# Quick Note: Queer Urbanism

I came out on Twitter the other night. I bring this up here because I was asked something I didn’t, and still don’t, have a really good answer for: how come there are so many queer people, especially ones who are trans or genderqueer, in rail advocacy? This may be just an American question – my impression of German rail advocacy is that it’s much straighter.

On Twitter, there were a few explanations, none of which too satisfying:

• Autism correlates with queerness (see e.g. here for autism-LGB spectrum correlation and here and here for dysphoria) and also with interest in trains. But then even if one only looks at allistic people, a pretty hefty share of people at (say) TransitMatters are LGBT.
• Urbanism. The visible queer community is more urban than the general population, for reasons that I don’t want to get into because serious urbanists and Richard Florida have discussed them for decades. Even conditioned on living in a big city with public transportation, the advocacy community is disproportionately queer (again, TransitMatters), but it’s plausible that the same factors making the queer community more urban also make its travel patterns more transit-oriented.
• Something about American liberal politics mostly drawing from a few groups: queers, Jews, and black people (and maybe other nonwhites). But that is clearly not true of every single political issue, for example the people I can think of in American health care advocacy are straight, and queer activism on health care is often about queer-specific topics like AIDS and trans health care.
• YIMBY is specifically a fairly queer movement, and the most successful American one, that of San Francisco, is extremely queer; good public transportation advocacy in the US is very YIMBY. But that correlation raises separate questions regarding why good transit advocacy is so YIMBY and why YIMBY has so many LGBT members.

I genuinely don’t know how much of this even holds outside the US. It’s plausible that in countries where passenger rail planning is a career that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of, people with the sexual orientation that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of are more likely to pursue rail advocacy. I don’t have enough knowledge of the political landscape in enough cities to be able to speak comparatively across countries, and if you know more, I urge you to share in comments.

# How to Do Coordinated Public Transport Planning

I’d like to share an example of how to implement coordinated planning for public transportation, using an example of something I’ve been working on with TransitMatters in and around Boston. Right now we’re writing schedules and proposing concrete investments including electrification on each commuter line into Boston; the process is different for each line, but the first line we’ve launched the document for, the Worcester Line, is illustrative in itself. You can find the file here and the broader proposal here; the first link bundles two separate documents, of which the Worcester proposal is the second. I’ve harped a lot on using the Swiss model for better regional rail, and here is one example of how to get a city whose rail technology is stuck in the 1930s to have what Zurich has.

Slogans and principles

I’ve harped on a few Swiss and Swiss-adjacent slogans before:

Organization before electronics before concrete. Investments in more tracks, tunnels, and so on should come last as they are expensive, and beforehand agencies should improve signaling and electrify as it is much cheaper. Moreover, fixing organizational issues, for example writing good schedules and integrating planning between different agencies, should come before anything else, as it requires planners to do more work but is otherwise cost-free.

Takt and symmetry. If a train leaves your station going eastbound at 7:14 am and the schedule is every half hour, then a train leaves your station going eastbound at :14 and :44 all day, every day; this is also called a clockface schedule. If there’s additional service during rush hour, it should fit into the takt, e.g. more trains coming at :29 and :59 for 2 morning hours and 2 afternoon hours. By the same token, trains going westbound should serve your station at :16 and :46, since 60-14 = 46. This means the overtakes, meets on a single-track line, etc. all occur at consistent places.

The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The plan must account for all three sides of the triangle simultaneously, in order to optimize investment. For example, if additional tracks are required for timed overtakes, then the agency should know what trains it’s going to run and how frequent it’s going to run them in order to know where the overtakes are needed. With a takt, the overtakes will be at consistent location where the region can target investment.

Run trains as fast as necessary. Increases in speed should be designed around making timed connections and limiting train downtime. One refinement on a suburban line is that the stop spacing should depend on the schedule: if the one-way trip time is 52 minutes then a short turnaround makes an hour and additional stops are difficult to fit in, whereas if it is 46 minutes then the turnaround is longer and there is room for more stops.

The knot system: knots (or nodes, same word in German) occur at major stations at regular intervals – at a minimum an interval equal to half the systemwide takt frequency. If trains run half-hourly, then a station with service at :00 and :30 or with service at :15 and :45 will be served in both directions at the same time, so it’s a good place for bus and train connections. This works in both planning directions: if the schedule happens to place a knot at a station then buses should go there, and conversely if a city is a major node then the schedule should be written to a place a knot there.

What we propose for Worcester

The proposal as written calls for two service patterns, one express and one local. At rush hour, both run every 15 minutes. Off-peak, the express pattern drops to 30-minute frequency, but the local pattern stays at 15 minutes, as it serves Boston neighborhoods and Newton, close enough in that high off-peak ridership can be expected. With electrification and high platforms, the following schedule is feasible:

 Station Km-point Local Express Boston South 0 0:04 0:11 Back Bay 2.1 0:07 0:14 Lansdowne (Fenway Park) 4 0:09 0:16 West (Allston) 6.2 0:12 Boston Landing 7.5 0:14 Newton Corner 11.3 0:17 0:21 Newtonville 13.3 0:19 West Newton 15.2 0:21 Auburndale 16.9 0:23 Wellesley Farms 20.3 0:26 Wellesley Hills 21.8 0:28 Wellesley Square 23.8 0:30 Natick 28.5 0:34 West Natick 32.1 0:36 Framingham 34.3 0:39 0:32 Ashland 40.5 0:36 Southborough 44.2 0:40 Westborough Center 51.5 0:44 Grafton 58.7 0:49 Worcester 71.3 0:56

Express trains overtake locals at Wellesley Farms; there are plans for triple-tracking Wellesley (and farther west, but it’s not necessary). At Framingham, locals take 12 minutes to turn, which means there needs to be a non-revenue move around 0:41 westbound to a yard just west of Framingham to avoid getting in the way of express trains at :43 and :47 before getting back to Framingham at 0:49 to collect passengers; triple-tracking Framingham is also an option but is more expensive.

How it fits the principles

Let’s go over the Swiss principles one by one and see how this all fits.

Organization before electronics before concrete. As presented the plan includes elements of all three: organization is better-timed schedules and the potential use of the yard as a pocket track to avoid triple-tracking Framingham, electronics is electrification, concrete is the triple track. The electronics-concrete order is important – without the triple track but with electrification, EMUs can still do Boston-Worcester in around 57 minutes with the above stops, or 55 without infill at West Station and Newton Corner, either of which is faster than the fastest express trains today. The ultimate in concrete in the Boston area is the North-South Rail Link, which should come only after full electrification and related modernization steps, such as high platforms.

Takt and symmetry. The timetable is on a takt and symmetric, to ensure the overtake takes place at a manageable spot in Wellesley. It would be easier to change the offset slightly and overtake around West Newton, but there the tracks are in a constrained location where triple-tracking is prohibitively expensive. Note also that with the above timetable, the westbound overtake is at :11, :26, :41, :56, and the eastbound overtake is at :04, :19, :34, :49, which means it requires triple-tracking but not four-tracking.

The magic triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and timetable. The timetable is calibrated around the performance specs of the latest EMUs, like Coradias, Mireos, Talent 3s, and FLIRTs. The high acceleration capabilities of these trains let a local train leave Boston just 7 minutes ahead of the next express train, and still keep up through double-track narrows in Newton until Wellesley Farms, the sixth station skipped.

Run trains as fast as necessary. Without onward connections beyond Worcester, transfers between trains are not really a factor. Thus, what matters is tight turnaround times to keep trains moving and earning revenue rather than loitering at the terminal. The local train spends 35 out of 45 minutes running, and the express train 45 out of 60.

The knot system. Knots occur wherever trains stop around :00, :15, :30, and :45. The word around includes a few minutes of wiggle time, especially at a terminal, where transfers are unidirectional. Thus Worcester is a knot at :00, with a few minutes of rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfer. Framingham is a knot at :30, as long as the buses get there before :28 to transfer to eastbound express trains and depart after :32 to accommodate transfers from westbound express trains. On local trains, Newton Corner may be a knot, with a connecting bus shuttle to Watertown.

