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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of what I write about is what North America can learn from Europe, but the rich countries of Asia are extremely important as well. But what’s more interesting is knowledge sharing between Western Europe and the rich countries of East Asia. These two centers of passenger rail technology have some reciprocal exchange programs, but still learn less from each other than they should.
The ongoing coronavirus outbreak made the topic of Western learning from East Asia especially important. To be clear, none of the examples I’m going to talk about in this post is about the virus itself or at all about public health. But the sort of reaction in democratic East Asia that’s staved off the infection, compared with the failure of the West to do much in time, is instructive. When the virus was just in China, nobody in the West cared. I went to a comedy night in Berlin a month ago and it was the Asian comic who joked about how all they needed was to cough and the white people gave them space; it was still viewed as an exclusively Asian epidemic. By the same token, Korea’s success in reducing infections has made it to parts of Western media, but implementation still lags, leading to an explosion of deaths in Italy and perhaps soon France and the US. Hong Kong (from the bottom up) and Taiwan (with government assistance) have limited infection through social distancing and mask wearing, and the West refuses to adopt either.
If it’s Asian, Europeans as well as Americans view it as automatically either inferior or irredeemably foreign. Whatever the reasoning is, it’s an excuse not to learn. Unlike the United States, Europe has pretty good public transportation in the main cities, and a lot of domestic innovations that are genuinely better than what Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do; thus, it can keep going on like this without visible signs of stagnation. Nonetheless, what Japan has, and to some extent the other rich Asian countries, remains a valuable lesson, which good public transport advocates and managers must learn to adopt to the European case.
Urban rail and regional rail: network design
Tokyo and Seoul both have stronger S-Bahn networks than any European city. This is not just an artifact of size. Paris and London are both pretty big, even if they’re still only about a third as big as Tokyo. In Tokyo, the infrastructure for urban and regional rail is just far better-integrated, and has been almost from the start. Among the 13 Tokyo subway lines, only three run as pure metro lines, separate from all other traffic: Ginza, Marunouchi, Oedo. The other 10 are essentially S-Bahn tunnels providing through-service between different preexisting commuter lines: the Asakusa Line connects the Keisei and Keikyu systems, the Hibiya Line connects the Tobu Skytree Line with Central Tokyo and used to through-run to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, etc.
This paradigm of cross-regional traffic is so strong that on lines that do not have convenient commuter lines to connect to, there are suburban tails built just to extend them farther out. The Tozai Line hooks into a reverse-branch of the Chuo Line to the west, but to the east has little opportunity for through-service, and therefore most trains continue onto an extension called the Toyo Rapid Railway.
On the JR East network, there are a few subway connections to, but for the most part the network has its own lines to Central Tokyo. This is an early invention of mainline rail through-running, alongside the Berlin S-Bahn; the Yamanote ring was completed in 1925. Further investment in through-service since then has given more lines dedicated tracks through Central Tokyo, for capacity more than anything else.
The issue is not just that there are many through-running lines. Tokyo has 15-16 through-running trunks, depending on how one counts, and Paris, a metro area about one third the size, will soon have 4.5. It’s not such a big difference. Rather, Tokyo’s through-running lines function well as a metro within the city in ways the Berlin S-Bahn, the Paris RER, the Madrid Cercanías, and any future London Crossrail lines simply don’t.
What’s more, future investment plans in Europe do not really attempt to turn the commuter rail network into a useful metro within the city. Berlin has a strong potential northwest-southeast S-Bahn route forming a Soviet triangle with the two existing radial trunks, but it’s not being built, despite proposals by online and offline advocates; instead, current S21 plans call for duplicating north-south infrastructure. In Paris, the RER C doesn’t really work well with the other lines, the RER E extension plans are a mess, and most of the region’s effort for suburban rail expansion is spent on greenfield driverless metro and not on anything with connections to legacy mainlines. In London, the subsurface Underground lines are historically a proto-S-Bahn, with some mainline through-service in the 19th century, but they are not really used this way today even though there is a good proposal by railfans.
While Europe generally does the longer-distance version of regional rail better than Japan, the vast majority of ridership is S-Bahn-type, and there, Japan absolutely crushes. What’s more, Korea has learned from Japan’s example, so that the Seoul Subway Line 1 is an S-Bahn and many other lines are very long-range; Seoul’s per capita rail ridership is much lower than Paris’s, but is increasing fast, as South Korea is a newly-industrialized country still building its infrastructure at low cost to converge to Western incomes.
Tokyo outdoes the closest things to its peers in the West in S-Bahn network design. Japan is equally superior when it comes to the rolling stock technology itself. It has all of the following features:
- Low cost. Finding information about rolling stock costs in Japan is surprisingly hard, but Wikipedia claims the 10000 Series cost 1.2 billion yen per 10-car, 200-meter train, which is around $60,000/meter, compared with a European range that clusters around $100,000.
- Low weight – see table here. European trains are heavier, courtesy of different buff strength regulations that are not really needed for safety, as Japanese trains have lower death tolls per p-km than European ones thanks to accident avoidance.
- All-MU configuration – Japan has a handful of locomotives for passenger service for the few remaining night trains, and runs all other trains with EMUs and sometimes DMUs. Parts of Europe, like Britain, have made this transition as well, but Zurich still runs locomotives on the S-Bahn.
The one gap is that Europe is superior in the long-range regional rail segment with a top speed of 160-200 km/h. But Japanese trains are better at the more urban end up to 100 km/h thanks to their low cost and weight and at the high-speed end of 300+ km/h thanks to low cost and weight (again) and better performance.
