Category: Regional Rail

How Washington Should Spend $10 Billion

The planned $10 billion expansion of Washington Union Station is a waste of money, but this does not mean that money appropriated for public transportation in the National Capital Region is a waste. The region has real transportation needs that should be addressed through urban rail expansion – just not through a rebuild of the intercity rail station. Those needs include local and regional travel, to be addressed through investment in both the Metro and the commuter rail networks. It is fortunate that when I probed on Twitter, there was broad if imperfect agreement among area advocates about what to do.

A $10 billion budget should be spent predominantly on new Metro Rail lines, carefully chosen to satisfy multiple goals at once: physical expansion of the reach of the system, additional core capacity, and deinterlining to improve reliability and increase the capacity of existing lines. For the purposes of the question I posed to area advocates, I set the expansion budget at $7.5 billion, good for 30 km at average global prices, leaving the rest for commuter rail improvements.

What to do about commuter rail

Washington does not have a large legacy commuter rail network, unlike New York, Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia. It is not as old as those cities, and its conception as the southern end of an East Coast region stretching up to Boston is postwar, by which point investment in passenger rail was largely relegated to the past. Nonetheless, it does have some lines, three to the north as the MARC system and two to the south as the VRE system. They should be upgraded to better commuter rail standards.

Union Station already has the infrastructure for through-running. The junction between the through-tunnel and the terminal tracks is flat, and almost all intercity trains terminate and most will indefinitely no matter how much investment there is in high-speed rail to points south. This requires delicate scheduling, which is good up to about 18 trains per hour in each direction, either six through- and 12 terminating or the other way around. Running half-hourly all-day service on each of the lines, with some additional urban overlay in Virginia and extra service on the Penn Line to Baltimore, should not be too difficult.

Thus, the main spending items on the agenda are not new tracks, but electrification and high platforms. MARC runs diesel trains even under catenary on the Northeast Corridor, which problem requires no additional electrification to fix, but its other two lines are unelectrified, and VRE has no electrification infrastructure. Those lines total 327 route-km of required wiring, with extensive single-tracking reducing per-km cost; this should be around $600 million. But note that they all carry significant freight traffic, and additional accommodations may be necessary.

As far as platforms go, there are nearly 50 stations requiring high platforms (I think 49 but I may have miscounted). At Boston costs it should be $1 billion or a bit more, but that’s for long trains, and MARC trains are not so long, and a system based on shorter trains at higher frequency would be somewhat cheaper. Infill stations are probably unnecessary – there are Metro Rail lines along the inner sections of most of the lines providing the urban rail layer.

Metro Rail expansion

The most pressing problem WMATA’s trains have is poor reliability. Two changes in the late 2000s and 2010s made the system worse: the 2009 elimination of automatic (though not driverless) operations worsened ride quality and reducing capacity, and the 2014 opening of the Silver Line introduced too much interlining reducing both reliability and capacity. WMATA is aware of the first problem and is working to restore ATO; the Silver Line’s problems should be fixed through judicious use of deinterlining. Deinterlining by itself only requires a short extension of the Yellow Line to separate the lines, but it can be bundled with further expansion.

Consensus among area advocates is that there should be separate tunnels for the Yellow and Blue Lines and a new trunk line under Columbia Pike, which three lines total 21 km. Additional lines can consist of another trunk line going northeast from Union Station between the Brunswick and Camden Lines or an extension of the Columbia Pike line from Bailey’s Crossroads, the present outer limit of high density, to Annandale, which would require extension transit-oriented development along the line.

A full-size version can be found here; note that the lines at Union Station are moved around to get rid of the Red Line’s awkward U-shape. The northeast extension option is colored red but should be a Blue Line extension, but the Red Line taking over H Street and going to Largo.

How Many Tracks Do Train Stations Need?

A brief discussion on Reddit about my post criticizing Penn Station expansion plans led me to write a very long comment, which I’d like to hoist to a full post explaining how big an urban train station needs to be to serve regional and intercity rail traffic. The main principles are,

  • Good operations can substitute for station size, and it’s always cheaper to get the system to be more reliable than to build more tracks in city center.
  • Through-running reduces the required station footprint, and this is one of the reasons it is popular for urban commuter rail systems.
  • The simpler and more local the system is, the fewer tracks are needed: an urban commuter rail system running on captive tracks with no sharing tracks with other traffic and with limited branching an get away with smaller stations than an intercity rail station featuring trains from hundreds of kilometers away in any direction.

The formula for minimum headways

On subways, where usually the rush hour crunches are the worst, trains in large cities run extremely frequently, brushing up against the physical limitation of the tracks. The limit is dictated by the brick wall rule, which states that the signal system must at any point assume that the train ahead can turn into a brick wall and stop moving and the current train must be able to brake in time before it reaches it. Cars, for that matter, follow the same rule, but their emergency braking rate is much faster, so on a freeway they can follow two seconds apart. A metro train in theory could do the same with headways of 15 seconds, but in practice there are stations on the tracks and dealing with them requires a different formula.

With metro-style stations, without extra tracks, the governing formula is,

\mbox{headway } = \mbox{stopping time } + \mbox{dwell time } + \mbox{platform clearing time }

Platform clearing time is how long it takes the train to clear its own length; the idea of the formula is that per the brick wall rule, the train we’re on needs to begin braking to enter the next station only after the train ahead of ours has cleared the station.

But all of this is in theory. In practice, there are uncertainties. The uncertainties are almost never in the stopping or platform clearing time, and even the dwell time is controllable. Rather, the schedule itself is uncertain: our train can be a minute late, which for our purpose as passengers may be unimportant, but for the scheduler and dispatcher on a congested line means that all the trains behind ours have to also be delayed by a minute.

What this means that more space is required between train slots to make schedules recoverable. Moreover, the more complex the line’s operations are, the more space is needed. On a metro train running on captive tracks, if all trains are delayed by a minute, it’s really not a big deal even to the control tower; all the trains substitute for one another, so the recovery can be done at the terminal. On a mainline train running on a national network in which our segment can host trains to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Munich, Zurich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Paris, trains cannot substitute for one another – and, moreover, a train can be easily delayed 15 minutes and need a later slot. Empty-looking space in the track timetable is unavoidable – if the schedule can’t survive contact with the passengers, it’s not a schedule but crayon.

How to improve operations

In one word: reliability.

In two words: more reliability.

Because the main limit to rail frequency on congested track comes from the variation in the schedule, the best way to increase capacity is to reduce the variation in the schedule. This, in turn, has two aspects: reducing the likelihood of a delay, and reducing the ability of a delay to propagate.

Reducing delays

The central insight about delays is that they may occur anywhere on the line, roughly in proportion to either trip time or ridership. This means that on a branched mainline railway network, delays almost never originate at the city center train station or its approaches, not because that part of the system is uniquely reliable, but because the train might spend five minutes there out of a one-hour trip. The upshot is that to make a congested central segment more reliable, it is necessary to invest in reliability on the entire network, most of which consists of branch segments that by themselves do not have capacity crunches.

