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.
If Swiss planners were hired to design an intercity rail network for New York State, they might propose something that looks like this:
The trip times depicted on the map are a few minutes longer than intended, especially next to a terminus station like Niagara Falls, Watertown, and Ithaca. The depicted times are inclusive of turnaround time: the 45-minute Buffalo-Niagara Falls line is intended to take around 35 minutes in actual service, with 10-minute turnarounds.
Swiss planning is based on hourly and half-hourly timetables repeating all day on a clockface pattern: if a train leaves your station at 8:24 am, a train will leave your station at xx:24 all day, and if the line runs every half hour then also at xx:54. Moreover, at major nodes, trains are timetabled to arrive a few minutes before the hour and depart a few minutes after, letting passengers connect between different trains with minimal wait. To minimize transfer time and turn time, trains run as fast as necessary – that is, the state invests in higher-speed lines to ensure connections between major cities take a few minutes less than an hour. The Bahn 2000 program set up connections between Zurich, Basel, and Bern taking just less than an hour, with a few further connections elsewhere taking just less than an integer number of half-hours; the Bahn 2030 program aims to do the same with more cities all over the country.
The above map is an adaptation of the concept to New York State. I hope the explanation of how to adapt Switzerland to New York will be of interest to rail advocates elsewhere – the differences between the two geographies matter elsewhere, for example in Germany, France, or Sweden, or for that matter in California or New England.
There is no high-speed rail in Switzerland, unless one counts the mixed passenger and freight rail tunnels through the Alps, which allow 250 km/h passenger trains. The Bahn 2030 planning calls for a 2-hour trip time between Zurich and Lugano, a distance of about 170 km, even with heavy tunneling under all significant mountains; with so much tunneling, 1.5-hour trips are easy and even 1-hour trips are feasible with a bypass around Zug. Clearly, even when higher speeds are allowed, Swiss planning sticks to low- and medium-speed rail, targeting an average speed of about 120 km/h.
This works for Switzerland, a small country in which even Geneva is only 2:45 from Zurich. In New York, it does not. At the speed of upgraded legacy rail, comparable to the Northeast Corridor, the links on the above map along the high-speed spine would take 2 hours each rather than an hour. New York-Buffalo trains would take 6 hours, too long for most travelers, and New York-Rochester would take 5 hours, which is marginal at best. Trains doing New York-Albany in 2 hours could get fairly popular, but even that is long enough that cutting it to just less than an hour is feasible.
Trains are to run every half hour, with the exception of urban lines, namely Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Albany-Troy-Mechanicsville, and Utica-Rome, which run every 15 minutes. The reason for the half-hourly frequency is that all lines need it for either capacity or ridership. The lines either run to New York, which is so big it can easily fill a train every half hour and perhaps even every 15 minutes, or are quite short, so that running only every hour reduces ridership and it’s better to run shorter trains every 30 minutes.
With half-hourly timetables, a stub-end line can take an integer number of quarter-hours and not just half-hours. For example, Syracuse and Albany should have a pulse at :00 and :30 every hour. This in turn means that trains from Albany to Glens Falls can take 1:15, departing Albany just after :00 and :30, arriving at Glens Falls just before :15 and :45, turning back toward Albany just after :15 and :45, and then returning to Albany just before :00 and :30.
The only worry with quarter-hour trip times is that every cycle must sum up to an integer number of half-hours, not quarter-hours. Otherwise, some connections are broken, offset by 15 minutes. Thankfully, the only cycle on this map is New York-Albany-Syracuse-Binghamton-New York, which takes 7 hours.
Syracuse regional rail
Syracuse is depicted as having the most expansive regional rail network in the state, despite being the smallest of Upstate New York’s four major metropolitan areas. The reason is that the goal of the planned network is to provide intercity rather than local service. Rochester has some useful urban lines, for example to Freeport or northwest to the lakefront, but they are so short that they should run every 10 or 15 minutes and not every half hour. However, Rochester has no significant independent towns within an hour or so by rail, and thus there are no timed connections there. In contrast, Syracuse is located right between Watertown, Oswego, Auburn, and Cortland with its connection onward to Ithaca.
The Syracuse system is intended to be fully on the RegionalBahn side of the S-Bahn vs. RegionalBahn divide. The shared segment between Syracuse and the split between the lines to Oswego and Watertown is not meant to overlay to run frequent urban service. Instead, trains should tailgate, followed by a gap of nearly half an hour. Syracuse-bound trains may well call at Liverpool at :20 and :22, arriving at Syracuse at :25 and :27 to exchange passengers with other trains and then continue south, one of Oswego and Watertown paired with Cortland and Binghamton and the other terminating. If north-south S-Bahn service is desired, trains should be slotted in between the intercity trains.
The map depicts greenfield alignments for the high-speed line except on the approaches to New York and Toronto, and legacy alignments for the low-speed lines.
As in Switzerland, the low-speed lines do not necessarily slavishly adhere to legacy alignments. However, the deviations are not the same. Switzerland uses bypasses and tunnels to speed lines up. In New York, the main mechanisms to speed up lines are electrification, track renewal, and higher superelevation. Tunnels are too expensive for the population density of Upstate New York. I can see some bypasses, potentially getting Syracuse-Cortland and Cortland-Binghamton down to 30 minutes each, but none of the Upstate cities off the high-speed line is big enough to justify major civil works.
The one depicted bypass on a blue-colored line is the use of the Boonton Branch in New Jersey to offer an express bypass around the Morristown Line with its dense station spacing. This requires some additional tracks on busy urban regional lines as well as a short tunnel in Paterson, but New York is big enough that investing in faster service to Dover, Delaware Water Gap, and Scranton is worth it.
Upstate, the important deviations involve restoring old tracks, including between Cortland and Ithaca and within some town centers. Corning and Glens Falls both have disused rail alignments serving their centers better than the existing freight lines. But most importantly, Syracuse has an underused freeway running east-west through its center, which I am assuming replaced with a rail line. This is not a new idea – Syracuse is already removing a branch of the freeway, which should be used for a rail connection toward Binghamton, and even the mainline is a vestige of when midcentury planners thought Upstate cities would keep growing. The current Syracuse station is at an inconvenient location, making rail realignment a good use of the right-of-way.
New York State is much more integrated with its neighbors than Switzerland – it’s all the same country. There is extensive interstate travel, and rail planning must accommodate this. Forget the Deutschlandtakt – an Americatakt would be the most complex rail plan in a developed country out of sheer size. Thankfully, the connections depicted on the New York State plan accommodate interstate travel fairly well.