Bus nodes

Framingham and Worcester already exist as bus nodes, and in both cities, the main city bus hub is already the train station. The next step is to integrate the schedules. The rule is generally that bus timetabling should follow rail timetabling, because trains require more infrastructure whereas buses can be moved more easily; there are exceptions, but not many.

The principles for bus design on the Zurich model aren’t as catchy as for rail design, but they are still useful and generally worth learning:

One ticket for all. Fares must be totally integrated. If a train makes two stops in the same zone (for example, Framingham and West Natick), it should charge the same as a bus. A train ticket should be valid within the entire zone traversed, which includes bus transfers. The same fare media should be used on all modes – and they should be paper tickets with no surveillance, not Boston’s ongoing smartcard disaster (“AFC 2.0”). Fare integration requires a mechanism for sharing revenue across agencies, but this is organization, and is doable under the aegis of the Massachusetts state government, with revenue allocated to agencies based on periodic counts to ascertain ridership (Berlin’s are every 3 years).

Timed transfers. Suburban buses should come every half hour, on a takt of course, with timed transfers to the trains at the relevant knot. Worcester’s bus agency, WRTA, does not do this at all – bus #1 runs on an hourly takt, but other routes may run every 50 minutes or every 75. Framingham’s, MWRTA, has 65-minute headways, and a route that runs to a Green Line station rather than much closer to a commuter rail station.

High vehicle utilization. If the bus takes around 25 minutes to reach its outlying destination, then two vehicles serve one route, and if it takes 40 minutes, then three vehicles do. Buses should run as fast as necessary as well, deleting meanders, installing queue jump lanes, and shortening the route in order to squeeze inside a timetable with short turnaround times.

Connections between different train stations. A bus can connect two different train stations, either on the same line or on different lines. It should be timed at both ends, though it if runs parallel to the train, then it’s fine to time only right-way connections (e.g. eastbound bus to eastbound train, westbound bus to westbound train), which do not require knots.

# Our Project

Eric Goldwyn and I have just signed a two-year grant contract for our big construction cost project; we’re working via NYU, him on-site in New York and me remotely in Berlin (at least for now).

We’re hiring!

Our budget includes extensive spending on people who are not Eric or me. For now, we are looking for part-time grad student work to help with data collection. We have an ad circulating internally around NYU, but it’s also open to outsiders:

We are looking to hire up to three students from around the university to help us compile data on infrastructure costs from around the world, especially those of urban subway lines. Specifically, we are looking to understand the drivers of costs—why do public transportation infrastructure projects in one city cost more than in another city? We have already begun collecting this data on projects from around the world and would like to extend these efforts.

We are particularly looking to extend our coverage outside countries where information is readily available in English, such as the English-speaking world or Western Europe. The information we need consists first of all of headline costs of public transportation infrastructure costs, but then of more detailed breakdowns, such as construction techniques, ancillary projects, financing mechanism, the environmental review process, the legal situation, labor size, etc.

The ideal candidate will thus have the following skills:

• Reading fluency in a foreign language used in a country or countries with major ongoing urban rail construction, such as Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, or Arabic.
• Either preexisting familiarity with engineering terms (such as “cut-and-cover”) or the ability to learn them quickly.
• Database software, such as Excel or more advanced statistical analysis software.
• Data analysis or data science techniques useful for small N.
• Self-motivation and independence, for example in finding relevant information to add to the database.
• Good oral and written communication skills.
• Punctuality and promptness – deadlines are written in stone.

Drs. Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn will supervise all students and work side by side with them to extract the most value from the data. There will also be opportunities to collaborate on writing projects related to the data collection efforts.

If you’re interested, please email both me at alon@pedestrianobservations.com and Eric at elg229@nyu.edu. If you only have half the listed skills, you should probably still apply, especially if these skills include a foreign language that other applicants won’t know.

We will also hire more people as time goes by. We have a budget for a postdoc-level research scholar, so if you’re graduating this year please keep in touch – I’ll post updates when we know our exact timeline, since the grant period isn’t neatly in line with academic years, but it’s a minimum one-year full-time position at NYU, one that for visa purposes is treated as an academic job (thus exempt from the work visa cap).

The goal

The ultimate deliverable in the project is a long report – I’m guessing mid-3 figures number of pages – detailing why American costs are high and what can be done about it. The report should include the following:

• The database of construction costs, broken down to include not just headline costs but also details about construction methods, construction costs by component (stations, tunnels, systems, etc.), rock type, procurement methods, and other relevant variables.
• A highlight of what the important variables are for explaining differences in construction costs, including hopefully a few sentences about the situation in each major city in the database (or if not each then many, on the order of 30+).
• Potentially related databases of construction costs if we get them in sufficient detail and judge them to be comparable, such as for road tunnels, high-speed rail, rail electrification, surface tramways, and urban rail accessibility retrofits.
• A brief how-we-got-here historical overview covering institutional and engineering background to how American infrastructure construction differs from that of most other countries.
• Six (at least) detailed city-level case studies. New York may or may not end up as one of them; Boston almost certainly will, for work we have been doing about the Green Line Extension. The case study selection needs to happen early – this calendar year, and not near its end – and this means we need to identify solid sources who will speak to us about the historical, institutional, legal, and social factors at play.
• A conclusion synthesizing everything to give a coherent recipe for how American (and really English-speaking in general) cities can reduce their construction costs to rest-of-world levels, and ideally even further to match the costs in cheaper countries like Spain, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, Romania, and the Nordic countries.
• A higher level of synthesis suggesting what a rail network for New York could look like at the lower costs we are proposing.

If you know sources who can talk to us – for example, people at agencies that are building urban rail outside the English-speaking world – then please reach out to us.

The test

I feel good about this – about the recognition, and about the ability to study comparative costs without the stress of looking for temporary gigs. I’m reaching out to various contacts and contacts-of-contacts in a number of cities that are building urban subways, and if anyone has suggestions for who I should talk to, please shoot me an email or mention what you know in comments, as this is a field with a huge base of knowledge.

But at the same time I feel terrified, because I can fail. The project is not going to completely flop, because the database already exists and there’s even more data out there that we already got but just haven’t published. But from getting even an exhaustive database to being able to make actionable recommendations the route is long, and involves case studies and qualitative research and emailing people who have no reason to have heard of me or Eric and often just don’t respond. I think it’s very likely we’ll be able to come up with a useful writeup, and decently likely that this writeup will include a recipe for building subways in New York for $200-300 million per kilometer rather than$2 billion ($100 million/km, as in Madrid and such, is aspirational). But it’s not guaranteed. We can fail at any number of places: managing the students, finding detailed enough cost breakdowns to identify where the US fails, having broad enough coverage to write multiple case studies, getting enough experts who’ve built cheap subways to talk to us, and so on. The report I mentioned above will get written and published, but whether there is an actionable conclusion remains to be seen, and even if the conclusion is actionable, I don’t know how politically realistic it will be. Doing this research without really knowing what we’ll find is frustrating this way. The conclusion may well be “the US needs to bust the construction unions.” I don’t think such a conclusion is likely from what we’ve seen so far, but I cannot 100% rule out that it is a significant factor. Or it may be “the US needs to get rid of common law,” which is even less likely to happen; I thought this was an important factor until 2018 or 2019. What is likelier is that a lot of local notables and small-time bureaucrats may need to be cut out of the loop entirely through more streamlined project reviews with fewer veto points, which is politically plausible but requires a governor or a federal government with a modicum of political courage to execute. What it means for this blog I’m going to keep posting, at the usual rate of twice a week averaged over time. If I find interesting snippets, I may post them before releasing the report; to some extent I’ve already been doing that with smaller projects. I am still going to think a lot about issues of network design and urbanist politics and will keep writing about those topics. My Patreon is still around if people want to give me money even though I’m not lacking for it at this point. I’ve been slouching on some of the rewards as I spent months not freelancing (thus, not getting ideas to mine for extra backers-only posts and polls) but finalizing this contract, and now that I have the contract at hand and the project is starting I can go back to it as promised. In parallel with the costs project, I am going to keep thinking about network design and come up with proposals like this one for New York and New England or this one for Germany; I’ve been thinking about an integrated America-takt or a Europe-takt, at vastly larger scale than any national plan so far, even China’s (which only covers high-speed rail and has no regional rail worth mentioning). Subject to upcoming election results, the scope of what budget is realistic may be narrow enough that I can think in terms of what a specific dollar or euro figure could do. This of course relates to construction costs – the lower the costs, the more stuff can be built for the same amount of money. Moreover, at high enough level, absolute costs do matter: a Green Deal with €150 billion investment Germany-wide or a Green New Deal with$600 billion US-wide is a big enough proportion of GDP so as to hit real limits to tax capacity and deficit spending, so reductions in unit costs are in 1-to-1 correspondence with building more green infrastructure.