The biggest required investments for this are electrification and level boarding. Both have many benefits other than schedule reliability, and are underrated in Europe and even more underrated in the United States.

Electrification is the subject of a TransitMatters report from last year. As far as reliability is concerned, the LIRR and Metro-North’s diesel locomotives average about 20 times the mechanical failure rate of electric multiple units (source, PDF-pp. 36 and 151). It is bad enough that Germany is keeping some outer regional rail branches in the exurbs of Berlin and Munich unwired; that New York has not fully electrified is unconscionable.

Level boarding is comparable in its importance. It not only reduces dwell time, but also reduces variability in dwell time. With about a meter of vertical gap between platform and train floor, Mansfield has four-minute rush hour dwell times; this is the busiest suburban Boston commuter rail station at rush hour, but it’s still just about 2,000 weekday boardings, whereas RER and S-Bahn stations with 10 time the traffic hold to a 30-second standard. This also interacts positively with accessibility: it permits passengers in wheelchairs to board unaided, which both improves accessibility and ensures that a wheelchair user doesn’t delay the entire train by a minute. It is fortunate that the LIRR and (with one peripheral exception) Metro-North are entirely high-platform, and unfortunate that New Jersey Transit is not.

Reducing delay propagation

Even with reliable mechanical and civil engineering, delays are inevitable. The real innovations in Switzerland giving it Europe’s most reliable and highest-use railway network are not about preventing delays from happening (it is fully electrified but a laggard on level boarding). They’re about ensuring delays do not propagate across the network. This is especially notable as the network relies on timed connections and overtakes, both of which require schedule discipline. Achieving such discipline requires the following operations and capital treatments:

  • Uniform timetable padding of about 7%, applied throughout the line roughly on a one minute in 15 basis.
  • Clear, non-discriminatory rules about train priority, including a rule that a train that’s more than 30 minutes loses all priority and may not delay other trains at junctions or on shared tracks.
  • A rigid clockface schedule or Takt, where the problem sections (overtakes, meets, etc.) are predictable and can receive investment. With the Takt system, even urban commuter lines can be left partly single-track, as long as the timetable is such that trains in opposite directions meet away from the bottleneck.
  • Data-oriented planning that focuses on tracing the sources of major delays and feeding the information to capital planning so that problem sections can, again, receive capital investment.
  • Especial concern for railway junctions, which are to be grade-separated or consistently scheduled around. In sensitive cases where traffic is heavy and grade separation is too expensive, Switzerland builds pocket tracks at-grade, so that a late train can wait for a slot without delaying cross-traffic.

So, how big do train stations need to be?

A multi-station urban commuter rail trunk can get away with metro-style operations, with a single station track per approach track. However, the limiting factor to capacity will be station dwell times. In cases with an unusually busy city center station, or on a highly-interlinked regional or intercity network, this may force compromises on capacity.

In contrast, with good operations, a train station with through-running should never need more than two station tracks per approach track. Moreover, the two station tracks that each approach track splits into should serve the same platform, so that if there is an unplanned rescheduling of the train, passengers should be able to use the usual platform at least. Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep tracks are organized this way, and so is the under-construction Stuttgart 21.

Why two? First, because it is the maximum number that can serve the same platform; if they serve different platforms, it may require lengthening dwell times during unscheduled diversions to deal with passenger confusion. And second, because every additional platform track permits, in theory, an increase in the dwell time equal to the minimum headway. The minimum headway in practice is going to be about 120 seconds; at rush hour Paris pushes 32 trains per hour on the shared RER B and D trunk, which is not quite mainline but is extensively branched, but the reliability is legendarily poor. With a two-minute headway, the two-platform track system permits a straightforward 2.5-minute dwell time, which is more than any regional railway needs; the Zurich S-Bahn has 60-second dwells at Hauptbahnhof, and the Paris RER’s single-level trains keep to about 60 seconds at rush hour in city center as well.

All of this is more complicated at a terminal. In theory the required number of tracks is the minimum turn time divided by the headway, but in practice the turn time has a variance. Tokyo has been able to push station footprint to a minimum, with two tracks at Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line (with 28 peak trains per hour) and, before the through-line opened, four tracks on the Tokaido Main Line (with 24). But elsewhere the results are less optimistic; Paris is limited to 16-18 trains per hour at the four-track RER E terminal at Saint-Lazare.

At Paris’s levels of efficiency, which are well below global best practices, an unexpanded Penn Station without through-running would still need two permanent tracks for Amtrak, leaving 19 tracks for commuter traffic. With the Gateway tunnel built, there would be four two-track approaches, two from each direction. The approaches that share tracks with Amtrak (North River Tunnels, southern pair of East River Tunnels) would get four tracks each, enough to terminate around 18 trains per hour at rush hour, and the approaches that don’t would get five, enough for maybe 20 or 22. The worst bottleneck in the system, the New Jersey approach, would be improved from today’s 21 trains per hour to 38-40.

A Penn Station with through-running does not have the 38-40 trains per hour limit. Rather, the approach tracks would become the primary bottleneck, and it would take an expansion to eight approach tracks on each side for the station itself to be at all a limit.

The Northeastern United States Wants to Set Tens of Billions on Fire Again

The prospect of federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is getting every agency salivating with desires for outside money for both useful and useless priorities. Northeastern mainline rail, unfortunately, tilts heavily toward the useless, per a deep dive into documents by New York-area activists, for example here and here.

Amtrak is already hiring project management for Penn Station redevelopment. This is a project with no transportation value whatsoever: this is not the Gateway tunnels, which stand to double capacity across the Hudson, but rather a rebuild of Penn Station to add more tracks, which are not necessary. Amtrak’s current claim is that the cost just for renovating the existing station is $6.5 billion and that of adding tracks is $10.5 billion; the latter project has ballooned from seven tracks to 9-12 tracks, to be built on two levels.

This is complete overkill. New train stations in big cities are uncommon, but they do exist, and where tracks are tunneled, the standard is two platform tracks per approach tracks. This is how Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep section goes: the North-South Main Line is four tracks, and the station has eight, on four platforms. Stuttgart 21 is planned in the same way. In the best case, each of the approach track splits into two tracks and the two tracks serve the same platform. Penn Station has 21 tracks and, with the maximal post-Gateway scenario, six approach tracks on each side; therefore, extra tracks are not needed. What’s more, bundling 12 platform tracks into a project that adds just two approach tracks is pointless.

This is a combined $17 billion that Amtrak wants to spend with no benefit whatsoever; this budget by itself could build high-speed rail from Boston to Washington.

Or at least it could if any of the railroads on the Northeast Corridor were both interested and expert in high-speed rail construction. Connecticut is planning on $8-10 billion just to do track repairs aiming at cutting 25-30 minutes from the New York-New Haven trip times; as I wrote last year when these plans were first released, the reconstruction required to cut around 40 minutes and also upgrade the branches is similar in scope to ongoing renovations of Germany’s oldest and longest high-speed line, which cost 640M€ as a once in a generation project.