Going east, there are connections to Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Albany-Boston can be done in around an hour, which makes for a half-hour takt connection between Albany and Springfield and 45 minutes minus turnaround between Springfield and Boston. Springfield-New Haven is 30 minutes by high-speed rail or 45 minutes by fast legacy rail, both with a stop at Hartford and few to no others; Springfield can then get its own small regional rail line toward Northampton (with some urban overlays for an S-Bahn) and Greenfield. Vermont can get a slow line to Rutland, and/or a fast line to Burlington continuing to Montreal; thence New York-Montreal and Boston-Toronto trains can be timed to connect at Albany, with New York-Toronto trains slotted in between, timed to connect only to the more frequent urban lines like Buffalo-Niagara Falls.
Going south, New York is separated from Pennsylvania by the northern reach of the Appalachians, called the Southern Tier in New York and the Northern Tier in Pennsylvania. This area had many coal mines in the 19th century and as a result has many legacy rail lines, but they are curvy and connect villages. But Scranton is a significant city on a nice line with Allentown and Philadelphia; unfortunately, the Philadelphia-Allentown line stretches via Reading and the Allentown-Scranton line is hilly and curvy, justifying some greenfield construction with some tunneling near the northern end.
Finally, going west, the I-90 route serves Erie and the Midwest. But this is a plausible high-speed rail connection toward Chicago, and so no low-speed interface is needed within the state. Erie could get a line to Youngstown and Pittsburgh, but it would be slower than connecting between high-speed trains in Cleveland; the largest city between Erie and Youngstown is Meadsville, population 13,000.
The cost of the high-speed spine is considerable, but if New York can keep it to the level of France (around $25 million/km), or even Germany (around $35 million/km), the benefits should exceed the costs. New York is huge, and even though nothing in Upstate New York is, the combined populations of Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo would add up to a big French or German city. And then there is Toronto at the other end, anchoring everything.
The low-speed lines should be quite cheap. Track renewal in Germany is around $1 million per single-track kilometer; at the frequency envisioned, all the low-speed lines can stay single-track with passing segments. Electrification is maybe $1.5 million per kilometer in Israel, despite a lawsuit that delayed the project by three years.
Is this feasible?
Technically, all of this is feasible. Good transit advocates in the Northeastern United States should push elected officials at the federal and state levels to quickly plan such a system and aim to begin construction early this decade. Bahn 2000 was supposed to take the 1990s to be built, but was delayed to 2004; this is a bigger program but can still happen by 2030 or so.
The trip times, frequencies, and coverage chosen for the map are deliberately conservative. It’s possible to squeeze higher speed at places, and add more branches to smaller towns, like Rochester-Niagara Falls or Buffalo-Jamestown. Bahn 2000 is followed up with Bahn 2030 or Bahn 2035, and likewise rail improvements can accrete in the United States. But as a starter system, this is a solid network connecting all large and nearly all small cities in New York State to one another with maximum convenience and minimum hassle. I hope state planners take heed and plan to invest soon.
Imagine yourself taking a train somewhere, and imagine the train is big and infrequent. Let’s say it’s the commuter train from New York down the Northeast Corridor to Newark Airport, or perhaps a low-cost OuiGo TGV from Lyon to Paris. Now imagine that you change trains to a small, frequent train, like the AirTrain to Newark Airport, or the RER from the OuiGo stop in the suburbs to Paris itself. What do you think happens?
If your guess is “the train I’m connecting to will be overcrowded,” you are correct. Only a minority of a 200 meter long New Jersey Transit train’s ridership unloads at the Newark Airport station, but this minority is substantial enough to overwhelm the connection to the short AirTrain to the terminals. Normally, the AirTrain operates well below capacity. It uses driverless technology to run small vehicles every 3 minutes, which is more than enough for how many people connect between terminals or go to New York by train. But when a big train that runs every 20-30 minutes arrives, a quantity of passengers who would be easily accommodated if they arrived over 20 minutes all make their way to the monorail at once.
In Paris, the situation is similar, but the details differ. Until recently, OuiGo did not serve Paris at the usual terminal of Gare de Lyon but rather at an outlying station near Eurodisney, Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy, ostensibly to save money by avoiding the Gare de Lyon throat, in reality to immiserate passengers who don’t pay full TGV fare. There, passengers would connect from a 400-meter bilevel TGV on which the entire train ridership would get off to a 220-meter bilevel RER train running every 10 minutes. The worst congestion wasn’t even on the RER itself, but at the ticket machines: enough of the thousand passengers did not have Navigo monthly cards for the RER that long lines formed at the ticket machines, adding 20 minutes to the trip. With the RER connection and the line, the trips would be nearly 3.5 hours, 2 spent on the high-speed train and 1.5 at the Paris end.
I even saw something similar in Shanghai in 2009. I visited Jiaxing, an hour away at the time by train, and when I came back, a mass of people without the Shanghai Public Transportation Card overwhelmed the one working Shanghai Metro ticketing machine. There were three machines at the entrance, but two were out of service. With the 20 minutes of standing in line, I would have gotten back to my hotel faster if I’d walked.
This is a serious problem – the ticketing machine lines alone can add 20 minutes to an otherwise 2.5-hour door-to-door trip. To avoid this problem, railroads and transit agencies need a kit with a number of distinct tools, appropriate for different circumstances.
Run trains more frequently
Commuter trains have to run frequently enough to be useful for short-distance trips. If the RER A consistently fills a train every 10 minutes off-peak between Paris and Marne-la-Vallée, New Jersey Transit can consistently fill a local train every 10 minutes off-peak between Manhattan and New Brunswick. Extra frequency induces extra ridership, but fewer people are going to get off at the Newark Airport stop per train if trains run more often. There are some places where adding frequency induces extra ridership proportionately to the extra service, or even more, but they tend to be shorter-range traffic, for example between Newark and Elizabeth or between Newark and New York.
This tool is useful for urban, suburban, and regional service. A train over a 20 kilometer distance can run frequently enough that transfers to more frequent shuttles are not a problem. Even today, this is mostly a problem with airport connectors, because it’s otherwise uncommon for outlying services to run very frequently. The one non-airport example I am familiar with is in Boston on the Mattapan High-Speed Line, a light rail line that runs every 5 minutes, connecting Mattapan with Ashmont, the terminus of the Red Line subway, on a branch that runs every 8-9 minutes at rush hour and every 12-15 off-peak.
In contrast, this tool is less useful for intercity trains. France should be running TGVs more frequently off-peak, but this means every half hour, not every 10 minutes. The only long-distance European corridors that have any business running an intercity train every 10 minutes are Berlin-Hanover(-Dortmund) and Frankfurt-Cologne, and in both cases it comes from interlining many different branches connecting huge metropolitan areas onto a single trunk.
