Why Labor Efficiency is Important

In North America, commuter trains run with conductors, often several per train. On most systems they walk the entire length of the train to check every passenger’s ticket, whereas on a few, namely in California, they do not do that anymore, but there are nonetheless multiple conductors per train. In addition, the scheduling is quite inefficient, in that train drivers do not work many revenue hours. I investigated what effect this has on operating costs, and it turns out that the effect on the marginal operating costs, which are important for off-peak service, is large: on the LIRR and Metro-North, nearly fivefold improvements in revenue train-hours per on-board employee (driver or conductor) are possible, which would halve the marginal operating cost per train-km. The bulk of this post is dedicated to explaining the following breakdown of variable operating costs:

train costs

The National Transit Database has figures for service in car-km and car-hours for a variety of US transit agencies. In New York State, the Empire Center has lists of every public employee’s position and pay, which we can use to figure out the average pay of a train driver and conductor and the productivity of their labor. The NTD numbers are as of 2011, so I will use the number of employees of 2011, but the pay per employee of 2014 (at any rate, there have been no major service changes since 2011, so numbers are similar). In 2011, the LIRR averaged 5,000 car-hours per driver-year, and Metro-North averaged 4,000; the LIRR runs longer trains than Metro-North, so the figure for both railroads appear to be about 500 train-hours per driver-year. Both railroads had a little bit more than 2 conductors per driver on average (2.14 Metro-North, 2.47 LIRR). The average pay of a driver, as of 2014, is $109,000 on the LIRR and $120,000 on Metro-North, whereas the average pay of a conductor is $112,000 on the LIRR and $96,000 on Metro-North.

From this, we can piece together the average operating cost of commuter rail derived from on-board labor, per train-hour: $771 on the LIRR, $714 on Metro-North. Assuming 8 cars per train (and again, the LIRR tends to run longer trains), this is around $90-95 per car-hour. According to the NTD, the average operating cost of both was about $550 per car-hour in 2011, but this includes fixed costs, such as management and rolling stock. As we will see, variable operating costs are much lower.

As a digression, I’d like to point out that the peaky schedule of commuter rail contributes to the low productivity of the drivers. Crew schedules include substantial gap time between trips, and occasionally, especially on low-frequency diesel branches, they deadhead. That said, the subway’s number of revenue train-hours per driver is not materially different. For higher figures, one must leave New York. Toei got about 700 revenue hours per driver when I last checked, but I can no longer find the reference. On the London Underground, I do have fresh references, pointing in the same range: 76.2 million train-km per year at 33 km/h average speed (from TfL’s facts and figures), and a bit more than 3,000 train operators. In 2012, the last year for which there’s actual rather than predicted data (see also PDF-p. 7 of the TfL Annual Report), there were 720 revenue hours per train driver. This is in tandem with a less peaky schedule than in New York: although the average speed is barely higher than that of the New York subway, as reported in the NTD, the trains travel about 180,000 km per year (see fact 149 here), twice as long as in New York. In Helsinki, metro trains run every 10 minutes all day on each branch, every day, without any extra peak service, contributing to even higher utilization: the schedules show 65,000 revenue-hours per year, whereas a factsheet from 2010 shows 75 metro drivers, for a total of 867 revenue hours per driver. In both the UK and Finland, average hours per employee are marginally shorter than in the US; London Underground drivers have 36-hour workweeks.

The importance of this computation is not just to highlight that 44-73% improvement in revenue-hours per employee is possible, but to point out that, on the margins, adding off-peak service would make crew schedules more efficient, since higher frequency would reduce the need to deadhead and to wait between trains. This means that, although the average operating cost may be about $750 per train-hour, the marginal cost is lower, even without changes to work rules.

Suppose now that trains run without conductors, using proof-of-payment as on light rail lines, even ones in North America, and on countless commuter rail systems in Continental Europe. Suppose also that there are 720 revenue-hours per driver, and that a driver is paid $115,000 per year. This means that running extra trains would not cost $90-95 in on-board labor per car-hour, but only $20, a nearly fivefold improvement. At Helsinki’s level of productivity, a nearly sixfold improvement to $16.60 is possible. At the LIRR’s present average speed of 50 km/h (compared with 53 on New Jersey Transit and 59 on Metro-North), the fivefold improvement based on London Underground productivity would cut the average cost per car-km from $1.80-1.90 to $0.40; at a higher but still realistic 67 km/h, it’s a cut from $1.35 to $0.30. A large majority of this cut comes from eliminating conductors, which, by itself, would cut costs threefold, but raising driver productivity would allow an additional cut of 30-40%. I again stress that the marginal cost is lower than the average cost computed here, since less peaky schedules come with simpler crew scheduling; more off-peak service would by itself cut the average cost, which means its marginal cost would be quite low.

Let us now look at other variable costs than on-board labor. Two years ago, I did this computation for high-speed rail, and found that, provided the schedules did not have extra rush hour service, operating expenses would be very low. We can do the same computation for commuter rail, and note that the lower speeds imply that operating and maintenance costs are spread across less passenger-km, raising costs. Let us consider train maintenance, cleaning, and energy.

I do not have information about train maintenance costs on commuter rail. Instead, I will use those of high-speed rail, for which standards are higher. As I noted in my computation from two years ago, the reference here is California HSR’s 2012 Business Plan, which aggregates these figures from around the world on PDF-p. 136. Maintenance costs per train-km are $4.47 for the Tokaido Shinkansen (with 16-car trains) and $2.58 per the UIC (with what I assume are 8-car trains), both in 2009 dollars. These figures cluster around $0.30 per car-km in 2009 dollars, or $0.30-35 per car-km in 2014 dollars.

With cleaning, there is some information about commuter rail: the Empire Center has lists of coach cleaners on Metro-North (there are 314) and their pay (on average, a little less than $50,000 a year). This seems high given the amount of service Metro-North runs – about $0.15 per car-km. Shinkansen trains are cleaned on a seven-minute turnaround in Tokyo, using one cleaner per standard-class car; this includes tasks that are not required on commuter rail, such as flipping seats to face forward. A cleaner making $30 per hour cleaning a single car per 15 minutes, with each train cleaned once per 150 km roundtrip, would cost $0.05 per car-km. I suspect that part of the low productivity of Metro-North cleaners is again a matter of low off-peak frequency – Shinkansen cleaners work almost continuously – but I don’t have comparative data to back this up; New York City Transit pays even more per cleaner per car- or bus-km, but this is on much lower average speed, and per car- or bus-hour, it pays about $6.40, vs. about $8.90 for Metro-North. I’m going to pencil in $0.10 per car-km as the cost of cleaning.

Energy costs we can compute from first principles. This is easier than for HSR, since commuter trains travel at such speed that a large majority of their energy consumption is in acceleration, rather than cruising. The explicit assumptions I am making is that the top speed is 130 km/h (the two main LIRR lines are mostly 80 mph territory), each car weighs 54 metric tons (the LIRR M7s weigh 57.5 and the Metro-North M8s even more, but this is very high by international EMU standards, thanks to FRA regulations), the average distance between stations is 4 km (the LIRR’s average is less than that if all trains make all stops and more if there are some express trains), and the track resistance per unit of train mass is the same as for the X 2000, for which data exists on PDF-p. 64 of a thesis on tilting trains. Regenerative braking is assumed to exactly cancel out with losses in transmission. Train acceleration performance is assumed to be like that of the FLIRT, which would take about a kilometer to accelerate to line speed and have about 2 km of cruising before slowing down for the stop; the M7 has inferior performance, but this would reduce energy consumption since trains would spend more time at lower speed.

With the above assumptions, each acceleration, cruise, and deceleration cycle between stations consumes about 13 kWh, of which 10 kWh is required to accelerate the train to top speed, and the other 3 are for overcoming track resistance. See rough computations in a subthread on California HSR Blog starting with this comment, and bear in mind the initial comment made a large computational error. As for April of this year, transportation electricity costs in the state are $0.1245 per kWh, giving us about $1.60 per 4-km interstation, or $0.40 per car-km.

Overall, those three items are $0.80 per car-km. This means that going from paying train crew $1.35 per car-km to paying them $0.30 per car-km represents halving of direct marginal operating expenses: it means going from $2.15 to $1.10 per car-km. Finally, let us add management costs, which are not exactly marginal costs, but do grow as the workforce grows, since more employees require supervisors. At RENFE, we can extract 0.27 support and management employees per operations employee from the data on PDF-p. 46 of its 2010 executive summary. On the Helsinki urban rail network, the corresponding figure is 0.34 as per the factsheet referenced above. This affects train crew, cleaning, and maintenance staff, but not energy. If this means 30% extra costs, this means going from $2.675 to $1.31 per car-km – again, we see costs are halved.

The off-peak LIRR fare is 15 cents per kilometer at long distances (14 to Ronkonkoma, but much more at shorter distances, for example 21 to Hicksville). If the marginal cost of running off-peak service is $1.31 per car-km, it means a car needs to have 9 passengers without season passes on it paying 15 cents per km for the trip to break even. If it’s $2.675, it needs 18. Passengers who commute off-peak and get season passes for those commutes also contribute, but less – a monthly pass for Ronkonkoma is $377, which at 46 trips a month is 10 cents per kilometer. It is not hard to have 9 passengers even on a long train, or even 13 (at the lower rate of season passes); Ronkonkoma itself is a park-and-ride, where this is less likely, but high enough passenger volumes as far as Mineola and Hicksville and all over the Babylon Branch are quite likely. If the required minimum is 18, let alone 26, this is substantially harder.

