Category: Good Transit

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.

The Utica Subway

Last week, Bill de Blasio released a plan for New York’s future called OneNYC, whose section on subway expansion called for a subway under Utica Avenue in Brooklyn (PDF-pp. 45-46). The call was just a sentence, without mention of routing or cost or ridership projections, and no plan for funding. However, it remains a positive development; last year, I put the line at the top of a list of underrated subways in North America. Presumably the route would be a branch off the Eastern Parkway Line, carrying the 4, while the 3 continues to go to the current New Lots terminus.

The cost is up in the air, which means that people forming opinions about the idea don’t have the most important and variable number with which to make decisions. In this post, I am going to work out the range of cost figures that would make this a worthwhile project. This has two components: coming up with a quick-and-dirty ridership estimate, and arguing for a maximum acceptable cost per rider.

Before doing anything else, let us look at how much such a subway extension should cost, independently of ridership. Between Eastern Parkway and Kings Plaza, Utica is 6.8 km. The non-English-speaking first-world range is about $300 million to $3 billion, but around $1.4 billion, or $200 million/km, is average. Utica is a wide, relatively straight street, without difficult development alongside it. In fact, I’ve been convinced in comments that the line could be elevated nearly the entire way, south of Empire Boulevard, which would reduce costs even further. Normal cost should then be around $100 million per km (or $700 million), and even in New York, the JFK AirTrain came in at a $200 million/km. I doubt that an elevated solution could politically happen, but one should be investigated; nonetheless, a $1.4 billion subway would be of great benefit.

Now, let us look at ridership. Recall that Utica’s bus route, the B46, was New York’s third busiest in 2014, with 46,000 weekday riders. But two routes, Nostrand’s B44 and Flatbush’s B41, run parallel and provide similar service, and have 67,000 riders between them. Those numbers are all trending down, as residents gradually abandon slow bus service. A subway can realistically halt this decline and generate much more ridership, via higher speed: B46 limited buses average 13 km/h south of Eastern Parkway, but a new subway line could average around 35 km/h. Second Avenue Subway’s ridership projection is 500,000 per weekday, even though all north-south bus lines on Manhattan’s East Side combined, even ones on Fifth and Madison Avenues, total 156,000 daily riders.

Vancouver is considering replacing its busiest bus, the 99-B, with a subway. The 99-B itself has 54,000 weekday riders, the local buses on Broadway (the 9 and 14) have 43,000, and the 4th Avenue relief buses (the 4, 44, and 84) add another 27,000. Those are much faster buses than in New York: the 99-B averages 20 km/h, while the 44 and 84, running on less crowded 4th Avenue, average nearly 30 km/h west of Burrard. SkyTrain is faster than the New York subway since it makes fewer stops, so the overall effect would be similar, a doubling of travel speed, to about 40 km/h. The ridership projection is 250,000 per weekday in 2021, at opening, before rezoning (see PDF-p. 75 here). This represents a doubling of ridership over current bus ridership, even when the buses provide service SkyTrain won’t, including a one-seat ride from the Westside to Downtown and service along 4th Avenue.

In New York, as in Vancouver, the subway would provide service twice as fast as current buses. The distance between Nostrand and Utica Avenues is much greater than that between 4th Avenue and Broadway in Vancouver, so the analogy isn’t perfect (this is why I also support continuing Nostrand down to Sheepshead Bay). Conversely, the speed advantage of subways over buses is greater than in Vancouver. Moreover, Nostrand already has a subway, so actual demand in southeastern Brooklyn is more than what the B41, B44, and B46 represent. A doubling of ridership over bus ridership, to about 220,000, is reasonable.

For a quick sanity check, let us look at Nostrand Avenue Line ridership again. South of Franklin Avenue, the stations have a combined weekday ridership of 64,000 per weekday, as of 2014. But this is really closer to 128,000 daily riders, counting both boardings and alightings; presumably, few people ride internally to the Nostrand corridor. The Nostrand Avenue Line is 4.3 km long; scaled to length, we get 200,000 weekday riders on Utica.

Put together, a normal-cost Utica Line, with 200,000 weekday riders, would cost $7,000 per rider. This is quite low even by non-US standards, and is very low by US standards (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is about $23,000 according to projections, and is lower than most US rail lines).