Eliminate unnecessary transfers
The problem only occurs if there is a transfer to begin with. In some cases, it is feasible to eliminate the transfer and offer a direct trip. SNCF has gradually shifted OuiGo traffic from suburban stations like Marne-la-Vallée and Massy to the regular urban terminals; nowadays, five daily OuiGo trains go from Lyon to Gare de Lyon and only two go to Marne-la-Vallée.
Gare de Lyon is few people’s final destination, but at a major urban station with multiple Métro and RER connections, the infrastructure can handle large crowds better. In that case, the transfer isn’t really from an infrequent vehicle, because a TGV, TER, or Transilien train unloads at Gare de Lyon every few minutes at rush hour. The Métro is still more frequent, but at the resolution of a mainline train every 5 minutes versus a Métro Line 1 or 14 train every 1.5 minutes, this is a non-issue: for one, passengers can easily take 5 minutes just to walk from the far end of the train to the concourse, so effectively they arrive at the Métro at a uniform rate rather than in a short burst.
Of note, Shanghai did this before the high-speed trains opened: the trains served Shanghai Railway Station. The capacity problems occurred mostly because two out of three ticketing machines were broken, a problem that plagued the Shanghai Metro in 2009. Perhaps things are better now, a decade of fast economic growth later; they certainly are better in all first-world cities I’ve taken trains in.
Eliminating unnecessary transfers is also relevant to two urban cases mentioned above: airport people movers, and the Mattapan High-Speed Line. Airport connectors are better when people do not need to take a landside people mover but rather can walk directly from the train station to the terminal. Direct service is more convenient in general, but this is especially true of airport connectors. Tourists are less familiar with the city and may be less willing to transfer; all passengers, tourists and locals, are likely to be traveling with luggage. The upshot is that if an airport connector can be done as an extension of a subway, light rail, or regional rail line, it should; positive examples include the Piccadilly line and soon to be Crossrail in London, the RER B in Paris, and the S-Bahn in Zurich.
The Mattapan High-Speed Line’s peculiar situation as an isolated tramway has likewise led to calls for eliminating the forced transfer. Forces at the MBTA that don’t like providing train service have proposed downgrading it to a bus; forces within the region that do have instead proposed making the necessary investments to turn it into an extension of the Red Line.
Simplify transfer interfaces
The capacity problem at the transfer from an infrequent service to a frequent one is not just inside the frequent but small vehicle, but also at the transfer interface. Permitting a gentler interface can go a long way toward solving the problem.
First, tear down the faregates. There should not be fare barriers between different public transport services, especially not ones where congestion at the transfer point can be expected. Even when everything else is done right, people can overwhelm the gates, as at the Newark Airport train station. The lines aren’t long, but they are stressful. Every mistake (say, if my ticket is invalid, or if someone else tries to ask the stressed station agent a question) slows down a large crowd of people.
And second, sell combined tickets. Intercity train tickets in Germany offer the option of bundling a single-ride city ticket at the destination for the usual price; for the benefit of visitors, this should be expanded to include a bundled multi-ride ticket or short-term pass. New Jersey Transit sells through-tickets to the airport that include the AirTrain transfer, and so there is no congestion at the ticketing machines, only at the faregates and on the train itself.
Both of these options require better integration between different service providers. That said, such integration is clearly possible – New Jersey Transit and Port Authority manage it despite having poor fare and schedule integration elsewhere. In France in particular, there exist sociétés de transport functioning like German Verkehrsverbünde in coordinating regional fares; SNCF and RATP have a long history of managing somehow to work together in and around Paris, so combined TGV + RER tickets, ideally with some kind of mechanism to avoid forcing visitors to deal with the cumbersome process of getting a Navigo pass, should not be a problem.
At a meeting with other TransitMatters people, I had to explain various distinctions in what is called in American parlance regional rail or commuter rail. A few months ago I wrote about the distinction between S-Bahn and RegionalBahn, but made it clear that this distinction was about two different things: S-Bahns are shorter-distance and more urban than RegionalBahns, but they’re also more about service in a contiguous built-up area whereas RegionalBahns have the characteristics of interregional service. In this post I’d like to explore the different travel markets for regional rail not as a single spectrum between urban and long-range service, but rather as two distinct factors, one about urbanity or distance and one about whether the line connects independent centers (“interregional”) or a monocentric urban blob (“intraregional”).
This distinction represents a two-dimensional spectrum, but for simplicity, let’s start with a 2*2 table, so ubiquitous from the world of consulting:
|Connection \ Range||Short||Long|
|Intraregional||Urban rail, S-Bahn||Big-city suburban rail|
|Interregional||Polycentric regional rail||RegionalBahn|
The notions of mono- and polycentricity are relative. Downtown Providence, Newark, and San Jose all have around 60,000 jobs in 5 km^2. But Caltrain and the Providence Line are both firmly in the RegionalBahn category, the other end being Downtown San Francisco or Boston, 70-80 km away with 300,000-400,000 jobs in 5-6 km^2. Newark, in an essentially contiguous urban area with New York, 16 km from Midtown and its 1.2 million jobs in 6 km^2, is relatively weaker and does not fit into the interregional category; a New York-Newark line is an S-Bahn.
On the 2*2 table, the appellations “big-city” and “polycentric” are necessary. This is because longer-range rail lines are likelier to get out of the city and its immediate suburbs and connect to independent urban centers. Exceptions mostly concern the size of the primary urban cluster. If it is large, like New York, it can cast a shadow for tens of kilometers in each direction: commuter volumes are high from deep into Long Island, as far up the Northeast Corridor as Westport, as far up the Hudson as northern Westchester, and so on. In Paris, I wouldn’t be comfortable describing any of the RER and Transilien lines as RegionalBahn. In London, the closest independent cities of reasonable size are Cambridge, Brighton, Oxford, and Portsmouth, the first two about 80 km away and the last two about 100.
Tokyo, about as big as New York and London combined, casts an even longer shadow. In my post on S-Bahns and RegionalBahns I called some of its outer regional rail branches RegionalBahn, giving the examples like the Chuo Line past Tachikawa. But even that line is not really interregional in any meaningful way. It stays within the Tokyo prefecture as far as Takao, 53 km from Tokyo Station, and commuter service continues until Otsuki at kp 88, but everything along the line is bedroom communities for Tokyo or outright rural. The branching and short-turns at Tachikawa mean that the Chuo Line through Tachikawa is a long S-Bahn, and past Tachikawa is really a suburban commuter line too long to be an S-Bahn but too monocentric and peaky to be Regionalbahn (the peak-to-base frequency ratio is about 2:1, whereas German RegionalBahn is more commonly 1:1).
