The ideal use of a politically-determined, external infusion of funds into public transit is for a capital expansion that is not critical. The service provided should be of great usefulness – otherwise, why fund it? – but it should fundamentally be not a safety-critical package, which should be funded locally on an ongoing basis. The best kind of project is one with a high one-time capital cost and long-term benefits, since a debt-issuing sovereign state can borrow cheaply and obtain the financial and social return on investment without much constraint.
Outside infusions, such as from a stimulus bill or an infrastructure package, are best used on expansion with short-term costs and long-term benefits. This includes visible projects that extend systems but also ones that reduce long-term operating and maintenance costs. For examples:
High-speed rail: it’s operationally profitable anywhere I know of, and then the question is whether the ROI justifies the debt. Because a one-time cost turns into a long-term financially sustainable source of revenue, it is attractive for outside investment.
Railstitution of a busy bus route, or burial of a busy tramway. This produces a combination of lower operating expenses and better service for passengers. The only reason not to replace every high-ridership city bus with a subway is that subways cost money to build, but once the outside infusion of money comes, it costs less to run a modern rapid transit system, or even a not so modern one, than a bus system with its brigades of drivers.
Speed-up of a rail route to higher standards and lower maintenance costs.
The importance of non-critical projects
Critical projects are not good for a stimulus bill. The reason is that they have to be done anyway, and the process of stimulus may delay them unacceptably, as a local government assumes it will get an infusion of funds and does not appropriate its own money for it. The upshot is that a rational federal funding agency should be suspicious of a local or state agency that requests money for critical projects, especially safety-critical ones.
The point here is that the stimulus process is inherently political. It does not involve technical decisions of what the optimal kind of public transportation policy should be. It instead pits infrastructure investments against other budget priorities, like the military, holding down tax rates, or health care. It’s not meant to be predictable to the transportation expert, and only barely to the political insider. It depends on political vagaries, the state of the economy, and petty personal decisions about priorities.
Thus, an agency that asks for stimulus funds for a project sends (at least) one of two messages: “we think this project is great but if it’s not built people aren’t going to literally die,” or “we are run by incompetent hacks.” In the former case, the point of a benefit-cost analysis is that neither the costs nor the benefits are existential: the project is not safety-critical nor critical to the basic existence of the system, but the budget is not existential to the budget either and if it is wasted then the government will not go bankrupt.
There is a common line among German rail advocates that high-speed rail is not a good fit for Germany’s urban geography because the country is more polycentric than Japan or France. Per such advocates, it’s more important to connect small cities to a national network of trains averaging 120 km/h. It’s based on a wrong understanding of what polycentrism really means in the context of an entire country, and I’d like to explain why. A correct understanding would lead to a national effort to complete a high-speed rail program connecting all of the major cities at higher average speeds than 200 km/h, potentially going up to the 230-250 km/h range typical of France.
How Germany and France differ
When Germans speak of the superiority of the German InterCity concept to high-speed rail, the main comparison is France, which Germans are primed to think of as a nation of lazy spendthrifts. So it’s most valuable to compare the urban geographies of these two countries, and only secondarily rely on either other European countries or on Asian examples.
The most glaring difference is that there is no Paris in Germany. Ile-de-France has about 20% of France’s population, and is far and away the richest region, concentrating all the important corporate headquarters, basing its economy not on a specific industry but on its status as France’s primate city. Germany has nothing like this. The largest single-core metropolitan region here is Berlin, which at 5 million people is around 6% of national population. Moreover, cities are somewhat economically specialized, so the wealth of the richest cities is split across Munich’s heavy industry, Frankfurt’s finance, and so on.
Supposedly, this makes high-speed rail a poorer fit for Germany – there’s no Paris to just connect to every other city. But in reality, a high-speed rail network would still connect all the major cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Bremen, the Rhine-Ruhr complex, Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Mannheim, Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe. Some of the smaller cities, like Erfurt and Fulda, happen to lie on lines between larger cities and are already connected, just not at as high a speed since German high-speed lines almost always have long legacy segments with a top speed of 160 km/h or even less.
And once all the cities are included, Germany turns into better geography for high-speed rail than France. Precise numbers depend on definitions, but around half of the German population lives in the above-listed 13 metropolitan areas of at least 1 million. In France, it’s only one third, and the median French person lives in a metro area of about 350,000; TGVs are thus forced to spend much of their running time on classical lines at low speed to reach cities like Grenoble and Saint-Etienne, and even some larger cities including Nantes, Toulon, Nice, and Toulouse are not on LGVs.
High-speed rail and connectivity
In the above map, the trip times are very aggressive – Berlin-Hanover in an hour is doable nonstop but barely and the sort of advocates who think train performance levels are still stuck in the 1990s may think it is impossible to do better than 1:30. But the 2020s are not the 1990s, thankfully.
The important thing to note is that not only does it connect all major city pairs, but also there is no alternative that has that feature. The Deutschlandtakt without further investments in speed connects Berlin and Munich in 4 hours, which is borderline for high-speed rail; in Cascetta-Coppola, the elasticity of ridership with respect to travel time in Italy ranges between -2.2 and -1.6, so going from 4 hours to 2.5 more than doubles ridership, for less cost than it’s taken to get to 4 hours so far since Germany has built the hardest segment first and much of what remains is in the pancake-flat North German Plain. With high-speed rail, the longest distance between two major cities, Hamburg-Munich, is 3:45, compared with 5:20 in the D-takt.
This also cascades to the roughly half of Germany that lives outside the metropolitan areas. A smaller city like Rostock, Münster, Regensburg, or Halle gets a connection to the national network either way; the D-takt actually only gives Rostock and Regensburg two-hourly rather than hourly connections to the nearest major node. It takes an hour under the D-takt to get between Regensburg and Nuremberg; the connections between Regensburg and the rest of the country depend primarily on how fast trains are between Nuremberg and the other million-plus urban areas.
Germany benefits from having centrally-located train stations everywhere, making transfers already easier than in France, where Paris has four distinct TGV terminals. Getting between two Parisian stations’ lines requires using a bypass, on which trains run at low frequency, at best stopping at Marne-la-Vallée and CDG, both 30 km from city center. In contrast, Germany train stations are set up for through service except Frankfurt, which is about to get an announcement for a through-service tunnel. To the extent that any bypasses are needed here, they’re because a station’s tracks point the wrong way for some through-service, as in Cologne and (even after through-service opens) Frankfurt; in both cases there’s a convenient near-center station, that is Deutz within walking distance of Cologne Hbf and Frankfurt Airport 10 km from Hbf, and at any rate the lines would have far more demand if speeds between major cities rose to French levels, so the frequency wouldn’t suffer.
Polycentricity and high-speed rail
Polycentricity does not make high-speed rail an inappropriate choice for intercity transportation. It’s neutral, and the urban geography of Germany, in terms of density and city size, is conducive to such a network. The question at this point is not about building a single line like Paris-Lyon, but about completing the half-built system that Germany has, and at that scale, having many major cities is not a problem at all.
So why do German activists keep bringing up polycentricity? I have a few explanations, none legitimate:
Germans look down on France, and bring up the most glaring differences to justify not learning. I’ve spent more than a decade watching Americans make up the silliest reasons why they can’t learn from Europe, reasons that are often unrecognizable to a European (“American cities weren’t bombed in WW2” – but neither was Paris). The same is visible internally to Europe, where Germany will not learn from France or Southern Europe.
Polycentricity is a convenient excuse to morally elevate rural and pretend-rural life over the big city, a common romantic trope in an arc from 19th-century nationalism to the modern New Left. High-speed rail breaks this pretense: it centers the largest cities, and tells the rest that their participation in national transport comes from their connections to large cities, which the romantics find deeply immoral. For the same reason, the German New Left finds subways less moral than streetcars.
