Category: Regional Rail

Construction Costs: Electrification

Continuing from last week’s post about signaling costs, here is what I’ve found about electrification costs.

Like signaling, electrification usually doesn’t make the industry press, and therefore there are fewer examples than I’d like. Moreover, the examples with concrete costs are all in countries where infrastructure costs are high: the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, New Zealand. However, a check using general reported French costs (as opposed to a specific project) suggests there is no premium in Israel and New Zealand over France, even though both countries’ urban rail tunneling projects are more expensive than Parisian Metro and RER extensions.

In the UK, the recent electrification project has stalled due to extreme cost overruns. Finding exact cost figures by segment is difficult in most of the country, but there are specific figures in the Great Western. Financial Times reports the cost of the Great Western project at £2.8 billion, covering 258 km of intercity mainline (mostly double-track, some four-track) and what I believe to be 141 km of commuter rail lines in South Wales, working from Wikipedia’s graphic and subtracting the canceled electrification to Swansea. In PPP dollars it’s around $10 million per km, but the cost may include items I exclude elsewhere in this post, such as rolling stock. For reference, in the late 2000s the project was estimated at £640 million, but costs then tripled, as the plan to automate wire installation turned out not to work. Taking the headline cost as that of the last link, £1.74 billion, the cost is $6.1 million per km, but there have been further overruns since (i.e. the Swansea cancellation).

In the US, there are three projects that I have numbers for. The most expensive of the three is Caltrain electrification, an 80 km project whose headline cost is $1.9 billion. But this includes rolling stock and signaling, and in particular, the CBOSS signaling system has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Electrification infrastructure alone is $697 million, or $8.5 million per km. The explanations I’ve read for this high figure include indifference to best practices (e.g. electrification masts are spaced 50 meters apart where 80 meters is more common) and generally poor contracting in the Bay Area.

The other two US projects are more remote, in two different ways. One is California High-Speed Rail: with the latest cost overrun, the projected electrification cost is $3.7 billion (table 4, PDF-p. 14). The length of route to be electrified is unclear: Phase 1, Los Angeles to San Francisco with a short branch up to Merced, is a little more than 700 km, but 80 km of that route is Caltrain, to which the high-speed rail fund is only contributing a partial amount. If the denominator is 700 km then the cost is $5.3 million per km.

The other remote US project is Amtrak’s electrification of the New Haven-Boston segment of the Northeast Corridor in the late 1990s. Back then, the 250-km double-track route was electrified for $600 million, which is $2.4 million per km, or about $3.5 million per km adjusted for inflation.

In Canada, Toronto is in the process of electrifying most of its regional rail network. The current project includes 262 route-km and has a headline cost of $13.5 billion, but according to rail consultant Michael Schabas, this includes new track, extensive junction modification, unnecessary noise walls (totaling $1 billion), and nearly 100% in contingency just because on the original budget the benefit-cost ratio seemed too good to be true. In a 2013 study, the infrastructure cost of full electrification was estimated at $2.37 billion for 450 route-km in 2010 Canadian dollars. In today’s American dollars it’s about $4.5 million per km.

In France, a report that I can no longer find stated that a kilometer of electrification cost a million euros, in the context of the electrification of a single-track legacy branch to Sables d’Olonne, used by some TGV services. While trying to find this report, I saw two different articles claiming the cost of electrification in France to be a million euros per double-track kilometer. The latter article is from 2006, so the cost in today’s money is a little higher, perhaps as high as $1.5 million per km; the article specifically says the cost includes bridge modification to permit sufficient clearances for catenary.

In Israel, the majority of the national network is currently being electrified, and I’ve argued elsewhere for a completist approach owing to the country’s small size, high density, and lack of rail connections with its neighbors. The project has been delayed due to litigation and possibly poor contractor selection, but a recent article on the subject mentions no cost overrun from the original budget of 3 billion shekels, about $750 million, for 600 km of double-track. This is $1.25 million per km and includes not just wire and substations but also 23 years’ worth of maintenance. This may be similar to the Danish ETCS project, which has been severely delayed but is actually coming in slightly under budget.

In New Zealand, the one electrification project recently undertaken, that of the Auckland regional rail network, cost $80 million in infrastructure. This is New Zealand dollars, so in US terms this is closer to $55 million. The total length of the network is about 80 route-km and 200 track-km, making the cost about $700,000 per km. But the project includes much more than wire: the maintenance facility, included in the Israeli figure, cost another NZ $100 million, and it is unclear whether bridge modifications were in the infrastructure contract or tendered separately.

The big takeaway from this dataset, taking French costs as the average (which they are when it comes to infrastructure), is that Israel and New Zealand, both small countries that use extensive foreign expertise, do not pay a premium, unlike the US, UK, and Canada. In the UK, there is a straightforward explanation: Network Rail attempted to automate the process to cut costs, and the automation failed, creating problems that blew up the budget. Premature automation is a general problem in industry: analysts have blamed it for Tesla’s production problems.

In the US and Canada, the construction cost problem is generally severe. However, it’s important to note that at NZ$2.8-3.4 billion for 3.4 km of tunnel, Auckland’s tunneling cost, around US$600 million per km, isn’t much lower than Toronto’s and is actually slightly higher than the Bay Area’s. My explanation for high costs in Israel, India, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong used to be their shared English common law heritage, but this is contradicted by the lack of any British premium over French costs in the middle of the 20th century. An alternative explanation, also covering some high-cost civil law third-world countries like Indonesia and Egypt, is that these countries all prefer outside consultants to developing public-sector expertise, which in the richer countries is ideologically associated with big government and in the poorer ones doesn’t exist due to problems with corruption. (China and Latin America are corrupt as well, but their heritages of inward-looking development did create local expertise; after the Sino-Soviet split, China had to figure out how to build subways on its own.)

But Israel Railways clearly has no domestic expertise in electrification. The political system is so unused to this technology that earlier this decade I saw activists on the center-left express NIMBY opposition to catenary, citing bogus concerns over radiation, a line of attack I have never seen in California, let alone the Northeastern US. Nor is Israel Railways good at contracting: the constant delays, attributed to poor contractor choice, testify to that. The political hierarchy supports rail electrification as a form of modernization, but Transport Minister Israel Katz is generally hostile to public transit and runs for office with a poster of his face against a background of a freeway interchange.

