New York’s MTA Genius Challenge

I don’t like the word “genius.” When people use it unironically, what I hear is “we haven’t met many smart people, so the first one we meet looks like a genius to us.” Math academia is very good about excising the word from anyone’s vocabulary. It drills you on the idea that you’re not Manjul Bhargava or anyone of that caliber, and if you are, you’re judged by what you’ve proved, not how theoretically smart you are. The tech industry uses the term more often, alongside related terms: rock star, 10x engineer, ninja. Most of it serves to convince coders that they’re masters of the universe, that all of them are above average and half of them are in the top 10% of coders.

New York State just issued a call for proposals for a $1 million grant, dubbed the MTA Genius Transit Challenge. I sent in a request for more information, and haven’t gotten a response yet; when I do, I will probably apply, if the specs and timeframe are within what I can give, but I doubt I will get it. My suspicion is that the state is looking for a tech company to privatize something to. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants someone to tackle one of the following three problems:

  1. Rail signaling, in context of how to maximize the subway’s capacity in trains per hour.
  2. Rolling stock maintenance schedules: the state isn’t saying what the ultimate issue is, but presumably it is reliability.
  3. Cell service and wi-fi underground.

I doubt that the tech industry is capable of doing much on the first two issues, while the third one is a solved problem (as in cities like Singapore and Boston) that just requires installing wires. The first two issues have a lot of potential improvements, but they come from the transportation field, including service planning.

Unfortunately, the panel judging the grant is tilted toward people in the tech industry. Only one has background in rail transportation: Sarah Feinberg, former administrator of the FRA, whose background prior to working at the US Department of Transportation is in politics and tech. Two more are academic administrators, neither with background in transportation: SUNY Chancellor-elect Kristina Johnson, an engineer with background in energy and 3D graphics, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, whose background is in IT. The other five are in the tech industry; one is a professor who studies networks, with some applications to car transportation (congestion pricing) but not to rail. Missing from the panel are people who worked on ETCS, people who have developed driverless train technology, and professionals within the major rolling stock vendors.

The biggest tech fixes in New York area outside the three areas identified by Cuomo. One, train arrival boards, is already in development, with planned opening next year.

But an even bigger fix is speed: the subways in New York have permanent slow orders at some places, not because of deferred maintenance but because of past accidents. There is a railroading tradition, in the US but sometimes also elsewhere, of using slow orders to mask underlying safety issues, even when the accident in question had very little to do with speed. The subways in New York today are getting even slower, for a combination of legitimate reasons (temporary signal upgrades) and illegitimate ones (inexperienced crews assigned at the busiest times).

However, the solutions to these problems often combine many different viewpoints. Speeding up the subway involves ending the slow orders (which involves signaling, but isn’t exactly tech), improving scheduling to reduce delays at merges (which involves service planning), reallocating crews (which involves labor relations), and coming up with ways to reinstall signals with less impact to operations (which is itself a combination of signaling tech and service planning).

American tech industry titans like to think of themselves as omnicompetent; Elon Musk’s bad ideas about transportation, from Hyperloop to elevator-accessed tunnels for cars, stem from his apparent belief that he can understand everything better than anyone else. This is not how good interdisciplinary work happens; the best examples in science involve people who are specialized to the two fields they’re combining, or people in one field collaborating with people in another field. A governor that understood this would empanel people with a wider variety of fields of expertise within the transportation industry: service planning, civil engineering, signal engineering, local labor relations and regulations, rolling stock maintenance. There would be one tech person on the panel (among the existing panelists, the professor studying networks, Balaji Prabhakhar, seems the most relevant in background), rather than one non-tech person.

This sort of self-importance especially appeals to Cuomo. Cuomo is not managing the state of New York; he is running for president of the United States, which requires him to be able to say “I did that” about something. Solving big problems requires big money; reducing costs requires local tradeoffs, such as reducing construction costs by using more disruptive cut-and-cover techniques. That’s how you run a good government, but that’s not how you run a cautious political campaign for higher office, in which the other side will pounce on every negative consequence. As a result, Cuomo is hoping to solve problems using tech innovation without spending much money; but the parameters of his plan seem to guarantee that the panel can only solve small problems, without touching on the most fundamental concerns for people riding the subway.

What Elites Do Instead of Providing Services, Redux

Three years ago, I wrote about how American urban elites propose public monuments in lieu of providing public services. My topical example was an article by Larry Summers, whose proposal to reduce inequality was to invest in nicer-looking airports – per Summers, the rich have private jets, the poor fly commercial. The post overall focused on government projects. But in the last few days I’ve seen two examples in the same direction, involving thinktanks and the private sector, and no government projects at all. One is from a panel headlined by J. D. Vance, which Pete Saunders and Aaron Renn both sat on; I can’t find a link to the video anymore, but here is a recap (update: here is the video). The other is from a Brookings report about Philadelphia. In both cases, the elite speaker (Vance, or Brookings) looks at a region that’s not as wealthy as it would like to be, and proposes everything except better services.

Vance’s panel was held in Cleveland and discussed how Rust Belt towns could grow again. Vance, famous for talking about deep poverty in white Appalachia and for not proposing any political liberal or socialist solution to it, gave his usual spiel: Cleveland needs innovation, entrepreneurs, and venture capital. One of the panelists proposed dropping the name Rust Belt and replacing it with Heartland. It reminded me of how Providence subsidizes smartphone app developers in vain hopes that they’ll make it big and stay in town rather than decamping to Cambridge. Providence, too, went through rebranding attempts: first Renaissance City, and then, when I lived there, Creative Capital.

There is a cottage industry of right-wing pundits who talk about poverty and propose everything except center-left and left-wing (not the same thing!) solutions. Vance is clearly there, but the panel still didn’t discuss the usual center-right and neoliberal (not the same thing, again) solutions. Development economists on the right have a long list of proposals for fighting poverty, mainly in the third world, but with some applications to developed countries as well: give squatters legal title to the lands they’ve developed, make it easier to start a business, reduce occupational licensing requirements, improve capital markets, levy broad-based taxes, avoid industrial policy picking winners and losers. This is not what the panel said. The panel didn’t really say anything concrete, except that more ambition is needed.

The Brookings report about Philadelphia is similar in concept, even if the political and economic context is different. Brookings is center-left (though moderate enough to attract conservative experts like Ed Glaeser), and Philadelphia is not poor, just less rich than New York and Washington. But the list of recommendations, on PDF-pp. 39-40, is an exercise of how not to say anything. Most of the recommendations are nebulous: “appoint an executive director.” The one specific actionable item is to bring in star faculty to the universities; Penn in fact does that periodically, and the results are not always good, with several examples of tenured hires who weren’t as productive as hoped for.

These plans are reminiscent of alchemy. Medieval alchemical texts were never clear about what to do exactly; they couldn’t be, because then readers would try to replicate the results and see the recipe doesn’t work. So they can’t give an exact recipe for how to grow, because that wouldn’t work. Instead, they propose ten nebulous items. A city that succeeds will get praised for how it implemented six of them; a city that fails will get criticized for how it only implemented six and did so in the wrong way.

Nor can these plans offer services. They cannot talk about investing more in education and in hospitals, in improving social services, etc. That’s political. If they do talk about education, they talk about it in the same terms as a self-important tech entrepreneur or venture capitalist: attracting excellence, enterprise universities, global talent, anything to avoid talking about school segregation or funding disparities.

Cleveland urbanist Alex Baca complains that the Vance panel was overfocused on private-sector solutions and not on public-sector investments. But I don’t think that’s really the problem. Elite institutions and pundits who, to look like they’re above the political fray, propose non-solutions and irrelevant brand-building exercises, come up with both private and public programs. The biggest enduring fad, charter schools, is funded by the public, just not run by it. Brookings and Vance are proposing private programs, and New York and Providence both wasted money on public enterprise programs, but the principle is the same: branding is cool, social services are dirty.

The political problem is that the consultants need to justify their own existence. This requires them to exclude every solution that has a political address. Vance himself hints at his own conservative values (he thinks declining religiosity is a sign of decline), but he makes sure to propose things that everyone can relate to and that peg him as J. D. Vance, independent thinker, and not J. D. Vance, a cog in the religious right’s machine. This does not mean that his proposals are a veneer for the religious right. On the contrary: I think they’re a deliberate attempt to be independent of political partisanship. But the same principle also excludes every social program that orthodox progressives support. A consultant who proposed raising income or sales or property taxes, rather than an opaque TIF deal, would be treated as belonging to the city’s progressive Democrat faction; the same is true of a consultant who proposed raising teacher pay rather than bringing in outside school administrators.