As far as I’ve seen, from glancing at lines in large cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo, the normal cost range for subways is $10,000-20,000 per rider. Paris is quite cheap, since its ridership per kilometer is so high while its cost per kilometer is not very high, keeping Metro extensions in the four figures (but Grand Paris Express, built in more suburban geography, is projected at $34 billion for 2 million daily passengers). Elsewhere in Europe, lines north of $20,000 are not outliers. If we set $25,000/rider as a reasonable limit – a limit which would eliminate all US rail lines other than Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, Houston’s light rail extensions, and Los Angeles’s Regional Connector – then Utica is worth $5 billion. A more generous limit, perhaps $40,000 per rider to allow for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, would boost Utica to $8 billion, more than $1 billion per km. Even in the US, subways are rarely that expensive: the Bay Area’s lines are only about $500 million per km.

The importance of the above calculation is that it is quite possible that Utica will turn out to have a lower projected cost per rider than the next phase of Second Avenue Subway, a project for which there is nearly universal consensus in New York. The original cost projection for Second Avenue Subway’s second phase was $3.3 billion, but will have run over since (the projection for the first phase was $3.7 billion, but actual cost is nearly $5 billion); the ridership projection is 100,000 for each phase beyond the first, which is projected at 200,000. In such a situation, the line would be a great success for New York, purely on the strength of existing demand. I put Utica at the top of my list of underrated transit projects for a reason: the line’s worth is several times its cost assuming world-average per-km cost, and remains higher than the cost even at elevated American prices. The de Blasio administration is doing well to propose such a line, and it is nearly certain that costs will be such that good transit activists should support it.

What is the MTA Reinventing, Anyway?

In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.

Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.

Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.

One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.

The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.

The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.

The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.

I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.

Airport Connectors

The most interesting transit planner in the world:


This principle is true primarily for large international airports. As I will explain, this is less true of smaller airports. But before going on, I would like to clarify a distinction between bad and overrated. Airport connectors, as I have argued many times, are overrated: city elites tend to like them disproportionately to their transit usage, as do many urban boosters, who think a comfortable airport connector is a necessary feature of a great global city. The result of this thinking (and also the main evidence we have that this thinking exists) is that airport connectors are built at much higher costs per rider than other transit projects: the JFK and Newark AirTrains cost more than $100,000 per weekday rider, much more than other recent rail projects in New York; even the far over-budget East Side Access, at current estimates, is about $60,000.

However, overrated does not mean bad. There exist airport connector projects with reasonable cost per rider. They’re still overrated, which means they’ll be built concurrently with even more cost-effective non-airport projects, but they’re good enough by themselves. As an example, take the Canada Line. The total cost was about $2 billion, and the latest ridership figure I have, from 2011, is 136,000 per weekday, ahead of projections. At $15,000 per rider, this is reasonable by European standards and very good by North American ones. Let us now look at the two branches of the line, to Richmond and the airport. Lacking separate cost data for them, I am going to estimate them at about $300 million each, as they are entirely above-ground; the airport branch is 4 km and the Richmond branch is 3 km, but the Richmond branch has an urban el and the airport branch doesn’t. For ridership data, we have this set of figures per station (which results in a Canada Line total of only 113,000). Boardings and alightings sum to 19,000 on the airport branch and 34,000 on the Richmond branch; we’re double counting intra-branch trips, but there presumably are very few of these. As we see, the Richmond branch is more cost-effective, but the airport branch holds its own – since the per-station data has a lower overall Canada Line ridership, the airport branch’s presumed cost per extra rider generated is less than that of the entire line! (This sometimes happens, even with branches that generate less ridership than the trunk.) Clearly, despite the fact that airport connectors are overrated, this is an example of a good project.

The importance of the overrated vs. bad distinction is then that good transit advocates need to be wary, since airport connectors that don’t work well might get funded anyway, ahead of more deserving projects. But there remain good airport connectors, and therefore we should discuss what features they might have. The answer given by city elites is typically “nonstop connection to the CBD,” often with a premium fare. But the good transit answer is more complicated, and the graphic at the top of the post is only a partial answer.

There is a difference between short- and long-distance air travel. In many cities it doesn’t matter much because there’s a single dominant airport – Beijing, Frankfurt, Zurich, Atlanta, Toronto – but in others there are multiple airports, with different roles. Often there will be a smaller, closer-in, older airport, serving mostly domestic flights, and a larger, farther away, newer international airport. Paris has Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle, Chicago has Midway and O’Hare, New York has LaGuardia and JFK (Newark is intermediate in its role, even if it’s the oldest), Los Angeles has Burbank and LAX (the other airports are somewhat outside this division), Dallas has Love Field and DFW, Tokyo has Haneda and Narita, Seoul has Gimpo and Incheon. Because those airports have different functions, they require different kinds of transportation links.