What’s more likely in my view is that Israel and New Zealand, with no and very little preexisting electrification respectively, invited experts to design a system from scratch based on best industry practices. I’m unfamiliar with the culture of New Zealand, but Israel has extensive cultural cringe with respect to what Israelis call מדינה מתוקנת (“medina metukenet”), an unbroken country. The unbroken country is a pan-first-world mishmash of American, European, and sometimes even East Asian practices. Since the weakness of American rail is well-known to Israelis, Israel has just imported European technology, which in this case appears easy to install, without the more particular sensitivities of urban tunneling (the concrete side of the electronics before concrete maxim). In contrast, the US is solipsistic, insisting on using domestic ideas (designed by consultants, not civil servants). Canada, as far as I can tell, is as solipsistic as the US: its world extends to Canada and the US; Schabas himself had to introduce British ideas of frequent regional rail service to a bureaucracy that assumed regional rail must be run according to North American peak-only practices.

All of this is speculation based on a small number of cases, so caveat emptor. But it’s fairly consistent with infrastructure construction costs, so long as one remembers that the scope for local variation is smaller in electrification and systems than in civil infrastructure (for one, the scope for overbuilding is much more limited). It suggests that North America could reduce its electrification costs dramatically by expanding its worldview to incorporate the same European (or Asian) companies that build its trains and use European (or Asian) standards.

Rapid Transit in Low-Density Boomtowns

Most of my thinking about public transit comes from large, dense cities, especially New York. In those cities, transit ridership is not a problem; only cost is. When such cities have decent cost control, they can build massive expansion programs, as Paris is. But most of the developed world is not New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, or other transit cities. A large and (thanks to differential national population growth rates) growing share of the developed world lives in fast-growing, low-density city regions with no public transit to speak of, such as the American Sunbelt and its counterparts in Canada and Australia.

I’ve had to intellectually grapple with public transit in two American Sunbelt cities in which current transit usage is a rounding error and the built form is wholly auto-oriented: Orlando (which I was asked about by a Twitter mutual) and Nashville (which just voted against a flawed light rail plan by an overwhelming margin). In those areas, there is no chance for any public transit, provided the urban form stays as it is – but fortunately such cities can leverage their high growth rates to change their urban form, as Calgary did in the 1980s and 90s.

Density versus growth

A few months ago I made this chart:

The density and growth demand axes are not meant to come from a single quantitative metric; density is a subjective mix of residential and job density, whereas growth demand refers to either population growth or the demand for more housing as expressed by price signal. In San Francisco, most likely the richest metro area in the world, density is middling, and growth demand is higher than even in New York and London; in the American Rust Belt, density is fairly low and there is also little demand for more; in some cities on the margin of the first world there is little demand for more growth but high preexisting density. It goes without saying that it’s easier to build new rapid transit lines on the upper right corner than on the lower left one.

The situation of the American Sunbelt, most of which goes in the bubble of Texas and Georgia, is difficult. Residential density is extremely low, so the ridership base near potential rail lines is low. Moreover, streets are usually designed exclusively around auto use, so passengers are unlikely to walk a kilometer to the train station the way they routinely do in transit cities. At the destination end, things aren’t much better – American cities have high-rise CBDs, but few jobs locate there or in surrounding dense neighborhoods.

The Orlando CBD has about 80,000 jobs, in a metro area of 2.5 million people. Disney World adds another 37,000, but is not surrounded by any serviceable residential neighborhoods, and has to be at the end of any reasonable transit service coming from the CBD. Nashville, a metro area of nearly 2 million, has a CBD with 36,000 jobs. The medical center to the southwest adds another 33,000, and this time it could plausibly lie on a rail trunk, but most of the useful urban arterials converge on the CBD and not on the medical center. In contrast, Washington, with 5.5 million people, has 280,000 people working at the CBD (from the Green and Yellow Lines to just beyond Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom), 77,000 in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and 33,000 in Crystal City and at National Airport and the Pentagon. Both the percentages and the absolute numbers (including job density) count: there is a great mass of people who would be interested in taking rail to Washington CBD jobs but not to Orlando or Nashville CBD jobs.

Can regional rail work?

No.

High-growth areas are likely to have been small a few decades ago. For the most part the metro areas in question were too small in the heyday of rail transportation to have inherited a large legacy rail network. Even the ones that did, including Atlanta and Perth, have less legacy rail than older cities of comparable size – compare Atlanta with Philadelphia, or Perth with Brisbane. And most North American boomtowns are not Atlanta. Miami has two north-south mainlines and a handful of east-west connections, none at the right place for commuter rail. Orlando has a north-south trunk with a branch to the north, and Nashville a few branches, but they’re surrounded by industrial land use and not by the sort of suburbs that developed around commuter rail in the Northeast.

A commuter rail-based network can still work, but only with extensive greenfield lines. Disney World is not on any legacy rail line, because it developed long after rail stopped being a relevant mode of transportation outside large urban areas. But even then, gaps in coverage are unavoidable, as the dense neighborhoods of such cities did not develop around legacy rail.

Can transit-oriented development work?

Sort of.

The big question about TOD is, who is it for? In Nashville specifically, the far left opposed the light rail plan, essentially because it would cannibalize funding that could go to public housing. Now, public housing could be used to beef up density along rail corridors. Stockholm built public housing simultaneously with the subway, placing housing projects on top of rail branches, and as a result has per capita ridership today that’s not much lower than the level of Paris, Berlin, or Munich.

The problem is that public housing is horrendously expensive. A house in low-cost American cities costs around $150,000, but apartments cost more, so $200,000 per household is more likely even with some economies about size. Most of this cost is impossible to recover through rent – if low-income households made enough money to pay market rent in nice apartments, they’d just rent these apartments on the open market. The American Sunbelt does not lack for developable suburban land.

Market-rate housing is much easier to construct – for one, developers make a profit on it, and so are eager to put up their own money. The problem is that in cities like Nashville and Orlando, the middle class has close to 100% car ownership, and a large majority of households have one car per adult. The real estate industry is not going to spontaneously build housing with less parking or pedestrian-oriented retail.

In San Diego, developers build more parking than the minimum at University Avenue and 30th Street, according to Duncan McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. University is a bus corridor and not a light rail corridor, but the bus frequency there isn’t terrible, and the area is pretty walkable for a low-density city. In Los Angeles, I’ve read analysis that blames the region’s falling transit ridership on gentrification, explaining that in gentrifying inner neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, the middle class drives whereas the working class takes transit. It’s not like here or in New York, where recent gentrifiers rarely own cars.

How did Calgary make it work?

Calgary is a metro area of somewhat more than a million people. Its economy is based on oil, and when oil prices were higher earlier this decade its average income was comparable to that of San Francisco; its politics is thoroughly conservative, which means there is no progressive impetus for walkability or green transit. Nonetheless, it built light rail lines that get about 100 million annual riders today. Its transit mode share is 16%, higher than that of any American metro area except New York (or, in the most restrictive definition, San Francisco). This is with no residential TOD to speak of: the vast majority of housing in Calgary is single-family and low-density, and from what I’ve seen there’s almost no dense residential development near the stations.

