Underrated Transit Projects

In between the airport connectors and mixed-traffic streetcars are some public transit proposals that would be potentially high-performing. This is a list of potential lines in the US that don’t get nearly the exposure that they deserve.

The basic rule of this post is that if it’s being built, or is on an official urban wishlist pending finding the budget for it, then it’s not underrated. Some of the most important transit projects in North America are in this category: Second Avenue Subway’s current and future phases, the Regional Connector, the UBC SkyTrain extension. What I’m interested in is lines that are only vaguely on any official wishlist, if at all, but could still get very high ridership compared to their length. It is possible that these underrated lines would turn out to be worse-performing if a study were undertaken and the costs turned out to be very high, but in no case was there an honest study. Sometimes there has been no recent study; other times there is one but it sandbags the project.

Finally, I am not including commuter rail projects on this list. Under current regulations and operating practices, nearly all North American commuter rail projects are wastes of money. Conversely, nearly all projects that assume modernization of practices are underrated. This swing, based almost entirely on organizational question, is why I’m excluding these projects from this list. The subway and light rail projects below are less sensitive to organizational questions.

Utica Avenue Subway

Location: New York

Concept: an extension of the 4 from Crown Heights along Utica Avenue to Kings Plaza, about 7 km. If Second Avenue Subway’s Phases 3 and 4 are built, then a branch can be built from Second Avenue to Williamsburg and thence under Bushwick, Malcolm X, and Utica, taking over the entirety of the line, with the 4 cut back to its current terminus; this is an additional 9 km to Second and Houston.

Why it’s underrated: the second busiest bus route in New York, the B46, follows Utica: see here for New York bus route rankings. The busiest follows First and Second, which are getting a subway. Two additional routes in the top ten, the B44 and the B41, follow Nostrand and Flatbush respectively, fairly close to Utica. The B46 has 48,000 weekday riders and the B41 and B44 have another 70,000 between them. Since subways are much faster than city buses, the expected ridership is much higher than 120,000, measured in multiples rather than in a percentage increase. In addition, the 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all busier coming to the Manhattan core from Uptown than from Brooklyn, so adding to their ridership from the Brooklyn end balances the loads better, and avoids the required increase in operating costs for the new riders.

What is being done right now: nothing.

Geary Subway

Location: San Francisco

Concept: a full subway from Market Street to the Outer Richmond District, about 9 km. This can connect to the BART subway, the Muni Metro tunnel, or a second Transbay Tube if one is built.

Why it’s underrated: the 38-Geary is the busiest bus route in San Francisco, with 57,000 weekday riders between the local, the limited, and the express buses: see here for San Francisco bus ridership. Parallel corridors are also busy: the 1-California has 29,000, the 31-Balboa has 10,000, and the 5-Fulton has 17,000. Some of the census tracts along the middle of the route, in Little Osaka Japantown, rank together with Los Angeles’s Koreatown as the densest in the US outside New York. BART’s current limiting factor is not the Transbay Tube, but the grades farther south in San Francisco, which lengthen the braking distance and make it impossible to run a full 30 trains per hour through the core segments; a Geary branch leaving south of Montgomery Street would reduce service to points farther south, but improve capacity for riders heading from Oakland to the San Francisco CBD.

What is being done right now: there were never subway plans, but there were light rail plans, which due to local merchants’ opposition to loss of space for cars were downgraded to a rapid bus. The city’s FAQ on the subject even has the cheek to portray the Boston Silver Line and the Los Angeles Orange Line as successes.

Downtown Relief Line

Location: Toronto

Concept: there are several different alignments, but all feature an east-west line somewhere between Queen Street and Union Station, with one or two bends to the north to intersect the Bloor-Danforth Line. The latter two alignments (using option 4B for the second one) feature about 12 km of tunnel; I do not know how much the first one has.

Why it’s underrated: only one subway line serves Downtown Toronto, the Yonge-University-Spadina Line. Bloor-Danforth is too far from the CBD, and requires a transfer. The transfer points are very crowded: as far as I can tell from this list, the central one, Bloor-Yonge, has 200,000 weekday boardings, apparently including transfers. Without figures that include transfers in other cities I can’t make comparisons, but I doubt any two-line, four-track station in New York has this many riders. Union Station is quite crowded as well, and DRL proposals include transfers to outlying commuter rail stations. Ridership on parallel streetcars is very high: there are 53,000 on King Street, 44,000 on Queen, and, if a more northern alignment for the DRL is chosen, 32,000 on Dundas.

What is being done right now: more studies; construction will almost certainly begin any decade now. Neither David Miller’s Transit City light rail proposal nor Rob Ford’s replacement of Transit City with subways included the DRL.

125th Street Subway

Location: New York

Concept: either Phase 5 or Phase 2.5 of Second Avenue Subway, going west along 125th to Broadway, with a station at each intersection with an existing north-south subway.

Why it’s underrated: east-west transportation in Manhattan is slow, even by the standards of Manhattan buses. The 125th Street buses in my experience are slower than walking; despite this, the various routes have about 90,000 weekday boardings between them, of which about 30,000 come from 125th Street itself. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is going to substantially improve east-west transportation, by serving Times Square and offering a two-seat ride from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side and Central and West Harlem; however, passengers from East Harlem will still have to take a major detour to avoid the crosstown buses. While SAS offers a relief to the 4/5 and 6 lines, the 2/3 and A/D express lines are overcrowded as well, and a connection at 125th Street would divert some East Side-bound commuters.

What is being done right now: nothing, although (some) railfans who work at the MTA privately want to see such a line built.

Silver Line Light Rail

Location: Boston

Concept: replacement of the Silver Line buses along Washington Street with light rail, feeding into an existing Green Line portal, about 4 km of light rail.

