The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.
The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.
Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.
Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.
The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.
First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.
Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.
And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.
Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).
The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.
There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.
Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.
And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.
The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.
What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:
- Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
- A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
- Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
- Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.
Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.
Twenty-five billion dollars. The New York region’s political heavyweights – Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio – all want new Hudson tunnels, without any state funding for them; Schumer is proposing federal funding and a new interstate agency, parallel to the existing Port Authority, and a total budget of $25 billion. This is the highest figure I have seen so far; Amtrak still says $16 billion and Cuomo says $14 billion, and it’s likely the Gateway tunnels are indeed about $16 billion, while the remainder is for associated projects, such as fully four-tracking the line from Newark to the tunnel portal, a distance of about 11 kilometers. It is not my intention to criticize the cost; I’ve done that before.
Instead, I would like to point out that each time Gateway is the news, there usually seems to be a fresh cost escalation. Is it a $10 billion project? A $14 billion project? A $16 billion project? Or a $25 billion project? And what is included exactly? Amtrak does not make it clear what the various items are and how much they cost; I have not seen a single cost estimate that attempts to establish a baseline for new Hudson tunnels without the Penn Station South component, which would provide a moderate short-term boost to capacity but is not necessary for the project. The articles I’ve seen do not explain the origin of the $25 billion figure, either; it may include the tunnel and full four-tracking of Newark-New York, or it may include additional scope, for example Amtrak’s planned vertical circulation for a future (unnecessary) deep cavern for high-speed rail (see picture here).
The main issue here, the way I see it, is the interaction between public trust and political self-aggrandizement. It is common in all aspects of Israeli governance for new ministers to announce sweeping changes and reorganizations, just to remind the country that they exist and are doing something; this generally makes it harder to implement gradual reforms, and makes it completely impossible to do anything by consensus. Implementing a plan that was developed by consensus over many years makes one a bureaucrat; leaders change everything. In the US, this is the case not everywhere in government, but at least within public transportation infrastructure.
As we see in the case of Schumer’s call for a new interstate authority, the changes a heavyweight politician makes in order to appear as a leader have nothing to do with real problems that the project may have. Solving those problems requires detailed knowledge of the project at hand, which is the domain of bureaucrats and technocrats, and not of heavyweight politicians. Even a heavyweight who understands that there is a problem may not know or care about how to fix it: for example, Christie used the expression “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” invoking the deep cavern, to explain why ARC was wasteful, but chose to cancel the project rather than to remove the cavern and restore a track connection from the tunnel to Penn Station, which was in the official ARC Alt P plan until it was cut to limit the cost overruns. Managing a project is hard, and is, again, the domain of technocrats. The heavyweight will grandstand instead, regardless of whether it means canceling the project, or proposing an entirely new layer of government to build it.
As for trust, let us look at the benefits of new Hudson tunnels. The traditional, and least objectionable, is added capacity: the existing tunnels are currently at capacity during rush hour, and there’s much more demand for rail travel from New Jersey to Manhattan than they can accommodate. We can measure this benefit in terms of the combination of increased ridership from more service from more suburban areas, reduced crowding, and possibly slightly higher speeds. As a crude estimate of this benefit, current New Jersey Transit ridership at Penn Station is 87,000 per weekday in each direction. Doubling capacity means roughly doubling ridership, which would come from a combination of induced demand and diversion of traffic from cars, Port Authority buses, and commuter rail-PATH connections. This means the new tunnel can expect about 175,000 new commuter rail trips per weekday. At $10,000 per weekday trip, which is about average for very large non-US cities’ subway extensions, this justifies $1.75 billion. At $20,000, about the same as the projection for Grand Paris Express, Crossrail, and Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, all of which are justified on grounds of ridership and capacity on parallel lines, this is $3.5 billion. At $40,000, about the same as old projections for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, which I used to analyze de Blasio’s Utica subway proposal, this is $7 billion. A $25 billion budget corresponds to a cost per rider well into the range of airport connectors.
Now, I’d like to think that informed citizens can look at these costs and benefits. At least, the fact that public transit projects only cost as much per rider as Gateway if they’re airport connectors (thus, of especial interest to the elites) or if something very wrong happened with the ridership projections, suggests that there is, normally, a ceiling to what the political system will fund. Even at $14-16 billion, the two states involved and the federal government groaned at funding Gateway, speaking to the fact that it’s not, in fact, worth this much money. In contrast, a bigger project, with bigger benefits, would be funded enthusiastically if it cost this much – for example, California already has almost this much money for high-speed rail, counting Prop 1A funds that are yet inaccessible due to the requirement of a 50/50 match from other sources.
Against this background, we see scare stories that Gateway must be built for reasons other than capacity and ridership. The old tunnels are falling apart, and Amtrak would like to shut them down one track at the time for long-term repairs. The more mundane reality is that the tunnels have higher maintenance costs than Amtrak would like since each track can only be shut down for short periods, on weekends and at night. This is buried in technical documents that don’t give the full picture, and don’t give differential costs for continuing the present regime of weekend single-tracking versus the recommended long-term closures. The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.
I am reminded of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement: the existing bridge has high maintenance costs due to its age and poor state, but the net present value of the maintenance cost is $2.5 billion and that of the excess maintenance cost is less, both figures well below the replacement cost. The bridge itself is structurally sound, but in popular media it is portrayed as structurally deficient. This relates to the problem of heavyweight politicians, for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is Cuomo’s pet project.
More fundamentally, who can trust any claim Amtrak makes about the structural soundness of tunnels? It says a lot that, when I asked on Twitter why transportation authorities do not immediately shut down unsafe pieces of infrastructure, various commenters answered “politics,” and on one (I believe James Sinclair) suggested that Amtrak order an emergency closure of one of the Hudson tunnel tracks just to drive home the point that new tunnels are necessary. I would like to stress that this is not Amtrak or a heavyweight proposing that, but the mere fact that commenters can seriously talk about it is telling. Most of the writers and commenters on the US transit blogosphere are very progressive and hate the Republicans; I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done, and everyone except conspiracy theorists recognizes it. But politicizing the process of deciding which infrastructure projects are necessary for safety purposes and which are simply service expansions is normal enough that people can propose it half-seriously.
This brings me back to the issue of what I want the politicians to do, and what I expect them to do. What I want them to do is to be honest about costs and benefits, mediate between opposing interests (including different agencies that fight turf battles), and make decisions based on the best available information. This would necessarily limit costs, since, from the point of view of a member of Congress, if they get $25 billion for a piece of infrastructure than they cannot get $25 billion for another priority of theirs. They don’t do that, not in the US, and I’ve learned not to expect any better, as have the voters. Instead of working to make $25 billion go a longer way (to put things in perspective, I expect my regional rail tunnel proposal to cost $15-20 billion, at Crossrail 2 costs), Schumer is working to make $25 billion to sound like it’s going to a bigger deal than the new Hudson tunnels actually are.
None of this is a secret. American voters have learned to expect some kind of machine-greasing and politicking, to the point of losing the ability to trust either the politicians or the agencies, even in those cases when they are right. The result is that it’s possible to stretch the truth about how necessary a piece of infrastructure is, since people would believe or disbelieve it based on prior political beliefs anyway, and there is no expectation that the politicians or public authorities making those claims will have to justify them to the public in any detail. Lying to the public becomes trivially easy in this circumstance, and thus, costs can rise indefinitely, since everyone involved can pretend the benefits will rise to match them.