The big thing Calgary did was develop its CBD to be high-rise. In the early 1980s Calgary was a small, monocentric city, and since then it’s grown more monocentric, developing downtown parking lots as high-rise buildings. When I visited it had a more prominent high-rise downtown than Providence, a bigger and older metro area, and walking between the high-rises was reasonably pleasant.

In low-density cities with demand for more growth, the best opportunity appears to be centralizing jobs in the CBD. The straightforward application involves developing parking lots, as in Calgary, and relying on the private market to do the rest of the job. In both Nashville and Orlando, there are also more proactive approaches, specific to their urban layouts. In Nashville, the high job density at the medical center calls for developing a continuous corridor from the CBD, about 3 km long. This corridor could plausibly get an east-west subway, in contrast with the north-south subway in the rejected light rail plan. In Orlando, the Disney World cluster calls for some residential upzoning and sprawl repair around that area, which would strengthen the case for building a rail line between that area and the CBD.

Growing cities can use their growth to support more auto-oriented development (as the big American cities did in the postwar era) or to support more public transit. This is understood in cities that already have a transit-oriented core, but it’s equally true in cities that don’t really have any public transit, like the entire American Sunbelt. Calgary, starting with very low population, managed to build a decent if not great public transit network centered on its light rail system, and the same should be doable in American cities of comparable size and age.

Do Rich and Poor People Work in Different Neighborhoods?

There are workplaces where most employees are high-income, for example office towers (or office parks) hosting tech firms, law firms, or banks. There are workplaces where most employees are working-class, for example factories, warehouses, and farms. Does this lead to a difference in commuting patterns by class? I fired up OnTheMap two days ago and investigated. This is American data, so it stratifies workers by income, education, industry, or race rather than by job class. I generated maps for New York and saw the following:

There are three income classes available, and I looked at the bottom and top ones, but the middle one, still skewed toward the working class, looks the same as the bottom class. The biggest observation is that Midtown is dominant regardless of income, but is more dominant for middle-class workers (more than $40,000 a year) than for low-income ones (up to $15,000, or for that matter $15,000-40,000).

The colors are relative, and the deepest shade of blue represents much more density for middle-class workers, even taking into account the fact that they outnumber under-$15,000 workers almost four to one. Among the lowest-income workers we see more work on Queens Boulevard and in Williamsburg, Flushing, and the Hub, but these remain tertiary workplaces at most. The only place outside Midtown, Lower Manhattan, or Downtown Brooklyn (which includes all city workers in Brooklyn due to how the tool works, so it looks denser than it is) that has even the third out of five colors for low-income workers is Columbia, where the low-income job density is one-third that of Midtown, and where there is also a concentration of middle-class workers.

The same pattern – job centers are basically the same, but there’s more concentration within the CBD for the rich – also appears if we look at individual neighborhoods. Here is the Upper East Side versus East Harlem:

I chose these two neighborhoods to compare because they exhibit very large differences in average income and are on the same subway line. Potentially there could be a difference between where East Siders and West Siders work due to the difficulty of crosstown commuting, so I thought it would be best to compare different socioeconomic classes of people on the same line. With the East Side-only restriction, we see two Uptown job centers eclipse Columbia: Weill-Cornell Medical Center in Lenox Hill at the southeast corner of the Upper East Side, and Mount Sinai Hospital at the northwest corner.

One place where there is a bigger difference is the definition of Midtown. Looking at the general job distribution I’d always defined Midtown to range between 34th and 59th Street. However, there are noticeable differences by income:

For the middle class, Midtown ranges from 34th to 57th Street and peaks around 47th. For the lowest-income workers, it ranges from 28th to 49th and peaks in the high 30s. My best explanation for this is that Midtown South and Union Square are more retail hubs than office hubs, featuring department stores and shopping centers, where the rich spend money rather than earning it.

In a deindustrialized country like the US or France, the working class no longer works in manufacturing or logistics. There are a lot of truck drivers today – 3.5 million in the US – but in 1920 the American railroad industry peaked at 2.1 million employees (source, PDF-p. 15), nine times today’s total, in a country with one third the population it has today and much less mobility. Manufacturing has plummeted as a share of employment, and is decreasing even in industrial exporters like Germany and Sweden. Instead, most poor people work at places that also employ many high-skill, high-income workers, such as hospitals and universities, or at places where they serve high-income consumption, such as retail and airports.

Since the working class works right next to the middle class, the nature of bosses’ demands of workers has also changed. Low-skill works now involves far more emotional labor; in Singapore, which makes the modern-day boss-worker relationships more explicit than the Anglosphere proper, there are signs all over the airport reminding workers to smile more. Nobody cares if auto workers smile, but they’re no longer a large fraction of the working class.

With the working class employed right next to the middle class, there is also less difference in commuting. For the most part, the same transportation services that serve middle-class jobs also serve working-class jobs and vice versa. This remains true even across racially segregated communities. The patterns of white New York employment are similar to those of middle-class New York employment, and those of black, Hispanic, and Asian employment are similar to those of the working class, with small differences (Asians are somewhat more concentrated in Flushing, and blacks in Downtown Brooklyn, reflecting the fact that blacks are overrepresented in public employment in the US and all city workers in Brooklyn are counted at Court Square).

This is true provided that opportunities for transportation are available without class segregation. This is not the situation in New York today. Commuter rail actually serves working-class jobs better than middle-class jobs, since Penn Station is closer to the department stores of 34th Street than to the office towers in the 50s. However, it’s priced for the middle class, forcing the working class to take slower buses and subway trains.

When I posted the above maps on Twitter, Stephen Smith chimed in saying that, look, the poor are less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class, so everywhere-to-everywhere public transportation is especially useful for them. While Stephen’s conclusion is correct, it is not supported by this specific data. In the $40,000 and up category, 57% of city jobs are in Manhattan south of 60th Street, compared with 37% in the $15,000-40,000 and under-$15,000 categories. It’s a noticeable difference, but not an enormous one. The reason Stephen is correct about how rides crosstown transit is different: people who can afford cars are very likely to drive if the transit option is not good (which it isn’t today), whereas people who can’t are stuck riding slow crosstown buses; in contrast, for CBD-bound commutes, the subway and commuter rail work reasonably well (especially at rush hour) and driving is awful.

Instead of trying to look specifically at low-income and middle- and high-income job centers, it’s better to just plan transit based on general commute patterns, and let anyone take any train or bus. This doesn’t mean business as usual, since it requires transitioning to full fare integration. Nor does this mean ignoring residential segregation by income, which in some cases can lead to transit segregation even in the face of fare integration (for example, the crosstown buses between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side have mostly white, mostly middle-class riders). Finally, this doesn’t mean relying on middle-class transit use patterns as a universal use case, since the middle class drives in the off-hours or to off-CBD locations; it means that relying on middle-class transportation needs could be reasonable. It just means that the rich and poor have substantially the same destinations.