Why it’s underrated: the Silver Line buses are the busiest in Boston, with 15,000 weekday riders on the buses to Dudley Square: see PDF-pp. 47-48 of the MBTA Blue Book. The ridership doesn’t justify a subway, but does justify dedicated lanes and rail. The Green Line tunnel has some spare capacity, has a portal pointing in the correct direction, and could take an additional train every 6 or 7 minutes, which would give riders in Roxbury faster trips through Downtown Boston.

What is being done right now: nothing – a study sandbagged the rail bias factor and assumed only 130 new transit riders on a Silver Line light rail service, making the project appear cost-ineffective.

Triboro RX

Location: New York

Concept: a circumferential subway line, with about 1 km of new tunnel and 35 km of route on preexisting rights-of-way, abandoned or lightly used by freight trains today.

Why it’s underrated: the biggest cost driver, right-of-way formation, is already present. The right-of-way in question has a few daily freight trains, but the most critical link, the Hell Gate Bridge, is four-tracked, and freight trains can be kicked out from their segment of the bridge and moved to the Amtrak tracks. The work done by Michael Frumin and Jeff Zupan in the late 1990s estimated about 150,000 commute trips per weekday (76,000 commuters each making a roundtrip per day), which is low for a greenfield line of this length but reasonable for a line on existing rights-of-way.

What is being done right now: nothing, although ever since Lee Sander mentioned the line in 2008, politicians have paid lip service to the concept, without committing funding.

Boston Circumferential Line

Location: Boston

Concept: a circumferential subway, from Harvard Square to Dudley Square or the JFK-UMass subway stop, roughly following the 66 bus route where it runs and intersecting the busiest stops of the Green Line branches and some commuter rail stops. This is about 12 km.

Why it’s underrated: although the busiest Boston bus is the Silver Line to Dudley Square, the next few are circumferential, particularly the 1 and 66, and secondarily the 23 and 28; together this is about 50,000 riders. Boston’s street network is hostile to surface transit except on a few major streets such as Washington, which is why there is no hope of making such a line light rail, which would fit the projected ridership better. A route that parallels the 66, at least until it hits the E branch of the Green Line, would intersect the B, C, and D branches at their busiest respective surface stops, and improve connectivity to Cambridge, which is increasingly a major business district of the Boston region in its own right.

What is being done right now: BRT, on convoluted alignments that don’t exactly follow either the 66 or the 1 where they are parallel but instead make detours.

Nostrand Avenue Subway

Location: New York

Concept: an extension of the 2/5 from Flatbush to the southern end of Nostrand Avenue, about 5 km.

Why it’s underrated: all the reasons that make Utica so strong apply to Nostrand secondarily; the present bus ridership may be high enough to support two subway lines rather than one. The present terminus was built as a temporary one, which is why it has side platforms rather than an island platform.

What is being done right now: nothing.

Posted in Good Transit, Incompetence, Transportation, Urban Transit | 160 Comments

New York Finds Massive Savings in Transit Construction

MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast announced that an internal review of MTA Capital Construction reveals that there are large wastes in the capital budget that could be eliminated with relatively simple step. City comptroller Scott Stringer noted that Second Avenue Subway’s first phase, a two-mile stub, costs nearly $5 billion, whereas comparable lines in Paris, London, Tokyo, and other rich, global cities are a fraction of that amount. “Few lines cost more than half a billion dollars per mile,” his office added.

Prendergast’s office directed questions to MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu. Horodniceanu outlined a list of items raising New York’s subway construction costs, including labor rules, legal issues, lack of training in new technologies, and insufficient public oversight of contractors. He added that there is little hope of seeing large reductions in the costs of ongoing projects, which are too far advanced, with most of the money already spent, but future subway construction could be done for much cheaper. He did not give a concrete estimate, but a senior official at MTA Capital Construction believed that with the requisite reforms, future subway lines would cost about half a billion dollars per mile in Manhattan and a quarter billion dollars in the Outer Borough.

When asked about the possibility of building Amtrak’s Gateway Project at lower cost, the source qualified those estimates, explaining that Gateway can probably be done for $3 billion, closer to a billion dollars per mile, as much of the project involves underwater tunneling. Officials from Amtrak did not comment on the record by the time this story went to press; however, a senior Amtrak manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “we don’t really believe this is possible – there are lots of low estimates, and those always lead to budget overruns,” and said that the cost figures from the rest of the world are “irrelevant to America and American labor costs.”

Labor reactions to the announcement were mixed. James Ryan, the president of the Sandhogs Local 147 union, expressed skepticism that costs could be brought down without cutting wages or unionized jobs, and warned of a “race to the bottom” and a “low-wage Wal-Mart economy.” However, he added that he would accept changes as long as there was a guarantee of no job losses, wage cuts, or work rule reforms that would reduce union autonomy. TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen, whose union represents subway workers rather than construction workers, proposed that the city and the state use the reduced costs to expand subway construction, specifically mentioning future phases of Second Avenue Subway. Currently only Phase 1 is funded, serving the Upper East Side.

Reactions within the state legislature were more positive. The greatest supporter is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), whose Lower East Side district is slated to be served by the fourth and last phase of Second Avenue Subway. Silver noted that he was in support of the project even when it was just Phase 1, and said that he would work with the State Senate to pass all the legal reforms requested by Prendergast and Horodniceanu. In the State Senate, co-temporary presidents Dean Skelos (R-Long Island) and Jeffrey Klein (Ind. D-Bronx) had a cooler response. They both praised the revelations and said that they would consider passing the reforms requested, but did not mention any timeline for doing so. Several state legislators, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed sentiments that the MTA is keeping two sets of books, and if the MTA just admitted to being able to save more money, then its budget requests for operations are also likely suspect. Skelos himself was cool to the proposals for a legislative audit of the MTA, but added, “I understand why people are upset and want to take a closer look.”