First, let us consider departing passengers. If they travel to another continent, their options are quite restricted: for example, if they live within driving distance of Atlanta, they’re flying out of Atlanta. Even if there are closer secondary airports (such as Greenville-Spartanburg and Chattanooga), they don’t offer such service – at most, they offer a connecting puddle jumper flight to the primary airport. In contrast, if they travel shorter distances, and live far from the primary airport, they could fly out of a secondary airport, or might just drive instead of flying: a 2-hour drive to the airport is comparatively more tolerable for an 8-hour intercontinental flight than for a 1.5-hour short-hop flight. For example, when I lived in Providence, my air trips were all to the West Coast or Europe, so I flew out of Boston or even New York; but when my sister visited, she chained trips and also visited her boyfriend, who at the time lived in North Carolina, and for the domestic leg of the trip she flew out of T. F. Green.

The result is that primary international airports draw their departing passengers from a much wider shed than mainly domestic airports. In metro areas with such separation of airports, the international airports – Charles de Gaulle, JFK, DFW, Incheon, etc. – draw riders from faraway suburbs and even from adjacent small metro areas, whereas the domestic airports draw riders primarily from the city and its nearby suburbs.

Now, let us consider arriving passengers. Destinations are more centralized than origins, but this is especially true for international trips than for domestic ones. Tourism trips are heavily centralized around a few attractions, which in most cities are in the CBD, or in specific locations: if you’re flying to the Paris region for tourism, your destination is either Paris proper or Eurodisney, rather than an average suburb. Business trips are also heavily centralized around the CBD and a few edge cities. Personal visits have no such concentration, and these are much more common for short-distance domestic flights than for long-distance international flights. I am unusual in that I live on a different continent from my parents; usually, people live within ground transportation or short-distance flying distance from family and friends, depending on the country they live in (short-distance flying distance is more common in the US). The result here is that arriving passengers at domestic airports are typically interested in visiting the CBD but often also the rest of the metro area, whereas arriving passengers at international airports are much more CBD- or tourist attraction-centric.

Some evidence for this difference can be found in looking at the Consumer Airfare Report, which has domestic O&D traffic counts between airport pairs. The primary international airport usually has a smaller percentage of its domestic O&D traffic going to shorter-distance cities. For example, at LAX, 13% of traffic is within California, and another 6% is to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, within a 3-hour high-speed rail range. At Burbank, the corresponding figures are 42% and 21% respectively. The same pattern can be observed for O’Hare (8.6% of traffic is internal to the Midwest) and Midway (14.6%), and DFW (3% of traffic is internal to the Texas Triangle) and Love Field (27%).

The mode of transportation that best suits the needs of international airports is then mainline rail. On the one hand, it tends to be better than urban transit at serving trips that are dedicated to CBD service, since commuter rail is more radial than urban transit, and the stop spacing is typically also longer (although dedicated premium connectors are still often wastes of money). On the other hand, it can extend deep into the suburbs and to adjacent metro areas, and expand the airport’s draw. People can ride intercity (often high-speed) trains direct to the terminal at Frankfurt, Zurich, and Charles-de-Gaulle, and this allows those airports to be the primary international airports for metro areas in a wide radius: SNCF code-shares with airlines to connect people from Charles-de-Gaulle to Lyon, 400 km and 2 hours away by TGV.

This is not true of small domestic airports. A TGV connection to Orly would’ve been much less beneficial than the current connection to Charles-de-Gaulle: most of Orly’s traffic is short-distance, often competing with the TGV rather than complementing it.

With this distinction in mind, we should look at the situation at the major American airports. In California, the current plan is to have California High-Speed Rail serve both SFO (at Millbrae) and Burbank Airport; the original plan served Downtown Burbank instead of the airport, but the HSR Authority seems to have shifted its focus, and wants Burbank to be the southern terminus of the line, pending construction to LA Union Station. This is bad planning. Nearly two-thirds of Burbank’s traffic competes either with California HSR or with future tie-ins. People from Bakersfield and Fresno are unlikely to take a train to the airport to connect to a flight, since they can take a train the whole way, or drive directly to Las Vegas or Phoenix. People in Bakersfield and Fresno would be more interested in a connection to LAX, whose traffic complements rather than competes with intercity rail.