In addition to spending about an order of magnitude too much on a smaller project, Connecticut also thinks the New Haven Line needs a dedicated freight track. The extent of freight traffic on the line is unclear, since the consultant report‘s stated numbers are self-contradictory and look like a typo, but it looks like there are 11 trains on the line every day. With some constraints, this traffic fits in the evening off-peak without the need for nighttime operations. With no constraints, it fits on a single track at night, and because the corridor has four tracks, it’s possible to isolate one local track for freight while maintenance is done (with a track renewal machine, which US passenger railroads do not use) on the two tracks not adjacent to it. The cost of the extra freight track and the other order-of-magnitude-too-costly state of good repair elements, including about 100% extra for procurement extras (force account, contingency, etc.), is $300 million for 5.4 km.

I would counsel the federal government not to fund any of this. The costs are too high, the benefits are at best minimal and at worst worse than nothing, and the agencies in question have shown time and time again that they are incurious of best practices. There is no path forward with those agencies and their leadership staying in place; removal of senior management at the state DOTs, agencies, and Amtrak and their replacement with people with experience of executing successful mainline rail projects is necessary. Those people, moreover, are mid-level European and Asian engineers working as civil servants, and not consultants or political appointees. The role of the top political layer is to insulate those engineers from pressure by anti-modern interest groups such as petty local politicians and traditional railroaders who for whatever reasons could not just be removed.

If federal agencies are interested in building something useful with the tens of billions of BIL money, they should instead demand the same results seen in countries where the main language is not English, and staff up permanent civil service run by people with experience in those countries. Following best industry practices, $17 billion is enough to renovate the parts of the Northeast Corridor that require renovation and bypass those that require greenfield bypasses; even without Gateway, Amtrak can squeeze a 16-car train every 15 minutes, providing 4,400 seats into Penn Station in an hour, compared with around 1,700 today – and Gateway itself is doable for low single-digit billions given better planning and engineering.

Tails on Commuter Rail

An interesting discussion on Twitter came out of an alternatives analysis for Philadelphia commuter rail improvements. I don’t want to discuss the issue at hand for now (namely, forced transfers), but the discussion of Philadelphia leads to a broader question about tails. Commuter rail systems sometimes have low-frequency tails with through-service to the core system and sometimes don’t, and it’s useful to understand both approaches.

What is a tail?

For the purposes of this post, a tail is whenever there is a frequent line with trains infrequently continuing farther out. Frequency here is relative, so a subway line running every 2.5 minutes to a destination with every fourth train continuing onward is a tail even though the tail still has 10-minute frequency, and a commuter line running every 20 minutes with every third train continuing onward also has a tail, even though in the latter case the core frequency is lower than the tail frequency in the former case.

The key here is that the line serves two markets, one high-intensity and frequent and one lower-intensity warranting less service, with the outer travel market running through to the inner one. Usually the implication is that the inner segment can survive on its own and the contribution of the outer segment to ridership is not significant by itself. In contrast, it’s common enough on S-Bahn systems to have a very frequent trunk (as in Berlin, or Munich, or Paris) that fundamentally depends on through-service from many suburban segments farther out combining to support high frequency in the core; if ridership farther out is significant enough that without it frequency in the core would suffer, I would not call this a tail.

When are tails useful?

Tails are useful whenever there is a core line that happens to be along the same route as a lower-intensity suburban line. In that case, the suburban line behind can benefit from the strong service in the core by having direct through-service to it at a frequency that’s probably higher than it could support by itself. This is especially valuable as the ridership of the tail grows in proportion to that of the core segment – in the limiting case, it’s not even a tail, just outer branches that combine to support strong core frequency.

Tokyo makes extensive use of tails. The JR East commuter lines all have putative natural ends within the urban area. For example, most Chuo Rapid Line trains turn at Takao, at the western end of the built-up area of Tokyo – but some continue onward to the west, running as regional trains to Otsuki or as interregional or as intercity trains farther west to Shiojiri.

Munich and Zurich both use tails as well on their S-Bahns. In Munich, the base frequency of each of the seven main services is every 20 minutes, but some have tails running hourly, and all have tails running two trains per hour with awkward alternation of 20- and 40-minute gaps. In Zurich, the system is more complex, and some lines have tails (for example, S4) and some do not (for example, S3); S4 is not a portion of an intercity line the way the Chuo Line is, and yet its terminus only gets hourly trains, while most of the line gets a train every 20 minutes.

What are the drawbacks of tails?

A tail is a commitment to running similar service as in the core, just at lower frequency. In Philadelphia, the proposal to avoid tails and instead force what would be tails into off-peak shuttle trains with timed transfers to the core system is bundled into separate brands for inner and outer service and a desire to keep the outer stations underbuilt, without accessibility or high platforms. Branding is an exercise in futility in this context, but there are, in other places than Philadelphia, legitimate reasons to avoid tails, as in Paris and Berlin:

  • Different construction standards – perhaps the core is electrified and an outer segment is not; historically, this was the reason Philadelphia ended commuter rail service past the limit of electrification, becoming the only all-electrified American commuter rail network. In Berlin, the electrification standards on the mainline and on the S-Bahn differ as the S-Bahn was electrified decades earlier and is run as an almost entirely self-contained system.
  • Train size difference – sometimes the gap in demand is such that the tail needs not just lower frequency than the core but also shorter trains. In the United States, Trenton is a good example of this – New York-Trenton is a much higher-demand line than Trenton-Philadelphia and runs longer trains, which is one reason commuter trains do not run through.
  • Extra tracks – if there are express tracks on the core segment, then it may be desirable to run a tail express, if it is part of an intercity line like the Chuo Line rather than an isolated regional line like S4 in Zurich, and not have it interface with the core commuter line at all to avoid timetabling complications. If there are no extra tracks, then the tail would have to terminate at the connection point with the core line, as is proposed in Philadelphia, and the forced transfer is a drawback that generally justifies running the tail.

Do the drawbacks justify curtailment?

Not really. On two-track lines, it’s useful to provide service into city center from the entire line, just maybe not at high frequency on outer segments. This can create situations in which intercity-scale lines run as commuter rail lines that keep going farther than typical, and this is fine – the JR East lines do this on their rapid track pairs and within the built-up area of Tokyo people use those longer-range trains in the same way they would an ordinary rapid commuter train.

This is especially important to understand in the United States, which is poor in four-track approaches of the kind that the largest European cities have. I think both Paris and Berlin should be incorporating their regional lines into the core RER and S-Bahn as tails, but they make it work without this by running those trains on dedicated tracks shared with intercity service but not commuter rail. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia do not have this ability, because they lack the ability to segregate S-Bahn and RegionalBahn services. This means Boston should be running trains to Cape Cod, Manchester, and Springfield as tails of the core system, and New York should electrify its entire system and run trains to the Hamptons as LIRR tails, and Philadelphia should run tail trains to the entire reach of its commuter rail system.

