When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire

Two recent news items have driven home the point that American construction costs are out of control. The first is the agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey to fund the Gateway project, at a cost of $20 billion. The second is the release of more detailed environmental impact studies for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; I previously expressed tepidly positive sentiment toward the NEC Future concept, but now there are concrete cost projections: the only full HSR option, Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. As such, I am going to ignore other issues in this post, such as whether to serve Hartford on the mainline or not: they are real issues, but are secondary concerns to the outrageous cost figures.

Although both Gateway and NEC Future have extreme costs – too high for me to be able to support either project – the causes of those high costs are different. Gateway includes not just a new tunnel across the Hudson but also substantial unnecessary scope in Penn Station South; however, I suspect that even if the scope is pared down to the minimum required to provide four tracks from Newark to New York, the budget would still be very high. The bare Gateway tunnel (including Penn South) is to my understanding $14-16 billion; the maximum cost that can be justified by the extra ridership, unless additional operating improvements (which can be done today) are in place, is about $7 billion. As with Second Avenue Subway, there is a real problem of high unit costs. I emphasize that there is too much scope in Gateway, but the scope alone cannot explain why 5 km of tunnel cost many billions, when expensive non-US projects such as Crossrail top at a billion dollars per km and the geologically more complex Marmaray tunnel cost (in PPP terms) about $400 million per km.

The situation with NEC Future is different, in two ways. First, if Gateway cuts a zero from the budget, I will consider it a solid project, perhaps even an inexpensive one given the wide river crossing. (For reference, in 2003 the projected cost was $3 billion). In contrast, if NEC Future cuts a zero from its budget, I will still consider it too expensive – perhaps worth it because of the benefits of HSR, but certainly too high to be built without further inquiry. $29 billion for 720 km is justified for a line with a fair amount of tunneling and entirely greenfield construction, whereas the NEC has long segments that are already nearly ready for HSR and requires very little tunneling.

But second, and more importantly, NEC Future’s unit costs are not high. Read appendix B.06, which discusses cost: on PDF-p. 28 it breaks down cost by item, and other than the tunnels, which at $400-500 million per km are several times as expensive as intercity rail tunnels usually are, the infrastructure items’ per-km costs are reasonable. And the NEC doesn’t require much tunneling in the first place: Connecticut may be hilly, but HSR can climb 3.5% grades and ride on top of the hills, and only in Bridgeport is tunneling really necessary. Make it perhaps 5 km of required tunneling, all around Bridgeport. When I said $10 billion would build full-fat HSR on the NEC, I assumed $200-250 million per km for the Bridgeport tunnel. I also assumed $750 million for new tunnels in Baltimore, whose cost has since risen to $4 billion in part due to extra scope (4 tracks rather than 2). So 2 extra billions come from more expensive tunneling, and 278 extra billions come from bloated scope. Perhaps a subset of the 278 comes from high unit costs for systems and electrification, but these are not the main cost drivers, and are also quite easy to copy from peer developed countries. In the rest of this post, I will document some of the unnecessary scope. I emphasize that while Alternative 3 is the worst, the cost projection for Alternative 1, at $50 billion, is still several times the defensible cost of improvements.

Let us turn to chapter 4, the alternatives analysis, and start on PDF-p. 54. Right away, we see the following wasteful scope in Alternative 2:

  • Full four-tracking on the Providence Line, instead of strategic overtakes as detailed here.
  • A bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which at a radius of 1,746 meters imposes only a mild speed restriction on trains with E5 and Talgo tilt capability, 237 km/h.
  • An entirely new tunnel from Penn Station to Sunnyside, adding a third East River tunnel even though the LIRR is not at capacity now, let alone after East Side Access opens.
  • A tunnel under Philadelphia, so as to serve the city at Market East rather than 30th Street Station.
  • Two new HSR-dedicated tracks in New Jersey parallel to the NEC, rather than scheduling commuter trains on existing local tracks as detailed here.
  • Two new HSR-dedicated tracks alongside much of the New Haven Line, even in areas where the existing alignment is too too curvy.
  • Extensive tunneling between New Haven and Providence (see PDF-pp. 69-70 and 75), even in Alternative 1, even though HSR trains can climb the grades on the terrain without any tunnels outside the Providence built-up area if the tracks go west.

Alternative 2 also assumes service connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Providence, which I do not think is the optimal alignment (it’s slightly more expensive and slower), but is defensible, unlike the long proposed tunnels under Philadelphia, totaling around 30 km. The overall concept is also far more defensible than the tunnel-heavy implementation.

Alternative 3 adds the following unnecessary scope (see PDF-pp. 58 and 76-83):

  • Full six-tracking between New York and Philadelphia and between Baltimore and Washington.
  • Tunnel-heavy alignment options bypassing the New Haven Line, including inland options via Danbury or a tunnel across the Long Island Sound.
  • The new Baltimore tunnels are longer and include a new Baltimore CBD station, where the existing station is at the CBD’s periphery.
  • If I understand correctly, new platforms at New York Penn Station under the existing station.
  • Tunnels under the built-up area of Boston.

According to the cost breakdown, at-grade track costs $20 million per km, embankments cost $25 million per km, elevated track costs about $80 million per km, and tunnels cost $400 million per km. When I draw my preferred alignments, I assume the same cost elements, except tunnels are cheaper, at $200 million per km. (I also add 20% for overheads on top of these base costs, whereas these documents add contingency on top of that.) This should bias the NEC Future toward above-ground options.