This is not purely self-serving, since urban politics is corrupt, especially in poorer cities. Being treated as an outsider above the fray has legitimate value: a consultant who proposes ideas that are viewed as fresh will get more locals to listen purely for the mystique of outside opinion, regardless of whether those ideas are good. But the self-serving aspect of this kind of self-marketing ensures that there is no quality control, and the consultants who succeed the most at this are the ones who devote the least amount of effort to ensuring their proposals actually work.

I think the ultimate cause of this is the need to be seen to be doing something. If a peripheral city asked me what it could do to be as rich as San Francisco, I’d tell it, nothing. It can tax itself to make its poverty less desperate, it can improve the business climate somewhat, it can have better public transit based on best global industry practices, but it’s not going to be San Francisco, Munich, New York, or Paris. Forget about it. Elite consultants instead overpromise: they tell those cities what they want to hear. And they make sure to pick solutions that a) they will not be held accountable for when they invariably fail, and b) are complicated enough so as to justify those consultants’ own existence. Local urban elites benefit from looking leader-like and implementing a new program; consultants benefit by getting both money and kudos. Everyone wins, except the people who are governed by this arrangement.

The Yamanote Line: a Ring or a Radial?

Note: I am going to take some suggestions for post topics in the future. This post comes from a Twitter poll I ran the day before yesterday.

The Yamanote Line in Tokyo is a ring. Trains go around the ring as on any other circular rail line. However, the line is not truly circumferential, since it serves as a north-south trunk through Central Tokyo. In that way, it contrasts with fully circumferential rings, such as the Moscow Circle Line, Seoul Metro Line 2 (see update below), and the under-construction Paris Metro Line 15. It’s really a hybrid of radial and circumferential transit, despite the on-paper circular layout. In previous posts I’ve attacked one kind of mixed line and given criteria for when another kind of mixed line can work. In this post, I’m going to discuss the kind of mixed line Yamanote is: why it works, and in what circumstances other cities can replicate it.

Consider the following diagram:

The red and blue lines are radial. The other three are hybrids. The yellow line is radial, mostly, but skirts city center and acts as a circumferential to its west; this kind of hybrid is nearly always a bad idea. The pink line is radial, but at the eastern end bends to act as a circumferential at the eastern end; this kind of hybrid is uncommon but can work in special cases, for example if Second Avenue Subway in New York is extended west under 125th Street. The green line is a Yamanote-style ring, offering radial service through city center but also circumferential service to the south and west.

On this map, the green line ensures there is circumferential service connecting what are hopefully the major nodes just west and south of city center. It doesn’t do anything for areas north and east of it. This means that this line works better if there is inherently more demand to the west and south than to the east and north. In Tokyo, this is indeed the case: the Yamanote ring offers north-south circumferential service west of Central Tokyo, through what are now the high-density secondary business districts of Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya. East of Central Tokyo, the only really compelling destinations, judging by subway ridership, are Oshiage and Asakusa, and neither is as big as Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, or Shibuya. Toyosu has high subway ridership, but is close enough to the water that it’s hard to build a circumferential through it.

Such a mixed line also becomes more useful if the radial component is better. The radial line can’t extend very far out, since the line needs to form a ring, so it should connect to very high-density neighborhoods just a few stops outside city center, or else provide additional service on an overloaded radial trunk. The Yamanote Line benefits from looking less like a perfect circle and more like upside-down egg, with two elongated north-south legs and two short (one very short) east-west legs; it extends its radial segment slightly farther out than it would otherwise be. In Tokyo, of course, all rail lines serving the center are beyond capacity, so the Yamanote Line’s extra two tracks certainly help; in fact, the two radial lines going north and south of Tokyo Station on parallel tracks, the Tohoku and Tokaido Lines, are two of the three most overcrowded in the city. (The third is the Chuo Line.) There’s even a dedicated local line, Keihin-Tohoku, covering the inner segments of both lines, making the same stops as Yamanote where they are parallel, in addition to the more express, longer-distance Tokaido and Tohoku Main Line trains.

Finally, there should not be radials that miss the mixed line; this is always a danger with subway lines that are neither pure radials nor pure circumferentials. Yamanote avoids this problem because it’s so close to the water at Shimbashi that the north-south subway lines all curve to the west as they go south, intersecting the ring. It’s actually the east-west lines that cross the Yamanote Line without transfers, like Tozai and Hanzomon; the north-south lines intersect the line with transfers.

The obvious caveat here is that while the Yamanote Line functions very well today, historically it did not originate as a circumferential in an area that needed extra service. It was built as a bypass around Central Tokyo, connecting the Tokaido and Tohoku Line at a time when Tokaido still terminated at Shimbashi and Tohoku at Ueno. Tokyo Station only opened 30 years later, and the ring was only completed another 10 years after that. Shinjuku only grew in the first place as the junction between the Yamanote and Chuo Lines, and Ikebukuro and Shibuya grew as the terminals of interwar private suburban railways. When the line opened, in 1885, Tokyo had 1.1 million people; today, the city proper has 9.5 million and the metro area has 38 million. The early rail lines shaped the city as much as it shaped them.

Nonetheless, with the economic geography of Tokyo today, the Yamanote Line works. Even though the history is different, it’s a useful tool for mature cities seeking to build up their rail networks. Provided the principles that make for the Yamanote Line’s success apply – stronger demand for circumferential service on one side of city center than on the others, demand for supplemental inner radial service, and good connections to other lines – this layout can succeed elsewhere.

Waterfront cities should take especial note, since they naturally have one side that potentially has high travel demand and one side that has fish. In those cities, there may be value in running the radial closest to the shoreline in a ring with an inland line.

This does not mean that every waterfront city should consider such a line. On the contrary: non-examples outnumber examples.

In Toronto, using two mainline tracks and connecting them to a ring to provide subway relief could have worked, but there are no good north-south corridors for such a ring (especially on the west), and the only good east-west corridor is Eglinton, which is being built incompatible with mainline rail (and has too much independent value to be closed down and replaced with a mainline link).

In Chicago, the grid makes it hard to branch lines properly: for example, a ring leaving the Red Line heading west at Belmont would necessary have to branch before Belmont Station, cutting frequency to the busiest station in the area. Plans for a circle line from last decade also faced limited demand along individual segments, such as the north-south segment of the Pink Line parallel to Ashland; ultimately, the planned line had too small a radius, with a circumference of 16 km, compared with 34.5 for Yamanote.

In Tel Aviv, there just isn’t any compelling north-south corridor outside the center. There are some strong destinations just east of Ayalon, like the Diamond Exchange and HaTikva, but those are already served by mainline rail. Beyond that, the next batch of strong destinations, just past Highway 4, is so far from Central Tel Aviv that the line would really be two radials connected by a short circumferential, more the London Circle Line when it was a full circle than the Yamanote Line, which is just one radial.

So where would a Yamanote-style circle be useful outside Tokyo? There are semi-plausible examples in New York and Boston.

In New York, it’s at the very least plausible to cut the G off the South Brooklyn Line, and have it enter Manhattan via the Rutgers Street Tunnel, as a branch of the F, replacing the current M train. There is no track connection enabling such service, but it could be constructed just west of Hoyt-Schermerhorn; consult Vanshnookraggen’s new track map. This new G still shouldn’t form a perfect circle (there’s far too much radial demand along the Queens Boulevard Line), but there are plausible arguments why it should, with a short tunnel just west of Court Square: namely, it would provide a faster way into Midtown from Williamsburg and Greenpoint than the overcrowded L.

In Boston, there is a circumferential alignment, from Harvard to JFK-UMass via Brookline, that can get a subway, in what was called the Urban Ring project before it was downgraded to buses. Two of the busiest buses in the region, the 1 and 66, go along or near the route. An extension from Harvard east into Sullivan and Charlestown is pretty straightforward, too. Beyond Charlestown, there are three options, all with costs and benefits: keep the line a semicricle, complete the circle via East Boston and the airport, and complete the circle via the North End and Aquarium. The second option is a pure circumferential, in which South Boston, lying between East Boston and JFK-UMass, would get better service north and south than west to Downtown. The third option cuts off East Boston, the lowest-ridership of the radial legs of the subway, and offers a way into the center from South Boston and Charlestown.

