Category: Regional Rail

The Limits of Regional Rail

I recently found myself involved in a discussion about Boston regional rail that involved a proposal to do more thorough regional rail-subway integration. Normally, S-Bahn systems mix some aspects of longer-range regional rail and some aspects of urban metro systems. They provide metro-like service in the urban core – for example, Berliners use the the three trunk lines of the S-Bahn as if they were U-Bahn lines. But, unlike proper metros, they branch in the suburbs and tend to have lower frequency and lower quality of infrastructure. However, there is a limit to this integration, coming from timetabling.

The characteristics of metro-like S-Bahn

When I call some S-Bahns, or some S-Bahn trunks, “metro-like,” what I mean is how users perceive them, and not how planners do. A metro line is one that users get on without concern for the timetable. It may run on a clockface schedule, for example on a 5-minute takt in Berlin, but passengers don’t try to time themselves to get on a specific train, and if the train is 1-2 minutes behind schedule then nobody really minds. This user behavior usually comes from high frequency. However, in New York, despite extensive branching and 10-minute frequencies, I classify the subway as fully metro-like because the trains are not dispatched as a scheduled railroad and even if they were, passengers don’t ever think in terms of “my Queens-bound N train arrives at :06 every 10 minutes.”

S-Bahn lines have trunks like this, but also branches that work like regional rail. The regional rail pattern in the sense of RegionalBahn is one in which passengers definitely look at timetables and try to make them, and connecting public transit lines are planned to make timed transfers. On lines branded as RegionalBahn service comes every half hour or every hour, and usually S-Bahn tails are every 15-30 minutes (occasionally 10), but the printed schedule is paramount either way; when I rode the RER B to IHES in the last three months of 2016, I memorized the 15-minute takt and timed myself to it.

The key aspect of S-Bahns is combining these two patterns. But this leads to a key observation: they have to interline a number of different service patterns, which requires planning infrastructure and service to permit both. They can’t run on pure headway management in the core, because the branches must be scheduled. But they have to use a timetabling system that permits high core frequency nonetheless.

Finally, observe that I am not discussing the type of equipment used. A subway train that extends far into the suburbs may qualify as regional rail – the Metropolitan line in London qualifies as an example on account of its highly branched service pattern in Metro-land. In the other direction, a train built to mainline standards that runs consistent service pattern with little to no branching at a range typical of metros is not, for the purpose of this issue, regional rail – examples include the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Lines in Tokyo, which run identical trains to those that run deeper into suburbia but have literally no (Yamanote) or almost no (Keihin-Tohoku) variation in service patterns.

The limit of interlining

A large degree of interlining tends to reduce timetable reliability. Trains have to make junctions at specific times. This is compounded by a number of different factors:

1. Trunk throughput

The busier the trunk is, the harder it is to keep everything consistent. If you run 15 trains per half-hour, that’s 15 opportunities for a 2-minute delay to mess the order in which trains arrive, which has implications further down. If you run 4 trains per half-hour, that’s 4 opportunities, and a 2-minute delay is easily recoverable anyway.

2. Trunk length

Longer and more complex trunks introduce their own problems. If many passengers treat trains as interchangeable and don’t care what order they arrive in, then this may not be good for timekeeping – a slight delay on a branch may lead to grossly uneven headways on the trunk, which compound on busy metro lines for similar reasons as on buses. Berlin’s Stadtbahn has 14 stations from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz counting both, and this may make the branches with their 20-minute frequencies a little too difficult to fit together – evidently, peak throughput is 18 trains per hour, hardly the cutting edge. The RER A has 7 trunk stations from Vincennes to La Défense inclusive, and around 27 peak trains per hour.

3. Branch infrastructure quality

In the limit, the branches have to have excellent infrastructure quality, to be resilient to 1-2 minute delays. Timed meets on a mostly single-trunk line, routine on 15-minute branches like some lines in suburban Zurich and Tokyo, become dicey on lines that feed very busy trunks. Tokyo does this on the Yokosuka Line, which is far from the busiest (it peaks around 20 trains per hour) and Zurich on the right bank of Lake Zurich, which feeds into an S-Bahn trunk with 4 stations inclusive from Stadelhofen to Oerlikon. The busiest S-Bahn lines tend to have all-doubled outer ends.

4. One vs. two ends

If the line is single-ended, then inbound trains can just run metro-style in city center without regard for the printed schedule, use the terminal for schedule recovery, and then go outbound on schedule. Non-through-running lines are by definition single-ended, and this includes what I believe is Tokyo’s busiest regional rail line, the Chuo Rapid Line. But even some through-running lines are de facto single-ended if demand is highly asymmetric, like the Stadtbahn, which has far more demand from the east than from the west, so that one branch even turns at Westkreuz. Double-ended lines do not have this opportunity for recovery, so it’s more important to stay on schedule, especially if the end is not just busy but also has extensive branching itself.

Incrementalism in Infrastructure

I was recently asked about the issue of incrementalism in infrastructure, with specific reference to Strong Towns and its position against big projects (e.g. here). It’s useful to discuss this right now in context of calls for a big infrastructure-based federal jobs program in the United States. The fundamental question to answer is, what is the point of incremental projects?

The issue is that the legitimate reason to prefer less ambitious projects is money. If a new subway tunnel costs $5 billion, but you only have the ability to secure $1.5 billion, then you should build what you can for $1.5 billion, which may be a tram rather than a subway, or surface improvements to regional rail instead of a new regional rail tunnel, etc.

A secondary legitimate reason is that even if there is more money, sometimes you get better results out of building something less flashy. This is the electronics-before-concrete approach – in a developed country it’s almost always cheaper to invest in signaling, electrification, and platform upgrades than to build new tunnels. This can look incremental if it’s part of a broader program: for example, if there’s already investment in electrification in the region then extending wires is incremental, so that completing electrification on the commuter rail lines in New York, reopening closed suburban branches in Philadelphia with new wires, and even completing electrification in a mostly-wired country like Belgium and the Netherlands would count.

But the example of electrification in a mostly already electrified place showcases the differences between cost-effectiveness and incrementalism. The same investment – electrification – has a certain cost-effectiveness depending on how much train traffic there is. There’s a second-order effect in that the first line to be electrified incurs the extra cost of two train fleets and the last line has a negative cost in no longer needing two fleets, but this isn’t relevant to first order. Nonetheless, electrifying a system where electrification is already familiar is considered incremental, to the point that there were extensions of electrification in suburban New York in the 1980s and there remain semi-active projects to build more, whereas electrifying one that is currently entirely diesel, like Boston, is locally considered like a once-in-a-generation project.