Instead, look at the maps in appendix A. Alternative 3 is PDF-pp. 76-81. The options for getting out of the New York urban area include an almost entirely tunneled inland alignment, and a tunnel under the Long Island Sound; making small compromises on trip time by using the New Haven Line, and making up time elsewhere by using better rolling stock, is simply not an option to the planners.

Let’s go back to Gateway now. Although the cost premium there is not as outrageous as for NEC Future, it is a good case study in what the US will fund when it thinks the project is necessary and when there is sufficient lobbying. Paris has the political will to spend about $35 billion on Grand Paris Express, and London is spending $22 billion on Crossrail and is planning to spend much more on Crossrail 2. Between Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, the PATH terminal, East Side Access, and now Gateway, New York is planning to have spent $43 billion on public transit by the middle of next decade. And now people are talking about Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The political will to build both rapid transit and HSR in the US exists; the government spends tens of billions on it. But due to poor cost effectiveness, what the US gets for its money is almost nothing.

The $20 billion that the federal government and both states are willing to set on fire for Gateway prove that, were there a plan to build HSR so that trains would go between Boston and Washington in three and a half hours on a budget of $10-15 billion, it would be funded. This is not a marginal case, where the best plan still elicits groans from anti-tax conservatives: those conservatives ride trains between New York and Washington and want them to be faster. Instead, it is purely about excessive costs. Gateway’s $20 billion could build the tunnel and also full HSR on the NEC, and the $290 billion that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people. It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control. 95% cost savings are possible here, and this is the only thing advocates for better intercity rail in the US should be focusing on.

44 comments

  1. Ben Ross

    The logic behind this plan is that the primary need in the corridor is more capacity, not more speed. Most of this new capacity is for commuter rail, less than half is for intercity travel. The reasoning then is that if you’re going to build new tracks, why not make them high-speed tracks (especially since there are many places where the existing right of way doesn’t have room for new tracks and you need new right of way anyway). I think the plan needs to be analyzed on that basis.

    That said, I can point very directly to a reason for excessive cost in the $4 billion Baltimore tunnel. It is being engineered for double-height container freight trains. The scope of the study was defined to require that at an early stage, when they thought the existing tunnel could be enlarged to that height and serve commuter trains and freight, while adding a new higher-speed tunnel with 2 tracks for Amtrak. It turned out that the existing tunnel can’t be enlarged at reasonable cost. So now due to the requirement for freight-handling tunnels (which is not being re-evaluated), they have to build new tunnels with 4 tracks and abandon the old tunnel.

    • Alon Levy

      The capacity issues are kind of a red herring. For one, there are no capacity issues between Stamford and Providence or between New Brunswick and Baltimore, and the capacity issues north of Providence and south of Newark are minor. Philadelphia’s commuter traffic could comfortably fit through two tracks, when there are four all the way, including through Center City; nobody needs those extra tracks, let alone the Market East tunnel. Six-track the four-track narrows through Elizabeth while fixing the S-curve if it’s such a burning problem, build minor bypasses on the inner New Haven Line to schedule overtakes, and call it a day. I can sort of see why they think full four-tracking is required on the Providence Line and the Penn Line, even if I disagree, but come on; none of this justifies tunneling under Philly, none of this justifies the inland Connecticut tunnels, and none of this justifies six-tracking places like Princeton Junction, the Trenton Line, and the Wilmington/Newark Line.

      As for the Baltimore tunnels: yes, I forgot the freight bit (the original study in fact said the freight railroads don’t want a new tunnel so the Great Circle tunnel should be built for passenger trains). That just adds insult to injury. Not only are they planning to burn $290 billion next Lag BaOmer, but also they’re doing it because private freight rail companies think their existing single-track tunnel isn’t enough? Save the $3.25 billion and make it two tracks, shared between HSR and commuter rail. There are no stations in the proposed tunnel, so 24 tph capacity is not hard, and between the capacity limits for HSR elsewhere and the maximum reasonable regional traffic between Baltimore and Washington, 12 peak tph for each kind of service is the absolute upper limit of what should be planned for.

      • Adirondacker12800

        there are no capacity issues between Stamford and Providence or between New Brunswick and Baltimore,

        North Brunswick. NJTransit is busy cutting the Northeast Corridor services into three parts. NY-Rahway, Rahway-North Brunswick, complete with a new station in North Brunswick and a flyover for the local trains and North Brunswick-Trenton. In 2040 one would hope it be three parts with the fourth being Trenton-Philadelphia.

        CDOT is rambling on about 6 trains an hour to Penn Station and someday more than two Springfield-Stamford. Yes everybody could be doing cross platform foxtrots in Stamford. Or the train from Springfield can magically turn into the express to Penn Station. Or Grand Central. Three hours Boston- DC implies something roughly two hours New Haven to DC. Just over an hour Stamford to Boston. It may not be at capacity today but what kind or ridership does it have in 2040, 2050?

        Where do you put the once an hour from Binghamton, Richmond or Lynchburg? and the twice an hour from Harrisburg? What about the ones from Chicago, Atlanta and Miami?