In contrast, within City Hall, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio praised Horodniceanu and sent a press release calling MTA Capital Construction’s announcement “a courageous admitting of past mistakes, and an ambitious look forward.” De Blasio himself added that “Now is the time to see where we can build new lines that we thought were unaffordable,” and expressed confidence that all necessary changes can be achieved without running afoul of labor demands.

It is unclear whether the city or the MTA will propose any subway extensions, other than the completion of Second Avenue Subway. In 2008, the MTA’s then-chairman, Elliot Sander, proposed a 22-mile circumferential line running on lightly-used freight rights-of-way, connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn without going through Manhattan. Regional Plan Association President Robert Yaro noted that his organization initially proposed this line in 1996 and proposed that the MTA build this line as well as express links to all three airports. He added that this line, which he calls Triboro, requires only about a mile of tunnel and is therefore much cheaper than fully underground lines. “The MTA has found a way to make everything cheaper, both subways and construction on existing infrastructure, so Triboro will be especially cheap now,” he said.

The community groups who could be reached by the article’s deadline were split. Transit activists within Harlem proposed that Second Avenue Subway be modified to add a fifth phase, going crosstown under 125th Street. The members of Harlem’s three community boards agreed that it would be useful, but most of them expressed concerns that it would lead to gentrification and displacement of existing residents, and said they would support the line if the city made an effort to build or preserve affordable housing. MTA planners who spoke on condition of anonymity proposed to extend the 2 and 5 down Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and the 4 down Utica Avenue, as per proposals from the 1970s. The response of the community boards in southeastern Brooklyn was more negative, saying that it would change the character of the neighborhoods relatively. One community board member warned that this would lead to “Manhattanization of our neighborhood.”

No member of the New Jersey state government responded to repeated requests for quotes by the article’s deadline.

Posted in Construction Costs, New York, Transportation, Urban Transit | 15 Comments

Transit Observations from Philadelphia

I was in Philadelphia last summer for about five days. I have few observations as a pedestrian: I stayed in West Philadelphia, in the gentrifying zone radiating out of University City, and traveled to Center City, and both neighborhoods seemed intimately familiar to me as a (former) New Yorker. The street widths and setbacks looked very much like those of New York; West Philadelphia could easily be an area of Brooklyn. The difference to me was in the public transit rather than the pedestrian experience.

In New York, the subway is for everyone. The same is true of Singapore and Vancouver. In Philadelphia, it is not the case. The city is about 40% white and 40% black. On the trains I took, the Market Street subway and the Subway-Surface Trolleys, nearly everyone was black. A friend who lived in Philadelphia for ten years has observed the same on the buses, and adds that white people on buses tend to be college students.

But there’s more to the story. I think it’s a commonplace that in American cities other than New York, blacks ride public transit more than whites. What I think is more important is that whites tend to ride transit at rush hour. When I rode the trains in Philadelphia at rush hour, there was still a clear black majority on the streetcar or the subway car, but there were a fair number of whites. In the off-peak, I was at times the only white person on a streetcar that was filled to its seated capacity. The aforementioned friend says she thinks she saw the same, but as she rarely rode at rush hour, she is not sure.

It is not hard to come up with explanations for the difference. In Philadelphia, as in the typical Rust Belt city, the white population is quite suburbanized, much more so than the black population. It is also substantially richer. Both contribute to car ownership, and to driving in whenever traffic allows; since traffic is worst at rush hour, that’s when we see the most white people on public transit. The people who ride the trains and the buses outside rush hour tend to be urban residents who do not own a car, and in a city with the income distribution and racial dynamics of Philadelphia, they are predominantly black.

This injects a racial element into a lot of transit planning, especially for commuter rail. North American commuter rail is designed exclusively for suburban residents, who in Philadelphia and similar cities are usually white and at least middle-class. This is why it gets away with such poor off-peak service: hourly on most SEPTA Regional Rail lines, hourly or even every two hours on the MBTA, hourly on most branches of the New York commuter rail network. Although New York itself doesn’t have the typical Rust Belt city demographics, its suburbs have typical Rust Belt suburb demographics, so the situation is the same. The same is true of Boston, when one remembers that a huge fraction of its urban white population is in Cambridge and Somerville. Philadelphia is only where this racial division is the most obvious even on the subway.

Everything about North American commuter rail screams “you’re better than the hoi polloi who ride the subway”: the seating arrangement maximizing seating rather than standing space, the park-and-rides, the fares, the lack of fare integration with local transit, the schedules. Since peak-only suburban transit serves precisely the niche that the traditional white suburban middle class is comfortable riding transit in, it is necessarily segregated. Its riders even fight to keep it that way: witness for example the opposition in Stamford to developing the Metro-North station and moving the parking 400 meters away. This article complaining about parking lot waits is typical of the species; these complaints persist despite very high spending on commuter rail parking lots, for example in Hicksville.

The same transit agencies that fudge or make up numbers to avoid serving minority neighborhoods also ignore the possibility of improving off-peak service. Although off-peak service is cheaper to provide than peak service – it requires no new vehicles or infrastructure and fewer split-shift crews – the plans for service expansion typically focus on more peak capacity, despite often high crowding levels on off-peak trains. This is worst on commuter rail, but also affects subway and bus systems. In New York, the MTA’s crowding guidelines call for setting off-peak frequency such that the average train on each line will have 25% more riders than seats at the most crowded point of its journey. As anyone who’s ridden trains in Manhattan in the evening knows, trains are quite often much more crowded than this average. The MTA needs to keep its losses to a reasonable minimum, and on the core lines the off-peak frequency is not bad; but why keep claiming that trains only have 25% more riders than cars? The MTA is by comparison more honest about its capacity problems on the Lexington express trains, for example in the Second Avenue Subway environmental impact statement.