And that is the real problem. American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways – big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs and not anywhere where public transit is even remotely relevant. And transit construction plans are always watered down with a lot of reconstruction and maintenance money; most of the money in the Los Angeles sales tax measures that are sold to the urbanist public as transit measures is not about rail construction, which is why with money programmed through 2060 the region is going to only have one full subway line; an extension of the Red Line on South Vermont is scheduled to open in 2067, partly because construction costs are high but mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.

So in reality, there are two real reasons why incrementalism is so popular in the United States when it comes to transportation, neither of which is legitimate. Both are types of incompetence, but they focus on different aspects of it.

The first reason is incompetence through timidity. Building something new, e.g. rail electrification in Boston or in California, requires picking up new knowledge. The political appointees in charge of transit agencies and the sort of people who state legislators listen to do not care to learn new things, especially when the knowledge base for these things is outside their usual social networks. Can Massachusetts as a state electrify its rail network? Yes. Can it do so cheaply? Also yes. But can the governor’s political appointees do so? Absolutely not, they are incurious and even political people who are not beholden to the governor make excuses for why Massachusetts can’t do what Israel and Norway and New Zealand and Austria and Germany do.

In that sense, incrementalism does not mean prudence. It means doing what has been done before, because the political people are familiar with it. It may not work, but it empowers people who already have political clout rather than sidelining them in favor of politically independent technocrats from foreign countries who might be too successful.

The second reason is incompetence through lack of accountability. This is specific to an approach that a lot of American urbanists have backed, wrongly: fix-it-first, or in its more formal name state of good repair (SOGR). The urbanist emphasis on SOGR has three causes: first, in the 1980s New York had a critical maintenance backlog and neglected expansion in order to fix it, which led to positive outcomes in the 1990s and 2000s; second, in highways, fix-it-first is a good way to argue against future expansion while hiding one’s anti-car ideology behind a veneer of technical prudence; and third, Strong Towns’ specific use case is very small towns with serious issues of infrastructure maintenance costs and not enough residential or commercial demand to pay for them, which it then generalizes to places where there’s more market demand for growth.

In reality, the situation of 1980s’ New York was atypical. Subsequently, the SOGR program turned into a giant money pit, because here was an opportunity to spend enormous sums of capital construction money without ever being accountable to the public in the form of visible expansion. Ask for a new rail line and people will ask why it’s not open – California got egg on its collective face for not being able to build high-speed rail. Ask for SOGR and you’ll be able to brush away criticism by talking about hidden benefits to reliability. Many passengers may notice that trains are getting slower and less reliable but it’s easier in that case to intimidate the public with officious rhetoric that sounds moderate and reasonable.

Incrementalism is fundamentally a method of improving a legitimate institution. The EU needs incremental reform; China needs a democratic revolution. By the same token, in infrastructure, incrementalism should be pushed when, and only when, the status quo with tweaks is superior to the alternatives. (Note that this is not the same as electronics-before-concrete – what Switzerland did with its rail investment in the 1990s was very far-reaching, and had tangible benefits expressed in trip times, timed connections, and train frequency, unlike various American bus redesigns.) Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.

We Ran a Conference About Rail Modernization

The Modernizing Rail (Un)Conference happened last Sunday. We’re still gathering all the materials, but here are video uploads, including the keynote by Michael Schabas.

We will also have slides as given by presenters who used them. But for now, here are the slides used by the keynote. You may notice that the recording does not begin on the first slide; we missed Schabas’s introduction and some remarks on his background, detailing his 40 years of experience designing public transit systems in a number of countries, mainly Britain and Canada but also elsewhere in the developed world.

My session on construction costs was slide-free (and was not recorded), since I mostly just showed people around our under-construction cost dataset and answered a lot of questions. Some of those questions were annoying, by which I mean they questioned my thinking or brought up a point I haven’t considered before. I am not talking too much about it partly because I was mostly (mostly) repeating things I’ve said here, and the full database should be out later this summer, with all the mistakes I’ve made in currency conversion rates and in not updating for cost overruns fixed.

After my breakout, I was uncertain between which of two sessions to attend – one on HSR-legacy rail compatibility by María Álvarez, and one on equity issues in rail planning, by Grecia White and Ben She. I ended up going to the latter, which featured interesting discussions of inclusion of low-income people and minorities, both as riders (that is, serving people who are not middle-class whites better on regional rail) and as workers (that is, diversifying planning and engineering departments).

It went well in that there was no monopolization of discussion by people who have more a comment than a question, or any open racism or sexism; but it was somewhat frustrating in that while there was a lot of productive discussion of racial equality in rail planning, there was very little of gender equality even though we did intend to talk about both; Grecia was specifically interested in discussing these, for example women’s perceptions of public safety. This is in line with conference demographics – the organizing team and the breakout presenters were each one-third people of color, in line with US demographics; but the organizing team had 2/18 active women and the presenters 3/15. TransitMatters is similar in that regard – racial diversity is comparable to that of the Boston region, and the proportion of regulars who are queer is enormous, but there are very few women.

Finally, I hosted a session on how to set up a transport association, a.k.a. Verkehrsverbund. Christof Spieler did the most talking, and German attendees explained a lot about the difference between a transport association and agency amalgamation. But for the most part that session felt like an ersatz conclusion to the entire conference; it technically lasted an hour, but once the hour had lapsed, people from other sessions came to the room and the conversation continued naturally, talking a bit about different transit planning issues in Germany and a bit about applicability to rail reform in the Northeastern US.

The French Way of Building Rapid Transit

It’s been a while since I last wrote this series, where I covered the American, Soviet, and British traditions of building urban rail. I’d like to return by focusing attention on the French tradition, which has been influential not just within France itself but also to some extent former French colonies, especially Quebec.

An issue I hope to return to soon is the extent to which France has not truly decolonized; former French colonies in Africa, especially the Maghreb, rely on French technical expertise for construction, and often outsource their monetary policy (as with the CFA franc, but Morocco too has a peg to a dollar and euro mix). This matters, because this means the French way of building urban transit is influential in former French colonies in Africa, whereas the British tradition’s impact on India, Nigeria, and so on is limited.