An even bigger implication relates to questions of redevelopment. There have been periodic complaints from the left about gentrification of jobs, in which working-class job sites are turned over to high-end office and retail complexes. For example, Canary Wharf used to be the West India Docks. In New York, Jane Jacobs’ last piece of writing before she died was a criticism of Greenpoint rezoning, in which she specifically talked up the importance of keeping industrial jobs for the working class. But since the big deindustrialization wave, developments brought about by urban renewal, gentrification, and industrial redevelopment have not had any bias against providing employment for the poor. It’s not the factory jobs that the unionized working class still culturally defines itself by, but it’s industries that are hungry for low-skill work, and in many cases are serious target of unionization drives (such as universities).

When are Express Trains Warranted? Part 1: Regional Rail

The Regional Plan Association has a detailed regional rail proposal out. It’s the same one from the Fourth Plan that I’ve criticized here, on Streetsblog, and on Curbed, but with more explanation for how the service should run, with stopping patterns and frequency.

There are some good aspects there, like a section about the importance of electrification and multiple-units, though it stops short of calling for full electrification and replacement of locomotives with EMUs; the focus on off-peak frequency is also welcome. There are also bad ones, like the claim on p. 32 that it’s difficult to impossible to provide through-running using the existing Penn Station tracks used by New Jersey Transit. Foster Nichols told me that there are some difficulties with grades but they should be doable if NJT commits to an all-EMU fleet, and reminded me that the ARC studies judged through-running using these station tracks and new tunnels feasible. What he expressed to me as a difficulty turned into a near-impossibility in the report, in order to justify the $7 billion Penn Station South project.

But I want to focus on one particularly bad aspect of the proposal: the stopping patterns. The RPA is proposing three distinct stopping patterns on pp. 32-45, with three separate brands: Metro, in the city and some inner suburbs; Regional Express (RX), in the suburbs; and Trans-Regional Limited (TRL), providing intercity service to New Haven, Ronkonkoma, Philadelphia, and other major stations outside the built-up area. Even as the plan talks about the importance of making sure suburban trains serve urban stations in order to give them frequent service through overlay, the stopping patterns suggest the opposite.

The proposal involves trains from the suburbs expressing through most city stations (including the infill) even on two-track lines, like the Port Washington Branch. Metro trains would make all current stops plus additional infill to Bayside, and RX trains would only serve Willets Point, Flushing, and Bayside, and then run from Bayside to Port Washington. A similar pattern happens from Jamaica to Valley Stream, resulting in the Babylon, Long Beach, and Far Rockaway Branches all having to share a track pair. Moreover, the RX trains may themselves be divided into local and express trains, for example on the New Haven Line.

This is bad practice. On a two-track line, there’s no real reason to skip a handful of inner stations just to guarantee the outer ones express service. If anything, the need to schedule trains on the same tracks would lead to more fragile timetables, requiring more schedule padding. My analysis from 2.5 years ago found that the LIRR Main Line is padded 32% and the Babylon Branch is padded 19%: that is, the scheduled travel time on the Main Line (up to Ronkonkoma) is 32% more than the travel time imputed from line speed limits and current fleet acceleration performance. Patrick O’Hara, who the RPA study even quotes as a source elsewhere, investigated this issue separately, looking at best-case timetables, and found that some runs are padded 40-50%.

In Switzerland, trains are padded 7%, and I’m told that in Japan, after the Amagasaki accident showcased the safety problems of overly precise schedules, pads are about 5%. Express trains and locals mixed on the same line make it harder to maintain tight enough reliability for low schedule padding; this way, on an all-local line, trip times may match those of express trains on mixed lines, as they do in my analysis above. The best analogy is the RER B going to the north: the express trains are 4 minutes faster than the local trains, skipping 9 stops. The stop penalty on the RER B is higher, closer to 7 minutes over 9 stops, but the shared tracks with local trains (and with the RER D between Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles) means that there’s a fudge factor in the schedule, so it’s not possible to reliably do better than 4 minutes, and the trains end up visibly crawling on the mainline.

The reader familiar with technical transit advocacy in the Bay Area may interject, what about Caltrain? Clem Tillier has no trouble proposing timetables mixing local trains, express trains, and high-speed rail on the same track pair with timed overtakes, and a 7% pad. So why am I down on this concept in New York? The answer is line complexity. Caltrain is a simple two-track back-and-forth, and HSR is generally more punctual than legacy trains because it runs for long stretches on high-quality dedicated tracks, so it’s unlikely to introduce new variability to the line. In contrast, the RPA plan for regional rail in New York involves extensive branching, so that train schedules depend on trains elsewhere on the line. In this case, introducing more complexity through local/express sharing is likely to require more schedule padding, erasing the speed advantage.

In general, my questions to establish guidelines for where express trains are warranted are,

  • How long is the line, measured in the number of stations? More stations encourage more express trains, because more stations can be skipped. In higher speed zones, stop penalties are higher, but at equal line length measured in km, higher speeds and fewer local stations reduce the benefit of express trains.
  • How frequent are trains? At low frequency, local stations need more frequency, so express runs are less useful. At very high frequency, there may not be capacity for different stopping patterns unless the line has four tracks. On a two-track line, the optimum frequency for a local/express alternation is about 6-12 trains per hour, 3-6 local and 3-6 express, with a single mid-line overtake. Multiple overtakes on a single line are possible, but more fragile, so they are a bad idea except in special circumstances.
  • What is the demand for travel? Express trains work best if there are a few distinguished stations at regular intervals, or else if the line is long and there is strong demand at the far end; if the inner stations are very strong then it’s more important to give them higher local frequency. When performing this analysis, it’s important to make sure station ridership levels reflect genuine demand rather than service. For example, Caltrain express stops have high ridership in large part because of their better service, not nearby density, as shown in Clem Tillier’s analysis. The LIRR Main Line has far more ridership at Mineola and Hicksville than the other stations on the trunk and also far more service, but Patrick explains that this is due to better highway access, so it’s genuine demand and not just a reflection of better service.

Caltrain needs express service because it has about 20 stations between San Francisco and San Jose, depending on the amount of infill and anti-infill desired; a target frequency of 8-10 peak trains per hour; and strong demand on the outer stations, especially for reverse-peak trips. In New York, none of the two-track lines meets the same standard. Some are too short, such as the Port Washington Branch. Others are too busy, such as the Harlem Line, Babylon Branch, and LIRR Main Line. Yet others have too much demand clustering in the inner stations, such as the Erie lines and the North Jersey Coast Line.