This is why costs ultimately matter. A single subway project may look like a drop in the bucket of the national budget, but when it’s bundled with the costs of an entire public transportation network, and those costs in turn are bundled with those of other major government priorities, the drop becomes a bucket and then a river and then an ocean. The biggest successes in public transportation are plans that look at everything simultaneously and integrate every aspect of operations and infrastructure, and the more cost-efficient these plans are, the further they can reach. There is no way around it.

# MAGA Trains

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.

Organization

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.

Planning coordination

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.

Technology

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.

# Freight Rapid Transit

Is it possible to use a rapid transit-style system to carry light freight, such as parcels? So far no such system exists, and very few semi-relates systems exist (like pneumatic tubes for mail). But it remains an interesting potential technology, provided it is done right. Unfortunately, it is very easy to do it wrong through misunderstanding how freight or how rapid transit works. Therefore, advances in policy in this direction are good but should be done carefully.

Instead of giving people one big takeaway, I’m going to suggest a few good principles for this, motivated by both good and bad proposals.

1. Keep the tracks clear for maintenance at night

Germany’s minister of transport, CSU’s Andreas Scheuer, proposed running freight on the U-Bahn after hours. This is a terrible idea: regular nighttime closures are crucial for maintenance, and without them, maintenance costs go up and daytime reliability tanks. New York’s constant weekend service changes are the result of not shutting down overnight for maintenance nor being able to reliably single-track at nighttime headways. Berlin already runs overnight on weekends and does some daytime maintenance – “Ersatzverkehr mit Bussen” is one of the first ordinary German phrases I learned after moving here. Further encroachment on maintenance windows is not acceptable.

2. Use existing station infrastructure

The main cost in digging urban rail tunnels is the stations – boring tunnels between stations is a solved problem. This means that the main difficulty of urban rail freight is where freight gets on and off the trains. Loading and unloading container-size freight is impossible without massive station digs, all in expensive places. Having a freight car wait on a siding is not possible either – that interface between the customer and the freight railway relies on cheap land and time-insensitive shipping.

Most likely, shipping parcels by rapid transit requires using the existing stations and platforms. There is almost certainly no room at rush hour, when trains are sized to take up the entire platform interface to increase capacity. But in the daytime off-peak, there may be some room for using a portion of a subway station for parcels.

3. Keep up with passenger rail traffic

If freight trains can’t run at night, they have to slot on the same timetable as passenger trains. This isn’t a problem on the tracks – just add an EMU car loaded with parcels rather than passengers. But keeping dwell times under control is critical. Alert reader Mordy K. wrote about this, suggesting a “dynamic Rubik’s cube” that “shifts the packages around in 3D.” This is the real challenge: figure out how parcels get from the train to a designated spot on the platform or from the platform to a designated spot on the train during a 30-second dwell time.

4. Be aware of all interfaces between different systems

There are, at a minimum, five legs to a parcel trip in a city using rapid transit: origin to station, station to train, trip on train, train to station, station to destination. The boarding and alighting steps, so easy for the able-bodied passenger and even for the disabled passenger given rudimentary investment into accessibility, are difficult for a parcel of freight. Tossing a package from a train to the platform is not enough: the package needs to get to the surface for the final leg of the trip. A courier could carry it, but at a high cost – the courier’s modes of transportation for the surface legs, like the e-bike, are bad at getting down to the subway and back up, so the time and physical effort costs are high.

This in turn means that the rail transit freight system needs to be able to put parcels in a freight elevator. Elevators are not free, although they are rarely as expensive as in New York. The problem is that parcels can’t walk across the platform, so the elevator has to face the exact same place every time, which may run into construction difficulties.

5. Don’t wreck passenger rail service

Berlin runs some trains short, especially after hours. Usually the first train after the beginning of short train service is very crowded, because passenger service demand is still too high for a half-train at the typical density of daytime Berlin trains. (I say typical density because I have never seen a Berlin train as crowded as the busiest off-peak trains in Paris or New York, let alone their busiest peak trains.)

What this means is that in practice there isn’t that much space on the train for freight. Running trains every 5 minutes until later at night but then cordoning off half for freight may be feasible – right now headways rise to 10 minutes around 9 in the evening – but it’s still just a few evening and early night hours for delivery.

This principle is equally important at the stations: cordoning off parts of the platform for freight is fine, but only if it does not interfere with passenger capacity or circulation. This may further constrain where freight elevators go: whatever automated system gets parcels from the train to the elevator will have to cross passenger traffic at-grade, and driverless technology can do it but not cheaply or smoothly.

6. Aim to work with a wide range of goods

Pneumatic tube systems for mail work for mail, but modifying them for other goods isn’t trivial. In contrast, a parcel delivery system should aim to be broadly usable by many goods with a high ratio of value added to weight. Subtle differences are important at this level of detail: glass and china goods can’t be thrown on the floor, fresh food spoils if it’s left outside for too long, jewelry and electronics face a high risk of theft. The technology has to have adequate tracking, punctuality, defense from shocks, and so on.

7. Be aware of the competition

Delivery by rapid transit is not the only alternative to trucks for cross-city shipping. Delivery by drone is in active development, both surface drones and flying drones. Surface drones have good synergy with trains, since surface drones are slow and make better first- and last-mile connections. But flying drones are in direct competition, since they work well at a range of a few kilometers rather than a few hundreds of meters. Flying drones so far only work at extremely high value-to-weight ratios, but if they become more widespread, it’s useful to think of how urban rail can compete.

# China Won’t Save You

The construction costs of Britain’s just-approved domestic high-speed rail network, High Speed 2, are extreme. The headline costs are, in 2019 figures, £80.7-88.7 billion per the Oakervee review, with one estimate going up to £106.6 billion, all for a system only 530 km in length in mostly flat terrain. This includes rolling stock, but that is less than 10% of the projected cost. At the end of the day, Britain has decided to spend around $200 million per kilometer, a cost comparable to that of base tunnels and mostly-tunneled high-speed lines. And now the People’s Republic of China has offered to build the entire thing for cheaper with a 5-year timeline, and everyone acts as if it’s a serious offer. So let me dust off my construction costs database and tell you: the PRC won’t save you. There is no alternative to developing good internal cost control. This requires learning from lower-cost countries, but Chinese high-speed rail construction costs are not really low. Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are both building metros. Hanoi uses Chinese financing, HCMC uses Japanese financing. Both have very high construction costs – my database has HCMC’s 13% underground Line 1 at$320 million/km, 82% underground Line 2 phase 1 at $535 million/km, and 84% underground Line 5 phase 1 at$590 million/km, whereas Hanoi’s 74% underground Line 2A is $215 million/km and 32% underground Line 3 is$365 million/km.

The system in Hanoi has been plagued with delays. Line 2A was supposed to be operational by 2016. Construction was only completed in 2018, but the line is yet to open. Testing is ongoing, but Chinese experts couldn’t return to Vietnam after the Chinese New Year holiday because of the coronavirus quarantine. The South China Morning Post has compared the Hanoi project negatively with that of HCMC, which is for the most part on time, if expensive.

Like many developing-world cities, HCMC is paying more for a subway tunnel than Japan pays at home; to get to the cost range of HCMC in Japan, one needs to go to complex regional rail tunnels in Tokyo dipping under multiple older tunnels in city center. In that it is no different from Dhaka or Jakarta. The primary explanation must be that importing Japanese technology means using techniques optimized for a high-skill, high-wage labor force and cheap domestic capital, rather than ones optimized for a low-skill, low-wage labor force and expensive imported capital.