The history of Paris

Like Britain, the USSR, and the US, France has a dominant financial center that its smaller cities aim to imitate. This imitation has been much more extensive than in the US and UK – to the extent that secondary French cities diverge in design principles from the capital, they do things that were fashionable in Paris at the time they built out their rail networks rather than things that were fashionable in Paris when Paris built the Métro. Thus, it is especially valuable to look at the history of urban rail in Paris.

The Paris Métro opened in 1900, as the world’s fifth metro system. Already then, it had a critical feature that the previous four (London, Budapest, Chicago, Glasgow) lacked: it was a centrally planned multi-line system. The city planned a coordinated system of what would become Lines 1-6, in the shape of a # in a circle: Lines 1 and 3 would run east-west, Lines 4 and 5 would run north-south, and Line 2, eventually split into Lines 2 and 6, would run the trace of the wall that delineated the city’s pre-1860 boundary.

The Métro was a municipal effort run by the municipal CMP, designed around the city’s needs, which included not just good transportation but also separation from the working-class suburbs. Whereas the London Underground was mostly technologically compatible with the mainline system, the Métro was deliberately designed not to be, to protect the urban middle class from transport integration with the suburban poor. This led to the following features:

  • The trains are extremely narrow, 2.4-2.44 meters wide, compared with about 2.9 m on the mainline; the deep Tube trains in London, held to have the narrowest loading gauge on a standard-gauge railway, are 2.68 m wide.
  • The interstation distance is very short, 562 meters on average. Paris is compact and dense and the short interstations are only a real problem in the suburbs.
  • The trains run on the right, like French road traffic, whereas French trains run on the left.
  • No legacy lines were incorporated into the system, unlike in New York and London, and thus the shape of the network looks much more like how one would design a metro network from scratch and less like how old West London branches or Brooklyn excursion lines looked.

Like New York and Berlin and unlike London, Paris built the Métro cut-and-cover. The lines built before the 1990s all closely follow streets except when they cross the river – and in the 1900s the Line 4 river crossing was the hardest part of the system to build, opening in 1908 whereas the rest of the network had opened by 1906. This was done entirely by hand, forcing the lines to curve where the streets did, which led to two notable warts. First, while most of the system had a design standard of 60 meter curve radii, Line 1 goes down to 40 at Bastille. And second, Line 5, which crosses the Seine on a bridge, cannot serve Gare de Lyon; the engineers could not get it to curve that way while still running through to Gare d’Austerlitz and the Left Bank, so instead the transfer point between Lines 1 and 5 is Bastille, and more recently the RER A and Line 14 both cross Line 5 without a transfer as they run express from Gare de Lyon to Châtelet.

That said, the missed connection between Lines 5 and 14 is the only one in the system, though two more are under construction on Line 14 extensions. Only one among the major metro systems of the world runs entirely without missed connections, the Mexico City Metro, which has unusually low line density in the core and unusually many tangential lines.

The suburbs and the RER

The Métro’s deliberate exclusion of the suburbs made sense from the point of view of a middle-class Parisian in 1900 who was mortally afraid of the working class. But by the 1930s, it was leading to serious design constraints. Further Métro extensions both densified the network and extended it outward, and in the 1930s, lines began to extend past city limits, to such suburbs as Lilas, Issy, Neuilly, and Montreuil. The short interstations made longer extensions infeasible, and some solution involving regional rail was needed.

In 1938, CMP bought and electrified the Ligne de Sceaux, which alone among the Paris commuter lines had reached close to city center, terminating at Jardin du Luxembourg rather than at the farther away rail stations, which are located at or just inside the M2/M6 ring. Then after the war, as suburbanization intensified and commuter traffic at Gare Saint-Lazare grew increasingly congested, CMP’s successor RATP collaborated with SNCF on connecting regional rail branches to form an express system, that is the RER; the Ligne de Sceaux became the southern half of the RER B, while a similar branch going east paired with one of the Saint-Lazare lines to form the RER A. Through-service opened in 1977, roughly at the same time as the German S-Bahn through-tunnels, but the system grew much larger as Paris was and remains far larger than any German city.

But it is not exactly correct to view the RER as identical to a German S-Bahn, or to one of the RER’s inspirations, the Tokyo through-running system. A number of features characterize it, some shared with other urban regional rail systems, some not:

  • There are multiple trunk lines through the city, which form something like a coherent network among themselves, and do not share rolling stock. The biggest warts are that the RER B and D share tracks (but no platforms) on one interstation, and that the RER C mostly stays on the Left Bank, legacy of when planning in Paris conceived of the area around Saint-Michel as a central area to be served, where in reality it is decidedly secondary to the CBD stretching from Les Halles to Champs-Elysées.
  • It runs largely, though not entirely, on separate tracks from non-RER lines.
  • It is locally viewed as deficient to Métro service – researchers who use the RER B to get to IHES think of it as lower-quality, lower-class service than the Métro in the city and its immediate suburbs. I suspect that this is why Grand Paris Express is designed around Métro standards rather than as intensification of RER service, while RER expansion has fallen to the wayside.
  • RER-Métro integration is imperfect: the fares are integrated but there are still barriers between RER and Métro platforms, and there are many missed RER-Métro connections, whereas in Berlin the S-Bahn and U-Bahn have only one missed connection between them.
  • The interstation is around 2-3 km, but it’s actually slightly longer on the new urban tunnels build for the RER A, B, D, and E than on the legacy lines in the inner suburbs; this feature also exists in a much more extreme form in the United States, but in Berlin and Tokyo it is completely absent.