On four-track lines, it’s always easier to run express service. This doesn’t mean it should always be run: the upper New Haven Line is a strong candidate for relegating all commuter trains to the local tracks, making all stops, giving the express tracks to intercity trains. The Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey is a dicey example: past Rahway there are four tracks, but intercity trains could run at very high speeds, making track sharing on the express tracks difficult. My service pattern map has express trains skipping Edison and Metuchen, but it’s just two stations, making it better to just run local beyond Rahway to clear the express tracks for high-speed rail.

It’s tempting to draw proposals involving intense metro-style regional rail service only serving the urban and inner-suburban stations; I’ve had to argue against such plans on some MBTA lines. The problem is that trains from the outer suburbs are still necessary and still going to pass through the inner suburbs, and in most cases they might as well stop at those stations, which need the frequency more than the outer suburbs need the few minutes of speedup.

I Gave a Pair of Talks in the Bay Area About Regional Rail

Thanks to the invitation of Adina Levin’s Friends of Caltrain, I came to the Bay Area for a few days, giving two talks about regional rail best industry practices in front of Friends of Caltrain, Seamless Bay Area, and SF Transit Riders. My schedule was packed, including a meeting with a world-leading expert in transportation systems in which I learned about the Barcelona bus service changes; a Q&A about both general and Bay Area-specific issues for Bay City Beacon subscribers; and several other meetings.

My two talks were in Mountain View and San Francisco, and used the same slides, with minor corrections. Here are the slides I used in San Francisco; I consolidated the pauses so that each page is a slide rather than a line in a slide. This was also covered in Streetsblog, which gives more background and gives some quotes from what I said during the presentation, not printed in the slides.

Unlike in my NYU presentation last year, I did not include a proposed map of service improvements. The reason is that in the Bay Area, there are more questions than answers about which service should use which piece of infrastructure. This makes fantasy maps dangerous, as they tend to fix people onto one particular service pattern, which may prove suboptimal based on decisions made elsewhere in the system. This is not a huge problem in New York or Boston, where the alignments naturally follow where the stub-end commuter lines are, with only a few questions; but in the Bay Area, the situation is more delicate, because big questions like “can/should Caltrain get a trans-Bay connection from San Francisco to Oakland and the East Bay?” can go either way.

The role of redevelopment in the area is especially important. Unlike New York, Paris, or other big transit cities, San Francisco does not have much density outside the city proper, Oakland, or Berkeley. Moreover, there is extensive job sprawl in Silicon Valley, which contributes to a last-mile problem for public transit; usually first-mile access is a bigger problem and high-end jobs tend to cluster near train stations. But conversely, the high incomes in the Bay Area and the growth of the tech industry mean that everywhere TOD is permitted in the core and the suburbs, it will be built. This impacts decisions about the total size of transit investment.

At present-day development patterns, San Francisco proper really doesn’t need more rail construction except Geary and the Downtown Extension, depending on construction costs. But general upzoning makes Geary worth it even at $1 billion per km and opens up the possibilities of four-tracking Caltrain within the city (which means expanding some tunnels), giving the N-Judah dedicated tracks and a dedicated tunnel under Mission, and extending the Central Subway to the north and northwest. The land use in the Richmond and Sunset Districts today supports a fair amount of transit, but not new subways if there’s no cost control.

New York-Area Governments to Form a Coordinated Transportation Planning Agency

Governors Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Phil Murphy (D-NJ) announced that they would cooperate to form a Lower Hudson Transportation Association, or LHTA, to supersede what they described as antiquated 20th-century thinking and bring the region’s transportation into the 21st century. LHTA would absorb the transportation functions of Port Authority, which senior New York state officials speaking on condition of anonymity called “irredeemably corrupt,” and coordinate planning across the region. Negotiations with the state of Connecticut are ongoing; according to planners in New Jersey, the timing for the announcement was intended to reassure people that despite the lack of federal funding for Gateway, a lower-cost modified version of the project would go forward.

But the first order of business for LHTA is not Gateway. The governors’ announcement mentioned that LHTA would begin by integrating the schedules and fares throughout the region. By 2019, passengers will be able to transfer between the New York City Subway and PATH for free, and connect from the subway to the AirTrain JFK paying only incremental fare. Engineering studies for removing the false walls between PATH and F and M subway platforms are about to begin.

Commuter rail fare integration is also on the table. Currently, the fare on the subway is a flat $2.75. On commuter rail, it is higher even within New York City: a trip between Jamaica Station and New York Penn Station, both served by the E line of the subway, is $10.25 peak or $7.50 off-peak on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). The governors announced that they would follow the lead of European transportation associations, such as Ile-de-France Mobilités in Paris, and eliminate this discrepancy under LHTA governance, which also includes revenue sharing across agencies. Detailed studies are ongoing, but in 2019, LHTA will cut commuter rail fares within New York City and several inner cities within New Jersey, including Newark, to be the same as the subway fare, with free transfers.

Simultaneously, LHTA will develop a plan for schedule integration, coordinating New Jersey Transit, the LIRR, Metro-North, and suburban bus agencies. In order to make it easier for suburban passengers to reach commuter rail stations, the suburban buses will be timed to just meet the commuter trains, with a single ticket valid for the entire journey. Today most passengers in the suburbs drive to the commuter rail stations, but the most desirable park-and-rides are full. Moreover, the states would like to redevelop some of the park-and-rides as transit-oriented development, building dense housing and retail right next to the stations in order to encourage more ridership.

Moreover, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains currently stub-end at Penn Station in opposite directions. LHTA is studying French and German models for through-running, in which trains from one suburb run through to the other instead of terminating at city center. Planners within several agencies explain that the systems on the Long Island and New Jersey side are currently incompatible – for example, LIRR trains are electrified with a third rail whereas New Jersey Transit trains are electrified with high-voltage catenary – but reorganizing these systems for compatibility can be done in a few years, well before the Gateway project opens.

In response to a question about the cost of this reorganization, one of the planners cited the Swiss slogan, “electronics before concrete.” Per the planner, electronics include systems, electrification, and software, all of which are quite cheap to install, whereas pouring concrete on new tunnels and viaducts is costly. The planner gave the example of resignaling on the subway: the New York Times pegged the cost of modernizing subway signals at $20 billion, and this could increase capacity on most lines by 25 to 50 percent. But the cost of building the entire subway from scratch at today’s costs in New York is likely to run up to $200 billion.

But while the immediate priorities involve fare and schedule integration, LHTA’s main focus is the Gateway project. There are only two commuter rail tracks between New Jersey and Penn Station, and they are full, running a train every 2.5 minutes at rush hour. The Gateway project would add two more tracks, doubling capacity. The currently projected cost for the tunnel is $13 billion, but sources within New York said that this number can be brought down significantly through better coordination between the agencies involved. This way, it could be funded entirely out of local and state contributions, which add up to $5.5 billion. When pressed on this matter, officials and planners refused to say outright whether they expect $5.5 billion to be enough to cover the tunnel, but some made remarks suggesting it would be plausible.