At the other end, we can have regional rail that is short-range but connects two distinct centers. This occurs when relatively small cities are in proximity to each other. In a modern first-world economy, these cities would form a polycentric region, like the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad. Smaller regions with these characteristics include the Research Triangle, where relatively equal-size Raleigh and Durham are 40 rail kilometers apart, and Nord, where Lille is 30-50 km from cities like Douai and Valenciennes. This may even occur in a region with a strong primary center, if the secondary center is strong enough, as is the case for Winterthur, 28 km from Zurich, which has Switzerland’s fourth highest rail ridership.
Size is measured in kilometers, not people. Stockholm is a medium-size city region, but Stockholm-Uppsala is firmly within RegionalBahn territory, as the two cities are 66 km apart. Randstad’s major cities are all closer to each other – Amsterdam-Rotterdam is about 60 km – and that’s a region of 8 million, not 3 million like Stockholm and the remainder of Uppland and Södermanland.
The issue of frequency
The importance of the 2*2 table is that distance and urban contiguity have opposite effects on frequency: high frequency is more important on short lines than on long lines, and matching off-peak frequency to peak frequency is more important on interregional than intraregional lines.
Jarrett Walker likes to say that frequency is freedom, but what frequency counts as freedom depends on how long passengers are expected to travel on the line. Frequency matters insofar as it affects door-to-door travel time including wait time, so it really ought to be measured as a fraction of in-vehicle travel time rather than as an absolute number. An urban bus with an average passenger trip time of 15 minutes should run every 5 minutes or not much longer; if it runs every half hour, it might as well not exist, unless it exists for timed connections to longer-range destinations. But an intercity rail line where major cities are 2 hours apart can easily run every half hour or even every hour.
The effect of regional contiguity is more subtle. The issue here is that an intraregional line is likely to be used mostly by commuters at the less dense end. The effect of distance can obscure this, but within a large urban area, a 45-minute train will be full of commuters traveling to the primary city in the morning and back to the suburbs in the afternoon or evening; the same train between two distinct cities, like Boston and Providence, will not have so many commuters. In contrast, the same 45-minute trip will get much more reverse-commute travel and slightly more non-commute travel if it connects two distinct cities, because the secondary city is likelier to have destinations that attract travelers.
In no case are the extreme peak-to-base ratios of American commuter lines justifiable. Lines with tidal commuter flows can run 2:1 peak-to-base ratios, as is common in Tokyo, but much larger ratios waste capacity. The marginal cost of service between the morning and afternoon peaks is so low until it matches peak service that having less midday than peak service at all is only justifiable in very peaky environments. The 45-minute suburbs of New York, Tokyo, and other huge cities can all live with a 2:1 ratio, but other lines should have lower ratios, and interregional lines should have a 1:1 ratio.
The implication is that just as peak-to-base ratios going as high as 2:1 are acceptable for long-range intraregional lines, short-range interregional lines must run a constant, high frequency all day. I would groan at the thought of even half-hourly frequency on a 40-km interregional line; the worst I’m comfortable with is 15-20 minutes all day. Of note, such lines are necessarily pretty fast, since by assumption they make few intermediate stops to speed up travel between the two main cities – if there are significant cities in the middle then the lines connect even shorter-range cities and should be even more frequent.
Urban, suburban, intercity
Individual lines may have the characteristics of multiple variants of regional rail. They pass through urban neighborhoods on their way to outlying areas, which may be suburbs or independent cities; they may also pass through multiple kinds of independent areas.
In practice, in big cities this leads to three tiers on the same line: urban at the inner end, suburban at the middle end, interregional at the outer end. Inversions, in which there are independent cities and then suburbs, are possible but extremely rare – I can’t think of any in Paris, London, or New York, and arguably only three in Tokyo (Chiba, Saitama, Yokohama); fundamentally, if there are suburbs of the primary city beyond your municipality, then your municipality is likely to itself be popular as a suburb of the primary city.
That regional lines have these three tiers of demand type does not mean that every single regional line does. Some lines don’t reach any significant independent city. Some don’t usefully serve close-in urban areas – for example, the Providence Line barely serves anything urban, since the stop spacing is wide in order to speed up travel to high-demand suburbs and to Providence and the closest-in urban neighborhoods have Orange Line subway service. In rare cases, the suburban tier may be skipped, because there just isn’t much tidal suburban commuter ridership; in Boston, the Newburyport Line is an example, since its inner area has unbroken working-class urban development almost all the way to Salem, and then there’s almost nothing between Salem and Newburyport.
This does not mean that suburbs are always in between urban areas and independent cities – this is just a specific feature of large metropolitan areas. In smaller ones, the middle tier between urban and long-range interregional service is occupied by short-range interregional service rather than suburban commuter rail. Skipping the suburban tier, which is rare enough in large cities that in the cities I think about most often the only example I can come up with is the Newburyport Line, is thus completely normal in smaller cities.
There are common best practices for commuter rail: electrification, level boarding, frequent clockface schedules, timed transfers, fare integration, proof of payment fare collection.
However, high frequency means different things on lines of different characteristics. An interregional line should be running consistent all-day frequency, and if it is long enough could make do with half-hourly trains with timed connections to suburban buses; an urban line should be running every few minutes as if it were a metro line. Regional rail lines with characteristics off the main diagonal of the S-Bahn to RegionalBahn spectrum have different needs – suburban lines can have high peak frequency to reduce road congestion, although they should still have useful off-peak frequency; short-range interregional lines should run every 10-20 minutes all day.
The distinctions between intraregional and interregional lines and between short- and long-range lines may also affect other aspects of planning: station spacing, connections to local surface transit, connections at the city center end, through-running, etc. Even when the best industry practices are the same in all cases, the relative importance of different aspects may change, which changes what is worth spending the most money on.
Since an individual line can serve multiple markets on its way from city center to a faraway outlying terminal, it may be useful to set up a timetable that works for all of these markets and their differing needs. For example, urban lines need higher frequency than suburban and interregional ones, so a regional line with significant urban service should either branch or run short-turn trains to beef up short-range frequency. If there is a suburban area in the middle with demand for high peak frequency but also a secondary city at the outer end, it may be useful to give the entire line high all-day frequency, overserving the line off-peak just because the cost of service is low.
Ultimately, regional rail is about using mainline rail to fulfill multiple functions; understanding how these functions works is critical for good public transportation.