There’s an article in the New York Times by its architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, making a forceful case for the Gateway Project’s necessity. Like nearly all transit activists in New York, I think new Hudson tunnels are the top infrastructure priority for regional rail; like nearly all transit activists, I groan at Amtrak’s proposed budget, now up to $16 billion (but unlike most, I think that it should not be built unless costs can be brought down – I’d peg their worth at $5 billion normally, or somewhat more in a crunch). I would like to explain one specific piece of scope in Amtrak’s plan that can be eliminated, and that in fact provides very little transportation value: Penn Station South.
Like all proposals for new Hudson tunnels, Gateway is not just a simple two-track tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station. No: the feuding users of Penn Station all think it needs more tracks. The rejected ARC proposal had a six-track multilevel cavern, and Gateway has Penn Station South, a proposal to demolish an entire block south of Penn Station and build seven additional platform tracks. The cost of just the real estate acquisition for Penn South: $769 million to $1.3 billion, at today’s prices. Trains using the preexisting tunnels would have to go to the preexisting Penn Station tracks, which I will call Penn Classic; trains using the new tunnels could go to either Penn Classic or Penn South, but the junction is planned to be flat. For illustration, see PDF-p. 12 of a press release of the late Senator Lautenberg, and a clearer unofficial picture on Railroad.net.
As a result of this proposed track arrangement, train services would initially suffer from the capacity limitations of flat junctions. Like Penn Station’s tracks 1-4, Penn South would be terminal tracks. This means that the only service possibilities are as follows:
1. Schedule all through-trains, such as Amtrak trains, through the preexisting tunnels.
2. Do not schedule any westbound trains from Penn South or any eastbound trains entering the preexisting Penn Station tracks: for example, no westbound trains from Penn South in the morning peak, and no eastbound trains entering Penn Classic in the afternoon peak.
3. Schedule around at-grade conflicts between opposing traffic.
Option #2 is impossible: Penn South has 7 tracks. If trains can enter but not leave in the morning, there will be room for 7 trains entering in the morning, a far cry from the several dozens expected. Option #1 is the better remaining option, but is ruled out, since Amtrak wants to use the new tunnels for its own trains. This leaves option #3, which restricts capacity, and complicates operations. Thanks to Amtrak’s imperialism, taking over regional rail projects for its own ends, Penn South has negative transportation value relative to just building new tunnels to Penn Classic’s tracks 1-4 (the transportation value relative to doing nothing is of course positive).
I emphasize that the negative transportation value of Penn South comes entirely from Amtrak’s involvement. The same infrastructure, used by passenger rail agencies that were more interested in providing high-quality public transportation than in turf wars, would have positive transportation value. However, as I explained to Kimmelman, this positive transportation value is low, and does not justify even the cost of real estate acquisition, let alone that of digging the station.
Briefly, as can be seen in the diagrams, the interlocking between the two new tunnel tracks and Penn’s eleven terminal tracks – tracks 1-4 of Penn Classic, and all of Penn South – is exceedingly complicated, which would limit approach speed, and not provide much flexibility relative to the number of tracks provided. This is to a large extent unavoidable when two approach tracks become eleven station tracks, but it does lead to diminishing returns from extra tracks. This is one of the reasons it’s easier if trains branch: it’s easier to turn 12 trains per hour on two tracks than to turn 24 on four (although both are done in Tokyo – indeed, the Chuo Line still turns 27 tph on two tracks).
Avoiding large crunches like this at urban terminals a benefit of through-running. This is hard to realize initially unless the new tunnel is what I call ARC-North. It’s still possible to through-run trains, pairing the new tunnels with the southern pair of East River Tunnels and the old tunnels with the northern pair, but it requires a lot of diverging moves at interlockings, limiting speed. Penn Station plans should be built with a long-term goal of simple moves at interlockings, to (slightly) increase speed and capacity and reduce maintenance needs.
However, it’s still possible to square the circle by requiring trains to turn fast on tracks 1-5 of Penn Station (track 5 splits to a terminating end and an end that runs through east of New York). Tokyo would be able to turn a full complement of 24 trains per hour on these tracks. Most other cities would not. However, as somewhat of a limiting European case, the RER A turns a peak train every 10 minutes on single track at Le Vésinet-Le Pecq, the next-to-last station on the Saint-Germain-en-Laye branch; Le Pecq has two through-tracks (also hosting a train every 10 minutes) and one terminal track. See map and schedule. This does not scale to 24 tph on four tracks; somewhat tellingly, those trains do not continue to the terminus, which is a three-track station, implying turning 12 tph on three tracks is problematic. The RER E turns 16 tph at the peak at Haussmann-Saint Lazare, a four-track city terminus, pending under-construction extension of the line to the west, which would make it a through-station.
If we accept 16 tph as the capacity of new Hudson tunnels without new Penn Station tracks, then the question should be what the most cost-effective way to raise future capacity is. An extra 9 tph, the equivalent of the difference between 16 tph and the 25 tph that the current tunnel runs and that Amtrak projects for Gateway, is within the capabilities of signaling improvements and better schedule discipline. Again looking to Paris for limiting cases, the combined RER B+D tunnel between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles runs 32 tph, without any stations in the tunnel (the RER B and D use separate platforms), while the moving block signaling-equipped RER A runs 30 tph on its central segment, with stations (as do the S-Bahn systems of Berlin and Munich). The RER E was planned around a capacity of 18 tph, but only 16 tph are run today. 18+32 = 50 = 25+25. France is not Japan, with its famous punctuality: French trains are routinely late, and as far as I remember, the RER B has on-time performance of about 90% based on a 5-minute standard, worse than that of Metro-North in its better months.
More importantly, dropping Penn South from the Gateway plan saves so much money that it could all go to through-running, via a new tunnel from tracks 1-5 to Grand Central. This is about 2 km of tunnel, without any stations; in a normal city this would cost $500 million, the difficulty of building in Midtown canceling out with the lack of stations, and even at New York construction costs, keeping the tab to $2 billion should be doable. The 7 extension is $2.1 billion, but includes a station; an additional proposed infill station at 10th Avenue, dropped from the plan, would’ve $450 million, giving us $1.6 billion for about 1.6 revenue route-km, rising to 2.3 km including tail tracks – less than a billion dollars per kilometer.
At $2 billion, the premium over $1 billion of impossible-to-cut real estate acquisition costs is down to $1 billion. It’s unlikely the construction cost of Penn South could be just $1 billion, without general reductions in city construction costs, which would enable the Penn-Grand Central link to be cheaper as well. Each Second Avenue Subway station is about a billion dollars, and those stations, while somewhat deeper than Penn Station, are both much shorter and narrower than a full city block. The result is that building a Penn-Grand Central link is bound to be cheaper than building Penn South, while also providing equivalent capacity and service to a wider variety of destinations via through-running.
One difficulty is staging the tunnel-boring machines for such a connection: building a launch box involves large fixed costs, especially in such a crowded place as Midtown. One of the reasons Second Avenue Subway and the 7 extension are the world’s most expensive subway project per kilometer is that they’re so short, so those fixed costs are spread across less route length. The best way to mitigate this problem is to build the link simultaneously with the new Hudson tunnels. The staging would be done on Penn’s tracks 1-4, whose platforms would be temporarily stripped; the construction disruption involved in the tunnels is likely to require shutting those tracks down anyway. Depending on the geology, it may even be possible to use the same tunnel-boring machine from New Jersey all the way to Grand Central.