Los Angeles could build a connection to LAX, running both frequent electric commuter trains and high-speed trains on it. The Harbor Subdivision has existing tracks from Union Station almost the entire way to the airport, although the route is at-grade, with a large portion of it running next to Slauson Avenue, and most likely a major project like this would require viaducts. Only a short greenfield segment, elevated over Century, is required to reach the proposed Terminal 0 location, and that is only necessary if, as in Zurich and Frankfurt, LAX wishes to avoid a landside people mover. It is both bad transit and bad politics to build this only for nonstop trains: the route passes through reasonably dense urban neighborhoods, and should have 10-12 stops along the way, with some trains running local and others making only 1-3 stops, at major nodes such as Inglewood or the intersection with the Blue Line. There is room for passing sidings at the line’s midpoint, but the low top speed and the short length of the line is such that overtakes are only necessary if there are nonstop and local trains every 10 minutes. Such an airport connector would serve many different trips at once: HSR trips from Central Valley cities to LAX, arriving trips from LAX to Downtown LA (and, via transfers at intermediate stops, to the Westside), and local trips on the Slauson corridor. It’s a flexibility that modernized regional rail has, and that other modes of transportation, which can’t mix local and intercity traffic as well, lack.

Leaving California, let us look at New York. There are perennial proposals for a new connection to LaGuardia (via an extension of the N) and an additional connection to JFK (usually using the Rockaway Cutoff). There is also a new proposal for a Newark connection via PATH. With the distinction between short-distance domestic and long-distance international airports (Newark is intermediate between the two), we can analyze these proposals. Newark is the easiest to dispose of: the cost is extreme, $1.5 billion for 4 km above ground. It also has several design flaws: unlike the LAX connector I outlined above, this proposal is nonstop from Newark Penn, skipping the former South Street railroad station; the lack of intercity service improvement and the poor service to the Midtown hotel clusters doom it as a CBD connector.

The JFK proposals are problematic as well. The AirTrain connection to Jamaica is quite useful, since it lets people from all over Long Island connect to the airport. Improving JFK access hinges on improving service to Jamaica, then: through-service from New Jersey, higher off-peak LIRR frequencies, reelectrification with catenary to permit Amtrak send Northeast Corridor trains that aren’t needed for Boston service to Jamaica. East Side Access improves JFK access as well, since it allows LIRR trains to serve Grand Central, which is closer to the Midtown hotel clusters than Penn Station. Ideally there wouldn’t be an AirTrain connection, but it’s the best that can be done given existing infrastructure and given Jamaica’s importance. A Rockaway Cutoff connection, which branches from the LIRR Main Line west of Jamaica, would not help Long Islanders go to JFK; it would also not be able to carry intercity trains, since Amtrak trains to Jamaica can serve both airport riders and Long Island riders, each of which groups alone is too small to justify intercity trains on its own.

In contrast, LaGuardia proposals are better, since for a close-in, domestic airport, service to the entire city is more important. I remain somewhat skeptical – airport connectors are still overrated – but less dismissive than of Newark and JFK proposals. LaGuardia travelers from the Upper East Side, which as far as I remember supplies a majority of its departing traffic, would have to transfer at 59th Street; but they have to detour through 59th or 125th via taxi already, and the subway would not get stuck in Manhattan traffic. Conversely, there is much less need to connect the airport with the suburbs and with neighboring metro areas than there is with JFK, which means that there is no point in constructing people movers to the LIRR.

Finally, let us look at Chicago. O’Hare has the airport connection of a domestic airport rather than that of an international airport. There are plans for an express link to the Loop, but these do nothing for departing passengers from neighboring areas. While airport connectors tend to be overrated, express premium-fare links are especially overrated, since they give business travelers dedicated trains, on which they always find seats, without needing to commingle with lower-income riders.

However, some of the Midwestern high-speed rail proposals include a connection to O’Hare from the outlying metro areas, and this is good planning, assuming the cost is not excessive. SNCF’s proposal includes a bypass of Chicago that serves O’Hare, similar to the Interconnexion Est. A second step, if such a connection is built, is to attempt to connect regional lines to it, if they are electrified. This includes both inward connections, i.e. a frequent commuter rail connection to the Loop or West Loop with good connections (ideally, through-service) to other commuter lines, and outward connections, i.e. low-speed short-distance intercity lines, such as to Rockford.