Shinkansen equipment is also more technically advanced than European high-speed trains in a number of ways, in addition to its lower mass and cost. The N700-I has a power-to-weight ratio of 26.74 kW/t, whereas European trains are mostly in the low 20s. Japanese train noses are more aerodynamic due to stringent noise regulations and city-center stations, and the trains are also better-pressurized to avoid ear popping in tunnels. As a result, the Shinkansen network builds single-bore double-track tunnels hardly bigger than each individual bore in a twin-bore European rail tunnel, helping reduce cost relative to Japan’s heavily mountainous geography. The EU should permit such trains on its own tracks to improve service quality.
The Shinkansen works better than European high-speed rail networks in a few ways, in addition to rolling stock. Some of it is pure geographic luck: Japanese cities mostly lie on a single line, making it easy to have a single trunk serve all of them. However, a few positive decisions improve service beyond what pure geography dictates, and should be studied carefully in Britain, Germany, and Italy.
- Trains run through city centers with intermediate stops rather than around them. This slightly slows down the trains, because of the stop penalty at a city, and sometimes a slightly slowdown for an express train. This is especially important in Britain, which is proposing an excessively branched system for High Speed 2, severely reducing frequency on key connections like London-Birmingham and London-Manchester.
- Trains run on dedicated tracks, apart from the Mini-Shinkansen. This was enforced by a different track gauge, but a sufficiently strong national network should run on dedicated tracks even with the same gauge. This is of especial importance in Germany, which should be building out its network to the point of having little to no track-sharing between high-speed and legacy trains, which would enable high-speed trains to run more punctually.
- Train stations are through-stations (except Tokyo, which is almost set up to allow through-service and errs in not having any). If the legacy station is a terminal, like Aomori, or is too difficult to serve as a through-station, like Osaka, then the train will serve a near-downtown station a few km away, like Shin-Aomori 4 km from Aomori and Shin-Osaka 4 km from Osaka. Germany does this too at Kassel and has long-term plans to convert key intermediate terminals into through-stations, but France and Italy both neglect this option even when it is available, as in Tours and Turin.
- Rolling stock is designed for high capacity, including fast egress. There is no cafe car – all cars have seats. There are two wide door pairs per car, rather than just one as on the TGV. There is full level boarding with high platforms. Express trains dwell even at major stations for only about a minute, compared with 5 minutes on the TGV and even slower egress at the Paris terminals. Trains turn at the terminals in 12 minutes, reducing operating expenses.
- Pricing is simple and consistent, without the customer-hostile yield management practices of France, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe.
Japan is renowned for its train punctuality. As far as I can tell, this comes from the same place as Switzerland: system design is centered around eliminating bottlenecks. Thus it’s normal in both Japan and Switzerland to leave some key commuter lines single-track if the frequency they run allows timed meets; both countries also employ timed overtakes between local and express trains on double track.
Where I think Japan does better than Switzerland is the use of track segregation to reduce delays. Captive trains are easier to control than highly-branched national rail networks. In Switzerland, there is no room for such captive trains – the entire country has fewer people than Tokyo, and the city of Zurich has fewer people than many individual Tokyo wards. But a big country could in effect turn long lines into mostly separated systems to improve punctuality. This goes against how the S-Bahn concept works in the German-speaking world, but the Tokyo and Seoul lines are in effect metros at a larger scale, even more so than the RER A and B or the Berlin S-Bahn. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Britain could all learn from this example.
The heavy emphasis on punctuality in Japanese railroad culture has been blamed for a fatal rail accident. But even with that accident, Japanese rail safety far surpasses Europe’s, approaching 80 billion passenger-km per on-board passenger fatality where Europe appears to be in the low teens.
Is this everything?
Not quite. I will write a companion piece about what Asia can learn from Europe eventually. For one, East Asia appears to optimize its rail operating culture to huge cities, much like France and Britain, and thus its smaller cities have less per capita rail usage than similar-size Central European ones; on this list, compare Fukuoka, Busan, and Sapporo with Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Rome, Frankfurt, Barcelona, and Hamburg. Europe is also better when it comes to 160-200 km/h regional rail.
However, the bulk of intercity rail traffic even in Europe is on high-speed trains, an area in which Europe has more to learn from Japan than vice versa. Similarly, the bulk of individual boardings on trains are on metro and short-range S-Bahn trains even in the German-speaking world; there there is a lot of learning to be done in both directions, but at the end of the day, Tokyo has higher rail usage than Paris and London.
The United States is in the process of mandating an innovation commonly seen in Central Europe to guarantee train accessibility: the gap filler, also called the train-mounted extender. When there is a significant gap between the train and the platform, most passengers can still board fairly easily, but passengers who use wheelchairs may get stuck and passengers who have strollers, walkers, or heavy luggage may have difficulties. It is not always possible to reduce the gap to an acceptably narrow level, and therefore some trains have automatic gap fillers mounted on the train extending toward the platform.
What is the gap filler?
Here is a 10-second video of operations in Zurich. The gap filler is mounted on the train and extends over the platform, creating a continuous surface with gentle enough slope that people in wheelchairs can get on unaided. Without gap fillers, sometimes the train-platform gap is too wide and people can get stuck. If the gap gets wide enough, then even able-bodied passengers are at risk of falling through it.
There are also similar operations in Paris and various parts of Germany, though not Berlin. European railroads even use gap fillers when there is no level boarding, to prevent people from falling into the gap between the train and the platform, or to create an external step if the same train serves platforms with different heights one or two steps apart.
Why not just build trains with shorter gaps?
Train widths are not standardized in Europe – the loading gauge in theory permits trains to be 3.15 meter wide, but this is net of curves, so a rigid carbody always has to be somewhat narrower, especially if it is long. That by itself bakes in 10-15 cm gaps.
