fly within Japan, but also the country furnishes two of the world’s top air routes in Tokyo-Sapporo and Tokyo-Fukuoka. As an alternative at its optimum range of under about 1,000 km, HSR remains a solid mode of travel.
Moreover, HSR has a tendency to change the geography of the nation. In France and Japan, it’s helped cement the capital’s central location in national economic geography. Tokyo and Paris are the world’s top two cities in Fortune Global 500 headquarters, not because those cities have notable economic specialization like New York but because a large company in Japan and France will usually be headquartered in the capital.
The likely impact of HSR on the US is different, because the country is too big for a single city’s network. However, the Midwest is likely to become a more tightly integrated network focused on Chicago, Texas and Florida are likely to have tighter interconnections between their respective major cities, and the links between the Piedmont South and the Northeast are likely to thicken. HSR cannot supplant air travel at long distances, but it can still create stronger travel volumes within its service range, such that overall trip numbers will be much higher than those of air travel, reducing the latter’s relative importance.
I am wrapping up a project to look at speedup possibilities for trains between New York and New Haven; I’ll post a full account soon, but the headline result is that express trains can get between Grand Central and New Haven in a little more than an hour on legacy track. In this calculation I looked at speed zones imposed by the curves on the line. The biggest possible speedups involve speed limits that are not geometric – and those in turn come from some very sharp slow zones. The worst is the Grand Central station throat, and I want to discuss that in particular since fixing the slowest zones usually yields the most benefits for train travel times.
Best practice for terminal approaches
Following Richard Mlynarik’s attempt to rescue the Downtown Extension in San Francisco, I’ve assumed that trains can approach terminals at 70 km/h, based on German standards. At this speed, an EMU on level track can stop in about 150 meters. In Paris, the excellent Carto Metro site details speed limits, and at most terminals with bumper tracks the speed limit is 60 km/h, with a few going up to 100 km/h.
Even with bumper tracks, 70 km/h can be supported, provided the train is not intended to stop right at the bumpers. At a fixed speed, the deceleration distance is the inverse of the deceleration rate. There is some variation in braking performance, but it’s in a fairly narrow range; on subway trains in New York, everything is supposed to brake at the same nominal rate of 3 mph/s, or 1.3 m/s^2, and when trains brake more slowly it’s because of a deliberate decision to avoid wearing the brakes out. As long as the train stops 1-2 car lengths away from the bumpers, as is routine on Metro-North, the variation will be much smaller than the margin of safety.
Fast movement through the station throat is critical for several reasons. First, as I’ll explain below, sharp speed limits have an outsize effect on trip times, and can be fixed without expensive curve easements or top-rate rolling stock. And second, at train stations with a limited number of tracks, the station throat is the real limiting factor to capacity, since trains would be moving in and out frequently, and if they move too slowly, they’ll conflict. With its 60 km/h throat, Saint-Lazare on the RER E turns 16 trains per hour at the peak on only four tracks.
I had a conversation with other members of TransitMatters in Boston yesterday, in which we discussed work to be done for our regional rail project. One of the other members, I forget who, asked me, do European train protection systems shut down in station throats too?
The answer to the question is so obviously yes that I wanted to understand why anyone would ask it. Apparently, the American mandate for automatic train protection on all passenger rail lines, under the name positive train control, or PTC, is only at speeds higher than 10 miles per hour. At 10 mph or less train operators can drive the train by sight, and no signaling is required, which is why occasionally trains overrun the bumpers even on PTC-equipped lines if the driver has sleep apnea.
Without video, nobody could see the facial expressions I was making. I believe my exact words were “…What? No! What? What the hell?”.
The conversation was about South Station, but the same situation occurs at Grand Central. Right-of-way geometry is good for decent station approach speed – there is practically no limit at Grand Central except tunnel clearances, which should be good for 100 km/h, and at South Station the sharp curve into the station from the west is still good for around 70 km/h given enough superelevation.
The impact of slow zones near stations
Last year, I published code for figuring out acceleration penalties based on prescribed train characteristics. The relevant parameters for Metro-North’s M8 is initial acceleration = 0.9 m/s^2, power/weight = 12 kW/t. Both of these figures are about two-thirds as high as what modern European EMUs are capable of, but it turns out that at low speed it does not matter too much.