In all of these cases, the common thread is that the connection to the airport does not need to be a premium service, marketed only to the business traveler. These services are never the majority of airport transit ridership: see Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London numbers on PDF-p. 28 here. However, it does need to provide service to both departing and arriving passengers, and for a major international airport, this requires good service to the suburbs and to adjoining metro areas. The optimal technologies are often bundled together with premium fares – high-speed rail is in many countries, mainline rail is in North America – but the benefits come from features of the technology and service pattern, rather than of the branding. Good transit projects connecting to airports will make sure to have the correct service reach, while at the same time not excluding local riders.

Underrated Transit Projects

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

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

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

Utica Avenue Subway

Location: New York

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

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

What is being done right now: nothing.

Geary Subway

Location: San Francisco

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

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

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

Downtown Relief Line

Location: Toronto

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

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

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

125th Street Subway

Location: New York

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

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

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

Silver Line Light Rail

Location: Boston

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

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

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

Triboro RX

Location: New York

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

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

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

Boston Circumferential Line

Location: Boston

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

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

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

Nostrand Avenue Subway

Location: New York

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

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

What is being done right now: nothing.

The Metro-North Accident and Train Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Note: Vancouver’s Transit Revival

I’ve been looking for Canadian mode share numbers that are more recent than 2006; although there was a census in 2011, it apparently did not include such numbers. However, a separate survey regarding commuting was published a year ago, using data from 2010. Mode shares are only included in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and those are listed separately for the city and the suburbs rather than for the whole metro area, but we can take a weighted average of population; it’s not perfect because the employment rate in the suburbs may be different from in the city, but it’s very close.

The result: Toronto’s transit mode share in 2010 was 22%, Montreal’s was 24%, and Vancouver’s was 21%. The Toronto number is the same as the numbers in 1996, 2001, and 2006. The Montreal number is a bit higher than past-decade numbers. And the Vancouver number compares with 14.3% in 1996 and 16.5% in 2006 (it was 11.5% in 2001, but there was a bus strike when the census was conducted).

Put another way, Vancouver gained 4.5 percentage points of transit mode share between 2006 and 2010. Judging by the opening of the Canada Line and its relatively high ridership, this is indeed plausible and doesn’t have to be a statistical artifact, though I’ll still want to see numbers a few years from now to confirm the new trend. If the trend holds, it’s over 11 percentage points per decade, enough to make Vancouver the metro area with the largest transit mode share by about 2019. It’s a similar rate of increase to what I included in my April Fool’s post for the US at large, intended to be at or beyond the outer limit of what is plausible if everything is done perfectly. Previously, I’d thought 3-5 points per decade were the best possible in Canada and Australia.

This means Translink has made major success with revival, as opposed to merely retaining old mode share by getting people who previously couldn’t afford a car to stick with transit even as they enter the middle class. If instead it is just an artifact of the Canada Line’s opening, then it suggests Vancouver will continue to do well in the next ten years, as the Evergreen Line and hopefully the UBC extension open. The Millennium Line opened in 2002 and so figures into the 1996-2006 increase, but its ridership is 80,000 a day, versus 110,000 on the Canada Line and an estimated 146,000 on the UBC extension and 70,000 on the Evergreen Line.

Low- and Medium-Hanging Fruit

The entire process I try to apply to cost-effective rail construction is to figure out the best places to spend money per unit of time saved. Obviously, this is mainly for intercity traffic – for local traffic it’s more interesting to look at cost per rider – but it’s intercity traffic that benefits most from this kind of optimization anyway.

With the Northeast Corridor, there are definitively low-hanging fruit, such as new (non-FRA-compliant) rolling stock, raising superelevation, improving platform access within present infrastructure, and adding constant tension catenary south of New York. Those are so useful, in terms of cost per benefit to travelers, that they should all be pursued immediately. The more interesting question is what to do afterward. I’ve proposed a few things before, in various posts, but it’s more useful to talk about the general process of determining where to build, i.e. which fruit are medium-hanging and which are high-hanging. I think traditionally this boils down to two parameters:

1. Cost per minute saved, including by improving reliability. This is of course adjusted for demand: New York-Philadelphia minutes are the most important, then Philadelphia-Washington, then New York-Boston, and finally other corridors.