Two additional effects can create gaps. First, if the train platform is on a curve, then the distance between the most distant point on the train and the platform must increase even if the loading gauge is not defined on a curve. Second, wheels wear out over time, which may create a small vertical gap; if the vertical gap is more than about 2 centimeters then a substantial minority of wheelchair users can’t traverse it (see Barcelona’s universal accessibility plan, PDF-p. 14), and if it is more than 4.5 cm then a majority can’t. Even metro systems, which have level boarding, sometimes have big gaps because of these two effects, requiring manual bridge plates that lengthen station dwells.
Gaps and the United States
The American loading gauge is far more standardized than the European one, since the US is one country and Europe is not. Nonetheless, large gaps exist, for multiple reasons:
- The standards for platforms include generous margins: the distance between the track center and a high platform is by law 5′ 7″, and a train is at most 10′ 8″ wide (usually 10′ to 10′ 6″), so the laws already require gaps of at a minimum 3″ (76 mm, about the maximum passengers in wheelchairs can reliably cross) and often 4-7″ (10-18 cm).
- The American loading gauge is defined on straight track. Curved platforms require larger horizontal gaps, and as a result many agencies prefer not to build curved platforms at all, even where it is the best design compromise.
- There is some amount of oversize freight; the military wishes for a network with generous enough loading gauge to carry tanks.
Gap fillers were unfortunately unknown until recently. MassDOT even used the need for oversize freight as an excuse not to raise the platforms on commuter trains. Instead, American solutions included expensive gauntlet tracks or just keeping platforms low and inaccessible.
Fortunately, once an American implementation of the gap filler existed, namely on Brightline in South Florida, American regulators learned of the existence of this technology, and are now considering mandating it.
There are two conclusions from this story.
The first is that gap fillers are a good technology and more passenger railroads should use them to improve accessibility, not just for passengers in wheelchairs but also ones with strollers or luggage or who are at risk of falling through the gap. The US should aim for universal adoption of this technology nationwide.
The second is that once a good public transportation innovation does reach the United States, it can spread nationally more easily, as globally incurious but nationally curious administrators have a domestic example to look at. This is an example with train-mounted extenders, but the same may be said of fare integration, clockface timetables, lightweight EMUs, and so on. The first agency to adopt any such measure can expect visits from other agencies aiming to learn from its success.
I’d like to share an example of how to implement coordinated planning for public transportation, using an example of something I’ve been working on with TransitMatters in and around Boston. Right now we’re writing schedules and proposing concrete investments including electrification on each commuter line into Boston; the process is different for each line, but the first line we’ve launched the document for, the Worcester Line, is illustrative in itself. You can find the file here and the broader proposal here; the first link bundles two separate documents, of which the Worcester proposal is the second. I’ve harped a lot on using the Swiss model for better regional rail, and here is one example of how to get a city whose rail technology is stuck in the 1930s to have what Zurich has.
Slogans and principles
I’ve harped on a few Swiss and Swiss-adjacent slogans before:
Organization before electronics before concrete. Investments in more tracks, tunnels, and so on should come last as they are expensive, and beforehand agencies should improve signaling and electrify as it is much cheaper. Moreover, fixing organizational issues, for example writing good schedules and integrating planning between different agencies, should come before anything else, as it requires planners to do more work but is otherwise cost-free.
Takt and symmetry. If a train leaves your station going eastbound at 7:14 am and the schedule is every half hour, then a train leaves your station going eastbound at :14 and :44 all day, every day; this is also called a clockface schedule. If there’s additional service during rush hour, it should fit into the takt, e.g. more trains coming at :29 and :59 for 2 morning hours and 2 afternoon hours. By the same token, trains going westbound should serve your station at :16 and :46, since 60-14 = 46. This means the overtakes, meets on a single-track line, etc. all occur at consistent places.
The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The plan must account for all three sides of the triangle simultaneously, in order to optimize investment. For example, if additional tracks are required for timed overtakes, then the agency should know what trains it’s going to run and how frequent it’s going to run them in order to know where the overtakes are needed. With a takt, the overtakes will be at consistent location where the region can target investment.
Run trains as fast as necessary. Increases in speed should be designed around making timed connections and limiting train downtime. One refinement on a suburban line is that the stop spacing should depend on the schedule: if the one-way trip time is 52 minutes then a short turnaround makes an hour and additional stops are difficult to fit in, whereas if it is 46 minutes then the turnaround is longer and there is room for more stops.
The knot system: knots (or nodes, same word in German) occur at major stations at regular intervals – at a minimum an interval equal to half the systemwide takt frequency. If trains run half-hourly, then a station with service at :00 and :30 or with service at :15 and :45 will be served in both directions at the same time, so it’s a good place for bus and train connections. This works in both planning directions: if the schedule happens to place a knot at a station then buses should go there, and conversely if a city is a major node then the schedule should be written to a place a knot there.
What we propose for Worcester
The proposal as written calls for two service patterns, one express and one local. At rush hour, both run every 15 minutes. Off-peak, the express pattern drops to 30-minute frequency, but the local pattern stays at 15 minutes, as it serves Boston neighborhoods and Newton, close enough in that high off-peak ridership can be expected. With electrification and high platforms, the following schedule is feasible:
|Lansdowne (Fenway Park)||4||0:09||0:16|
Express trains overtake locals at Wellesley Farms; there are plans for triple-tracking Wellesley (and farther west, but it’s not necessary). At Framingham, locals take 12 minutes to turn, which means there needs to be a non-revenue move around 0:41 westbound to a yard just west of Framingham to avoid getting in the way of express trains at :43 and :47 before getting back to Framingham at 0:49 to collect passengers; triple-tracking Framingham is also an option but is more expensive.