Right now the Grand Central throat has a 10 mph speed limit starting just north of 59th Street, just south of milepoint 1. The total travel time over this stretch is 6 minutes, a familiar slog to every regular Metro-North rider; overall, the schedule between Grand Central and Harlem-125th Street is 10 minutes northbound and 12-13 minutes southbound, the difference coming from schedule padding. The remaining 65 or so blocks are taken at 60 mph, nearly 100 km/h, and take around 4 minutes.
Now, let’s eliminate the slow zone. Let trains keep cruising at 100 km/h until they hit the closer-in parts of the throat, say the last kilometer, where the interlocking grows in complexity and upgrading the switches may be difficult; in the last kilometer, let trains run at 70 km/h. The total travel time in the last mile now shrinks to a minute, and the total travel time between Grand Central and Harlem shrinks to 5 minutes and change. Passengers have gained 5 minutes based on literally the last mile.
For the same reason, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel imposes a serious speed limit – currently 30 mph through the tunnel, lasting about 2 miles; removing this limit would cut 2-2.5 minutes from the trip time, less than Grand Central’s 5 because the speed limit isn’t as wretched.
The total travel time between New York and New Haven on Metro-North today is about 1:50 off-peak, on trains making all stops north of Stamford. My proposed schedule has trains making the same stops plus New Rochelle doing the trip in 1:23. Out of the 27-28 minutes saved, 5 come from the Grand Central throat, the others coming from higher speed limits on the rest of the route as well as reduced schedule padding; lifting the blanket 75 mph speed limit in Connecticut is only worth about 3 minutes on a train making all stops north of Stamford, and even on an express train it’s only worth about 6 minutes over a 73 kilometer stretch.
What matters for high-speed travel
High-speed rail programs like to boast about their top speeds. But in reality, the difference between a vanilla 300 km/h train and a top of the line 360 km/h only adds up to a minute every 30 kilometers, exclusive of acceleration time. Increasing top speed is still worth it on lines with long stretches of full-speed travel, such as the Tohoku Shinkansen, where there are plans to run trains at 360 over hundreds of kilometers once the connection to Hokkaido reaches Sapporo. However, ultimately, all this extra spending on electricity and noise abatement only yields a second-order improvement to trip times.
In contrast, the slow segments offer tremendous opportunity if they are fixed. The 10 mph limit in the immediate Penn Station throat slows trains down by around 2 minutes, and those of Grand Central and South Station slow trains by more. A 130 km/h slog through suburbia where 200 km/h is possible costs a minute for every 6.2 km, which easily adds up to 5 minutes in a large city region like Tokyo. An individual switch that imposes an undue speed limit can meaningfully slow the schedule, which is why the HSR networks of the world invented high-speed turnouts.
Richard Mlynarik notes that in Germany, the fastest single end-to-end intercity rail line used to be Berlin-Hamburg, a legacy line limited to 230 km/h, where trains averaged about 190 km/h when Berlin Hauptbahnhof opened (they’ve since been slowed and now average 160). Trains go at full speed for the entire way between Berlin and Hamburg, whereas slow urban approaches reduce the average speed of nominally 300 km/h Frankfurt-Cologne to about 180, and numerous compromises reduce that of the nominally 300 km/h Berlin-Munich line to 160; even today, trains from Berlin to Hamburg are a hair faster than trains to Munich because the Berlin-Hamburg line’s speed is more consistent.
The same logic applies to all travel, and not just high-speed rail. The most important part of a regional railway to speed up is the slowest station throats, followed by slow urban approaches if they prove to be a problem. The most important part of a subway to speed up is individual slow zones at stations or sharp curves that are not properly superelevated. The most important part of a bus trip to speed up is the most congested city center segment.
The weekend before last, I visited Kaiserslautern and Mainz; I have photos from Mainz and will blog about it separately later this week. Due to a train cancellation, my 2.5-hour direct train to Kaiserslautern was replaced with a three-leg itinerary via Karlsruhe and Neustadt that took 5.5 hours. Even though neither Kaiserslautern nor Karlsruhe is contained within the region, they are both served by the Rhine-Neckar regional rail network. After riding the trains I looked up the network, and want to explain how things work in a metro area that is not very well-known for how big it is.