Many of the problems of American transit systems are directly traceable to the fact that the managers don’t often ride the trains, and their peer group is not the same as the average transit user. This is why we see little concern for off-peak service, and practically none with off-peak service on the whitest and more suburban form of transit, commuter rail. None of these managers of course intends to be racist or classist, but they unwittingly are.

Posted in Pedestrian Observations, Politics and Society, Regional Rail, Transportation, Urban Transit, Urbanism | 64 Comments

Empire High-Speed Rail

At the beginning of the month, New York State released its draft environmental impact statement for high-speed rail from New York to the Upstate cities. The costs of HSR as proposed by the state are excessive, and as a result the state has eliminated the high-speed option. It is only considering medium-speed options – the fastest is 125 mph, for the cost of full-fat high-speed rail; it sandbagged the full-speed options. Consider the following passage, from the main document, section 3.2.2:

The dedicated right-of-way of the very high speed (VHS) alternatives would result in significant travel time savings (5:17 and 4:23 respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS), and commensurately higher estimated ridership (4.06 and 5.12 million respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS).

The length of New York-Buffalo is about 690 km. At 4:23, it is an average speed of 157 km/h. To put things in perspective, the Hikari express trains in the 1960s achieved an average of 162 km/h (515 km in 3:10) in 1965, with a maximum speed of 210 km/h.

In section 3.3.5, the 125 mph alternative, which involves greenfield dedicated track from Albany to Buffalo, is said to have an average speed of 77 mph, or 124 km/h. Considering that British express trains on the legacy East Coast and West Coast Main Lines restricted to the same top speed average about 130-140 km/h, this is unimpressive.

Likewise, the cost estimates seem too high. The cost proposed for 125 mph is $14.71 billion. That’s on existing track south of Albany with minor improvements; as per exhibits 3-19 and 3-21, 83% of the cost is said to be Albany-Buffalo, a distance of 380 km on new track plus 76 on existing track. This makes sense for a full-speed, 350 km/h line. But the cost of the full-speed 220 mph option is $39 billion, around $55 million per km from New York to Buffalo in an area with a topography that justifies at most half that.

The study also sandbags the higher-speed options, from 125 mph up, by overplaying the importance of skipped small cities. A greenfield line cannot reasonably serve Schenectady, Amsterdam, and Rome. It could serve Utica, but with some takings because the sharp curve from the tracks at the downtown station to the I-90 right-of-way to the west. Lack of service to Utica would be a drawback, but the study for some reason thinks that those four stations would need their own dedicated intercity line to New York, using a connection to Metro-North, which is said on PDF-p. 37 to have capacity problems on the Hudson Line (the Hudson Line runs 12 trains per hour at the peak today, and is four-tracked). I am told that people drive all the way from Watertown to Syracuse to take Amtrak; none of the skipped four stations is that far from Albany or Syracuse. If a regional train is needed, it can connect at Albany.

The problem is that the alignments studied are uninspiring. I don’t just mean it as a synonym for bad. I mean they avoid locations that look difficult at first glance but are actually reasonably easy. CSX bypasses Albany already; it is not a problem to run high-speed trains at low speed on the existing line between Rensselaer and a spot west of Albany where the line could transition to the Thruway, and yet exhibit 3-20 shows a passenger rail bypass of Albany.

For the full-speed option, I do not know how much tunneling and bridging the state thinks is necessary for its west-of-Hudson I-87 alignment from New York to Albany, but there’s an alignment east of the Hudson with only about 7 km of tunnel, all through the Hudson Highlands. Briefly, such a line would go east of the built-up area in Dutchess County and points north, with a possible station at the eastern edge of the Poughkeepsie urban area and another near Rhinebeck, closer to the city and to the bridge to Kingston than the present Rhinecliff station. In Putnam and northern Westchester Counties, it would utilize the fact that the ridge lines go northeast to southwest to swing to the southwest, to hook up to the Hudson Line slightly north of Croton-Harmon. With a curve radius of 4 km, and a maximum grade of 3.5%, only two tunnels are needed, one under Peekskill of about 2 km and one under the crest in Putnam County of about 5 km. Some additional viaducts are needed through the valleys in the Hudson Highlands, but from Dutchess County north the line would be almost entirely at-grade.

There is generally a tunnel vision in American high-speed rail documents like this, consisting of any of the following features:

- Excessive avoidance of greenfield alignments, even in relatively flat areas. The flip side is excessive usage of freeway rights-of-way. The Syracuse-Rochester segment is actually greenfield in the study, which is good, but there is no thought given to greenfield New York-Albany alignments, which are frankly much easier east of the Hudson than west of the Hudson.

- Questionable assumptions about the abilities of existing track in urban areas to have higher capacity, which often leads to excessive multi-tracking (as in California); there is never any effort to construct an integrated timetable to limit the construction of new tracks.

- No rail-on-rail grade separations. The study talks about Spuyten Duyvil capacity problems, which are very real if traffic grows, but says nothing about the possibility of grade-separating the junction from the Empire Connection to the Metro-North mainline to Grand Central.

- With the exception of California, which erred in the other direction, uninspiring speeds. It’s actually hard to construct a 350 km/h line that only averages 157; actual high-speed lines around the world in the 270+ range average about 180 or higher.

It’s not surprising New York is sandbagging HSR. A year and a half ago, the Cuomo administration killed an HSR study on the grounds that in a recession, the state can’t afford to build such an expensive project. Given how long it takes from the initial study to the beginning of construction, the argument is so transparently wrong that it raises the question of what the real motivation was. But whatever the real reason was, the state is not interested in HSR, and wrote a lengthy environmental impact study to justify its disinterest.

Posted in Construction Costs, High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, New York, Shoddy Studies, Studies, Transportation | 90 Comments

Metro-North-Everything Compatibility

The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.

$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.

Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.

But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).

Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.

Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.