But that does not explain why the Hanoi Metro is so expensive. Chinese metros cost less (though not universally – Shanghai’s construction costs are rising fast): I want to say about $250 million/km on average, about the same as the non-Chinese global median, but the actually big set of data is unpublished so you guys can’t nitpick my sources yet. So what’s going on here? Vietnam is poorer than China, but the difference is not so big. It’s about half as rich as the PRC. It’s comparable to Europe, where Romania and Bulgaria are about half as rich as Western Europe, and they have low construction costs, lower than parts of Eastern Europe closer to Western incomes. Chinese high-speed rail The construction costs of high-speed rail in the PRC are fairly high, especially in its richer parts. The costs remain lower than those of tunnel-heavy lines like those of Italy, Japan, and South Korea, but by low-tunnel standards, they are high. There is a perception that Chinese costs are low, but it comes from using the wrong currency conversion. Here, for example, is a World Bank report on the subject: [P. 39] Figure 4.1 shows the construction cost of 60 projects. The average cost of a double-track HSR line (including signaling, electrification, and facilities) is about Y 139 million/km (US$20.6 million/km) for a 350 kph HSR line, about Y 114 million (US$16.9 million) for a 250 kph HSR line, and about Y 104 million (US$15.4 million) for a 200 kph HSR line. These costs are at least 40 percent cheaper than construction costs in Europe (European Court of Auditors 2018, 35).

The problem is, the exchange rate of $1 = ¥6.75 is incorrect. The OECD’s PPP conversion factor today is much higher,$1 = ¥3.5; for high-speed lines built a decade ago, it would be even higher, about $1 = ¥3.3, with ten years of American inflation since. Using the correct modern rate, the cost is about$40 million per kilometer, which is not lower than in Europe but rather higher. Beijing-Shanghai, as far as I can tell a ¥220 billion project for 1,318 km of which just 16 km are in tunnel, rises to $50 million per km, and more like$60 million per km in today’s money. It’s still cheaper than High Speed 2, but more expensive than every Continental Europe high-speed line that isn’t predominantly in tunnel, like Bologna-Florence.

There are all these longwinded explanations for why the PRC does things cheaper and faster than the first world, and they are completely false. China is not cheap to build in, especially not high-speed rail. The only reason Chinese costs aren’t even higher is that Eastern China is pretty flat. Even then, China has not taken advantage of this flatness to build tracks at-grade to minimize costs. Instead, it has built long viaducts at high cost, in contrast with the at-grade approach that has kept French LGV costs reasonable.

The PRC doesn’t even build things particularly quickly. Total actual construction time from start to finish per line segment is 4-6 years per Wikipedia’s list, which is comparable to recent LGVs. What is true is that China has been building many lines at once, and each line is long, but this is a matter of throughput, not latency. The limit to throughput is money; the PRC made a political decision to spend a lot of it at once as stimulus in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and by the same token, the UK has just made a political decision to spend just less than £100 billion on High Speed 2, in a trickle so that the system will take 15+ years to complete.

Why are they like this?

The myth of hyper-efficient Chinese construction seems never to die; I’ve seen it from the first days of this blog, e.g. then-US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2012. It relates to a mythology that I think is mostly part of Anglo-American culture, of the tension between freedom and efficiency. The English-speaking world in this mythology is the epitome of freedom, with a gradation of less free, more efficient paces: Germany, then Japan, then finally China. It’s a world in which people’s ideas of what totalitarianism looks like come from reading George Orwell and not from hearing about the real-life Soviet Union’s comic incompetence – the gerontocracy, the court politics, the drunk officials, the technologically reactionary party apparatchiks – all of which was happening in real time in Nazi Germany too, which was fighting less efficiently than the UK and US did.

It’s equally a world in which people think rights Germans and Japanese take for granted, like various privacy protections, do not even register as important civil liberties. I dare any reader to try explaining to a British or American transit manager that really, no, you do not need our data, Central Europe manages to plan better than you without smartcards tracking users’ every move and storing the data in servers with infosec that screams “steal me.” Nor do Americans make much of an effort to import policing regimes from democracies with one twentieth their rate of police shootings per capita.

China’s incompetence is now visible to the entire world, in the form of a virus outbreak that local officials flailed about for a month, too afraid to acknowledge mistakes lest they take the fall for them. And yet it’s easier for American and British business leaders and politicians to point to China as an example to emulate than to Pareto-better France or Germany.

If anything, High Speed 2 is low-key overlearning some French lessons, leading to inferior infrastructure planning – but it’s messing up key details leading to cost explosion, such as “don’t build new signature urban train stations.” But my suspicion is that French and German rail experts will point out all those details. To us, if Britain changes some detail in a way that isn’t truly justified by local conditions, we will point it out – and push back when British blowhards try to explain to use that they do things differently because they’re morally superior to us. British people know this – they know they can’t pull rank. Americans are the same, except even less capable of dealing with other nations as equals than the British are.

The way forward

High Speed 2 is a mess, largely because of the cost. To move forward, talking to China about how it’s built high-speed rail may be useful, but it can’t be the primary comparison, not when Continental Europe is right here and does things better and cheaper. For Asian help, Japan has some important lessons about good operations and squeezing maximum use out of limited urban space. A lot of scope can be removed. A lot more can be modified slightly to connect to regional lines better.

More conceptually, Britain has a problem with costs and benefits chasing each other. If benefits are too high, the political system responds with sloppy cost control, for example by lading the project with ancillary side projects that someone wants or by giving in to NIMBY opposition. If the costs are too high, the political system responds with scrounging extra benefits, for example counting the consumer surplus of high-speed rail travelers as a benefit, by which standard every government subsidy to anyone has a benefit-cost ratio of at least 1.

Bringing in the PRC won’t help. It’s value-engineering theater, rather than the hard work required to coordinate infrastructure and timetable planning or to tell Home Counties NIMBYs that the state is not in the business of guaranteeing their views; there is so much tunneling on the proposed line that isn’t really necessary. None of the countries that builds trains cheaply did so by selling its civil service for spare parts; why would Britain be any different?

# Metcalfe’s Law for High-Speed Rail

I wrote a Twitter thread about high-speed rail in the United States that I’d like to expand to a full post, because it illustrates a key network design principle. It comes from Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes. The upshot is that once you start a high-speed rail network, the benefits to extending it in every direction are large even if the subsequent cities connected are not nearly so large as on the initial segment. Conversely, isolated networks from the initial segments are of lower value.

The implication for the United States is that, first of all, it should invest in high-speed rail on the entire Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, aiming for 3-3.5 hour end-to-end trip times. And as the Corridor is completed, the priority should be extensions in all directions: south to Atlanta, north to Springfield and (by legacy rail) Portland, west to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, northwest to Upstate New York and Toronto.

The model

To quantify the benefits, I’m going to look purely at railroad finances: construction costs go out, annual profits go in. Intercity high-speed rail pretty much universally turns an operating profit, the question is just how it compares with interest on capital construction. For this, in turn, we need to estimate ridership. Here is an illustrative photo of the sophistication of the model I am using:

In the picture: someone who gets on the train without letting you get off first. Credit: William O’Connor.

The theoretical model for ridership is called a gravity model: ridership between two cities of populations Pop_A and Pop_B at distance d is proportional to

$\mbox{Pop}_{A}\cdot\mbox{Pop}_{B}/d^{2}.$

However, two complications arise. First of all, there are some diseconomies of scale: the trip time from the train station to one’s ultimate destination is likely to be much higher if the city is as huge as Tokyo or New York than if it is smaller. Empirically, this can be resolved by raising the populations of both cities to an exponent slightly less than 1; on the data I have, which is Japanese (east and west of Tokyo), Spanish (Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Seville), and French (see post here – all its sources link-rotted), the best exponent looks like 0.8.