This doesn’t save as much money – the Penn-Grand Central link is extra scope, with its own costs and risks. However, unlike Penn South, it is useful to train riders. Penn South allows terminating trains at Penn Station more comfortably, without having to hit the limit of large-city terminal capacity; the Penn-Grand Central link creates this capacity, but also lets riders from New Jersey go to Grand Central and points north (such as Harlem, but also such more distant commercial centers as Stamford), and riders from Metro-North territory go to Penn Station and points west (such as Downtown Newark).
Normally, I advocate unbundling infrastructure projects, because of the tendency to lump too many things together into a single signature plan, which then turns into political football, a sure recipe for cost overruns. However, when projects logically lead to one another, then bundling is the correct choice. For example, building an entire subway line, with a single tunnel-boring machine and a single launchbox, usually costs less than building it in small stages, as is the case with Second Avenue Subway. New Hudson tunnels naturally lead into a new tunnel east of Penn Station, regardless of where this tunnel goes; and once a tunnel is built, its natural terminus is Grand Central.
North Americans are in love with trains that go in highway medians. A large fraction of urban rail construction since World War Two, both light rail and full metro, has used highway medians as cheap at-grade rights-of-way to extend train service, often deep into the suburbs. Some proposed longer-range lines are supposed to go in medians as well: Florida had reserved space in the I-4 median for Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail, and Xpress West planned to go from Las Vegas to the outskirts of the Los Angeles area in the I-15 median. The Texas Central Railway, a private group backed by JR Central planning high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston, is considering several alignments, but markets the route as following I-45 (no mention of median) in some public discussions. In nearly all cases, both urban and intercity, it borders on incompetent to design rail lines in highway medians; intercity lines frequently follow highways on one side, but even that tends to be overrated in American discussions in my experience.
For urban rail, the reason to use highways is that, in most of North America, they’re everywhere, and they’re usually equipped with generous medians and shoulders, allowing relatively cheap placement of rail tracks. Of note, this is generally not the cheapest option: construction on extant (often disused) rail rights-of-way tends to be cheaper. However, in many cases, a rail right-of-way is unavailable, hosts heavy freight traffic, has been permanently turned into a trail, or has commuter trains without integration into the rest of the urban transit network. Examples include the Dan Ryan half of the Red Line and both halves of the Blue Line in Chicago, the Orange and Silver Lines in Washington, the outer ends of BART, the Spadina line in Toronto, and several light rail lines. Often they run on one side of the road, but more frequently they’re in the median, which was often reserved for it when the road was built (as in Chicago and Calgary).
The problem is that nobody wants to live, work, or hang out next to a busy grade-separated road. Living or working a kilometer or two away, with easy access by car, is great for the driver, but within close walking distance, there is just too much noise, pollution, and blight, and the pedestrian environment is unwelcoming. The transit-oriented development in Metrotown and Arlington could not have happened next to a freeway. Christof Spieler frames this as a decision of spending more money on routing trains near where people live versus staying on the easy rights-of-way. But this isn’t quite right: the Expo Line in Vancouver was assembled out of an interurban right-of-way and a city center tunnel, both out of service; the line’s high ridership comes from subsequent development next to Metrotown and other stations.
Other times, the routing comes from a deliberate decision to integrate the trains with cars, with large park-and-rides at the ends. This is common on newer light rail systems in the US (though not Canada, as Calgary prefers integration with connecting buses) and in the Washington and San Francisco suburbs. This makes things even worse, by extending the radius within which the environment is built for cars rather than for people, and by encouraging the same park-and-ride construction elsewhere, along abandoned railroads and greenfield routes, where the preexisting environment is not car-oriented.
I do not want to categorically say that cities should never build urban rail alongside highways. But I cannot think of a single example in which this was done right. Calgary is a marginal case: it did build light rail along highways, and had some success with transit-oriented development, but those highways are arterials rather than freeways, and this makes the pedestrian environment somewhat better.
The situation is somewhat different for suburban rail, but usually the scale of suburban rail is such that there’s not much new construction, only reappropriation of old lines. These lines are long and the environments low-density, making it hard justify the costs of new lines in most cases. Where new suburban rail is built, for examples the Grand Paris Express, and various airport connectors, it is typically in environments with such expected traffic density that the rules for urban rail apply, and we tend to see more underground construction or usage of extant rights-of-way.
The reasons favoring highway alignments intercity rail in the US are somewhat different. Tellingly, HSR in Europe is frequently twinned with motorways. It is not about integration with cars, since those alignments are rarely if ever meant to have major stops in their middle. Instead, it’s about picking a pre-impacted alignment, where there are fewer property takings and fewer NIMBYs. This logic is sound, but I often see Americans take it to extremes when discussing HSR.
The first problem is that roads are almost never as straight as HSR needs to be. The design standards I have seen after briefly Googling give the radius of a motorway capable of about 120 km/h as, at a minimum, 500-700 meters. With these curves, trains, too, are capable of achieving about 120 km/h – less at 500 meters without tilting, more at 700 meters with tilting. The most recent high-speed lines are built with a minimum curve radius of 7 km; about the absolute minimum that can be done, with design compromises and tilting trains, is 4 km. This implies that the trains have to deviate from the motorway alignment whenever it curves. In flat regions the road curves are much gentler than the minimum, but still too sharp for full-speed running. Both Florida HSR and Xpress West noted that the trains would have to slow down whenever the Interstate curved, because the need to run in the median would prevent them from curving gently enough to maintain full speed.
Of note, the European examples of HSR running in motorway alignments have it running alongside the roads, not in the medians. I invite the reader to spend a few minutes following French LGVs on Google Maps and seeing this. This is because there invariably have to be small deviations from the road, which in a rural area are trivial when one runs next to the road but require viaducts when one runs between the road’s two carriages.
There may also be an issue regarding reusing the Interstates. To transit supporters who view HSR as a replacement for freeways, this has an element of poetic justice, or just plain practical reuse of infrastructure they think is obsolete. I chanced upon this while looking up Interstate design standards, but I’ve seen similar proposals elsewhere, as well as dissimilar proposals making use of interstate terminology, as a reminder of past national greatness. It comes from the same place as proposals to reuse auto factories to produce rolling stock: there’s a romantic aspect in addition to or instead of an economic one.
But the most fundamental problem is that the contentious experiences of the freeway revolts and modern-day NIMBYism have soured Americans on any process that involves brazen takings. What I mean by brazen is that carving a new right-of-way, especially through a populated area, looks obvious on a map. In contrast, sticking to a preexisting right-of-way and incrementally widening it or straightening curves is less controversial, even when it involves eminent domain as well, and opposition remains much more local, based on the specific properties being taken, rather than stated in general principles. I am not completely sure why this is so; my suspicion is that widening and straightening are more easily justified as things that must be done, whereas a new right-of-way looks gratuitous.
In either way, Americans have convinced themselves that NIMBYs are a major obstacle to infrastructure construction. While zoning is a notoriously NIMBY-prone process, infrastructure often isn’t. In the English common law world, expropriations are if anything easier than in France, where farmers are especially powerful, or Japan, where rioters threatened to block the construction of Narita Airport. NIMBYs are good at getting their names out in the media, but when it comes to blocking construction, they are relatively powerless; California HSR is facing NIMBYs in the Central Valley, many of whom are conservative and politically opposed to the project regardless of local impact, but so far they have not managed to delay construction.