How it fits the principles
Let’s go over the Swiss principles one by one and see how this all fits.
Organization before electronics before concrete. As presented the plan includes elements of all three: organization is better-timed schedules and the potential use of the yard as a pocket track to avoid triple-tracking Framingham, electronics is electrification, concrete is the triple track. The electronics-concrete order is important – without the triple track but with electrification, EMUs can still do Boston-Worcester in around 57 minutes with the above stops, or 55 without infill at West Station and Newton Corner, either of which is faster than the fastest express trains today. The ultimate in concrete in the Boston area is the North-South Rail Link, which should come only after full electrification and related modernization steps, such as high platforms.
Takt and symmetry. The timetable is on a takt and symmetric, to ensure the overtake takes place at a manageable spot in Wellesley. It would be easier to change the offset slightly and overtake around West Newton, but there the tracks are in a constrained location where triple-tracking is prohibitively expensive. Note also that with the above timetable, the westbound overtake is at :11, :26, :41, :56, and the eastbound overtake is at :04, :19, :34, :49, which means it requires triple-tracking but not four-tracking.
The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The timetable is calibrated around the performance specs of the latest EMUs, like Coradias, Mireos, Talent 3s, and FLIRTs. The high acceleration capabilities of these trains let a local train leave Boston just 7 minutes ahead of the next express train, and still keep up through double-track narrows in Newton until Wellesley Farms, the sixth station skipped.
Run trains as fast as necessary. Without onward connections beyond Worcester, transfers between trains are not really a factor. Thus, what matters is tight turnaround times to keep trains moving and earning revenue rather than loitering at the terminal. The local train spends 35 out of 45 minutes running, and the express train 45 out of 60.
The knot system. Knots occur wherever trains stop around :00, :15, :30, and :45. The word around includes a few minutes of wiggle time, especially at a terminal, where transfers are unidirectional. Thus Worcester is a knot at :00, with a few minutes of rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfer. Framingham is a knot at :30, as long as the buses get there before :28 to transfer to eastbound express trains and depart after :32 to accommodate transfers from westbound express trains. On local trains, Newton Corner may be a knot, with a connecting bus shuttle to Watertown.
Framingham and Worcester already exist as bus nodes, and in both cities, the main city bus hub is already the train station. The next step is to integrate the schedules. The rule is generally that bus timetabling should follow rail timetabling, because trains require more infrastructure whereas buses can be moved more easily; there are exceptions, but not many.
The principles for bus design on the Zurich model aren’t as catchy as for rail design, but they are still useful and generally worth learning:
One ticket for all. Fares must be totally integrated. If a train makes two stops in the same zone (for example, Framingham and West Natick), it should charge the same as a bus. A train ticket should be valid within the entire zone traversed, which includes bus transfers. The same fare media should be used on all modes – and they should be paper tickets with no surveillance, not Boston’s ongoing smartcard disaster (“AFC 2.0”). Fare integration requires a mechanism for sharing revenue across agencies, but this is organization, and is doable under the aegis of the Massachusetts state government, with revenue allocated to agencies based on periodic counts to ascertain ridership (Berlin’s are every 3 years).
Timed transfers. Suburban buses should come every half hour, on a takt of course, with timed transfers to the trains at the relevant knot. Worcester’s bus agency, WRTA, does not do this at all – bus #1 runs on an hourly takt, but other routes may run every 50 minutes or every 75. Framingham’s, MWRTA, has 65-minute headways, and a route that runs to a Green Line station rather than much closer to a commuter rail station.
High vehicle utilization. If the bus takes around 25 minutes to reach its outlying destination, then two vehicles serve one route, and if it takes 40 minutes, then three vehicles do. Buses should run as fast as necessary as well, deleting meanders, installing queue jump lanes, and shortening the route in order to squeeze inside a timetable with short turnaround times.
Connections between different train stations. A bus can connect two different train stations, either on the same line or on different lines. It should be timed at both ends, though it if runs parallel to the train, then it’s fine to time only right-way connections (e.g. eastbound bus to eastbound train, westbound bus to westbound train), which do not require knots.
American railfans are full of nostalgia for a past era when American trains were great. So much of the discussion among industry insiders, railfans, and advocates is about how to make American railroads great again, how to return to the mid-20th century era of American domination. This is not correct history: while American railroads were in fact in a pretty good position from the 1920s to the 50s, they were not competitive with mass motorization and air travel, and trying to imitate what they were like then has no chance of competing with cars or planes. The story of American railroads has to be understood not as decline but as stagnation: operations, technology, and management stagnated, and this is what led to ridership decline. Instead of indulging in a MAGA fantasy about past greatness, it is important for the United States to implement all the innovations of the last half century that it has missed out on, innovations coming from East Asia and Western Europe.
American railroads were private until Amtrak took over intercity operations and states took over commuter rail operations, which happened well after the terminal decline in ridership. There was intense competition between rival companies, at times leading to physical violence. There was no coordination of operations between different railroads, no coordination with municipal public transportation systems, no attempt at seamless passenger experience. What was the point? This system evolved in the early 20th century, when there was no competition from other modes, only from other railroads.