Exporting Parisian ideas

Parisian metro planning influenced Montreal, Mexico City, and the smaller French cities, in chronological order. We see any of the following features in those cities:

  • Rubber-tired metros. This technology was in vogue in postwar Paris, which converted Lines 1, 4, and 11 to it figuring this was just better than steel wheels, and also Line 6, figuring that an elevated line would benefit from a quieter propulsion system.
  • Non-radial network design. London and the systems inspired by it, including all Eastern bloc systems, have radial design, with nearly all lines entering a relatively small city center. Paris expanded its #-in-a-circle system to a combination of a radial network and a grid, with a large number of pairs of parallel lines. Mexico City, the largest system inspired by Paris, is rich in tangential lines but has only three lines serving city center, which are by far the three busiest.
  • Short interstations, though this is truer domestically than in Montreal and Mexico City.
  • Driverless operations. This technology became popular in the 1980s, starting with the Lille Metro, and France has used it on new lines in Paris (M14) and elsewhere (Lyon Line D, both lines in Toulouse), also innovating in converting manual lines to automatic on Paris M1 and now M4. While the Parisian lines are full-size metro lines, the other ones are light metro running shorter vehicles, often with extensive elevated service.
  • Separation between regional rail and metro service. Montreal is sufficiently North American to have given up on regional rail entirely, but Lyon and Marseille are investing in better regional rail, run separately from the local urban transit system but with some degree of integration.
  • Light rail. France’s modern light rail systems do not originate in Paris – Nantes opened its system in 1985, suburban Paris only in 1992 – but Paris has a notable feature that isn’t common elsewhere in Western Europe: it is a mixed system with some Métro lines and some tram lines filling in the gaps. This mixed system is also present in Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse, whereas Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Nice have entirely tram-centric systems. But in no case is there any subway-surface running as in the United States or Germany: lines are either clearly trams or clearly metros, rather than mixtures, and it is the system that is mixed, not the individual line.

Has France decolonized?

Like Britain, France did not take its geopolitical disempowerment at the end of World War Two easily. Both countries have maintained superpower pretensions, decolonizing but trying to treat their former colonies as their spheres of influence as much as possible. In Britain, this relationship broke down – the ex-colonies were being too loud in the Commonwealth, leading the country to seek to join the EU instead. In France, this relationship remains in Africa, and notable not in Southeast Asia, where Vietnam is buildings its urban rail networks with Chinese and Japanese financing.

But France is not just providing financing to infrastructure projects in its former (or current?) African colonies. It has a permanent presence. In researching Arab rail infrastructure, Anan Maalouf has noted that Alstom has had a subsidiary operating in Algeria since 2002, which does not exist elsewhere in the Arab world. This way, French firms maintain close knowledge of the situation in the Maghreb, where incomes and productivity levels are much lower than in France, so that different methods are optimal from those common in rich countries.

Nonetheless, what they build remains noticeably French. For example, the Sfax tramway does not look too different from what Bordeaux or Nice has. The Tunis Métro looks rather like a French tramway system too, despite the name; of note, even though the Tunis Métro branches, and has some underground segments, those segments are not on line trunks and thus the system does not form a subway-surface or Stadtbahn network.

I haven’t gone too much into intercity rail, but it is worth mentioning that Morocco has a high-speed rail system, built with French technical assistance and running TGV equipment.

Does this work?

Yes and no.

The Paris system works. It is not perfect, and in particular the integration between the Métro and the RER could be better; at least one tram line should be a full metro line (a completed T3 ring), and suburban extensions should generally use the RER, with more investment in RER capacity within the city as well. That said, public transport usage is higher in Paris than in its closest comparison, that is London; Paris’s system is also superior in both overall usage and future prospects to that of another megacity in Europe, Moscow. Only Istanbul could potentially do better in the future, in the context of extremely low construction costs.

That said, Paris is a giant that casts a long shadow, which doesn’t always work well for secondary cities. Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, and the other secondary French cities aren’t too different in modal split from similar-size British cities, and are behind Vancouver, a North American city with extensive postwar growth. German cities in the Lyon size class do a lot better. See for example data here and here.

The weird features of France, like the love for rubber tires, are not that relevant overall, but do point out that France is relatively insular, and mostly adopts domestic ideas developed in Paris rather than ideas from elsewhere in Europe, let alone Asia. (Yes, I know about Japanese influence on the initial RER; however, there have been 50 years of divergence since, same as with German tram-trains and American light rail.) This has been especially problematic with regional rail. France does not have frequent takts anywhere – even Paris only has takt timetables off-peak, running a separate schedule at rush hour, whereas the German takt plan is repeated throughout the day and the peak can only have supplemental service.

The issue is that Paris does not need to think in terms of repeating schedules, because it is so big that the RER trunks run every 5 minutes off-peak. It thinks of the RER as mostly separate trunk lines with dedicated fleets, because the primary problem is train capacity through city center. In Lyon, let alone smaller cities, this is not the main issue. There do exist a handful of individual lines running an off-peak takt elsewhere in France, but integration with urban rail remains imperfect and a comparison with Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich, Stuttgart, and Hamburg would not be favorable. It matters that, like Britain, France has such a dominant capital that it doesn’t know how to scale down to provide rail service in a metropolitan area where if the transfers aren’t perfectly timed, people won’t ride.

Modernizing Rail Unconference

On Sunday the 12th of July, a few of us public transit activists are going to hold a conference online called Modernizing Rail, focusing on better service and integration in the Northeastern United States. Our keynote speaker will be Vukan Vuchic, the Serbian-American UPenn transportation professor who imported German rail modernization schemas from the 1970s, including the concept of regional rail; he will speak about the history of this in the context of SEPTA, which built much of the S-Bahn infrastructure (e.g. S-Bahn through-running tunnel) but has not done many other important things such as fare integration and coordinated planning with urban transit.

Update 2020-07-04: due to a family health emergency, Vuchic cannot make it. Therefore we will have an alternate keynote address by Michael Schabas, entitled Using Business Case Analysis to Design Better Railways.

Schabas has been finding ways to make railways deliver more and cost less for 40 years, shaping urban, intercity, and high speed rail projects in Canada, England, and the USA, and operating passenger and freight railways in England and Australia. He is the author of The Railway Metropolis – how planners, politicians and developers shaped Modern London. Since 2014 he has been advising Toronto’s Metrolinx on the $20 billion upgrading and electrification of the GO Rail system, and the $28.5 billion expansion of Toronto’s subway system. Michael is a Partner in FCP, a rail strategy boutique based in the UK advising clients on rail developments and projects around the world

The keynote will be between 11 am and noon Eastern time.

After the keynote, we will hold unconference-style sessions. For people who have not seen this style before, this means that we solicit ideas from the entire body of attendees for breakout sessions, and then by consensus, depending on the number of attendees and what they are interested in, split into rooms for further discussion of the selected topics. There will be three slots for breakouts: 1-2, 2:15-3:15, 3:30-4:30 pm, all Eastern time; the number of breakouts will depend greatly on the number of attendees, which at this point we are uncertain about. The breakouts may include pure discussions or presentations, and we also solicit expressions of interest in presenting if there’s an issue you have particular interest and expertise in.