2. Reduction in operating cost. If the rest of the network is based on hourly trains, and you need to squeeze five additional minutes to reduce your travel time including turnaround to an integer number of hours, it’s worth spending the money on it to avoid needing extra trains, or a schedule that doesn’t match up with the rest of the network. (And the same is true if the network repeats every 52 minutes – there’s nothing magical about 60 here.)

However, three additional, less obvious parameters are important:

3. Usefulness to local transit, in terms of speed, reliability, etc. This essentially reduces the cost imputed to intercity trains per minute saved.

4. How low-hanging the fruit becomes if combined with another. The issue is that eliminating two adjacent slow zones in an otherwise fast run saves more than double the time of eliminating just one of the two; another way to think about it is that eliminating the second slow zone saves more time than eliminating the first. This can result in counterintuitive phasing in a constrained funding environment.

5. How high-hanging the fruit becomes if it is delayed. If there is significant disruption to service coming from construction, then it’s better to do it earlier than would be warranted based on pure cost-per-minute-saved calculation.

#3 features prominently in Amtrak’s preexisting planning – in fact, too prominently, with its emphasis on Gateway. It’s a matter of agency imperialism more than anything, but it can lead to good results elsewhere. It’s really points #4-5 that aren’t optimized – either the costs are out of whack, or they are ignored. Washington Union Station‘s remodeling is an example of overemphasizing #5 without considering the cost or the ability to use existing infrastructure more cheaply; Transbay Terminal‘s poor column placement is an example of ignoring #5 entirely.

The reason I push concrete-heavy improvements between New Rochelle and Stamford, but not between Stamford and New Haven, comes essentially from those three points. The Cos Cob Bridge replacement is good because of points #1, #3, and #5; an I-95 bypass of Port Chester and Greenwich then interacts with it positively because of point #4, and also provides a suitable passing segment between high-speed and express commuter trains. In contrast, the projects east of Stamford don’t interact so positively: they involve constructing various bypasses, at high cost per minute saved, in separate locations so that the same increasing returns do not exist, and generally it’d not difficult to connect the bypasses to existing tracks so that the disruption effect of #5 is not in place.

Regional Rail for New York: What Can Be Done Now

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota recently proposed to through-route commuter rail lines in the New York area, as was proposed in the past by the RPA, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, and more recently myself. Lhota proposed other, less flashy ideas for integration, including better track sharing at Penn Station and lengthening platforms to accommodate 10-car trains. Although a network that looks like my proposal should still be the goal for the next 20 years, there are several things that can be done in the very short run. None is do-it-tomorrow immediate, but neither does any require very difficult modification of equipment or organization or significant infrastructure investment. Most should not require extensive studies.

Note that this is not a wishlist of the most important commuter rail reorganization projects in the region. Many of those reorganizations do not have anything to do with interagency integration, and are therefore not included. Only projects that are very cheap and would come from or benefit integration are on this list.

1. Integrated ticket machines at Penn Station. This requires the physical tickets on New Jersey Transit to look like those on the LIRR and Metro-North (and thus some modifications to the fare barriers at Secaucus and Newark Airport), and some reprogramming of ticket machines, but no change otherwise. Ideally a ticket from (say) Hicksville to Newark should cost less than the sum of tickets from Hicksville to New York and New York to Newark, to encourage reverse-peak traffic, but strictly speaking the discount is not needed. Amtrak and commuter rail machines should also be integrated, though the physical tickets can still be different if switching over is too hard.

2. Integrated concourses at Penn Station. This means treating the upper and lower concourses as belonging to all three railroads. This requires Amtrak to give up its single-file queuing and accept that people already can walk around and get to its trains from other railroads’ turfs. Trains should be announced on all concourses, and all access points to a platform should be clearly signed with the next train’s type and schedule.

3. Timed transfers. Although a clean integrated timetable is impossible, because trains interline on some inner segments to increase capacity, a partial version is still possible. What this means is that, with hourly off-peak service on each branch, Morris and Essex trains should arrive at Penn Station just before the hour, as should one of the several hourly trains on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor, and then two or three branches going to the east (say, to New Haven and Port Washington, and on one additional LIRR line for service to Jamaica) should leave just after the hour, with the tightest connection done cross-platform. This would make trips from New Jersey to JFK and from Long Island to Newark easier, and the choice of services to participate in the system should be consistent with even spacing on interlined trunks.