However, NIMBYs are a convenient bogeyman for public projects, as their motives are openly selfish. They give charismatic, authoritarian leaders the opportunity to portray their infrastructure projects as battles between the common good and backward-looking parochial interests. As I’ve noted multiple times before, New York’s livable streets community (which is similar politically to the set of HSR supporters in the US) tends to overblow the importance of NIMBYs to the point of seeing NIMBYs even when the concerns have nothing to do with NIMBYism: see, for example, the reaction to the opposition of two Harlem politicians to a plan to speed up only the whitest bus route through the neighborhood.
High-speed rail and rapid transit both change economic geography, in that they compress distances along the lines built, emphasizing connections along the lines at the expense of ones perpendicular to them. I’ve written about this before, giving the example of the division of Uptown Manhattan into East and West Sides. In contrast to the similar implications for economic geography, we see different political treatment of transportation planning: rapid transit is usually planned centrally within a city, together with lower-capacity perpendicular forms of public transit, but there is less centralized planning of high-speed rail and connecting legacy lines.
It’s against this background that I’ve read two recent posts on Itinerant Urbanist, one advocating Northeast-wide intercity rail planning, and one expressing skepticism of plans to run trains from New York to Pittsfield along the Housatonic Railroad, whose southern end hosts the Danbury Branch. In the second post, Sandy shows how, even today, it is faster to get from New York to Pittsfield via Albany, along existing Amtrak routes, than it could be via the curvy Housatonic. The trains from New York to Albany are not HSR, but are some of the fastest in the US outside the Northeast Corridor, and that’s enough to obviate the need for some adjacent lines. But we can extend this analysis further, looking at potential HSR routes and identifying the effect on other regional and intercity lines mentioned in Sandy’s first post.
For our main example, consider Providence-Worcester. There is a direct line, the Providence and Worcester mainline, which hosts no passenger trains. I have previously called for running passenger service on the southern 25 km of the line, from Providence to Woonsocket, and integrating the schedules with MBTA trains to Boston and future HSR; in 2009, the Providence Foundation made a similar proposal, finding that it was possible to slot a reasonable frequency of in-state regional trains between the Providence and Worcester freight trains. Superficially, one might think that trains should not turn at Woonsocket, but go all the way to Worcester, a distance of 69 km, providing a key crosstown link in a New England-wide rail network.
The problem is that the presence of HSR makes the line completely useless for end-to-end traffic. HSR averages between 180 and 260 km/h, whereas regional trains average between 50 and 90, with a few trains overlapping with intercity rail going up to 120. This makes it worthwhile to go two to three times as long as the most direct route, if this can be done on high-speed lines.
It’s 70 km from Providence to Boston; from Boston to Worcester, it’s 71 along the present Worcester Line, while an HSR line following I-90 would be about 65, serving Worcester at an outlying station at the intersection with Route 122 (and the Providence and Worcester line), 6 km outside the legacy station. My attempt to work out a schedule for Providence-Boston gives about 20.5 minutes for nonstop HSR; Boston-Worcester is probably similar, giving 41 minutes plus a short transfer time. (Trains with intermediate stops would stop at Back Bay, and if the transfer can happen there, then it saves about 3 minutes total.) Let’s say the transfers at Boston are not optimized, and the total travel time is 50 minutes.
It is not easy to achieve this travel time on the legacy Providence and Worcester line: 69 km in 50 minutes is 83 km/h, and 63 km (from Providence to I-90 and Route 122) is 76. The latter speed is very ambitious, and the former even more so. While there are regional lines in New England that could approach 100, this is not one of them. The line hosts some freight traffic, so it requires additional sidings if passenger trains go at intercity rail speeds and not at regional rail speeds, which are similar to freight speeds. There is a significant commuter market at the Providence end, requiring more stops in Providence and its inner suburbs: the end-to-end travel time in the schedule I constructed for Providence-Woonsocket is 26 minutes, an average speed of 59 km/h. To get to I-90 in 50 minutes, trains would need to average 94 km/h north of Woonsocket; achieving this makes it almost impossible to stop anywhere in Massachusetts except Worcester, which defeats the purpose of the line. Worcester-Woonsocket is not important enough a travel market to reopen a passenger rail line for. For the same reason, there is no hope of achieving sufficient speed by including a mix of local and express trains: there’s not enough demand to support multiple service patterns.
The Providence-Worcester example is somewhat unfair in that it’s unlikely such a line could be activated without interstate cooperation in intercity rail planning. The same cooperation that could restore service on the Providence and Worcester line would first push for faster intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor, which would be the first step in obviating this direct line. I bring this up because it’s a very clean example of how the presence of HSR allows for circuitous routings on some city pairs, and how this should be reflected in rail planning. There are less clean examples, pitting a unified system with HSR as a trunk and branches feeding the trunk against potential in-state projects and priorities:
1. Unless HSR fares are designed to discourage this, the fastest way to get to New York from suburbs far out along the New Haven Line, and to a lesser extent the Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey, would be to take commuter rail to New Haven or Trenton and then backtrack on HSR. This changes the optimal service patterns, away from express trains to New York and toward local trains in the outer service area, and this in turn influences planning for capacity improvement. For example, fitting HSR and commuter trains on existing tracks in New Jersey probably requires giving up express service south of Rahway, but at the outer end of the line, around Princeton Junction, going out to Trenton and backtracking on HSR would make this not as onerous as commuters may initially think. On the level of station design, the presence of backtracking means that stations may need to be reconfigured to have more access points from northbound to southbound platforms, to make transfers easier.
2. New Jersey Transit has plans from last decade to reactivate passenger rail service along the West Trenton Line. The presence of HSR makes West Trenton a less useful commuter rail station, to either Philadelphia or New York. In Philadelphia it remains useful if one wants to go to destinations on the Reading side of SEPTA, such as Temple University, or even Market East, but in New York, the nearest job center to West Trenton is Newark, which is on the Northeast Corridor. This means that better transit service from West Trenton to Trenton becomes a greater priority than direct rail service from West Trenton to New York.
3. There is a secondary rail line from New London to Norwich, passing next to Mohegan Sun. It is not very useful if intercity trains remain as they are, but the presence of HSR makes it a good feeder, and also allows trains to beat express buses for trips from New York to the casino.
4. It is vanishingly unlikely Pennsylvania will try to build in-state rail service to Erie. However, if it does, Erie-Pittsburgh service would be similar to Providence-Worcester service, with Cleveland fulfilling the same function as Boston in New England.
Many people have heard that certain regions are well-suited for these projects, for example the Northeast Corridor is unusually good for HSR because it links four major cities and several medium-size ones on a single line. By implication, there has to be a flip side, i.e. regions that are poorly-suited for HSR and cities that are poorly-suited for new rapid transit. If there weren’t – if every region were like the Northeast Corridor – then the ridership models would just have higher first-order estimates. Several proposals I’ve seen in comments and on my blogroll in the last few days are in areas where the urban geography makes it harder to justify such projects. These and a few others are the examples I will use in this post.