Of note, neither New York nor Boston is a clear example of good use of the Yamanote-style ring. This style of mixed line is rare, depending on the existence of unusually strong circumferential demand on just one side (west in Boston, east in New York), and on the water making it hard to build regular circles. It’s an edge case; but good transit planning revolves around understanding when a city’s circumstances produce an edge case, in which the simplest principles of transit planning (“every subway line should be radial or circumferential”) do not apply.

Update 5/16: commenter Threestationsquare reminds me that Seoul Metro Line 2 is the same kind of ring as Yamanote. The north leg passes through City Hall, near the northern end of the Seoul CBD, providing radial east-west service. The south leg serves a busy secondary commercial core in Gangnam, Tehran Avenue; Gangnam Station itself is the busiest in Seoul, and has sprouted a large secondary CBD.

Cities Should not Encourage Home Ownership

There’s a discussion on Twitter about home ownership. In the US, there are periodic calls to abolish the mortgage interest deduction on various grounds: it discriminates against low-income renters, it benefits people in higher tax brackets (i.e. the rich), it is a subsidy to the suburbs. Matt Bruenig, one of the strongest voices on the American socialist left writing about policy, makes an anti-racist argument: per a 2015 report from Demos (p. 12), home ownership contributes to a racial wealth gap, since whites enjoy higher returns than blacks and Hispanics.

In this post, I’m going to make a more general point: home ownership is a questionable individual choice, and a bad regional choice. Governments, from the urban to the national level, should not encourage it in any way.

Home ownership as wealth

Real estate, like any other asset, is a source of wealth. People buy it as an investment, which they can borrow against (“second mortgage”), bequeath to their children, or sell in retirement. In this, it’s no different from any other asset. The more down-to-earth use is as a source of savings: retirees who own a house or apartment debt-free, having finished paying off their mortgage, are not at risk of eviction if their pensions are limited. Near-retirees who lose their jobs are in a similar situation – they have lower immediate expenses than if they rented.

The problem is that this form of saving works in reverse for everyone who is of working age. A 40-year-old who loses their job might want to live off of savings while looking for a job of equivalent skill level and pay. If their savings are largely in their house, this is difficult, for two reasons:

  1. The house is less liquid than stocks – it’s hard to sell a quarter of it.
  2. The house is likelier to lose value when the owner needs it the most.

The second point is true to some extent of all pro-cyclical assets (e.g. stocks), but especially of real estate. Workers are more likely to be laid off in recessions, when pro-cyclical assets lose value. Counter-cyclical ones, like sovereign bonds, rise in value, but have lower returns in the long run, creating the familiar risk/returns tradeoff. Housing in that sense is no different from stocks.

However, in one sense, housing is different: it is especially sensitive to the state of the local economy. The American economy today is stronger than it was thirty years ago, but the Detroit economy is not, and people who bought houses in Detroit have had their home values wiped. In this way, home ownership makes people less capable of moving to places with better jobs.

Home ownership and NIMBYism

One of the points made by William Fischel in his writings about zoning and NIMBYism is that the impetus for this behavior comes from homeowners trying to safeguard the value of their investment. Per Fischel, since most homeowners’ entire savings are locked up in one risky asset, they are risk-averse when it comes to any neighborhood change, leading to NIMBYism. Renters are more flexible. So are the richest people, who have a broad array of investments (and often multiple apartments and houses): upper-crust NIMBYism is often the domain of the upper middle class rather than of the top 1%.

It is the general interest of society to have less NIMBYism and looser zoning. This is true even at the level of the individual city. It’s in the interest of San Francisco to be able to build more housing and more office space, even to replace single-family houses in outer areas near Muni Metro with mid-rise apartment buildings. And the higher the level of government, the more upzoning makes sense.

Condos and governance

As Ed Glaeser mentions in a 2011 paper, more than 85% of single-family houses in the US are owned, and more than 85% of apartments in buildings with 3 or more units are rented. Glaeser explains how this turns home ownership incentives into incentives for single-family housing. But it also affects how new multifamily housing looks.

Traditional mid-rise buildings are owned by a single landlord, who rents them to individual tenants. Newer buildings are either rentals or condos. Condos have more complex governing boards, and in extreme cases end up having the same social dynamics of suburbs: people who enjoy telling others what to do make rules about behavior.

Policy solutions

The American practice of making mortgage interest tax-deductible is not common across the developed world. But there are more widespread policies that still treat homeowner wealth preferentially to other kinds of investments. There are no capital gains taxes on real estate appreciation, subject to constraints to make sure individual homeowners are not taxed but large-scale commercial developers are. Most countries also fail to tax imputed rents. Switzerland does tax imputed rents, but is unusual in doing so: Swiss homeowners owe taxes on the rents they’d be getting if they rented out their properties at fair market value.

There doesn’t need to be double taxation. In other words, housing should be taxed as personal consumption (so mortgage interest is not deductible, but there are no imputed rents) or as business expenses (so interest is deductible, but there are imputed rents). But it should be single-taxed, because it is not a state interest to depopulate the cities to create a class of suburban NIMBYs, who affect petty aristocratic manners when times are good but turn into a precariat when times are bad.

Slotting Intercity Trains on Regional Lines

In 2011, Clem Tillier and Richard Mlynarik put out sample schedules for modernized Caltrain service, with an applet anyone could use to construct their own timetables. I played with it, and one of the schedules I made, a trollish one, had room for local and express regional trains, but not intercity trains; intercity trains would be slotted with express regionals, and make the same stops. This was a curious exercise: intercity trains would be high-speed rail, which should not slow down to make every express regional stop. But more recently, as I’ve worked on schedules for Boston and New York, I’ve realized that when the regional trains are fast, there is merit to slotting legacy (but not high-speed) intercity trains together with them.

The origin of this pattern is the problem of slotting trains on busy railroads. There are many lines that are not really at capacity, but cannot easily combine trains that run at different speeds. One solution to the problem is to build extra tracks and give the intercity trains a dedicated pathway. This works when there is heavy intercity traffic as well as heavy regional traffic, but four-tracking a long line is expensive; Caltrain and California HSR ended up rejecting full four-tracking.

Another solution, favored for Caltrain today instead of full four-tracking, is timed overtakes. I have argued in its favor for Boston-Providence and Trenton-Stamford for high-speed rail, but it requires more timetable discipline and makes it easier for delays on one train to propagate to other trains. It should be reserved for the busiest lines, where there is still not enough traffic to justify long segments with additional tracks (that would be four tracking Boston-Providence and six-tracking Stamford-New Rochelle and Rahway-New Brunswick), but there is enough to justify doing what is required to run trains on a tight overtake schedule. It is especially useful for high-speed trains, which tend to be the most punctual, since they use the most reliable equipment and have few stops.

But on lower-ridership intercity routes, the best solution may be to force them to slow down to the speed of the fastest regional train that uses the line. On the timetable, the intercity train is treated as a regional train that goes beyond the usual outer terminal. This option is the cheapest, since no additional infrastructure is required. It also boosts frequency, relative to any solution in which the intercity train does not make regional stops: since the intercity train is using up slots, it might as well provide some local frequency when necessary. These two benefits together suggest a list of guidelines for when this pattern is the most useful:

  1. The intercity line shouldn’t be so busy that a slowdown of 10 or 15 minutes makes a big difference to ridership relative to the cost of overtakes. Nor should it be especially fast.
  2. The regional line, or the most express pattern on the regional line if it has its own local and express trains, should have wide stop spacing, such that the speed benefit of running nonstop is reduced.
  3. The regional line should connect long-distance destinations in their own right, and not just suburbs, so that there is some merit to connecting them to the intercity line. These destinations may include secondary cities, airports, and universities (but airports would probably be intercity stops under any pattern).
  4. The regional and intercity lines should be compatible in equipment, which in practice means either both should run EMUs or both should run DMUs (locomotives are obsolete for passenger services).

Both Switzerland and Japan employ this method. In Switzerland, the fastest intercity trains in the Zurich/Basel/Bern triangle run nonstop. But intercity trains going north or east of Zurich stop at the airport, interlining with regional trains to create a clockface pattern of trains going nonstop between the airport and the city.

In Japan, high-speed services run on their own dedicated tracks, with separate track gauge from the legacy network, but legacy intercity services are integrated with express regional trains. An intercity trip out of Tokyo on the Chuo Line starts out as a regular express commuter train, making the same stops as the fastest express trains: starting from Shinjuku, the Azusa sometimes stops at Mitaka, skips Kokubunji, and stops at Tachikawa and Hachijoji. Beyond Hachijoji, some trains make regional express stops, others run nonstop to well beyond the Tokyo commuter belt. On the Tokaido Line, the intercity trains (the Odoriko) skip stops that every regional train makes, but they still stop at Shinagawa and Yokohama, and sometimes in some Yokohama-area suburbs.