I harp on North American mainline rail operations for a variety of antiquated practices, but the on-board overstaffing is by far the worst. While improvement in train driver productivity can occur as a natural byproduct of improvement in off-peak frequency, getting rid of conductors is not so easy. It means a fight with the unions over job losses. Some of the required layoffs can be mitigated by retraining conductors as train drivers and running more service, but this would not boost service hours by a factor of 5; on the Ronkonkoma Branch, the peakiest of the three long LIRR lines, boosting off- and reverse-peak frequency to half the peak frequency would only increase train service by a factor of about 1.8.

I am not an expert on labor relations, so I do not know if any solution barring a prolonged SEPTA-style strike could work, alone or in combination. One possibility would be to commit to reducing working hours in the next five or ten years instead of hiking pay; working hours would be gradually reduced to core Western European levels, with 35-hour workweeks and 6 weeks of paid vacation, and hourly pay would rise as scheduled while annual pay would be frozen. Another possibility is that the MTA would help laid off employees find private-sector work, as happened in the 1980s with Japan National Railways (see PDF-pp. 103-4 of a handbook on rail privatization). This possibility requires implementing the reform at a time of wage growth and low unemployment, when private-sector work is easier to find, but the US is posting strong job growth numbers nowadays and is projected to keep doing so for at least another year.

But whatever happens, the most important reform from the point of view of reducing marginal off-peak service provision costs is letting go of redundant train crew. Halving the variable operating costs is exactly what is required to convert the nearly empty off-peak trains from financial drains to an extra source of revenues, balancing low ridership with even lower expenses. This would of course compound with other operating efficiencies, limiting the losses of branch lines and turning the busier main line trains into profit centers. But nowhere else is there the possibility of cutting costs so much with one single policy change as with removing conductors and changing the fare enforcement system to proof-of-payment.

Update 7/31: first, check comments below about maintenance costs: as far as I can tell from poorly presented Empire Center data, they are about 2.5 times higher, for both trains and the infrastructure, than the maintenance costs of high-speed rail. Although the effect of reducing those costs to conventional HSR level is larger than the effect of eliminating conductors, the details of reducing maintenance costs are far more delicate than those of eliminating conductors and running trains more often so that train drivers have less downtime.

Second, there is a small error in the above calculations: the figure of $90-95 in crew salary per car-hour is based on two conflicting assumptions. To get to $771 per train-hour on the LIRR, I assumed the LIRR ran 10-car trains. To get down to the $90-95 range, I assumed 8-car trains; 10-car trains would make this $77/hour. If we redo the entire calculation with 10-car trains, still with HSR maintenance costs, then instead of a cut from $2.675/car-km to $1.31/car-km, improved labor efficiency would cut costs from $2.415/car-km to $1.21/car-km. This is based on exact LIRR salaries, whereas the original calculation assumes hybrid LIRR/Metro-North salaries, and Metro-North pays drivers better than the LIRR.

Now, trains are somewhat longer at the peak than off-peak. If off-peak service is already with 8-car trains, and the average number of conductors is constant, then the original calculation (a cut from $2.675 to $1.31) still holds. After all, the salaries of train drivers and conductors are the same no matter how long the train is. But the number of conductors is not constant – let’s say it is proportional to train length, so 8-car LIRR trains have 2 conductors instead of 2.47, just as Metro-North’s average number of conductors per train is shorter than the LIRR’s, in tandem with its shorter consists. This changes the calculation to a cut from $2.535 (reflecting fewer conductors than in the original calculation) to $1.31. Observe that no matter what assumption we use, the operating cost cut coming from removing conductors and using drivers more efficiently is about 50%, give or take 1-2%.


  1. Joey

    I doubt the costs are huge, but under POP don’t you need to employ fare inspectors to travel around randomly checking people’s tickets?

    • Alon Levy

      You do, but the costs are very low. In Berlin the inspectors work on consignment, so the costs are actually zero.

      Let’s say that there’s no consignment, and the expectation is that each person will be inspected one trip in forty. This means that as a zeroth-order approximation, the required staffing is one fortieth the current level, which works out to $0.03/car-km, including managerial and support overhead.

      • Nathanael

        As I note below, if LIRR switched to having ticket gates at every station (like the NYC Subway), manned every station 24 hours a day, and got rid of the conductors, it would save at least $30 million. The conductors are very, very, very, very expensive.

        • Max Wyss

          For POP you don’t need gates at stations, and stations do not need to be manned 24 hours a day.

  2. Neil

    If I’m reading your charts correctly, almost half of operating costs on the LIRR come from conductors. And about half of operating cost of the LIR are recouped by fares, the rest from government subsidy. So fare collection costs about as much as the fares bring in, can it really be that bad? If it is, the LIRR could have no conductors at all and with a few efficiency improvements, have zero fares and require the same amount of operating subsidy.

    • Alon Levy

      Oh, I wish. About half of the variable operating costs of the LIRR come from conductors. Once you account for all costs, train crew is about 20% of operating costs. The other costs are things like station staff at the bigger stations, track maintenance, station cleaning, and associated overheads. If maintenance costs per single-track length are the same as on international HSR, that’s 10% of operating costs, regardless of how many trains run on the tracks. There’s almost certainly a lot of inefficiency, too, in the sense that in Helsinki, train drivers are about 40% of tram and metro employees (link), whereas on the LIRR, drivers and conductors are collectively about 20% of employees.

      Update: I confused miles and kilometers in the above statement about track maintenance; it should be 7%, not 10%.

      • Nathanael

        LIRR is famously mega-bloated. All too many of its employees are getting away with outright fraud, but even the ones who aren’t are benefiting from absolutely ridiculous featherbedding. A bunch of this was documented in detail on the LIRRToday blog before it was taken down. It’s much, much worse than any other commuter railroad in the US, and the other commuter railroads aren’t exactly efficient.

      • johndmuller

        I realize that this post is about the marginal costs, particularly the what-if scenario where many conductors are somehow removed from the books perhaps creating favorable economics for additional runs to be added. Clearly, you’ve made the point that the conductors stand out as a prominent cost which could possibly be eliminated. It makes me wonder how significant this is compared to the rest of MN’s and/or LIRR’s other balance sheet items. For sure, if you discover that they can run additional runs at an actual profit, that would be big news and well worth it, although there may well be sneaky little flies in that ointment that are easy to overlook. Anyway, I am curious as to how these expenses compare to the overall costs and revenues of the commuter railroads. Perhaps something interesting pops out.

        Specifically, I wonder if you know how the MTA’s debt stacks up to these figures. Would we all be completely blown away If MTA debt servicing costs were presented in terms of conductors wages, or would it be only a modest charge?

        Do we even know the appropriate figures to use; can the debt be apportioned between the three services, or even between the commuter RR’s and the TA?

        My big question is whether or not the debt is being paid off, or is only the interest on the debt being paid and the debt itself rolled over as necessary and the can kicked further down the road? I, for one, would feel a lot better about extensive debt financing if it is actually being retired on some sort of reasonable schedule.

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, average costs are a lot higher. The LIRR’s operating expenses are about $10 per car-km; the amount in my post is about $3 per car-km once you allow for lower operating speeds than I’m assuming (which is based on something I want to write about, namely the large amount of schedule padding). The balance consists of much higher rolling stock maintenance costs than I calculated from high-speed rail figures, as well as high fixed costs, such as track and right-of-way maintenance, which like rolling stock maintenance cost far more on the LIRR than they do on 300 km/h high-speed lines in Europe, by a factor of about 2.5.

          Another way to look at it: the LIRR has 7,000 workers. About a thousand are train drivers and conductors, and another two thousands are maintenance staff. With an imputed ratio of 0.3 support staff per operating worker, that’s about 4,000 workers, a small majority of the LIRR’s payroll.

          The debt is a fixed cost. This is where rolling stock costs go: buying the trains goes in the capital budget. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to reduce the peak-to-base ratio: it means that the same capital order can be split across more train trips. Another way to think about it is that the train is already paid for, so it might as well travel in service and earn revenue rather than sitting in the yard and collecting dust. Depreciation is insensitive to how far the train travels: in London, where trains travel about twice as far per year as in New York (subway or commuter rail), the trains last the same amount of time as in New York, about 40-50 years.

          • al

            A few weird ways to drive productivity higher might be to institute a hiring freeze, and retrain thousands of staff to:
            a) operate single car OPTO ala RDC and refit the M7 with a collapsible corner cab and LI-ion capacitor box to bridge 3rd rail gaps. They would run very frequently (3-7 min headways). It would induce reverse peak, midday, evening and weekend ridership, support TOD on Long Island, and reduce SOV car use. As ridership increases, move to 2-6 car trains at 7.5 min intervals. Express bypass tracks would be necessary for timed overtakes.

            b) form a maintenance/construction corp to do more work in-house as competition to private contractors. They would need to be competitive in quality, productivity, and cost to survive. Sink or swim Ladies and Gents.

            c) form a parcel post and produce handling unit to enlarge the NY&A. They would operate high speed (80 mph) post, parcel freight and produce trains. Post and Parcel would go through Hells Gate Bridge and North River Tubes in conjunction with USPS and other allied shippers. Freight and Produce would come from New England, Upstate and West of Hudson. Some would arrive via Hells Gate some via expanded Brooklyn-Bayonne car float. Some produce would go the other way from farms out on the Forks to NYC. It would bypass congested roads and bridges.