There will be more information available on social media, but to register, please complete this form. You can create an account on Journey for this if you’d like, in which case you can save your progress and come back later, but this is not a long form and you can complete it in one go without registration.

The conference will be held on Zoom, with link emailed shortly before the event takes place.

Update 2020-07-11: here is the timetable. Email us at modernizing.rail@gmail.com for the Zoom password if you’ve registered.

The RER Paris Needs

Since the 1960s, Paris has gradually built itself to have a 5-line regional rail network connecting the city and its suburbs, with more than a billion riders a year. Unfortunately, investment has been slow in the last 20 years; the fifth line, the RER E, is being extended to the west, but other problems are not being fixed through more investment. Some regional rail lines remain disconnected from the system, including one of the city’s six intercity rail terminals, Gare Montparnasse. While east-west capacity is being augmented through the RER E extension, north-south traffic is jammed and yet is not slated to receive any relief, despite past studies.

Taking everything together, this is what Paris needs to do to complete the conversion of all commuter rail in Ile-de-France to RER standards:

Full-size image can be seen here; warning: 71 MB.

Dashed lines are new tunnels to be built. Most of the dashed green line is the under-construction RER E extension from Saint-Lazare to La Défense and points west. The remainder, between Les Halles and Auber/Saint-Lazare, is a new tunnel that should be built, giving away the extension to the RER D instead. With a full line extended, the RER D could take over the entire SNCF-run part of the RER A while also continuing west to Mantes-la-Jolie as is planned for the RER E extension, so the RER A can gain the Transilien L branches to the southwest with a short curve from La Défense to Puteaux.

In addition, what is now the shared RER B and D tunnel between Gare du Nord and Les Halles should be four-tracked; the stations at both ends thankfully already have separate platform tracks for the RER B and D, and in 2003 a somewhat disruptive plan to four-track the tunnel was estimated to cost 700 million. Since the RER D tracks are to continue west, the new dual track tunnel should continue south across the river and connect to Montparnasse, creating the RER F; the RER F should take over the current northern branches of the RER B to form a southwest-northeast line, while the current southern branches of the RER B should be connected to what are now the northern branch of the RER D and the branches of Transilien H.

The RER C and E should be broken and recombined using a short four-track tunnel across the river, creating northeast-southwest and northwest-southeast trunk lines. Today, the RER C misses the Paris CBD and has an awkward connection to the RER A; with this recombination, the connections would still require a lot of walking at transfer stations but they’d exist and passengers would get solid two-seat rides.

Finally, a handful of outer-urban and suburban fixes would be useful: a few infill stations, depicted with gray filling; using all four tracks on the RER F trunk line to Aulnay (currently the RER B) to make it easier to run express trains to Charles-de-Gaulle; building a short suburban tunnel through Chaville to connect the RER F and A branch; continuing T3 to form a full circle using the Petite Ceinture in lieu of the awkward RER C branch today; constructing an infill station at the RER E/F junction in Meudon.

Excluding the ongoing RER E extension, the total length of new tunnel in city center is 8 km of two-track tunnel and about 1.5 km of four-track tunnel. This would set non-Anglosphere world records in construction costs per kilometer, just as the RER A did; costs in the 400-500 million per km can be expected given the complexity of tunneling under so many older Métro lines, so the system would cost around 5 billion, perhaps reaching 6-7 billion with the extra suburban tunnels and infill stations.

The map doesn’t go to the edge of Ile-de-France, or else it would be even bigger, but the plan should be to connect every Transilien line to this system, even ones in faraway exurbs. Frequency to the exurbs need not be very high – today they get hourly service off-peak, and half-hourly service in the future should be plenty to small towns on the edge of Ile-de-France; of course, closer-in suburbs as well as major secondary centers like Meaux and Evry should get much higher frequency, and the trunks should get a train every 3-4 minutes even off-peak.

The point of this exercise is that Paris has already done the hardest parts. The RER A and B exist, and Châtelet-Les Halles was dug at enormous expense in the 1970s. Even at the high per-km costs of connections underneath the center of Paris, the tunnels Paris needs to build in the next 10-15 years are low-hanging fruits for completing the project of connecting the entire region through a unified RER network.

Resist the Urge to Start Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Train and Bus Cleaning

Well before the coronavirus struck, I noticed how trains in Asia were cleaner than in Europe, which are for the most part cleaner than in the United States. There are overlaps: the elevated BTS in Bangkok is similar to the cleaner cities in Europe, like London (but the underground MRT is similar to Singapore and Taipei), while the Berlin U-Bahn is similar to the cleaner American cities, like maybe Washington. But for the most part, this holds. The issue of cleanliness is suddenly looking more important now in a pandemic.

How much cleaning is necessary overall?

It is unclear. Singapore has 56,000 registered cleaners and Taipei has 5,000; even assuming Taipei just refers to the city proper, Singapore has five times as many per capita. When I visited Taipei in December it was visibly messier, and Taipei City Mall felt more lived-in than comparable underpasses in Singapore, but the City Mall was not dirty, and the Taipei MRT did not feel any dirtier than the Singapore MRT. The infection rates in both countries are very low – Taiwan’s are much lower per capita nowadays, though this has other explanations, such as higher mask usage and less international travel.

How much cleaning is necessary for specific tasks?

In Singapore, SBS Transit announced increased cleaning levels on January 30th. Cleaners disinfect vehicles and stations at the following rates:

  • Trains: every day
  • Buses: every week
  • Train stations: three times a day
  • Bus stations: every two hours

In Japan, JR East’s Shinkansen trains are cleaned at Tokyo Station in 7 minutes. There are many pieces on the subject, describing how a crew of 22, comprising one cleaner per second-class car and two to three per first-class car (“green car”), sweeps an entire train so fast. Many of the tasks are not required for metro service, but passenger density is higher in metro service than in intercity service.

One advantage of regular cleaning, say once per roundtrip, is that there hasn’t been so much time for the train (or bus) to become grimy. Two hours’ dirt is easier to pick up, sweep, or water and dry than a day’s dirt.

How much does all of this cost?