In North America, there are opportunities to use this scheduling pattern in New York, Boston, and Toronto; arguably some shorter-range intercity lines out of Philadelphia and Chicago, such as to Reading and Rockford, would also count, but right now no service runs to these cities.

In Toronto, GO Transit already runs service to Kitchener, 100 kilometers from Union Station. For reasons I don’t understand, service to Kitchener (and to Hamilton, a secondary industrial city 60 km from Toronto) is only offered at rush hour; in the off-peak, commuter trains only run closer in, even though usually intercity lines are less peaky than commuter lines. There is also seasonal service to Niagara Falls, 130 km from Toronto. As Metrolinx electrifies the network, higher frequency is likely, at least to Hamilton, and these trains will then become intercity trains running on a regional schedule. This works because GO Transit has very wide stop spacing, even with proposed infill stops. Niagara Falls is a leisure destination, with visitors from all over the Greater Toronto Area and not just from Downtown, so the extra stops in the Toronto suburbs are justified. Right now, Niagara Falls trains make limited stops, about the same number in the built-up area as the express trains to Hamilton but on a different pattern.

There are no infill stops planned on Lakeshore West, the commuter line to Hamilton and Niagara Falls. It is likely that future electrification and fare integration will create demand for some, slowing down trains. The line has three to four tracks (with a right-of-way wide enough for four) and is perfectly straight, so as demand grows with Toronto’s in-progress RER plan, there may be justification for local and express trains; express trains would make somewhat fewer stops than trains do today, local trains would stop every 1-2 km in the city and in Mississauga. Intercity trains could then easily fit into the express commuter slots; potential destinations include not just Hamilton and Niagara Falls, but also London.

This is unfriendly to high-speed trains. However, Canada is not building high-speed rail anytime soon; if it were, it would connect Toronto with Montreal, using Lakeshore East, and not with points west, i.e. London and Windsor. London and Windsor are small, and a high-speed connection to Toronto would be financially marginal, even with potential onward connections to Detroit and Chicago. A Toronto-Niagara Falls-Buffalo-New York route is more promising, but dicey as well. Probably the best compromise in such case is to run trains on a four-tracked Lakeshore West line at 250 km/h; the speed difference with nonstop trains running at 160 km/h allows 15-minute frequency on each pattern without overtakes, and almost allows 12 minutes. Alternatively, express trains could use the local tracks to make stops, as I’ve recommended for some difficult mixtures of local, express, and intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor in New York.

In Boston, the Northeast Corridor is of course too important as an intercity line to be slowed down by regional trains. Thus, even though in other respects it would be great for merging intercity and regional service, in practice, overtakes or four tracks are required.

However, all other intercity-range commuter lines in Boston should consider running as regular commuter trains (electrified, of course) once they enter MBTA territory. These include potential trains to Hyannis on Cape Cod, 128 km from South Station; Manchester, 91 km from North Station; and Springfield, 158 km from South Station; as well as existing trains to Portland, 187 km from North Station. Hyannis, Manchester, and Portland all feed into very fast regional lines: my sample schedule and map have trains to Hyannis averaging 107 km/h and trains to Manchester averaging 97 km/h. Trains to Haverhill, the farthest point on the line to Portland with any Boston-bound commuter traffic, average 88 km/h.

Springfield is more difficult. The Worcester Line is slower, partly because of curves, partly because of very tight stop spacing in the core built-up area. Once under-construction infill is complete, Auburndale, 17 km out of South Station, will be the 7th station out, and another infill station (Newton Corner) is perennially planned; my schedule assumes 3 additional stations, making Auburndale the 11th station out. On the line to Hyannis, the 11th station out, Buzzards Bay, is at the Cape Cod Canal, 88 km out. There is room for four tracks for a short segment in Allston, but in the suburbs there is no room until past Auburndale, which constrains any future high-speed rail plan to Albany. Low-speed intercity trains would have to slow down to match commuter rail speed, because the alternative is to run commuter rail too infrequently for the needs of the line. Average speed from South Station to Worcester is 70 km/h, even with express diesels today, so it’s not awful, but here, slowing down intercity trains is a less bad option rather than a good one.

In New York, as in Boston, intercity trains fit in regional slots away from the Northeast Corridor. Already today there are intercity trains running on the LIRR, to the eastern edge of Long Island, much too distant from the city for commuter traffic. Those trains run nonstop or almost nonstop, and are infrequent; if the entire LIRR were electrified, and express trains were eliminated, locals could match the express speed today thanks to reduced schedule padding, and then some trains could continue to Greenport and Montauk providing perhaps hourly service. Service to Danbury and Waterbury on Metro-North is of similar characteristics.

The New Jersey end is more interesting. Right now, there is no significant intercity service there, unless you count the Port Jervis Line. However, New Jersey Transit is currently restoring service on the Lackawanna Cutoff as far as Andover, and there remain proposals to run trains farther, to Delaware Water Gap and Scranton. Those would be regular express diesel trains on the Morris and Essex Lines, presumably stopping not just at Hoboken but also at important intermediate stations like Newark Broad Street, Summit, and Morristown.

If service were electrified, those trains could run, again on the same pattern as the fastest trains that can fit the Morristown Line (where I don’t think there should be any express trains), going to New York and onward to whichever destination is paired with the shorter-range commuter trains on the line. The same is true of other potential extensions, such as to Allentown, or, the favorite of Adirondacker in comments, a line to West Trenton and onward to Philadelphia via the West Trenton SEPTA line. There’s not much development between the edge of the built-up suburban area at Raritan and either Allentown or the Philadelphia suburbs; but intercity trains, averaging around 90 km/h, could succeed in connecting New York with Allentown or with the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, where a direct train doing the trip in an hour and a half would be competitive with a train down to 30th Street Station with a high-speed rail connection.

The characteristics of intercity lines that favor such integration with regional lines vary. In all cases, these are not the most important intercity lines, or else they would get dedicated tracks, or overtakes prioritizing their speed over that of commuter trains. Beyond that, it depends on the details of intercity and regional demand. But by default, if an intercity line is relatively short (say, under 200 km), and not so high-demand that 200+ km/h top speeds would be useful, then planners should attempt to treat it as a regional line that continues beyond the usual terminus. Alternatively, the commuter line could be thought of as a short-turning version of the intercity line. Planners and good transit advocates should include this kind of timetabling in their toolbox for constructing integrated regional rail schedules.

Too Many Branches, Too Few Trunks

A recent discussion on Twitter about the through-running plan offered by ReThinkNYC got me thinking about an aspect American through-running crayonistas neglect on their maps: the branch-to-trunk ratio. It’s so easy to draw many branches converging on one trunk: crayon depicts a map and not a schedule, so the effects on branch frequency and reliability are hard to see.

In contrast with crayonista practice, let us look at the branch-to-trunk ratio on existing through-running commuter networks around the developed world:


The RER has 5 lines, of which 4 are double-ended and 1 (the E) is single-ended, terminating in the Paris CBD awaiting an extension to the other side. They have the following numbers of branches:

RER A: 3 western branches, 2 eastern branches.
RER B: 2 northern branches, 2 southern branches; on both sides, one of the two branches gets 2/3 of off-peak traffic, with half the trains running local and half running express.
RER C: 3 western branches, 4 eastern branches; one of the eastern branches, which loops around as a circumferential to Versailles, is planned to be closed and downgraded to a tram-train.
RER D: 1 northern branch, 3 southern branches; the map depicts 4 southern branches, but only 3 run through, and the fourth terminates at either Juvisy or Gare de Lyon.
RER E: 2 eastern branches; the ongoing western extension does not branch, but is only planned to run 6 trains per hour at the peak, so some branching may happen in the future.

The RER B and D share tracks between Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare du Nord, but do not share station platforms.


Thameslink has 3 southern branches. To the north it doesn’t currently branch, but there is ongoing construction connecting it to more mainlines, and next year it will gain 2 new northern branches, for a total of 3. Crossrail will have 2 eastern branches and 2 western branches. Crossrail 2 is currently planned to have 3 northern branches and 4 southern branches.