Older activists are stuck in the past, when they were younger. In the 1980s, European high-speed rail meant Paris-Lyon, and not the national TGV network. At the scale of Paris-Lyon, Germany’s lack of a Paris indeed weakens high-speed rail. But it’s not the 1980s anymore; at this point the question is about completing fast links like Hamburg-Hanover and Erfurt-Frankfurt, not building the first link. My impression is that younger Greens support high-speed rail more than older ones, who joined the party to express opposition to nuclear power rather than support for immigration.
Looking forward rather than backward, nothing in Germany’s urban geography is an obstacle to a connected high-speed rail network. With central stations and less of the population living in truly isolated rural and small-city communities, Germany can expect to greatly surpass any other Western intercity rail network if it builds high-speed rail, more than reaching DB’s pre-corona 250 million ridership target.
Texas Central is a planned high-speed rail system connecting Dallas with Houston, using turnkey Shinkansen technology and private funding. The trains to be used are lightweight Japanese-made N700s, with extremely good performance, and the operating paradigm is to be based on the Shinkansen, without any interface with legacy rail, even in city centers. However, there may still be some conflict with regulators over this, since American rail regulations, since 2018, have been based on European/UIC standards and not on Japanese ones, which are distinct and incompatible. This is supposed to be okay because there is no track sharing at all, the same model proposed by California High-Speed Rail before US regulations under the supervision of the FRA were realigned with UIC ones. And yet, there may be trouble.
None of this is news – these are documents from 2020. See for example here:
Some commenters asserted that FRA is exempting TCRR from any crashworthiness requirements so that the N700 series trainset technology could be imported. This assertion, however, is not supported by the requirements proposed in the NPRM, as FRA makes clear that its approach is to ensure that the trainset is safe for the environment in which it will operate. To this end, FRA is including additional requirements that are not inherent in the JRC approach to trainset structure design. These requirements include a dynamic collision scenario analysis that is designed to address the residual risks that could potentially exist within the TCRR operating environment.32Of particular note, in this instance, is the inclusion of the steel coil collision scenario outlined in § 299.403(c). Despite the safety record of JRC’s Tokaido Shinkansen system, FRA believes that the North American environment poses unique risks with respect to potential objects that might somehow enter the protected ROW, either by accident or on purpose. In this case, FRA believes that requiring dynamic collision scenario analysis using the 14,000-lbs steel coil scenario derived from existing requirements to protect against risks presented by grade crossings can serve as a conservative surrogate for potential hazards that might be present on the TCRR ROW (e.g., feral hogs, stray livestock, unauthorized disposal of refuse). With the inclusion of this dynamic collision scenario, and adaptations of existing U.S. requirements on emergency systems and fire safety, FRA believes it has reasonably addressed risks unique to the TCRR operating environment in a manner that appropriately considers crashworthiness and occupant protection standards for the operating environment intended, while at the same time keeping intact the service-proven nature of the equipment.
Of note, the FRA speaks of grade crossings on a line that has none, and demands trains to withstand the impact of a 6.35 ton steel ball that may be dropped from overpasses that do not exist.
This is likely malicious more than incompetent; advocates I know out of California suspect a specific unnamed staffer placed by Ed Rendell who is trying to sabotage the project. This may also involve some lobbying by European vendors, which constantly snipe at competitors within the American market, and even by individual consultants. California had a little bit of this, when competitors started spreading rumors that SNCF was a pro-Nazi organization, and even got some state legislators to make a testimonial bill designed to embarrass SNCF.
It’s a real danger of assuming that foreign public companies that behave responsibly at home will behave responsibly in your periphery. SNCF is subject to public pressure within France, which limits its ability to extract surplus out of riders; this pressure vanishes even right next to France, with majority-SNCF-owned services to Britain (Eurostar) and Belgium (Thalys), which charge considerably higher fares, let alone in the US. The same is true of the other vendors, really, and thus in Britain, franchises owned by EU state-owned railroads like SNCF, DB, and NS are unpopular. Outsourcing the state even to vendors with a track record of responsibility at home will not lead to responsible results, because such outsourcing is an admission that the American state is not capable of adequately overseeing such a project itself and therefore will not notice extravaganza.
The state of Connecticut announced that a new report concerning investment in the New Haven Line is out. The report is damning to most involved, chief of all the Connecticut Department of Transportation for having such poor maintenance practices and high construction costs, and secondarily consultant AECOM for not finding more efficient construction methods and operating patterns, even though many readily exist in Europe.
What started out as an ambitious 30-30-30 proposal to reduce the New York-New Haven trip time to an hour, which is feasible without construction outside the right-of-way, turned into an $8-10 billion proposal to reduce trip times from today’s 2 hours by 25 minutes by 2035. This is shelf art: the costs are high enough and the benefits low enough that it’s unlikely the report will lead to any actionable improvement, and will thus adorn the shelves of CTDOT, AECOM, and the governor’s office. It goes without saying that people should be losing their jobs over this, especially CTDOT managers, who have a track record of ignorance and incuriosity. Instead of a consultant-driven process with few in-house planners, who aren’t even good at their jobs, CTDOT should staff up in-house, hiring people with a track record of success, which does not exist in the United States and thus requires reaching out to European, Japanese, and Korean agencies.
Maintenance costs and the state of good repair racket
I have a video I uploaded just before the report came out, explaining why the state of good repair (SOGR) concept has, since the late 1990s, been a racket permitting agencies to spend vast sums of money with nothing to show for it. The report inadvertently confirms this. The New Haven Line is four-track, but since the late 1990s it has never had all four tracks in service at the same time, as maintenance is done during the daytime with flagging rules slowing down the trains. Despite decades of work, the backlog does not shrink, and the slow zones are never removed, only replaced (see PDF-p. 7 of the report). The report in fact states (PDF-p. 8),
To accommodate regular maintenance as well as state-of-good-repair and normal replacement improvements, much of the four-track NHL typically operates with only three tracks.
Moreover, on PDF-p. 26, the overall renewal costs are stated as $700-900 million a year in the 2017-21 period. This includes rolling stock replacement, but the share of that is small, as it only includes 66 new M8 cars, a less than second-order item. It also includes track upgrades for CTRail, a program to run trains up to Hartford and Springfield, but those tracks preexist and renewal costs there are not too high. In effect, CTDOT is spending around $700 million annually on a system that, within the state, includes 385 single-track-km for Metro-North service and another 288 single-track-km on lines owned by Amtrak.
This is an insane renewal cost. In Germany, the Hanover-Würzburg NBS cost 640 million euros to do 30-year track renewal on, over a segment of 532 single-track-km – and the line is overall about 30% in tunnel. This includes new rails, concrete ties, and switches. The entire work is a 4-year project done in a few tranches of a few months each to limit the slowdowns, which are around 40 minutes, punctuated by periods of full service. In other words, CTDOT is likely spending more annually per track-km on a never-ending renewal program than DB is on a one-time program to be done once per generation.
A competent CTDOT would self-abnegate and become German (or Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). It could for a few hundred million dollars renew the entirety of the New Haven Line and its branches, with track geometry machines setting the tracks to be fully superelevated and setting the ballast grade so as to improve drainage. With turnout replacement, all speed limits not coming from right-of-way geometry could be lifted, with the possible exception of some light limits on the movable bridges. With a rebuild of the Grand Central ladder tracks and turnouts for perhaps $250,000 per switch (see e.g. Neustadt switches), trains could do New York-New Haven in about 1:03 making Amtrak stops and 1:27 making all present-day local stops from Stamford east.
The incompetence of CTDOT and its consultants is not limited to capital planning. Operations are lacking as well. The best industry practice, coming from Switzerland, is to integrate the timetable with infrastructure and rolling stock planning. This is not done in this case.
On the contrary: the report recommends buying expensive dual-mode diesel locomotives for through-service from the unelectrified branches instead of electrifying them, which could be done for maybe $150 million (the Danbury Branch was once electrified and still has masts, but no wires). The lifecycle costs of electric trains are half those of diesel trains, and this is especially important when there is a long electrified trunk line with branches coming out of it. Dual-mode locomotives are a pantomime of low electrification operating costs, since they have high acquisition costs and poor performance even in electric mode as they are not multiple-units. Without electrification, the best long-term recommendation is to shut down service on these two branches, in light of high maintenance and operating costs.