How polycentric is the system?
The Rhine-Neckar is polycentric, but only to a limited extent. It does have a single central city in Mannheim, with 300,000 people, plus another 170,000 in Ludwigshafen, a suburb across the Rhine. With Heidelberg (which has 160,000 people) and many surrounding suburbs, the total population of this region is 2.5 million, about comparable to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Hamburg.
The liminal polycentricity comes from the fact that Mannheim has a distinguished position that no single central city has in the Ruhr or Randstad. However, Heidelberg, Neustadt, Worms, and Speyer are all independent cities, all of which have long histories. It’s not like Paris, where the suburbs were all founded explicitly as new towns – Versailles in the Early Modern era, and the rest (Cergy, La Defense, Evry, Marne-la-Vallee, etc.) in the postwar era.
The rail network has the same liminal characteristic, which is what makes it so interesting. There is an S-Bahn, centered on Mannheim. There are two main trunk lines, S1/2 and S3/4: every numbered line runs on an hourly clockface schedule, and S2 and S4 provide short-turn overlays on the S1 and S3 lines respectively, giving half-hourly service on the combined lines. Some additional lines are not Mannheim-centered: the S33 is circumferential, and the S5/51 are two branches terminating at Heidelberg. Additional lines fanning out of Mannheim are under construction, to be transferred from the RegionalBahn system; already S6 to Mainz is running every half hour, and there are plans for lines going up to S9.
However, it is wrong to view the Rhine-Neckar regional rail network as a Mannheim-centric system the way the RER is Paris-centric and the Berlin S-Bahn is Berlin-centric. The Mannheim-centered S-Bahn lines run alongside a large slew of legacy RegionalBahn lines, which run on hourly clockface schedules. The S3 serves Karlsruhe and the S1 and S2 serve Kaiserslautern, but this is not how I got from Karlsruhe to Kaiserslautern: I took a regional train via Neustadt, running on a more direct route with fewer stops via Wörth and Landau, and transferred to the S1 at Neustadt.
Integrated timed transfers
Kaiserslautern is not really part of the Rhine-Neckar region. It is too far west. However, it is amply connected to the core of the region: it has S1 and S2 rail service (in fact it is the western terminus of the S2), and it has regional trains to Mannheim as well as to other cities within the region. The regional train from Mannheim to Kaiserslautern and points west is timed to leave Neustadt a few minutes ahead of the S1, as it runs on the same line but makes fewer stops.
In addition, all these trains to cities of varying levels of importance have a system of timed transfers. I took this photo while waiting for my delayed train back to Paris:
Other than the S-Bahn east, the trains all leave a few minutes after 8:30, and I saw them all arrive at the station just before 8:30, allowing passengers to interchange across as well as between platforms. Judging by static arrival boards posted at stations, this integrated timed transfer repeats hourly.
Some of the lines depicted on the map serve cities of reasonable size, including Mannheim and Heidelberg, but also Homburg, the western terminus of the S1. Others don’t; Pirmasens is a town of 40,000, and the intermediate towns on the line as it winds through the Palatinate valleys have a few thousand people each. Nonetheless, there is evidently enough demand to run service and participate in the integrated timed transfer plan.
Population density and the scope of the network
As I’ve mentioned above, neither Kaiserslautern nor Karlsruhe is properly part of the Rhine-Neckar. Neither is Mainz, which is within the Frankfurt region. Nonetheless, all are on the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn, and Kaiserslautern isn’t even an outer terminus – it’s on the way to Homburg.
This is for two reasons. The first is that this is a new S-Bahn network, cobbled together from regional lines that were formally transferred to the S-Bahn for planning purposes. It lacks the features that bigger S-Bahn networks have, like strong urban service. The Rhine-Neckar is about the same size as Hamburg, where the S-Bahn provides 10-minute frequencies to a variety of urban neighborhoods; in contrast, the S1/2 and S3/4 trunk lines in Mannheim aren’t even set up to overlay to exact 15-minute frequencies on the shared segment to Heidelberg.