Over time, most of the rest of the developed world has learned to coordinate different modes of public transportation better, to compete with cars. This usually occurred under nationalized mainline rail companies, but even when companies remained separate, as with the division between municipal subways (e.g. the Berlin U-Bahn) and national railways (e.g. the S-Bahn), or with the separate BLS system around and south of Bern, there has been integration. There is fare and schedule coordination in German cities across rail and bus operators, and even better coordination in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The US remains fixated on competition, and thus there is no fare integration, but rather relationships between different operators are adversarial. In Chicago, the mayor opposes integration between the municipal L and the regionally-owned Metra commuter rail system, since the city does not own Metra. Every time Amtrak has to share territory with a commuter railroad, one side is screwing the other out of something, whether it’s Amtrak overcharging on electricity or Metro-North arbitrarily slowing Amtrak down. In Boston, there is no integration between city-focused MBTA service, which includes commuter rail, and buses in outlying cities, called RTAs (regional transit authorities); the MBTA is simply uninterested in matching fares or schedules, and is not even integrating its own buses with its commuter trains.
Switzerland has higher rail usage than every place I know of once one controls for city size. Zurich’s modal split may not be as favorable to public transportation as Paris or London’s, but is a world better than that of any French or British city of similar size. Switzerland got to this point through a stingy political process in which planners had to stretch every franc, substituting organizational capacity for money. Thus, construction in the 1990s used the following principles of value engineering:
- Infrastructure, rolling stock, and the timetable should be planned together (the magic triangle), since decisions on each affect the other two.
- Trains should run as fast as necessary for transfer windows, overtakes, meets on single track, etc. Infrastructure should likewise be only as expansive as necessary – if the timetable does not have trains on a given single track meeting, this segment does not need to be doubled.
- Trains should have timed transfers at major cities, to enable everywhere-to-everywhere travel. Connecting buses should be timed with the regional trains at major suburban nodes.
- Electronics before concrete: it’s cheaper to resignal a line to have short headways and high speeds than to add tracks and tunnels.
These principles do not exist in the United States. Worse, too many American activists, even ones who are pretty good on related issues, do not believe it’s even possible to implement them. “This isn’t Switzerland or Japan” is a common refrain. There’s growing understanding among American cycling advocates that 50 years ago the Netherlands wasn’t as bike-friendly as it is today; there sadly isn’t such understanding regarding the state of rail coordination in Switzerland until about the 1990s.
While Switzerland manages to build its Knot System at low cost, leading to sharp increases in rail usage in the 2000s and 2010s, Americans are unable to do the same. Activists propose massive spending, which the political system is unwilling to fund. Nor is the political system interested in adapting low-cost solutions for infrastructure coordination, since the sort of apparatchiks who governors like appointing to head state agencies can’t implement them; we all know what happened last time a foreigner got appointed to a major position and succeeded too much. The way forward is right there, and the entire American political system, from every governor down to most activists, either is ignorant of it or explicitly rejects it.
Amtrak runs slower than it used to on most lines. Trip times on the Northeast Corridor south of New York are if anything slightly slower than they were in the 1970s in the early days of the Metroliner. The corridor and long-distance service outside the Northeast are considerably slower. For example, the Super Chief took 39:45 between Chicago and Los Angeles, whereas its current Amtrak version, the Southwest Chief, takes 43:10. At shorter range, the Chicago-St. Louis trains take 5:20 today, compared with 4:55 in the 1930s. This has led too many Americans to assume that there has been technological regression and that the main focus should be on restoring midcentury service levels rather than on moving forward.
In reality, high speeds in the middle of the 20th century came from the facts that express passenger trains were highly profitable and used by important people and so had priority over all other traffic, and that superelevation was set high for these trains; both of these aspects collapsed as riders and high-value shippers decided driving and flying were better than taking 5-hour train rides, so the profit center shifted to low-value freight. Today, getting high passenger ridership is plausible at high-speed rail speeds, but that requires getting Chicago-St. Louis down to 2 hours, not 5 hours, and having excellent connections to local and regional public transportation at both ends.
Nor was midcentury rolling stock good by current standards. Electric locomotives in Europe weigh around 90 tons. American ones weigh a little more, still in compliance with superseded FRA regulations enacted just after WW2. But the locomotives from just before these regulations weighed far more: the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG1 weighed 215 metric tons. Europe has achieved weight reductions over generations of innovation since, and Japan has achieved even more impressive reductions; 215 tons would get you 2/3 of the way to a 10-car EMU set in Tokyo.
Worse, even in the middle of the 20th century, the US was no longer at the technological forefront of rail service. The civil service formation following the German Revolution brought forth a new railway law and new technology, such as the tangential switch, since adopted throughout Continental Europe; the US mostly sticks with secant switches built to late-19th century specs. In the 1950s the differences between German and American rail technology weren’t huge, but they were there. Since then they’ve gradually widened – in the 1960s Germany came up with LZB signaling, while the US was at best stuck on 1930s signaling, federal regulations on the matter leading to lower top speeds than to the adoption of automatic train protection.
There seems to be general ignorance of the advances that the US has not been part of. Rail managers ask questions like “does Europe have positive train control?” (yes, ETCS is already a second-generation system, we just call this automatic train protection instead of positive train control) or say “Europe doesn’t have the ADA” (accessibility laws here are comparable to American ones and overall the public transportation networks here are on average more accessible). In technology as in organization, the MAGA mentality for trains refuses to admit that there are innovations abroad to learn from.
The way forward: imitate, don’t innovate
The United States can innovate in public transportation, but only if it imitates better countries first. It needs to learn what works in Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Finland, Austria. It needs to learn how to plan around cooperation between different agencies and operators, how to integrate infrastructure and technology, how to use 21st-century engineering.