Quick Note: Regional Rail and the Massachusetts State Legislature

The Massachusetts state legislature is shrugging off commuter rail improvements, and in particular ignoring calls to spend some starter money on the Regional Rail plan. The state’s climate bill ignores public transportation, and an amendment proposing to include commuter rail electrification in the plan has been proposed but not yet included in the plan. Much of the dithering appears to be the fault of one politician: Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont, Back Bay, and parts of Brighton.

What is Regional Rail?

Regional Rail is a proposal by TransitMatters to modernize the MBTA commuter rail network to align it with the standards that have emerged in the last 50-60 years. The centerpiece of the plan is electrification of the entire network, starting from the already-wired Providence Line and the short, urban Fairmount Line and inner Eastern Line (Newburyport/Rockport Lines on timetables).

Based on comparable projects in peer countries, full electrification should cost $0.8-1.5 billion, and station upgrades to permit step-free access should cost on the order of $2 billion; rolling stock costs extra upfront but has half the lifecycle costs of diesels. An investment program on the order of high hundreds of millions or very low billions should be sufficient to wire the early-action lines as well as some more, such as the Worcester Line; one in the mid-single digit billions should be enough to wire everything, upgrade all stations, and procure modern trains.

Benefits include much faster trips (see trip planner here), lower operating and maintenance costs, higher reliability, and lower air and noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For a city the size of Boston, benefits exceed costs by such a margin that in the developed world outside North America, it would have been fully wired generations ago, and today’s frontier of commuter rail electrification is sub-million metro areas like Trondheim, Aarhus, and Cardiff.

Who is Will Brownsberger?

Brownsberger is a Massachusetts state senator, currently serving as the Senate’s president pro tempore. His district is a mix of middle-class urban and middle-class inner-suburban; the great majority of his district would benefit from commuter rail modernization.

He has strong opinions on commuter rail, which are what someone unaware of any progress in the industry since roughly 1960 might think are the future. For example, here’s a blog post he wrote in 2019, saying that diesel engines are more reliable than electric trains because what if there’s a power outage (on American commuter rail systems that operate both kinds of vehicles, electric trains are about an order of magnitude more reliable), and ending up saying rail is an outdated 20th century concept and proposing small-scale autonomous vehicles running on the right-of-way instead. More recently, he’s told constituents that rail electrification with overhead wire is impossibly difficult and the only option is battery-electric trains.

Because he’s written about the subject, and because of his position in the State Senate and the party caucus, he’s treated as an authority on the subject. Hence, the legislature’s lack of interest in rail modernization. It’s likely that what he tells constituents is also what he tells other legislators, who follow his lead while focusing on their own personal interest, such as health policy, education policy, taxes, or any other item on the liberal policy menu.

Why is he like this?

I don’t know. It’s not some kind of nefarious interest against modernization, such as the trenchant opposition of New York suburbanites to any policy that would make commuter trains useful for city residents, who they look down on. Brownsberger’s district is fairly urban, and in particular Watertown and Belmont residents would benefit greatly from a system that runs frequently all day at 2020s speeds and not 1920s speeds. Brownsberger’s politics are pretty conventionally liberal and he is interested in sustainability.

More likely, it’s not-invented-here syndrome. American mainline passenger rail is stuck in the 1950s. Every innovation in the field since then has come from outside North America, and many have not been implemented in any country that speaks English as its primary language. Brownsberger lacks this knowledge; a lifetime in politics does not lend itself well to forming a deep web of transnational relationships that one can leverage for the required learning.

Without the benefit of around 60 years of accumulated knowledge of French, German, Swiss, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Italian, and Spanish commuter rail planning, any American plan would have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it happens to reinvent a wheel that is round and has spokes; more often, it invents a wheel with sharp corners or no place to even attach an axle.

When learning happens, it is so haphazard that it’s very easy to learn wrong or speculative things. Battery-electric trains are a good example of this. Europe is currently experimenting with battery-electric trains on low-traffic lines, where the fact that battery-electrics cost around double what conventional electric multiple units do is less important because traffic is that light. The technology is thus on the vendors’ mind and so when Americans ask, the vendors offer to sell what they’ve made. Boston is region of 8 million people running eight- and nine-car trains every 15 minutes at rush hour, where the places in Europe that experiment with battery tech run an hourly three-car train, but the without enough background in how urban commuter rail works in Europe, it’s easy for an American agency executive or politician to overlook this difference.

Is there a way forward?

Yes!

Here is a proposed amendment, numbered Amendment 13, by Senator Brendan Crighton. Crighton represents some of the suburbs to the northeast of Boston, including working-class Lynn and very posh Marblehead; with only four years in the State Senate and three in the Assembly, he’s not far up the food chain. But he proposed to require full electrification of the commuter rail network as part of the climate bill, on a loose schedule in which no new diesels may be procured after 2030, and lines would be electrified by 2028 (the above-named early action lines) to 2035 (the rest of the system). There are so far four cosponsors in addition to Crighton, and good transit activists in Massachusetts should push for more sponsorship so that Amendment 13 makes it into the climate package and passes.

How High-Speed and Regional Rail are Intertwined

The Transit Costs Project will wrap up soon with the report on construction cost differences, and we’re already looking at a report on high-speed rail. This post should be read as some early scoping on how this can be designed for the Northeast Corridor. In particular, integration of planning with regional rail is obligatory due to the extensive track sharing at both ends of the corridor as well as in the middle. This means that the project has to include some vision of what regional rail should look like in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. This vision is not a full crayon, but should have different options for different likely investment levels and how they fit into an intercity vision, within the existing budget, which is tens of billions thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.

Boston

In Boston, commuter rail and intercity rail interact via the Providence Line, which is double-track. The Providence Line shares the same trunk line into Boston with the Franklin Line and the Stoughton Line, and eventually with South Coast Rail services.

The good news is that the MBTA is seriously looking at electrifying the trains to a substantial if insufficient extent. The Providence Line is already wired, except for a few siding and yard tracks, and the MBTA is currently planning to complete electrification and purchase EMUs on the main line, and possibly also on the Stoughton Line; South Coast Rail is required to be electrified when it is connected to this system anyway, for environmental reasons. If there is no further electrification, then it signals severe incompetence in Massachusetts but is still workable to a large extent.

Options for scheduling depend on how much further the state invests. The timetables I’ve written in the past (for an aggressive example, see here) assume electrification of everything that needs to be electrified but no North-South Rail Link tunnel. An NSRL timetable requires planning high-speed rail in conjunction with the entirety of the regional rail system; this is true even though intercity trains should terminate on the surface and not use the NSRL tunnel.

Philadelphia

Philadelphia is the easiest case. Trenton-Philadelphia is four-track, and has sufficiently little commuter traffic that the commuter trains can be put on the local tracks permanently. In the presence of high-speed rail, there is no need for express commuter trains – passengers can buy standing tickets on Trenton-Philadelphia, and those are not going to create a capacity crunch because train volumes need to be sized for the larger peak market into New York anyway.

On the Wilmington side, the outer end of the line is only triple-track. But it’s a short segment, largely peripheral to the network – the line is four-track from Philadelphia almost all the way to Wilmington, and beyond Wilmington ridership is very low. Moreover, Wilmington itself is so slow that it may be valuable to bypass it roughly along I-95 anyway.

