US Rail Construction Costs

This is a placeholder post, in which I’m just going to summarize the costs of projects in the US and the rest of the world. I will focus on subway tunnels, but also put some above-ground rail for comparison. No average is included – all I’m doing at this stage is eyeballing numbers. As far as possible, numbers are inflated or deflated from the midpoint of construction to 2010, and exclude rolling stock. The PPP exchange rate is €1 = $1.25, $1 = ¥100. For now, only dense infill subways are included.

East Side Access: $8.4 billion; excluding preexisting tunnels, this consists of 2 km of new tunnel in Manhattan and a new connection in Queens. So this is about $4 billion per km. Update 6/21: the link here stopped working. Here‘s a slightly older link, saying the cost is $8.1 billion.

Second Avenue Subway Phase 1: $4.9-5.7 billion in 2007-17 for about 3 km of new tunnel. This is $1.7 billion per km.

7 Extension: $2.1 billion in 2007-12 for 1.6 km of new tunnel. Note that this has only one station, an unusually sparse spacing for a dense urban area. This is $1.3 billion per km.

Crossrail: £15 billion in 2008-18 for a line of more than 100 km, of which the primary component is 22 km of new tunnel under Central London and Heathrow Airport. Due to the extensiveness of the London Underground network, this is the most complex project on the list. The cost per unit of tunnel is about $1 billion per km, making this the only outside New York to cross the 1 billion line.

Central Subway: $1.58 billion in 2010-6 for 2.7 km of light rail tunnel. This project is only on this list because it has to cross under the double-decked subway (Muni and BART) under Market; the standards, including station size, are for light rail. This is about $500 million per km.

Jubilee Line Extension: £3.5 billion in 1993-9 for 15.9 km of route, of which about 80% is underground. The line went over budget by 66%, crosses under the entire London Underground network, and crosses under the Thames four times. This is about $450 million per km.

Amsterdam North-South Line: €3.1 billion in 2009 money for 9.5 km of new tunnel. The project has run over budget by a factor of more than two, leading to accusations of boondoggle and remarks that the project should not have been built. This is $410 million per km.

Toei Oedo Line: ¥1.4 trillion (Japan has no inflation, so year of construction does not matter) for 40.7 km of new tunnel. While the stations are normal subway stations, the subway tunnels are of smaller than normal diameter due to the use of linear induction technology. This is $350 million per km. A short subway extension of the Mita Line cost nearly $500 million per km, but the information about it is on a Toei factsheet that’s been scrubbed from the net.

Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line: ¥250 billion for 8.9 km of new track. This is $280 million per km. Tokyo Metro has claimed future lines will be $500 million per km as a reason to not build future extensions.

Berlin U55: €320 million for 1.8 km of tunnel in 1996-2009. While this line does not cross or connect to any older subway, it is in the center of the city, and thus qualifies as urban infill. This is $250 million per km.

Paris Metro Line 14: €1.13 billion in 1998-2003 for 9 km. This line crosses under the Seine and had construction problems due to catacombs. This is $230 million per km.

Circle MRT Line: S$10 billion for 35.7 km, to be opened in full next year. This includes a 50% cost overrun, and a substantial delay coming from a highway collapse in 2004 that killed four workers. Because the exchange rate, including PPP, has changed considerably in the last ten years, I’m not inflating, and instead using the present rate, making this the least certain conversion on the list. This is $220 million per km.

Copenhagen Circle Line: DKK21.3 billion in 2010 for 15.5 km. At today’s exchange rate, this is $4 billion and $260 million per km in exchange rate, but the Danish currency is severely overvalued, and in PPP (judging by the ratio of PPP to exchange rate GDP per capita) this is $170 million per km.

Durchmesserlinie: CHF1.82 billion in 2007-13 for 9.6 km of new commuter tunnel under the city, relieving the existing tunnel. This is $215 million per km in exchange rate, but the Swiss franc is severely overvalued, and the PPP value is only $136 million per km.

Barcelona L9/10: €6.5 billion in 2006-14 for 47.8 km. This line is fully automated and is nearly 100% underground, and has gone over budget by a factor of more than three. This is $170 million per km.

Naples Metro Line 6: €533 million in 2007-12 for 5 km of fully underground metro. This is  $130 million per km.

Milan Metro Line 5: €500 million for 5.6 km of fully underground driverless metro. This is about $110 million per km.

Seoul AREX: 4.2 trillion won ($4.2 billion) for 61 km of line, about 60% underground, linking Seoul with Incheon Airport. This is a combined commuter and express line, and even all-stop trains only make 10 stations, by far the sparsest spacing on this list. This is about $110 million per km of tunnel – realistically a little less since the above-ground segments are greenfield.