      • F-Line to Dudley

        And a bald-faced turf war, too. Alts 2 & 3 give the MBTA a whopping 12 TPH only in the peak direction all points north of Readville to share between four (or five, since this assumes South Coast Rail) lines. 12 TPH. In 2040. It forces the Needham and Franklin Lines to cram bi-directionally on a single track north of Forest Hills because reasons. At net loss of Franklin frequencies and sealing the door on any reverse-commute increases on Needham to Boston’s outermost neighborhoods that need better ways to get around both directions at all hours. This is only a +4 increase in peak-direction trains over today, where Providence is already running 8-car bi-level sets standing room-only for the 5:00pm cattle corral. Even if they did the logical thing and bailed out the senseless Franklin cuts by shifting 100% of that route’s schedules to the Fairmount Line (which can more than handle it) instead of that convoluted asynchronous-routing WTF, that only frees up 4 additional peak-direction slots to feed everyone else. Providence service increases aren’t exactly going to be standing still over the next 25 years it takes to build this turkey. This will end up whacking 2040 Providence frequencies from 2030 Providence frequencies and do acute harm to commuter mobility between Greater Boston and Greater Providence. The Aristocrats???

        This is not a capacity enhancement; it’s an “I got mine” eminent domaining of the T’s own tracks to erect a picket fence around them that only NEC Future can use. Use as densely or sparsely as the spirit moves them because not yours, lowly commuter railers. Up and down those Appendix pages are dozens such similarly pointless excuses for exclusionary picket-fence building.

  2. Stephen Stofka

    One of the overarching issues you’re touching on is a cultural issue. Essentially, there are multiple biases in civil engineering towards scope bloat and budget bloat, and few towards value-engineering (which is why you see separate value-engineering consultants enter planning at a later phase) and cost control.

    I recall an old Strong Towns article where Chuck Marohn talked about a wastewater maintenance project that couldn’t get funding: it was just too expensive for the local budget, and just too cheap for state and federal monies. So what did he do? He added scope until the project did qualify for state and federal monies: Instead of replacing a couple miles of pipe and some widgets, he essentially rebuilt the whole town’s wastewater system, because that’s what could get funding.

    Marohn would argue it is symptomatic of the growth ponzi scheme; counterarguments can be made. But regardless, there is a strong cultural bias towards scope creep in our civil-engineering culture, created in large part because scope creep is necessary to fund maintenance projects. Combine that with our idealization of “visioning” — dreaming big while ignoring the costs — an ingrained cultural bias against centralized planning (most European infrastructure projects have a heavily centralized pipeline) — and you get a system where projects are made to work ad hoc by expanding scope to qualify for grants, there is no accounting whatsoever for dollars lost to scope creep, and engineers are trained essentially from apprenticeship that the only way to Get Something Done is to throw extra scope (and hence money) at it. This goes way beyond Mlynarik’s simplistic “consultants carving out extra work for themselves” analysis, and suggests a cancer at the heart of the system, something Cap’n Transit would be utterly unprepared to deal with.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, but. This is not a small wastewater project; it’s HSR, at a budget that would be in line with federal funding scales. A $15 billion HSR project (counting contingency and some side regional projects like EMUs for the Providence Line) is exactly the sort of scale Congress knows how to deal with: the Northeastern Senators would get their project in exchange for supporting something the Southerners, the Westerners, and the Midswesterners would want, like more money for California HSR, or more funding for I-69, or whatever. The mentality of adding scope until you sound like a visionary is indeed a huge problem, but in this particular case, Amtrak and the FRA could propose $15 billion for HSR and come off as visionaries without any of the unnecessary bloat.

      Instead, what we see here is other factors:
      – Politicians who want to be visionaries by inflating costs (as in Schumer and Cuomo’s involvement in Gateway and the subsequent cost jump, 16 -> 20); it’s similar to what Chuck Marohn is talking about, but not really the same.
      – Horrific agency turf battles. They understand enough about train scheduling to propose a pulse in Philadelphia, but still aren’t proposing integrated schedule planning and timed overtakes with Metro-North and the MBTA?
      – Unwillingness to prioritize. See Ben Ross’s comment above about freight. If I have to connect this to national politics, I think it’s related to the fact that Congress only knows earmarks (i.e. locally-controlled pork) and ideological obstructionism (i.e. opposing spending for the sake of opposing spending). The US has never done cost-benefit analyses for its large infrastructure projects.
      – Fear of NIMBYs. California is afraid to carve new ROW through cheap farmland; I suspect NEC Future is afraid of same on the Hartford-Providence segment. Ironically, the plan for a Hartford-Providence Interstate was nixed by opposition in Rhode Island, where the HSR alignment is largely above-ground, whereas Connecticut, where the current alignment is mostly in tunnel, was ready to go through with it. Some (not a lot) of what I’m proposing to do in Connecticut involves carving new ROW through Darien.

      • Stephen Stofka

        I think you missed my point somewhat: My point is that civil engineers are trained throughout their career, from small wastewater projects on up, to use scope creep. So when the time for hard choices comes, why not take the easy way out and just scope bloat everything until you don’t need to choose anything?

        Civil engineers in the U.S. aren’t held to fiscal accountability standards. That is the problem.

        • michael.r.james

          Stephen Stofka wrote:

          take the easy way out and just scope bloat everything until you don’t need to choose anything? Civil engineers in the U.S. aren’t held to fiscal accountability standards. That is the problem.

          That is an interesting theory. But for it to work, it requires weak and uninformed politicians, which is what the Anglosphere has in abundance. Compare it to France where they train an elite* at those Grand Ecoles who go on to make the public policy decisions. No accident that they have TGVs and perhaps the best nuclear power, and city Metros, and best healthcare etc. (*elite in outcome, but selected by a rigorous meritocracy). Likewise with China where a lot of the upper echelons are trained engineers or trained economists (which can be a mixed bag). Xi Jinping is a chemical engineer by training, but it is not only a political leadership deficit. It and France (and I’m guessing Germany) retain a professional public service/executive branch of government. In the Anglosphere (USA, UK, Australia, Canada, NZ) the public service has been systematically depleted of such expertise and “institutional memory” so as to enforce political ideology rather than good policy.