There are great places where such imitation could work. I work a lot on Boston-related issues at TransitMatters; New England has high population density, a wealthy and growing urban core in Boston, ample legacy rail infrastructure, and town centers that work more like Central European suburban sprawl (albeit at lower density) than like structureless Californian or Texan sprawl. But it can’t move forward without rejecting MAGA fantasies and replacing them with a program of learning from what works here and in Japan. There are so many projects under discussion of limited or no value, and some even with negative value, like anything that interacts with the hobby freight railroad Pan Am.
Instead, the tendency in the United States is to do anything to avoid learning from outside North America. Plans for intercity rail improvement outside the Northeast and California are steeped with MAGA language about restoring midcentury rail. Plans in New York spend far too much time on midcentury expansion plans and far too little on understanding cost explosion factors dating to the 1920s. Regional rail plans vaguely nod to European S-Bahns, but are generally filtered through several layers, mainly Philadelphia’s implementation. Anything that touches freight invites kludges that European planners no longer use for cost or maintenance reasons.
This tendency has to end. Meiji Japan didn’t join the first world by closing itself to foreign inventions – quite the opposite. The US needs to understand that the path to a future with better American transportation lies not in America’s past, but in Europe and East Asia’s present. The history isn’t one of American decline and renaissance through rediscovery of ancient learning, but one of American insularity and stagnation, to which the solution is to adapt technologies that work elsewhere.
After drawing a map of an integrated timed transfer intercity rail network for the state of New York, people asked me to do other parts of the United States. Here is New England, with trains running every 30 minutes between major cities:
New England is a much friendlier environment for intercity rail growth than Upstate New York, but planning there is much more delicate. The map thus has unavoidable omissions and judgment calls, unlike the New York map, which straightforwardly follows the rule of depicting intercity lines but not suburban lines like the Long Island network. I ask that people not flame me about why I included X but not Y without reading the following explanations.
The tension between S-Bahn and ITT planning
The S-Bahn concept involves interlining suburban rail lines through city center to provide a high-frequency urban trunk line. For example, trains from a number of East Berlin neighborhoods and Brandenburg suburbs interline to form the Stadtbahn: in the suburbs, they run every 10 or 20 minutes, but within the Ring, they combine to form a diameter running regularly every 3:20 minutes.
The integrated transfer timetable concept instead involves connecting different nodes at regular intervals, typically half an hour or an hour, such that trains arrive at every node just before a common time and leave just after, to allow people to transfer. In a number of major Swiss cities, intercity trains arrive a few minutes before the hour every 30 minutes and depart a few minutes after, so that people can connect in a short amount of time.
S-Bahn and ITT planning are both crucial tools for good rail service, but they conflict in major cities. The ITT requires all trains to arrive in a city around the same time, and depart a few minutes later. This forces trains from different cities to have different approach tracks; if they share a trunk, they can still arrive spaced 2-3 minutes apart, but this lengthens the transfer window. The idea of an S-Bahn trunk involves trains serving the trunk evenly, which is not how one runs an ITT.
Normally, this is no problem – ITTs are for intercity trains, S-Bahns are for local service. But this becomes a problem if a city is so big that its S-Bahn network grows to encompass nearby city centers. In New York, the city is so big that its shadow reaches as far as Eastern Long Island, New Haven, Poughkeepsie, and Trenton. Boston is smaller but still casts shadows as far as southern New Hampshire and Cape Cod.
This is why I don’t depict anything on Long Island on my map: it has to be treated as the extension of an S-Bahn system, and cannot be the priority for any intercity ITT. This is also true of Danbury and Waterbury: both are excellent outer ends for an electrified half-hourly regional rail system, but setting up the timed transfers with the New Haven Line (which should be running every 10 minutes) and with high-speed rail (which has no reason to stop at the branch points with either Danbury or Waterbury) is infeasible. In Boston I do depict some lines – see below on the complications of the North-South Rail Link.
The issue of NSRL
The North-South Rail Link is a proposed north-south regional rail tunnel connecting Boston’s North and South Stations. Current plans call for a four-track tunnel extending across the river just north of North Station, about 4.5 km of route; it should cost $4 billion including stations, but Massachusetts is so intent on not building it lies that the cost is $12 billion in 2018 dollars.
In common American fashion, NSRL plans are vague about how service is to run through the tunnel. There are some promises of running intercity trains in addition to regional ones; Amtrak has expressed some interest in running trains through from the Northeast Corridor up to the northern suburbs and thence to Maine. However, we are not engaging in bad American planning for the purposes of this post, but in good Central European planning, and thus we must talk about what trains should run and design the tunnel appropriately.
The rub is that Boston’s location makes NSRL great for local traffic and terrible for intercity traffic. When it comes to local traffic, Boston is right in the middle of its metropolitan region, just offset to the east because of the coast. The populations of the North Side and South Side suburbs are fairly close, as are their commuter volumes into Boston. Current commuter rail ridership is about twice as high on the South Side, but that’s because South Station’s location is more central than North Station’s. NSRL really is a perfect S-Bahn trunk tunnel.
But when it comes to intercity traffic, Boston is in the northeast corner of the United States. There are no major cities north of Boston – the largest such city, Portland, is a metro area of 600,000. In contrast, going south, New York should not be much more than an hour and a half away by high-speed rail. Thus, high-speed rail has no business running through north of Boston – the demand mismatch south and north is too high.
Since NSRL is greatly useful for regional traffic but not intercity traffic, the physical infrastructure should be based on S-Bahn and not ITT principles, even though the regional network connects cities quite far away. For one, the tunnel should require all trains to make all stops (South Station, Aquarium, North Station) for maximum local connectivity. High-speed trains can keep feeding South Station on the surface, while all other traffic uses the tunnel.