The railway junctions are a more serious interface. Zoo Interlocking controls everything heading into Philadelphia from points north, and needs some facelifts (mainly, more modern turnouts) speeding up trains of all classes. Thankfully, there is no regional-intercity rail conflict here.

Washington

In some ways, the Washington-Baltimore Penn Line is a lot like the Boston-Providence line. It connects two historic city centers, but one is much larger than the other and so commuter demand is asymmetric. It has a tail behind the secondary city with very low ridership. It runs diesel under catenary, thanks to MARC’s recent choice to deelectrify service (it used to run electric locomotives).

But the Penn Line has significant sections of triple- and quad-track, courtesy of a bad investment plan that adds tracks without any schedule coordination. The quad-track segment can be used to simplify the interface; the triple-track segment, consisting of most of the line’s length, is unfortunately not useful for a symmetric timetable and requires some strategic quad-track overtakes. The Penn Line must be reelectrified, with high-performance EMUs minimizing the speed difference between regional and intercity trains. There are only five stations on the double- and triple-track narrows – BWI, Odenton, Bowie State, Seabrook, New Carrollton – and even figuring differences in average speed, this looks like a trip time difference between 160 km/h regional rail and 360 km/h HSR of about 15 minutes, which is doable with a single overtake.

New York

New York is the real pain point. Unlike in Boston and Washington, it’s difficult to isolate different parts of the commuter rail network from one another. Boston can more or less treat the Worcester, Providence+Stoughton, Fairmount, and Old Colony Lines as four different, non-interacting systems, and then slot Franklin into either Providence or Fairmount, whichever it prefers. New York can, with current and under-construction infrastructure, plausibly separate out some LIRR lines, but this is the part of the system with the least interaction with intercity rail.

Gateway could make things easier, but it would require consciously treating it as total separation between the Northeast Corridor and Morris and Essex systems, which would be a big mismatch in demand. (NEC demand is around twice M&E demand, but intercity trains would be sharing tracks with the NEC commuter trains, not the M&E ones; improving urban commuter rail service reduces this mismatch by loading the trains more within Newark but does not eliminate it.)

It’s so intertwined that the schedules have to be done de novo on both systems – intercity and regional – combined. This isn’t as in Boston and Washington, where the entire timetable can be done to fit one or two overtakes. This isn’t impossible – there are big gains to be had from train speedups all over and there. But it requires cutting-edge systems for timetabling and a lot of infrastructure investment, often in places that were left for later on official plans.

Penn Station Tracks

In 2015, I argued that New York Penn Station should be replaced with a hole in the ground, and such a station would have sufficient capacity. I will defend those posts: in the 21st century, elaborate stations are not required for high-quality rail service, and it’s more important to have good passenger egress and intermodal connections than a signature station. The topic of this post is more niche: which rail lines should connect to Penn Station?

The three-line system

In all writing I’ve done on the subject since around 2010, I’ve assumed that Penn Station should be a three-line stations. In blog posts about regional rail for New York I’ve consistently called them Lines 1, 2, and 3; one map can be found in this post, with slightly less expansive version on Google Maps, and, consistently, Line 1 (red) is the existing Northeast Corridor, Line 2 (green) runs along the same route but uses the Gateway tunnel across the Hudson and then goes via Grand Central, and Line 3 (orange) connects the Empire Connection to the LIRR via a slightly realigned approach, otherwise using existing tracks.

At the station, their order from south to north is 2, 1, 3; the numbers are chronological (1 preexists, 2 is a higher priority to build than 3). Gateway is to enter Penn Station south of the existing tunnel and the room for a Grand Central connection is to the south (31st Street), forcing that line to be the southernmost. The East River Tunnels go under 32nd and 33rd, each as a track pair going in opposite directions rather than 32nd running eastbound and 33rd westbound, and the track pair under 33rd has a better connection to the LIRR while that under 32nd has a better connection across the Hudson; the Empire Connection loops under the Hudson tunnel to connect to southern tracks, but that’s a single-track link and needs to be doubled anyway, so it might as well be realigned.

With three lines and six approach tracks, Penn Station should have 12 platform tracks: each approach track should split into two and the two tracks should serve the same platform, a solution used for the expensive but operationally sound Stuttgart 21 project. There should not be any flexibility, save perhaps some emergency crossovers at the station, not to be used in service: the required throughput is so extensive that such flexibility is fake, reducing capacity by almost as much as the full closure of a track.

The footprint of the station looks around 155 meters wide gross, or around 145 net, corresponding to 24 per platform. The total width of the tracks is 1.7 (track center to platform) plus 4.5 (distance between track centers; Shinkansen regulations say 4.3) plus around 2 if a safety zone between each track pair is desired, which is a total of about 8 meters. The platform width is then 24 – 8 = 16. If a heavy column between two tracks adjacent to different platforms is required, this adds about another meter to maintain the safety zones, for a total of 9, resulting in 15-meter platforms.

15-meter platforms are extremely wide. Châtelet-Les Halles’s RER A and B platforms are 17 meters, and are wider than necessary; they in contrast have insufficient vertical circulation at rush hour. At 15 meters, there’s room for six escalators per access point and possibly also a staircase; at 16, there’s definitely room for the staircase. Six escalators can run without any rush hour variation, always three up and three down, and would still clear a full train with many standees in a minute. I do not foresee any capacity problems at the station if it is built this way.

But this leads to the question: since the platforms are so oversize, perhaps it is useful to have more of them at lower width?

The four-line system

Penn Station could potentially serve not three lines but four. Right now it only has infrastructure for a line and a half, and with Gateway it would have one and two halves; even three looks like a generational project. But there’s good cause to think even farther ahead and make room for a fourth line: a dedicated intercity railway. The four-line system would maintain Lines 1, 2, and 3 as above, but then add an unnumbered line with no regional trains, only intercity train.

This comes out of my ridership model for high-speed rail for the United States: at full buildout, the system would be difficult to fit into an approach track with regional trains, and regional trains would only be able to run every 5 minutes or even worse, rather than every 2 or 2.5. Moreover, once high-speed rail exists on the Northeast Corridor, the return on investment on extensions is so great that it is likely that such extensions will happen. Politics make such extensions even more favorable: high-profile investment in the Northeast’s intercity rail and in New York is likely to lead to demand for such investment in other regions, regardless of the business case, and it is fortunate that the business case for such extensions is strong independently of the politics.

I presume that, from south to north, the platform order should be Line 2 eastbound, Line 2 westbound, intercity eastbound, Line 1 eastbound, Line 1 westbound, intercity westbound, Line 3 eastbound, Line 3 westbound. The problem here is that Penn Station’s footprint is only adjacent to three east-west streets, not four, and so the intercity tunnels have to duck under private property, and the best place for them going east is to act as 31.5th and 32.5th Streets. Using the existing tunnels and then displacing regional rail to new tunnels is also possible, but less desirable: the existing tunnels have small diameter, and so it’s easier to keep them lower-speed while the new tunnels get to be bigger and support 200 km/h while maintaining enough free air to avoid creating pressure problems in passengers’ ears.