Cleaner wages track local working-class wages, and differ greatly; a city with the per capita income of New York, Paris, or London will have to pay more than one with that of Berlin or Tokyo. On top of what the English-speaking middle class thinks is an appropriate wage for an unskilled worker the agency will need to pay a premium to account for the fact that fast cleaning is a difficult job even if the required education level for it isn’t high.

What is more controllable and comparable is staffing needs. The sources for JR East’s cleaning crew productivity differ, but the reasonable ones say it’s 20 trains per day. This already accounts for downtime, so if trains aren’t quite frequent enough for there to always be some train to occupy a cleaning crew, an agency is probably still capable of squeezing 20 trains per daily crew shift. If a roundtrip with turnaround time is two hours, then this means about one cleaning crew is needed per 2.5 trainsets operated in regular service, rising to about one cleaning crew per 1.8 trainsets taking weekend days into account; this can be adjusted if a train runs peak-only, since part-time shifts are common in this sector.

How can equipment be made easier to clean?

Some materials are easier to clean than others. Transit agencies should use these in future procurement, and look into emergency orders to retrofit existing trains and buses. Metal poles are easier to clean than leather straps, and hard plastic and metal seats are easier to clean than padded ones. I suspect that bench seating is easier to clean than bucket seating, since it is possible to run a mop down the entire bench.

As with schedule planning, cleaning planning should integrate operating and capital expense optimization. That is, public transportation agencies should budget for cleaning whenever they buy a bus or train or build a train station, and make decisions on layout and materials that reduce the spread of disease and increase the efficiency of cleaning as well as maintenance and other operating costs.

What else can be done?

Hand sanitizer! Taipei and Singapore both distribute it at stations, and if I remember correctly, so does Bangkok. It made me feel less grimy, especially after long walks in Taipei or any exposure to the outdoor air pollution of Bangkok.

In addition, fomite removal is a good idea, which means any of the following:

  • Barrier-free train stations, or if not then automatic fare barriers like those of Taipei or Singapore or London rather than ones requiring pushing by hand as in New York and Paris.
  • Automatic train doors, since implemented on newer trains in Berlin and I think in the rest of Europe as an emergency measure, without requiring button pushing.
  • Disposable chopsticks for pressing buttons on elevators, as in South Korea.

Do passengers care?

Yes. I’ve taken the Berlin U-Bahn a few times in the last few weeks, to view apartments and most recently (earlier today) to buy matzos from a kosher grocery store far from my neighborhood. I don’t sit anymore, not trusting even the hard metal seats at the stations, let alone the padded cloth ones on the trains. Neither do many other riders, so there’s about the usual number of standees on the trains, trying to distribute ourselves as evenly as possible inside the train and avoid loud or space-taking passengers, even as many seats stay empty.

Would I sit if this were Singapore? Probably. As of the small hours of 2020-04-08 Europe time, Singapore has 1,500 infections and Berlin has 4,000 on two thirds the population, but a big share of Singapore’s cases are imports, and the MRT is vastly cleaner than the U- and S-Bahn here. And then there’s Taiwan, with 400 cases on a population of 24 million.

Why is this not done already?

Managers love metrics, and the costs of cleaning are much easier to quantify than the benefits. Therefore, they cut cleaning whenever there is a budget crunch. Within the English-speaking world, Singapore is a standout in cleanliness, because Lee Kuan Yew decided it was important and launched a campaign to sweep public spaces. In Japan, one of the articles about the seven-minute cleaning process talks about the history of how JR East hired a new manager who has previously been at the safety division – within the company of course, this is Japanese and not American business culture – and said manager, Teruo Yabe, improved morale by taking worker suggestions and promoting line workers to supervisory roles.

I don’t want to dunk on Anglo business culture here too much – London has cleaner trains than Berlin, and is about comparable to Paris. Nor is this quite a cultural cleave between the West and Asia, since Singaporean business culture pilfers the most authoritarian aspects of Japan (long hours, face-time culture) and the Anglosphere (at-will employment, no unions to speak of) and melds them together.

My suspicion is that low standards in the US in particular come from a sense of resignation among managers who don’t really use their own systems, and view the passengers in contempt. New York has an added sense of grit, in which people romanticize the 1970s and 80s and think enduring trash on the street, high crime rates (no longer high), delayed trains, cockroaches, rats, and drivers who play Carmageddon is part of what makes one a Real New Yorker. Consider how the New York- (and London-)suffused urban discourse treats “antiseptic” as a pejorative, viewing Singapore as a less real city because it isn’t killing thousands of its people, soon to be tens of thousands, from coronavirus.

Can Western cities get better?

Absolutely! Especially New York, which has nowhere to go but up.

Most of the positive aspects of Continental Western Europe that awe Americans, like convenient urban public transportation and six weeks of paid vacation per year, are recent, rarely going farther back than the 1970s and 80s. The Swiss planning maxims I repeat to Americans as mantras were invented in the 1980s and implemented in the 1990s and 2000s.

This is even truer of East Asia – in the 1960s Japan was middle-income and the rest of East Asia was very poor; the Shinkansen opened in 1964, but the speed and efficiency standards as we know them only go back to the 300 Series, put into service in 1992. Moreover, the state of Shinkansen cleaning was not so good 15 years ago, before JR East put Yabe in charge. The high cleanliness levels are a recent success, not some ingrained feature that goes back to the 7th century and can’t possibly be replicated elsewhere.

New York needs to look at itself in the mirror now, when it is the global center of a pandemic with death toll that will most likely surpass even the highest-end estimates of those of Wuhan. Is “antiseptic” really a bad trait for a city? If cleaning is a priority, see above for what it takes to do it right. And if it isn’t, I’m sure New York will be more than happy to have another pandemic in the future.

Incoming Gantz-Led Government to Invest in Israel’s Infrastructure

Israel’s incoming prime minister Benny Gantz unveiled an emergency government, to take power following an upcoming confidence vote in the Knesset. The last two MKs required to give Gantz a 61-59 majority, two members of Gantz’s own Blue and White Party who were previously resolute not to go into coalition supported by the mostly Arab Joint List, relented after Gantz’s controversial attempt to enter a Netanyahu-led emergency unity government stalled due to disagreements over both security and coronavirus policy. Moreover, following revelations of government failures discovered last week by senior B&W MK Ofer Shelah, the new government announced sharp changes in policy toward both the Covid-19 emergency and broader domestic and foreign policy questions.