More than a year ago, I compared Los Angeles with a number of other large American cities. I brought up issues of public transportation ridership, city center job concentration, and income differences, as in the Los Angeles region people who commute by public transit average barely half the earnings of people who drive alone. One of the things noted in that post is that in the secondary transit cities of the United States – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston – people who commute by transit outearn people who do not. I didn’t delve deeply into that issue in that post, but in this post I will, because it showcases a serious problem in all four cities. New York lacks this pattern as of 2017 – solo drivers outearn transit commuters, though by a small and declining margin, so by 2020 it may join the secondary cities.
The reason this is a problem is that in none of these cities is public transportation so good as to be a luxury good. Rather, the issue is that public transportation is mostly an option for people traveling to city center, where incomes are higher. Crosstown public transportation options are weak – there is rarely direct rapid transit, and transfer trips are inconvenient. There may also be a peak vs. off-peak artifact, but I have no data confirming that richer Americans are likely to commute at rush hour, when transit frequencies are higher and congestion is worse.
Income by mode of transportation to work
From the 2017 American Community Survey, we can grab data about median earnings for workers by their main mode of travel to work:
|Metro area||Workers||PT mode share||PT income||Solo driver income||Median income|
Other modes exist too, most notably carpooling, which has lower median incomes than both solo driving and public transport in all of the cities in the table. Also of note, public transportation user income is more polarized – even though the median is comparable to and usually even higher than the overall median, the poverty rate for transit commuters is higher than the general rate everywhere except in San Francisco, where the poverty rates are within the margin of error.
Car ownership increases with income. In Singapore, the highest-transit use city for which I have this data, the overall mode share is 58.7%, which splits as low 60s for roughly the bottom half of the income distribution and then less in higher categories, bottoming at 43% in the highest income category, covering the top 15%. It’s really weird that in American cities with public transportation we see the opposite pattern – transit usage is higher in higher income brackets.
The explanation has to be about where people work. OnTheMap doesn’t have great income data, but we can still compare the proportion of workers in the highest income category, which is $3,333/month. I’ve used different definitions of city center in different blog posts: the one about Los Angeles used a restricted one, just a few blocks by a few blocks, covering a single-digit percent of the region, whereas more recently I’ve made 100 km^2 blobs, covering one third of workers in some cities, to maintain comparability with Paris. For this post’s purposes, I’m going to use a definition around the center of a radial transit network (as in the LA post), as well as a looser definition corresponding to something like city limits; in Washington and New York the restricted definitions are somewhat looser to take into account the spread of the subway network just outside city center, but in Chicago and San Francisco the LA post’s definition is apt.
|New York||9,408,498||52.1%||City proper||4,367,781||55.4%||South of 60th||2,098,740||65.7%|
|Chicago||4,604,044||47.9%||City proper||1,373,969||53.2%||LA post||401,169||71.7%|
|Washington||2,830,896||55%||DC, Arl.||714,075||63%||Mass., 395, water||270,299||72.2%|
|Philadelphia||2,853,154||49.5%||City proper||684,869||50.9%||Center City||240,665||61.9%|
|Boston||2,682,278||56.3%||Boston, Cam.||787,287||66%||Arl., Stuart, water||228,300||72.1%|
|San Francisco||2,400,290||59.2%||City proper||723,907||65.5%||LA post||231,042||76.8%|
|Seattle||1,919,635||57.8%||City proper||585,480||64.1%||Jackson, I-5, Denny||180,482||71.2%|
In all cities, the proportion of workers earning $40,000 a year or more is higher in the city than in the rest of the region, and higher yet in the CBD. Moreover, this effect is weakest in Philadelphia, which may explain why there, unlike in the other secondary transit cities, drivers still significantly outearn transit commuters.
Crosstown public transportation
In all the cities studied in this post, public transportation carries a high share of trips into city center, especially at rush hour. This props up its usage numbers among the middle class, especially the upper middle class – professional jobs cluster in city center.
The problem is that not everyone works in city center. Midtown and Downtown Manhattan are 22% of metro New York employment going by OnTheMap’s LEHD numbers, and even that is a pretty hefty area. In smaller cities, there are necessarily fewer rapid transit lines and a smaller zone of intersection in which service is good from all directions. Improving transit service to destinations outside city center, and thus for working- and lower middle-class jobs, requires more than just disjointed center-to-bedroom-communities rail lines.
One way to have vigorous crosstown public transportation is with buses. However, buses are slow, almost by definition slower than cars. Chicago has a pretty good bus grid, but it still has the pattern of transit commuters outearning solo drivers. And that’s in the city proper – in the suburbs it’s not really possible to have a bus grid, because distances are too great and street networks are usually too broken.
Instead, a better solution has to involve diagonal trips on rapid transit, with a transfer in or near city center, and trips that stay outside city center. A good recipe includes all of the following:
- Easy downtown and near-downtown transfers, with no missed connections and a minimum of walking. San Francisco deserves especial demerits for forcing people to transfer between Muni and BART via the street, crossing two sets of faregates.
- High frequency on commuter rail in both directions, with timed bus shuttle connections from stations to office parks too far to walk. In some cases, such buses can do double duty ferrying suburban commuters to those stations for trains to city center.
- Complete fare integration, with free transfers and mode-neutral fares, to avoid forcing low-income commuters onto slow buses while richer ones get faster trains.
- Through-running when feasible, since a worker in one neighborhood may end up finding a job at a suburban job site on another line, even the opposite side of the city, e.g. between Brooklyn or Queens and Newark.
Income differences and universal design
The principles for good crosstown service are largely class-neutral. They have to be: the differences between where rich and poor people work in a deindustrialized country are real but not enormous, enough to be noticeable but not enough to play to populist clichés of two Americas. Nonetheless, better public transportation service to non-CBD destinations is especially useful for the working class, because the working class is less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class.
The relevance of class here is twofold. First, every demographic pattern in transportation mode choice has a reason, and provides hints as to how different people travel. This is the case regardless of whether the socially more dominant group commutes by public transport more (the rich, the educated) or less (the native-born, men, whites in Western countries). It remains the case even when there’s no obvious social dominance hierarchy between the groups we compare, for examples professionals versus small business owners.
And second, the people who manage public transportation agencies are drawn from one social class. They are middle-class managers working in city center at traditional peak hours. They may not be aware of how other people commute, regardless of whether those other people are retail workers working two part-time jobs in two different neighborhoods or tech workers who work 12-8. They provide the service that people who are like them can use, and neglect other use cases.
There’s a thread on Twitter by Stephen Smith bringing up Zurich’s S-Bahn as an alternative to extensive metro tunneling. It reminded me of something I’d been meaning to write about for a long time, about how S-Bahn tunnels, in Zurich and elsewhere, include not just the bare minimum for through-running but also strategic tunneling elsewhere to reach various destinations not on the mainline. Zurich’s S-Bahn includes about 19 km of tunnel built since the 1960s, which is similar per capita to the amount of tunneling built for the Washington Metro.