The choice of coaches is equally bad. The report looks at bilevels, which are a bad idea in general, but then adds to the badness by proposing expensive catenary modifications (PDF-p. 35). In fact, bilevel European trains exist that clear the lowest bridge, such as the KISS, and those are legal on American tracks now, even if Metro-North is unaware.
The schedule pattern is erratic as well. Penn Station Access will soon permit service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. And yet, there is no attempt to have a clean schedule to both. There is no thought given to timed transfers at New Rochelle, connecting local and express trains going east with trains to Grand Central and Penn Station going west, in whichever cross-platform pattern is preferred.
The express patterns proposed are especially bad. The proposal for through-running to Philadelphia and Harrisburg (“NYX”) is neat, but it’s so poorly integrated with everything else it might as well not exist. Schedules are quoted in trains per day, for the NYX option and the GCX one to Grand Central, and in neither case do they run as frequently as hourly (PDF-p. 26). There is no specific schedule to the minute that the interested passenger may look at, nor any attempt at an off-peak clockface pattern.
Throw it in the trash
The desired rail investment plan for Connecticut, setting aside high-speed rail, is full electrification, plus track renewal to permit the elimination of non-geometric speed limits. It should cost around $1 billion one-time; the movable bridge replacements should be postponed as they are nice to have but not necessary, their proposed budgets are excessive, and some of their engineering depends on whether high-speed rail is built. The works on the New Haven Line are doable in a year or not much more – the four-year timeline on Hanover-Würzburg is intended to space out the flagging delays, but the existing New Haven Line is already on a permanent flagging delay. The trains should be entirely EMUs, initially the existing and under-order M8 fleet, and eventually new lightweight single-level trains. The schedule should have very few patterns, similar to today’s off-peak local and express trains with some of one (or both) pattern diverting to Penn Station; the express commuter trains should take around 1:30 and intercity trains perhaps 1:05. This is a straightforward project.
Instead, AECOM produced a proposal that costs 10 times as much, takes 10 times as long, and produces half the time savings. Throw it in the trash. It is bad, and the retired and working agency executives who are responsible for all of the underlying operating and capital assumptions should be dismissed for incompetence. The people who worked on the report and their sources who misinformed them should be ashamed for producing such a shoddy plan. Even mid-level planners in much of Europe could design a far better project, leaving the most experienced and senior engineers for truly difficult projects such as high-speed rail.
A regrettable feature of rail transport is that often, the speed of a line deteriorates over time after it opens or finishes a major upgrade. This can come from deferred maintenance or from proper maintenance that includes stricter speed limits or more timetable padding; in either case, it’s because maintaining the original schedule is not seen as a priority, and thus over time service degrades. In some cases, this can also include a deterioration of frequency over time, usually due to inattention.
This is not excusable behavior. The networks where this feature exists, including the US, France, and Germany, are not better-run than the Shinkansen, where I have not seen any such deterioration of Shinkansen speed in many years of poking around timetables on Hyperdia, or the system in Switzerland. Switzerland’s timed transfers make it impossible for gradual deterioration of speed to accumulate – trains are scheduled to just make connections to other trains at major nodes, and so if they slow down too much then they can’t make the transfers and the entire network degrades.
I wish I could say degradation is a purely American phenomenon. It’s very common in the United States, certainly – on the subway in New York the deterioration made citywide news in 2017 (including one piece by me), on the trains between New York and New Haven the schedule is visibly slower now than it was in the late 2000s, on Amtrak the Northeast Corridor has degraded since the 2000s. Speed is not viewed as a priority in the US, and so there are always little excuses that add up, whether they’re flagging, the never ending State of Good Repair program on the New Haven Line under which at no point in the last 20-25 years have all four tracks been in service at the same time, or just inattention to reliability.
But no. France and Germany have had this as well. The TGV used to run between Paris and Marseille in 3:03 every two hours and in 3:06 every other hour; today I see a 3:04 itinerary every four hours and the rest start at 3:11. And here, the Berlin-Hamburg trains were timetabled at 1:30 in the mid-2000s, giving an average speed of 189 km/h, the highest in Germany even though the top speed is only 230 and not 300; the fastest itinerary I can find right now is 1:43, averaging only 165 km/h.
I stress that such deterioration does not have any benefits. It’s an illusory tradeoff. When New York chose to slow down the L trains’ braking rate as part of CBTC installation, this was not seen in reduced systemwide maintenance costs; speed just wasn’t a priority, so the brakes were derated. The 7 train, as I understand it, will instead speed up when CBTC comes online, a decision made under Andy Byford’s program to speed up service.
Nor has France saved anything out of the incremental slowdowns in TGV service. Operating costs are up, not down. The savings from slowdowns are on the illusory to microscopic spectrum, always trumped by increases in cost from other sources, for example the large increases in wages in the 2010s due to the cheminot strikes.
By far the greatest cost of speed is during construction. During operations, faster service means lower crew costs per km. This is where the Swiss maxim of running trains as fast as necessary comes from. This isn’t about derating trains’ acceleration – on the contrary, Switzerland procures high-performance trains. It’s about building the least amount of physical infrastructure required to maintain a desired timetable, and once the infrastructure is built, running that timetable.
Ten years ago I blogged that smartphones would not have a revolutionary effect on public transportation. I think the trend since then has vindicated me – routing apps have not had visible impact on ridership, whereas traditional investments in better service have. I bring this up because a brief conversation with an Israeli public transportation activist reminded me of how the British and American focus on data corrupts institutions elsewhere, to the point that people culturally cringe toward the generally wealthy UK and US and learn from them even on matters where they fail, that is public transportation.
What is data?
Data, in the context of transportation, is any information about how people travel or could travel. It is mostly collected through personal surveillance, whether by smartcard giving the agency exact origin and destination data linked to a specific person, or by a smartphone app doing same. It can also be collected from census data on travel, but the trend is to seek non-census sources and prefer surveillance apps for more granular information.
What are the uses of data?
Data can be used to plan networks more precisely. For examples, granular origin-destination data can be used to plan bus networks, time of day data can be used for schedule planning, and demographic crosstabs can be used to see whether there are patterns in ridership that require addressing (maybe people who don’t speak the language struggle with monthly passes?).
This can also be done in public, hence the fascination with open data. The idea behind open data is to some extent about transparency, but it’s adopted far more widely in places with poor general transparency, like the UK and US, than in places with good transparency, like Sweden. The justification in the US at least is less about informing the public and more about creating a pool of open data, like GTFS, that can be used for third-party apps, such include trip planners and next-bus apps, as well as for data visualization. The same data can also be used analytically, and thus for example TransitCenter has the Equity Dashboard showing unequal access by various demographic categories.
Has this worked?
Not really. An app showing me that the bus in Boston will not arrive for another 17 minutes is not going to make me ride the bus (I took a taxi that time; the public bus tracker was down but there was some dodgy third-party app). A schedule in which the bus shows up every 6 minutes without variation is.
Unsurprisingly to me, apps have made no difference in modal choice or in overall travel numbers. What visible effects there are come from the growth of TNCs, and even they have had a very small effect on overall mass transit ridership. This was surprising to other people – that post I wrote 10 years ago got a lot of criticism, and Reihan Salam dubbed it “bad Alon – backward-looking, dismissive – rather than good Alon – analytical.” But to me, it wasn’t even a particularly controversial claim. Innovating in an industry requires a lot of knowledge about where its current technological frontier is, and the sort of people pushing open data as the solution are, with few exceptions, incurious about recent success cases.