Under this system, the existing footprint of Penn Station is wide enough for 18 meters gross per each of the eight platforms, or 10 meters net. This is not out of the question, and would ordinarily be completely fine: it’s enough for four escalators per access point, or three and a staircase. At Penn Station I am slightly squeamish purely because on Lines 1 and 3 it’s the only city center station, and thus more crowded than the usual for a regional train station.

But it’s possible to slightly widen the footprint. Under no circumstances should there be any digging past the footprint of 31st and 33rd Streets: the cost of construction under existing buildings is too high. Plans for demolishing the block between 30th and 31st Streets (Block 780) are in an advanced stage, related to both a real estate deal with Vornado and plans for Penn Station South expansion, but they are extraordinarily expensive (around $10 billion at this point), and redevelopment of the block is easier on firma than over rail tracks. For all intents and purposes, the maximum usable footprint is between the lot lines of 31st and 33rd, which is 175 meters gross, perhaps 160 net with some distance between the dig and the lot line.

With 160 net meters, there are 20 meters per platform with tracks, or 12 per platform alone. This is wide enough for anything: four escalators and a staircase fit, which has enough capacity (albeit with some compromises) with permanent escalator directionality and more than enough if escalators run three-and-one at rush hour.

The benefits of creating about two extra meters per platform should be weighed against the cost of adding to the footprint of Penn Station, which is not $10 billion but also not zero, and I don’t want to make pronouncements without seeing a reliable estimate. This also depends on the difficulty of building intercity rail tunnels under private property.

Coordinated planning

A coordinated Penn Station rebuild plan should be considered together with some plan for how to use those tracks. Infrastructure investment must always come with a precise service plan, with sample timetables to the minute shared with the public for democratic review.

The upshot is that Penn Station rebuild must come with a good idea of how much service the region expects to run. A high-speed rail plan argues in favor of the four-line system, provided the cost of the extra tunnels is reasonable (low-to-mid single-digit billions; $10 billion is far too high). Otherwise, the three-line system is better.

Why is Princeton Trying to Downgrade the Dinky?

Regular users of the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey know that there is a short branch off the line serving Princeton. Mainline trains do not use it – they continue between New York and Trenton – but a two-car shuttle, affectionately called the Dinky, connects the city with the train station. Historically, this is because the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey is a then-high-speed rail cutoff from 1863, which cut off Princeton from the old line. Trains run back and forth, with timed connections between New York (but not Trenton) and Princeton.

The Princeton stop on the Dinky, as can be seen in the satellite image, lies just outside the historic municipal limits of Princeton (since merged with the surrounding township). It serves the university fairly well, but is 800 meters at closest approach to the town’s main street, Nassau Street. So there has been a study for what to do to improve city access, in which a tram-train option was studied, looked good, and was dropped anyway. There are two options left: status quo, and a downgrade of the right-of-way to light rail with buses using the same corridor.

Unfortunately, transit advocates I respect, like Sandy Johnston, think the downgrade is an upgrade. So let me explain why in fact the light rail and bus option is inferior to current commuter rail operations.

The current use of the Dinky is as a connector to the Northeast Corridor. There is approximately nothing else at Princeton Junction: it’s one of the two busiest suburban stations in New Jersey, but like the other top station, Metropark, it’s a park-and-ride, designed exclusively for car-train interface. People who ride the Dinky do so to get to New York.

This means that the timed transfer with the mainline trains is critical. Frequency on the Dinky is irrelevant: all ridership from Princeton Junction into the town is going to be on the first train or bus after the mainline trains arrive, and almost all ridership to the junction is going to be on the last train that makes the connection. While frequency is not important except insofar as it matches that of the mainline, on-train capacity is important. My 2015 recollection is that off-peak ridership on the Dinky is maybe enough to fill an articulated bus (which New Jersey Transit only runs in Newark), maybe enough for a standard bus, depending on time of day – standees are likely, and standing on a bus is an awful passenger experience. At rush hour, the Dinky runs three-car trains (update 2022-2-18: no, it’s two-car trains) and they’re full.

The timed transfer is so important that the discussion of how to improve service must center how to make the transfer more efficient. The ideal improvement should be to regularize the timetable on the mainline commuter trains, and ensure that trains in opposite directions serve Princeton Junction around the same time (this is called a knot) so that the Dinky can connect to Trenton too, and even to Philadelphia with another timed transfer at Trenton or even through-service if that fits the New Jersey Transit and SEPTA schedules.

Sandy points out to me that while the Dinky only connects Princeton with the mainline, the right-of-way of the Dinky can serve more destinations – namely, the Route 1 job cluster, visible on the map as a line of office parks.

However, bus service from town to Route 1 is unlikely to succeed. It’s going to struggle to run sufficient frequency for what it needs, even as lower-frequency rail is sufficient for the Dinky’s current role:

  • Route 1 is not on the way between town and the station – there would have to be separate buses to Route 1 from the service to the train station (which I presume will stay on rail even if the downgrade is picked). This means there’s no bundling of destinations – the buses to Route 1 have to live off of Princeton-Route 1 trips.
  • Route 1 is a freeway with destinations located somewhat away, at automobile scale. Buses can stop on the side of the road but the walk is not great on the same side of the road and hostile and unsafe if crossing the road is required. A more pleasant experience is only possible if buses turn onto side roads, splitting frequency or increasing trip times.
  • Route 1 is not a large job center. OnTheMap says that between the route of the Dinky and the junction with I-295 beyond the above satellite image, which ends at Quakerbridge Road, there are 21,000 jobs. The origins of those jobs are dispersed – only 5,000 come from within the county, and only 368 come from within Princeton.
  • Conversely, the short distance traveled means that high frequency is crucial. A one-way trip from the townhouses just north of Nassau Street to the center of the Route 1 cluster along the right-of-way of the Dinky is 5.5 km, which at BRT and freeway speed is around 10 minutes one-way; a bus running less than once every 10 minutes might as well not run – but there is no chance for such a bus to fill at current demand.

Of course, the analysis of Route 1 assumes current development patterns stay with no or moderate change. A bigger change, such as greater development along Route 1 with sprawl repair, can make this option pencil out; O&D volumes need to rise by a factor of 3 assuming 100% transit modal split, or more if modal split is lower (which it invariably is, Route 1 is not Manhattan).

But then that raises the question – why engage in development in sprawl around a plan to downgrade a rail service?

If sprawl repair is plausible, then make Princeton more bikable and then set up bike lanes on Route 1 so that people can cycle to Route 1 jobs. The same bike lanes can also connect to the Dinky, with bike parking at the station, or even potentially at Princeton Junction if it’s faster to bike those 4 km than to ride a train and transfer. In the long run, all buses are going to have to be replaced by bikes anyway – bus operating costs are only going to go up.