But on the North Side, feeding North Station on the surface is not a good idea for intercity trains. The station is still awkwardly just outside city center. It also offers no opportunity to transfer to intercity trains to the most important city of all, New York.
The only resolution is to treat trains to Portland and New Hampshire as regional trains that just go farther than normal. The Nashua-Manchester-Concord corridor is already as economically linked to Boston as Providence and Worcester, and there are plans for commuter rail service there already, which were delayed due to political opposition to spending money on trains from New Hampshire Republicans after their 2010 election victory. Portland is more speculative, but electric trains could connect it with Boston in around an hour and a half to two hours. These trains would be making suburban stops north of Boston that an intercity train shouldn’t normally make, but it’s fine, the Lowell Line has wide stop spacing and the intermediate stops are pretty important post-industrial cities. At Portland, passengers can make a timed connection to trains to Bangor, on the same schedule but with shorter trainsets as the demand north of Portland is much weaker.
On the map, I also depict Boston-Cape Cod trains, which like Boston-Concord trains are really suburban trains but going farther. Potentially, the branch to Cape Cod – the Middleborough branch of the Old Colony Lines – could even run through with the Lowell Line, either the branch to Concord or the Wildcat Branch to Haverhill and Portland. Moreover, the sequencing of the branches should aim to give short connections to Boston-Albany high-speed trains as far as reasonable.
The issue of the Northeast Corridor
The Northeast Corridor wrecks the ITT plan in two ways, one substantial and one graphical.
The snag is that there should be service on legacy track running at a maximum speed of 160-200 km/h in addition to high-speed service on high-speed tracks. There may be some track sharing between New York and New Haven to reduce construction costs, using timed overtakes instead of full track segregation, but east of New Haven the high-speed trains should run on a new line near I-95 to bypass the Shore Line’s curves, and the Shore Line should be running electric regional trains to connect to the intermediate cities.
The graphical problem is that the distance between where the legacy route is and where the high-speed tracks should be is short, especially west of New Haven, and depicting a red line and a blue line together on the map is not easy. I will eventually post something at much higher resolution than 1 pixel = 500 meters. This also affects long-distance regional lines that I’d like to depict on the map but connect only to legacy trains on the Northeast Corridor, that is the Danbury and Waterbury Branches.
For planning purposes, figure that both run every half hour all day, are electric, run through to and beyond New York as branches of the New Haven Line, and are timed to have reasonable connections to high-speed trains to Albany and points north in New York. Figure the same for trains between New Haven and Providence, with some additional runs in the Providence suburbs giving 15-minute urban frequencies to such destinations as Olneyville and Cranston.
The substantial issue is that the Northeast Corridor is far too high-demand for a half-hourly ITT. Intercity trains run between New York and Boston better than hourly today, and that’s taking twice as long as a TGV and charging 2.5-4 times as much. My unspoken assumption when planning how everything should fit together is that there should be a 400-meter long train every 15 minutes on the corridor past New Haven, spaced evenly around Boston to overtake regional trains to Providence at consistent locations. Potentially, there should be more local trains taking around 1:50 and more express trains taking around 1:35, and then all timed transfers should be to the local trains.
On the New Haven Line, too, regional rail demand is much more than a train every half hour. Trains run mostly every half hour today, with management that is flagrantly indifferent to off-peak service, and trip times that are about 50% longer than they should be. Nonetheless, best practice is to set up timed transfers such that various branches all connect to the same train, so that passengers can connect between different branches. This mostly affects Waterbury; it’s useful to ensure that Waterbury trains arrive at Bridgeport with a short transfer to a train toward New Haven that offers a quick connection to trains to points north and east.
Planning HSR around timed connections
Not counting lines that are in the Boston sphere, or the lines around Albany, which I discussed two weeks ago, there are three lines proposed for timed connection to high-speed rail: New London-Norwich, Providence-Worcester-Fitchburg, Springfield-Greenfield.
All three are regional lines, not intercity lines. They are not optimized for intercity speed, but instead make a number of local urban and suburban stops. This is especially true of Springfield-Northampton-Greenfield, a line that Sandy Johnston and I have been talking about since 2014. A Springfield-Greenfield line with 1-2 intermediate stops might be able to do a one-way trip in around 39 minutes, at which point a 45-minute operator schedule may be feasible with a very tight turnaround regime – but there’s enough urban demand along the southern half of the route that adding stops to make it about 50 minutes with a one-hour operator schedule is better.
The Providence-Worcester line is likewise slower than it could be if it were just about Providence and Worcester. The reason is that high-speed rail compresses distances along its route. Providence-Boston by high-speed rail is about 22 minutes nonstop, including schedule contingency. Boston-Worcester is about the same – slower near Boston because of scheduling difficulties along the Turnpike and the inner Worcester Line, faster near the outer end because Worcester has no chance of getting a city center station but rather gets a highway station. Now, passengers have a range of transfer penalties, and to those who are averse to connections and have a high personal penalty, the trip between the two cities is more attractive directly than via Boston. But there are enough passengers who’d make the trip via Boston that the relative importance of intermediate points grows: Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Uxbridge, Millbury. In that situation, the importance of frequency grows (half-hourly is a must, not hourly) and that of raw speed diminishes.
The onward connection to Fitchburg is about three things. First, connecting Providence with Fitchburg. Second, connecting Worcester with Fitchburg. And third, connecting Fitchburg with the high-speed line. This makes investments into higher speed more valuable, since Fitchburg’s importance is high compared with that of points between Worcester and Fitchburg. The transfer between the line and high-speed rail should be timed in the direction of Fitchburg-to-Albany first of all, and Providence-to-Albany second of all, as the connections from the endpoints to Boston are slower than direct commuter trains.