So that’s for apps. What about open data’s use for planning? That, too, is limited. I think Uday’s work showing how the Fairmount Line in Boston does provide as good job access as the subway is really good illustration of Boston’s transport planning failures. But it is less important to illustrate failure than to fix it. The planners who moved the Orange Line from black Roxbury to white Jamaica Plain didn’t need data; they needed to be fired for racism and replaced with people who don’t bustitute service to black neighborhoods. The Fairmount situation is likewise much less about data and more about a combination of racial sensitivity and understanding global (i.e. non-North American) best practices regarding mainline rail frequency.
Okay, so data is insufficient, but perhaps it’s necessary?
Nope. Important aspects of planning require either very coarse information, readily available not just from conventional present-day census sources but often also from the state of data analysis of the 1920s and 30s.
If anything, more recent (say, post-1970s) innovations in public transportation planning have made granular data less important rather than more important. The frequency-ridership spiral, not yet understood in the postwar era back when trips were CBD-centric and preexisting frequency was so high small cuts didn’t spiral, means that frequency must depend on minimum guidelines and not on granular time-of-day travel data. Changes in the nature of work also mean that split shifts are harder to sustain for the labor force now than then, which makes flat schedules better. In effect, how first-world rail transit works today is that costs depend almost entirely on the peak, and midday off-peak service is almost free to provide up to the point where it matches the peak.
Bus network redesigns have had a similar effect. Carlos Daganzo was adamant on not relying on current travel data in network redesign, because it only reveals how people travel today, not how people would travel on a redesigned network. It’s of course useful to know the major activity nodes, population density levels, etc., but matching origins to destinations is not useful.
At regional and intercity scale, the growth of integrated timed transfer networks is telling as well. The Swiss planner has no need for detailed surveillance app data to figure out how to precisely match where trains from St. Gallen, Biel, or Zug go and at what time. Instead, the national ITT system means trains run hourly with timed connections to everywhere; the decision of where the one-seat rides goes can be based on special patterns, but it’s a second-order effect. It’s not how Flixbus plans its service, but the modal splits of Switzerland are not achieved elsewhere in Europe, let alone in app-oriented North America.
Learning worst-industry practices
Britain and the US are complex, wealthy societies. London and New York also have high mass transit ridership, by virtue of size, and are globally familiar, especially given that they use English. It’s very easy to overlearn from them, to look at TfL’s open data and say “we want that,” even when the impact of such learning is limited. It’s harder to synthesize the real innovations in scheduling, signaling, fare payment, and construction.
It’s fortunate that there are parts of the world that don’t automatically think everything done in the core Anglosphere is the bee’s knees. Israel is among them – its idea of a normal country is pan-Western European – but even there it’s so easy to err and adopt worst industry practices just because of the cultural cachet of London and New York.
I propose that transportation agencies hire people whose job is to keep abreast of global developments in the field and report on best practices.
Which agencies should do it?
Ideally, all urban ones. Very small ones should piggyback on large ones, or participate in metropolitan planning to increase the scale. National agencies could aid this by having their own larger offices, but each urban or metropolitan agency should keep a best practices expert for issues relevant to the specific local context.
How big should the team be?
Normally, only one person is required. A larger team may be necessary for language coverage. In Germany, one English-speaking person could interface with every agency in Europe – even in relatively monolingual places like Spain and Italy, enough experts speak English that it’s possible to work without learning the local language. However, East Asia is largely monolingual, and interfacing with experts in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China is harder in English. Moreover, reading local debates and contracts should be done in the local language even in multilingual countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.
So since language coverage is needed, larger agencies should keep teams of sufficient size. It’s not possible to have full coverage, but, again, English is decent in a pinch. A team of about 5 should be fine, especially if the language coverage is random enough that nearby agencies are likely to only partially overlap; for example, if Berlin’s team includes a Japanese speaker and Hamburg’s includes a Chinese speaker, they can learn secondarily.
No large internal hierarchy is required. Not counting language issues, one person could do this. With full language accounting, as required for agencies the size of NYCT, TfL, or RATP, the team may have a director and a few reports, but the reports should still be paid as experienced professionals and have direct access to agency managers.
What are the team’s responsibilities?
Keep abreast of global developments through reading trade publications, following media in relevant countries so as to know whether a proposed solution is locally considered a success or not, and keeping track of how relevant agencies introduce new technology.
Go to international conferences to form horizontal relationships with peers and acquire more detailed knowledge of new methods, and follow up to discuss specifics with them.
Connect local decisionmakers with peers elsewhere in order to discuss how to adapt outside innovations to the local social and political context.
Who should be hired?
People who are likely to have the required knowledge. Horizontal hiring from other agencies is especially valuable, especially agencies from other cultures, where existing hiring is less likely to happen. American agencies occasionally hire Brits and Canadians, so it’s valuable to hire people with Asian, Continental European, or Latin American agency experience for this team.
Such people tend to be mobile, and if they leave to another agency, that’s fine. Often, the most valuable thing is a person who one can email and ask “in Barcelona, how do you do maintenance on the Cercanías?” (and that’s a high-level question, there are more detailed questions at lower zoom level than our work on costs). A former employee who moved on to another agency is always going to remain such a point contact, provided they left on good terms.
To the extent high-wage countries underlearn from lower-wage ones, they have an easier time hiring this way. Junior engineers in Italy earn less than 2,000€/month after taxes; Northern European and American agencies can poach them with better pay.
Here is a table of New York community boards, with their employed resident and job counts, broken down by how many people live and work in the same community board and how many in the same borough:
In same borough
From same borough
From CB %
The data uses the all-jobs filter on OnTheMap, which assigns a lot of public-sector jobs in the city to City Hall or Brooklyn Borough Hall. The actual number of workers in Brooklyn CB 2 is lower than stated, by perhaps 60,000. The definition of CBs also excludes a few parts of the city with jobs, including the airports. Finally, Marble Hill is in Manhattan but is in the Bronx CB 8; it is counted in Manhattan throughout in same-borough job counts but as part of the Bronx CB 8 in CB job and resident counts.
Very few people work in the same community board they live in. Citywide, it’s 7.8%. The numbers are only high in Manhattan CB 5, which consists of Midtown and is so expensive to live in that people live there if they’re high-income commuters choosing a short walking commute. And yet, local politics is dominated by those 7.8%, who think owning a business near where they live makes them more moral than the rest of the city.
Even working and living in the same borough is not that common, only 38.7% citywide. It’s only a majority in Manhattan and a bare majority in two Outer Borough CBs, Brooklyn 7 and 12 (Sunset Park and Borough Park).
Staten Island, which has a strong not-the-rest-of-the-city political identity, relies on the rest of the city’s economy. Only 25.8% of employed residents work within the borough, and 55.6% work in the other four boroughs, the remaining working in the suburbs. Slightly more Staten Island residents work in Manhattan than on Staten Island.
The majority of people working in New York live outside the borough they work in, and this is true even excluding Manhattan, only 45.7% of outer-borough workers living in the borough they work in.
The Bronx CB 2 is on net a job center and not a bedroom community, due to industrial jobs in Hunts Point.
I’ve written five pieces about national and transnational traditions of building urban rail: US, Soviet bloc, UK, France, Germany. I’m about to continue this series with a post about Japan, but yesterday I made a video on Twitch jumping ahead to different national traditions of high-speed rail. The video recording cut two thirds of the way through due to error on my part, so in lieu of an upload, I’m writing it up as a blog post. The traditions to cover are those of Japan, France, Germany, and China; those are the world’s four busiest networks, and the other high-speed rail networks display influences from the first three of those.
The briefest description is that the Shinkansen is treated like a long-range subway, the TGV like an airplane at flight level zero, and the ICE like a regional rail (and not S-Bahn) network. China doesn’t quite fit any of these modes but has aspects of all three, some good, some not.
But this description must be considerably nuanced. For example, one would expect that airplane-like trains would have security theater and a requirement for early arrival. But the TGV has neither; until recently, platforms were completely open, and only recently has SNCF begun gating them, not for security but for ticket checks, with automatic gates and QR codes. Likewise, until recently passengers could get to the train station 2-3 minutes before the train’s departure and get on, and only now is SNCF requiring passengers to show up as long as 5 minutes early.