          So you may be right to put some blame on the out-of-control engineers but that is the outcome when the very top executive (government, politicians) loses its way. Also, all the (Anglosphere) civil engineering companies have been similarly taken over by the financial experts, especially in the two top jobs of CEO and Chairman.

          In fact, my alternate theory (which isn’t incompatible with the above) is that these mega-projects for PT become so bloated and hyper-expensive because it is deliberately designed to poison them. Most of the powers that be (in the Anglosphere) don’t want to build trains or Metros. In Australia, which has prevaricated for 35 years since it was first proposed to build an East-Coast HSR for peanuts (about $2bn in early 1980s), the latest government-commissioned study by AECOM (the ne plus ultra of engineering as financial scams) came in at an absurd $120bn but details showed one third of this was accounted for by 64 km of tunnels to get into and out of the Sydney basin, and more billions for the inner-city terminals (in schemes similar to what Alon describes (underground stations at Penn Stn). In Oz we call this “gold plating”. It looks like it was designed to never get built (but AECOM got about $20m just for the preliminary feasibility report, and remember the rule of governments never commissioning a report without knowing exactly what it is going to say).

          • Stephen Stofka

            I agree this is an Anglosphere problem in general. But remember that Anglosphere politicians also get trained at prestigious schools: how many U.S. Presidents in the last 30 years or so weren’t alumni of either Harvard or Yale? Scope creep is a way of getting funding, it becomes ingrained as the solution, and there is a lack of oversight precisely because our politicians seem more interested in warring with each other than in cooperating enough to provide a functioning civil service.

            Finance is a two-sided sword, too. It’d have to be with more stringent financial controls that engineering gets reformed; right now, financial heads do seem to be encouraging engineers’ worst excesses. There is clearly enough of a buildup of wealth of knowledge in these issues that value consultations would be enormously helpful — but Mlynarik is right w/r/t consultants being out to make as much work for themselves as possible.

            How are project budgets developed outside of the Anglosphere? I take it there’s more than just engineers in play; I take it that there’s somebody who sets budget ceilings and makes engineers stick to them. (Another Strong Towns-esque idea.)

          • Alon Levy

            Can we maybe not call France, Europe’s third least income-mobile country (thanks, UK and Italy!), a meritocracy? Sweden is a meritocracy, at least if you’re ethnically Scandinavian. Canada is a meritocracy. Germany, kind of. France is a meritocracy if you’re from Paris or its western suburbs.

            What France has is an elite that at least to some extent likes actually administering things. The US has this mentality of omnicompetent managers who go from industry to industry and need to know management but not the specific industry they’re in.

            That said, Germany’s managers are specific to their industry even more than France’s, and somehow they still ended up with that ghastly Erfurt detour for Berlin-Munich not-really-HSR-anymore.

          • leviramsey

            Anglosphere politicians also get trained at prestigious schools: how many U.S. Presidents in the last 30 years or so weren’t alumni of either Harvard or Yale?

            But how many of those weren’t law (and not generally the sort of law which Gets Things Done) or political science, or what not?

      • Dan H

        Stephen,

        I have been trying to figure this one out and I have not gotten to experience what it is like being in an office. Of course as Alon explained, there is quite a bit of scope creep that can occur. It seems we are willing to also piss away money just because of agency territorialness by adding more platforms, have extra long dwell times, increasing the concrete without any benefits. The $300 billion cost is ridiculous and should not be happening. $20 billion just for Gateway is ridiculous. We can’t keep going this way with projects that are wasting money for the sake of spending money. I’m not sure why we have the cost creeping up on all these megaprojects.

        • F-Line to Dudley

          I’ll give you one example from the DEIR of why the civil engineering costs are increasing at a political-structural level. . .

          Central CT a smidge west of Hartford is intersected by the Metacomet Ridge, a trap rock outcrop that while not very tall in total elevation has straight vertical cliffs on all sides. The Waterbury-Hartford bypass attempts to take this formation head-on. You can see it zoomed way out on Google Maps by the telltale dark green box of nothingness between Meriden and New Britain framed by wall-to-wall suburban density and interstate highways on all sides. You can see it more dramatically by turning on Terrain view. There’s no 3.5% average grade to be had here. It’s 33% bottom-to-top in a span of 1500 ft. on the Meriden/Southington end, then 0-1% for a half-dozen miles on top, then 40% in a span of as little as 1000 ft. on the Plainville end. Fire up the TBM and light up the dynamite cache!

          That section of the ridge it attempts to scale is also surrounded on 3 sides by no-elevation, nearly tangent existing and active rail lines, and I-691’s very middling grades on the fourth side. All built in the lowlands helpfully carved out by the Pequabuck (north), Quinnipiac (west + SW), and Mattabesset Rivers (east + NE feeding straight into a delta @ the Connecticut River). Where did they bullseye this build? Straight through the heart of the ridge, and dragging the Springfield Line spine (which inexplicably runs up from New Haven on the Air Line instead, but whatever) into another tunnel with junction right in the middle at peak depth.