Posted in Construction Costs, Good/Interesting Studies, High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, New York, Regional Rail, Shoddy Studies, Studies, Transportation | 40 Comments

The Metro-North Accident and Train Control

Early in the morning on Sunday, a Metro-North train derailed on the Hudson Line, immediately south of the junction with Amtrak’s Empire Connection: maps of the derailment area can be found on the BBC, while The LIRR Today has a map and a diagram with speed limits. Four cars overturned, and four people died while more than 70 others were injured. The train was going at 82 mph (132 km/h) through a tight curve at Spuyten Duyvil with a 30 mph limit; the speed limit on the straight segment before the curve is 75 mph according to Rich E. Green’s map, which may be a few years out of date, and 70 mph according to the first New York Times article about the derailment. The curve radius appears to be 230 meters on Google Earth, putting the lateral acceleration rate at 5.8 m/s^2, minus a small amount of superelevation (at most 0.8 m/s^2, or 125 mm, to perfectly match the centrifugal force at the curve’s speed limit, and likely lower); the cutting edge of tilting trains allows about 2 m/s^2 lateral acceleration (see PDF-p. 2 of this article about the Pendolino), or 300 mm cant deficiency.

Initial reports of a mechanical brake failure seem unfounded: a National Transportation Safety Board briefing mentions that the brakes had functioned properly on brake tests and at previous stops on the journey (starting at 00:40 in the video). The focus is now on human error: the NTSB refused to say this outright, but beginning at 03:00 in its briefing video it trumpets positive train control as something that “could have” prevented the accident. Rick Gallant, who led California’s rail regulatory agency at the time of the 2005 Glendale crash, is also quoted as saying positive train control “probably could have” prevented the accident on NBC. Moreover, the train driver is quoted as having told investigators “he had become dazed before the accident, suffering what his lawyer referred to as ‘highway hypnosis.'” Metro-North’s spokeswoman made the strongest statement: “if the accident was caused by speeding, positive train control would have stopped it.”

It is extremely likely that a robust train control system would have prevented the accident, as it is capable of slowing the train sufficiently before it reaches a speed restriction. The bulk of this post will be dedicated to talking about what train control systems can do. There’s a large array of acronyms, some of which mean different things in different countries, and one of which has two different meanings.

Broadly speaking, train control can prevent two types of dangerous driving: crashing into another train on the same track, and excessive speeding. If the system detects dangerous behavior, it will automatically stop or slow down the train. Driverless trains are based on robust enough systems that are so automated they no longer need the driver. The hard part is having an on-board system figure out whether the train is traveling too close to another train or too fast, which requires communication with the signaling system; automatically slowing the train down is comparatively easy. In nearly all cases, the signals are static and embedded in the track systems, but in a few, usually high-frequency subways rather than mainline rail, the system directly communicates with the train ahead on the same track (this is moving block signaling, or communication-based train control).

It is century-old technology to stop a train that is about to enter a segment of track too close to another train (“signal passed at danger,” or SPAD). A train’s steel wheels close an electric circuit that detects whether there is a train on a block of track, and this communicates to the signals entering this block of track to prohibit trains from proceeding; see diagrams in the moving-block signaling link, which also show how it works in the more common fixed-block setup. A situation that electrically insulates the train from the track is therefore extremely dangerous and may lead to line shutdowns for safety. Any system with the capability to stop a train in such a situation is called automatic train stop, or ATS. The 79 mph speed limit on nearly all passenger train lines in the US comes from a 1947 regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission (which has since morphed into the FRA) requiring ATS or in-cab signaling at higher speed; the intention was to force the railroads to install ATS by threatening a crippling speed limit, not to actually reduce train speed.

It is much harder to enforce speed limits. ATS systems do not have to enforce speed limits: at Amagasaki, there was an ATS system that would have stopped a train running a stop signal (as it had earlier on the trip), but no protection from excessive speeding, which is what led to the crash. The signaling system needs to be able to communicate both permanent and temporary speed restrictions. It is nontrivial to maintain an up-to-date database of all speed restrictions on an on-board computer, or alternatively communicate many different speeds from wayside track signals to the train’s computer.

In 2008, the FRA mandated positive train control (PTC) as a result of the Chatsworth crash; PTC is a term that doesn’t exist outside North America, and refers to an automatic train control system capable of not just ATS but also enforcement of all speed restrictions. In Europe it is called automatic train protection, or ATP, and in Japan it is called automatic train control, or ATC. It is common in the US to do trackwork on one track of a multiple-track railroad and slap a temporary speed restriction on adjacent track, and enforcing such limits to protect wayside workers is specifically part of PTC.

Because the ATC system requires trainside equipment, a train that travels between different systems will need more equipment, raising its cost. In Europe, with its hodgepodge of national standards, some international trains require 7 different systems, raising locomotive costs by up to 60%. This led to the development of a unified Europe-wide standard, European Train Control System (ETCS), which combined with GSM radio for communication between lineside signals and the train is called European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). The obligatory cost and schedule overruns of any IT project have plagued this system, and led to delays in installing train protection on some lines, which led to a fatal accident in Belgium. However, the agony of the ERTMS project has for the most part already passed, and now there is a wide variety of vendors manufacturing equipment to the specified standards, leading to widespread installations on new and upgraded lines outside Europe. As of September of 2013, ETCS is installed on 68,000 track-km and 9,000 vehicles worldwide.

Although ETCS is an emerging global standard (outside Japan, which has a vast system of domestic ATC with multiple domestic vendors), American agencies forced to install PTC have not used it. California HSR is planning to use ETCS, and Amtrak’s signaling system on much of the Northeast Corridor, Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), with full implementation on the Northeast Corridor expected by this year, is similar to ETCS but not the same. Elsewhere in the US, systems have been bespoke (e.g. on Caltrain), or based on the lower-capacity systems used by the freight operators.