Berlin has 2 radial trunk routes: the east-west Stadtbahn, and the North-South Tunnel. The Stadtbahn has three S-Bahn routes: S5, S7, S75. The North-South Tunnel also has three: S1, S2, S25. Each of these individual routes combines one branch on each side, except the S75, which short-turns and doesn’t go all the way to the west.

Berlin also has the Ringbahn. The Ringbahn’s situation is more delicate: S41 and S42 run the entire ring (one clockwise, one counterclockwise), but many routes run on subsegments of the ring, with extensive reverse-branching. At two points, three services in addition to the core S41-42 use the Ringbahn: S45, S46, and S47 on the south, and S8, S85, and S9 on the east.


There is a two-track central tunnel, combining seven distinct branches (S1-8, omitting S5). S1 and S2 further branch in two on the west.

The excessive ratio of branches to trunks has created a serious capacity problem in the central tunnel, leading to plans to build a second tunnel parallel to the existing one. This project has been delayed for over ten years, with mounting construction costs, but is finally planned to begin construction in 2 days, with expected completion date 2026. At more than €500 million per underground kilometer, the second tunnel is the most expensive rail project built outside the Anglosphere; were costs lower, it would have been built already.


The Tokyo rail network is highly branched, and many lines reverse-branch using the subway. However, most core JR East lines have little branching. The three local lines (Yamanote, Chuo-Sobu, Keihin-Tohoku) don’t branch at all. Of the rapid lines, Chuo has two branches, and Tokaido and Yokosuka don’t branch. Moreover, the Chuo branch point, Tachikawa, is 37 km from Tokyo.

The northern and eastern lines branch more, but the effective branch-to-trunk ratio is reduced via reverse-branching. To the east, the Sobu Line has 5 branches, but they only split at Chiba, 39 km east of Tokyo. The Keiyo Line has 3 branches: the Musashino outer ring, and two eastern branches that also host some Sobu Line trains. The services to the north running through to Tokaido via the Tokyo-Ueno Line have 3 branches – the Utsunomiya, Takasaki, and Joban Lines – but some trains terminate at Ueno because there’s no room on the Tokyo-Ueno trunk for them. The services using the Yamanote Freight Line (Saikyo and Shonan-Shinjuku) have 2 southern branches (Yokosuka and Tokaido) and 3 northern ones (Utsunomiya, Takasaki, and a third Saikyo-only branch).

Conversely, all of these lines mix local and express trains on two tracks, with timed overtakes, except for the three non-branching local lines. The upper limit, beyond which JR East only runs local trains, appears to be 19 or 20 trains per hour, and near this limit local trains are consistently delayed 4 minutes at a time for overtakes.

Implications for Through-Running: Boston

In Boston, there are 7 or 8 useful southern branches: Worcester, Providence, Stoughton, Fairmount, the three Old Colony Lines, and Franklin if it’s separate from Fairmount. The Stoughton Line is planned to be extended to New Bedford and Fall River, making 8 or 9 branches, but the intercity character of the extension and the low commute volumes make it possible to treat this as one branch for scheduling purposes. To the north, there are 5 branches today (Fitchburg, Lowell, Haverhill, Newburyport, Rockport), but there are 2 decent candidates for service restoration (Peabody and Woburn).

The North-South Rail Link proposal has four-tracks, so the effective branch-to-trunk ratio is 3.5. It is not hard to run service every 15 minutes peak and every 30 off-peak with this amount of branching, and there’s even room for additional short-turn service on urban lines like Fairmount or inner Worcester and Fitchburg. But this comes from the fact that ultimately, Boston regional rail modernization would create an RER C and not an RER A, using my typology as explained on City Metric and here.

There are several good corridors for an RER A-type service in Boston, but those have had subway extensions instead: the Red Line to Braintree, the Orange Line to Malden, and now the Green Line Extension to Tufts. The remaining corridors could live with double service on an RER C-type service, that is, service every 7.5 minutes at the peak and every 15 off-peak. For this reason, and only for this reason, as many as 4 branches per trunk are acceptable in Boston.

Implications for Through-Running: New York

Let us go back to the original purpose of this discussion: New York through-running crayon. I have previously criticized plans that use the name Crossrail because it sounds modern but only provide a Thameslink or RER C. Independently of other factors, the ReThinkNYC plan has the same issues. It attempts to craft a sleek, modern regional rail system exclusively out of the existing Penn Station access tunnels plus a future tunnel across the Hudson.

Where Boston has about 7 commuter rail branches on each side, New York has 9 on Long Island (10 counting the Central Branch), 6 in Metro-North territory east of the Hudson, and 9 in New Jersey (11 counting the Northern Branch and West Shore Railroad). Moreover, one branch, the Hudson Line, has a reverse branch; where the Keiyo/Sobu reverse-branching in Tokyo and the Grand Central/Penn Station Access reverse-branching on the New Haven Line offer an opportunity to provide more service to a highly-branched line, the Hudson Line is a single line without branches.

The upshot is that even a four-track trunk, like the one proposed by both the RPA’s Crossrail NY/NJ plan and ReThinkNYC, cannot possibly take over all commuter lines. The frequency on each branch would be laughable. This is especially bad on the LIRR, where the branch point is relatively early (at Jamaica). The schedule would be an awkward mix of trains bound for the through-running system, East Side Access, and perhaps Downtown Brooklyn, if the LIRR doesn’t go through with its plan to cut off the Atlantic Branch from through-service and send all LIRR trains to Midtown Manhattan. Schedules would be too dependent between trains to each destination, and reliability would be low. ReThinkNYC makes this problem even worse by trying to shoehorn all of Metro-North, even the Harlem and Hudson Lines, into the same system, with short tunneled connections to the Northeast Corridor.

On the New Jersey side, the situation is easier. This is because two of the key branch points – Rahway and Summit – are pretty far out, respectively 33 and 37 km from Penn Station. The population density on branches farther out is lower, which means a train every 20 or 30 minutes off-peak is not the end of the world.

The big problem is the attempt to link the Erie lines into the same system. This makes too many branches, not to mention that the Secaucus loop between the Erie lines and the Northeast Corridor is circuitous. The original impetus behind my crayon connecting the South Side LIRR at Flatbush with the Erie lines via Lower Manhattan is that the Erie lines point naturally toward Lower Manhattan, and not toward Midtown. But this is also an attempt to keep the branch-to-trunk ratio reasonable.

The first time I drew New York regional rail crayon, I aimed at a coherent-looking system. The Hudson Line reverse-branched, and I was still thinking in terms of peak trains-per-hour count rather than in terms of a consistent frequency, but the inner lines looked like a coherent RER-style network. But the Hoboken-Flatbush tunnel still had 5 branches on the west, and the Morris and Essex-LIRR line, without a dedicated tunnel, had 4 to the east. My more recent crayon drops the West Shore Line, since it has the most freight traffic, leaving 4 branches, of which 1 (Bergen County) can easily be demoted to a shuttle off-peak, keeping base frequency on all branches acceptable without overserving the trunk; by my most recent crayon, there are still 4 branches, but there’s a note suggesting a way to cut this to 3 branches by building a new trunk. Moreover, several branches are reduced to shuttles (Oyster Bay, Waterbury) or circumferential tram-trains (West Hempstead) to avoid overloading the trunks. There’s a method behind the madness: in normal circumstances, there should not be more than 3 branches per double-track trunk.

I am not demanding that the RPA or ReThinkNYC put forth maps with multiple new trunk lines. The current political discussion is about Gateway, which is just 1 trunk line; it’s possible to also include what I call line 3 (i.e. the Empire Connection), which just requires a short realignment of an access track to Penn Station, but the lines to Lower Manhattan still look fanciful. New York has high construction costs, and the main purpose of my maps is to show what is possible at normal construction costs. But it would be useful for the studios to understand issues of frequency, reliability, and network coherence. This means no Secaucus loop, no attempt to build one trunk line covering all or almost all commuter lines, and not too many branches per trunk.

New York is an enormous city. It has 14 subway trunk lines, and many are full all day and overcrowded at rush hour. That, alone, suggests it should have multiple commuter rail trunk lines supplementing the subway at longer-range scale. It’s fine to build one trunk line at a time, as London is doing – these aren’t small projects, and there isn’t always the money for an entire network. But it’s important to resist the temptation to make the one line look more revolutionary than it is.