4. Modification of rolling stock. Metro-North’s M8s can run under 60 Hz catenary and third rail, but unfortunately not 25 Hz catenary; as lower frequency requires a larger transformer, modifying the trains to run on the New Jersey side of the Northeast Corridor may be too hard in the very short term (though not in the medium and long terms). However, NJT’s ALP-46 locomotives and Arrow EMUs can run on 12 kV 25 Hz and 25 kV 60 Hz catenary, and thus modifying them to run on Metro-North’s 12 kV 60 Hz catenary is easy, allowing them to run from the NJT network to the New Haven Line. Unfortunately, because locomotives accelerate more slowly than EMUs and the Arrows are quite old, they do not have very good performance for short-stop service, for which through-running is the most useful.

5. Voltage change on the Northeast Corridor’s New Jersey side to 25 kV 60 Hz. This voltage change was done to the Morris and Essex lines and much of the North Jersey Coast Line. It is somewhere on Amtrak’s wishlist of projects, but I do not know how high it is. This allows M8s to run through, ensuring the better rolling stock is available for the service that needs it the most. It may possibly be bundled with Amtrak’s installation of constant tension catenary south of New Brunswick to reduce costs. Since this eliminates the need for 25 Hz transformers in the future, this meas future NJT rolling stock would be lighter.

6. Depending on 4-5, rolling stock sharing along interlined services. In practice this means M8s on local Northeast Corridor services, which would also allow adding and serving infill stations in New Jersey (for example, more regular service to North Elizabeth, and perhaps a station at South Street in Newark), and Arrows and locomotives on express services from Penn Station and New Jersey to New Haven.

7. Platform raising on the North Jersey Coast Line and the Morris and Essex lines, if service using M8s rather than Arrows is desired. Because of the voltage, it’s actually easier for M8s to serve the Morristown Line other than their inability to serve low platforms: it would only require 8-21 km of reelectrification rather than 88-101. The Morris and Essex lines also have a more inner-suburban distribution of ridership than the Northeast Corridor Line, which gets most of its ridership from more distant stations, and this makes them in one sense better-suited for through-service. (In another sense, the Northeast Corridor is better, since it serves downtown Newark, a secondary CBD that draws some commuters from suburbs and boroughs east of Manhattan.)

It is my belief that all of the above, possibly except #5 and #7, are feasible within months or at worst a very small number of years, and would not require additional environmental work. Even #5 and #7, which are more expensive, are still close to two orders of magnitude cheaper than a full through-running plan with new tunnels serving Lower Manhattan.

The medium term is more expensive – perhaps an order of magnitude less than the full program rather than two – and would include further modernization, allowing full through-service on every line and more efficient equipment utilization. It can also assume friendlier regulations, which a snap integration cannot, and this in particular means better rolling stock in the future and higher speeds even with existing rolling stock. Clockface schedules and frequent off-peak service would allow planning infrastructure repairs and upgrades around specific schedules. For example, the current local Stamford-Grand Central schedule is 1:06, but an express train I recently took from New Haven came to Grand Central more than 10 minutes ahead of schedule, suggesting excessive padding; minor upgrades should allow an M8 to do Stamford-New York in an hour minus turnaround time making local stops, and more ambitiously New York-New Brunswick in 45 minutes minus turnaround time.

Lhota can’t do much in the long term, because this requires an enormous investment into concrete, a political decision and a longer-term one than Lhota’s term as MTA chair. However, he can both implement the above seven points within his term, and also set in motion various work rule reforms and small-scale capital project planning and apply for the requisite FRA waivers to permit the medium-term reforms to succeed.

Transportation-Development Symbiosis

The RPA’s Regional Assembly has included the following idea submission: expand reverse-commuter rail service. The proposal calls for surveying city residents to look for the main available reverse-commuter markets, and for expanding reverse-peak service on the model of Metro-North. It unfortunately does not talk about doing anything at the work end – it talks about looking at where city residents could go to the suburbs on commuter rail, but not about which suburban job markets could be served from any direction.

I don’t want to repeat myself about what transit agencies have to do to be able to serve suburban jobs adequately (if “suburban” is the correct way to think of Providence and New Haven), and so I’m going to sound much harsher toward the idea than I should be. Suffice is to say that talking about development requires a lot of reforms to operating practices. With that in mind, let’s look at some suburban job centers in the Northeast: Providence, Stamford, Hicksville, New Haven. As can be seen, those stations all look very suburban, and even Providence is surrounded by sterile condos, with the mall located a short, unpleasant walk away. Compare this with the urbanity that one finds around major suburban train stations in Tokyo, such as Kokubunji and Tachikawa.