          • Alon Levy

            West of Hicksville, the frequency is 8-10 trains every 3 hours off-peak, today. So if frequency goes up to a train every 7.5 minutes all day, you’re providing the same off-peak capacity as today with trains of 3-4 cars anyway.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Runnning 8 times an hour on every branch means you run out of capacity west of Jamaica real fast.

            They do a lot of the everyday maintenance in-house now. The stuff they don’t do is contracted out because they don’t have the staff or they don’t have the skills or both.

            REA tried really really hard to make shipping stuff through the railroad station work. It didn’t in 1965 and it won’t in 2015.

          • Joey


            1) Hicksville connects to two branches
            2) The mainline justifies more service than some other branches
            2) If you send some trains down Atlantic Ave (which should eventually connect to Lower Manhattan) there is in fact enough capacity for that.

          • Adirondacker12800

            theres those other branches west of Hicksville that want service too. The Port Washington branch is the busiest. Usual number cited is 25% of LIRR ridership.

          • Joey

            Okay, but we’re talking about branches west of Jamaica, not Hicksville (which I already addressed). Of which Port Washington is the only one. And once ESA opens, there will be six tracks from Woodside into Manhattan.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There’s only four tracks through Kew Gardens. Run 8 trains an hour in each direction through Flushing the train from Ronkonkoma can’t be on the track to Grand Central at the same time as the train from Port Washington. 80 trains an hour minus 8 to Port Washington means there are 72 trains an hour through Kew Gardens in each direction. Or 36 per track. You have a problem.

          • Joey

            adirondacker: Atlantic must be part of the equation. But I already said that.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Send 26 to Brooklyn. Add the Port Washington trains back in. 4 Amtrak trains and 6 Metro north trains. There’s 4 tracks to and from Penn Station and you still have a problem. Life is much easier and the train might be a quarter full if you run them every 10 minutes – 6 times an hour instead of 8. Almost no one will notice a difference.

  3. Stephen Smith

    I wonder how this will all play out in Toronto. They’re moving towards 15-min all day headways on the commuter lines, but are sticking with the three-sacks-of-flesh-per-train model. Not sure what’s happening to peak frequencies.

  4. Neil

    Side question, how practical is it change car lengths of EMU LIRR or MetroNorth trains quickly? So, having most off peak trains be only 4 cars long while keeping current lengths for peak trains. This could either be used to save electricity or run trains more frequently.

    I assume shortening locomotive pulled diesel trains don’t result in as much energy efficiency savings.

    • Max Wyss

      Weaken and strengthen EMU trainsets is done all over the place worldwide. There is some saving, essentially the distance travelled depending costs of the trainsets. In a POP system, there is no saving on staff, because the driver is needed, no matter how many units you run in multiple.

  5. Chris

    I’m assuming those pay rates are just salary, not fully-burdened costs. How much do the figures change if you include healthcare and future pension liabilities?

    • Alon Levy

      I think it includes benefits. Not 100% sure about pensions because they’re funded weirdly, but it definitely includes overtime, and I think also health care. For what it’s worth, there is a difference between what the Empire Center the LIRR (or Metro-North, or NYCT) is spending on salaries and what the NTD says, and the NTD is always bigger.

  6. Alon Levy

    I left maintenance costs as somewhat of a black box in the post. It’s hard to find good US data; the Empire Center makes it ungodly hard to answer questions like “how many workers are there in category ___, and what is their average salary?” It’s easy enough to make it work when it’s just one or two categories, like “engineer,” or “conductor” + “assistant conductor,” but maintenance staff are sprawled across scores of job titles, some of which differ only in a hyphen: Gang Foreman ME and Gang-Foreman ME are different titles (ME = maintenance of equipment).

    In total there appear to be about 2,000 employees doing maintenance, with total annual income of $275 million. Signal maintenance alone is around $46 million a year, the electric systems are maybe $50 million more, and other things that are probably track and ROW maintenance are another $90-100 million. All of these numbers are probably inaccurate, because I misclassified or missed some job categories on the Empire Center site.

    Based on costs imputed from HSR, where maintenance standards are of course tighter, track and ROW maintenance should be about $70 million a year and rolling stock maintenance another $35 million. So there’s a room for a factor of 2.5 reduction in maintenance costs… if something were done. It’s almost 50% more than the savings from OPTO alone. But, first, track maintenance is a fixed rather than variable cost, so in a sense it can be cut purely by running more trains. And second, I don’t actually know what reforms are required to bring down maintenance costs. The LIRR uses ancient technology with bespoke components, replacing which is an ongoing capital project.

    Some of the LIRR rolling stock is higher-maintenance and wears out the tracks more – the diesels are almost certainly responsible to a disproportionate tranche of the $275 million cost, since they have around one twentieth the MDBF of the M7s (link, PDF-pp. 21-22), and are so heavy they chew up the tracks. Eliminating all mainline diesel service, via electrification to Port Jefferson and reduction of the other diesel branches to shuttles (ideally with DMUs – good ones, not the craptastic FRA ones), is the obvious solution, and would also make it easier to schedule trains on the mainlines, but it’s a political fight with Eastern Long Island and Oyster Bay NIMBYs, and I don’t even know how much money that would save by itself.

    Some of this may be FRA regulations that demand track maintenance activities that are not necessary – I’ve seen railroad employees complain on forums that the FRA inspections focus on pointless stuff while ignoring the bigger safety issues. The FRA also weirdly regulates EMUs as if they were locomotives, and that could raise maintenance costs. Of course, in both cases it could be excuses for poor performance by the railroads themselves…

    • Adirondacker12800

      track maintenance is a fixed rather than variable cost,</i

      No it's not. A track that has 20 trains an hour running over it is going to need more maintenance than a track that has 20 trains a day running over it. And more than track that has 10 trains a week running over it. It's one of the things railroads and Amtrak argue over endlessly. Commuter agencies and railroads too. It's one of the things right wing think tanks whine about.

      Some of the LIRR rolling stock is higher-maintenance and wears out the tracks more

      You just said track maintenance costs are fixed….
      Run almost empty trains from Port Jervis to Oyster Bay so you can get through-running chills up and down your spine they beat up the tracks almost as bad as trains with passengers on them.

      The FRA also weirdly regulates EMUs as if they were locomotives,

      Because they are. Unpowered cars are… unpowered… Self powered cats have things like motors and compressors on them that have to be checked. If it has a control stand in it, the control stand has to be checked. And all the stuff so it can be MU’d. Which is there even on unpowered cars that can be inserted into MU’d trains.

      • Alon Levy

        Somehow, all the studies I’ve seen (and there are links in old posts – start here, but there are others) say the cost of HSR maintenance is fixed. Even tracks that don’t have any trains running on them need to be maintained to avoid wearing out; if the trains are not too heavy, then the extra impact of each train on the tracks is approximately zero. The situation is different for freight trains, but that’s a different issue.

        Amtrak and the railroads may frame their fights as a maintenance issue, I’m not sure, but it’s really about negotiating an access charge. An access charge is not the same as the marginal maintenance cost. It’s levied based on a combination of what prevents the tracks from getting congestion, what the owner can charge you and get away with it (what are you going to do, switch to a competitor 500 km away?), and what the regulators allow. Over here they explicitly call them access charges, and set them at the level that ensures all rail profits will be concentrated in the state-owned track operator and not in foreign or private train operators. In the US, for the most part railroads own both track and equipment and run their own equipment on their track, so when Amtrak runs on private railroads or when commuter railroads run on Amtrak there have to be special negotiations, but it’s the same principle.

        As for the FRA and EMUs, I’m half-remembering things I read on forums, but my recollection is that EMU maintenance requirements are more stringent in the US than elsewhere. Normally MUs are regulated as MUs, and need more maintenance than unpowered cars but less than heavy locomotives that have enough power to lug a lot of cars behind them.

        • Elizabeth

          The source of track maintenance costs are part fixed and part variable for HSR and still both mileage and usage based for commuter rail.

          HSR tracks (ones in which trains travel at high speeds, not just tracks on which trains capable of high speeds travel) must be inspected on a daily basis – this is why there is a midnight – 6 am shutdown on most systems. It doesn’t matter how many trains you have – as soon as you have one, you have to inspect for small deviances.

          Fixing the tracks and catenary is another source of costs. Some of this is based on wear and tear, but some is like trimming trees or dealing with subsidence that is caused by the ground sinking, not the trains pounding on them.