The presence of this connection also forces the Worcester station to be at the intersection with the line to Providence. Without this connection, it may be better to site the station slightly to the west, at 290 rather than 146, as the area already has Auburn Mall.
Finally, the New London-Norwich line is a pure last-mile connector from the New London train station, which is forced to be right underneath the I-95 bridge over the river, to destinations to the north. The northern anchor is Norwich opposite the historic center, but the main destination is probably the Mohegan Sun casino complex. Already there are many buses connecting passengers from New York to the casino. The one-way trip time should be on the order of 21-22 minutes, but with a turnaround it’s a 30-minute schedule, and the extension south to the historic center of New London is for completeness; with a timed connection, trains could get between Penn Station and Norwich in around 1:20 counting connection time, and between Penn Station and Mohegan Sun in maybe 5 minutes less.
What about Vermont?
Vermont’s situation is awkward. Burlington is too far north and too small to justify a connection to high-speed rail by itself. A low-speed connection might work, but the line from Burlington south points toward Rutland and not New York, and connecting it onward requires reversing direction. If Vermont had twice its actual population this might be viable, but it doesn’t.
But Vermont is right between New York and Montreal. I generally don’t show New York-Montreal high-speed rail on my maps. It’s a viable line, but people in both cities severely overrate it, especially compared with New York-Toronto; I have to remind readers this whenever I write about international high-speed trains. In the event such a line does open, Burlington is the only plausible location for a Vermont stop – everything else is too small, even towns that historically did have rail service, like Middlebury. Rutland could get a line running partly on high-speed track and partly on legacy track taking it down to Glens Falls or Saratoga Springs to transfer to onward destinations, or maybe Albany if trains run 2-3 minutes apart in pairs every 30 minutes.
Current plans for Vermont try to connect it directly to Boston via New Hampshire, and that is wrong. The Vermonter route is mountainous from Greenfield to Burlington; trains will never be competitive with driving there. Another route under occasional study going into Boston from the north was even included on a 2009 wishlist of high-speed rail routes, under the traditional American definition of high-speed rail as “train that is faster than a sports bicycle.” That route, crossing mountains in both New Hampshire and Vermont, is even worse. The north-south orientation of the mountains in both states forces east-west routes to either stick to the lowlands or consolidate to strong enough routes that high-speed rail tunnels are worthwhile.
How much does this cost?
As always, I am going to completely omit the Northeast Corridor from this cost analysis; an analysis of that will happen later, and suffice is to say, the benefit-cost ratio if there’s even semi-decent cost control is extremely high.
With that in mind, the central pieces of this program are high-speed lines from Boston to Albany and from New Haven to Springfield, in a T system. The 99 km New Haven-Springfield line, timetabled at 45 minutes including turnaround and maybe 36 minutes in motion, is on the slow side for high-speed rail, as it is short and has a crucial intermediate station in Hartford. It does not need any tunnels or complex viaducts, and property takings are nonzero but light; the cost should not be higher than about $2-2.5 billion, utilizing legacy track for much of the way.
The Boston-Albany line is much costlier. It’s 260 km, and crosses the aforementioned north-south mountains in Western Massachusetts. Tunnels are unavoidable, including a few kilometers of digging required just west of Springfield to avoid a slowdown on suburban curves. At the Boston end, tunneling may also be unavoidable next to the Turnpike. The alternative is sharing a two-track narrows with the MBTA Worcester Line in Newton; it’s possible if the trains run no more than every 15 minutes, which is a reasonable short-term imposition but may be too onerous in the longer term if better service builds up more demand for commuter rail frequency in Newton. My best guess is that without Newton, the line needs around 20 km of tunnel and can piggyback on 35 km of existing lines at both ends, for a total cost in the $6-8 billion range. This figure is sensitive to whether my 20 km estimate is correct, but not too sensitive – at 40 it grows to maybe $9 billion, at 0 it shrinks to $4.5 billion.
Estimating the costs of the blue lines on the map is harder. All of them are, by the standard of high-speed rail, very cheap per kilometer. A track renewal machine on a one-third-in-tunnel German high-speed line can do track rebuilding for about a million euros per single-track-kilometer. All of these lines would also need to be electrified from scratch, for $1.5-3 million per kilometer. Stations would need to be built, for a few million apiece. My first-order estimate is $1 billion for the three blue connector lines and about the same for Boston-Portland-Bangor; the Hyannis and Concord lines would go in a regional rail basket. The NSRL tunnel should be $4 billion or not much more, and not what Massachusetts wants voters to believe it is to justify its decision not to build it.
The reason for the relatively limited map (e.g. no Montreal service) is that these lines are not such slam dunks that they’re worth it at any price. Cost control is paramount, subject to the bare minimum of good service (e.g. electrification and level boarding). For what I think a fair cost is, those lines are still good, providing fast connectivity across New England from most places to most other places. Moreover, the locations of the major nodes, like Worcester and Springfield, allow timing bus interchanges as well, providing further connections to various suburbs and city neighborhoods.
The red high-speed lines are flashy, but the blue ones are important too. That’s the key takeaway from planning in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, all of which have high rail usage without great geography for intercity rail. Trains should be planned coherently as a network, with all parts designed in tandem to maximize connectivity. This isn’t just about going between Boston and Springfield or Boston and Albany or New Haven and Springfield, but also the long tail of weaker markets using timed connections, like New Haven-Amherst, Brockton-Worcester, Dover-Providence, Stamford-Mohegan Sun, and so on. A robust rail network based on ITT design principles could make all of these and many more connections at reasonable cost and speed.