          It crosses the Canal Line in a tunnel at the I-84/I-691 interchange. It crosses the Highland Line (the former Hartford-Danbury inland route) at the I-84/CT 72 interchange. No attempt is made at making very minor and sensible curve corrections on the relatively straight Springfield Line. Or using the near-tangent I-691 grading with its 800 ft. median that already did the hard work 40 years ago of clearing out the boulder field at the bottom of the cliff. You could more or less grab the Canal Line @ 84/691, ride it up verbatim through Southington, and instead of keeping straight through the 90-degree diamond where it junctions with the Highland Line in downtown Plainville…blunt that L-shape by cutting onto the I-84 median where the ROW crosses @ Exit 32, meet the Highland at the 84/72 interchange, and do either a banked curve at minor speed restriction or ~1200 ft. of noninvasive tunneling under a residential neighborhood to maintain speed while merging onto the Highland. With exception of that tunnel/no-tunnel decision @ 84/72, all at-grade. All on the lowland ROW’s that populated this very area with ancestral permutations of NYC-BOS service.

          Why would a sensible plan leave all of that low-elevation, near-tangent infrastructure on the table and not take the path of least resistance ID’ing discrete curve-straightening opportunities outside that lump-o’-rock? Well…Rep. John Larson’s 1st Congressional District is king of the heap being anchored in Greater Hartford, but 3 out of 4 sides of this rock are in Liz Esty’s sprawling Litchfield County 5th district with Danbury, Waterbury and miles and miles of trees comprising its political capital. The Congressional map tries to compensate by giving the 5th majority of New Britain, the 1st a distended west rural flank along the MA border…and, this exact 4-sided lump of unpopulated rock to the 1st as a land bridge to Bristol in compensation for donating more populous New Britain.

          You aren’t getting this built if 90% of the new construction is in the afterthought 5th District and all of the ROW that touches the State Capitol dome- hosting 1st District is pre-existing, active, grade separated, and straight as an arrow. You need the Hartford seat carrying an equal or greater share of the construction costs or the funding doesn’t get muscled into the region, and Hartford may get left out of HSR altogether. This Bristol vs. New Britain rock wall gerrymander probably isn’t going to change much between now and 2040 because Connecticut’s population is not regaining its recently lost 6th seat anytime soon. Nor is it likely to play seat donor to the South again for the next couple reapportionment cycles because it gave its pound of flesh in the last few and there are several other Northeastern states overdue for a hit.

          So fire up the TBM and light up the dynamite. Gloriously, senselessly. For not one second’s worth of time savings in a tunnel where no commuter rail route will ever roam. Because that’s how pork oinks at a basic structural level in this country.

          • Nathanael

            So the core problem is single-member districts with gerrymandered borders. And proportional representation (which they have in nearly all modern democracies) would fix the problem.

            I believe that.

    • Alon Levy

      They’re overestimating capacity needs but underestimating ridership! Their ridership expectations are pitiful – something like 30 million a year at full build. How many tph do they think that needs that dedicated tracks all the way are needed? Are those people all planning to travel in a three-hour peak period?

      • Adirondacker12800

        Those pesky Metro North passengers are there every morning and afternoon. Or LIRR passengers.

  3. michael.r.james

    Alon wrote:

    Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev.

    In my naivety I wonder if that is not a glass-half-full scenario. The expensive is so over the top that a Maglev looks cheap! I’m serious. I know that there is some kind of reflexive reaction whenever Maglev is mentioned that it is simply unaffordable, but is it true? It seems there is no credible recent costing to answer this question. The Chuo Shinkansen is far too singular to use. Not only is it mostly tunnel but even the maglev technolgy is arguably inferior (it requires more expensive supercooled magnets on-board and because it can only maglev after it has achieved high-speed (150 kmph by memory? it’s why it has that “nose wing” which is designed to give it some aerodynamic lift (wing-in-ground effect, WIG) before it reaches mag takeoff) it means it must retain standard HSR wheels and bogies etc.; seems to be the worst of all worlds and seems mainly to support a native Japanese industry. Remember that the Japanese have been notably poor at exporting their Shinkansen HSR.) With the Siemens technology the trains are very light and thus create a virtuous circle: efficient use of power, easier sharp turns or steep grades, accel/decel, Also one should not apply the cost of standard (HSR or slow trains) for elevated track of $80 million per km (Alon) because the trains are much, much lighter so the spans can be both longer and less weighty, and foundations less expensive. Alas, again we don’t have anything solid to look at because the Shanghai maglev (which is entirely elevated) is built on swamp, and in fact caused them problems, delays and cost increases. Because maglev can handle sharper radius turns at speed than standard HSR it means more of it can be built on standard existing rail, or elevated above it.

    Further, the fact that the maglev track cannot be interoperated is a glass-half-full unless you are a freight operator hoping to get a free lunch. All the arguments I read here about local commuter traffic and conflicts with other parts of the rail network are thrown away, by the engineering! It must have its own ROW.

    Remember too that operational costs are much, much lower than standard HSR, as proven by the Shanghai maglev (to the point that some refuse to believe so little has been spent on maintenance of it). Maglev is exactly the step change we have come to expect of our technology revolutions but somehow it gets suppressed on the dubious basis of cost. (As shown by the transient enthusiasm for Elon Musk’s hyperloop thingy.) Yet, here we have a $290 bn proposal for standard (compromised) HSR.

    • Joseph

      “Maglev can handle sharper radius turns at speed than standard HSR”

      Why? I believe speed thru turns is limited by passenger comfort, not technical factors. Tilting trains help with this in conventional rail. Are you suggesting that Maglev can tilt farther?

      Japan’s plans for Maglev suggest it needs a very straight and level alignment, hence plans for the majority of the guideway to be in tunnels under the mountains and hills of central Japan.

      I do agree that we should be able to get an upgraded NE Corridor AND Maglev for $290 billion, though I suspect the addition of Maglev would not be cost-effective.