And if redevelopment is plausible, look again at the satellite image and see what the land use at the existing train stations is like. Princeton is one of the most expensive places in the United States, and the Dinky station has a golf course on one side; that’s 0.5 km^2 of land, or, as I prefer to think of it, 50,000 housing units. Another 0.05 km^2 consists of parking lots right near the station, and can and should be redeveloped as a town center extension for a population that can swamp the existing town population by a factor of 4. The parking lots at Princeton Junction and the undeveloped land between them are another 0.4 km^2 of prime real estate.

In general, I cannot think of any railway where service would be improved by a downgrade from mainline rail to bus. But the Dinky has specific issues making such a downgrade especially deleterious for current users, namely the need for a timed connection, while the proposed source of new trips, namely Route 1, is too weak to be worth much. Thankfully, a no-build option keeping the status quo is still under consideration, and I hope that the region chooses it and invests in making the Dinky better rather than in replacing it.

New York Publishes a Bad Benchmarking Report

I’ve grown to intensely dislike benchmarking reports. It’s not that the idea of benchmarking bad. It’s that they omit crucial information – namely, the name of the system that one is compared with. The indicators always have a wide variety of values, and not being able to match them with systems makes it impossible to do sanity-checks, such as noticing if systems with high costs per car-km are consistently ones that run shorter trains. This way, those anonymized reports turn into tools of obfuscation and excusemongering.

The MTA in New York recently published such a report, including both US-wide and international benchmarking for the subway as well as commuter rail. The US benchmarking is with comparable American systems – exactly the ones I’d compare, with the systems listed by name as NTD data is wisely not anonymized. The international benchmarking for the subway is with CoMET, which includes most of the larger global systems as well as a handful of smaller ones, like Vancouver; for commuter rail, it’s with ISBeRG, which has an odd list of systems, omitting the RER (which is counted in CoMET), all of Japan except JR East, and any S-Bahn, skipping down to Australian systems, Cape Town, and Barcelona.

That, by itself, makes much of the international benchmarking worthless. The standard metric for operating costs is per car-km. This is covered in pp. 8-9, showing that New York has fairly average costs excluding maintenance, but the second highest maintenance costs. But here’s the problem: I’m seeing a comparison to an undifferentiated mass of other systems. One of them is an outlier in maintenance costs, even ahead of New York, but I do not know which it is, which means that I cannot look at it and see what it does wrong – perhaps it has an unusually old fleet, perhaps it is small and lacks scale, perhaps it is domestically viewed as scandal-ridden.

Far more useful is to look at complete data by name. For example, JICA has complete operating cost data for Japanese metro systems. Its tables are complete enough that we can see, for example, that overall operating costs are around $5/car-km for all systems, regardless of scale; so scale should not be too important, or perhaps Tokyo’s wealth exactly cancels out the scale effect. There are, on table 2.37 on PDF-p. 117, headcounts for most systems from which we can impute labor efficiency directly, using train-km data on PDF-p. 254; Yokohama gets 1,072 train-hours a year per driver at 35 km/h (the rough average speed I get from Hyperdia).

And here’s the thing: without the ability to fill in missing data like average speed, or to look at things the report didn’t emphasize, the report is not useful to me, or to other independent researchers. It’s a statement of excuses for New York’s elevated operating and maintenance cost, with officious proclamations and intimidating numbers.

For example, here’s the excuse for high maintenance costs:

High maintenance costs for NYCT are largely attributable to 24-hour service. Most COMET peer agencies shut down every night, allowing for four hours of continuous daily maintenance. In comparison, NYCT subway’s 24-hour service requires maintenance to occur within 20-minute windows between late night trains, reducing work efficiencies. Additionally, maintenance costs for NYCT have risen recently to support the improvements as part of the Subway Action Plan, which have led to a significant improvement to on-time performance year over year since inception.

Okay, so here we’re seeing what starts like a reasonable explanation – New York doesn’t have regular nighttime maintenance windows. But the other American systems studied do and they’d be above global average too; Boston has regular nighttime work windows but still can’t consign all track maintenance to them, and has almost the same maintenance cost per car-km as New York. Moreover, track maintenance costs per car-km should feature extensive scale effects – only at freight rail loads is the marginal track wear caused by each additional car significant – and New York runs long trains.

Then there is the Subway Action Plan line, which is a pure excuse. Other systems do preventive maintenance too, thank you very much. New York is not unusually reliable by global standards, and the benchmarking report doesn’t investigate questions like mean distance between failures or some measure of the presence of slow restrictions – and because it is anonymized, independent researchers can’t use what it does have and get answers from other sources.

The study has a section on labor costs, showing New York’s are much higher than those of some peer cities. Thankfully, that part is not anonymized, which means I can look at the cities with overall labor costs that are comparable to New York’s, like London, and ignore the rest; New York’s construction labor costs are higher than London’s by a factor of about 2, despite roughly even regionwide average wages. Unfortunately, a key attribute is missing: labor efficiency. The JICA study does better, by listing precise headcounts; but here the information is not given, which means that drawing any conclusion that is not within the purview of MTA’s endless cold war on its unions is not possible. As it happens, I know that New York is overstaffed, but only from other sources, never anonymized.

It’s worse with commuter rail. First of all, at the level of benchmarking, the study’s list of comparisons is so incomplete and so skewed (three Australian systems, again) that nothing it shows can be relevant. And second, commuter rail in North America comes with its own internal backward-looking culture of insularity and incompetence.

The report even kneecaps itself by saying,

While it is true that benchmarking provides useful insights, it is also important to acknowledge that significant differences exist among the railroads that pose challenges for drawing apples-to-apples conclusions, particularly when it comes to comparisons with international peers. Differing local economies, prevailing wages and collective bargaining agreement provisions can have dramatic impacts on respective labor costs. Government mandates, including safety regulations, vary widely, and each railroad exists in a unique operating environment, often with different service schedules, geographic layouts and protocols. Together these factors have also have a significant impact on relative cost structures.

To translate from bureaucratic to plain English, what they’re saying is that American (and Canadian) practices for commuter rail are uniquely bad, but controlling for them, everything is fine. The report then lists the following excuses, all of which are wrong:

• Hours of Operation: LIRR provides 24 hours of service 7 days per week, and MNR provides 20-22 hours of service 7 days a week

• Ungated System: Neither LIRR nor MNR operate gated systems, therefore they require onboard fare validation/collection

• Branch Service: Both LIRR and MNR run service to and from a central business district (New York City) and do not have ability to offer through-running service

• Electrification: Both LIRR and MNR operate over both electrified and non-electrified territory, thereby requiring both electric and diesel fleets

It’s impressive how much fraud – or, more likely, wanton indifference and incuriosity – can fit into just four bullet points. Metro-North’s hours of service are long, but so are those of the JR East commuter lines; the Yamanote Line runs 20 hours a day, which means the nighttime maintenance window is shorter. Ungated systems use proof-of-payment ticketing throughout Europe – I don’t know if Rodalies de Catalunya runs driver-only trains, but the partly-gated RER and the ungated S-Bahns in the German-speaking world do. Through-running is a nice efficiency but not all systems have it, and in particular Melbourne has a one-way loop system akin to that of the Chicago L instead of through-running. Finally, electrification on the LIRR and Metro-North is extensive and while their diesel tails are very expensive, they also sometimes exist in Europe, including in London on a line that’s partly shared with the Underground, though I don’t know if they do in the report’s comparison cases.