The Shinkansen network has very little branching. Currently there is none south of Tokyo; a short branch to Nagasaki is in planning but will not open anytime soon. To the north, there is more branching, and the Yamagata and Akita Mini-Shinkansen lines, the only legacy lines with Shinkansen through-service, split trains, with one part of the train continuing onward to Shin-Aomori and Hokkaido and another part splitting off to Yamagata or Akita.
Going south of Tokyo, the off-peak frequency to Shin-Osaka is four express Nozomi trains an hour, at :00, :09, :30, :51 off-peak; two semi-express Hikari, at :03, :33; and one local Kodama, at :57. The 21-minute gaps are ugly, but on a train that takes around 2.5 hours to get to Shin-Osaka, they’re not too onerous. Thus, there is a culture of going to the train station without pre-booking a ticket and just getting on the next Nozomi. The ticketing system reinforces this: there is no dynamic yield management, but instead fixed ticket prices between pairs of station depending on seat class. What yield management there is is static: the Nozomi has a small surcharge, to justify excluding it from the JR Rail Pass and so shunt tourists to the Hikari.
This is not literally the headway-management system seen on some unbranched subway systems, like the Moscow Metro and Paris Métro; Moscow keeps time by distance from the preceding train, and not by a fixed schedule. But this is fine: some subway systems are timetabled, like the U-Bahn in Berlin and the Tokyo subway. Tokyo even manages to mix local and express trains on some two-track subway lines with timed overtakes. To the scheduler, the fixed timetable is of paramount importance. But to the passenger, it isn’t – people don’t time themselves to a specific train.
Another subway-like characteristic includes interior layout, designed around fast egress. Shinkansen cars have two door pairs each and platforms are 1,250 mm high with level boarding, enabling 1 minute dwell times even at very busy stations like Shin-Osaka. Trains make multiple stops in the Tokyo and Osaka regions, and even Nozomi and equivalent fastest-train classes on other lines stop there, to distribute loads. There is no cafe car, and luggage is overhead, to maximize train seating space: a 25 meter car has 18-20 seating rows with 1-meter pitch, which is greater efficiency than is typical in Europe.
Station location decisions, finally, are designed as far as practical to be in city centers. Stations with Shin- before their names are new stations, like Shin-Osaka and Shin-Yokohama, but they tend to be sited close to city centers, at intersections with subway and commuter rail lines.
The main drawback of Japan is that the construction costs are very high. This comes from a political decision to build elevated lines rather than at-grade liens with earthworks, as is common in Europe. This preponderance of els has been exported to South Korea, Taiwan, and China, all of which have high costs relative to the tunneling proportion; the KTX, essentially a Shinkansen adapted to an environment in which the legacy trains are standard-gauge too, is notable for having low tunneling costs, as is common in Korea, but high costs on lines with moderate amounts of tunneling thanks to the high share of construction on bridges.
East Asia has high population density, which lets it get away with high costs since the ridership is high enough to compensate – THSR is at this point returning around 4% on very high costs. But in any other environment, this leads to severe problems. China, with lower incomes and fares than in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, already has trouble paying interest on lines other than the Beijing-Shanghai system. India, building a turnkey Shinkansen as recommended by Japanese consultants, who were burned by Taiwan’s mix of European and Japanese technology on an operationally-Japanese system, is spending enormous sums of money: the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is around PPP$50.6 billion, for 508 km, $100 million/km on a line that’s only 5% in tunnel and even those tunnels could have been avoided by running on broad gauge and using existing a widened legacy right-of-way in Mumbai.
The TGV as flight-level zero air travel
As detailed in New Departures by Anthony Perl, the history of the TGV differs from that of the Shinkansen in a key aspect: the TGV was built after the postwar decline of rail travel (as was the ICE), whereas the Shinkansen was built before it (as was to some extent CRH). The Shinkansen was built in 1959-64: there was no decline in rail evident yet, with only 12 cars/1,000 people in Tokyo in 1960, and the system was designed to deal with growing ridership. In contrast, the TGV was planned after the 1973 oil crisis, in a then-wealthier and more motorized country than Japan, aiming to woo passengers back to the train from the car and the plane.
Previously, SNCF had been engaging in experiments with high speed and high-voltage electrification, inventing 25 kV 50 Hz electrification in the process, which would be adopted by the Shinkansen and become the global standard for new electrification. It also experimented with running quickly on ballasted track – without modifications, the trains of that era kicked ballast up at high speed, there was so much air resistance. But investment had gone to legacy intercity rail, driving up the average speed of the electrified Mistral to 130 km/h and the Aquitaine to 145 km/h. Nonetheless, competition with air was fierce and air shuttles in that era before security theater attracted many people in competition with four-hour trains from Paris to Lyon and Bordeaux.
The TGV’s real origin is then 1973. The crisis shocked the entire non-oil-exporting world, leading to permanently reduced growth not just in rich countries (by then including Japan) but also non-oil-exporting developing countries, setting up the sequence of slow growth under import substitution and then the transition to neoliberalism. France reacted to the crisis with the slogan “in France, we have ideas,” setting up the nuclearization of French electricity in the 1980s, reduced taxes on diesel to encourage what was then viewed as surplus fuel rather than as a deadly pollutant, and the construction of the electric TGV.
Despite the ongoing growth of the Shinkansen then, there was extensive skepticism of the TGV in the 1970s and early 80s. The state refused to finance it, requiring SNCF to borrow on international markets. The LGV Sud-Est employed cost-cutting techniques including 3.5% grades and high superelevation to avoid tunnels, at-grade construction with cut and fill balancing out to avoid surplus dirt, and land swaps for farms that would be split by the line to avoid needing to build passageways.
Construction costs were only 5.5M€/km in 2021 euros. Unfortunately, costs have risen since and stand at 20M€/km, or even higher on Bordeaux-Toulouse. But the LGV network remains among the least tunneled in the world thanks to the use of high grades; in our database the only less tunneled network, that of Morocco, is a turnkey TGV, built at unusually low cost.
As in Japan, the line was built between the two largest cities: Paris and Lyon. Also as in Japan, Lyon could not be served at the historic center of Perrache, but instead at a near-center location, Part-Dieu, which then became the new central business district, as the LGV Sud-Est was built concurrently with the Lyon Metro and nearby skyscrapers, as is typical for a European city wishing to avoid skyscrapers in historic centers. But everything else was different. There were no real intermediate stops the way that the express Shinkansen have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto: the LGV Sud-Est skipped Dijon, which instead was served on a branch, and the two intermediate stops on the line, Le Creusot and Mâcon-Loché, are on the outskirts of minor towns and only see a few trains per day each.
Moreover, relying on France’s use of standard-gauge, there was, from the start, extensive through-service beyond Lyon, toward Marseille, Geneva, Saint-Etienne, and Grenoble. Frequency was for the most part low, measured in trains per day. There was little investment in regional rail outside the capital, unlike in Germany, and therefore there was never any attempt to time the connections from Saint-Etienne and Grenoble to the TGV at Part-Dieu.
At the other end, Paris did not build a central station, unlike German or Japanese cities. The time for such a station was, frustratingly, just a few years before work began on the TGV in earnest: RATP was building the RER starting in the 1960s and early 70s, including a central station at Les Halles, which opened 1977. But this was designed purely for urban and suburban use, and the TGV stayed on the surface. The last opportunity for a Paris central station was gone when SNCF extended the RER D from Gare de Lyon to Les Halles. Thus Paris has four distinct TGV stations – Lyon, Montparnasse, Nord, and Est – with poor connections between them.