          To be honest, all of this is a rounding error compared to the cost of having to have places to leave trains in mid-manhattan.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Grand Central is effectively free. Tearing down Grand Central Terminal so it can be redeveloped isn’t an option these days. Even if for some peculiar reason – the invention of teleporters? – it was decided to abandon the tracks It’s not particularly economic to tear down existing skyscrapers to get an extra sub basement or two in the new building.
            Wikipedia says the MTA paid 100 million dollars for the derelict freight yard west of Penn Station. Real estate prices are so high in Manhattan that people are willing to build things, at their expense, over a railroad yard. I’d hazard a guess that having that space so close to the busiest station in the country will be worth it over the next few centuries. Or until teleporters are invented.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Verifying that yes the compressor isn’t leaking oil or encrusted in varmint is going to have more or less the same amount of time whether it’s on a NYC subway R188 or PATH PA5 or an ACS64, I suspect that checking it on an HHP8 involved a lot of swearing and frequent servicing.. Which is why Amtrak got rid of the HHP8s before they got rid of the AEM7s. I also suspect the increased cost comes from having to check ten compressors on ten MUs versus one compressor on one locomotive. Five control stands on ten cars that are married pairs versus one on a locomotive. Repeat for all the other stuff that is on an MU that isn’t on an unpowered car.

          Someone somewhere has numbers for all of this. I suspect railroads have had numbers for all of this since Mr. Hollerith sold them some card handling machines. I suspect the ICC had a few of those machines too. It’s how they came up with 30 day, 90 day etc. inspection cycles. With all the moaning about how expensive it all is, the MTA, with it’s numbers, goes out and buys MUs. So does SEPTA. And Metra for the electric lines. Denver.

          Someone, armed with a thorough checklist, has to poke their finger into the guts every so often. That the long checklist is regulated under “locomotives” in the US and under “cars” in Europe, Japan and FTA regulations isn’t going to change the checklist much.

          • al

            Whatever happened to smart equipment that one could monitor remotely from a console? If modern aircraft, trucks and cars can have hundreds to thousands of sensors and computerized system controls, why not have automatic monitoring and diagnostics for modern EMU?

          • Max Wyss

            @al: Some manufacturers do offer (semi-)continuous surveillance of the rolling stock; it is just an option the customer has to chose.

  7. Michael Finfer, MD

    One of the issues that you have not considered is safety. We had an accident here in New Jersey in the early to mid 2000’s involving the derailment of a full 10 or 12 car train that, because of personnel issues, had only a two, possibly a three person crew. The result was chaos. Many of passengers left the train on their own. It was extraordinarily lucky that none of the people who left the train were injured or killed.

    I am not going to pretend that I am going to be able to determine the appropriate levels of staffing, but clearly two or three people on a very long train does not cut it if something bad happens.

    Also, on NJT, trains run with an engineer, conductor, brakeman, and as many trainmen as necessary to get the tickets collected. The conductor is in charge of the train. I am not sure that Federal regulations would allow a passenger train regulated by the FRA to run with just an engineer.

    • Alon Levy

      The two snippy answers are “tracks and trains should be maintained adequately so that derailments don’t happen” and “subway systems run long trains filled to the brim with just one or even zero employees on board.” Where Metro-North, the LIRR, and New Jersey Transit spend a lot of money on train crew salaries, various commuter rail networks this side of the Atlantic have upgraded signaling. The core lines in France and Germany have had PTC for decades; the new ETCS standards are a second-generation implementation that’s meant to unify the hodgepodge of different national systems. Result: trains here kill their passengers at a fraction of the rate American trains do; accidents like Metro-North and Amtrak’s overspeeds do not happen on the core commuter lines, only on less important lines, which have not yet been so upgraded but will be soon.

      As for federal regulations, when Stephen Smith talked to him, David Gunn said that in the strike, SEPTA won the right to run commuter trains with just a driver.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The legislature whether that’s Congress or the state or even the county has to come with the money to do that.

      • Michael Finfer, MD

        PTC is a great idea, but it would not have prevented that accident. It was caused by an employee who did not know how to inspect a bearing. That train activated a hot box detector. The defect was missed, and a wheel burned off the train later in the run.

        • Michael Finfer, MD

          One other issue on NJT, and this does not apply to the LIRR or Metro-North east of the Hudson, is that the Northeast Corridor is the only line where all of the stations have high platforms. On all other lines, you need enough people to run through the train and open and close the traps as necessary.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Convert the stations to level boarding. Like New York and Connecticut did for the M1s and M2s. They’d have to buy more equipment, they could buy something with long doors and stairs.

          • Alon Levy

            There exist trains in South Korea with automatic traps, but in general, all regional trains should have level boarding. It cuts dwell times 15 seconds even at less busy stations, and makes the timetable more reliable (since a wheelchair or a stroller or luggage don’t wreck the schedule).

        • Adirondacker12800

          integrate the hot box detectors into the PTC system and make the signals go red at the next station. And display a reason for the stop on the train’s control screens and the person-in-charge personal communication device and the central dispatching office….

          • Michael Finfer, MD

            Converting all of the stations to level boarding is very expensive, will take years, and will not occur in a state where the governor only cares about his chances of becoming president.

            As for integrating PTC with hot box detectors, that still would not have prevented that accident because the employee missed he defect. False positives at hot box detectors are common enough that the signals would have been cleared manually, and the train would have continued.

          • Alon Levy

            Level boarding at Morton Street on the Fairmount Line was $6.5 million, alongside other (cheaper) improvements. If that’s what holds back OPTO on New Jersey Transit, the payback time on it is very short. And of course the LIRR and Metro-North except for the Waterbury Branch hagfish both have level boarding already…

          • Adirondacker12800

            Hnadheld infrared detectors are really really cheap these days.
            He’s not governor for life and things will change after 2017.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Ramsey 17 was 27.5 million in 2004. It’s unclear if that include the cost to build the parking. 1,000 spaces aren’t cheap. the 1.000 spaces keep cars out of downtown Ramsey. Union was 25 million in 2003. Again it’s unclear if that includes the cost of the parking. Somerville was 15.7 in 2009. The parking at Somerville had been improved in previous projects. Pennsauken Transit Center was 39 million but that included work on the RIver Line and the Atlantic City Line. …..And parking

      • F-Line to Dudley

        SEPTA’s experiment under Gunn was to operate the Fox Chase-Newtown diesel shuttle using City Transit workers instead of railroad workers. That was the only such line on their system that was trialed under such an operating arrangement, and was used by Gunn as a labor sabre-rattling tactic 2 years in advance of SEPTA’s scheduled 1983 takeover of commuter rail ops from Conrail to prove that small crews of City Transit personnel could run the railroad more efficiently than the bloated RR-unionized crew ranks could.

        It didn’t work out that way. 2 fatal accidents in only 2 years of operation, and on the second accident (motorman fatality) the NTSB slapped City Transit for assigning incorrect equipment to the line. Some grade crossing protection on the line was only natively configured to trigger when trains of 2 cars or more shunted across; short of that it was considered a ‘lite engine’ move with stop-and-protect rules in effect at crossings. Conrail got around that by outfitting the Budd RDC cars it used with simple early-trigger devices so they could run single-car DMU’s fail-safe through any crossing protection set to 2+ cars. City Transit got nailed for mixing up its Budd fleets from other lines and slipping cars not equipped with the early-trigger device into the Fox Chase equipment pool, then losing track of them. FRA piled on with its typically hysterical overreaction and said “Thou shalt only run 2+ car trains evermore!”, which made the line instantly unprofitable. Conrail’s unions saw an opportunity to pigpile on and get City Transit tossed ahead of SEPTA’s takeover of the rest of Regional Rail by alleging that City Transit had ignored their explicit warnings about exactly that type of accident occurring. City Transit’s unions, in turn, felt they’d been betrayed by management after promises of higher-paying Regional Rail jobs than they were getting on rapid transit turned into free-for-all scapegoating of their competence level. Then they went on-strike, and the RR’s followed.

        Gunn was fired shortly after resolution of both the City Transit and RR strikes. He took the hit from his bosses for bollixing his leverage with the unions with sloppy management and poor top-down communication to City Transit workers during the Fox Chase saga, and for handing the whole platter to every special interest dead-set on upholding the ‘Old Ways’ to stuff that labor reform genie back in the bottle forever. As much as Gunn was and still is a ‘vision’ guy, he and SEPTA f***ed this one up at a multi-generational level that leaves any notion of train staffing reform hamstrung to this day. Fox Chase is always the Exhibit A brought up to nuke any talk of reform from orbit before it ever gains traction.

        • kclo3

          Apparently only 2 RDCs out of 17 ever had the trigger devices installed. Doesn’t really matter when all of them were completely shot and SEPTA lost the maintenance facilities in Reading; running 1 or 2 units makes little difference when whole brake components were physically falling off. Conrail engineers also made frequent attempts to hinder service, by physically blocking the tracks during the initial run, prioritizing West Trenton trains at the Bethayres diamond crossing, and dispatching Fox Chase inbound trains early before the shuttle arrived to transfer passengers.

          SEPTA’s conductor burdens are going to be half-solved once SEPTA Key is online and Regional Rail moves to Overground-style ticketing, we can also stop the 1:2 conductors to cars and odd-numbered consist nonsense. The other half, unfortunately, is an agonizingly slow high-platform replacement program. Once these are fixed, it’s a matter of gradual retraining/partial layoffs coupled with adding off-peak trains.

          As for restoration, I will only say that Montgomery County is in no need of a redundant and meandering line running through parks, not even for a junction at Bethayres; there is a much better case for Bucks County towns, so the only possible alignment from Newtown should utilize the Trenton Cutoff and merge with the Warminster Line, making it fully double-tracked to Glenside.