As usual, there’s a caveat that difficult does not equal bad. Some of these ideas are worth pursuing, but have more challenges that their easier counterparts do not, and if those challenges are solved, then they can perform well. One of the biggest success stories of modern rail investment, the TGV, is in an urban geography that’s not particularly conducive to rail: France’s secondary cities surround Paris in all directions (although Lyon and Marseille are collinear with Paris), the stub-end layout of stations in Paris and many other cities forces awkward branching, Lyon needed a business district to be built from scratch around Part-Dieu. France made this work, and it’s possible some of the projects on this list can be made to work in similar vein.
High-Speed Rail in Sweden
Project: greenfield HSR lines connecting Stockholm with Sweden’s major secondary cities, Gothenburg and Malmö.
The problem: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö do not lie on a straight line. The three cities are quite small by the standards of more populated countries: Stockholm has a bit more than 2 million people, Gothenburg has a bit less than a million, Malmö has 700,000. A line connecting just two of them, or even a Y-shaped line, is unlikely to get enough ridership to justify the construction costs of full HSR. There are no large intermediate cities: the largest, Linköping, has about 100,000 people. As noted above, French urban geography is not great for HSR, either, but at least the LGV Sud-Est could serve both Lyon and Marseille, and France’s greater population ensures that its secondary cities are large enough to generate enough traffic to fill an HSR line.
As a silver lining, Malmö is adjacent to Copenhagen, and the difficult part, bridging the Øresund, has already been done. While international lines tend to underperform, the tight cultural and economic connections between the Scandinavian countries make it likely that international projects within Scandinavia would be exceptions to the rule. Copenhagen would add another 2 million people at the end of the line. However, even that is unlikely to generate enough ridership to pay for 500-odd kilometers of greenfield HSR (plus a connection to Gothenburg).
Because of its poor urban geography for conventional HSR, Sweden has investigated cheaper solutions, allowing higher speeds on legacy track or on greenfield tracks built to lower standards. As a result, there is research into the possibility of high-speed tilting trains, running faster than the 250 km/h Pendolino. This research is likely to be useful in the UK and US, where the urban geography is better-suited for HSR but fully greenfield construction is obstructed by suburban development near the rights-of-way and by high construction costs, but the original context was faster speeds within Sweden.
High-Speed Rail in the Pacific Northwest
Project: greenfield HSR connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. This is not officially proposed anywhere that I know; current plans focus on incremental improvements to the Amtrak Cascades. However, every American HSR fantasy map I’ve seen (including the ones I’ve drawn) includes this link, since at least superficially based on city populations it would succeed.
The problem: getting out of the major cities involves a slog on curvy legacy track in areas where it’s hard to straighten the right-of-way. Heading north of Seattle, the route goes along the water, in terrain that is too hilly for an easy inland cutoff all the way to Everett, 50 km north. Getting out of Vancouver is also hard, because of suburban development in Surrey, and becomes even harder if one wants the Vancouver station to be Waterfront rather than Amtrak’s current stop, the less centrally located Pacific Central. The Northeast Corridor is said to have slowdowns near the major stations, leading to proposals to bypass them with new tunnels, but at no point are there 50 nearly-continuous km of low curve radii; the New Haven Line does not look as curvy, while the Shore Line farther east is easy to bypass on I-95.
The Seattle-Portland segment is much easier: the route heading south of Seattle is not constrained, and north of Portland it is possible to run alongside I-5. However, the most important intermediate cities, Tacoma and Olympia, can only be served with exurban stations, since getting into their centers would require the mainline to detour on curvy alignments.
Through-Run Commuter Rail in Chicago
Project: there are many proposals by transit activists to construct new infrastructure to enable through-running on Metra, analogous to Crossrail, SEPTA Regional Rail, the Paris RER, and multiple S-Bahns. Details differ, but other than the lines through Union Station, through-running generally means connecting Metra Electric to some of the lines feeding into Union Station from the north or the Union Pacific lines; UP-North is especially notable for serving dense neighborhoods and not having any freight traffic.
The problem: the layout of the lines entering the Chicago central business district makes it hard to build a coherent network. What I mean by coherent is that commuter lines can make multiple CBD stops to serve different CBDs, or different parts of the same CBD: in New York, a Penn Station-Grand Central connection would let trains serve both the West Side and the East Side. Look at the map proposed by Sandy Johnston, in the second link above: there is no station on the Near North Side, there is no connection from the West Loop stations to the Loop, and effectively lines are still going to be split between lines bound for the West Loop and lines bound for the Loop in the through-run system.
None of this is the fault of any of the people drawing these maps. To serve both the West Loop and the Loop, a line would have to go east-west in the vicinity of Union Station, where there is no legacy line pointing in the right direction. The options boil down to a long greenfield east-west subway, and an awkward transition to the preexisting east-west lines, BNSF (which is too far south) and UP-West (which is too far north), which to add another complication carry heavy freight traffic.
A system prioritizing north-south connections runs into different dilemmas, concerning the tradeoff between service to the Near North Side and easier connections to the rest of the North Side Metra lines. A north-south line connecting UP-North to Metra Electric through the Near North Side would be beautiful, and miss all other Metra lines and most L lines. Sandy’s proposal has Metra Electric swerving west to meet UP-North just north of its terminus at Ogilvie Transportation Center, meeting all L lines and potentially the North Side Metra lines but missing the job centers in the West Loop and Near North Side.
Rail to LaGuardia
Project: construct some rail extension to LaGuardia Airport. Which rail extension varies based on the proposal. The most mainstream proposal, in the sense that it was supported by Giuliani until it was torpedoed by neighborhood opposition, would have extended the Astoria Line east to airport grounds. More recent proposals from various activists have included not just the Astoria Line extension, but also a Northeast Corridor spur, an AirTrain from the Astoria Line, an AirTrain from Jamaica with JFK connections, a subway shuttle under Junction, and a subway running from the airport to 125th Street along the route of the M60 bus.
The problem: all of the above ideas face the same pair of problems. At the airport end, the airport competes with other urban destinations, rather than complementing them by lying on the same straight line with them. An extension from the west, such as the Astoria Line extension, needs to choose between serving the airport and serving the Astoria Boulevard corridor, which has high residential density and no nearby subway service; Astoria Boulevard itself is so wide that as with Queens Boulevard, an elevated line in its middle would be an improvement. Farther east, there is nothing that a LaGuardia extension could be continued to, because of Flushing Bay. An extension across the bay going to Flushing or College Point could be useful, but an extension of the 7 to College Point would be even more useful and avoid underwater tunneling. The bay, and more generally the Long Island Sound, dooms any proposal for a loop returning to the mainline, in the manner of Zurich Airport, while a spur would again compete for capacity with more important lines. Compare this with LAX, which, going along the Harbor Subdivision, is collinear with Inglewood, the Slauson corridor, and Union Station, and would have an easy connection to El Segundo.
At the other end, the question with every airport extension is, what does it connect the airport to? The answer for LaGuardia has to be the Upper East Side, where as I remember most riders originate; but there is no good way of connecting to the Upper East Side, which has no east-west subway line, and shouldn’t, as there are perhaps a hundred kilometers of higher-priority tunnels in the region. A connection to 125th Street is ruled out by the fact that Second Avenue Subway has an even better connection to 125th. The Astoria Line serves the Midtown hotel cluster well, and has a connection to the Lexington trains to the Upper East Side, but I doubt that it can beat a taxi across the bridge in non-rush-hour traffic.