Previous estimates for the costs of Gateway adding up to $30 billion include substantial extra scope that is not necessary. Sources on both sides of the Hudson report that the main impetus for the formation of LHTA was to coordinate schedules in a way that would make this extra scope no longer necessary. “With last decade’s ARC, there was a cavern under Penn Station to let trains reverse direction and go back to New Jersey,” explains one of the planners; ARC was a separate attempt to add tracks to the Hudson rail crossing to Penn Station, which Republican Governor Chris Christie canceled in 2010 shortly after his election. “With Gateway, there was the plan for Penn Station South, condemning an entire Manhattan block for the station for $7 billion. With the plans we’re developing with LHTA we don’t need either Penn South or a cavern to let trains run between stations.”

Moreover, some planners suggested reactivating plans to connect Penn Station and Grand Central as part of Gateway. They refused to name a cost estimate, but suggested that at the low end it could be funded out of already-committed state money. Under this plan, there would be through-running between not just New Jersey Transit and the LIRR but also Metro-North, serving the northern suburbs of New York and Connecticut. Sources at the Connecticut Department of Transportation said they are studying the plan and have reservations but are overall positive about it, matching the reports of sources within New York, who believe that Connecticut DOT will join LHTA within six months.

Officials are optimistic about the effects of LHTA on the region both privately and publicly. The joint press release referred to the metro area as “a single region, in which decisions made in far apart areas of New York nonetheless affect people in New Jersey and vice versa.” Planners in both states cited examples of friends and family in the other state who they would visit more often if transportation options were better. With better regional rail integration, they said, people would take more trips, improving regional connectivity, and take fewer trips by car, reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

New Hudson Tunnels Are Canceled. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston Regional Rail

At TransitMatters, we have finally released our regional rail paper, recommending improvements to the MBTA that regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with. Alert readers might even want to probe which parts were written by me and which by others; the main document underwent several edits but some stylistic differences might persist, and the appendices were mostly written individually. We are suggesting the following two-step process:

1. Modernize the system based on best industry practices. This includes full electrification and fleet replacement with electric multiple units (and not electric locomotives), high platforms at all stations, and high frequency all day, every half hour on every branch interlining to support a train every 10-15 minutes on urban trunk lines. In some areas, such as Revere, there should also be infill stops. The capital cost, excluding fleet replacement, should be on the order of $2-3 billion, but the first priority, the Providence Line, is maybe $100 million excluding rolling stock, mostly going to high platforms.

2. Build the North-South Rail Link, with four tracks connecting the South Station and North Station systems. This takes longer than electrification, so planning should start immediately, with the intention of opening somewhat after the entire system is wired. The capital cost should be $4-6 billion, per a study that we’re referencing in our report.

In my mind, regional rail serves three main markets:

1. Local trips on trunk lines, connecting to urban neighborhoods and subway transfer points. The main benefit of regional rail is that it provides an express subway at very high frequency, just as I use the RER to get to Western Paris faster than I would on the Metro. In Boston, areas that would benefit include Forest Hills, Allston and Brighton, Hyde Park, Dorchester and Mattapan along the Fairmount Line, Chelsea, Revere, and Porter Square. Residents of these neighborhoods are likely to travel to other neighborhoods and not just to Downtown Boston.

2. Suburban trips, which are dominated by peak commutes; I complained here that US commuter rail demand is peaky, with 67-69% of suburban trips on the LIRR and Metro-North and 80% on the MBTA occurring in the morning peak compared with around 47% on Transilien, but this is in large part about land use and not just frequency. We’re calling for replacing park-and-rides with town center stations in the report, but absent extensive transit-oriented development, suburban trips are likely to remain peaky and CBD-bound. This is the only market North American commuter rail serves, and its users are territorial about what they view as their trains. However, electrification would speed up these trips materially (the Sharon-South Station trip time would go from 35 to 23 minutes), and the North-South Rail Link would offer North Side suburbs access to the CBD, which is too far from North Station.

3. Intercity trips, which are not peaky except insofar as some people commute. Those tend to dominate off-peak ridership today: per a CTPS study from 2012, about half of the Providence Line’s off-peak ridership originates in Providence itself, which also accords with my observations taking the line on weekends. These trips gain less from high frequency, but need a consistent frequency all day, every day, at worst every 30 minutes, ideally every 15 or 20. Regional rail modernization also speeds these trips the most.

Bear in mind that even though the report just came out, the actual writing was for the most part done in November. This means that the technical aspects of scheduling reflect my thinking in November and not now. At the time, I hadn’t thought about peak-to-base ratios systematically, so my sample schedule for the Providence Line has a train every 15 minutes on each branch (Providence and Stoughton) at the peak and a train every 30 minutes off-peak. I had been assuming a peak-to-base ratio of 2 would be appropriate, by comparison with schedules in Tokyo and on the RER here in Paris. I knew that the ratio was lower in some other places I think highly of, including London and the German-speaking world, but my assumption had been that demand would be so peaky that the maximum acceptable peak-to-base ratio was the correct one.

I’ve argued before that the peak-to-reverse-peak ratio must be 1 or as close to it as practical, in order to avoid parking trains in city center midday. The capacity problems at South Station, which averages a train arrival per platform track per 35 minutes at the peak even though the system is capable of 10-minute turnaround times, come from trains going from the platform tracks to the layover yard during the peak, crossing the station throat at-grade and delaying peak arrivals.

But recently, I started thinking more carefully about operating costs, and wrote this post about peak-to-base ratios. I no longer think peak-to-base frequency ratios higher than 1 are supportable. The marginal labor cost of midday service when there’s a prominent peak is very low, since the railroad would be replacing split shifts with regular shifts, and this encourages running the same frequency during rush hour and midday, if not during the evening and on weekends. And as I explain in the linked post, the cost of rolling stock purchase and maintenance encourages running trains as often as possible. Only energy costs scale linearly with service-km, and those are low: at New England’s current electricity rates, it costs $180 to run a 320-ton 8-car EMU between Providence and Boston each way, and at current fares, inducing 16 extra passengers from the extra frequency is enough to make this pay.

In the report, we talk about American commuter rail operating costs, mostly because that’s what’s available. SEPTA’s are $311/car-hour, whereas those of the LIRR, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Metra, and the MBTA are $500-600/car-hour. Per car-km, SEPTA costs about $9 to operate. But a system built around cost minimization, with a peak-to-base ratio of 1 (thus, relatively empty off-peak trains), can get this down to about $2/car-km, or about $180/car-hour.