Metro-North does not have PTC. It has an ATS system that protects against SPAD, but can only enforce one speed limit, the maximum speed on the line (MAS). As the maximum speed on the outer Hudson Line is 90 mph, the system cannot enforce any lower speed, and so the train could travel at 82 mph even in 70 or 75 mph territory, let alone 30 mph territory. More modern systems can enforce several speed limits (e.g. the TGV’s TVM), and the most modern can enforce any speed limit, in 1 km/h or 1 mph increments.

Metro-North and the LIRR have been trying to wrangle their way out of the PTC mandate, saying it offers “marginal benefits”; a year and a half ago, the New York Post used the word “outrageous” to describe the PTC mandate, saying it would cost over a billion dollars and that the money could go to capacity improvements instead, such as station parking. Lobbying on behalf of Metro-North and the LIRR, Senator Charles Schumer made sure to amend a proposed Senate transportation bill to give the railroads waivers until 2018, so that they could devote resources to more rush hour capacity from the outer suburbs (such as Ronkonkoma) to Manhattan and fewer to safety. According to Siemens, the work will actually take until 2019, and Siemens says it “has developed PTC specifically for the North American market,” in other words built a bespoke system instead of ETCS. (ACSES was developed by Alstom.)

Because the systems developed for the US are based on the needs of American freight railroads and perhaps Amtrak, which do not need as much capacity in terms of trains per hour as the busiest commuter lines, they are much lower-capacity than those used in Europe. The LIRR and Metro-North have far busier mainline tracks than any other US commuter rail system with the exception of the inner part of New Jersey Transit, which is equipped with ACSES as part of the Northeast Corridor; to modify the system to their needs raises costs, as per the New York Post article. The MTA released the following statement (see also mirrors on Fox and CBS):

The MTA began work to install Positive Train Control on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in 2009. To date, the MTA has budgeted nearly $600 million for elements of PTC installation, including a $428 million procurement last month for a system integrator. Full implementation is estimated to cost $900 million, and the MTA will make sure the appropriate funding is made to implement PTC on the most aggressive schedule possible. However, implementing PTC by the 2015 deadline will be very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads, as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both concluded.  Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available. The MTA will continue its efforts to install PTC as quickly as possible, and will continue to make all prudent and necessary investments to keep its network safe.

Of course, the technology is no longer under development or untested. Just ask the Belgians, the Swiss, the Chinese, the Saudi, or the Taiwanese. Older technologies meeting the definition of PTC exist practically everywhere on mainline trains in the European and Asian first world. Urban commuter lines in Tokyo such as the Tokaido Main Line and the Yamanote Line, each with more ridership than all North American commuter lines combined, are equipped with ATC. The RER A, with slightly less ridership than all North American commuter lines combined, has a train control system providing moving-block signaling capability on the central trunk. A Swiss mainline with 242 passenger and freight trains per day and minimum train spacing of 110 seconds at 200 km/h has ERTMS as its only ATP system, and Switzerland expects to fully equip its network with ERTMS by 2017.

Although the US mainline rail system is freight-primary, with different needs from those of Europe south of Scandinavia (e.g. critical trunk lines are thousands of kilometers long and lie in sparsely-populated territory), the same can’t be said of the Northeastern commuter rail lines, most of which only see a few daily freight trains and are dominated by tidal flows of commuter trains with high traffic density at rush hour. Rush hour traffic levels approaching 20 tph per track are routine, with 24-26 on the Northeast Corridor entering Penn Station from New Jersey. It is incompetent to try to adapt a system developed for long-distance low-cost freight railroads and ignore one developed for busy commuter lines just because it has an E for European in its name.

While most European countries have long implementation timelines coming from a large installed base of good but not top-line legacy signaling, countries with inferior systems sometimes choose to replace their entire signaling systems, as the passenger-primary parts of the US should. Denmark, whose intercity rail far lags that of most peer European countries, decided to replace its signaling system entirely with ERTMS. The projected cost is €3.2 billion, of which €2 billion is for ERTMS on the network, €400 million is for equipping the Copenhagen S-Bahn with CBTC, and €800 million is contingency; the total length of the system is 2,132 route-km and 3,240 track-km.

At a million euros per route-km, exclusive of contingency, Metro-North could install the system on all east-of-Hudson lines, except the New Haven Line, where Amtrak plans to install ACSES, for about $450 million, and the LIRR could install the system on its entire system (including parts currently without any signaling) for about $650 million. Denmark has about 700 trainsets and locomotives to install the system on, in addition to tracks; on the LIRR and Metro-North, those figures are about 150 each, although this assumes that trainsets would be permanently coupled, whereas today they run in married pairs, so that in an eight-car unit there are four cabs where only two are needed. If the LIRR and Metro-North agreed to treat trains as permanently-coupled sets, then the scope of the order would be about 40% of the size of the Danish fleet, consistent with a total cost of about a billion dollars.

This would also allow higher capacity than the current systems, which could squeeze more trains onto busy lines, so it wouldn’t be at the expense of capacity improvements. In particular, the LIRR could keep postponing the $1.5 billion Main Line third track to Hicksville project, and instead run trains on the currently double-track bidirectionally (today they run one-way at rush hour, to accommodate local and express service) using the very high frequency that ETCS permits. Another project, which Sen. Schumer thinks is more important than PTC, a $400 million plan to double-tracking the outer part of the Main Line from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma, could also be postponed while still providing the necessary capacity.

Although both of the LIRR multi-tracking projects’ cost figures are enormous – the third track is about $100 million per kilometer, almost what a subway in suburbia should cost, and the outer second track is $15 million per km, more reasonable but still very high – adding tracks is in general more expensive than adding signals. IT procurement is expensive and prone to cost overruns, but once the initial system has been developed, the marginal cost of implementing it in new but similar environments is relatively low; ETCS would cost about the same on the LIRR and Metro-North as the MTA plans to spend on signaling, but provides better functionality as it’s compatible with their high traffic density. Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton.