Providence East Side Tunnel
Project: restore rail service through the East Side Rail Tunnel, with a new connection to Downcity at the western end and connections to new or restored rail lines in and beyond East Providence. In Jef Nickerson’s version, the trains are light rail and drop to the surface at the Downcity end. In mine, they continue elevated through Downcity, with a new station replacing Providence Station for both commuter and intercity rail. All versions include a stop at Thayer Street for Brown University service, should one be constructable at reasonable cost.
The problem: there’s no real need for local or regional service from the east along the tunnel (intercity service could be sped up by about half a minute to a minute by avoiding curves in Pawtucket). Light rail service would run into the problem of incredibly spread-out suburbanization east of Providence. Commuter rail would run into separate problems: the legacy lines go along the water in East Providence and don’t serve the town itself well; beyond East Providence, the line going north serves the same suburbs as the existing Providence Line minus Pawtucket, while the line going south would need extensive and costly restoration work to get to Fall River, and only passes through small and low-density intermediate points.
Cutting off Providence Station to move the city’s main station to the south is useful, but the only rail from Providence to Pawtucket and Woonsocket goes due north of Downcity and would be left out of this system. Shoehorning it to the same station that leads to the East Side Tunnel would produce every adverse impact of viaducts on cities: heavy visual impact coming from elevated-over-elevated grade separation, squeal coming from low curve radii, takings of condo buildings near the existing Providence Station.
Last month, California made a budget deal for the formula that would be used to distribute its cap-and-trade revenues. The state’s cap-and-trade bill does not deed the money to the general budget but to a separate account, to be distributed based on a variety of goals including subsidies to programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The recent deal is to give most of the money to transportation (including transit-oriented development): this year the budget gives $600 out of $850 million to transportation (see PDF-p. 6 here), of which $250 million will go to high-speed rail, and according to an informational hearing the long-term deal gives 80% of revenues to transportation, including 15% to high-speed rail. Transit bloggers who are not in the process of moving across oceans covered the issue last month as the deal was made: Streetsblog wrote about the plan, Robert Cruickshank wrote multiple times in support of the decision, and Bruce McFarling explained how HSR’s projected emissions reductions should entitle it to a share of the cap-and-trade proceeds.
In reality, although it’s a good thing that California HSR is getting funded, it’s a bad way of funding it, betraying both environmental incompetence and political mistrust. The basic problem is that the HSR project is not going to reduce emissions enough to justify 15% of the pot, nor is transportation such a big share of California’s emissions inventory to deserve 80%: it accounts for only 37% of statewide emissions. Electricity, and related sources of emissions such as building heating and industrial emissions, get far less than their share of emissions.
Bruce’s post runs the numbers on HSR, notes that the projections are currently $250-400 in construction costs per ton of CO2 reduction, and proposes that if cap-and-trade results in a carbon cost of $75 per ton then this justifies using the revenues for 20-35% of the cost of HSR. The projected revenue from cap-and-trade is a range whose top end is $5 billion statewide, corresponding to about $11 per metric ton; at this level, assuming HSR saves $250/t-CO2 means it should get 4.4% of its funding from emissions reduction, or (at the current cost of $53 billion in constant dollars) about $2.3 billion over the lifetime of the program. If the revenue is indeed $5 billion a year, this spending level is projected to be reached in 3 years.
For some evidence of what the state is really doing, consider how the deal comments on each share of the funding. The informational hearing details the investment strategy as follows:
25% for a permanent source of funding for transit operations, distributed based on greenhouse gas criteria.
20% for affordable housing and miscellaneous urban planning goals (including TOD), of which at least half must be for affordable housing (including TOD, again); the money is to be distributed based on “competitive GHG performance.”
15% low-carbon transportation, based on both long-term clean air and GHG goals.
13% energy, including electricity and building efficiency.
7% natural resources, waste diversion, and water projects.
5% “new or existing” intercity rail, based on GHG criteria.
Note that internally to four categories, comprising 65% of the total funds, the hearing mentions greenhouse gas criteria. In three out of the four, comprising half of the funds, the hearing implies that the decision of how to distribute the funds will be based on competitive grants according to which project reduces emissions the most.
The key point here is that the state has effectively said what the best way is to ensure the spending side of cap-and-trade will reduce emissions optimally: projects will compete for scarce funding based on greenhouse gas criteria. Once it has made the political decision to distribute funds by a formula that disproportionately goes to transportation, it has no objection to using greenhouse gas criteria internally to each category. The problem is that the transportation projects in general and HSR in particular would never make it out of a grant process based on such criteria if they were not shielded from competition with non-transportation priorities.
There are two legitimate ways to distribute funds coming out of an externality tax, which is what cap-and-trade really is. One is to let the tax side do the work of reducing impact, and put the money into the general budget. This is common practice for most developed countries’ fuel taxes (though not the US’s). In this approach, HSR would compete with all of the state’s other budget priorities. If the state wanted to reduce other taxes against the cap-and-trade funds rather than raise spending, it could. If it wanted to spend the money on unrelated things, such as education, it could as well. There already is a more or less open and democratic budget process for this.
The other way is to reduce all political discretion, and distribute the funds based entirely on greenhouse gas criteria, without breaking the money into categories. The state seems to prefer this way, judging by its use of this process within each category. With other externality taxes there is another option, of giving the money directly to victims of the externality, e.g. spending cigarette taxes on lung cancer treatment; however, the bulk of damage caused by climate change is to developing countries, and spending cap-and-trade revenues on targeted aid to vulnerable developing countries is politically unacceptable.
The state’s hybrid approach is effectively a slush fund. High-level politicians, including Governor Jerry Brown, want to build a visible legacy, and HSR is far more visible than making household appliances consume less electricity. Emissions reductions are secondary to this concern. They’ll be happy to make their legacy a project that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but they have no quantitative preference for projects that reduce emissions more than others. On the contrary, when they pull strings, they might even make decisions that make these projects less environmentally beneficial: the decision to connect Los Angeles to Bakersfield via Palmdale rather than directly has no technical merit, and judging by LA County’s support appears to be motivated by concerns for development in the Palmdale area. As the incremental cost of going through Palmdale is about $5 billion, nearly 10% of the HSR cost, the result is that the state is going to spend a substantial amount of cap-and-trade money on spurring more development in the High Desert exurbs.
Needless to say, when the cap-and-trade bill was passed, it did not state or even imply that the state could use the money to spur more development in the exurbs. The bill did not adopt a GHG-only approach, but listed several additional goals, none of which included transportation. Chapter 1, Part 2, paragraph h states,
It is the intent of the Legislature that the State Air Resources Board design emissions reduction measures to meet the state wide emissions limits for greenhouse gases established pursuant to this division in a manner that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits for California’s economy, improves and modernizes California’s energy infrastructure and maintains electric system reliability, maximizes additional environmental and economic co-benefits for California, and complements the state’s efforts to improve air quality.
There is an explicit mention of air quality, and explicit mentions of energy and electricity, which are only getting 13% of the funding despite accounting for 54% of emissions. Elsewhere the list of legislative intents includes vague terms such as technological leadership, but the only explicit mention of transportation in the bill is in paragraph c, which says that historically California provided leadership on several environmental issues, including emissions limits on cars as well as energy efficiency and renewable energy.