Seoul in general gives its tunneling construction cost as $100 million per km in context of a proposal of an extension of the Sin Bundang Line that assumes a much lower budget, only $40 million/km.

Madrid gives the construction costs of its 1999-2003 expansion as €42 million/km, including rolling stock; translated to today’s dollars, this is $65 million per km. But those projects were not all infill and not all fully underground.

Observe from the low costs of Italian subways that corruption alone cannot explain high American and British costs. High Japanese costs can be explained by strong property rights protections and a process that favors NIMBYism; Paul Barter‘s thesis quotes sources arguing that the high costs of land acquisition in Japan are a reason why its cities never engaged in American-style urban renewal or massive freeway building.

Observe also that developing countries’ PPP costs aren’t very low: Beijing’s subway extensions cost about $150 million per km – see e.g. here and apply a PPP exchange rate of about $1 = 3.8RMB. The labor costs in developing countries are lower, but so is labor productivity.

Observe finally that Bent Flyvbjerg, known primarily for his work on megaproject construction cost overruns and strategic misrepresentation, wrote a paper on comparative US and European construction costs, which understated the conclusion that American costs are higher. The reason for his understating the conclusion is that the American projects examined are quite old, from the 1980s, and many have large above-ground parts.

Although the US projects included are only in New York and San Francisco, both high-cost cities, similarly high costs occur in other cities, just the projects are above ground. Portland’s light rail Milwaukie extension and Washington’s predominantly above ground Silver Line both have cost ranges of about $100-150 million per km, enough for a full subway in many European cities. Los Angeles’s Subway to the Sea is budgeted at $6 billion for the full Wilshire route to Santa Monica, i.e. $300 million per km; this is not really infill since it extends the subway out, but the neighborhoods served are quite dense, so it might qualify.

For some links of outward extensions abroad, see Brussels ($60 million/km) the future plans in Paris ($100-200 million, with one line at $50 million) and Seoul’s upgraded Gyeongchun Line ($33 million).


  1. Joseph E

    Perhaps you should rename this “US and International Subway Construction Costs.” Elevated and surface light rail lines will have very different costs, as you mentioned.

    In the future, could you collect some real costs for bus upgrades, BRT, light rail, regional rail and high speed rail as well? I often go searching for these costs for comparisons, but much of the information is outdated, biased or difficult to interpret.

  2. ant6n

    Some more data points in Germany (google translate is friend)
    – Berlin: the u55 is the first part of an extension of the u5. The gap between the u55 and u5 is supposed to cast 433M Euro (estimate from 2009) for another 2 km
    – Leipzig: A 1.4km tunnel through downtown with 4 stations, built to long distance rail standards, construction from 2003 to 20013, currently estimated at 96oM Euro total. Part of the cost increase may be due to the complexity of tunneling through the old city, the many stations, the size of the tunnel, the connection to the old terminal station.

    – Montreal’s 5.2km Laval extension cost 745M$ between 2002 and 2007. Similar to the cheap Spanish metro, the Montreal metro benefits from a small loading gauge – so the subway is built in one tunnel, and the station use side platforms with usually one exit.
    – Vancouver’s Canada Line is 19.2km and cost about 2 billion dollars, some is underground and some is elevated. I think this is so cheap because this is really a light subway, with a lot of it overground.

    Instead of just measuring the cost/km, one could also compare the per passenger, or cost per passenger kilometer. Than it’s not so bad compared to other projects (most notably some commuter rail projects).

  3. Stephen Smith

    Jesus! I knew construction costs in the US were inflated, but damn!

    So if it’s not land acquisition costs and it’s not corruption, what is it? Incompetence? Union labor? Overly strict safety regulations? (I’m guessing mostly incompetence…)

    • Irene Kappler

      Well it certainly can’t be union labor since that basically always the case here in Europe and the regulations are higher than in the states.

  4. Alon Levy

    I can do a post on suburban subways, els, greenfield LRT, and rail using existing corridors. Breaking down LRT vs. regional rail is somewhat fuzzy – both technologies span multiple classes of infrastructure. The same fuzziness is an issue with HSR, where on top of it you can’t reasonably expect a 30 km tunnel to cost twice as much as a 15 km tunnel. BRT is the worst, because first the SBS and the Brisbane Quickway are not in the same class of infrastructure, and second the right way to do first-world BRT is to have mixed operations in physically separated lanes and in mixed traffic so the costs are difficult to compare.