The report does not question any of the usual assumptions of American mainline rail: that it must run unusually heavy vehicles, that it run with ticket-punching conductors, etc.

For a much more useful benchmarking, without anonymization, let’s look at German S-Bahns briefly. There is a list of the five largest systems – Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart – with ridership and headcounts; some more detail about Berlin can be found here. Those five systems total 6,200 employees; the LIRR has 7,671 and Metro-North 6,773. With 2,875 employees, the Berlin S-Bahn has more train-hours than the LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit combined; about as many car-km pro-rated to car length as the LIRR times 1.5; and more ridership than all American commuter rail systems combined. The LIRR in other words has more workers than the largest five German S-Bahns combined while the Berlin S-Bahn has more riders than all American commuter rail systems combined.

The excuses in the report highlight some of the reasons why – the US sticks to ticket-punching and buys high-maintenance trains compliant with obsolete regulations – but omits many more, including poor maintenance practices and inefficient scheduling of both trains and crew. But those are not justifications; they are a list of core practices of North American commuter rail that need to be eliminated, and if the workers and managers cannot part with them, then they should be laid off immediately.

Institutional Issues: Coordination

In this installment of institutional issues, I’m going to talk about coordination, following up from procurement, professional oversight, transparency, proactive regulations, and dealing with change.

The state is to a large extent a coordinating body. Even the more extractive aspects of it, like historically the military, succeeded or failed not by who was the most brutal (they all were brutal) but by who was most efficient at organizing large groups of people.

Coordination in public transit is especially important, because it’s a system with many moving parts: infrastructure, equipment, timetable, development. These do not accrete spontaneously, not in any society that has also invented cars; transit-oriented development in the 21st century looks different from historic development before mass motorization. Organizational capacity makes the difference between a state that grows around mass transit, like Japan or South Korea or Switzerland or Sweden or increasingly France, and one that grows around cars even when the goal is nominally transit first, as is common in the United States but also most of Southeast Asia.

So in general, better coordination means overall better public transit. But it specifically means better investment – more targeted at the right places. And this is especially visible in mainline rail, which is less self-contained than urban metro lines. The right way to plan is to get different bodies to cooperate, such as different railroads and government agencies. And then there is the wrong, American way.

Coordination versus wishlists

In theory, the United States has mechanisms to get different agencies to talk to one another. The Northeast Corridor planning process understands that the corridor has many users and owners: Amtrak, MBTA, Connecticut DOT, MTA, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, MARC. To ensure they collaborate, there are layers set on top of them, like the NEC Commission.

And yet, the NEC Commission’s plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and the people involved should not work in this field or in government again. The problem is that their idea of coordination is to ask each of the above agencies what its wishlist is, collate the responses, and staple them together.

The wishlist staple job is the opposite of coordination. Coordination means sitting down with intercity and regional rail operators, figuring out their service needs, and writing down a timetable with associated infrastructure plan that maximizes service at minimum cost. Even the accidental moves toward coordination that do exist, like the MBTA plan to complete electrification of the Providence Line and run modern EMUs rather than diesels under catenary, do not figure into the plan: Amtrak still wants a third track on the Providence Line, which such electrification obviates even if Amtrak cuts its Boston-Providence trip time in half. The third track was said to cost $400 million years ago; I do not know if it is still its budget or whether costs are higher now. One such unnecessary project at a time is what it takes to turn what should be a $15 billion project into three-figure billions.

This wishlist mentality is present whenever bad planners (e.g. all Americans) try to do something that involves more than one agency. It’s assumed that different parts of the government must constantly be at one another’s throats. Unless one agency dominates, the only solutions in this mentality are either to do a staple job, or subordinate all agencies to one new hierarchy, typically run by people who have never run transit service and do not respect those who have.

How to plan mainline rail better

Three of the legs of coordinated planning – infrastructure, rolling stock, timetable – are coordinated in an excellent way in Switzerland. (Switzerland is unfortunately too NIMBY for modern TOD.) This does not mean slavishly copying every single Swiss decision, but it does mean that it behooves planners to learn how Swiss rail planners got Europe’s best rail network on a limited (though not quite austerity) budget.

The way it should work is that everything begins from the timetable. Trains must run on the same fixed interval – typically hourly, but denser services should be planned around shorter intervals like 30 minutes or smaller divisors of the hour. This provides the base level of coordination: connections between trains at major stations are to be done at times that are compatible with this interval.

If the trip time between major stations (“Knoten”) is just a bit too long for timed connections at both ends, it means that the trains should be sped up. This is the run trains as fast as necessary maxim, beloved by many high-speed rail opponents who bring up that maxim far more often than they bring up how much rail tunneling Switzerland has built.

Everything must come based on this plan. The choice of rolling stock must be compatible. Switzerland chose bilevel EMUs, because its use case is urban stations with a surplus of platform tracks but limited platform length; the bilevel trades off higher on-train capacity per unit of train length for lower egress capacity, and in a country where the main train station has 26 tracks, the bilevel is the correct choice. Maybe in another environment it is and maybe it isn’t; in New York it is not.

The slate of infrastructure projects must likewise be based on total integration of operations and capital planning. This means being able to trace delays to their source, using data to figure out what the most problematic areas are, and fixing them. Swiss trains are not inherently punctual; delays in the 5 minute range are routine. What sets them apart is that the infrastructure has been designed, at minimum cost, to ensure that delays don’t propagate, whereas in Germany, cascading delays are more common, and the less said about the United States, the better.

Swiss integration, to be clear, operates in an environment that is highly federal, has a smattering of private railroads interoperating with SBB, is stingy about public spending, and has in most cases Western Europe’s most privatized economy. And yet there is no separation of infrastructure and operations, in contrast with the trend in Britain and the EU.

Coordination and saying no

A planning agency that has to work with operators to ensure they all collaborate has to mediate conflict in many cases. This is the origin of the wishlist mentality: by planning overly expensive systems with maximum separation between operators, conflict is avoided, at the minor cost of an order of magnitude increase in the budget.

A better way to mediate is to either propose compromises, or outright saying no. Investment that is not part of the coordinated plan is extra and infrastructure plans should not burden the taxpayers with it. If different bodies conflict, sometimes one is right and the other is wrong, and the infrastructure planners should say so; sometimes who is right and who is wrong is consistent, sometimes it isn’t. Moreover, if bodies refuse to coordinate, it’s important to be able to say no to overall plans.

All of this interfaces with previous posts on this subject. In particular, the infrastructure investment program, whether it’s a regional Verkehrsverbund or an intercity system like the NEC Commission, should consist of subject matter experts. Senior politicians should understand that those experts are paid to maximize the efficiency of an enormous infrastructure program and therefore defend their expertise against attacks.