      • Nathanael

        “As for federal regulations, when Stephen Smith talked to him, David Gunn said that in the strike, SEPTA won the right to run commuter trains with just a driver.”
        That’s regarding the union contracts.

        Federal regs will still require one conductor per train on the Regional Rail tracks shared with freight trains. (I recognize that that’s a huge reduction in staffing.) I can think of a reasonable case for having one conductor on the train, actually; Docklands Light Rail, which is fully automated, puts “train captains” on the train to make passengers more comfortable and deal with emergencies. The assistant conductors are extreme overkill however, existing mostly for fare collection — presumably they’ll be made redundant after SEPTA finally finishes deploying SEPTA Key.

        • Nathanael

          Looking at things more carefully, there may be no FRA rules requiring having a conductor, but there are a bunch of rules which *assume* the existence of a conductor, which implies that someone has to hold the title.

          The conductor and the engineer could be made the same person, perhaps.

          • Nathanael

            (I have to point out that with modern signalling, the job of the driver/engineer is substantially obsolete, while the job of the ‘main’ conductor — be in charge, deal with trouble, and be the radio contact — is not obsolete.)

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Not sure there’s anything to make of that since they don’t specify who is and isn’t “train crew” in that scenario. In the cab, or throughout the train?

        At least on the MBTA Commuter Rail, the rule is 1 conductor per every 2 cars. I don’t know if that’s an FRA thing, a RR union thing, a thing with the MBTA’s current RR union contract, or something else. It’s probably a lot similar elsewhere, and one of the reasons why commuter rail has so overwhelmingly flipped to bi-level cars. Especially now that restricted-height bi’s are available for the users of Penn/GCT.

        I also have no frigging clue how it applies to nontraditional car layouts. The T’s Request for Proposals for DMU’s called for married A-B-C articulated sets per unit, so some other staffing equivalency metric is going to be in effect for that. There might even be some prior precedent with Metro North’s M4/M6 married-triplet EMU’s.

        Where you can pick out the inefficiency from a mile away is when you see commuter rail trains all day long on the T made up of odd-numbered consist lengths. 5 cars…way too many 5-car trains at all times of day. Not 4’s with 2 conductors, not 6’s with 3 conductors…5’s with 3 conductors. It was a running joke that their contracted operators–now Keolis, for the previous 10 years MBCR–just didn’t give a crap what they slapped together in the yard.

        And then you had the far off-peak hours, when extra cars are closed off and passengers grouped to the front. That’s not inefficient per se for a push-pull set: it gets costly quick to continuously break apart and recombine unpowered cars in the name of fine-tuning, some over-long sets do need to be moved into position at outer layover yards for the A.M. commute, and empty cars put so little load on a locomotive’s HEP generator that the power available for basic traction gets very efficient despite the ‘deadweight’. But then you see odd numbers of open cars all the time…just by watching which cars have the lights on as they pass by. A lot more with 3 empty cars lights-on and 2 conductors roaming the aisles, instead of 2 open cars with 1 conductor. Too many more running that way than can be explained by “we’re just ferrying an end-of-shift conductor home on the outbound; inbound it’ll just be one guy”. The inflexible work rules stuff too many bodies in open crevices like that, and the odd-numbered trainset configurations end up just being a surrender to more of the same. It’s a depressing sight to watch happen…every…single…day.

        You can tell a lot about your transit agency’s attitude towards staffing efficiency…or the polar opposite of…by whether they count trainsets by 2’s or by prime numbers.

        • Nathanael

          It’s an RR union thing.

          If the RRs had sane unions, you could make a deal like the one London has made repeatedly: fewer conductors, more staff in stations. However, here in the antiquated US world of commuter railroads, most of the railroads have *separate unions* for conductors and station staff. So that doesn’t happen. Aaaargh!

          In most places in the US, the TWU (which is a unified union) will make that same deal — more station staff, fewer on-train staff. In NYC, TWU Local 100 is run by brain-damaged lunatics, so they refuse to make such deals.

          • Alon Levy

            On the other hand, if the conductors are in a separate union, it’s easier to just say “nope, we don’t need you anymore, toodles.” There’s still going to be a lot of heat to take from the remaining workers, but at least they won’t be able to formally go on strike.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Well, it’s also a very heterogeneous labor scene. So wrapping brain around the issue takes a scorecard.

            You’ve got the largest union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which recently merged with the Teamsters into a subdivision. That’s generally the highest-skill labor of in-cab personnel and brakemen, and is the largest union because of how heavily it tilts to freight crews. Believe it’s open to the conductor ranks now, but that’s a recent development and very tiny share of their overall membership. BLE’s dealing with the whole debate on 2-man train crews and in-cab cameras. They’ve got cushy deals, but they also represent the premium crew talent and very competitive job market. Density of the Northeastern rail network leaves it so commuter rail, Amtrak, and freights poach each other’s engineers all the time…so BLE also represents the most free-market influenced of the industry’s salaries.

            Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, also a recent Teamsters merger. You can argue there aren’t nearly enough of them to go around given the pittance this country spends on state-of-repair. And every time some early retirement program gets floated around by some agency looking to chop its debt, these are the ranks that get decimated. And then pointed to as an exhibit of too-cushy retirement when the employer is only cutting for show, not real dollar efficiency. They’re the hardest workers to replace, since they usually are jobs that require intimate knowledge of the system they’re working on. Which means the OT costs from being perpetually short-handed are way unfavorable and distort these labor costs further.

            Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen. Nowadays that’s functionally more of an electrician’s + IT guild than a standard railway union given what the job specialty involves: data cabling, backoffice systems, wireless, and the like. Tough to parse how much the “railway” specificity and influence from other railway-specific labor deals distorts these labor costs because of how hybridized a profession signaling/communications is.

            Shop employees can be represented by any of the above depending on what they do and from whence they came, plus other things related to their specific mechanical specialty. Also a high-skill, competitive job market realm with lots of talent-poaching between railroads. And also one where staffing levels are way way too low, decimated by early retirements, with relative costs put through a funhouse mirror because of agency action on those early retirements and OT.

            Then the unified unions, which captures most of the conductor ranks. Distorted by also handling a lot of bus and rapid transit unions, and some absurd contracts therein. And some of the more insanely wasteful and corrupt purely local chapters. Relative discipline highly variable by agency/city and employer, with messes left by bad actors in some cities helping to penalize costs for the better actors in other cities.

            And ^all^ of these mesh together to run a living, breathing system. Definitely the unified unions glutting up the lower-skill ranks at passenger carriers with the biggest share of bad costs and bad actors because of their disproportionate size/influence on passenger rail transit (vs. rail transpo writ-large where freight is still king). But there are other pressure points with other unions doing a push and pull on the costs. And some of them are purely the employer’s fault like consistently shorting the MOW and vehicle maint ranks decade after decade until it creates cost-inflating artificial shortages that start spilling over in “me-too” fashion to the other realms carrying unnecessary surplus and bloat.

            There’s no one way to take a bite out of labor costs; it’s got to be multi-faceted. Lowest (mostly) common denominator, I guess, is “don’t manage stupid” since so many of these inefficiencies are self-inflicted by slovenly, don’t-give-a-shit management hacks and patronage parasites. But it’s certainly not a homogenous problem with any sort of homogeneous solution. The interconnections between the labor segments matter almost as much as troubleshooting each individual one.

          • Alon Levy

            Somehow, with all that shortchanging, the LIRR’s labor costs alone for maintenance of way and equipment are 2.5 times as high as the overall maintenance cost of high-speed rail (per track-km for track maintenance, per car-km for rolling stock maintenance).

          • Adirondacker12800

            This might have something to do with it

            2015/07/26 – 13:14
            Alon Levy

            ….. and are so heavy they chew up the tracks….

            And running them more frequently 24 hours a day all days of the year contributes a bit.

          • Nathanael

            Well, Alon, you can’t get rid of *all* the conductors — minimum one conductor per train is required by rail regulation because they’re officially responsible for and in charge of the train. Trying to shift that job to the engineer would be fought because, different union!

            ” And some of the more insanely wasteful and corrupt purely local chapters. ”
            This is the biggest problem. All the LIRR locals have awful reputations, which do not apply to the other locals of the “same” union. TWU Local 100 has a pretty bad reputation which is NOT shared by TWU locals in other cities, most of which are considered decent and reasonable negotiating partners.

            There’s a New York City problem here. The New York metro area has a lot of particularly bad union locals. I don’t know exactly what the problem is, but it’s probably related to the same problem which causes inflated construction costs in the NYC area.

          • Adirondacker12800

            When it hits a deer someone has to stay at the controls and talk to the dispatchers and someone has to go out and confirm that there are deer guts splattered all over everything. And pull it out so they can make it to the next station.
            Inflated construction costs aren’t all blue collar union members making 200k a year including benefits. A lot of it is polite white collar workers producing excessively detailed reports which then get challenged in court which require platoons of high paid lawyers Who then get sued by other platoons of high paid lawyers. Which then starts another round of detailed reports. Which get challenged. And exquisite mitigations that come from all of the suing and settlements.