    I could do costs per rider. For most of the above-linked projects, both figures exist publicly. The problem is that when doing cost per rider it’s necessary to include a larger variety of lines and systems, including in lower-ridership cities than New York and Paris. Second Avenue Subway is not that bad per rider, because it serves such a dense neighborhood; it has the lowest cost per rider in the US, and is actually much better than a few non-US projects on this list, for example AREX.

    I don’t want to offer explanations for the high costs; the only one I’m even mildly sure about is that US contracting procurement, especially in New York, is so byzantine that the only bidders are too incompetent or corrupt to get private-sector work. I don’t think it’s really because of capitalism-socialism issues, because the costs in both Scandinavia and Singapore are stunningly average. However, I’ve heard either from the MTA’s Making Every Dollar Count report or from a comment on said report that the specific rules in New York force about 50-100% overstaffing, something that at least elsewhere I know does not exist in Scandinavian transit.

    • Stephen Smith

      You mean overstaffing of the actual construction project, or overstaffing of operations? If you mean the former, do you know of any examples of specific rules that cause the overstaffing?

  5. BBnet3000

    I have two comments on this issue, which i honestly believe is one of the most important things that few people are really talking about or trying to address.

    1. Does this apply to other comparable construction costs as well, such as highway/building/stadium construction?

    2. How much is this changing the cost effectiveness equation in New York with the result that outer-borough subway service can never be expanded?

    • Alon Levy

      1. Highway bridges and tunnels are more expensive in the US, too. Compare the Bay Bridge Eastern Span and Tappan Zee Bridge replacements with much more complex European projects, such as the Oresund Bridge-Tunnel.

      I have no idea about buildings and stadiums, or about airports, which are the natural next place to look.

      2. It matters a huge deal. If subways in New York cost $250 million per km, like in Paris and Berlin, then SAS would be very cheap per rider, and the next extensions – Triboro, Utica, and Nostrand – would be fairly cheap. Instead, SAS is on the expensive side, and Utica is unaffordable. Triboro involves so little tunneling that the costs could be easier to contain.

  6. WPJ

    If you want to look at tunneling costs in more detail one way to measure costs is in Dollars per cubic meter of tunnel volume. I suspect that will give us a real shock how far apart the national averages are.

    • MobilMan

      I’m told that in these parts of Europe it usually costs €300/m³ to excavate for a basement of a normal house.

      Let’s look at SAS Phase 1: “$4.9-5.7 billion in 2007-17 for about 3 km”. Wikipedia tells me the tunnels are 6.7 m in diameter with 3,200 meters length: 2 * (6.7/2)² * pi * 3,200 = ~225,641 m³. The TBM launch box is 248m *23m * 15m = 85,560 m³. Let’s allow 50,000 m³ for additional shafts etc. The theoretical worst case (%100 for tunneling) is $13,565 to $15,780 per m³.
      Assuming 75%: $10174 to $11,835 /m³. 50%: $6,782 to $7,890 /m³. 30%: $4,069 to $4,734 /m³.

      I have some numbers of a few German tunnels (2006 Euros) the cheapest being the Katzenberg tunnel part of Karlsruhe-Basel at slightly above €200/m³ (TBM).
      U3 in Munich to Moosach (cut&cover, TBM), Adler tunnel Basel (TBM) ~€450/m³.
      There are some tunnels built with the New Austrian Tunneling method (Hasenberg, average tunnels of Nuremberg-Ingolstadt) that start above €500/m³ and go up to €700/m³. The tunnel part of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof excluding the North-South tunnel cost €800/m³. Some of the geologically most difficult tunnels that will ever be built (though let’s hope they’ll stop the insanity) are part of the new high-speed line Stuttgart-Ulm. Even under the most desperate circumstances such as high-pressure karst with cavities under water and the New Austrian Tunneling method, costs would not exceed €1,000/m³ in 2010 Euros.

      So wow, we have an order of magnitude difference. The complications of tunneling in a high-density city alone can’t explain the difference. What is it? Noo Yawk construction? Have I missed something?

      • Rick

        Stumbled on this forum, but I have a theory related to construction costs, and it has to do with how we do financing in America, predominantly with loans and bonds. Milan, for example, had over 50% of their money as upfront capital investment for Metro 5, with less than 50% in loans. The upfront capital allowed Milano to drastically minimize construction costs by (1) avoiding interest and financing related to debt (2) avoid the continual cost of fundraising throughout the project that plagues American infrastructure today. Milan was able to build the subway in just a few years by using the upfront costs to acquire 4 tunnel boring machines, rather than 1, which has economies of scale. (The infrastructure costs related to tunnel boring are fixed, so the per-mile cost of additional tunnel boring is decreased.) Using 4 tunnel boring machines reduced the time, which has a corresponding cost reduction. The faster we can build infrastructure, the less it costs. In order to build infrastructure quickly, we need more upfront capital.