And second, at short distance, the gravity model fails for two reasons: first, access time dominates so in-vehicle time is less important, and second, passengers drive more and take fast trains less. In fact, on the data I’m most certain of the quality of – that from Japan – ridership seems insensitive to distance up to and beyond the distance of Tokyo-Osaka, which is 515 km by Shinkansen. Tokyo-Hiroshima, 821 km and 3:55 by Shinkansen, underperforms Tokyo-Osaka by a factor of about 1.6 if the model is $\mbox{Pop}_{A}^{0.8}\cdot\mbox{Pop}_{B}^{0.8}$ if we lump in air with rail traffic; of course, air travel time is incredibly insensitive to distance over this range, so it may not be fair to do so. French data taken about 3 hours out of Paris overperforms the mid-distance Shinkansen, although that’s partly an artifact of lower fares on the TGV.

To square this circle, I’m going to make the following assumption: the model is,

$\mbox{Pop}_{A}^{0.8}\cdot\mbox{Pop}_{B}^{0.8}/\min\{500 \mbox{ km}, d\}^{2}.$

If the populations of the two metro areas so connected are in millions then the best constant for the model is 75,000: that is, take out the number the formula spits, multiply by $500^{2} = 250,000$ to get rid of the denominator at low d, multiply by 0.3, and make that your annual number of passengers in millions.

Finally, operating costs are set at $0.05/seat-km or$0.07/passenger-km, which is somewhat lower than on the TGV but realistic given how overstaffed and peaky the TGV is. This is inclusive of the capital costs of rolling stock, but not of fixed infrastructure. Fares are set at $0.135/passenger-km, a figure chosen to make New York-Boston and New York-Washington exactly$49 each, but on trips longer than 770 km, the fares rise more slowly so that profit is capped at $50/trip. Of note, Shinkansen fares are about$0.23/p-km on average, so training data on Shinkansen fares for a network that’s supposed to charge lower fares yields conservative ridership estimates; I try to be conservative since my model is, as the picture may indicate, not the most reliable.

The model on the Northeast Corridor

The Northeast Corridor connects four metropolitan areas: Boston (8 million people), New York (22), Philadelphia (7), Washington (10). All populations cover combined statistical areas, just as the metropolitan area definitions in Japan are expansive and include faraway exurbs. In the Northeast, the CSAs lump together some independent metro areas, such as Baltimore-Washington, but the largest of the subsidiary metro areas, including Baltimore, Providence, New Haven, and Trenton, are along the Northeast Corridor and would get their own stations.

The distances are 360 km Boston-New York, 140 km New York-Philadelphia, 220 km Philadelphia-Washington. I am not going to take into account subsidiary stations in passenger-km calculations, for simplicity’s sake. Splitting Baltimore apart from Washington would actually raise ridership by a little, first because the 0.8 exponent means that combining metro areas reduces ridership, and second because Boston-bound ridership is higher if we assume the destination is a little bit closer.

The highest-ridership city pair is New York-Washington. Per the formula above, we get

$0.3\cdot 22^{0.8}\cdot 10^{0.8} = 22.44 \mbox{mio. pax/year.}$

By the same formula, New York-Boston is 18.77 million, New York-Philadelphia is 16.87 million, Washington-Philadelphia is 8.98 million, and Boston-Philadelphia is 7.51 million. All of these are within the 500 km limit in which we assume distance doesn’t matter. Finally, Boston-Washington is

$75,000\cdot 10^{0.8}\cdot 8^{0.8}/720^{2} = 4.82 \mbox{mio. pax/year.}$

Overall, this is 79.4 million annual passengers, excluding shorter-distance commuter travel like New York-New Haven. Taking distance traveled into account, this is 26.4 billion annual p-km, generating $1.7 billion of operating profit. What I think it should cost to generate this service is investments that, with good value engineering that has been missing from all plans in the last 12 or so years, should cost in the low teens, say$13 billion. If costs can be held to $13 billion, or just less than$20 million per kilometer for a line of which about two-thirds of the physical infrastructure is good enough, then the financial return on investment is 13%. Not bad.

Of note, traffic density is fairly symmetric at the two ends. At the southern end, between Philadelphia and Washington, total traffic density is 36.24 million passengers per year; at the northern end, between New York and Boston, it is 31.1 million. So there should be some extra trains just for New York-Philadelphia, where the expected traffic density is 51.64 million – perhaps ones diverting west to inland Pennsylvania, perhaps interregional trains making an extra stop or two running 5-10 minutes slower than the trains to Washington – but otherwise trains should run on the entire corridor from Boston to Washington.

Also of note, I don’t expect much peakiness on the line – probably none outside the New York-Philadelphia segment. Short-distance lines, including New York-New Haven and New York-Philadelphia, have a rush hour peak in travel. But longer-range intercity lines generate weekend leisure travel and same-day business travel, both of which tend to peak outside the regular rush hour; TGV traffic, heavily weighted toward longer-range city pairs, peaks on Friday and Sunday, with weaker weekday ridership to balance it out. The Northeast Corridor thus benefits from mixing cities at various ranges, with the various peaks mostly canceling each other out. It’s plausible to get away with running service at a regular interval of every 15 minutes all day, with extra trains on New York-Philadelphia.

The Northeast Corridor and Metcalfe’s law

Two examples of Metcalfe’s law in action can be found on the corridor, one for an expansion and one for a contraction.

The contraction would be to ignore Boston and just focus on New York-Washington. The traffic density is higher there, for one. Moreover, no extensive civil infrastructure is required, only some small fixes in Maryland and New Jersey, a rebuild of the catenary, and rebuilds of the station throat interlockings. However, this is less prudent than it seems, because Boston doesn’t just generate traffic on New York-Boston, but also on New York-Washington, on trains bound from points south of New York to Boston.

If we exclude Boston, we have just three city pairs on what is left: New York-Washington, New York-Philadelphia, Washington-Philadelphia. They total 48.3 million passengers per year and 12.4 billion p-km – in other words, slightly less than half the p-km of the entire line including Boston. What’s more, there’s an extra fudge factor, not modeled in my ridership screen, coming from peakiness: a shorter line is one with a more prominent rush hour peak, as the longer trips on Boston-Washington are not included, and this ends up requiring more rush hour-only equipment and increases operating expenses per p-km.

The expansion is, in this section, one that is almost part of the Northeast Corridor today: New Haven-Springfield. The line is unelectrified today despite substantial investment by Connecticut, which like other American states is allergic to rail electrification for reasons that are beyond me. Speeds today are low, even though the right-of-way is straight. However, investment in bypasses and in speedups on the highest-quality legacy segment is possible, and would connect Hartford and Springfield to New York and points south.

The Hartford-Springfield region has 2 million people, and Springfield is 100 km from New Haven and 210 from New York. We apply our usual model and get New York-Springfield ridership of 6.19 million, Philadelphia-Springfield ridership of 2.48 million, and Washington-Springfield ridership of 3.3 million. In passenger-kilometers, these three city pairs amount to 1.3 billion, 620 million, and 1.55 billion respectively, for a total of 3.47 billion, which I will round to 3.5 billion to avoid giving the impression that the model is reliable to 3 significant figures (or even 2, to be honest).

So we have 3.5 billion additional p-km for just 100 km of new construction, or 35 million p-km per km of construction. Note that the expected density on New Haven-Springfield based on the model is just 12 million passengers – the remaining p-km are on the core Northeast Corridor, as passengers from New York and points south travel on a portion of the corridor to get up to the branch to Springfield. So even though the expected traffic is very light, the impact on revenue per kilometer of construction is comparable to that of the base corridor. If costs can be held to $2 billion, which is low-end for an entirely greenfield line but reasonable for service that would partly run on the existing legacy line, then the return on investment is$0.065*3.5/$2 = 11%, almost as high as on the base Northeast Corridor. Further extensions Portland (0.7) To the north, it is valuable to run upgraded legacy trains between Boston and Portland, with a short connection to high-speed trains at South Station. Estimating ridership and revenue there is dicier, because the trains are slower and the data is trained on high-speed trains. We assume 190 km of revenue, as is the current length of the line. But costs and the ridership-suppressing effect of distance are charged at 350 km, roughly scaled for time. With this in mind, ridership on Boston-Portland is 1.19 million, ridership on New York-Portland is 1.33 million, ridership on Philadelphia-Portland is 0.37 million, and ridership on Washington-Portland is 0.31 million. In total, this is about 1.5 billion p-km, of which 45 million, all from Washington, are beyond the 770 km at which fares are$0.135/km and are charged at the lower rate of $0.07/km. Altogether it’s around$200 million a year in revenue. Costs are around $140 million, including extra costs for service south of Boston. Operating profits are fairly low, but Boston-Portland legacy trains don’t cost per km nearly as much as high-speed rail; electrification and some track work can be done for maybe$600 million, for an ROI of 10%.