Such tunneling is important to ensure a regional rail network reaches destinations off the mainlines. Even cities with metro systems need to understand this as long as they have some mainline rail serving suburban destinations. For example, in the Center of Israel, Tel Aviv is getting a subway-surface light rail network, but outside the urban core rail transport will remain dominated by Israel Railways service; as Israel Railways avoids many city centers, such as Netanya, short strategic tunnels are critical.
Tunnels in Zurich
The core of the Zurich S-Bahn is three city center tunnels: the 2 km Käferberg Tunnel from Oerlikon to Hardbrücke, the 7 km combination of the Hirschengraben Tunnel and the Zürichberg Tunnel from Hauptbahnhof to the Right Bank of Lake Zurich and points northeast, and the 5 km Weinberg Tunnel from Hauptbahnhof to Oerlikon and points north. The Käferberg Tunnel is from the 1960s, the Hirschengraben and Zürichberg Tunnel opened in 1989-1990 as the core of the Zurich S-Bahn, and the Weinberg Tunnel opened in 2014 as a second S-Bahn route to add more capacity.
These 14 km of tunnel look like any standard picture of regional rail tunneling. However, Zurich has in addition built a 5 km tunnel for a loop to the airport. Without this tunnel, no regional or intercity rail service to the airport would have been possible, as the airport was at a distance from the mainline; only trams could have served the airport then.
In addition to these 19 km, there is some talk of building an additional tunnel of 7-10 km on the Zurich-Winterthur Line, called the Brüttener Tunnel, to speed up service between these two cities.
Tunnels on other regional rail systems
In Paris, the RER consists not just of legacy rail track and city center tunnels, but also outlying tunnels reaching new destinations. The RER B connection to Charles de Gaulle Airport is new construction, opening in 1976 as a commuter line just before the RER opened and incorporated it as a branch. It’s a mix of above- and underground construction, totaling 5.5 km of tunnel. Two more key RER lines, at both ends of the RER A, are new: the branch to Cergy, which opened between 1979 and 1994 and has 3 km of tunnel, and the branch to Marne-la-Vallée, which opened in stages starting on the same day as the RER A’s central tunnel and continuing until reaching its terminus in 1992.
All three new RER branches are busy. They have to be – if there weren’t so much demand for them, it would have been financially infeasible to build them and those areas would have had to make do with a bus connection to the existing mainlines. The Marne-la-Vallée branch carries about two thirds of the eastern branch ridership of the RER A, making it most likely the busiest single rail branch in Europe.
In London, the regional rail network is less modern than in Paris, Zurich, and other cities with extensive development of new tunnels. Nonetheless, the Crossrail plans do include a short outlying tunnel reaching Heathrow Airport. Moreover, one of the two eastern branches of the mainline has the characteristics of an outlying tunnel, namely the branch to Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf is only 5 km from the City of London and the tunnel connecting to it is contiguous with the central tunnel, but the branch is not really about improving connections to onward suburbs. Where La Défense was always on the way to western suburbs on the RER, Canary Wharf is only on the way to Abbey Wood. There are proposals among area railfans to extend this branch much farther to the east, but no official plans that I know of. In the currently planned paradigm for Crossrail, Canary Wharf is purely a destination.
In Munich, there is a new line toward the airport, with some tunneling on airport grounds as well as at two intermediate suburban stations. There is also a short above-ground spur connecting the airport to the western side of the S-Bahn, giving it two different routes to city center. Finally, there is a short tunnel slightly to the west of the main trunk tunnel to better connect S7 to the mainline.
Why are airports so prominent on this list?
The concept of using strategic tunnels to build new spurs and loops to connect mainlines to new destinations has nothing to do with airports. And yet, so many of these spurs connect to airports: Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow, Zurich, Munich. There are many more such examples, on regional or intercity lines: Schiphol, Arlanda, Ben-Gurion, soon-to-be Berlin-Brandenburg, Barajas. Why is that?
The answer is that the purpose of a spur or loop is to connect to a destination off the mainline. European cities for the most part developed around the railway or metro line. Virtually every important destination in London is on a legacy railway because during the city’s 19th and early 20th century growth period, the railway was the only way to get to Central London. Airports are consistent exceptions because they’re so land-intensive that it’s hard to site them near existing railways.
Where non-airport destinations somehow had to be developed away from the mainline, they’re attractive targets for spurs as well. Canary Wharf sits on the site of a disused dock, which generated some freight rail traffic but little demand for passenger rail. Cergy is one of several new towns built around Paris to act as suburban growth nodes, together with Marne-la-Vallée and Évry (served on a loop of the RER D).
In smaller cities than Paris and London, suburban growth often came together with a metro line. In Stockholm, the Metro was planned together with public housing projects, so many of the Million Program projects are right next to stations, facilitating high public transportation usage. There’s usually no need to build many new regional rail spurs, because such sites are close enough to the center for metro service to be quick enough.
The situation of regional rail in Israel
In Israel, urban development has ignored the railway almost entirely. The colonial network was weak and barely served the state’s travel needs. Investment was minimal, as the state’s political goals were population dispersal and Judaization of peripheral areas rather than efficient transportation. Towns were built around the road network, connected to one another by bus since people were too poor to afford cars.
Rail revival began in the early 1990s with the opening of the Ayalon Railway, providing through-service between points north and south of Tel Aviv. In the generation since, ridership has grown prodigiously, albeit from low initial levels, and the state has built new lines, with an ongoing project to electrify most of the passenger network. However, since the cities came first and the trains second, the new lines do not enter city centers, but rather serve them peripherally near the highway, often surrounded by parking.
Thus, Netanya’s train station is located to the east of the city’s built-up area, on the wrong side of the Route 2 freeway. Ashdod’s train station is on the periphery at a highway interchange, well to the east of city center. Ashkelon’s station is on the eastern margin. The under-construction line through Kfar Saba and Ra’anana passes just south of the built-up area.
In all of these cases, doing it right would require, or would have required, just short, strategic elevated or underground lines:
- Netanya is at the northern end of the Tel Aviv commuter rail network, and so it can easily be served by a spur. The existing station can be retained as a junction for intercity rail service, but building a commuter rail spur would not compromise frequency. Such a spur would require no more than 2 km of tunnel.
- In Ashdod and Ashkelon, there are north-south arterials that are so wide, 50-60 meters, that they could host cut-and-cover subways, effectively moving the line to the west to serve those cities better. In Ashdod there is a decision between going under B’nai Brith, which offers a more convenient through-route, and Herzl, which is more central but requires some boring at the southern end of the city.