  8. anonymouse

    If FRA maintenance regulation are anything like the tests that they do on engineers, then yes, they probably hyperfocus on irrelevant stuff at the expense of what’s actually important. As far as the FRA is concerned, the locomotive engineer must have two important skills: blowing the horn correctly at grade crossings (long-long-short-long, with the last one extending until the front of the train is in the crossing), and being able to stop before hitting a red flag while running at restricted speed. This latter skill is tested through random “efficiency tests”, where an FRA inspector will show up, shut a track circuit to force the signal to red, and deploy the flag (and stand next to it) as he waits for a train to show up. And yes, this is generally done on mainline tracks with revenue trains. So if you are ever on a train that is crawling at 20 mph for no obvious reason, now you know why: efficiency!

  9. R. W. Rynerson

    Denver’s emu’s were mentioned above. Although the RTD was lobbied as long ago as 1990 to develop commuter rail with push-pull Diesels, the current Fastracks projects grew out of proposed Light Rail expansion. The latter concept was nixed due to the rising concern about safety when running alongside freight lines, expressed as a requirement for FRA – compatible ‘Cadillacs’ instead of street-legal LRT ‘BMW’s’. Because of the nature of the lines now being completed, they are planned to have a peak-to-base ratio of 2:1, with the base service also operating on weekends and holidays.

    Throughout my years of following or working in the transit industry, the top barrier to improved off-peak service has been mediocre accounting that prefers to provide planners with flat-rate average costs for adding a peak trip or cutting an off-peak trip. The second highest barrier has been ‘experts’ inside or out who detect lower ridership trips that are part of an otherwise well-used service. For example, the City of Boulder staff member who discovered early morning LRT trips that carried only a few passengers. They were pull-outs from the yard, which RTD runs in service, mainly benefiting blue-collar workers riding to suburban jobs. We could have cured this and a national critic’s criticism of low average loads by turning the trips into deadheads and telling the customers to apply for unemployment, but did not.

    In other words, improved off-peak service requires an effort on the management side, both to get useful numbers and explain them to excited young legislative aides or junior journalists. Not everyone is willing to question averages. I was just fortunate enough to find work with organizations unwilling to aim for average.

  10. Pingback: Chart of the Day: Transit Labor Efficiency in NY Metro Area | streets.mn
  11. Nathanael

    You’ve calculated before (back in 2010) that the LIRR would save $90 million / year by eliminating conductors.

    Now, suppose the LIRR staffed every single station, all 124 of them, with four full-time workers (to keep the stations open 24 hours a day 7 days a week) and paid each of these station attendants roughly $120K/year each (just to be really inflated). This is a better way to check the tickets! That’s only $60 million/year.

    The vast number of conductors is money-burning.

    • Nathanael

      Savings wouldn’t be as great on Metro-North, where the conductors are paid less and the staffing is slightly less bloated, but my “extreme overstaffing at stations” scenario would still save $10 million a year. Conductors are very, very, very expensive.

    • Alon Levy

      Wages have gone up somewhat; the LIRR’s total conductor compensation is $110 million a year now.

      As for station agents… first, they never get paid that much. Second, who needs then? Especially for checking tickets? POP would cost a fraction of this, unless LIRR ridership rose to Japanese levels.

      • johndmuller

        Changing the fare collection method on the commuter railroads would be a challenge in a number of ways, not the least of which would be the unions. You’d probably need to be prepared to have an outright war to the death with the unions, no doubt including shutting down the railroads for however long it took. Union busting is not going to be too popular politically, Reagan and the Air traffic controllers notwithstanding.

        Fewer conductors maybe, but even that seems difficult. What can you offer in exchange, complete career buyouts?

        If you want to replace on-board personnel with station agents, you would have to deal with the fact that there are many Metro North stations where the station building, if it still exists, has been repurposed. For one of the best cases perhaps it was leased to someone as a cafe or newsstand and might still have a place where the station agent could work out of, new lease holder willing; otherwise it might just be a booth or two on the platform(s).

        Change some of the conductors to POP inspectors? Are you going to transition into that by converting all of them (except for the ones you convert to station agents)? It’s going to look bad probably and for quite a while.

        BTW, is there such a thing as an open ticket with POP? Sometimes I like to have a ticket on hand just in case – perhaps for an unexpected out-of-towner, or in case of arriving at the station with no time to get a ticket, but more probably for no good reason, just something I seem to like to do. How would one do something like that.

        • Eric

          Conductors already *are* POP inspectors. They inspect every single passenger, and give a fine equal to the fare for those without fares. You can have them inspect half the passengers and issue 2x fines, or 1/50 of the passengers and a 50x fine, or whatever. You can choose whatever ratio you want, and thereby choose how many employees are extras who can be reassigned or fired.

        • Nathanael

          The assistant conductors are like the former firemen who put coal into steam engine boilers — their jobs are actually obsolete. It’s really time to get rid of the overstaffing. The can be paid to do something else (which is why I proposed overstaffing the stations) but the current LIRR situation is ridiculous.

          Overstaffing the stations is at least appreciated by customers; overstaffing the trains generally isn’t appreciated.

        • Alon Levy

          In Vancouver, there are open tickets with POP. (Yes, they’re trying to transition away from that, but the new Compass system and the faregates have been plagued with so many troubles it caused Translink to lose a transit funding referendum.) You can buy books of ten tickets, and validate them at the front of every bus or at every SkyTrain station. In the Riviera, the single-use tickets you buy at the machines are pre-validated, but there are multi-use tickets that need to be validated at the platform before getting on the train. In systems with smartcards and POP, for example Singapore, you can get two smartcards, and validate each at either a bus stop or on the moving bus (the subway uses faregates); in principle it’s possible to build the system to allow you to tap the same card in twice, like the MetroCard, but I don’t think it works well with either season passes or distance-dependent fares.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            When we introduced European style POP on rail in Edmonton (1980), we did not have tickets, other than some odd vestigial remnants of the old operator-sold pasteboards. We then introduced 10-ride ticket books, but had to fight off a city councilman’s idea to make them books of 11 rides – market research showed that the customers preferred 10. We also had to respond to public complaints that having POP machines in LRT stations would make the floors sticky. We had to design the tickets so they would flip into a bus farebox. Constant experimenting with a farebox in the office found a better size than Calgary’s — instead it turned out that Berlin’s worked. Shrewd customers did discover that if they put a validated ten-ride ticket in the bus farebox upside down, it would land on the farebox pan upside down so that the operator could not see the validation print. (Likely the same few people who cut CDN $1 bills in half and then glued them folded to squeeze them into the farebox.)

            There was a large faction of politicians and transit employees that did not believe it would work, so we were ordered to leave the turnstiles, fare booths and barriers in place. Our maintenance people came up with a great solution: when anything broke or was vandalized, they removed it. Turnstiles require a lot of maintenance, so within a few years we were barrier-free.

            In other words, there are a lot of details to any fare system. In Edmonton and Denver. there are people – generally suburban occasional riders – who are convinced that large numbers of people are riding without paying. Particularly both cities have eastern immigrants who advocate retrofitting steel cage barrier systems. This ignores the high percentage of riders who have passes or who transfer to or from buses where they get checked again. This ignores the reality that Denver would not have rail transit if construction had to include cattle pens on downtown streets. This folk belief also ignores the labor cost savings that allow POP lines to operate in marginal hours and that allowed us in Edmonton to re-open lightly used subway entrances. Operators of a POP system need to expect that issue to go on and on, so regular data collection is needed.

            [Both Edmonton and Denver are ATU systems with a single local covering bus and rail operations and fare collection. Most Denver inspections are done by contracted security personnel. The last that I heard. the contracted security personnel will also do inspections on the ‘Denver S-Bahn’ opening next year.]

          • Richard Mlynarik

            here are people – generally suburban occasional riders – who are convinced that large numbers of people are riding without paying.

            Ryan, there’s an absolutely toxic combination of rent-seeking (generally by Cubic Systems, but the others are in on it) conducted by fare evasion “study” rigging, right-wing/suburban/authoritarian/paternalistic “somebody somewhere is getting away with something somehow” meanness, willful organizational innumeracy, and general hostility to transit utility that is actively working to kill POP in North America.

            Make no mistake that the real force behind the roll-back are the limitlessly corrupt, technically incompetent, rent seeking contractors who benefit from either or both of “smart” ticketing, fare gates, massively expensive wretched quality IT backends and those who benefit from the huge extra civil engineering costs of gated fortress-type stations.

            The agency boards whose members “are concerned about fare evasion” and “hear that some people are riding for free” are simply useful idiots who can be and are bought at amazingly low cost, Agency staff are always ready to go along with proposals that increase agency budgets (they skim “overhead” off all the the bloated fare system contracts, so the more bloated and the more ECOs and redesigns involved the better) and that put riders last. Staff can always be perfectly relied upon to generate “fare evasion studies” that put vendor profits first, and they do. LAMTA is a recent outstanding and quite criminal example, and Vancouver is part of the pattern.

            I don’t know what can be done about this. As long as public transportation in North America is perceived and operated as a welfare undertaking for agency vendors and staff, while users of transit are portrayed as the underclass of welfare recipients — a class that must be policed, tracked, corralled, and is always under suspicion of getting away with something they don’t deserve — we’re going to continue to see a roll-back of “organization before electronics before concrete”, because there is so much money to be reaped through small “study” investments by the bad-concrete and bad-electronics industry.

            Numerate arguments about overall utility, overall system cost, overall subsidy, overall user benefit, overall taxpayer return on investment, etc, have no traction when all it takes is “a black person rode the bus for free!” to get a billion spend on fare gates or ten million annually pissed away on sub-assistant conductors.