The reason I think the MBTA could run modern regional rail for $2/car-km, where the RER costs $6/car-km and the Singapore MRT $4-5/car-km, is that the schedule is faster. The costs of rolling stock and labor are based on time rather than distance, and the regional rail system we’re proposing has aggressive schedules, averaging 90 km/h between Boston and Providence. Even energy costs can be contained, since a fast schedule implies relatively few stops. For the same reason it’s easier to make a profit on high-speed rail averaging 200 km/h than on low-speed rail, it’s easier to make a profit on a 90 km/h train at the boundary between regional and intercity scale than on a 40 km/h local train.

In general, I believe that transit planning has to be opportunistic: no city is perfect, so it’s always necessary to find workarounds for some local misfeatures, or ways to turn them into positives. In Boston, the misfeature is very low suburban density, making intense regional service modeled after the RER less useful. The opportunity lies in retooling lines that serve low-density suburbs as intercity lines, connecting Boston with Worcester, Providence, Lowell, Nashua, and Hyannis. With the exception of Worcester, which is on a curvy line, these cities can be connected to Boston at an average speed of 90 km/h or so: the stop spacing is so sparse, and the lines are so straight, that long stretches of 160 km/h are feasible.

But none of this can happen under the present-day operating paradigm. The opportunity I’m describing relies on postwar travel patterns and to some extent even on 21st-century ones (namely, university travel between Providence and Cambridge), which requires reforming frequencies, rolling stock, and infrastructure decisions to incorporate best industry practices that emerged from the 1970s onward. The MBTA can offer a fast, affordable, frequent regional transportation system from as far north as Manchester to as far south as Providence, but for this it needs to implement the regional rail improvements we’re proposing.

What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.

I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.

SNCF is Losing Money

The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.

Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).

In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.

The Spinetta Axe

The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.

But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).

There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.

The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.

And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.

SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.

This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.

Efficiencies not Mentioned

The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.

Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.

Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.

Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.

The Impetus for Cost Control

The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.

The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.

This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.

A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.

Base Train Service is Cheap, Peak Train Service is Expensive

A few days ago, I calculated regional rail operating costs from first principles, as opposed to looking at actual operating costs around the world. Subway operating costs in the developed world bottom at $4-5/car-km (and Singapore, near the bottom end, has long cars), and I wanted to see what the minimum achievable was. I tweetstormed about it two days ago and was asked to turn it into a full blog post. It turns out there is a vast difference between the operating cost of base service and the operating cost of the peak. The cost of rolling stock acquisition and maintenance may differ by a factor of five, or even more for especially peaky operations. The reason is that there are about 5,800 hours of daytime and evening operation per year but only about 1,000 hours of peak operation. Acquisition and maintenance costs seem to be based exclusively on time and not distance traveled, so this is about a factor of five difference in cost per hour (or kilometer) of operation: $5/car-km for the peak, or $1/car-km for the base.

The cost of acquisition of trains is pretty easy to calculate, since a large number of orders are reported in trade magazines like Railway Gazette and Rail Journal. The cost of a single-level trainset should be taken to be $2.5 million per 25-meter-long car, a length typical of American and Nordic trains, though on the high side for the rest of Europe. This is based on German orders of high-performance EMUs from 2014, 2016, and 2017, rated per meter of car length. In the US, the cost of single-level EMUs is similar, but the trains are heavier and lower-performance: the LIRR and Metro-North M9 is $2.7 million per car, and SEPTA’s defective Silverliner V cost $2.3 million per car. Bilevels cost more, and, as I complained at the beginning of this month, Paris has some comically expensive bilevels, approaching $6 million per 25 meters of car length on the RER D and E. American one-off orders are expensive as well: Caltrain’s KISS order is $5.7 million per car for the base order and $4 million per car for the option; in countries that import trains from the usual factories rather than making manufacturers open new domestic plants, the KISS is cheaper, down to about $3.2 million per car in Sweden.

I consolidated this list of costs to one tweet: $2.5 million per 25-meter car if you’re good at procurement, $5 million if you’re bad. The rest of the analysis assumes agencies are good at procurement, so a car is $2.5 million. This is a capital cost, but it’s still a marginal cost of operations, since higher frequency requires more trains at the end of the day; it’s not like investments in physical plant, which may or may not be necessary depending on the precise infrastructure situation.

Depreciation on $2.5 million over 40 years, and 4% interest, add up to $162,500 per year. Here I’m making an assumption that the lifespan of a train is the same no matter how long it runs. This seems justified: peaky American trains, traveling less than 100,000 km per year, don’t last longer than their less peaky counterparts in Europe. London aims at reducing its peak-to-base ratio to not much more than 1; judging by annual train-km and the number of trainsets, Underground trains travel 127,000 km a year, whereas the same analysis on the New York City Subway (using NTD data) yields 86,000 km. But in both cities, trains typically last about 40 years.

In Japan, the situation is different – trains only last 20 years. This is not because they run all that much (the peak-to-base ratio on the Tokyo rail network is about 2, and the average speed is 30 km/h except on a few express lines), but because the trains are designed to be lighter, cheaper, and lower-maintenance, at the cost of lasting only half as long. I’m not including Japanese costs in this analysis, because I can’t find any numbers for procurement costs, let alone maintenance costs, except for Shinkansen – and high-speed trains cost a multiple of regional trains (in Europe, about $5 million per 25-meter car).

Now, if acquisition ends up costing about $160,000 per year for a car, maintenance adds another $70,000-100,000. This is harder to ascertain, but there are occasional maintenance contracts, or purchase + maintenance contracts. An Alstom Coradia Nordic maintenance contract works out to about $70,000 per 25 meters of train length annually. Another Alstom contract, for British trains manufactured by CAF for $3.3 million per 25 meters of train length, is $550,000 per 25 meters of train length over 6 years; half of the trains are EMUs, the other half are unpowered cars (the diesel locomotive’s maintenance is not included in the contract). Two more contracts covering purchase plus maintenance, one by Bombardier and one by Stadler, are consistent with annual maintenance costs in the $70,000-100,000 range.

That the maintenance cost is priced per year, independently of distance driven, suggests that distance driven plays a limited role. The Bombardier contract involves a consortium with specified service, but the other contracts separate maintenance from operations, and were maintenance cost based largely on distance, operators could easily run more service and offload the cost to the vendors. This is not necessarily true everywhere, and Adam Rahbee (profiled in CityLab) told me that New York City Subway maintenance costs scale with distance driven, so running trains more often off-peak wouldn’t improve per-km operating expenses. But it does seem to hold at least in European regional rail maintenance contracts.

The upshot is that adding maintenance and depreciation and interest on rolling stock acquisition works out to about $250,000 per 25 meters of train length. So it’s now left to compute costs per car-km.