Fragile Chinese Democracy to Invest in Anti-Pollution Measures

After a week of raging protests in Beijing and the other major Chinese cities calling for measures to fight corruption, inequality, and pollution, the military moved to arrest Xi Jinping and release several high-profile dissidents from prison. In a statement, the military said it would schedule free elections to the National People’s Congress for the end of this year. Based on statements by leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, the new government will prioritize building infrastructure and enacting regulations to fight pollution, adding that the measures passed by Xi had too many loopholes and did little to improve public health.

Sources within the transitional government say that the hukou registration system will be abolished in the coming days, as will the two-child policy. With rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai expecting a surge in internal migration, there is friction between urban middle-class protesters and migrants over future development policy. Protesters in Shanghai indicated that they would prefer local control over housing development and education policy. The degree of federalism is up in the air and will not be settled until after the election, but most of the freed dissidents believe that the new government should devolve substantial autonomy to the provinces.

Political leaders, including both freed dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and CCP faction leaders within the National People’s Congress, have said they will work on anti-pollution measures, to be passed after the election. Environmentalist protesters have proposed a national cap on the purchase of new cars, akin to existing policies in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and stricter emission controls on cars. They have also proposed a national program to build more solar plants and retrofit apartments to be more energy-efficient in order to close coal plants; within Beijing, middle-class reformers identified with the political right have proposed ending government subsidies to coal heating.

In the near term, the largest cities plan to continue building out their subway networks at the same pace as before. Planners at the Beijing Subway and Shanghai and Guangzhou Metros said they expect passenger numbers to rise modestly as the abolition of hukou leads to higher population growth, but all three cities already have low car ownership rates, so replacement of car trips by subway trips is unlikely. However, in some other cities, where car ownership rates are higher today, planners expect higher rail traffic in the future. Because there already are plans for rapid expansion of subway service, it is unlikely any city will build out its system faster; however, some long-term plans without a timeline may be accelerated and built in the next decade.

There is some nationalistic element to the proposed infrastructure and environmental policies. Planners at China Railways have expressed dismay that Chinese passenger rail traffic density is not the highest in the world, but ranks second, after Japan. This is part of a broader split between democracy activists who are pro-Western, like Liu, and ones who are not and came to oppose the CCP out of recent concerns about economic and environmental problems. The latter activists take it for granted that China should reunify with Taiwan on its terms; some have proposed an undersea rail tunnel connecting Taiwan with the mainland.

But sources within the Japanese rail industry expressed some pessimism about the ability of the new democratic China to solve its pollution problems via better infrastructure. They note that Chinese urban train stations are poorly located, usually well outside city centers, and urban rail lines lack express tracks, limiting train speeds. Nearly all protesters oppose China’s use of eminent domain to clear areas for new development, making it hard to build more central train stations.

The transitional government said that it would welcome a global climate change agreement and that China would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions provided the rich industrialized countries committed to sharper reductions. Analysts within Europe and Japan believe that this proposal is aimed at the United States, which has substantially higher per capita emissions than the rest of the developed world, and is the world’s second largest emitter after China. A minority of anti-American protesters in China have proposed declaring trade war on the United States until it agreed to combat climate change, but the views of both the transitional government and most growing political factions are that there should not be any change to Chinese foreign policy, outside the issue of Taiwan.

A faction of protesters, currently planning to form a green party and contest the upcoming election, has proposed far-reaching taxes, investments, and regulations, intending to ban cars for non-emergency uses by 2025, and phase out all coal plants by 2025 and gas plants by 2035. Members of this faction have said that this would ensure Chinese supremacy in the realm of green technology, which China could then export to the United States, India, and industrializing African states as it sheds low-value added manufacturing industries. The majority of Chinese reformers do not support those measures, and it is unlikely the conservative factions within the CCP will agree to any further regulation. However, the upcoming green party is likely to be a key component of any reformist coalition, and substantial additional regulations stopping short of a ban can be expected.

New York Regional Rail: Scheduling Trains of Different Speeds

The simplest train schedules are when every train makes every stop. This means there are no required overtakes, and no need for elaborate track construction except for reasons of capacity. In nearly all cities in the world, double-track mainlines with flying junctions for branches are enough for regional rail. Schedule complexity comes from branching and short-turns, and from the decision which lines to join together, but it’s then possible to run independently-scheduled lines, in which delays don’t propagate. I have worked on a map as part of a proposal for Boston, and there, the only real difficulty is how to optimize turnaround times..

But then there’s New York. New York is big enough that some trunk lines have and need four tracks, introducing local and express patterns. It also has reverse-branching on some lines: the Hudson Line and New Haven Line can serve either Penn Station or Grand Central, and there are key urban stations on the connections from either station to either line. The presence of Jamaica Station makes it tempting to reverse-branch the LIRR. Everything together makes for a complex map. I talked in 2014 about a five- or six-line system, and even there, without the local/express artifacts, the map looks complicated. Key decisions turn out to depend on rolling stock, on scheduling, and on decisions made about intercity rail fares.

Here is what I drew last week. It’s a six-line map: lines 1 and 2 connect the Northeast Corridor on both sides plus logical branches and the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR, line 3 connects Hempstead with the Empire Corridor, line 4 connects the Harlem Line with the Staten Island Railway as a north-south trunk, line 5 connects the Erie Lines with the South Side LIRR lines, line 6 connects the Morris and Essex Lines with the LIRR Main Line.

As I indicated in the map’s text, there are extra possible lines, going up to 9; if I revised the map to include one line, call it line 7, I’d connect the Northern Branch and West Shore Railroad to a separate tunnel under 43rd Street, going east and taking over the LIRR portions of line 3; then the new line 3 would connect the Hudson Line with the Montauk Line (both Lower Montauk and the Babylon Branch) via an East River Tunnel extension. The other options are at this point too speculative even for me; I’m not even certain about line 6, let alone line 7, let alone anything else.

But the real difficulty isn’t how to add lines, if at all. It’s the reverse branch of lines 1 and 2. These two lines mostly go together in New Jersey and on the New Haven Line, but then take two different routes to Manhattan. The difficulty is how to assign local and express trains. The map has all line 1 trains going local: New Brunswick-Port Washington, or Long Branch-Stamford. Line 2 trains are a mix of local and express. This is a difficult decision, and I don’t know that this is the right choice. Several different scheduling constraints exist:

  1. Intercity trains should use line 1 and not line 2. This is for two reasons: the curve radius between Penn Station and Grand Central might be too tight for Shinkansen trains; and the Metro-North trunk north of Grand Central has no room for extra tracks, so that the speed difference between intercity and regional trains (e.g. no stop at Harlem-125th) would limit capacity. For the same reason, line 1 only has a peak of 6 trains per hour on the Northeast Corridor east of where the Port Washington Branch splits.
  2. Since not many regional trains can go between New Rochelle and Penn Station on the Northeast Corridor, they should provide local service – express service should all go via Grand Central.
  3. There are long segments with only four tracks, requiring track sharing between intercity trains and express regional trains. These occur between New Rochelle and Rye, and between the end of six-tracking in Rahway and New Brunswick. See details and a sample schedule without new Hudson tunnels here. This encourages breaking service so that in the Manhattan core, it’s the local trains that share tunnel tracks with intercity trains, while express trains, which share tracks farther out, are less constrained.
  4. Express trains on the New Jersey side should stay express on the New Haven Line, to provide fast service on some plausible station pairs like Newark-Stamford or New Rochelle-New Brunswick. Flipping local and express service through Manhattan means through-riders would have to transfer at Secaucus (which is plausible) or Penn Station (which is a bad idea no matter how the station is configured).
  5. There should be infill stops in Hudson County: at Bergenline Avenue for bus connections and the high local population density, and just outside the portal, at the intersection with the Northern Branch. These stops should be on line 2 (where they can be built new) and not line 1 (where the tunnels would need to be retrofitted), and trains cannot skip them, so the line that gets these stops should run locals.

It is not possible to satisfy all constraints simultaneously. Constraint 5 means that in New Jersey, line 2 should be local and line 1 should be express. Constraint 4 means the same should be true on the Metro-North side. But then constraints 2 and 3 encourage making line 1 local, especially on the Metro-North side. Something has to give.

On the map, the compromise is that there’s an infill stop at Bergenline but not at the intersection with the Northern Branch (which further encourages detaching the Northern Branch from line 5 and making it part of a Midtown-serving line 7). So the line 2 express trains are one stop slower than the line 1 locals between Newark and New York, which is not a huge problem.