            It’s all so dispiriting.

          • johndmuller

            Well I can see how it gets to be dispiriting when it comes to cutting labor costs. First off, the unions are so very powerful, and the politicians especially are at their mercy. Occasionally, the politics are right for confronting the unions, but I don’t think that right now is one of those times. Even if it were a good time, getting rid of the conductors is a big deal and the union would have to fight it to the max.

            I don’t particularly know how it is in Europe, but in NYC there are plenty of people who only pay fares reluctantly, who may not want to sashay past the bus driver and flip them off, but who would be more than happy to take their chances with inspectors, especially if the worst the inspector could reasonably do was to make them get off at the next stop. I don’t know how a consignment system would work (I assume that you are talking about the inspector keeping a percentage of their ‘take’), but whether the inspectors would be sufficiently motivated and physically intimidating enough (without being to overbearingly offensive to actual truly innocent fare evaders) to make a living doing this is another thing. Further, if the initial supply of inspectors are really lame-duck conductors, who knows what their motivation would be like.

            Switching to POP might stand a chance if it started with one of the commuter railroads, as they are, theoretically, more ‘civilized’ and therefore less prone to criminality. For example, let’s say that the diesel runs on one of Metro North’s lines, the upper Harlem division were switched to POP, using just one conductor per train. These runs are probably patronized by a higher percentage of monthly ticket users than the shorter ones, so there would be less need for and more ease in policing. The conductors on these runs, having the longer trips, are less flexible to schedule, leading to either overtime or slack time, so there would be good savings in reducing their number. Also, since these trains mostly run express between GCT and White Plains, there would be a reasonable time for actual inspections to take place during that part of the trip, making it a less worthwhile gamble to try avoiding payment, even with only one conductor. The same could be done on the Hudson division with their diesels and Croton-Harmon as the express leg of the trip and likewise on the NH division with Stanford or Bridgeport as the long leg. If there were extra conductors who still had to be employed for some time as terms of the labor negotiations, some could shuttle back and forth on the outer legs making that half of the trip less tempting to fare evaders too. I’m not as familiar with LIRR operations, but perhaps the same sort of thing could be made to work there too.

            There would need to be at least some modification to the ticket media, even if the initial rollout was more like a trial than a permanent switch-over. Perhaps the ticket machines at the outer stations could be programmed to make their tickets expire on the date of issue. Perhaps they could be printed on a different color stock from the remainder of the line’s machines; at GCT, separate sets of machines would need to be provided, or the prototypes of new machines producing a less substantial receipt could be introduced.

            Thinking about the details helps me to talk myself into this idea, but I still remember being quite skeptical, especially when it comes to buses and subways in the city.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            I don’t particularly know how it is in Europe, but in NYC there are plenty of people who only pay fares reluctantly, who may not want to sashay past the bus driver and flip them off, but who would be more than happy to take their chances with inspectors, …

            Switching to POP might stand a chance if it started with one of the commuter railroads, as they are, theoretically, more ‘civilized’ and therefore less prone to criminality. …

            As I was saying, “a black person rode the bus for free!”

          • Brendan Dawe

            On the topic of commuter rail labor efficiency and Vancouver, do youknow how many staff are on any WCE run? Supposedly the WCE is break-even operationally, so I imagine it’s not terribly overstaffed

  12. R. W. Rynerson

    I have to agree with most of Richard Mlynarik’s observations above. I’ve had experience with POP as it was being introduced in Germany and then in Canada and then in the U.S. and the main factor in its viability is the degree of enforcement, not the demographic group of customers. When Portland tried POP on their entire bus system, high violation rates occurred on suburban feeder and crosstown routes with wide headways. These were routes where it was hard to inspect and the customers noticed that. When RTD in Denver tried to economize on LRT fare inspections, violations went up.

    In the demographic stereotyping department, on a visit to San Diego early in their LRT operations I learned that cynics kept telling the staff that the flood of undocumented immigrants would steal rides. It turned out that people without papers are the last ones who want to be caught stealing a transit ride. Many of them bought passes. The biggest problem group was the U.S. Navy, when ships full of one-time riders were in port. Arrangements were made with the Navy brass to offer military justice as an alternative to paying fares and the problem was curtailed. [Inter-service rivalry note: in Berlin we GI’s who commuted bought monthly passes and some who lived in barracks bought multi-ride streifenkarten.] Part of my monthly pass is reproduced at:
    http://www.berlin1969.com/#/documents/3859736 .

    So, one characteristic of fare violaters is that they are likely to be occasional riders, not commuters.

    There are several groups within each demographic community. From observation. about 2% will steal even when it is clearly against their own interests (example: people with outstanding warrants!). These people will do it with any type of fare collection system. There is another group that feels that clever cons are okay. I used to join some of the guys who came to my church for a lunch and they would discuss the methods of getting classed as mentally disabled so that they could ride for half fare. Again, this had nothing to do with the fare collection system.

    Where the variation occurs is in a swing group that will rationalize stealing rides if they think there is little interest in preventing them from doing so. There are excellent chapters on this behavior in Dan Ariely’s book ‘Predictably Irrational’ which is probably still in print. It has a lot of other good marketing research, too.

    The transit operator needs to take steps to keep the swing group in line:

    1. Offer big savings on passes and multi-ride tickets vs. cash fares (and there immediately is an argument from car-poolers, ,for example, who want transit service as a back-up).

    2. Study whether part of the passengers will be checked by other means during their journey (RTD uses a phalanx of security and ATU fare inspectors at major event sites, as in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoDlk95-GUI ).

    3. Do fare inspections based on statistics. If the violation rate goes up, adjust the inspections or check to see if the fines are not high enough vs. the cost of a monthly pass.

    And 4 = communicate the results and hope that some nice, middle class board member isn’t invited to a hospitality suite at an APTA convention before they understand what is going on, Or, that he doesn’t go to a party with someone who was shocked to see a trainload of Auraria college students not get inspected when his car was in the shop and he rode one time (they have semester passes included in their school fees).

    All of this is a relatively simple trade-off compared to a world of broken turnstiles, turnstile jumpers. locked secondary station entrances in off-hours and massive additional capital costs..

    — rwr

    • Bjorn Swenson

      Any thoughts about this 9-5 Study as it pertains to proof-of-payment systems? http://9to5.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Left-at-the-Station.pdf

      “Residents expressed some fear about security guards used on light rail vehicles. Several [community members] reported incidences of racial profiling and being removed from trains to have their fares checked. Community members often stated that they would like to see RTD staff present at stations, but they would be satisfied if that staff person was an attendant or vehicle operator in lieu of a security guard.”

      Text box, with the original comment provided in Spanish: “My family cannot take the trains because the police always come to talk to us first.”

      • R. W. Rynerson

        This is a progressive organization which takes its cues from national issues and for sure is interested in making as many low-skill positions as possible. I’ve always been puzzled by their comments about the fare inspections, as I’ve never seen any of the behavior that they described. Every Denver fare inspection that I’ve seen started at one end or both ends of the car and worked progressively through to the other end. As there are cameras in the LRV’s, anyone who felt picked out could complain that they were checked first.

        I have seen juveniles taken off of RTD trains when they did not have proof of payment and marched to a TVM to buy a ticket for the next train, in lieu of hitting them with a fine. And, I witnessed two Spanish-speaking women being given an explanation of how to pay the correct fare next time, how to get information in Spanish from the TVM, and being allowed to continue their trip without any action being taken.

        What I have noticed in terms of resentment against POP from low-income customers is that bus operators can be persuaded to accept short fares. In trips on local RTD buses on Friday and Sunday I witnessed at least four attempts to ride with short fares, not counting people who went through all their pockets for change while standing in the doorway. Obviously, that is not feasible with TVM’s. In one of the four cases, the operator opened the door, pressed the MDT screen and told the customer that he was calling for help. After thinking about it, the non-payer got off and went back to wait for the bus after next. Our follower had already lapped us. (The customer appeared to be Anglo.)

        On Sunday afternoon, I was reminded of another reason low income passengers might not like TVM’s that print locations on them with fixed validity times, as compared to bus transfers. RTD bus transfers calculate their validity time from the end of the trip. Three passengers at Union Station carried on a discussion when a short-turn trip pulled up and they decided to wait for the next bus so they could get a transfer calculated from the long Highlands Ranch end of the line. They were only going part of the way. In eavesdropping on Rte 16/16Ltd passengers that appears to be a selling point of having continued the service out to Golden, even though few are on the bus that far.

        And, in the modern style of full disclosure, I must confess that an SCRTD driver once let me short the fare by a penny on the 51 cent fare between LAUPT and Culver City….

        • Max Wyss

          Just for curiosity, the Denver fare inspectors, are they “regular” RTD staff, or “security types”? What kind of uniform do they wear (if they wear uniform at all).