        IMO, one of the biggest issues in the United States is strongly correlated to how our economy operates on a personal level: we don’t actually have enough money when we start to build our projects. The ripple effects of not having adequate upfront capital are huge.

  7. Ted K.

    You may want to add Malmö, Sweden to your list of tunnels. This tunnel filled in a gap in the rail lines that served central Malmö.

    “Malmö City Tunnel”
    “City Tunnel (Malmö)”

    P.S. Avoid the project websites ( + – they now redirect to Innventia with none of the project content. Use the Web Archive instead.

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  9. Nathanael

    Looking at this, it’s not US construction costs which are outliers, it’s NYC and SF costs. The “expensive” projects in other cities have reasonable excuses (Subway to the Sea: drilling through TAR) — in contrast the Second Avenue Subway is really very simple construction and yet far, far more expensive. There is something very wrong with NYC costs.

    We don’t have any truly upstate NY examples so we can’t tell whether it’s statewide or metropolitan only, though the Tappan Zee suggests it’s statewide. In California, the mere fact that LA can do things more cheaply than SF suggests that it is the Bay Area which is the problem.

    Do we have any Big Project examples from elsewhere in the US? Texas? Illinois? Maybe we could get a sense of how much of this is federal, how much state, and how much local. You do have the Portland and DC examples… how much can be learned from them?

    NYC *still* seems out of line compared to Portland and DC, however, so clearly there are problems in NY which are worse than in the US in general.

    • Alon Levy

      There are a couple of above-ground projects, all very expensive – e.g. the projects in Portland and DC. There’s a similar above-ground expansion of MARTA I’ve seen mooted, also at about $100 million per km. And estimates I saw a few months ago for the Chicago Circle Line are also pretty high – I think $600 million per km of subway, but don’t quote me on that.

      The issue with Sunbelt cities is that their light rail lines tend to be very easy to build – wide preexisting rights of way, often already graded, with little urban construction. The high cost is translated to very low passenger boardings, just like with commuter lines. But there are exceptions, most notably Houston.

    • Matthew

      Boston’s Green Line Extension is now predicted to cost $953 million in YOE dollars and it will comprise of 6.92km of new above ground track, plus one viaduct to connect it to the existing subway. Most of the track will share the pre-existing Lowell commuter rail right-of-way, some will share the Fitchburg. So that’s $137 million / km for a completely above ground Light Rail project with minimal land taking. Also, it will likely not be finished this decade, despite promises.

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    • Alon Levy

      The 42 km figure comes from counting eastbound and westbound tracks separately. All of the other projects are cited in route-km as well and not single-track-km.

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  40. No

    If you adjusted the costs for real estate value, I doubt there’d be any gap, at least in NYC. Why should this matter? More compensation to businesses inconvenienced by construction, more lawyers, more interested parties, more cost and impact when a water or power line gets cut.

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  62. Michel

    Hi, your estimated length of the Amsterdam north south line is based on the 9.7 KM length of the entire line, only 3.8KM is a drilled tunnel, and another ~700 meters are a cut and dig tunnel. Correcting this would put it at the lower end of US prices per KM, making it a boondoggle when measured against European standards.

  63. Mustafa Sami Altas

    Just because other subway projects cost less doesn’t mean they’re not more feasible than new NYC subway. Rock formations, labor unions, salaries, transportation, etc. These are the real parameters that are needed to be considered why NYC subway costs much more than the others.

  64. Jacob Hensel

    Many of you asked why SAS is extraordinarily expensive. This article synthesizes multiple sources to conclude that the tunnel was needlessly deep, the stations had mezzanines that required a lot of extra excavation, 25 people worked on each digger instead of 9 like union-friendly Spain (and other “make work” practices), and perhaps most importantly the US has a highly decentralized & fragmented political and regulatory system that leads to many of the poor choices just outlined.

    • Adirondacker12800

      14 extra people at half a million a year in wages and benefits comes out to 7 million a year. For ten years, 70 million. It not tunnel workers that are the problem

      • Jacob Hensel

        As I stated there appear to be multiple causes. In addition if the digger had more than twice as many people as needed it’s not hard to imagine many other aspects of construction having excessive amounts of workers. That would make your back of the envolope estimate for extra labors costs orders of magnitude low.

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