The scheduling is still a problem, The four-track segment through Elizabeth between the six-track segments around Newark Airport and in Linden and Rahway has to be widened to six tracks; the four-track segment between the split with the North Jersey Coast Line and Jersey Avenue can mix three speed classes, with some express trains sharing tracks with intercity trains and others with local trains, but it’s not easy. At least on the Connecticut side, any high-speed rail service requires so many bypasses along I-95 that those bypasses can be used for overtakes.

At this point, it stops being purely about regional rail scheduling. The question of intercity rail fares becomes relevant: can people take intercity trains within the metro area with no or limited surcharge over regional trains? If so, then constraint 4 is no longer relevant: nobody would take regional trains on any segment served by intercity trains. In turn, there would be demand for local intercity trains, stopping not just at New Haven, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia, but also at Stamford, New Rochelle, perhaps Metropark (on new express platforms), and Trenton. In that case, the simplest solution is to flip lines 1 and 2 in New Jersey: line 1 gets the express trains to Trenton and the trains going all the way to Bay Head, line 2 gets the locals to Jersey Avenue, the Raritan Valley Line trains, and the Long Branch short-turns.

This, in turn, depends on rolling stock. Non-tilting high-speed trains could easily permit passengers with unreserved seats to pay commuter rail fare. On tilting trains, this is dicier. In Germany, tilting trains with unreserved tickets (ICE-T) have a computer constantly checking whether the train is light enough to be allowed to tilt, and if it is too heavy, it shuts down the tilt mechanism. This should not be acceptable for the Northeast Corridor. This might not be necessary for tilting Shinkansen (which are so light to begin with this isn’t a problem, and they do sell unreserved tickets in Japan), but it’s necessary for Pendolinos and for the Avelias that Amtrak just ordered. Selling reserved tickets at commuter rail fares is another option, but it might not be plausible given peak demand into New York.

The point of this exercise is that the best transit planning requires integrating all aspects: rolling stock, timetable, infrastructure, and even pricing. Questions like “can intercity trains charge people commuter rail fares for unreserved tickets?” affect express regional service, which in turn affects which branch connects to which trunk line.

Ultimately, this is the reason I draw expansive maps like this one. Piecemeal planning, line by line, leads to kludges, which are rarely optimized for interconnected service. New York is full of examples of poor planning coming from disintegrated planning, especially on Long Island. I contend that the fact that, for all of the Gateway project’s scope creep and cost escalations, there’s no proposed stop at Bergenline Avenue, is a prime example of this planning by kludge. To build the optimal line 2, the region really needs to know where lines 3-6 should go, and right now, there’s simply none of this long-term planning.

Amtrak Defrauds the Public on Gateway Benefits

A stenographer at Bloomberg is reporting an Amtrak study that says the social benefit-cost ratio of the Gateway program is about 4. Gateway, the project to quadruple the double-track line from New York to Newark, including most important the tunnel across the Hudson, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. Cost overruns have been constant and severe: it was $3 billion in the ARC era in 2003, $9 billion when Governor Chris Christie canceled it in 2010, and $13.5 billion when Amtrak took over in 2011 and renamed it Gateway. And now Amtrak is claiming that the net present value of Gateway approaches $100 billion; in a presentation from late 2016, it claims that at a 3% discount rate the benefit-cost ratio is 3.87, and compares it positively with Crossrail and California HSR. This is incorrect, and almost certainly deliberate fraud. Let me explain why.

First, the comparison with Crossrail should give everyone pause. Crossrail costs around the same as the current projection for Gateway: about $21 billion in purchasing power parity terms, but future inflation means that the $25 billion for Gateway is very close to $21 billion for Crossrail, built between 2009 and 2018. Per Amtrak, the benefit-cost ratio of Crossrail as 3.64 at the upper end – in other words, the benefits of Crossrail and Gateway should be similar. They are clearly not.

The projection for Crossrail is that it will fill as soon as it opens, with 200 million annual passengers. There is no chance Gateway as currently planned can reach that ridership level. New Jersey Transit has about 90 million annual rail riders, and NJT considers itself at capacity. This number could be raised significantly if NJT were run in such a way as to encourage off-peak ridership (see my writeup on Metro-North and the LIRR, for which I have time-of-day data), but Gateway includes none of the required operational modernization. Even doubling NJT’s ridership out of Gateway is unlikely, since a lot of ridership is Hoboken-bound today because of capacity limits on the way to New York, and Gateway would cannibalize it; only about 60 million NJT riders are taking a train to or from New York, so a more realistic projection is 60 million and not 90 million. Some additional ridership coming out of Amtrak is likely, but is unlikely to be high given Amtrak’s short trains, hauled by a locomotive so that only 5-7 cars have seats. Amtrak has an asterisk in its comparison saying the benefit-cost ratios for Crossrail and Gateway were computed by different methodologies, and apparently the methodologies differ by a factor of 3 on the value of a single rider.

That, by itself, does not suggest fraud. What does suggest fraud is the history of cost overruns. The benefits of Gateway have not materially increased in the last decade and a half. If Gateway is worth $100 billion today, it was worth $100 billion in 2011, and in 2003.

One change since 2011 is Hurricane Sandy, which filled the existing North River Tunnels with corrosive saltwater. A study on repairs recommended long-term closure, one tube at a time. But the difference is still small compared to how much Amtrak thinks Gateway is worth. The study does not claim long-term closure is necessary. Right now, crews repair the tunnels over weekends, with weekend closures, since weekend frequency is so poor it can fit on single track. The study does not say how much money could be saved with long-term closures, but the cost it cites for repairs with long-term closures is $350 million, and the cost under the current regime of weekend closures cannot be several billion dollars more expensive. The extra benefit of Gateway coming from Sandy is perhaps $1 billion, a far cry from the almost $100 billion projected by Amtrak for Gateway’s worth.

What this means is that, if Gateway really has a benefit-cost ratio approaching 4 today, then it had a benefit-cost ratio of about 7 in 2011. Amtrak did not cite any such figure at the time. In 2003 it would have have had a benefit-cost ratio approaching 25, even taking into account inflation artifacts. None of the studies claimed such a high figure. Nor did any of the elected or appointed officials in charge of the project act like it was so valuable. Construction was not rushed as it would have if the benefit-cost ratio was so high that a few years’ acceleration would have noticeable long-term consequences.

The scope of the project did not suggest an extreme benefit-cost ratio, either. ARC, then Gateway, was always just two tracks. If a two-track tunnel has a benefit-cost ratio higher than 20, then it’s very likely the next two-track tunnel has a high benefit-cost ratio as well. Even a benefit-cost ratio of 4 would lead to further plans: evidently, Transport for London is planning Crossrail 2, a northeast-southwest tunnel complementing the east-west Crossrail and north-south Thameslink. Perhaps in 2003 Port Authority thought it could not get money for two tunnels, but it still could have planned some as future phases, just as Second Avenue Subway was planned as a full line even when there was only enough money for Phase 1.

The plans for ARC included the awkward Secaucus loop bringing in trains from the Erie lines into Penn Station, with dual-mode diesel/electric locomotives. This is a kludge that makes sense for a marginal project that needs to save every penny, not for one where benefits exceed costs by more than an order of magnitude. For such a strong project, it’s better to spend more money to get it right, for example by electrifying everything. It would also have been better to avoid the loop kludge and send Erie trains to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as I have proposed in various iterations of my regional rail plan.

All of this together suggests that in 2003, nobody in charge of ARC thought it was worth $70 billion in 2003 dollars, or around $100 billion in 2017 dollars. Even in 2011, Amtrak did not think the project was worth $85 billion in 2011 dollars. It’s theoretically possible that some new analysis proves that old estimates of the project’s benefits were too low, but it’s unlikely. If such revisions were common, we would see upward and downward revisions independent of cost overruns. Some rail projects with stable costs would see their benefit-cost ratios shoot up to well more than 10. Others might be revised down below 1.

What we actually see is different. Megaprojects have official estimates on their benefit-cost ratios in a narrow band: never less than 1 or else they wouldn’t be built, never more than 4 or 5 or else people might disbelieve the numbers. In an environment of stable costs, this would make a lot of sense: all the 10+ projects have been built a long time ago, so the rail extensions on the table today are more marginal. But in an environment of rapid cost escalation, the fact that benefits seem to grow with the costs is not consistent with any honest explanation. The best explanation for this is that, desperate for money for its scheme to build Gateway, Amtrak is defrauding the public about the project’s benefits.

Where is Electrification Warranted?