This turned the TGV into a point-to-point system. Were there a central station, trains could have gone Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille. But there wasn’t, and so for Lille-Lyon service, SNCF built the Interconnexion Est, bypassing Paris and also serving Disneyland and Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. When the LGV Atlantique opened, Tours kept its historic terminal, and thus trains went either Paris-Tours or Paris-Bordeaux bypassing Tours. When the LGV Sud-Est was extended south with the LGVs Rhône-Alpes and Méditerranée, trains did not go via Part-Dieu, even though it had always been configured as a through-station for points south, but rather via a bypass serving Lyon’s airport; trains today go Paris-Lyon, Paris-Marseille, or at lower frequency Lyon-Marseille, but not Paris-Lyon-Marseille.
Of note, Japan’s subway-like characteristic is partly the outcome of its linear geography along the Taiheiyo Belt, making it an ideal comparison also for the Northeast Corridor in the United States. But Lille, Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, and yet the service plans do not make use of that geography. There is no planning around seat turnover: if a train makes an intermediate stop, it’s one with very low ridership, like Mâcon, with no attempt to have seats occupied by Paris-Lyon passengers and then by Lyon-Marseille ones.
Over time, this led to a creeping airline-ization of the TGV. Airline-style dynamic yield management was introduced, I believe in the 1990s. This was after SNCF had spent the 1980s marketing the TGV as 260 km/h for the same fare as 160 km/h; the overall fares on legacy intercity trains and TGVs are similar per p-km, but TGVs have opaque pricing, and are designed to maximize fares out of Paris-Lyon in particular, where air competition vanished. The executives at SNCF are increasingly drawn from the airline world, and, perhaps out of social memory of the navettes competing with 4-hour trains in the 1970s, they think that trains cannot compete with air travel if they take longer than 3-3.5 hours, even though they do successfully on such city pairs as Paris-Toulon.
Having skipped Germany’s InterCity revolution and its refinements in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, the TGV network has stagnated in the last decade. Ridership is up since the pre-Great Recession peak but barely, only by around 10%. The frequency is too weak for inter-provincial links, where people mostly drive, and in the 1990s and 2000s the TGV network grew to dominate the Paris-province market; there isn’t much of a remaining market for the current operating paradigm to grow into.
While some regional links are adopting takt timetables, for example some of the Provence TERs, SNCF management has done no such thing. Instead, it has spent the last 15 years pursuing airline strategies, including imitation of low-cost airlines, first iDTGV and then OuiGo. A generalist elites of business analysts believes in market segmentation and price discrimination, which do not work on a mode of travel where a frequent, flexible timetable is so paramount.
Among the countries influenced by France, Spain is notable for realizing that it has a problem with operations. In an interview with Roger Senserrich, ADIF head Isabel Pardo de Vera spoke positively of Spain’s efficient engineering and construction, but centered ADIF and RENFE’s problems, including the poor operations. Like Italy and Belgium, and more recently Morocco, Spain learned the concept of high-speed rail from France; also like Italy and Belgium, it mixed in a few German elements, which in the 1980s meant Germany’s more advanced LZB signaling, but at the time, there was no Switzerland-wide takt yet, and the inferiority of French operations and scheduling was not yet evident. But Spain self-flagellates – this is how it learns – whereas France is just a hair too rich to recognize its weaknesses and far too proud for its elite to Germanize where needed.
The ICE as long-distance regional rail
Germany came into the 1960s with some of the most advanced legacy rail in the world, with technology that would be adopted as a Shinkansen standard. This goes back to the 1920s, when Deutsche Reichsbahn was formed from the merger of the state-level railways in the wake of the post-WW1 German Revolution. The new railway regulation, dating to 1925, promoted new kinds of engineering now completely standard, such as the tangential switch. DRB would also experiment with 200 km/h diesel express trains in the 1930s. Even in the 1960s and early 70s, when the most advanced rail tech was clearly in Japan, Deutsche Bundesbahn kept up with rail tech, much like SNCF, inventing LZB signals.
But unlike Japan and France, Germany never built a complete high-speed rail network. The InterCity network, dating to 1971, was designed around fast legacy trains, at slightly lower speeds than available on the express French legacy trains. The key was that city pairs would be served every two hours, with timed connections at intermediate points boosting many to hourly. This was from the start based on a regular takt and turnover, with more expansive service to smaller cities.
High-speed lines in Germany were delayed, and often built on weird alignments. The most important reason is that in the formative period, from 1971 to 1990, there was no such country as Germany. The country was called West Germany, and, much like Japan, had a fairly linear population distribution from the Ruhr upriver to Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and finally either Karlsruhe or Stuttgart and Munich; but the largest city proper, Hamburg, lay outside this corridor.
The north-south orientation of West Germany contrasted with the rail network it inherited. Until the post-WW1 German Revolution, the rail networks were run by the states, not by the German Empire, and thus interstate connections were underbuilt. Prussia had an east-west orientation, and therefore north-south lines were relatively underbuilt (see for example the 1896 map), and to top it off most north-south routes crossed the Iron Curtain.
To solve many problems at once, but not to solve any of them well, Germany’s first high-speed line connected Hanover, Göttingen, Kassel, Fulda, and Würzburg. Getting to more substantial cities like Hamburg and Frankfurt requires onward through-service at lower speed. The LGV Sud-Est had a minimum curve radius of 3.2 km, and usually 4 km, and can squeeze 300 km/h out of it now, without any tunnels; the Hanover-Würzburg line has a minimum radius of 5.1 km and a maximum grade of 1.25% and is limited to 280 km/h (service runs at 250 km/h), as it was built as a mixed freight-passenger line.
Subsequent lines have, like Hanover-Würzburg, not been complete connections between major cities. Here the difference with France, Italy, South Korea, and China is evident. All are standard-gauge countries, like Germany, and all employ through-service to various degrees. But France opened a complete Paris-Lyon high-speed line in 1981-3, and only the last 30 km into Paris were on legacy trains (since reduced to 8 km with the Interconnexion Est), and likewise Italian, Chinese, and Korean high-speed lines connect major cities all the way. In contrast, this never happens in Germany at longer distance than Cologne-Frankfurt, a 180 km connection. There are always low- or medium-speed segments in between. The maximum average speed between major cities in Germany is either Cologne-Frankfurt or Berlin-Hamburg, a 230 km/h line with tilting trains, both averaging around 180 km/h; the Tokaido Shinkansen, with legacy 2.5 km curves, squeezes 210 km/h out of the Nozomi, and LGVs routinely average 230-250 km/h between Paris and major secondary cities.
Nor are the lower speeds in Germany saving money. The mixed passenger/freight lines have heavier tunneling than they would need if they had 3.5-4% grades. Hanover-Würzburg cost 36M€/km in 2021 euros thanks to its 37% tunneled alignment. German construction costs are not high relative to the tunneling percentage, unlike Chinese or Taiwanese costs, let alone British ones, but the tunneling percentage is in many cases unnecessarily high. This is thankfully not exported to every Northern European country that learned from the InterCity, but the Netherlands, as NIMBY-ridden as Germany, built an unnecessary tunnel on the HSL Zuid and had very high costs even taking that into account; Italy, with an otherwise-French system, likewise overbuilds, as pointed out by Beria-Albalate-Grimaldi-Bel, with viaducts designed to carry heavy freight trains even where there is no such demand.
So the bad in Germany is that the lines have very shallow grades, forcing heavy tunneling, and the costs are so high that the system is not complete. Is there good? Yes!
The InterCity system’s focus on high frequency enables decent service between major cities. Berlin-Munich trains, compromised by the Erfurt detour and subsequent descoping of much of the line, do the trip in 4.5 hours where they should be taking 3 and even 2.5 hours. But it’s not the same as the 4 hours of the pre-TGV Mistral to Lyon or Aquitaine to Bordeaux, the latter of which averaged the same speed as most Berlin-Munich trains today. The Aquitaine ran as a single daily Bordeaux-Paris-Bordeaux round-trip, and another train, branded the Etendard, ran the same route daily but Paris-Bordeaux-Paris. In contrast, DB today connects Berlin-Munich roughly every hour. It’s far more flexible, and the connections to other intercity trains are better.