However, the cap-and-trade bill is older than the current administration, and the political priorities have changed. Since a regular budget process giving HSR the money it needs would run into opposition from competing priorities, it’s best to raid a new source of revenue, one without legislative inertia or established supporters directing the money to more useful purposes.
Hence, a slush fund.
At the beginning of the month, New York State released its draft environmental impact statement for high-speed rail from New York to the Upstate cities. The costs of HSR as proposed by the state are excessive, and as a result the state has eliminated the high-speed option. It is only considering medium-speed options – the fastest is 125 mph, for the cost of full-fat high-speed rail; it sandbagged the full-speed options. Consider the following passage, from the main document, section 3.2.2:
The dedicated right-of-way of the very high speed (VHS) alternatives would result in significant travel time savings (5:17 and 4:23 respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS), and commensurately higher estimated ridership (4.06 and 5.12 million respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS).
The length of New York-Buffalo is about 690 km. At 4:23, it is an average speed of 157 km/h. To put things in perspective, the Hikari express trains in the 1960s achieved an average of 162 km/h (515 km in 3:10) in 1965, with a maximum speed of 210 km/h.
In section 3.3.5, the 125 mph alternative, which involves greenfield dedicated track from Albany to Buffalo, is said to have an average speed of 77 mph, or 124 km/h. Considering that British express trains on the legacy East Coast and West Coast Main Lines restricted to the same top speed average about 130-140 km/h, this is unimpressive.
Likewise, the cost estimates seem too high. The cost proposed for 125 mph is $14.71 billion. That’s on existing track south of Albany with minor improvements; as per exhibits 3-19 and 3-21, 83% of the cost is said to be Albany-Buffalo, a distance of 380 km on new track plus 76 on existing track. This makes sense for a full-speed, 350 km/h line. But the cost of the full-speed 220 mph option is $39 billion, around $55 million per km from New York to Buffalo in an area with a topography that justifies at most half that.
The study also sandbags the higher-speed options, from 125 mph up, by overplaying the importance of skipped small cities. A greenfield line cannot reasonably serve Schenectady, Amsterdam, and Rome. It could serve Utica, but with some takings because the sharp curve from the tracks at the downtown station to the I-90 right-of-way to the west. Lack of service to Utica would be a drawback, but the study for some reason thinks that those four stations would need their own dedicated intercity line to New York, using a connection to Metro-North, which is said on PDF-p. 37 to have capacity problems on the Hudson Line (the Hudson Line runs 12 trains per hour at the peak today, and is four-tracked). I am told that people drive all the way from Watertown to Syracuse to take Amtrak; none of the skipped four stations is that far from Albany or Syracuse. If a regional train is needed, it can connect at Albany.
The problem is that the alignments studied are uninspiring. I don’t just mean it as a synonym for bad. I mean they avoid locations that look difficult at first glance but are actually reasonably easy. CSX bypasses Albany already; it is not a problem to run high-speed trains at low speed on the existing line between Rensselaer and a spot west of Albany where the line could transition to the Thruway, and yet exhibit 3-20 shows a passenger rail bypass of Albany.
For the full-speed option, I do not know how much tunneling and bridging the state thinks is necessary for its west-of-Hudson I-87 alignment from New York to Albany, but there’s an alignment east of the Hudson with only about 7 km of tunnel, all through the Hudson Highlands. Briefly, such a line would go east of the built-up area in Dutchess County and points north, with a possible station at the eastern edge of the Poughkeepsie urban area and another near Rhinebeck, closer to the city and to the bridge to Kingston than the present Rhinecliff station. In Putnam and northern Westchester Counties, it would utilize the fact that the ridge lines go northeast to southwest to swing to the southwest, to hook up to the Hudson Line slightly north of Croton-Harmon. With a curve radius of 4 km, and a maximum grade of 3.5%, only two tunnels are needed, one under Peekskill of about 2 km and one under the crest in Putnam County of about 5 km. Some additional viaducts are needed through the valleys in the Hudson Highlands, but from Dutchess County north the line would be almost entirely at-grade.
There is generally a tunnel vision in American high-speed rail documents like this, consisting of any of the following features:
– Excessive avoidance of greenfield alignments, even in relatively flat areas. The flip side is excessive usage of freeway rights-of-way. The Syracuse-Rochester segment is actually greenfield in the study, which is good, but there is no thought given to greenfield New York-Albany alignments, which are frankly much easier east of the Hudson than west of the Hudson.
– Questionable assumptions about the abilities of existing track in urban areas to have higher capacity, which often leads to excessive multi-tracking (as in California); there is never any effort to construct an integrated timetable to limit the construction of new tracks.
– No rail-on-rail grade separations. The study talks about Spuyten Duyvil capacity problems, which are very real if traffic grows, but says nothing about the possibility of grade-separating the junction from the Empire Connection to the Metro-North mainline to Grand Central.
– With the exception of California, which erred in the other direction, uninspiring speeds. It’s actually hard to construct a 350 km/h line that only averages 157; actual high-speed lines around the world in the 270+ range average about 180 or higher.
It’s not surprising New York is sandbagging HSR. A year and a half ago, the Cuomo administration killed an HSR study on the grounds that in a recession, the state can’t afford to build such an expensive project. Given how long it takes from the initial study to the beginning of construction, the argument is so transparently wrong that it raises the question of what the real motivation was. But whatever the real reason was, the state is not interested in HSR, and wrote a lengthy environmental impact study to justify its disinterest.
The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.
$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.
Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.
But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).
Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.
Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.
The perfect is not the enemy of the good when it comes to rail projects. The half-done job is. In a trivial sense it’s obvious that half a tunnel across a mountain is useless. But even partial lines that have some uses are sometimes so much less useful than the full line, that the economic benefits of completing the half line to the full system are actually greater than those of building the first half. In many cases, even partial lines that are very good on their own have relatively easy extensions with very good economics.
This is primarily true for intercity rail, since costs are roughly proportional to route-km whereas benefits (e.g. high-speed rail operating profits) are proportional to passenger-km: once a first-phase rail line is in place, any future phase such that passengers will use the first phase for much of their travel will generate a large amount of passenger traffic relative to infrastructure construction. Probably the simplest example of this is extending California HSR to Sacramento: once a Los Angeles-San Francisco system is in place, especially if the route goes over Altamont Pass, extending to Sacramento requires only about 100 km of additional construction (180 if the LA-SF route is via the currently planned Pacheco Pass route), in flat land, but people would be taking the train from Sacramento to Los Angeles, a distance of about 600 km. Thus, despite generating much lower ridership than San Francisco, Sacramento is a highly beneficial extension of California HSR, once the LA-SF first phase is in place.
There are several more places in North America that are like this. When I tried applying a very primitive ridership model to American city pairs, what I found is that next to the Northeast Corridor, the highest-performing lines are extensions of the Northeast Corridor to the south. This is for the same reason as with Sacramento: once Boston-New York-Washington is in place, an extension to Richmond would generate 540 passenger-km of New York-Richmond travel on just 180 route-km of Washington-Richmond HSR, and thence extensions to Raleigh and Norfolk would be similarly high-performing, and so on. Some of those extensions would add about 40 million passenger-km per route-km of new construction, compared with about 28 million on the Northeast Corridor alone; in other words, assuming constant per-km cost, the rate of return on some of the extensions is higher than on the Northeast Corridor trunk. Similarly, although international HSR links are overrated, once New York-Buffalo is in place, an extension into Toronto becomes high-performing (with about 30 million passenger-km per new route-km after a fudge factor accounting for the underperformance of international city pairs), which is especially useful given that New York-Buffalo’s projected traffic based on said primitive model is marginal.