- In Kfar Saba and Ra’anana, about 8 km of tunnel under Weizmann and Ahuza are needed, and could potentially be done cut-and-cover as well, but these streets are 30 meters rather than 50 meters wide. Such a route would replace the under-construction combination of a freeway and railway.
- In Rishon LeZion, a 6km route, not all underground, is needed to connect Rishonim with Moshe Dayan via city center and the College of Management rather than via the under construction freeway route avoiding these destinations.
Unfortunately, so far the state’s investment plans keep skirting city centers. It serves them with a cars-and-trains paradigm, which assumes the rail passenger is driving or riding a bus to the train station, never mind that in that case it’s more convenient to drive all the way to one’s destination. This suppresses ridership; not for nothing, the busiest station outside metropolitan centers is Rehovot, with 2.1 million annual entries, and not Ashdod, which is second with 1.9 million. Ashdod is a city of 220,000 and Rehovot one of 140,000, but Rehovot’s station is far more walkable. Were Ashdod not poor, few people would use the station at all – they’d all just drive.
In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).
As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.
And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.
The five legs of good transit
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:
- The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
- Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
- Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
- Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
- There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.
Vancouver’s transit past and future
Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.
To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.
Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.
Potemkin bus networks
When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.
And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.
The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.
But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.
One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.
Is Canada hopeless?
I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.
That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.
Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.
The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.
My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.
When you ride a subway train, and the train decelerates to its station, you feel your body pulled forward, and your muscles tense to adjust, but then when the train reaches a sudden stop, you are suddenly flung backward, since you are no longer decelerating, but your muscles take time to relax and stop fighting a braking that no longer exist. This effect is called jerk, and is defined to be change in acceleration, just as acceleration is change in speed and speed is change in position. Controlling jerk is crucial for a smooth railway ride. Unfortunately, American mainline rail is not good at this, leading to noticeable jolts by passengers even though speed limits on curves and acceleration rates are very conservative.
This is particularly important for speeding up mainline trains around New York and other legacy cities in the US, like Boston. Speeding up the slowest segments is more important than speeding up the fastest ones; my schedules for New York-New Haven trains, cutting trip times from 2:09 to 1:24, save 4 minutes between Grand Central and 59th Street just through avoiding slowdowns in the interlocking. The interlocking is slow because the switches have very conservative speed limits relative to curve radius (that is, lateral acceleration), which in turn is because they are not designed with good lateral jerk control. The good news is that replacing the necessary infrastructure is not so onerous, provided the railroads know what they need to do and avoid running heavy diesel locomotives on delicate infrastructure.
Spirals and jerk
In practice, the worst jerk is usually not forward or backward, except in the last fraction of a second at the end of acceleration. This is because it takes about a second for train motors to rev up, which controls jerk during acceleration. Rather, the worst is sideways, because it is possible to design curves that transition abruptly from straight track, on which there is no lateral acceleration, to curved track, on which there is, in the form of centrifugal force centripetal force.
To reduce jerk, the transition from straight track to a circular arc is done gradually. There are a number of usable transition curve (see Romain Bosquet’s thesis, PDF-p. 36), but the most common by far is called the clothoid, which has the property of having constant change in curvature per unit of arc length – that is, constant jerk. Different countries have different standards for how long the clothoid should be, that is what the maximum lateral jerk is. Per Martin Lindahl’s thesis, the limit in Sweden is 55 mm/s (PDF-p. 30) and that in Germany is 69.44 mm/s (PDF-p. 38), both measured in units of cant deficiency; in SI units, this is 0.367 m/s^3 and 0.463 m/s^3 respectively. In France, the regular limit is 50 mm/s (Bosquet’s thesis, PDF-p. 35), that is 0.333 m/s^2, but it is specifically waived in turnouts.
Track switches are somehow accepted as sites of very high jerk. A presentation about various technical limits in France notes on p. 106 that in switches (“appareils de voie” or “aiguilles” or “aiguillages,” depending on source, just like “switch” vs. “turnout” in English), the jerk can be increased to 100 and even 125 mm/s. On p. 107 it even asserts that in exceptional circumstances, abrupt change in cant deficiency of up to 50 mm on main track and 100 on the diverging direction on a switch is allowed; see also PDF-pp. 13-15 of a pan-European presentation. Abrupt changes are not good for passengers, but will not derail a train.
Turnout design in the advanced world
Second derivative control, that is acceleration and cant deficiency, can be done using calculus and trigonometry tools. Third derivative control, that is clothoids and jerk, requires numerical calculations, but fortunately they are approximated well by pretending the clothoid is half straight line, half circular arc, with the length determined by the maximum jerk. Working from first principles, it’s possible to figure out that at typical turnout needs – e.g. move a train from one track to a parallel track 4 meters away – the clothoid is far longer than the curve itself, and at 50 mm/s jerk and 150 mm cant deficiency it’s not even possible to hit a curve radius of 250 meters.
Turnouts are inherently compromises. The question is just where to compromise. Here, for example, is a French turnout design, in two forms: 0.11 and 0.085. The numbers denoting the tangent of the angle at the frog, and the radius is proportional to the inverse square of the number, thus the speed is proportional to the inverse of the number. The sharper turnout, the 0.11, has a radius of 281 meters, a maximum speed of 50 km/h, and a total length of 26 meters from point to frog (“lead” in US usage), of which the clothoid curve (“point”) takes up 11, to limit jerk to 125 mm/s at a cant deficiency of 100 mm. The 0.085 turnout has a radius of 485 meters, a maximum speed of 65 km/h, a lead of about 38 meters, and a point of about 14.5 meters.
In Germany, turnouts have somewhat independent numbers and radii – some have shorter leads than others. The numbers are the inverse of those of France, so what France calls 0.11, Germany calls 1:9, but at the end of the day, the curve radius is the important part, with a cant deficiency of 100 mm. A higher cant deficiency may be desirable, but lengthening the point requires almost as much space as just increasing the curve radius, so might as well stick with the more comfortable limits.
Turnout design in the United States
American turnouts look similar to French or German ones, at first glance. I’ve seen a number of different designs; here’s one by CSX, on PDF-pp. 22 (#8) and 24 (#10), the numbers being very roughly comparable to German ones and inverses of French ones. CSX’s #10 has a curve radius of 779.39′, or 238 meters, and a lead of 24 meters, both numbers slightly tighter than the French 0.11. The radius is proportional to the square of the number, and so speed is proportional to the number.