But really, the kind of development that’s missing around suburban train stations in the US is twofold. First, the local development near the stations is not transit-oriented, in the sense that big job and retail centers may be inconvenient to walk to for the pedestrian. And second, the regional development does not follow the train lines, but rather arterial roads, or, in cities with rapid transit, rapid transit lines – for example, one of Long Island’s two biggest edge cities, East Garden City, is diffuse and far from existing LIRR stations (the other, Mineola, is relatively okay).

In both cases, what’s missing is transportation-development symbiosis. Whoever runs the trains has the most to gain from locating major office and retail development, without excessive parking, near the train stations. And whoever owns the buildings has the most to gain from running trains to them, to prop up property values. This leads to the private railroad conglomerates in Tokyo, and to the Hong Kong MTR.

The same symbiosis can be done with government actors, but isn’t, not in the US, and the RPA’s attempts to change this and promote integrated planning have so far not succeeded. Hickville recently spent $36.4 million on a parking garage adjacent to the station plus some extra sum on expanding road access, but none of the relevant actors has made any effort to upzone the station area for commercial, to allow easier commuting. Providence is renovating the station, with pretty drawings, but doing far short of a redesign that would add development to the area.

The importance of this symbiosis, coming back to the original idea, is that the correct question to ask is not, “Where can city residents go to the suburbs to work?” but rather “Which suburban and secondary-urban destinations can be adequately served by rail?” In all four Northeastern cities under discussion, there is more than one direction from which commuters could come. From the commuter railroad’s perspective, a rider who takes the train in the traditional peak direction but gets off in a suburb short of the CBD is a free fare, just like an off-peak rider or a reverse-peak rider.

The task for regional planners (as opposed to service planners and railroad managers) is then a combination of the following priorities:

1. As noted above, ensuring edge city and secondary CBD development is both close to train stations and easily accessible by pedestrians.

2. Aggressively upzoning near potential station sites, with an eye for junctions, such as Sunnyside, Secaucus, and New Rochelle.

3. Examining where people working in secondary centers are living, and which rail lines could be leveraged to serve them and where new construction would be needed. For example, Providence could use rail to Woonsocket and the East Bay and more local service to Cranston and Warwick, but reviving the tunnel to the East Bay could be expensive and needs to be studied carefully. Note that north of South Attleboro, there are very few people living near the Providence Line working in Providence, and so reverse-peak service is useful mainly in the original sense of people reverse-commuting from Boston, in contrast with service to Massachusetts suburbs of Providence such as Seekonk.

The problem with doing all three is political: current regional rail traffic is dominated by suburbanites using it as an extension of driving into the city. This influences local thinking because the economics of residential development are not the same as those of commercial development. Agglomeration and density are less important. Transfers and long access distances are more acceptable. People traveling within the suburb go toward the station in the AM peak rather than away from it, and so parking availability is more important. Take all of these together and you get a powerful constituency supporting continuing to choke suburban train stations with parking and sterile development for city-bound commuters, no matter how many tens of thousands of jobs are nearby.

This is why some symbiosis is necessary. One way to do it is via market mechanisms: if a well-capitalized company gets ownership of the transit infrastructure and is free to develop with few zoning constraints, it could decide to build office towers in Hicksville on top of the train station, or develop the empty lots near New Haven and Providence. This is possible, but may well be too hard politically, even more so than direct zoning reform, because every trope used by the community to oppose the changes (namely, fear of outsiders) would apply and also there would be explicit loss of control.

The other way is the public way, which is where integrated planning comes in. Even on the level of intransigent railroads, it may work if all done together. In other words, there would be simultaneous effort to add reverse-peak service on the LIRR and the MBTA, upzone surrounding station areas and make them more walkable at the expense of some parking spaces, direct major developments such as malls and office complexes to the resulting TOD, and integrate local transit with the changed commuter service in all directions.

But whatever is done, it’s critical to integrate the two functions, of transportation and development. There’s no need for an overarching bureaucracy to take care of it all, even – just cooperation between regional planners, local planners, and transit managers. Transit needs thick markets, and if all development outside the primary CBD is diffuse and auto-oriented, there will not be any thick markets for it to serve. A transit revival necessarily requires new markets, and this means going after what are now hopelessly auto-oriented suburbs. And what needs to be done is not just figuring out where new service is required or where car-free urbanites commute to, but also what kind of TOD can be done at each secondary job center.