Of note, a major reshuffle in the state budget is expected. Some details are forthcoming, but short- and long-term reductions in settlement subsidies are expected. Moreover, reductions in subsidies to yeshiva students have been announced, delayed by a year due to the magnitude of the crisis within the Haredi community, which has 10% of Israel’s population but about half of Covid-19 hospitalization cases. Finally, a review of military procurement will be done due to the influence of the indicted Netanyahu on the process, but analysts expect that with so many former generals in the new government, including former IDF chief of staff Gantz himself, few real cuts to the IDF are forthcoming.

In lieu of these cuts, the new government is announcing a massive infrastructure investment program, funded partly by deficit spending to limit unemployment. Incoming health minister Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, a medical doctor by training, promised that budget increases will invest in hospital capacity and hygiene, raise the wages of staff from doctors down to cleaning staff, and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in sufficient quantities for universal mask-wearing. Outside health, energy and transportation are both on the list of budgetary winners. In energy, the collapse of the consortium of Yitzhak Tshuva and Noble Energy managing Israel’s natural gas reserves and the falling prices of solar power mean the state will invest in thermal solar power plants in the desert. In transportation, an infrastructure plan will invest in additional urban public transit capacity.

The situation of transportation is particularly instructive, because of the political element involved. Throughout most of the past 11 years of Netanyahu’s coalitions, the transport minister was the same politician, Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu’s Likud; Katz prioritized highway investments with some rail, and was viewed as the least controversial of Likud’s heavyweight politicians, many of whom find themselves embroiled in scandal following last month’s election. Nonetheless, to signify a break with the past, the new government is giving the transportation portfolio to Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the leftist Meretz party who has called for expansion of public transportation.

While car ownership in Israel is low, this is the result of car taxes and high poverty rates. Activists at Meretz, B&W, and the right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party all pointed out to religious laws banning public transportation and other services from running on Saturdays, promising to repeal them within months. Meretz activists as well as independent analysts expect everyday public transportation to encourage people to give up driving and rely on buses and trains more even on weekdays, requiring additional investment to cope with capacity.

Another political element identified by sources within B&W who spoke anonymously is that residents of Tel Aviv and most of its inner suburbs have long felt stiffed by state infrastructure plans; last decade, Mayor Ron Huldai clashed with Katz, demanding a subway in dense, upper middle-class North Tel Aviv. Meretz is especially strong in North Tel Aviv. However, Horowitz said that his priority was socioeconomic equality, and while he did favor subway expansion in and around Tel Aviv and would accelerate construction of the Green Line through North Tel Aviv, the budget would boost rail construction in working-class southern and eastern suburbs.

Several MKs at the Joint List added that there would also be additional funding for connections to the centers of Arab cities. One plan calls for a tunnel through Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-majority city, which would connect it with Tel Aviv and other larger Jewish cities while also functioning as a regional rail link for the majority-Arab Galilee region. Towns too small to justify a direct rail link would get a bus to the nearest train station on the same fare system with a timed connection. One Meretz member explained, “in unbroken countries of similar size to ours, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, bus and train planning is coordinated nationally and there is no conception that buses are for poor people and trains for rich people.” Members of both Meretz and the Joint List added that there had long been underinvestment in Arab areas, calling past policies racist and vowing to correct them.

Sources at B&W stressed that there’s short and long term. In the short term, the priority will remain the coronavirus crisis, and the state will go into a large deficit in order to invest in health care and limit the death toll. Additional spending on other infrastructure will focus on planning, so that the state can begin construction after the crisis is long over, and will be funded by reducing yeshiva funding; B&W and Yisrael Beitenu plans to also reduce child credits, as Haredi families are larger than secular ones, have stalled due to opposition by the Joint List, as Arab families are poor and larger than secular Jewish ones too.

While Gantz himself stressed the pragmatic aspects of the plan, sources close to him mentioned the spirit of the 1990s. Negotiations with the Palestinians will resume shortly, they promised, and a two-state compromise will be worked out. They further promise that the peace dividend will allow Israel to grow through closer trade ties with the Arab world and reduced ongoing security spending. But other sources within the new coalition are more skeptical, pointing out Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s trenchant opposition to dismantling most settlements as a red line that may scuttle future negotiations.

Nonetheless, all sources agree that a clear change in foreign and domestic policy is coming. The more skeptical sources say that the end result will be a shift in domestic spending building a more expansive urban rail network and higher-quality health care. But the more idealistic ones are saying that a new Middle East is coming, one in which a thriving Israel will be at the center, with world-class public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship.

Mixing and Matching

In public transportation as in many other aspects, an important fact of improvement is being able to mix-and-match things that work from different sources. It’s rare to have a situation in which exact importation of one way of doing things is the best in every circumstance (and the Covid-19 crisis appears to be one of these rare situations, Korea being the best). More commonly, different comparison cases, whether they’re companies in private-sector consulting or countries in public-sector policy research, will do different things better. Knowing how to mix-and-match is an important skill in competently learning from the best.

Non-transport examples

I put this up first, but want to emphasize that this is outside my skill set so I am less certain about the examples here than in transport; I bring them up because some of the sanity checks are cleaner here.

Secondary education: high-income Asia consistently outperforms the West in international math and science tests. However, two important caveats complicate “just be like Asia” reform ideas, like the popularity of Singapore math textbooks in some segments of the American middle class. The first is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are a lot more monolingual than European countries like Germany and France, let alone smaller European countries like the Netherlands. And the second is that many things that are common to East Asia (and Singapore and Vietnam), like high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates or teachers and students, are completely absent from Finland, which is nearly the only Western country with math scores matching those of Asia. So the actual thing to learn from Asia is likely to be more technical and less about big cultural cleaves like making students wear uniforms and be more obsequious toward teachers.

Public health: whereas the Covid-19 crisis specifically still looks like a clean Asia vs. West cleave, overall public health outcomes do not. Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, but then Mediterranean Europe follows it closely. The United States, which overall has poor health outcomes, near-ties Singapore and Sweden for lowest first-world smoking rate – and even though Singapore and Sweden both have good outcomes, they both have rather unhealthy diets by (for example) Levantine standards. Public health is a more complex issue than transportation, one that unfortunately low-life expectancy developed countries like Germany and Britain, let alone the US, aren’t meaningfully trying to learn in – and it’s not even clear how easy it is to import foreign ideas into such a complex mostly-working system, in contrast with the near-tabula rasa that is American public transportation.