At the beginning of the month, I published a piece in Voice of San Diego calling for medium-speed rail investment in the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor, centering electrification. This was discussed in a 500-comment thread on California HSR Blog, in which area rail activist Paul Dyson ripped into my plan, arguing (among other things) that electrification is costlier and less useful than I think. Instead of reopening the debate on that particular corridor, I want to discuss a more general set of guidelines to when rail lines should be electrified.

I haven’t said so in these exact words, but I think North American rail authorities and activists underrate electrification. As a result, I find myself persistently prescribing electrification and defending it when it’s already on the table, even as I attack other rail investments as wasteful. On social media and in blog comments I find myself having to constantly explain to people that no, a $20 billion New York regional rail plan should not use dual-mode locomotives but rather spend $250 million on New Jersey-side electrification.

A year and a half ago I wrote about why small, dense countries should fully electrify. The reasons laid out in that post are included in the guidelines below, but there are some additional circumstances justifying electrification.

Narrow stop spacing

Each train has a stop penalty – a total amount of time it loses to making each stop. The penalty is based on dwell time, line speed, and train acceleration and braking performance. If the line speed is 130 km/h, then the penalty excluding dwell time is about 35 seconds for a FLIRT and 80 seconds for a diesel GTW. This 45-second difference per stop is the same if there is a stop every 3 km or if there is a stop every 50 km.

Stop spacing is narrower on commuter lines than on intercity lines, so electrification usually starts from commuter rail. The first mainline electrification in the world was in Paris on the commuter lines serving Gare d’Orsay; subsequently the commuter lines in Paris, London, Tokyo, Berlin, New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities were wired. In many of these cases, commuter rail was electrified decades before intercity mainlines: for example, Japan started electrifying Tokyo’s innermost commuter lines in the 1900s and completed them in the 1920s and early 30s, but took until 1956 to electrify the first intercity line, the Tokaido Line.

However, in some dense regions, even the intercity lines have many stops. Cities in Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are just not very far apart, which blurs the distinction between regional and intercity lines somewhat. Switzerland is all-electrified, and my post from 2015 argued that the first three should be, too. In the US, there are specific regions where continuous sprawl has led to the same blurring: the Northeast Corridor, Southern California, Central and South Florida, New England. All are characterized by high population density. New England has closely spaced cities, whereas the LA-San Diego corridor and corridors within Florida have so much sprawl that there have to be several stations per metro area to collect people, reducing stop spacing.

Frequent sharp curves between long straight segments

Electric multiple units (EMUs) can make use of their high acceleration not at stations, but also at slow restrictions due to curves. They are also capable of higher cant deficiency than top-heavy diesel locomotives, since they have low center of gravity, but the difference for non-tilting trains is not so big. A uniformly curvy line does not offer EMUs much advantage, since all trains are slow – if anything, the lower the top speed, the less relevant acceleration is.

The big opportunity to accelerate is then when a mostly straight line is punctured by short, sharp curves. Slowing briefly from 130 km/h to 70 km/h and then speeding back up costs a FLIRT on the order of 15 seconds. A diesel train, whether powered by a locomotive or by diesel multiple units (DMUs), can’t hope to have the required power-to-weight ratio for such performance.


EMUs’ better acceleration profile makes them better-suited for climbing hills and mountains. Modern EMUs, especially low- and medium-speed ones optimized for high acceleration, can effortlessly climb 4% grades, at which point DMUs strain and diesel locomotives require helper engines. When the terrain is so mountainous that tunnels are unavoidable, electric trains do not require ventilation in their tunnels. As a result, some long rail tunnels were electrified from the start. The combination of uphill climbs and tunnels is literally toxic with diesels.

Cheap, clean electricity

Electrification has lower operating costs and lower greenhouse gas emissions in areas where the electricity is powered by cheap hydro or geothermal power than in areas where it is powered by fossil fuels. Switzerland became the only country with 100% rail electrification because it had extensive hydro power in the middle of the 20th century and was worried about relying on coal shipments from Nazi Germany during the war.

This is especially useful in far northern countries, like Sweden and Canada, which have low population density and little evaporation, leading to extensive hydro potential per capita. Despite its low density, Sweden has electrified about two thirds of its rail network. In the US, this is the most relevant to the Pacific Northwest.

But in the future, the falling cost of solar power means that clean electricity is becoming more affordable, fast. This favors electrification in more places, starting from sunny regions like most of the US.

Small installed diesel base

A rich or middle-income country building railroads for the first time, or expanding a small system, needs to build new yards, train maintenance crews, and procure spare parts. It should consider electrifying from the start in order to leapfrog diesel technology, in the same manner many developing countries today leapfrog obsolete technologies like landline phones. In contrast, a larger installed base means electrification has to clear a higher bar to be successful, which is why Japan, France, and other major core networks do not fully electrify.

The US situation is dicey in that it does have a lot of diesel equipment. However, this equipment is substandard: reliability is low, with mean distance between failures (MDBF) of about 45,000 km on the LIRR compared with 680,000 on new EMUs (source, pp. 30-31); the trains are very heavy, due to past FRA regulations; and the equipment is almost universally diesel locomotives rather than DMUs, which makes the acceleration problem even worse than it is for GTWs. Total acceleration and deceleration penalty on American diesel locomotives is not 80 seconds but 2-2.5 minutes.

Because North America underrates electrification, some people who self-identify as forward-thinking propose DMUs. Those require new maintenance regimes and facilities, creating an entire installed base from scratch instead of moving forward to EMUs.

Globally, the installed diesel base for high-performance lines is vanishingly small. The technology exists to run diesel trains at more than 200 km/h, but it’s limited in scope and the market for it is thin.

Through-service to electric lines

Whenever a diesel line is planned to run through to an electric line, it should be a prime candidate for electrification. Dual-mode locomotives exist, but are heavy and expensive; dual-mode multiple units are lighter, but are still boutique products.

This is especially true for the two biggest investments a network can make in passenger rail: RER tunnels, and HSR. RER tunnels involve expensive urban tunneling. When a kilometer of urban subway costs $250 million and a kilometer of catenary costs $2 million, the economics of the latter become stronger. Not to mention that RERs are typically short-hop commuter rail, with frequent stops even on the branches. HSR is a different beast, since it’s intercity, but the equipment is entirely electric. Running through to a diesel branch means towing the train behind a diesel locomotive, which means the expensive HSR traction equipment is idle for long periods of time while towed; this is at best an interim solution while the connecting legacy line is wired, as in the line to Sables d’Olonne.

Nearly complete electrification

Areas where the rail network is almost completely electrified benefit from finishing the job, even if individually the diesel lines are marginal candidates for electrification. This is because in such areas, there is a very large installed electric base, and a smaller diesel base. In small countries the remaining diesel base is small, and there are efficiencies to be had from getting rid of it entirely. This is why the Netherlands and Belgium should finish electrification, and so should Denmark and Israel, which are electrifying their main lines.

This is somewhat less applicable to larger countries, such as Sweden, Poland, and especially Japan. However, India is aggressively electrifying its rail network and planning even more. Note that since networks electrify their highest-trafficked lines first, the traffic can be almost completely electrified even if the trackage is not. For example, Russia is about 50% electrified, but 86% of freight tonnage is carried on electric trains, and the share of ton-km is likely higher since the Trans-Siberian Railway is electrified.

This also applies to networks smaller than an entire country. Commuter rail systems that are mostly electrified, such as the LIRR, should complete electrification for the same reason that mostly electrified countries should. In New England and Southern California, regional rail electrification is desirable purely because of the acceleration potential, and this also makes full electrification desirable, on the principle that a large majority of those two regions’ networks have enough potential traffic to justifying being wired without considering network effects.


Every place – a country, an isolated state or province, a commuter rail system – that is at least 50-60% electrified should consider fully electrifying. The majority of the world that is below that threshold should still wire the most important lines, especially regional lines. Capital-centric countries like Britain and France often get this wrong and focus on the intercity lines serving the capital, but there are low-hanging fruit in the provincial cities. For example, the commuter rail networks in Marseille, Lyon, and Bordeaux are almost entirely electrified, but have a few diesel lines; those should be wired.

In North America, electrification is especially underrated. Entire commuter rail networks – the MBTA, Metra, Metrolink, MARC/VRE, GO Transit, AMT, tails on the New York systems – need to be wired. This is also true of short-range intercity lines, including LA-San Diego, Chicago-Milwaukee, Boston-Portland, Toronto-Niagara Falls, and future New York-Scranton. It is important that good transit activists in those regions push back and support rail electrification, explaining its extensive benefits in terms of reliability and performance and its low installation cost.