Base service for 16 hours a day works out to 5,800 hours a year. But rolling stock availability is less than 100% because of routine maintenance needs. In its proposals for high-speed rail in the US, SNCF said that it cycles TGVs for maintenance on weekdays in order to be able to run maximum service during the weekend travel peak: for example, in its Midwest proposal, it says on PDF-p. 60 that off-peak availability is 80% and peak availability is 98%. The 80% off-peak availability figure assumes one fifth of the trains are undergoing maintenance each weekday; but for service provided without a peak, it’s possible to also do maintenance on weekends, raising availability to 6/7, or about 86%, giving about 5,000 hours a year. If commuter trains average 50 km/h, the cost is $250,000/(5,000*50) = $1/car-km.

Peak service only allows a fraction of this usage level. Rolling stock availability can approach 100% if maintenance is kept to the off-peak period, but this only squeezes an extra 1/6 improvement in vehicle-km per year, nowhere near enough to offset the fact that the peak is short. When I write commuter rail schedules for the US I assume a 6-hour peak, entering the CBD between 7 and 10 in the morning and leaving between 5 and 8; however, actual peaks are much shorter, especially in the morning. The RER A has about 2.5 peak hours per day. One MBTA commuter train, the Heart-to-Hub nonstop service between Worcester and Boston, only runs for an hour a day in each direction. Metro-North’s New Haven Line schedules suggest a short peak period for each train as well. A 4-hour peak corresponds to 1,000 hours a year, assuming 250 weekdays excluding holidays.

Of note, it doesn’t matter too much whether the peak is unidirectional (inbound in the morning, outbound in the afternoon) or bidirectional, except when the train’s one-way travel time is much shorter than the peak window. A bidirectional 6-hour peak, with 3 hours in each direction, only allows trains to run the full 6 peak hours if the one-way trip time is 3 hours or if there’s enough reverse-peak service to allow the train to do multiple runs. On Heart-to-Hub this doesn’t matter because it consists of exactly one roundtrip, but on Metro-North, it does matter: the peak lasts about 2 hours in each direction, but there’s almost no supplemental reverse-peak service, and the one-way trip time ranges from 30 minutes to just over 2 hours, with an average of a little more than an hour, so each train can only run about 2.5 hours of peak service on average. The assumption of 4 hours of peak service per weekday is generous for an American operation.

With 1,000 annual hours of peak service and 50 km/h average speed, $250,000 in maintenance costs translates to $5 per car-km. Heart-to-Hub averages about 70 km/h, but only gets about 500 annual hours, boosting costs to $7/car-km.

In practice, all-peak and all-base rail operations only exist as edge cases: the only urban rail service without a peak that I know of is the Helsinki Metro, which runs every 5 minutes all day, whereas peak-only rail operations, such as Vancouver’s West Coast Express, tend to have so little ridership that they’re irrelevant to any discussion of modern regional rail. Switzerland tries to run the same frequency all day based on its clockface schedule plans, but peak trains are longer, so from the perspective of train maintenance there is often a hefty peak-to-base ratio there.

A mixed operation can be analyzed as a weighted average of peak and base costs. A good rule of thumb is that the overall cost can never be higher than the cost of the base times the peak-to-base ratio, because ultimately introducing extra peak service multiplies costs by the peak-to-base ratio while also increasing train-km (and of course increasing capacity when it is most constrained, significantly increasing ridership and revenue).

A peak-to-base ratio of 2, which seems typical of operations in Tokyo and is a little bit on the high side on the RER (in both Tokyo and Paris train lengths are the same throughout the day), means 5/6 of train-km are the base and 1/6 are supplemental service over the 4-hour peak, combining to a weighted average of $1.67/car-km. But the peak-to-base ratio on the New Haven Line is 5, which means the base contributes 5/9 of train-km and not 5/6, yielding only 90,000 annual km per car (in fact, the NTD suggests the actual figure is about 97,000, not including locomotives). Were maintenance costs on Metro-North similar to those of routine European operations, this would be about $2.70/car-km.

It’s important to note that rolling stock is just one of several costs of rail operations. Evidently, Metro-North costs $10/car-km to operate, and while its rolling stock maintenance appear higher than the European norm, procurement costs aren’t, and high maintenance costs can push it from $2.70/car-km to maybe $4/car-km. There’s a lot of extra expense on top of that. Among the other costs, infrastructure maintenance, including stations, has the same implication as rolling stock: the costs are insensitive to train-km, and they’re also relatively insensitive to the total amount of peak service provided. Crew costs in contrast mostly scale with train operating hours – a higher peak-to-base ratio does make it harder to schedule crew for optimal efficiency, but the difference is not so stark. And energy costs scale linearly with the number of train runs in service. So it’s not really true that the peak is five times as expensive to run as the base; I would guess the figure is about three times as expensive, from some data on other costs that isn’t strong enough for me to commit it to a blog post.

That said, rolling stock really does cost five times as much at the peak than off-peak. This implies that places that can’t control their rolling stock costs should aim at reducing the peak-to-base ratio whenever possible, including the RER (because of high procurement costs, especially on the RER A) and American rail operations (because of high maintenance costs on the LIRR and Metro-North, and high procurement cost of anything that requires setting up a new factory because of Buy America regulations).

The RER is not the LIRR or Metro-North. The total operating costs of the Metro and the RATP portions of the RER are together about $6 per car-km (this is one of the systems labeled “EU” in London’s benchmarking report), and unless the Metro is unusually cheap to operate, which would be surprising, the costs of both systems have to be about the same. Depreciation and interest on RER A rolling stock procurement costs alone is about $350,000 per 22.5-meter car, which works out to about $1.50/car-km base and $7.50 peak. Today’s peak-to-base ratio of 2 means that this capital cost adds about $2.50/car-km, or about 40% of operating and maintenance costs; this could be cut back to $1.50 if RATP ran off-peak and reverse-peak service at the same frequency as the peak. Boosting off-peak frequency to where the peak is today, about 25 trains per hour, would still have pretty full trains within the city and its innermost suburbs, if not near the ends. And it would cut unit capital costs by about 1/6 of present-day operating costs, while also allowing a supplementary cut in direct unit operating costs (namely, maintenance) of about 3%. In reality, Francilien tax money goes to pay for both capital and operating costs, so combined this cuts ongoing unit costs (i.e. excluding new tunnels) by about 17%, by running more service for not much more than today’s costs.

In an environment in which costs are dominated by capital acquisition, it makes sense to operate expensive machinery for as many hours as possible. This means running maximum service whenever possible, subject to spare ratios and maintenance needs. Even if the off-peak trains are mostly empty, the marginal cost of rolling stock for such service is free, and the other costs are still on the low side; adding more runs throughout the day has low enough operating costs ($1/car-km for rolling stock procurement and maintenance, again) that trains don’t need to be full or even close to full to socially and economically justify extra service.