However, the cant deficiency is just 50 mm. The point is not always curved; Amtrak’s low-number switches are not, so the change in cant deficiency is abrupt. Judging by what I experience every time I take a train between New York and New Haven, Metro-North’s switches have abrupt change in cant deficiency even on the mainline. The recommended standards by AREMA involve a curved point, but the point is still much shorter than in France (19.5′, or just under 6 meters, on a #12), so a 125 mm/s jerk only gets one up to about 62 mm cant deficiency.
The reason for this is that European turnouts are curved through the frog, whereas American ones are always straight at the frog. Extremely heavy American freight trains do not interact well with curved frogs and long points.
One might ask, why bother with such turnout design on rail segments that never see a heavy freight locomotive or 130-ton freight car? And on segments that do see the odd freight locomotive, like the approaches to Grand Central and Penn Station with the rare dual-mode locomotive, why not kick out anything that doesn’t interact well with advanced track design? Making a handful of passengers transfer would save around 4 minutes of trip time on the last mile into Grand Central alone for everyone else, not to mention time savings farther up the line.
Public transportation companies may have the ability to raise fares arbitrarily based on market demands, for examples British buses outside London and American freight railroads. Or they may be subject to regulations capping the fare, for example Japanese railroads. Mixed systems exist as well, such as British rail fares. In Britain, the privatized, mostly deregulated approach is so commonly accepted that a Conservative recently called Labour dangerous socialists for proposing municipalizing bus systems, as in such socialist states as the US, Japan, Germany, etc. In reality, in the case of rail specifically (and perhaps buses as well), there’s a theoretical case with some empirical backing for why reasonable fare caps as in Japan can lead to more investment and more capacity, whereas wholly unregulated fares lead to hoarding and capacity cuts to create shortages.
I’m stealing the economic model for this post from Paul Krugman, who used it to explain the California blackouts of 2000-1. The demand curve is inelastic: the demand is 1,000 units at $20/unit, decreasing to 900 units at $1,000/unit, at which point the curve goes flat. The supply curve is a constant $20/unit, but the market is oligopolistic (say, there are very high barriers to entry because building your own power plant is hard), and there are 5 producers, each with 200 units. If the price is regulated at $20/unit, each producer will supply 200 units. If the price is unregulated, then each producer alone gets an incentive to hold back production, since 100*1000 > 200*20, and then production will be curtailed to 900 units.
The model is simplified in a number of ways: real supply curves slope up; the part about demand going flat at 900 units is unrealistic and exists purely to avoid dealing with optimizing where at 800-something units each producer has an incentive to go back to producing more; capacity constraints involve escalating production costs rather than a God-given restriction on the number of suppliers and their capacity. But with all these caveats, it fits markets that have the following characteristics:
- There are steep barriers to entry, for example if large amounts of capital are required to enter (to build a power plant, set up a rail operating company, etc.).
- Demand is highly inelastic.
- Adding new capacity is expensive.
The issue of capacity
In rail, we can start plugging real numbers for both demand elasticity and the cost of new capacity.
In the above model the price elasticity is -0.0244 in the 900-1,000 units range, which is ridiculously inelastic, on purpose so as to highlight how the model works. TCRP Report 95 says the elasticity in a number of large cities studied is about -0.18, and a VTPI review in a mixture of cities and circumstances (peak vs. off-peak, bus vs. rail, etc.) asserts a short-term average of about -0.3. Unregulated fares will lead to supply reductions if the elasticity times the number of producers is more than -1 (or less than 1 if you flip signs); if no producer has <18% of the market, there will be supply restrictions under unregulated fares, just as a monopolist will hold back supply and raise fares if demand is inelastic.
The cost of new capacity of course depends on the line and the characteristics of competition between different railroads. It’s higher in Japan, where separate railroads run their own lines and trains, than in Britain, where different companies franchise to run trains on the same tracks. But even in Britain, getting a franchise requires a commitment to running service for many years. The significance of this is that the long-run public transport ridership elasticity with respect to fare is more elastic (VTPI recommends a range of -0.6 to -0.9), with a few estimates even going below -1.
For the purposes of this section, we do not distinguish capital from operating costs. Thus, the cost of new capacity is not given in units of capital costs, but in units of operating costs: if increasing service by 1% raises operating expenses by 2% counting the extra investment required, then we say the supply elasticity is 2. Note that supply curves slope up so the elasticity is always positive, but the elasticity can be below 1, for example if economies of scale are more important than the need to invest in new capacity.
Set the following variables: u is quantity of service, r is total revenue (thus, fare is r/u), c is total costs. The railroad is assumed profitable, so r > c. We are interested in the change in profit based on quantity of service, i.e.
The important thing to note is that price controls keep dr/du higher in an oligopoly (but not in a competitive environment, like housing – a single landlord can’t meaningfully create a housing shortage). With price controls, we get
whereas without price controls, with elasticity , we get
And likewise, with supply elasticity , we get
Note, moreover, that price controls as construed in Japan let operating companies recover profits, letting them raise prices if they invest in more capacity, so that dr/du is actually higher than r/u.
The real world
I do not know to what extent the lack of fare regulation on many British trains contributes to capacity shortages. However, there is some evidence that the same situation is holding back investment in the United States, on Amtrak. Amtrak is a monopolist facing some fare regulations, for example congressional rules limiting the spread between the lowest and highest fares on a given train, but within its ability to set its own capacity in the medium run, it has relatively free hand, and in fact a strong incentive to maximize fares, in order to subsidize money-losing trains outside the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak generally runs the trains it has on the Northeast Corridor, without explicitly holding back on capacity. However, this is in an environment with very low utilization rates. There are 20 Acela trainsets, but only 16 run in service at a given time, giving them the moniker “hangar queens.” There is no real interest within Amtrak at raising speed just enough to be able to run consistent service intervals, for example hourly with two trainsets coupled to form a 16-car train south of New York. Nor is there any interest in making small investments to permit such long trainsets to run – most Acela stops from New York to the south have platforms long or almost long enough for such trains, but the rest need to be lengthened, within right-of-way so that the cost is positive but low.
In the future, capacity cliffs may prove serious enough to stymie American passenger rail development. Right now the main obstacle are Amtrak itself and obstructive commuter railroads such as Metro-North, but assuming competent, profit-maximizing investment plans, it is not so expensive to invest in capacity and speed so as to permit around 4 long high-speed trains per hour north of New York (or even New Haven) and 6 south of it. But then the next few trains per hour require further bypasses, for example four-tracking most of the Providence Line. High supply elasticity – let’s say around 2 – is plausible. Then eventually a dedicated pathway to intercity trains through New York becomes necessary, raising supply elasticity even higher. In an environment with uncapped, profit-maximizing fares, a rational Amtrak management may well just keep what it has and jack up prices rather than build more capacity.