Of course, this ROI does not exist without high-speed rail the Northeast Corridor and without the separately-charged North-South Rail Link for local and regional trains. Like other tails, Boston-Portland is valuable once the mainline preexists – it isn’t so great on its own.

The South

The route from Washington to Atlanta has a sequence of cities roughly following the I-85 corridor. They are small and sprawly, but are still valuable to connect thanks to Metcalfe’s law. These include Richmond (1, and 180 km from Washington), Raleigh (2, and 240 km from Richmond), the Piedmont Triad (1.6, 120 km), Charlotte (2.6, 150 km), Greenville (1.4, 160 km), and finally Atlanta (7, 230 km).

The line is long, 50% longer than the Northeast Corridor. With quite sprawly cities in North Carolina and few good rights-of-way, takings and viaducts are needed and would raise construction costs, to perhaps $30 billion. Moreover, there is probably an intercity rail ridership penalty because these cities do not have public transportation; the model does not incorporate such a penalty, which should be regarded as a risk with investments made appropriately. And yet, each city in sequence generates ridership on the line to its north, creating decent ROI if we assume the model applies literally. Take Richmond. It’s a small city, generating 1.89 million annual riders to Washington, 1.42 million to Philadelphia, 3.05 million to New York, 0.49 million to Boston. But this is 2.9 billion p-km for just 180 km of new construction, and nearly all of these p-km are chargeable at the full rate, giving us a total of$190 million in annual operating profit. If construction can be kept to $5 billion, this is just short of 4% ROI, which is not amazing but is decent for how small Richmond is compared with the cities to its north. This calculation cascades farther south. We have the following table of ridership levels, in millions of annual passengers as always:  City N\City S Richmond Triangle Triad Charlotte Greenville Atlanta Boston 0.49 0.66 0.36 0.43 0.21 0.58 New York 3.05 3.14 1.6 1.73 0.79 2.03 Philadelphia 1.42 1.87 0.9 0.92 0.41 1.13 Washington 1.89 3.3 2.36 2.13 0.86 1.92 Richmond – 0.64 0.44 0.62 0.22 0.44 Triangle – – 0.76 1.12 0.68 1.42 Triad – – – 0.94 0.57 1.78 Charlotte – – – – 0.84 3.06 Greenville – – – – – 1.9 This leads to the following operating profits, in millions of dollars per year:  City N\City S Richmond Triangle Triad Charlotte Greenville Atlanta Boston 24.5 33 18 21.5 10.5 29 New York 107.06 157 80 86.5 39.5 101.5 Philadelphia 36.92 77.79 44.46 46 16.5 56.5 Washington 22.11 90.09 82.84 95.53 43 96 Richmond – 9.98 10.3 20.55 9.58 88 Triangle – – 5.93 19.66 19.01 60.92 Triad – – – 9.17 11.49 62.48 Charlotte – – – – 8.74 77.57 Greenville – – – – – 19.76 This totals to$1.8 billion a year, or an ROI of 6%. This is not a safe number – a hefty share of the figure comes from city pairs that trains would connect in 3.5+ hours, like New York-Charlotte, Washington-Atlanta, and even the 5.5-hour New York-Atlanta, in which range the model has essentially two data points (Tokyo-Hiroshima, Paris-Nice). Another noticeable share comes from intra-South connections, in which neither city in the pair has a strong center or a public transport network to connect the station with destinations.

But thankfully, because this line can build itself up by accretion of extensions, starting with Washington-Raleigh and seeing how ridership holds up would not create a white elephant, just missed benefits if the model is in fact correct.

Harrisburg (0.7), Pittsburgh (2.5), and Cleveland (3)

The Keystone corridor is an interesting example of a branch that gets stronger if it is longer. The reason for this is that Harrisburg is pretty small, and Harrisburg-Pittsburgh requires painful tunneling across the Appalachians. Philadelphia-Harrisburg is 170 km and can probably be done for $4 billion; Harrisburg-Pittsburgh is 280 km and, as a pure guess, requires around 40 kilometers of tunnel, let’s say$14 billion. Pittsburgh-Cleveland is 200 km and may require some tunneling near the Pittsburgh end to bypass suburban sprawl without good rights-of-way, but not too much – figure it for $6 billion. For the benefits, we make a table similar to that for the South, but smaller. Of note, Washington-Harrisburg is 390 km and about 1:45, and costs accordingly to operate, but can only charge for 220 km, or$30, barely more than breakeven rate, because the straight line distance is short and high fares may not be competitive with driving on I-83. The straight line distance is even shorter than 220, about 190 via Baltimore, but Washington-Philadelphia is 220. Trains from Washington are assumed to earn the usual marginal profit west of Harrisburg, $0.065/km up to a maximum of$50, which is not reached even in Cleveland.

Finally, note that Cleveland has a big difference between the population of the core metro area (2 million) and the combined one (3.5), like Boston and Washington. Here we don’t take the bigger population but split the difference, since the biggest subsidiary regions in the combined area, Akron and Canton, could plausibly be on the line – and if they’re not then the line can serve Youngstown (0.7), and then $2^{0.8} + 0.7^{0.8} \approx 3^{0.8}$. Note, finally, that Boston-Cleveland is faster via Albany and Buffalo, so the line through Pittsburgh is not considered even if it is built first.

 City E\City W Harrisburg Pittsburgh Cleveland Boston 0.66 0.91 – New York 2.67 5.32 3.43 Philadelphia 1.07 2.96 2.03 Washington 1.42 2.19 1.51 Harrisburg – 0.47 0.54 Pittsburgh – – 1.5

And as before, using the special malus for the roundabout Washington-Harrisburg route, we have the following operating revenues in millions of annual dollars:

 City E\City W Harrisburg Pittsburgh Cleveland Boston 28.74 45.5 – New York 53.8 204.02 171.5 Philadelphia 11.82 86.58 85.77 Washington 3.41 45.11 50.74 Harrisburg – 8.55 16.85 Pittsburgh – – 19.5

Note that the relatively easy to build segment to Harrisburg only generates $98 million in operating profit on$4 billion in construction costs, just less 2.5% ROI – Harrisburg is almost as big as Richmond, but it’s a branch and not a direct extension. Then Pittsburgh generates $390 million on$14 billion, or 2.8%. But Cleveland, easier to build to and bigger than Pittsburgh, manages to generate $344 million on$6 billion, finally a respectable ROI of 6%.

The northern cross

What may be caled the northern cross or the Albany cross – that is, a cruciform system consisting of lines from Albany to New York, Boston, Montreal, and Toronto – is an interesting case of a system where Metcalfe’s law again applies and encourages going big rather than small.

To apply the model, we make a crucial assumption: the same formula calibrated to domestic travel works internationally. Eurostar severely underperforms it – it has 10 million annual riders, of whom around 7-8 million go between London and Paris, where the formula predicts 18 million. Eurostar fares are very high, and has mandatory security theater and a slow boarding process that breaks down at peak travel time, and this may be enough to explain the low ridership. But then again, domestic TGVs overperform the model.

We also make a secondary assumption: fares charged are for actual distance traveled, even though the New York-Toronto routing isn’t the most direct.

We start with the New York-Toronto leg by itself. It connects New York to Albany (1.2, 220 km), Utica (0.3, 140 km from Albany), Syracuse (0.8, 80 km), Rochester (1.1, 120), Buffalo (1.2, 110), and Toronto (8, 160 km). Toronto’s metro population ranges between 6 million and 9 million depending on definition, and the high-end figure of 8 million is justifiable by the fact that Niagara Falls and Hamilton are on the line.