Of course the first step in the organization before electronics before concrete slogan is improving the state of the organization. In terms of safety, there may be scope for better training, but the train driver according to the NTSB has 10 years’ experience (start at 02:20 in the video) and based on his work schedule would have had enough time to get a full night’s sleep before his shift started (start at 07:25). Since there is no obvious organizational way to further improve safety, electronics is the next step, and this means installing a good PTC system in a timely manner.

However, in terms of cost, there is something to be done. While the MTA claims PTC is too expensive and provides little benefit, Metro-North spent $80 million a year on conductors’ salaries in 2010 (although it’s been going down, to about $65 million by 2012) and the LIRR spent another $95 million (in either 2010 or 2012), both numbers coming from the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY. About six years’ worth of conductor salaries would pay for full PTC; future savings are free. The NTSB briefing said there were 4 conductors on the train (start at 09:15). The main duty of conductors is to sell, check, and punch tickets, an old-time rail practice that has been abolished in modern commuter railroads throughout the first world.

A commuter train needs between 0 and 1 conductor. Stephen Smith quotes Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation engineering at Penn who was involved in the implementation of SEPTA’s through-running in the 1980s, as saying that ticket-punching is “extremely obsolete” and “very 19th century.” A tour of any of the major urban commuter rail systems of Europe will reveal that a few, such as the Paris RER and the London systems, use turnstile, while most use proof-of-payment, in which roving teams of ticket inspectors only check a small proportion of the trains, slapping fines on people caught without a valid ticket. On American light rail lines, which are often similar in role to German commuter rail lines (especially tram-trains) except that they run on dedicated greenfield tracks, this is routine; this can and should extend to commuter mainlines. While the electronics is needed to handle safety, this organizational improvement would pay for the electronics.

Although the investigation seems to be going in a competent manner, the MTA’s position on the relevant issues in general does not come from a position of competence. It is not competent to have this many redundant employees but then cry poverty when it comes to avoiding crashes and derailments. And it is not competent to pretend that there is nothing in Europe or Japan worth using for American signaling systems. The US did not invent PTC – at most, it invented the term for what’s called ATP or ATC elsewhere. It shouldn’t act like it’s the only place in the world that uses it.

Posted in Good Transit, Incompetence, New York, Regional Rail, Transportation | 41 Comments

Sometimes, Half a Line is as Good as No Line

The perfect is not the enemy of the good when it comes to rail projects. The half-done job is. In a trivial sense it’s obvious that half a tunnel across a mountain is useless. But even partial lines that have some uses are sometimes so much less useful than the full line, that the economic benefits of completing the half line to the full system are actually greater than those of building the first half. In many cases, even partial lines that are very good on their own have relatively easy extensions with very good economics.

This is primarily true for intercity rail, since costs are roughly proportional to route-km whereas benefits (e.g. high-speed rail operating profits) are proportional to passenger-km: once a first-phase rail line is in place, any future phase such that passengers will use the first phase for much of their travel will generate a large amount of passenger traffic relative to infrastructure construction. Probably the simplest example of this is extending California HSR to Sacramento: once a Los Angeles-San Francisco system is in place, especially if the route goes over Altamont Pass, extending to Sacramento requires only about 100 km of additional construction (180 if the LA-SF route is via the currently planned Pacheco Pass route), in flat land, but people would be taking the train from Sacramento to Los Angeles, a distance of about 600 km. Thus, despite generating much lower ridership than San Francisco, Sacramento is a highly beneficial extension of California HSR, once the LA-SF first phase is in place.

There are several more places in North America that are like this. When I tried applying a very primitive ridership model to American city pairs, what I found is that next to the Northeast Corridor, the highest-performing lines are extensions of the Northeast Corridor to the south. This is for the same reason as with Sacramento: once Boston-New York-Washington is in place, an extension to Richmond would generate 540 passenger-km of New York-Richmond travel on just 180 route-km of Washington-Richmond HSR, and thence extensions to Raleigh and Norfolk would be similarly high-performing, and so on. Some of those extensions would add about 40 million passenger-km per route-km of new construction, compared with about 28 million on the Northeast Corridor alone; in other words, assuming constant per-km cost, the rate of return on some of the extensions is higher than on the Northeast Corridor trunk. Similarly, although international HSR links are overrated, once New York-Buffalo is in place, an extension into Toronto becomes high-performing (with about 30 million passenger-km per new route-km after a fudge factor accounting for the underperformance of international city pairs), which is especially useful given that New York-Buffalo’s projected traffic based on said primitive model is marginal.

In those cases, the picture is bright, in that the first phase is strong on its own, and then future phases become natural extensions, which can be funded on the heels of the first phase’s success.Unfortunately, in many cases the situation is different, and the first phase is really a half-built line that isn’t much better than nothing, at least on the proposed merits. For example, High Speed 2’s rising costs are causing the cost-benefit analysis to head well into marginal territory: as per PDF-page 15 of a Parliamentary primer, the benefit-cost ratio of the first phase, London-Birmingham, is now down to 1.4, while this of the full system as proposed by the Cameron administration, going to Manchester and Leeds, is 1.8. Although 1.4 > 1, common practice in Europe is to build only projects with benefit-cost ratios higher than 1.2 or 1.3, because of the risk of further cost escalations (although the stated cost includes a generous contingency factor). The environmental benefits are likewise lopsided in favor of full construction, according to pro-HSR group Greengauge 21: three quarters of the benefits come from the second phase. This is because few people fly from London to Birmingham or Manchester already, since the existing medium-speed trains are fast enough at these distances to outcompete low-cost flights; however, there’s a large volume of people flying from London to Glasgow, and it is expected to take the full opening of HS2 to get enough of those fliers to switch to make a significant difference.