      • Alon Levy

        Maglev can tilt more, yes. I think Transrapid quotes 16 degrees of superelevation or tilt. The minimum curve radii it quotes give lateral acceleration in the horizontal plane of about 4.3 m/s^2 (Shinkansen upper limit: 2.5). The Shanghai implementation looks like 3.6, and when I was on it, I remember the train was very tilted, but there wasn’t too much centrifugal force.

        At any rate, the higher lateral acceleration does not quite cancel out the higher curve radii required by higher speed. The Chuo Shinkansen is planned to be 500 km/h; if JR-Maglev can do the same tilt as Transrapid, that’s 4.5 km radius, whereas conventional Shinkansen radius is 4 km, allowing 360 km/h.

        • michael.r.james

          I can’t remember any tilting on the Shanghai Maglev, which is not to say it doesn’t happen. Isn’t the point of tilt that you shouldn’t be able to detect it? You are more likely to notice if the train is taking a curve without tilt.

          Anyway the main point about maglev is that it can take very tight curves without any effect on the train’s stability. Joseph is correct that it is the effect on pax that determines the design of track curves, but the thing with maglev is that it can cope with highly cambered track and it can be matched to speed for minimum effect on the passengers. Much tighter limits with standard wheeled trains. Again, since only maglev can use the track the designers don’t need to choose some compromise for different kind of trains at different speeds. (It is this why HSR track is generally not shared with freight trains.)
          I can’t remember if there is any camber on the few curves of the Shanghai track (which probably didn’t need it as it is all elevated), nor if there is any on the Japanese system.

          • Alon Levy

            It was noticeable because suddenly the horizon moved up or down. Same way how, when you’re on a plane in the daytime with a clear view of what’s below you (land, ocean, clouds, etc.), you can detect when the plane rolls and yaws.

            All HSR curves are highly canted – no reason not to cant them when there are no slower trains using the line. The limiting factor to curve radius at high speed is the lateral acceleration on the train and on the passengers, rather than the twist in the track. See PDF-pp. 27-41 of Lindahl’s thesis. The Tohoku Shinkansen was planned to be canted up to 200 mm to allow 360 km/h operations, but after it was decided to limit speed to 320 km/h for other reasons, the cant was not raised.

        • michael.r.james

          Alon, thanks for that info & link on cant/camber.

          That tends to reinforce my notion about maglev, in that in contrast to conventional wheeled HSR (or any train), a maglev train (Transrapid type anyway) will be stable at any cant angle at any speed including stationary. Even if the pax may be spilling their coffees or cocktails and sliding out of their seats, the important thing is the train is stable. I suspect a conservative approach to standard steel track and standard wheels, different speeds, load bearing and wind conditions, limits its use (for tighter bends) and thus adds to costs. They are blaming the Strasbourg TGV accident (10 deaths) on the train speeding–and either the track gives way or the train tips over.

          I keep banging this drum because it would be interesting to see a true cost comparison when optimising routes (when cost of land acquisition for new ROWs for HSR is a big part of the cost, and often a big part of any resistance/NIMBYism & political cowardice). Here’s an extract from the Lindahl report (1.1):

          Altogether, this would cause a very rigid and non-flexible alignment, both horizontally and vertically. There would be a substantial need for bridges, high embankments and tunnels, depending on the topography of the landscape. The cost may increase so much that the project would be unprofitable from the social-economics point of view. Due to the rigid alignment the project would also run the risk to cause excessively large infringements in nature and culture environments. The project could therefore be politically questioned.

          • Alon Levy

            The limiting factor to tilt angle is already passenger safety and comfort rather than train stability. At recent fatal accidents in the US and Spain involving trains overspeeding on curves, the acceleration in the plane of the track was on the order of 4 or 5 m/s^2. The Pendolino’s absolute maximum is about 2. This figure decreases at higher speed – Lindahl’s thesis gives a practical maximum of 250 mm of cant deficiency, corresponding to 1.67 m/s^2, at 360 km/h – but at most speed ranges, the limit is not train safety, but passenger safety. Comfort is another limit: the original Pendolini could tilt 13 degrees, completely canceling out the centrifugal force due to cant deficiency, but this made passengers felt dizzy, so the tilt angle was reduced to 8 degrees.

            The problem with trying to turn maglev into a cheaper version of HSR is that in the urban areas, where construction and land acquisition costs are the highest, HSR can leverage legacy track (as the TGV does) and maglev can’t. Hyperloop, for example, is supposed to go from Sylmar to Oakland, and then the station access and egress times would cancel out any travel time benefit over conventional HSR. Dragging any faster-than-HSR system into LA and SF requires carving new ROW in expensive urban areas, whereas California HSR can piggyback on the Caltrain and Metrolink ROWs, with just electrification and strategic overtake segments.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon wrote:

            The problem with trying to turn maglev into a cheaper version of HSR is that in the urban areas, where construction and land acquisition costs are the highest, HSR can leverage legacy track (as the TGV does) and maglev can’t.

            Surely that is highly conditional, hence the arguments about what to do in urban areas such as the Bay Area. In fact it is mostly in urban areas that I am thinking about since the issues aren’t the same issue in non-urban areas. Some cities like London, Paris, presumably NYC, Chicago have excellent rail legacy (right into downtown). But a lot of others don’t and the idea of taking an existing ROW and giving it exclusively to HSR runs into problems. (The TGVs into & out of Paris ares so frequent I can hardly imagine they are sharing track with regular trains?) So the lazy solution is massive tunnels.