In those cases, the picture is bright, in that the first phase is strong on its own, and then future phases become natural extensions, which can be funded on the heels of the first phase’s success.Unfortunately, in many cases the situation is different, and the first phase is really a half-built line that isn’t much better than nothing, at least on the proposed merits. For example, High Speed 2’s rising costs are causing the cost-benefit analysis to head well into marginal territory: as per PDF-page 15 of a Parliamentary primer, the benefit-cost ratio of the first phase, London-Birmingham, is now down to 1.4, while this of the full system as proposed by the Cameron administration, going to Manchester and Leeds, is 1.8. Although 1.4 > 1, common practice in Europe is to build only projects with benefit-cost ratios higher than 1.2 or 1.3, because of the risk of further cost escalations (although the stated cost includes a generous contingency factor). The environmental benefits are likewise lopsided in favor of full construction, according to pro-HSR group Greengauge 21: three quarters of the benefits come from the second phase. This is because few people fly from London to Birmingham or Manchester already, since the existing medium-speed trains are fast enough at these distances to outcompete low-cost flights; however, there’s a large volume of people flying from London to Glasgow, and it is expected to take the full opening of HS2 to get enough of those fliers to switch to make a significant difference.
In this case, HS2’s first phase is better than nothing, and the problem stems from extremely high costs: without contingency, London-Birmingham, a distance of about 180 km, is projected to be about $23 billion after PPP conversion, which at nearly $130 million per km is worse than California HSR, which has to tunnel under tall mountain ranges. With contingency, it is $175 million per km, not much less than the projected cost of the majority-underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. If the costs were brought down to reasonable levels, the first phase alone would be highly beneficial, as can only be expected given the size of London and the secondary cities of the West Coast Main Line.
In some other proposed cases, even the benefits are marginal. Worse, sometimes attempts to cut costs lead to steeper cuts in benefits. The example that motivated this post is a recent story of a proposal for HSR in Colorado, which is not planned to serve the built-up area of Denver at all, but instead stop at the airport. An airport stop without a downtown stop is unacceptable anywhere, especially given Denver’s airport’s large distance from downtown (30 km, vs. 15 km in Shanghai, where most HSR trains stop at the domestic airport and only a few stop downtown at Shanghai Station). It is especially unacceptable given that Denver is to be connected to cities that are within easy driving or medium-speed rail distance: Fort Collins is 100 km north of Denver, Colorado Springs is 110 km south, and Pueblo, which is only proposed as part of a larger second phase together with a Rocky Mountain crossing, is 180 km south. At the distances of Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, the egress time would eat all time advantage of HSR over driving; at the distance of Pueblo, it would eat most of the time advantage. Saving money is nice, but not when it makes the entire project useless except to the occasional Fort Collins- or Colorado Springs-based flier.
One can go further and ask why even build HSR at such short distances. On the Northeast Corridor, full-service HSR is a great investment, because of the combination of extremely thick city pairs at the 360 km mark (New York-Washington and New York-Boston) and one reasonably thick pair at the 720 km mark (Boston-Washington), which is too far for medium-speed rail to compete with air. Philadelphia’s presence boosts the case for HSR – it conveniently provides a source of reverse-peak traffic away from New York and Washington, adds long-distance travelers to Boston, and adds short-distance high-speed travelers to New York – but by itself it’s not worth it to build HSR at the distance of New York-Philadelphia. If Boston and Washington weren’t there, then incremental upgrades with a top speed of 200 km/h or maybe 250 km/h would be best, and higher speeds would just waste money on more expensive trains and create noise pollution and higher energy consumption.
The same analysis is true of faster-than-HSR travel modes. The other motivation for this post, in addition to Colorado’s proposal, is Japan’s attempt to export maglev to the US, proposing the Northeast Corridor as the route to run maglev on, with Baltimore-Washington as the first segment, which Japan proposed to build for free, as a loss leader. Nobody needs maglev from Baltimore to Washington: the egress time is going to ensure the benefits of maglev speeds over HSR speeds are small, and even the benefits of HSR speeds over fast commuter rail speeds are limited. The Chuo Shinkansen is only planned to be about 440 km long, but it’s a capacity boost on a line that already has HSR with extremely high ridership, and not just a speed upgrade. Elsewhere, Japan builds conventional HSR rather than maglev, even for inter-island travel, where people fly today since the Shinkansen takes 5+ hours and flying takes an hour.
Part of my distaste for Hyperloop essentially comes from the same problem: it tries to compete with HSR at a distance where HSR is appropriate and faster trains are not. All of the technical problems of Hyperloop – thermal expansion, claustrophobic vehicles, extreme levels of lateral acceleration – are solvable, at the cost of more money. The technology is feasible; it’s Musk’s order-of-magnitude-too-low cost estimate that I object to. The problem is that at LA-SF distance, access and egress time and security will eat the entire time advantage over conventional HSR, in similar vein to the problem with siting Denver’s HSR station at the airport. Conventional HSR still involves regular trains that can run on electrified legacy lines, so it’s cheap to go the first and last miles within the Bay Area and the LA Basin; maglev doesn’t have this ability and neither do vactrains. Thus there will always be the problem with the first and last mile, which can be solved only by spending even more money – even in the case of the Chuo Shinkansen, JR Central decided that Shinagawa, just outside Central Tokyo, is good enough, and there’s no need to spend further money to get trains into Tokyo Station. But the access, egress, and security time penalties are constant, whereas the time advantage over slower modes of transportation grows with distance.
So by all means, let’s think about maglev from New York to Chicago and Miami and from Los Angeles to Seattle, where HSR is too slow to compete with air travel; let’s think about a vactrain at transcontinental scales, were open-air maglev is too slow. There’s a reason this year’s April Fool’s post emphasized that the vactrain system should be intercontinental and globally connected. I don’t think maglev in the US or a vactrain anywhere pans out in the next few decades, but at least at this greater scale they wouldn’t be crowding out a technology that can succeed, i.e. conventional HSR at the scale of the Northeast Corridor or California.
Sometimes, starting small means failing. A strong first phase with stronger second phases, such as LA-SF or Boston-NY-DC, is likely to become a success and motivate the political system to spend additional money, partly from first-phase profits, on extensions. A weak first phase that needs additional phases to pan out won’t lead to the same extensions. When a white elephant project opens, nobody listens to critics who say it should’ve been built bigger, even in the uncommon cases when those critics are right. Colorado HSR as proposed is going to get faltering ridership, not enough to justify the cost, and cause widespread disaffection even with potentially strong rail projects in Colorado. The same is true of any faster-than-HSR project that tries to replace HSR instead of capitalize on its strength in serving much longer-distance city pairs. If Musk succeeds in causing the median Californian to turn away from HSR and build Hyperloop instead, then first Hyperloop will turn out to cost ten or more times as much as Musk predicted (for which people won’t blame Musk but the government – Musk’s sycophants will tsk-tsk from the sideline and say that if only he had been in charge), and second the ridership won’t cover the costs, leading people to decide that any linear transportation corridor is bad and the government should stick to highways and airports.