In this case, HS2’s first phase is better than nothing, and the problem stems from extremely high costs: without contingency, London-Birmingham, a distance of about 180 km, is projected to be about $23 billion after PPP conversion, which at nearly $130 million per km is worse than California HSR, which has to tunnel under tall mountain ranges. With contingency, it is $175 million per km, not much less than the projected cost of the majority-underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. If the costs were brought down to reasonable levels, the first phase alone would be highly beneficial, as can only be expected given the size of London and the secondary cities of the West Coast Main Line.

In some other proposed cases, even the benefits are marginal. Worse, sometimes attempts to cut costs lead to steeper cuts in benefits. The example that motivated this post is a recent story of a proposal for HSR in Colorado, which is not planned to serve the built-up area of Denver at all, but instead stop at the airport. An airport stop without a downtown stop is unacceptable anywhere, especially given Denver’s airport’s large distance from downtown (30 km, vs. 15 km in Shanghai, where most HSR trains stop at the domestic airport and only a few stop downtown at Shanghai Station). It is especially unacceptable given that Denver is to be connected to cities that are within easy driving or medium-speed rail distance: Fort Collins is 100 km north of Denver, Colorado Springs is 110 km south, and Pueblo, which is only proposed as part of a larger second phase together with a Rocky Mountain crossing, is 180 km south. At the distances of Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, the egress time would eat all time advantage of HSR over driving; at the distance of Pueblo, it would eat most of the time advantage. Saving money is nice, but not when it makes the entire project useless except to the occasional Fort Collins- or Colorado Springs-based flier.

One can go further and ask why even build HSR at such short distances. On the Northeast Corridor, full-service HSR is a great investment, because of the combination of extremely thick city pairs at the 360 km mark (New York-Washington and New York-Boston) and one reasonably thick pair at the 720 km mark (Boston-Washington), which is too far for medium-speed rail to compete with air. Philadelphia’s presence boosts the case for HSR – it conveniently provides a source of reverse-peak traffic away from New York and Washington, adds long-distance travelers to Boston, and adds short-distance high-speed travelers to New York – but by itself it’s not worth it to build HSR at the distance of New York-Philadelphia. If Boston and Washington weren’t there, then incremental upgrades with a top speed of 200 km/h or maybe 250 km/h would be best, and higher speeds would just waste money on more expensive trains and create noise pollution and higher energy consumption.

The same analysis is true of faster-than-HSR travel modes. The other motivation for this post, in addition to Colorado’s proposal, is Japan’s attempt to export maglev to the US, proposing the Northeast Corridor as the route to run maglev on, with Baltimore-Washington as the first segment, which Japan proposed to build for free, as a loss leader. Nobody needs maglev from Baltimore to Washington: the egress time is going to ensure the benefits of maglev speeds over HSR speeds are small, and even the benefits of HSR speeds over fast commuter rail speeds are limited. The Chuo Shinkansen is only planned to be about 440 km long, but it’s a capacity boost on a line that already has HSR with extremely high ridership, and not just a speed upgrade. Elsewhere, Japan builds conventional HSR rather than maglev, even for inter-island travel, where people fly today since the Shinkansen takes 5+ hours and flying takes an hour.

Part of my distaste for Hyperloop essentially comes from the same problem: it tries to compete with HSR at a distance where HSR is appropriate and faster trains are not. All of the technical problems of Hyperloop – thermal expansion, claustrophobic vehicles, extreme levels of lateral acceleration – are solvable, at the cost of more money. The technology is feasible; it’s Musk’s order-of-magnitude-too-low cost estimate that I object to. The problem is that at LA-SF distance, access and egress time and security will eat the entire time advantage over conventional HSR, in similar vein to the problem with siting Denver’s HSR station at the airport. Conventional HSR still involves regular trains that can run on electrified legacy lines, so it’s cheap to go the first and last miles within the Bay Area and the LA Basin; maglev doesn’t have this ability and neither do vactrains. Thus there will always be the problem with the first and last mile, which can be solved only by spending even more money – even in the case of the Chuo Shinkansen, JR Central decided that Shinagawa, just outside Central Tokyo, is good enough, and there’s no need to spend further money to get trains into Tokyo Station. But the access, egress, and security time penalties are constant, whereas the time advantage over slower modes of transportation grows with distance.

So by all means, let’s think about maglev from New York to Chicago and Miami and from Los Angeles to Seattle, where HSR is too slow to compete with air travel; let’s think about a vactrain at transcontinental scales, were open-air maglev is too slow. There’s a reason this year’s April Fool’s post emphasized that the vactrain system should be intercontinental and globally connected. I don’t think maglev in the US or a vactrain anywhere pans out in the next few decades, but at least at this greater scale they wouldn’t be crowding out a technology that can succeed, i.e. conventional HSR at the scale of the Northeast Corridor or California.

Sometimes, starting small means failing. A strong first phase with stronger second phases, such as LA-SF or Boston-NY-DC, is likely to become a success and motivate the political system to spend additional money, partly from first-phase profits, on extensions. A weak first phase that needs additional phases to pan out won’t lead to the same extensions. When a white elephant project opens, nobody listens to critics who say it should’ve been built bigger, even in the uncommon cases when those critics are right. Colorado HSR as proposed is going to get faltering ridership, not enough to justify the cost, and cause widespread disaffection even with potentially strong rail projects in Colorado. The same is true of any faster-than-HSR project that tries to replace HSR instead of capitalize on its strength in serving much longer-distance city pairs. If Musk succeeds in causing the median Californian to turn away from HSR and build Hyperloop instead, then first Hyperloop will turn out to cost ten or more times as much as Musk predicted (for which people won’t blame Musk but the government – Musk’s sycophants will tsk-tsk from the sideline and say that if only he had been in charge), and second the ridership won’t cover the costs, leading people to decide that any linear transportation corridor is bad and the government should stick to highways and airports.

Posted in High-Speed Rail, Incompetence, Transportation | 35 Comments