            The first European HSR, the TGV Paris-Lyon doesn’t use any tunnels (other than a few cuttings) but in Sydney they (AECOM) claim they need to build 64 km of extremely expensive tunnel (and $3bn of works at the Sydney downtown Central station) that adds 50% to the cost (>30% of the total cost). I still remain unconvinced that with maglev one could not elevate above existing train tracks to keep costs way down while maintaining reasonable speed (if not top speed) that you couldn’t achieve with standard HSR. The tunnel solution (which gets more expensive everytime anyone revisits it) is exactly the engineering bloat and political cowardice described in other comments here.

            I have never fully understood the issue of cant, or tilt-trains. Of course I understand the principle but the effect on humans … It is designed to overcome the centrifugal effect on passengers (while making the train more stable on turns) so if pax “feel something” it means either the cant is wrong (not enough) or the speed is wrong (or the two are not matched). I remember the infamous test run (early 80s) of the British Tilt-train with Thatcher and press mob aboard and the tilt apparently didn’t work properly and it was claimed some journos felt motion-sickness to the point some threw up. I don’t know if that was apocryphal for a story, but certainly soon after Maggie cancelled the program (which probably had nothing to do with performance as she was not a train person). Incidentally I guess HSR is engineered to standards way above what passengers tolerate on Metro systems which throw you around quite a bit, and do sharp turns (with steel wheels screeching) etc. Personally I think some compromise on the last 30-40 km coming into a city is a price most would be willing to pay (and most people are usually preparing to leave the train or getting settled). Indeed on planes they force you to be seated and buckled up etc.

            I haven’t been on the Linimo but note what Wiki says:

            At 100 km/h (62 mph), it is sufficiently fast for frequent stops, has little or no noise impact on surrounding communities, can navigate short radius rights of way, and operates during inclement weather.

            Martin Lindahl’s study is for standard HSR. Do you have any links to some similar technical doc on maglev?

          • Alon Levy

            The only references I have for maglev are the Transrapid website, which promises certain curve radii that correspond to lateral acceleration in the horizontal plane of 4.3 m/s^2.

            Passengers can still feel that something is happening on a tilting train, because they look out the window and see the horizon go up or down.

            Most first-world cities have some legacy rail ROWs heading into the center. In some US cities there are complications due to freight rail ownership, but it’s not an issue in Sydney, where the urban tracks are dominated by passenger rail. Most likely AECOM is just being lazy about scheduling. The TGV Sud-Est shared tracks with commuter trains heading into Paris when it was inaugurated, but it wasn’t the RER, but legacy Transilien lines. This is massively cheaper than elevated tracks over existing train lines, especially if the preexisting train lines are already elevated. The elevated-over-elevated Tokyo-Ueno Line cost $160 million per km; that cost is only justified since it’s a short segment, and before the new line opened the preexisting narrow-gauge tracks were Japan’s most overcrowded passenger rail chokepoint.

          • michael.r.james

            Response to Alon Levy (2015/11/19 – 20:18)

            Most first-world cities have some legacy rail ROWs heading into the center. In some US cities there are complications due to freight rail ownership, but it’s not an issue in Sydney, where the urban tracks are dominated by passenger rail. Most likely AECOM is just being lazy about scheduling.

            Yes. Sydney had an extensive Metro system planned in the 20s/30s by Bradfield (who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge), one of those engineers with vision, but most of it was never built because Australia went the way of the car. I think Sydney Harbour Bridge still holds the record for widest car+rail bridge (though they tore up the tram tracks half a century ago and gave the lanes to cars). I don’t know the details but I know in other places the government even sold the ROW thus making it extremely difficult to extend the commuter rail network. The existing interstate railway almost certainly shares with commuter rail because it probably only deals with a few trains a day but Sydney-Melbourne is the world’s 4th busiest city-pair air route (7m per year). At 700km it is just a bit too longer than ideal for standard HSR, but Maglev …

            The Lyon-Paris TGV line eventually had its own ROW which cut the trip to 2h. It became popular very quickly and so more trains and longer trains were needed to meet the demand. Anywhere that could use a HSR would be wise not to mix it with city commuter trains. If it could be mixed, then that suggests there wouldn’t be much demand for the HSR.

    • Alon Levy

      Lighter trains aren’t even a second-order factor when it comes to cost; the structures themselves are so much heavier than the train on top of them that economizing on train doesn’t change the required structure tooooo much. Even when the structure does get thinner, e.g. in monorail, the elevated costs seem to be within the same range as conventional elevated rail.

      Re the itemized cost figures, in Japan the Shin-Aomori Shinkansen extension cost $55 million per km despite being 50% in tunnel (including the longest land rail tunnel outside Switzerland). Japan just has good cost control outside built-up areas, which seems to boil down at least in part to “engineer better-sealed trains so that you can economize on tunnel diameter without popping passengers’ ears.” Japan puts two tracks in HSR tunnels that aren’t much wider than single-track European HSR tunnels.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        For the structural costs you have some complete head-scratchers here. For example, the bypass of the Gunpowder and Bush River bridges via the parallel CSX line. Not much savings in speed/curvature on that route, and because that’s CSX’s mission-critical National Gateway intermodal line you’d have to build +1 (+ maybe a passing siding) unpowered freight track to the side for traffic separation. But that one actually would simplify the steel-and-concrete costs enormously by deleting 2 bridges that would cost a fortune to replace, cost a greater fortune to replace with 4-track spans, and chew up greater maint costs life-of-span. Potentially very beneficial move if it were a replacement routing, not augmentation.