And just as the TGV’s inexpensive construction has been perfected in Spain while France has slouched on cost control, so has the interconnected system of Germany been perfected on the margins of its sphere of influence, especially in Switzerland. Swiss connections are never fast: the country is too small for 300 km/h trains to make large differences in door-to-door trip times. The average speed on the workhorse Swiss lines connecting the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle is around 110-120 km/h. But they run on a half-hourly takt, and other lines run on an hourly takt, and connections at the major cities are timed. European urbanism has a long tail of small cities, unlike American or Asian urbanism, and the Swiss takt connections those small cities to one another through regular timed transfers, with investments to prioritize punctuality.
This leads to a false belief among German rail advocates in a tradeoff between French or Spanish speed and Swiss or Dutch or Austrian connectivity. The latter set of countries have higher rail ridership per capita, and even Germany has recently overtaken France’s intercity rail ridership (though not yet per capita), and thus activists in Germany think investing in high speed is a waste. But what is actually happening is that the countries of Europe that look up to France have built high-speed rail, and the countries that look down on France have not; the Netherlands has HSL Zuid but it’s peripheral to the national network and its system is otherwise rather Swiss. Germany absolutely can and should complete its network. It just needs to understand that in certain aspects, countries it is used to stereotyping as spendthrift have done a more prudent job than it has.
Already, the younger rail advocates I meet, like Felix Thoma, seem interesting in applying the Deutschlandtakt concept to a high-speed rail network, rather than to a medium-speed one as the previous generations called for. But Germany is a NIMBY country. NIMBYs blocked French levels of energy nuclearization in the 1970s and 80s, creating the last generation’s Green Party (current leader, Annalena Baerbock, is 40 and came of age after those fights); NIMBYs sue projects they dislike on frivolous grounds until the politicians lose interest, much as in the US with its government-by-lawsuit, and thus high-speed rail on the Hamburg-Hanover line has been stuck in limbo for a generation.
Besides the political deference to NIMBYs, who as in the US are not as powerful as either they or the state thinks, the main problem then is unwillingness to merge French and German planning insights where they work. I might also add Japanese insights – the Shinkansen is far more efficient with platforms than any European railroad – but they’re less important here or in France than in the UK, which is a ridiculously high-cost version of French planning.
China as a mixture of all modes, some good, some awful
When I started planning this video and now post, I was puzzling over where to slot China. Other systems seemed fairly easy to slot as Japanese, German, or French, with the occasional special feature (insanely high UK costs, HSL Zuid in an otherwise Swiss intercity takt system, Korean standard-gauge adaptations). But China is its own thing. It makes sense: on the eve of corona, China had 2.3 billion annual high-speed rail riders, comfortably more than than the rest of the world put together; Japan, the second busiest network, had 436 million. In Europe, only France has more high-speed rail ridership per capita, by the smallest of margins.
Historically, the system should be viewed as having borrowed liberally from other systems in richer countries that built out their networks earlier. Among the three prior traditions, the one most similar to what CRH has converged on is the Shinkansen, and yet there is significant enough divergence I would not class CRH as a direct Shinkansen influence the way I do the KTX and THSR. This also mirrors the situation for rapid transit: China displays clear Soviet influences but has diverged sufficiently that it must be viewed as a separate tradition now.
The most important feature is that CRH evolved on the cusp of the decline of rail in favor of cars and planes, a decline that has been more complete in Western countries. In the 1980s and early 90s, China was already growing very quickly; this was from a very low base, so it was not noticed in richer countries, but it was enough that there were already motorization and domestic air travel competing with China Railway. This led to a multi-phase speed-up campaign, announced in 1993 and implemented from 1997 to 2007.
At this point, construction was on legacy alignments to legacy stations. In the North China Plain, the railroads were straight thanks to the flat topography, and so what was needed was investment in the quality of the physical plant – the sort of investments figured out in midcentury France and Germany, adapted by the Shinkansen. This was not trivial, not in a then-low-income country like China, but it was not enormously expensive either. At the same time, there was growing electrification in China, using 25 kV 50 Hz, leading to higher and higher train classes, all charging premium fares over the third-world tickets for traditional trains. At the apex was the D class, covering 200 km/h EMUs; the one time I rode a train in China, a day trip from Shanghai to Jiaxing and back in 2009, the way back was on a D class train, which had the comfort level and speed of the Northeast Corridor, topping at 170 km/h and averaging maybe 110. This investment has continued, and as of 2019, 72% of the network is electrified.
But China was already looking for more. In 2008, the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed line opened, as the world’s first 350 km/h line. In the financial crisis’s aftermath, China rapidly built out the network as fiscal stimulus, and by 2011, ridership overtook the Shinkansen’s as the world’s largest. Without legacy considerations, the system is built for 380 km/h, even though trains run at 350 km/h, and express trains average 280-290 km/h.
Like the United States and unlike Japan or most of Western Europe, China has an extensive freight rail network. Its approach is the opposite of Germany’s: high-speed lines are dedicated to passengers, and some are officially called passenger-dedicated lines, or PDLs, to make this clear. Freight trains go on the legacy network. Regional rail in China is very weak; the few lines that exist are new-builds, rather like long-range subways, and frequency is often lacking, the Beijing lines branded as S-Bahn barely running off-peak. With nearly all intercity rail having moved over to CRH, the legacy network is relatively free for freight use, even coal trains, which are slow and care little for reliability improvements for higher-end intermodal cargo.
However, the passenger-only characteristic of CRH’s system does not mean it’s employed French cost-cutting techniques. Rather, lines run almost exclusively on viaducts and have shallow grades, raising construction costs as in the rest of East Asia. Stations are newly-built at high expense: Beijing South cost 7 billion yuan, which in today’s PPP dollars is around $3 billion. There are many tracks and no economization with fast turnarounds as in Japan, and station layouts are comparable to airports, with some security theater.
Beijing South is at least just outside the Second Ring Road. Other stations are farther out. This is not just the beet field stations that characterize TGV service to small cities like Amiens or Metz, but also outlying stations in major centers. Shanghai Station only sees high-speed trains on the local line to Nanjing, providing a dedicated track pair equivalent to Kodama service while Nozomi-equivalent trains continue on to Beijing on their own tracks. The trains to Beijing get a separate Shanghai station, Hongqiao, colocated with the city’s domestic airport. The connecting subways tend to be better than at true beet field stations in France, which miss regional rail connections, but those stations are still well outside city center.
China is moreover exporting the bad more than the good. Chinese-funded projects in Africa are not fast – the average speeds are perhaps midway through China’s speed-up campaign, predating CRH. But they do have oversize, airport-like stations located well outside city centers. This happens even when right-of-way to enter city center exists, as in Nairobi.
On mixing and matching
Understanding these four distinct traditions is important for high-speed rail planning, in those four countries as well as elsewhere, such as in the UK and US. It’s important to understand the tradeoffs that these traditions made, and drawbacks that are not so much tradeoffs as things that didn’t seem important at the time.
Most notably, Britain has oversize stations, spending billions on new terminals such as in Birmingham. This comes from the low efficiency of most European turnaround operations, because most European cities have huge rail terminals from the steam era with a surplus of tracks. When trains need to turn fast, they do: German trains running through Frankfurt, which is a terminal, turn in 3-4 minutes to continue to their onward destination. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, JR East learned to turn trains in 12 minutes even while giving them a cleaning, and with such tight operations, Britain should be able to fit traffic growth within existing station footprints.
It is also desirable to learn from students who have surpassed their old teachers. Korea has lower construction costs than Japan, Spain has lower construction costs than France and greater understanding of the need to integrate the timetable and infrastructure, Switzerland has perfected the German system to the point that German rail advocacy calls for reimportation of its planning maxims.