Transportation in cities of different sizes

Alexander Rapp’s excellent list of metro areas ranked by what he calls frequent rapid transit ridership – that is, trains and buses that run every 20 minutes or better and are either grade separated or have absolute crossing priority with gates – showcases patterns that vary by population.

On the one hand, Tokyo is far and away the highest-ridership city in the world, even per capita. It has around 400 annual rail trips per capita. My recollection, for which I don’t really have a reliable source, is that 60% of work trips in the Tokyo region are done by rail (this data may be here but copy-paste for translation doesn’t work), a higher share than in major European capitals, which mostly top in the 40s.

On the other hand, this situation flips for smaller cities, in the 2-5 million metro population range. Sapporo appears to have maybe 120 annual trips per capita, and Fukuoka probably even less. In Korea, likewise, Seoul has high ridership per capita, though not as high as Paris, let alone Tokyo, but Busan has 100 trips per capita and Daegu 65. In contrast, Stockholm approaches 200 trips per capita (more including light rail), Vienna maybe 180 (growing to 220 with a much wider definition including trams), Hamburg 170, Prague 200 (more like 300 with trams), Munich maybe 230.

This doesn’t seem to be quite a West vs. Asia cleave. There is probably a shadow-of-giants effect in Japan leading smaller cities to use methods optimized for Tokyo; it’s visible in Britain and France, where Stockholm- and Munich-size cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Lyon have far weaker transit systems. The US has this effect too – New York underperforms peer megacities somewhat, but smaller cities, imitating New York in many ways, are absolutely horrendous by the standards of similar-size European or East Asian cities. Nonetheless, the shadow of giants is not an immutable fact making it impossible for a Sapporo or Birmingham or Lyon to have the rail usage of a Stockholm – what is necessary is to recognize this effect and learn more from similar-size success stories than from the far larger national capital.

Construction costs and benefits

Construction costs are not a clean cleave across cultural regions. The distinction between the West and Asia is invisible: the worst country in the world is the United States, but the second worst appears to be Singapore. Excluding the English-speaking countries, there is a good mix on both sides: Korea, Spain, Italy, and the Nordic countries all have low costs, while Taiwan and the Netherlands have particularly high ones.

Moreover, countries that are good at construction are not always good at operations. As far as I can tell from deanonymizing CoMET data, Madrid has slightly higher metro operating costs than London, Paris, and Berlin, PPP$7/car-km vs. PPP$6, with generally high-construction cost Tokyo appearing to hit $5.

This is not even just costs, but also the ability to build lines that people ride. Tokyo is pretty good at that. Spain is not: the construction costs of the high-speed rail network are consistently lower than anywhere else in the world, but ridership is disappointing. There is no real integration between the AVE network and legacy trains, and there is a dazzling array of different trains each with separate fares, going up to seven incompatible categories, a far cry from the national integration one sees in Switzerland.

There is likely to be a clear answer to “who is best at optimizing construction costs, operating costs, and ridership?”: the Nordic countries. However, even there, we see one worrying issue: for one, Citybanan is expensive by the standards of the Eje Transversal (though not by those of the RER E or especially the second Munich S-Bahn tunnel), which may indicate difficulty in building the kind of multistory tunneling that bigger cities than Stockholm must contend with. Thus, while “be like Sweden” is a good guideline to costs, it is not a perfect one.

Optimizing frequency

The world leader in high-frequency public transportation is Paris. Its driverless Métro lines, M1 and M14 and soon to be M4, run a train every 85 seconds in actual service at rush hour. This is an artifact of its large size: M1 has such high ridership, especially in comparison with its length, that it needs to squeeze every last train out of the signaling system, unlike Berlin or Milan or Madrid or Stockholm. London and Moscow run at very high frequency as well for the same reason, reaching a train every 100 seconds in London and one every 92 in Moscow.

Tokyo, sadly, is not running so frequently. Its trains are packed, but limited to at best one every 120 seconds, many lines even 150, like New York. One possible explanation is that trains in Tokyo are so crowded that peak dwell times must be long, limiting throughput; long dwell times have led to reductions in RER A frequency recently. However, trains and platforms in Tokyo have good interior design for rapid boarding and alighting. Moreover, one can compare peak crowding levels in Tokyo by line with what we know is compatible with a train every 100 seconds in London, and a bunch of Tokyo subway lines aren’t more crowded than London’s worst. More likely, the issue is that Japanese signaling underperforms European systems and is the process of catching up; another aspect of signaling, automation, is also more advanced in France than in Japan (although Seoul, Taipei, and Singapore all have driverless metros).

This way, cities that are either extremely expensive to build in, like London and Moscow, or about average, like Paris, show the way forward in ways that cities that do other things better do not. It’s important to thus simultaneously learn the insights of small cities in reducing operating and construction costs and maintaining high-ridership systems, like the Nordic capitals, and those of megacities in automation and increasing throughput.

Can mixing and matching work?

Why not? In small cities with successful systems, it can’t be due to some deeply-ingrained culture – what do Stockholm, Zurich, Prague, Munich, and Budapest even have in common, other than being European? They’re not all national capitals or even all national primate cities, a common excuse New Yorkers give for why New York cannot have what London and Paris have.

Likewise, what exactly about French culture works to equip Métro lines with signals allowing 42 trains per hour per direction that cannot be adopted without also adopting real problems France has with small-city regional rail, fare integration, or national rail scheduling?

These are, ultimately, technical details. Some are directly about engineering, like Parisian train frequency. Some involve state institutions that lead to low construction costs in Spain, Korea, and the Nordic countries – but on other metrics, it’s unclear these three places have state capacity that is lacking in high-cost Taiwan, Germany, and the Netherlands. So even things that aren’t exactly about engineering are likely to boil down to fairly technical issues with how contracts are written up, how much transit agencies invest in in-house engineering, and so on.

There’s a huge world out there. And an underperforming transit agency – say, any in the United States – had better acquire all the knowledge it can possibly lay its hands on, because so many problems have already been solved elsewhere. The role of the locals is not to innovate; it’s to figure out how to imitate different things at once and make them work together. It’s not a trivial task, but every pattern suggests to me it’s doable given reasonable effort.