        What do they do? They keep the short-term plan of replacing both spans with all-news–with potentially wider spans–in place and tack on the later bypass-for-bypass’s sake. And make no attempt at estimating width of the CSX line for the bypass, indicating some default assumption of just eminent domaining it at its existing 2-track width without any thought of where the crush-load freight traffic would go. Except for possibly shoving them and MARC commuter rail onto the NEC’s bridges and sticking MDOT and CSX with the higher infrastructure costs while Amtrak hogs the cheaper route. Turf warrage for turf warrage’s sake.

        If they wanted to do that one right they attach a SHORT-TERM timetable for the bypass that outright abandons the 2 old bridges rather than replace them, and plan for an adequate-width ROW on the CSX bypass accommodating Amtrak, MARC, and separated freight traffic. 4-6 tracks or whatever their slovenly appetite mandates, but the width is probably there to accommodate everyone in traffic separation on the bridge-free route. With 2 of MARC’s stations just flipping a few blocks to the other side of downtown and only Martin Airport losing access.

        They don’t do that; they consign it to senseless duplication of more expensive than average infrastructure. This plan is completely unwilling to make even the faintest attempt at exploiting one of the few touches that could lead to improved construction and total-cost-of-ownership efficiencies.

        • Adirondacker12800

          We’d need a passing siding from Philadelphia to Richmond. The 200 MPH trains catch up with the 50 MPH trains unless you are planning on only running two or maybe three 200 MPH trains a day.

        • Nathanael

          F-Line: the US actually does things right by that definition pretty often, such as the Alameda Corridor in LA or the various Rail Relocation projects in various other cities or the CREATE schemes in Chicago.

          It’s mindboggling that this “NEC Future” specifically makes sure to do everything wrong. It’s not the US as a whole. It’s not even Amtrak. It’s not even New York, because I’ve seen perfectly reasonable projects in upstate NY.

          It’s something regional to the NEC.

          • Alon Levy

            The alignment decisions California HSR is making are questionable, to say the least. Even microdecisions like the Millbrae tunnel are horrifically wrong.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They gave up on the tunnel under the cheap-to-rebuild-station didn’t they?

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: The details of the full buildout scenario, post blended plan and post shared platform height, are yet unknown. I sincerely hope that they drop the tunnel but there’s no clear indication either way yet.

          • Nathanael

            Pffft, Alon. First of all, those decisions in California haven’t actually been *made*. The Fresno-Bakerfield section is a marvel of sane decisions. While planning in LA just gets better and better; when early draft designs are dumb, the boards vote for better designs. You can argue about Tejon vs. Tehachapi but I think that’s defensible on political grounds including “Hi, Nevada!”

            Bay Area planning is a mess, and frankly I’d agree that the Bay Area, and especially San Francisco, has problems similar to the NEC. The Central Subway is a mindboggling example of terrible decisions leading to vast expense for little result, as is the *absence* of a Geary Subway. As is every technological decision made at BART (Indian broad gauge and flat wheels!). As is the decision to try to make BART both suburban rail and urban subway. As is… well, you get the picture.

            Other cities do make some of these mistakes, intermittently. And things do cost more in the entire Anglosphere, which may be due to the legal situation. But I don’t come up with the same level of sheer nonsense or craziness outside the vicinities of New York City, Washington DC (which can’t even build a streetcar competently), and San Francisco.

          • Alon Levy

            Did you see how Boston’s doing lately? The Green Line Extension costs like a subway. It’s not intermittent; it happens all the time. Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, too – it costs the same per km as the GLX and the Silver Line.

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: It’s still not immediately clear. They have yet to determine whether 4 tracks at Millbrae are needed (some additional passing sections are needed under any scenario), and if so, where the additional width will come from.

      • michael.r.james

        Alon, really all that sounds like confirmation of my comment: no one knows.

        No difference between carrying full freight trains versus very light Maglev pax trains? Nonsense. That will only be the case because the engineers & politicians are taking some kind of precautionary principle too far, or just too lazy so are using their existing engineering tools for “standard” loads. Look at modern bridge structures as they have got lighter and lighter, principally cable-stayed designs.
        Reminds me of our Riverwalk which cost very little to build originally but when the 2011 floods damaged a small section of few hundred metres of floating walkway, its replacement suddenly bloated to $100 million. They have convinced themselves the thing must be able to take maintenance and police vehicles (even though the police on it are on bicycles) and before you know it, it is built to take 20 tonne trucks etc and engineered to road bridge standards.

        I am not an engineer but I remain unconvinced by these non-arguments and lack of solid data. Maglev is also different to standard HSR in that it doesn’t create the dynamic pressures on its supporting structure (which is why HSR track and structure costs so much in maintenance; maglev = essentially zero, that much we do know). Sigh. The sheer inertial resistance when trying to implement something different or new. Unfortunately I think the Japanese Maglev project won’t help as already the media focus almost entirely on the high cost and have little patience for knowing why.

        Do those Japanese tunnels with small clearance actually allow HSR to operate at full speed? I thought aerodynamics was against it. Are their tunnels twin-track or separate single-track? (I can’t find any info.)

        • Alon Levy

          The tunnels are twin track, and allow HSR to operate at full speed. This requires trains with very aerodynamic noses to allow trains going in opposite directions meet in the tunnels, and pressurized trains to prevent passengers’ ears from popping from the pressure change inside the tunnel. TGVs are pressurized as well, for the same reason, but Shinkansen trains are better-sealed than TGVs. The tradeoff is that the trains cost more, and, for a country other than Japan, there’s less competition since non-Japanese builders would have to modify their trains’ noses significantly. But usually the civil infrastructure is far costlier than the trains, so it’s generally a good tradeoff if you know what you’re doing.

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