 City S\City N Albany Utica Syracuse Rochester Buffalo Toronto Washington 1.63 0.35 0.62 0.6 0.52 1.76 Philadelphia 1.65 0.54 0.88 0.78 0.63 2 New York 4.12 1.36 2.67 3.06 2.29 6.81 Albany – 0.13 0.26 0.37 0.4 1.23 Utica – – 0.09 0.12 0.13 0.6 Syracuse – – – 0.24 0.26 1.19 Rochester – – – – 0.37 1.71 Buffalo – – – – – 1.83

And in operating profit:

 City S\City N Albany Utica Syracuse Rochester Buffalo Toronto Washington 61.45 16.38 31 30 26 88 Philadelphia 38.61 17.55 33.18 35.49 31.5 100 New York 58.92 31.84 76.36 109.4 99.73 340.5 Albany – 1.18 3.72 8.18 11.7 48.77 Utica – – 0.47 2.03 3.13 18.33 Syracuse – – – 1.87 3.89 30.17 Rochester – – – – 2.65 30.01 Buffalo – – – – – 19.03

New York-Albany should cost maybe $5 billion to build and generates$160 million a year in operating profit, just 3.2%. But Albany-Buffalo, for around $11 billion extra, generates$580 million, about 5.2%. And then Buffalo-Toronto, assuming no international penalty, should cost on the order of $3 billion (much of the line in the Toronto suburbs automatically follows from the ongoing electrification project) and generate$670 milion. So the last segment, Buffalo-Toronto, returns around 20% if New York-Buffalo preexists; even if there’s a serious international malus, the ROI is very high. Everything combined is around 7%.

None of this is robust. The model handwaves the forced transfer at Penn Station – through-service from points south to Albany and points north would be excellent given expected traffic levels, but the approaches to both Albany and Philadelphia point west. The model also assumes New York-Toronto fares are in line with rail distance, even though the route is 50% longer by rail than by air. Finally, it assumes no international penalty. A 7% ROI is robust to any one of these assumptions failing, but if all fail, the route drops in profitability.

Or, rather, the base route does. Just as completing Buffalo-Toronto makes New York-Buffalo seem far stronger, so do the two additional legs of the northern cross strengthen the initial Empire Corridor. Here’s the Boston-Albany leg, at 260 km, with Springfield at kp 135, recalling that Hartford and Springfield count as one region of 2 million:

 City W\City E Boston Springfield Springfield 2.76 – Albany 1.83 0.6 Utica 0.6 0.2 Syracuse 1.32 0.44 Rochester 1.19 0.56 Buffalo 0.91 0.46 Toronto 2.76 1.28

And in revenue:

 City W\City E Boston Springfield Springfield 24.22 – Albany 30.93 4.88 Utica 15.6 3.45 Syracuse 41.18 9.87 Rochester 46.41 16.93 Buffalo 45.5 17.19 Toronto 138 61.15

$450 million a year, of which nearly half comes out of connecting Toronto to Massachusetts and Hartford, is not a lot, but then constructing 260 km of high-speed rail is not that expensive either; my best guess is around$7 billion, with some tunnels between Springfield and the summit to the west but also some approaches at both ends that would already exist. This is 6.4% ROI, which is better than New York-Toronto gets without the assistance of Philadelphia and Washington even though that route connects to a bigger city and requires less tunneling.

The final leg of the northern cross is to Montreal (4, 370 km from Albany), and is the most speculative. If the model has an international malus, it may well apply here, crossing not just a national border but also a linguistic one. It may apply with no or limited penalty, if the underperformance of Eurostar can be ascribed entirely to fares; but if it applies and is serious, then there is less cushion for mistakes than there is for trains to Toronto. The only intermediate city is Burlington (0.2, kp 220 from Albany), which exists largely for state-level completeness. Note also that Buffalo-Montreal is faster via Toronto and is thus omitted, while Buffalo-Burlington would have third-order impact.

 City ESW\City N Burlington Montreal Washington 0.2 1.59 Philadelphia 0.29 2.02 New York 0.98 7.74 Albany 0.1 1.05 Boston 0.44 3.02 Springfield 0.14 1.58 Utica 0.03 0.33 Syracuse 0.06 0.49 Rochester 0.07 0.5 Burlington – 0.25

And in operating revenue:

 City ESW\City N Burlington Montreal Washington 10 31.8 Philadelphia 10.93 95.85 New York 28.03 296.83 Albany 1.43 25.25 Boston 13.73 123.67 Springfield 3.14 50.84 Utica 0.7 10.94 Syracuse 1.72 18.79 Rochester 2.55 23.08 Burlington – 2.44

This is $750 million a yeer, of which Burlington furnishes about 10%, and New York-Montreal about 40%. This isn’t bad ROI – about$10 billion is a reasonable construction cost – but since 90% of it is about Montreal, any serious international or interlinguistic penalty leads to a big drop in profitability. Worse, if traffic drops, there may be a frequency-ridership spiral – I am writing timetables assuming half-hourly frequency, which is just enough for the model’s projected 18 million passengers per year, but if ridership is off by a factor of more than 2, then hourly frequencies start taking a bite out of the nearer markets and trains start running less full.

Lines that do not touch the Northeast Corridor

In the previous sections, I’ve argued in favor of building out a high-speed rail network out of the Northeast Corridor, on the grounds that extensions would be profitable toward Pittsburgh-Cleveland, Montreal, Buffalo-Toronto, and Atlanta. What about other lines?

The answer is that lines that do not feed into the Northeast somehow are a lot weaker. California can get decent ridership out of Los Angeles-San Francisco and thence extensions to Sacramento and San Diego are pretty strong, but the traffic density per the model is both well below California HSR Authority projections and well below the Northeast Corridor.

And it gets worse in parts of the country without a Los Angeles-size city anchoring everything. Texas is currently building a Dallas (8)-Houston (7) high-speed line, using private money by Texas Central, a railroad owned by JR Central using Shinkansen technology. The model predicts 7.5 million annual riders between the two regions, and the system’s public ridership projections for the near term are pretty close. Moreover, construction costs are pretty high, $15 billion for 380 km, despite the flat terrain. If the operating costs and fares are what I’m projecting, the financial ROI is 1.2%. What’s more, Texas can expect ridership to underperform any model trained on European or Japanese cities. Tokyo has the world’s largest central business district, and maintains high density of destinations at a distance of several kilometers from Tokyo Station as well, and 20-something rapid transit lines depending on how one counts feed this center. Paris is smaller but has a strong center and urban rail connections. The provincial cities in both countries are lower-density and have higher car ownership, but that’s still okay, because people from those cities are not driving into the capital. By the same token, trains to New York should not underperform a model trained on Japan, Spain, or France. But Texas is completely different, with very weak centers, no public transportation to speak of, and no walkable cores near the train stations. The penalty for poor public transport connections is likely to be serious. The situation in the Midwest is more hopeful than in Texas, but still dicey. Chicago just isn’t that big. Yes, it’s about the same size as Paris, but the cities ringing it don’t form neat lines the way Lyon and Marseille are on the same line out of Paris, just with a short spur rather than through-service. The funniest thing about the Midwest is that high-speed rail construction there may be justifiable as an accretion of western extensions from the Northeast and Keystone Corridors. Cleveland-Detroit (5) is 280 km long, and would put Detroit 1,070 km and slightly more than 4 hours away from New York. The distance penalty is hefty, but 2.81 million annual users is still a lot over such distance, and the$140 million in operating profits get to around 2.5% ROI on construction costs in flat Midwestern land, without taking any other connections into consideration: Chicago-Cleveland, Chicago-Detroit, Philadelphia-Detroit, Pittsburgh-Detroit, New York-Toledo, Washington-Detroit.

Even New York-Chicago is a fairly solid line per the model: it’s 1,340 km and slightly longer than 5 hours, but there is still a lot of travel volume between the two cities, mostly by air. The model says 3.12 annual high-speed rail riders, somewhat fewer than the current O&D flight volume (4.68 million annualized from 2018 Q2), which is believable by comparison with Paris-Nice’s mode share (70% air, 30% rail, ignoring all other modes). The required mode share is still more favorable to rail, but the airports in New York and Chicago have more congestion and more delays than in Nice, turning what is a little more than an hour in the air into a three-hour flight schedule.