In the same way that Taiwan built infrastructure to European specs but is running Japanese trains on it, to its profit and to Japan’s chagrin, it may be advisable to build infrastructure in the French (or, better yet, Spanish) way but then run trains on it the German (or better yet, Swiss) way. But it’s more nuanced than this conclusion, due to important contributions from China and Japan, and due to the focus on having a central station, which France chose not to build in Paris to its detriment.
But in general, I think it behooves countries to learn to implement the following from those four traditions:
Japan: the best rolling stock, high-efficiency turnaround operations, reliable schedules; avoid excessive viaducts and Japan’s increasing demand for turnkey systems.
France: passenger-dedicated infrastructure standards (supplemented by Cologne-Frankfurt), land swap deals for at-grade construction, cost control (in the Spanish version – France is deteriorating); avoid TGV rolling stock and airline-style pricing.
Germany: takt (especially in the Swiss and Dutch versions), open station platforms, integration between timetable and infrastructure, seat turnover, decent rolling stock; avoid empowering NIMBYs and building mixed lines with freight.
China: separation of passenger and freight operations, very high average speeds; avoid airline-style outlying stations and excessive viaducts.
I recently found two presentations, one from 2017, the other from earlier this week, both underscoring the importance of in-house expertise for efficient construction. This is layered on top of interviews Eric and I did for our Boston case study and a few additional interviews I did in other American and European cities. It is my professional opinion that agencies that engage in major capital projects, even if they involve rolling stock acquisition rather than the construction of new lines, ought to hire in-house, and make sure to have long-term capital programs.
Both presentations concern rolling stock. The one from 2017 is by Stadler, regarding the challenges of the American market. On slide 32, it mentions that Caltrain was a demanding customer, with all expertise outsourced and yet managers engaging in micromanagement. The micromanagement is in line with what we’ve heard from contractors for other capital expansions, like Second Avenue Subway, especially contractors with experience in both the US, where this practice is common, and Europe, where it isn’t.
The other presentation, from this week, concerns the MBTA’s slow approach to electrifying its commuter rail network. It wishes to begin with a pilot on the already-electrified Providence Line, but is running against the problem of having no in-house expertise, just as Caltrain does not. The presentation on this says, on slide 3, that it takes 6-9 months to onboard consultants, and another 6-9 to develop performance requirements for a kind of vehicle that is completely standard in high-performance regional rail networks in Europe.
Instead of hiring experienced professionals (who must come from Europe or East Asia and not the US), the MBTA plans to piggyback on either the overpriced Caltrain order, or an obsolete-technology order by New Jersey Transit. The Caltrain order, moreover, is stretched for the generous loading gauge of the Western US, but does not fit the catenary height on the East Coast, even though European KISSes would easily and are around 13 cm lower than existing MBTA rolling stock.
Prior Northeastern examples
This combination of political and managerial micromanagement with outsourcing of technical expertise to consultants is common enough in the United States. In the Boston report on the Green Line Extension, we were told by multiple sources that the MBTA only has 5-6 engineers doing design review. Thus, they have the capacity to handle small projects but not large ones.
Small-scale projects like building a new infill station or taking an existing low-platform commuter rail station and converting it to an accessible high-platform one usually have limited cost premium: in Berlin, infill stations are 10 million € outside the Ring, whereas in Boston, infill stations and high-platforming projects (which are very similar in scope) are around $20-25 million – and Boston platforms are longer. This is also the case in Philadelphia, where headline costs are lower because the stations are smaller, but overall the unit costs are comparable to those of Boston.
But large projects are beyond the ability of a 6-person team. The required permanent staffing level is likely in the teens for a team whose job is just to score design and construction contracts. This choked the original Green Line Extension, leading to bottlenecks in design and contributing to the project’s extreme cost. The restarted version is still extremely expensive – it’s getting some good press this week for running slightly under a $2.3 billion/6.3 km budget, but said budget, $360 million/km, is well above the international norm for a subway, let alone trenched light rail. The current project has sunk costs from the previous ones, and a combination of in-house and consultant design about whose efficacy we’ve heard conflicting reports, but the team is much larger now.
In areas that don’t even have the skeletal design review staff of Boston, costs are high even for small projects. Connecticut deserves especial demerit: its department of transportation relies exclusively on consultants for rail design (perhaps also road design but I do not know), and infill stations cost not $20-25 million but $50+ million. The Hartford Line, compromised from the start, even displays this state-by-state difference: the one Massachusetts project, a single high platform in Springfield, cost $10 million/100 meters, a fraction of comparable projects in Connecticut. Larger Connecticut stations, such as those for Metro-North, have seen extreme scope creep, amounting to a $106 million total cost.
Consultants and design
American agencies speak of design-bid-build contracts, in which design and construction are separate, and design-build ones, where they are combined into a single contract. Design-bid-build is superior. But really, contracts in low-cost countries are often neither of those, but just build contracts, with design done mostly in-house. A procurement official in Stockholm explained to me that Swedish contracts tend to be build contracts; design-bid-build can sometimes be used with supplemental consultants helping with design, but it’s not the norm. Moreover, in Oslo, the use of design consultants instead of in-house design has not been good: consultants tend to engage in defensive design because of how Norway structures risk allocation, leading to overbuilding.
In Spain and (I believe) Italy, contracts are design-bid-build. But there’s so much in-house involvement in design that it’s more accurate to call these build contracts. The in-house design teams are not huge but they’re enough to work with private design firms and score proposals for technical merit. In Istanbul, the system is somewhat different: preliminary design at the 60% level is contracted out separately from the combination of final design and construction, which may possibly be called des-bid-ign-build, but the design part is extensively scored on technical merit, at 60-80% of the total weight. The construction contracts in Istanbul are lowest-bid, but contractors can be disqualified, and since Turkey has so much infrastructure construction, contractors know that they need to behave well to get future work.
Unfortunately, American consultants believe the opposite: they believe in the superiority of design-build and are not even aware of pure build, only design-bid-build. Sources from that world that I generally think highly of have told me that directly. But that is because the sort of projects that they are most likely to be involved in are ones that use consultants, which definitionally are not build contracts. The ongoing expansion projects in Stockholm, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, and Berlin have no use for international consultants, so international consultants are not familiar with them, and end up knowing only about high-cost examples like London or the occasional medium-cost one like Paris. In effect, to rely on consultants is to ascertain one largely learns worst industry practices, not best ones.
The alternative to paying consultants is to obtain public-sector expertise. Agencies are obligated to hire sufficient-size teams, and pay them competitively. Engineers in Italy and Spain have a lot of social prestige, much as in France and Germany; even in medium- rather than low-cost countries in Europe, like France, we were told by UITP planners that the people planning metro systems are hired from the engineering elite (in France, this would be Grandes Ecoles graduates), and paid appropriately.
In the US, there is no such prestige. Humanities professors speak of STEM privilege routinely, but by Continental and East Asian standards, the US and UK have no STEM privilege: the elites are generalist and are not expected to know the specific industrial fields they oversee. The public sector thus treats the planner and the engineer as a servant to the political appointee. Senior management routinely ignores the advice of younger planners who are more familiar with present-day research.
The pay, too, is deficient. In absolute numbers, planners at American transit agencies get paid better than their European counterparts – but American white-collar wages are generally higher than European ones. The MBTA pays project managers $106,000 a year as of a few years ago, which is a nice wage, but the Boston private sector pays $140,000 in transportation and more in other fields. The public sector, through budget-cutting officials, sends a clear price signal: we do not want you to work for us.
There is another way, but it requires letting go of the idea that private consultants are better than long-term in-house experts. It is obligatory to hire in-house at competitive wages to grow the design review teams, and listen to them when they say something is desirable, difficult, or impossible. Instead of onboarding consultants, agencies should immediately staff up in-house with plans for long-term investments. Moreover, senior management should back the planners and engineers when they engage in value engineering, even if it annoys politicians and local activists. The role of elected politicians is to review those in-house plans and decide whether there is room in the budget for the megaprojects they recommend, and not to micromanage. This way, and only this way, can the United States shrink its procurement costs to typical Continental European levels.