          In my former hometown (Zürich), the VBZ ticket inspectors, are either full time inspectors, or tram/bus drivers with extra training, and they may wear uniform, or not; in any case, they have to provide their ID (and it is absolutely OK if you as passenger ask to see the ID (before showing your monthly or annual pass…)). On the S-Bahn network, inspectors are normally provided by the SBB, and are conductors with extra training.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            The ATU (Rail Operations) fare inspectors wear uniforms similar to bus operators. The majority of inspections are carried out by uniformed transit security officers provided by major contract security firms, with some inspections by local police hired off-duty. They miss some subtleties that a transit fare inspector might catch, but on the other hand are unlikely to be bullied into acceptance. I’m sure that there are people who don’t like this, but in the two decades of RTD light rail, I never heard anything but requests for more security. An hour of security is an hour less of service, so one way of holding down expenses is to combine the jobs. The security guards sometimes just get on a train without doing fare inspections. Watching reactions (feet back on the floor, bicycles moved out of the aisles, a sudden break for the door) I would say that it raises the anticipation that something will happen.

            Back to the study, there are a couple of background facts. I mentioned that the group takes its cues from elsewhere. One source of their ideas seems to be L.A. and from reading I know that there have been complaints about the L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies on rail lines. The L.A. area is where the doctrine that rail is for well-to-do white folks and buses are for poor, minority populations was developed, including the successful lawsuit. A group launched a copycat effort in Denver, but backed off when data overwhelmingly showed that to be false — after they had obtained publicity. As we regularly have had to explain, minority populations are widely distributed in our area and there is no fare barrier between bus and rail. (There are zone fares.)

            The second background fact is that the group was reporting on particular neighborhoods where there are a large number of people whose past experience with law enforcement was in Latin America. From reading, one gathers that their officers are light on the law part and heavy on the enforcement part. The same with our Russian immigrants, although they are accustomed to carrying i.d. and organizing to deal with bureaucracy. So, no matter how courteous the transit security officers are, there are passenger who are keyed up to expect the worst.

            Max, you may recall when I was writing from Canada. When I moved back to the States, I had to adjust to people pulling out the race card again (and members of every group include the ready-to-be-aggrieved). Now I almost have fond memories of the language and religious issues that would interfere with transport planning in Canada.

            For readers who wonder if this reflects on POP, keep in mind that thousands of customers in the same metro area are enjoying rail transit that they wouldn’t have were it not for the lower capital costs with POP. And inner city neighborhoods are no longer plagued by waves of express buses rocketing past their stops. Every RTD rail line has stations in minority communities, unlike the BRT line opening soon. Every RTD rail line has reverse peak service that opens the way to suburban jobs. With staffed stations, the concern about fare inspections would be replaced with fights about station closures at low ridership periods, which include the times when many service workers need to ride. I’m confident that in big cities, someone will find a cause, no matter what it is, but we have to ask if their proposed cure kills the patient.

          • Nathanael

            “The second background fact is that the group was reporting on particular neighborhoods where there are a large number of people whose past experience with law enforcement was in Latin America. From reading, one gathers that their officers are light on the law part and heavy on the enforcement part. The same with our Russian immigrants, although they are accustomed to carrying i.d. and organizing to deal with bureaucracy. So, no matter how courteous the transit security officers are, there are passenger who are keyed up to expect the worst.”

            Anyone from Los Angeles, or New York City, or much of Chicago, or any part of the Deep South, would have the same instinctive reaction, total distrust of any “police”. LAPD and LACSD are *infamous* for brutality and lawbreaking, and NYPD has been developing a similar reputation in recent years. Honestly, I’d cross the street to avoid the cops in LA, they’re that evil.

        • Bjorn Swenson

          The back of the RTD transfer from last year I found at the bottom of my desk today reads “Transfer is valid for 3 hours from trip start time on route of issue.” The transfer validity period would be the same length for short-turn and full trips, as the operator should cut transfers based on trip start time from Union Station without regard for trip end time or location.

          I’ll admit to once defrauding Metro Transit in Minneapolis the difference between the youth and adult fare; I was 16 at the time, but found out afterward that their age cutoff for the youth fare is 13. Notably, the fare inspector never asked for age verification when I showed him my ticket (he also didn’t call out an adjacent passenger eating out of a greasy fast food bag whom he wrote a warning to for lack of fare). At the other end, every business seems to have a different definition of what a senior is, with the range from roughly 50 to 70 years of age. Of course, it would not be good publicity if a customer complained to the media about a $100+ fine for making a good-faith effort to purchase a fare, but buying a short-zone or discount fare for which they were not eligible for.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            The customers probably had not noticed the rule was changed. The new rule creates the same effect in the opposite direction, but as this usually is on frequently served lines, it’s more work for a customer to figure out. Now that you mention it, I remember over-hearing an older gentleman talking with a young woman who was new to riding Rte 15. He was telling her that we had split parallel Rte 10 so that he could no longer wait up to an hour for the every fourth trip that went across town in order to get a longer validity in downtown for his return trip on Rte 15. I think that was after the rule change, but he was recalling the old rule. Actually, there were other reasons for splitting unwieldy Rte 10. And I used to do the same round-trip trick myself in high school, even though Rose City Transit Co. drivers were punching boxes to show where one had boarded.

            For readers on more advanced planets, the rule in Denver currently allows enough time that customers can make short round trips by using a transfer on a parallel line. About 25 years ago, round trips were permitted on the route of issue – and encouraged as a marketing tool – but homeless people riding long night trips would stay on the bus and show their transfer to the operator at the end of the line. And they did not always go back to sleep, and the transfer was sometimes not the only thing that they showed. As in other situations, a few incidents drove the change.

            The old private companies usually tried – as in my days riding ‘Rosy’ – to prevent any type of round-trip with a transfer. This often put the bus or streetcar operator in the position of playing judge and jury, especially as one-way streets and complex looping bus routes developed. Some handled this well, others did not. According to my mother, who was an expert transit rider in the high school class of 1942, even in WWII when there were attempts to force the use of the shortest connections, operators made allowances for some passengers and cracked down on others.

            Removing the adjudication of these issues from the operator’s concern is one good reason for POP where ridership volumes are high (rule of thumb, 80 pax boardings per hr). And, timeclock devices or electronic ticketing can be a way of providing consistent validity periods for transfers. All of the manual methods have quirks or random errors. Not everyone had my mother teaching us to check the transfer for errors. Of course, the idea of getting rid of transfers is around, but that raises enough issues to warrant a separate discussion.

      • EJ

        I don’t have relevant experience with Denver, but San Diego has had POP on the Trolley since it started, and in my experience the inspectors (who are police officers in SD) just go from one end of the car to the other, checking everyone’s ticket. Sometimes they are uniformed, sometimes plainclothes. I’ve never actually seen anyone get busted for not having ticket. Here’s an article about the inspectors:


  13. Bjorn Swenson

    Labor efficiency is also impacted by the types of split shifts, depending on where the split is made.

    Traditional split shifts, heavily used by school districts and urban transit, have the operator clock in and out of the same location for their morning and evening shift. The operator isn’t at work in the middle of the day, and can thus tend to childcare obligations, work a second part-time job, or even go golfing when the courses are empty (school bus driver job advertisements use this as a selling point to retirees). The operators are part-time, but they may not want a full-time job, or may be able to work extra-board or off-peak assignments for more hours.

    In contrast, longer distance and intercity transit have split shifts, but the operator likely has to take the split away from their home base. As a local example, due to deadhead costs and the risk of Hours-of-Service violations, the Colorado Bustang contractor, Ace Express, has budgeted for a hotel room in Glenwood Springs and rents overnight parking space from an oilfield services company in Fort Collins (I don’t know where the Colorado Springs buses are parked overnight).

    A Bustang operator on a recent trip told me that he drives the 6:15a and 11:00a trips from Fort Collins, and the 4:15p trip from Denver. His day likely starts at about 5:45a with a pre-trip and deadhead, arriving in Denver at 7:35a per schedule, where he arrives after a deadhead to Fort Collins around 9:00a. He told me he took a 90 minute off-the-clock break, before taking the 11:00a trip to Denver, arriving at 12:30p, where he deadheads to Ace Express’s garage, arriving around 1p. His bus is washed and serviced (he gets paid for this break), where he then drives to Downtown for the 4:15p departure, arriving in Fort Collins at 5:55p per schedule, with him likely clocking out around 6:15p after a final deadhead and post-trip inspection. For 4 hours, 30 minutes of in-revenue-service time, he spends around 12 hours, 30 minutes per day at or near his employer.

    As long-distance commuter services like the LIRR are likely to remain strongly peaked due to demand, split shifts are inevitable. The difference with these split shifts is that the operator wouldn’t take the split at their home, and would be limited in mid-day work assignments due to route length. Operators may be at or near work for 12-14 hours, but only be paid for 5-10, and in-service for only a single round-trip.

  14. Nathanael

    ” first, check comments below about maintenance costs: as far as I can tell from poorly presented Empire Center data, they are about 2.5 times higher, for both trains and the infrastructure, than the maintenance costs of high-speed rail. Although the effect of reducing those costs to conventional HSR level is larger than the effect of eliminating conductors, the details of reducing maintenance costs are far more delicate than those of eliminating conductors and running trains more often so that train drivers have less downtime.”

    There are documented (by cameras!) examples of LIRR “maintenance workers” billing for a 10 hour day while working for about 2 hours and going off to bars or restaurants for the rest of the day. This was reported on the LIRR Today at one point IIRC.

    I think on the LIRR, the details of reducing maintenance costs aren’t very delicate at all.

    Metro-North doesn’t have that kind of reputation, though.

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