In contrast, just starting from Chicago-Cleveland (550 km)/Detroit (470 km), without any other connections (and without Pittsburgh-Cleveland), would not be financially great. Ignoring Toledo, the three cities generate 13 million annual riders, 6 billion annual p-km, and $400 million in annual operating income, for a system that would take perhaps$13 billion to construct, perhaps slightly more.

What this means for high-speed rail construction

Metcalfe’s law implies that high-speed rail networks get stronger as they add more nodes, even if those nodes are somewhat weaker than the initial ones. But it gives guideines for how to build such networks more broadly:

• Don’t cheap out by only building a short segment.
• Once the initial segment is in place, invest in extending it and building branches off it as soon as possible, in preference to building unconnected segments elsewhere.
• A relatively empty tail may still be financially successful if it fills a trunk line.
• Unless all your cities are on one line, try to build a mesh of lines to allow many origin-destination pairs.
• You’ll always run into a frontier of marginal lines, so value-engineer infrastructure as much as possible to push that frontier forward.
• Be wary of lines for which the analysis involves extrapolation, for example if neither city has a strong center or usable public transport.

High-speed rail is cheap to run when there’s enough scale to fill trains – high speeds ensure that labor and equipment cost per seat-km are fairly low. This means that self-sustaining profits are viable, and once they’re in place, they can generate further borrowing capacity for rapid expansion.

The limit is not the sky. Beyond a certain point, no realistic value engineering can make lines financially viable. Sometimes the cities are just too small or too far apart. But a realistic limit for the United States is still most likely much farther than anyone proposing immediate investment plans thinks: the Northeast Corridor can generate good returns if investment there is ever done competently, and branches and extensions to smaller and less dense cities are still more viable than they look at first glance.

# New England High- and Low-Speed Rail

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.

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. # The Importance of Decarbonizing Transport While researching my previous post about nuclear power, I found various sources about the construction costs of renewable electricity. They all point to the same conclusion: the installation costs of solar and wind power took a nosedive in the 2010s. By now they are down to 1-1.50 per watt for onshore wind, 1.50-2.50 per watt for offshore wind (PDF-p. 24) and around$1.10 per watt for utility-scale solar power (PDF-pp. 7, 50-51). The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for onshore wind and solar power is, depending on source, 4-7 cents per kWh (see Fraunhofer, Lazard, IRENA), at which point it’s cheaper than new coal and gas without subsidies or carbon taxes and cheaper than existing coal and gas with mild carbon taxes. Intermittency is still an issue, but at continental scale it is much more of an irritant than a serious impediment. Decarbonization of electricity is substantially a solved problem.

The problem is that decarbonization of transportation is not a solved problem.

The world of 2020 is not that of 2000. The greenhouse gas inventory of 2020 is not that of 2000. In developed countries, electricity is down, and transportation is up or at best flat. In developing ones (i.e. China and India) the situation is different, but there too there’s growing public concern with coal power pollution, to the point that one of the premier sites for information about air pollution levels, AQICN, is Beijing-based. Nonetheless, cars remain aspirational in those countries, despite high levels of investment in urban and intercity rail transportation (periodic reminder: about two-thirds of global high-speed rail ridership is in China).

The problem with transportation is cars.

Cars are not getting better. There’s a growing but very small share of the market for new cars that is electric; so far production costs remain high, and there are real long-term issues with rare earth metals used in the batteries. Costs are inching down, but it’s firmly in “more research is needed” territory. And meanwhile, in the carbon tax-free developed world (i.e. the US) the vast majority of cars that are not electric are getting bigger and less fuel-efficient. American transportation emissions peaked in the mid-2000s and fell as fuel prices rose, but now that fuel is cheap they’re rising, faster than population (source, PDF-p. 32).

The problem is partly, but not only, the United States.

Whatever historical causes made Americans this way, American culture of the early 21st century is still one that thinks it’s normal to want every American to have an SUV and deviant to want every American to have an apartment in a big city with a good subway system. This mentality cuts across classes, parties, subcultures, and states, and was recently affirmed in California, particularly Los Angeles. Decarbonizing solutions on the road that may be popular in segments of the tech industry, like electric cars and mobility as a service, are still brushing against a culture that equates the size of one’s car and engine with one’s moral worth. One of two things will happen: this culture will vanish, or hundreds of millions of people in countries Americans can’t find on a map will be inundated.

But it’s not just the United States.

Public transportation usage in Europe is increasing, unlike in the United States – and it’s increasing from an already nontrivial base. But it’s not increasing fast enough. The same motorist culture of the United States exists in a more attenuated form here. There are high fuel taxes and they help a lot – SUVs and pickup trucks are rare, and vehicle-km per capita are maybe half what they are in the US – but the difference between greenhouse gas emissions of 17 and 8 metric tons-CO2 per capita is one of whether catastrophic climate change will happen soon or shortly later.

It’s a priority for Europe specifically, precisely because it’s in uncharted territory.

The United States needs to learn to imitate and get from 17 to 8 on its way to 0, but Europe needs to get from 8 to 0 and to figure out how to do so. Switzerland and the Netherlands are already at the forefront of improving mainline rail, and yet have widespread auto usage in local as well as interregional travel.

There are a number of headwinds to the replacement of cars with public transportation, all of which are politically or technically nontrivial in ways that mass installation of solar and wind power isn’t:

1. Public transport is the most convenient in large cities and least convenient in rural areas, but modern nationalism holds the rural to be more authentic and moral. Thus, when rural motorists riot the state is paralyzed with inaction and the media urges understanding of populist anger at elites, whereas when urbanites riot the state immediately engages in mass arrests and the media urges law and order.
2. The pace of urban redevelopment is too low, thanks to local NIMBYism, making it hard for people to live in cities where car-free living is already convenient. Local housing activism always focuses on people already present; Berlin passed a new rent control law that is projected to reduce investment by 25%. Even Paris, which is building more housing, is doing so almost exclusively in the suburbs and not in the city proper.
3. Local notables tend to drive even controlling for income and social class. One does not become a local notable by working at a city center office with people from many neighborhoods, many of whom are recent migrants to the city, but by staying within one neighborhood and interacting with old-timers. The latter kind of economic and social network is less convenient to travel by train. Thus, the loudest voices in a local discussion are against seizing space from cars and giving it to pedestrians, cyclists, buses, or trams.
4. At low levels of public investment, the car will predominate, for two reasons. First, some state action is needed to give buses priority on roads. Second, public transportation has more moving parts that must be integrated – fares, schedules, infrastructure, equipment, development. This makes fiscal austerity a drag on the ability of a developed society to demotorize unless this austerity specifically takes the form of very high taxes on cars and fuel.
5. A political process that slows down investment in order to mollify NIMBY opposition makes it very hard to shift priorities on the ground. In this sense, the freeway revolts and the changes they led to are the best thing that ever happened to car culture, even more than the freeways themselves; in the American context, the revolts happened largely only when the freeways intruded on middle-class neighborhoods.

These headwinds are phrased politically, but all have various technical components, like construction costs for new rail lines, public transport network design, interagency cooperation issues that are too far removed from mass politics to be truly political, etc. Is the problem solvable? Most likely, yes. It’s not only in the biggest cities in the world that public transport usage is high; getting Stockholm, Vienna, Zurich, and so on to demotorize is within the realm of possibility, and getting other cities to have what those cities have is as well.

But “within the realm of possibility” is not a statement of utmost confidence. It’s a difficult program, one where failure is regrettably an option. Every aspect is hard: convincing governments that don’t like spending money on mobile people to invest more in rail, raising taxes on fuel and on cars, building more housing in the cities, reclaiming street space from cars, improving the quality of public transport service, improving connections between lines. It all takes money, and though the required subsidies may well fall with better technology and higher usage, the most optimistic view is that public transportation now is like wind and solar power in 2010, when they was still an economic gamble, and not what they are today that the gamble is paying off.

# Germany and Nuclear Power

I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.

Electricity in Germany

There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.

Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.

Why is Germany like this?

It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?

The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:

Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.

West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.

Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?

In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.

Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs

On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.

The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”

What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of 1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps 1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about$2.50/W after PPP adjustment.

The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.

Political compromises

There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.

In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.

The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.

It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.