I’ve talked about the distinction between regional and intercity service in the context of Boston. In Boston I recommend that some lines be run primarily as intercities, with long-range service and fewer stops, such as the Providence and Lowell Lines, both serving independent urban centers with weak inner suburbs on the way, while others be run primarily as locals, with more urban stops, such as the Fairmount-Franklin Line, which has no strong outer anchor but does pass through dense neighborhoods and inner suburbs.
The same distinction can be seen in Germany, all falling under the S-Bahn rubric. Wikipedia has a map of all S-Bahn systems in Germany at once: it can be readily seen that Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt have predominantly local systems, while Hannover, Nuremberg, the Rhine-Neckar, and Middle Germany (where the largest city is Leipzig) have predominantly intercity systems that are run as if they were S-Bahns.
The second reason owes to the urban geography of the Rhineland. Paris, Berlin, and Hamburg are all clearly-defined city centers surrounded by rings of suburbs. The Rhineland instead has a variety of smaller urban centers, in which suburb formation often takes the form of people hopping to a nearby independent city and commuting from there. All of these cities have very small contiguous built-up areas relative to the size of their metropolitan regions, and contiguous suburbs like Ludwigshafen are the exception rather than the rule.
Moreover, the background population density in the Rhineland is very high, so the cities are spaced very close together. This enabled the Rhine-Ruhr to form as a polycentric metro area comparable in size to London and Paris without having any core even approaching the importance of Central London or central Paris. The Upper Rhine is not as industrialized as the Ruhr, but has the same interconnected network of cities, stretching from Frankfurt and Wiesbaden up to Karlsruhe. In such a region, it’s unavoidable that commuter lines serving different urban cores will touch, forcing an everywhere-to-everywhere network.
To reinforce the importance of high density, we can look at other areas of high population density. The Netherlands is one obvious example, underlying Randstad and an extremely dense national rail network in which it’s not really possible to separate different regions for planning purposes. England overall is dense as well, but the south is entirely London-centric; however, the same interconnected network of cities typical of the Middle and Upper Rhine exists in Northern England, which not only invented the railway but also maintains a fairly dense rail network and has a variety of connecting services like TransPennine. Finally, the Northeastern United States has commuter rail line on nearly the entire length of the Northeast Corridor, touching in Trenton between New York and Philadelphia, with perennial plans to extend services in Maryland, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to close the remaining gaps.
Switzerland has long had a national integrated transfer timetable, overlaying more local S-Bahn trains in the biggest cities. As long as there is more than one node in such a network, it is necessary to ensure travel times between nodes permit trains to make multiple transfers.
This leads to the Swiss slogan, run trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. This means that, in a system based on hourly clockface schedules, the trip times between nodes should be about an hour minus a few minutes to allow for transfer time and schedule recovery. Potentially it’s possible to set up some intermediate nodes to have transfers at half-integer hours rather than integer hours, allowing half-integer hour timed transfers. Switzerland’s main intercity lines run on a half-hourly takt, with timed transfers on the hour every half hour in Zurich, Bern, and Basel, which are connected in a triangle with express trains taking about 53 minutes per leg; additionally, some smaller cities have timed transfers 15 and 45 minutes after the hour.
Germany’s rail network is less modern than Switzerland’s, and the Rhine-Neckar schedule shows it. S-Bahn trains run between Kaiserslautern and Mannheim in a few minutes more than an hour, which is why the S-Bahn train depicted in the photo above does not participate in the hourly pulse. In contrast, the regional express trains take 45 minutes, which allows them to participate in the pulse with a little bit of wasted time at Mannheim. Potentially, the region may want to level these two service patterns into one local pattern with a one-way trip time of about 50 minutes, through speeding up the trains if possible. A speedup would not be easy – the rolling stock is already very powerful, and the line is 64 km and has 16 stations and a curvy western half. Discontinuing service on the S2 to two neighborhood stations in Ludwigshafen, which the S1 already skips, is most likely required for such a hybrid S-Bahn/RegionalExpress service.
However, it’s critical to stress that, while Germany is lagging Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden, it is not to be treated as some American basket case. The Rhine-Neckar rail network is imperfect and it’s useful to understand how it can improve by learning from comparable examples, but it’s good enough so as to be a model for other systems in polycentric regions, such as New England, the Lehigh Valley, Northern England, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais.