The Long Island Railroad’s timetable is a mess. There is too little off-peak service, especially at the urban stations. At the peak, there is more service, but the service pattern is inscrutable. The Babylon Branch runs a skip-stop pattern in which trains make three stops, skip the next three, and then make the three after them. The pattern of which branch east of Jamaica is sent to which city terminal (Penn Station, Flatbush/Atlantic, or occasionally Hunterspoint) is inconsistent; passengers generally get timed cross-platform transfers at Jamaica, but the frequent interlacing of trains introduces a lot of dependency between different branches in the schedule, reducing reliability. Worst, the Main Line runs trains one-way, so for an hour in the peak, there is no off-peak service. As expected, reverse-peak ridership is minimal, even though there’s a fair number of jobs within a comfortable walk of Mineola. In this post, I am going to discuss how to improve the schedules.
The main tool I will use is a map of LIRR line speed zones. This was made by Patrick O’Hara, of the invaluable but now taken-offline blog The LIRR Today. I emphasize that Patrick does not endorse my plan to eliminate one-way service, on the grounds that it would unacceptably add to the travel time for conventional peak trips from Hicksville and points east to Penn Station. However, using the map and some data about rolling stock performance, I am going to show that LIRR schedules are so padded that improvements to reliability via simpler scheduling can reduce trip times significantly, more than making up for additional trip times to the elimination of most express runs.
First, let us compute technical trip times. In Boston, I compute these by looking at the acceleration rate of the FLIRT, but New York has passable rolling stock already, which means that modernization does not require full replacement of the fleet. This means we should use the specs of the M7: 13.9 kilowatts per ton (FLIRT: 21.7 maximum, 16.7 continuous), and an initial acceleration rate of 0.9 m/s^2 (FLIRT: 1.2). Assuming no air resistance, this means the theoretical acceleration penalty to 130 km/h, the speed over most of the electrified LIRR main lines, is 23 seconds. Judging by the difference between theoretical and actual FLIRT acceleration performance, the actual penalty is about 26 seconds. The deceleration penalty is 19 seconds, for a total of 45. Up to a speed of 100 km/h, the acceleration penalty is 17 seconds and the deceleration penalty is 13 seconds, for a total of 30.
Let us take dwell times to be 30 seconds. With reasonably wide doors at the quarter points and level boarding, it should not be difficult for the LIRR to hold to this standard. Actual dwells appear to be about 40-50 seconds, but are in the context of considerable schedule padding, as we will see. I am going to round speeds up from mph to km/h, so 80 mph will be rounded to 130 km/h, and 60 mph to 100 km/h; the numbers are close, and when I compute curve speeds, the total equivalent cant seems very low, such that large speed increases are possible. However, I am going to stick to the speed map, only changing to km/h for ease of calculation. Including dwell time, the stop penalty in 130 km/h territory is 75 seconds, and the stop penalty in 100 km/h territory is 60 seconds.
Of note, the actual stop penalties we see on LIRR schedules are larger, on the order of 100 seconds. Part of it is the padding again, but part of it is that LIRR trains do not accelerate as fast as they can; the LIRR derated its trains, limiting their acceleration to about 0.45 m/s^2 to reduce the electric current. This can and should be reversed. If it is not, the acceleration penalty is 40 seconds to 130 km/h and 31 seconds to 100 km/h, while the deceleration penalty, unaffected by the change to maximum acceleration, remains the same; overall, this slows trains by about 15 seconds per stop.
East of Jamaica, there are almost no slow zones on either the Main Line or the Babylon Branch. Hicksville’s 65 km/h zone slows trains that stop at Hicksville by about 30 seconds (even a few hundred meters from the station, trains could go faster if the line speed were higher). The curve between Bethpage and Farmingdale is worth 15 seconds. The slowdown in the interlocking at the junction with the Hempstead Line adds 5 seconds. The slowdowns in Jamaica add 35 seconds east of Jamaica, and 55 west of Jamaica, both for stopping trains. On the Babylon Branch, there are a few restrictions in the 80-110 km/h range, worth in total about 70 seconds; Babylon itself is in 100 km/h territory, adding another 10 seconds.
It is 63.6 km from Jamaica to Ronkonkoma. An express train from Jamaica to Ronkonkoma stopping only at Hicksville would do the trip in 33 minutes. A limited-stop train that stopped at Floral Park, Mineola, Hicksville, and then all stops to Ronkonkoma would do the trip in 44.5 minutes. A train that made every LIRR stop, even ones that Ronkonkoma trains never stop at today, would do it in 53 minutes. Under the current schedule, limited-stop trains, not stopping at Floral Park (with technical travel time of 43.5 minutes), do the trip in an hour, for a pad factor of 38%. After accounting for the fact that LIRR trains don’t accelerate this quickly because of the derating, we obtain a technical travel time of around 45.5 minutes, for a pad factor of 32%, still immense.
In Zurich, schedules are padded 7%. Rerating the trains to allow faster acceleration, and reducing the pad to 7%, would cut the trip time under the current off-peak stopping pattern from an hour to 47 minutes, which can be taken as either a material speed boost or as an opportunity to make more local stops. As I will argue later, trains should make more local stops – specifically, all from Floral Park east. This is five more stops than trains currently make; taking the 7% pad into account, we get 54 minutes, still a noticeable improvement over the current situation.
It is 17.4 km from Penn Station to Jamaica. Rather than detail the slow zones, I will just give the technical travel time, for a full-acceleration M7 making no intermediate stops: 13 minutes, or 14 with a 7% pad; 1 of those 13 minutes comes from the Penn Station throat and its 25 km/h speed limit, which is one of the reasons I have emphasized the need for simpler interlockings in station reconstruction. The schedule has 19 minutes, which is a 45% pad relative to full-acceleration travel time, and around 40% relative to the derated travel time. This is even worse, which I believe comes from a combination of congestion in the Penn Station area and the timed transfer at Jamaica; these mean that delays on one branch propagate to the others, requiring more slack in the schedule to maintain reliability. However, I will note that Zurich’s 7% pad is in the context of an environment with even more branches sharing a trunk line, and a plethora of timed transfers and overtakes.
It is 44.4 km from Jamaica to Babylon. An all-stop train – counting Saint Albans but not Atlantic Branch-only Rosedale and Valley Stream – would do the trip in 41 minutes. As I’ve argued years ago, the Babylon Branch’s stations all have relatively equal ridership, unlike the Main Line, where a few stations dominate, and therefore, we shouldn’t plan around express trains. The current schedule‘s travel time on all-stop off-peak trains is 53 minutes, a pad of 29% relative to full-acceleration performance and 19% relative to the derated performance. I believe the reason there is much less padding here than on the Ronkonkoma Branch is that the service pattern is simpler: off-peak, all trains make all stops, whereas the Main Line mixes skip-stop and express trains between the Ronkonkoma and Port Jefferson Branches. If all trains make the same stops and there are no overtakes, it’s easier to recover from delays, so there is less need for padding. (A similar principle is that you need less padding on double-track lines than on single-track lines.)
As mentioned before, at Swiss 7% padding, making all Main Line trains all-local from Floral Park east allows 54-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica. It also allows 69-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station, with a minute-long dwell at Jamaica. This is two minutes less than the fastest daily train on the current schedule, a nonstop that runs once a day and arrives at Penn Station at 7:30 am, before the greatest rush. Even at the Babylon Branch’s 19% padding, we get 60-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica and 76-minute service to Penn Station, which compares with 75 minutes for two peak trains with a few intermediate stops, and 82 minutes for off-peak trains with the above-mentioned pattern.
As for the Babylon Branch, going down to 7% padding and rerating the trains at higher speed means all-stop trains, including the three current local stops between Jamaica and Penn Station, would do the trip in 62 minutes. This is competitive with most peak trains: one train stopping only at Jamaica does the trip in 53 minutes, arriving at 7:02 am, but the other morning express trains, with pads varying based on how close to the peak of peak it is, do the trip in 62-65 minutes.
I claim that the solution to the problems of the Main Line is to indeed abolish all express runs. At the peak, there is no excuse for them: current traffic between the Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson, and Oyster Bay Branches is about 23 trains per hour at the peak, and this means that either all peak-direction trains run local, or trains run one way, with local trains on one track and express trains on the other. The LIRR chooses to sacrifice reverse-peak service, because frankly providing a coherent network is not a priority; the priority is connecting peak-hour suburban travelers to Manhattan, and saving them a few minutes at any cost. This is despite the fact that peak travelers are the most expensive to serve – the peak is what drives capital investment, to say nothing of the crew utilization problems. But in this case, the peak-focused service may be self-defeating, as the above computation of pad ratios shows.
In the morning peak, west of Hicksville, the service pattern should thus be the same for every Ronkonkoma or Port Jefferson Branch train: all stops to Floral Park (where passengers could transfer to the Hempstead Branch), then express to Jamaica and then Penn Station. All trains should be as identical as possible, which means cutting the diesels to shuttles and, in the medium term, electrifying the Port Jefferson Branch to the end, since there is high ridership the entire way, whereas the Oyster Bay Branch and the Main Line beyond Ronkonkoma have low ridership. The dispatching should emphasize headway management rather than the schedule. Since all trains are functionally identical from Hicksville west, it does not matter to passengers if their favorite train left early – the next one will show up in at most 3 minutes. For the same reason, the transfer at Jamaica should not be timed at the peak.
The highest rapid transit capacity in the world is on subway lines that use headway management rather than fixed schedules, including the Moscow Metro and many modern driverless lines, where the limit is 39 tph. I do not expect 39 tph on the LIRR, but there is no demand for that on the Main Line right now; the point is to maintain 24 tph without excessive schedule padding. Off-peak, trains should keep a schedule because the frequency is lower, but the lower frequency is precisely what makes delays not propagate so fast; similarly, off-peak, the Jamaica transfer should be timed. The greatest problem is in the afternoon off-peak, but there, the bulk of boardings are at Penn Station, where delays are less likely since it’s the start of the line.
This pattern also suggests which capital investments the LIRR needs to make: it needs to construct interlockings such that there are no conflicts between Main Line trains and other trains. This means two things. First, grade-separating Queens Interlocking, between the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, which currently has an at-grade conflict between opposing trains (eastbound Hempstead Branch, westbound Main Line). And second, reconstructing Jamaica’s access tracks from the east in a way that allows the Main Line from the east to continue on the Main Line’s express tracks to the west without interference from other lines. Right now, there’s an at-grade conflict with the Babylon Branch, but only in the same direction, which is less problematic.
This means kicking other branches off the express tracks from Jamaica to Penn Station, the most desirable track pair heading west of Jamaica. This is fine. Passengers on branches that connect to Flatbush, or to the local tracks to Penn Station, could still transfer cross-platform at Jamaica, even if at the peak the connecting train does not wait for them. Besides, as noted above, 7%-padded local trains from Babylon to Penn Station would have the same trip time as all but the single fastest express Babylon Branch train today.
Jamaica’s current track layout is 8 platform tracks, numbered 1-8, north to south. There are platforms between tracks 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, and 7-8. This platform configuration allows three-way timed transfers: when a train platforms on track 2, passengers can walk from track 1 to track 3 via the train. Right now, to the west, the Atlantic Branch connects to tracks 3-6, and the four tracks of the Main Line each connects to two Jamaica tracks. But track connections exist to persistently connect tracks 2 and 7 to the express Main Line tracks, making 1 and 8 the local tracks and 3 and 6 the tracks to Flatbush. To the east, the Far Rockaway and Long Beach Branches connect to the Atlantic Branch without conflicting with other trains. Local Main Line tracks connect to tracks 1 and 8 without conflict. The only conflict involves the Babylon Branch, which runs in the middle between the eastbound and westbound Main Line tracks before diverging, and points at tracks 2 and 7. The current service pattern is that most Babylon Branch trains run express from Jamaica to Penn Station, making this track layout desirable. However, if they are switched to the local, single-track flyovers to connect them to tracks 1 and 8 are required, or alternatively a connection to tracks 3 and 6, which can be done without flyovers. In either case, three-way timed transfers would be retained, except at the peak.
Under my through-running proposal, the Atlantic Branch would continue to Lower Manhattan, so its demand would be much greater than today, encouraging a layout in which the Babylon Branch connected to tracks 3 and 6 and went to Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Main Line trains would express to East Side Access and Grand Central, with an additional stop at Sunnyside Junction. The Hempstead Branch, connected to Penn Station and the Empire Connection, would have service increased, with mode-neutral fares encouraging more travel from within New York and Hempstead. I would also propose a new branch of the Hempstead Branch, using the inner Central Branch, going to the East Garden City job cluster. The Oyster Bay Branch would be electrified and its junction with the Main Line grade-separated.
However, I emphasize that none of my proposed schedule changes requires the intensive capital investment associated with connecting Flatbush with Lower Manhattan. Even East Side Access is not required. Queens Interlocking would be grade-separated, and the Oyster Bay Branch would be reduced to a shuttle with an additional track at Mineola (unless electrifying the entire line and grade-separating the junction is cheaper in the short run, which I doubt). Initially, I am not sure the at-grade conflict with the Babylon Branch on the approach to Jamaica would be deadly. The subway has a same-direction at-grade conflict at Rogers Avenue Junction, between the 2, 3, and 5 trains, whose combined peak frequency is higher than that of the Main Line and Babylon Branch’s. Rogers Avenue Junction is a key bottleneck on the numbered lines in New York, which is why the LIRR should not replicate it in the long run, but in the short run, it is fine.
To conclude, here are proposed westbound timetables for Ronkonkoma, Babylon, and Hempstead trains. These assume no new stations and only the minimally required physical infrastructure (that is, grade-separating Queens Interlocking).
|New Hyde Park||7:44|
|New York Penn||8:08|
This is a total travel time of 68 minutes, and not 69 as advertised above. This is because of rounding artifacts.
|Country Life Press||7:33|
|New York Penn||8:12|
The 4-minute difference between local and express travel time between Jamaica and Penn Station comes from the fact that the intermediate stations are for the most part in slower zones than 130 – only at Forest Hills is there enough of a distance to get up to 130, and only west of the station, not east. Erratum: although it is true the stations are in slow zones, I wrote this paragraph thinking there are four intermediate stations, where of course there are only three; 4/3 = 80 seconds per stop, which comes from rounding artifacts.
The Hempstead Branch has a 1.5-km single-track segment starting west of Hempstead and ending east of Garden City. It is quite slow; the 25 km/h curve just north (west) of Country Life Press has geometry good enough for 50 km/h without any superelevation (cant deficiency would be 150 mm), and with 150 mm superelevation would be good for 70. Replacing that entire 25-50 km/h segment with 70 km/h saves about a minute of travel time.
|New York Penn||8:07|
I arbitrarily chose the Ronkonkoma departure time to be 7:00, and then chose the Hempstead Branch schedule to allow a timed transfer at Jamaica. The five-minute offset for the Babylon Branch should be suggestive of the proposed frequency: off-peak, every ten minutes on the Babylon Branch (possibly every twenty but also every twenty on the West Hempstead Branch), every ten minutes on the Hempstead Branch (possibly every twenty but also every twenty on the Central Branch to East Garden City), and every ten minutes on the Main Line, with each of the Ronkonkoma and Port Jefferson Branches getting a train every twenty minutes. The Atlantic Branch trains should run every twenty minutes per branch, with a three-way timed transfer with the Main Line and Hempstead Branch. Off-peak, the Babylon Branch doesn’t transfer to anything else, so there is no need to worry about its at-grade conflict at Jamaica.
Update 9/24: as Alex Block notes in comments, sources at Amtrak deny the story, saying that Schumer spoke too soon, and there are still two bidders and Amtrak has not yet made its choice. If the cost turns out to be $1-1.25 billion rather than $2.5 billion, I will withdraw any and all criticism of the procurement process.
A press release from Senator Charles Schumer’s office is abuzz: Amtrak chose Alstom’s bid for its next order of high-speed trainsets, the Next-Generation Acelas. The press release mentions the size of the contract, $2.5 billion, and the number of jobs it would create, 750; it did not include any information relevant to passengers, such as the number of trains, the expected schedule of delivery, the expected frequency, and the expected travel time. Various media outlets have reprinted Schumer’s press release without such additional information, or indeed any analysis. Let me rectify this and provide some background as to why this order is a fleece.
The order is for 28 trainsets with 425 seats each. This can be seen here and here. Of those 28 sets, 25 should be available for maximum service, well below the 98% peak availability achieved by the TGV, but an improvement over the Acela’s current 16 trains available out of 20. There is no mention of the number of cars, which is how orders are usually priced. However, on page 30 of the technical specs, it is mentioned that the maximum length is 200 meters, equivalent to 8 cars. The capacity is equivalent to about six cars’ worth of seating at the normal seat density of economy-class HSR (including the Amtrak Regional coach), or about seven cars’ worth averaged over all occupied Acela cars. The RFP mentions half a bistro car with an option for a full car (page 21 of instructions to offerors), so eight cars per train is a reasonable assumption. I have seen references to ten cars per set, which I believe come from the option for two additional cars per train (the instructions phrase this as “an extra 33.33% capacity”). From Schumer’s press release it’s difficult to know whether the $2.5 billion figure is the base order or also the option.
Eight cars per train times 28 trains equals 224 cars. $2.5 billion divided by 224 equals $11.2 million per car; if I am wrong and these are ten-car trains, then it is $8.9 million per car. In China, a very high-speed train, capable of 350-380 km/h, costs $4 million per car; this is $900 million at the size of Amtrak’s order. In Europe, the new Eurostar order cost a total of €600-700 million for ten 16-car Velaro trainsets, about $4.7-5.5 million per car in PPP terms (see here and here); the uncertainty comes from euro:pound conversion rates and from the fact that a portion of the order is for refurbishment of the older trainsets. Siemens also sold 8-car Velaros to Deutsche Bahn for $5.2 million per car, again in PPP terms. Japanese trains are even cheaper, about $3 million per car in a recent N700 order, but only last 20 years, whereas European HSR trainsets last 40 and Amtrak specified a 30-year shelf life. The only non-US trainset order that I’ve seen that approaches the $10 million per car mark is the Velaro RUS, which is €600 million for eight 10-car trains, and this includes substantial modifications, such as winterization.
There is no excuse for such high costs. The technical specs are not particularly innovative: on page 22 of the document linked above, it is mentioned that cant deficiency should be 127 mm if the trains don’t tilt and 229 if they do, both of which figures are unimpressive by the respective standards of non-tilting and tilting trains. There is no explicit requirement for tilt. There is a requirement that trains be capable of traveling between New York and Washington in 2:21 (current trip time is 2:48) and between New Haven and Boston in 1:51 (current trip time is about 2 hours, skipping New London, which the specs require trains to stop at); there is no mention of which track upgrades are forthcoming, but given Amtrak’s heavy schedule padding, it is not difficult for a good train to meet the requirements. I do not bring these specs up to attack Amtrak for not demanding more of the trains, but to note that what Amtrak is asking is standard, so there is no reason for trains to be unusually expensive.
I will note that due to Buy America provisions, the trains will be manufactured in the US, at Alstom’s factory in Hornell. This has not caused cost blowouts for the large orders made by the New York subway, the LIRR, and Metro-North, but perhaps this order is small enough that requiring Alstom to build it at a new factory leads to major cost increases. It is also possible that due to difficulties in the bidding process, there are fewer bidders than is normal – Bombardier dropped out of the process last year, and in general, some US contracts have just one bid, with correspondingly elevated prices. But regardless of the reason, Amtrak’s order comes at a factor-of-two cost premium, and Schumer just expressed pride at the few hundred jobs that this waste would create.
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 then 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.
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:
The National Transit Database has figures for service in car-km and car-hours for a variety of US transit agencies. In New York State, the Empire Center has lists of every public employee’s position and pay, which we can use to figure out the average pay of a train driver and conductor and the productivity of their labor. The NTD numbers are as of 2011, so I will use the number of employees of 2011, but the pay per employee of 2014 (at any rate, there have been no major service changes since 2011, so numbers are similar). In 2011, the LIRR averaged 5,000 car-hours per driver-year, and Metro-North averaged 4,000; the LIRR runs longer trains than Metro-North, so the figure for both railroads appear to be about 500 train-hours per driver-year. Both railroads had a little bit more than 2 conductors per driver on average (2.14 Metro-North, 2.47 LIRR). The average pay of a driver, as of 2014, is $109,000 on the LIRR and $120,000 on Metro-North, whereas the average pay of a conductor is $112,000 on the LIRR and $96,000 on Metro-North.
From this, we can piece together the average operating cost of commuter rail derived from on-board labor, per train-hour: $771 on the LIRR, $714 on Metro-North. Assuming 8 cars per train (and again, the LIRR tends to run longer trains), this is around $90-95 per car-hour. According to the NTD, the average operating cost of both was about $550 per car-hour in 2011, but this includes fixed costs, such as management and rolling stock. As we will see, variable operating costs are much lower.
As a digression, I’d like to point out that the peaky schedule of commuter rail contributes to the low productivity of the drivers. Crew schedules include substantial gap time between trips, and occasionally, especially on low-frequency diesel branches, they deadhead. That said, the subway’s number of revenue train-hours per driver is not materially different. For higher figures, one must leave New York. Toei got about 700 revenue hours per driver when I last checked, but I can no longer find the reference. On the London Underground, I do have fresh references, pointing in the same range: 76.2 million train-km per year at 33 km/h average speed (from TfL’s facts and figures), and a bit more than 3,000 train operators. In 2012, the last year for which there’s actual rather than predicted data (see also PDF-p. 7 of the TfL Annual Report), there were 720 revenue hours per train driver. This is in tandem with a less peaky schedule than in New York: although the average speed is barely higher than that of the New York subway, as reported in the NTD, the trains travel about 180,000 km per year (see fact 149 here), twice as long as in New York. In Helsinki, metro trains run every 10 minutes all day on each branch, every day, without any extra peak service, contributing to even higher utilization: the schedules show 65,000 revenue-hours per year, whereas a factsheet from 2010 shows 75 metro drivers, for a total of 867 revenue hours per driver. In both the UK and Finland, average hours per employee are marginally shorter than in the US; London Underground drivers have 36-hour workweeks.
The importance of this computation is not just to highlight that 44-73% improvement in revenue-hours per employee is possible, but to point out that, on the margins, adding off-peak service would make crew schedules more efficient, since higher frequency would reduce the need to deadhead and to wait between trains. This means that, although the average operating cost may be about $750 per train-hour, the marginal cost is lower, even without changes to work rules.
Suppose now that trains run without conductors, using proof-of-payment as on light rail lines, even ones in North America, and on countless commuter rail systems in Continental Europe. Suppose also that there are 720 revenue-hours per driver, and that a driver is paid $115,000 per year. This means that running extra trains would not cost $90-95 in on-board labor per car-hour, but only $20, a nearly fivefold improvement. At Helsinki’s level of productivity, a nearly sixfold improvement to $16.60 is possible. At the LIRR’s present average speed of 50 km/h (compared with 53 on New Jersey Transit and 59 on Metro-North), the fivefold improvement based on London Underground productivity would cut the average cost per car-km from $1.80-1.90 to $0.40; at a higher but still realistic 67 km/h, it’s a cut from $1.35 to $0.30. A large majority of this cut comes from eliminating conductors, which, by itself, would cut costs threefold, but raising driver productivity would allow an additional cut of 30-40%. I again stress that the marginal cost is lower than the average cost computed here, since less peaky schedules come with simpler crew scheduling; more off-peak service would by itself cut the average cost, which means its marginal cost would be quite low.
Let us now look at other variable costs than on-board labor. Two years ago, I did this computation for high-speed rail, and found that, provided the schedules did not have extra rush hour service, operating expenses would be very low. We can do the same computation for commuter rail, and note that the lower speeds imply that operating and maintenance costs are spread across less passenger-km, raising costs. Let us consider train maintenance, cleaning, and energy.
I do not have information about train maintenance costs on commuter rail. Instead, I will use those of high-speed rail, for which standards are higher. As I noted in my computation from two years ago, the reference here is California HSR’s 2012 Business Plan, which aggregates these figures from around the world on PDF-p. 136. Maintenance costs per train-km are $4.47 for the Tokaido Shinkansen (with 16-car trains) and $2.58 per the UIC (with what I assume are 8-car trains), both in 2009 dollars. These figures cluster around $0.30 per car-km in 2009 dollars, or $0.30-35 per car-km in 2014 dollars.
With cleaning, there is some information about commuter rail: the Empire Center has lists of coach cleaners on Metro-North (there are 314) and their pay (on average, a little less than $50,000 a year). This seems high given the amount of service Metro-North runs – about $0.15 per car-km. Shinkansen trains are cleaned on a seven-minute turnaround in Tokyo, using one cleaner per standard-class car; this includes tasks that are not required on commuter rail, such as flipping seats to face forward. A cleaner making $30 per hour cleaning a single car per 15 minutes, with each train cleaned once per 150 km roundtrip, would cost $0.05 per car-km. I suspect that part of the low productivity of Metro-North cleaners is again a matter of low off-peak frequency – Shinkansen cleaners work almost continuously – but I don’t have comparative data to back this up; New York City Transit pays even more per cleaner per car- or bus-km, but this is on much lower average speed, and per car- or bus-hour, it pays about $6.40, vs. about $8.90 for Metro-North. I’m going to pencil in $0.10 per car-km as the cost of cleaning.
Energy costs we can compute from first principles. This is easier than for HSR, since commuter trains travel at such speed that a large majority of their energy consumption is in acceleration, rather than cruising. The explicit assumptions I am making is that the top speed is 130 km/h (the two main LIRR lines are mostly 80 mph territory), each car weighs 54 metric tons (the LIRR M7s weigh 57.5 and the Metro-North M8s even more, but this is very high by international EMU standards, thanks to FRA regulations), the average distance between stations is 4 km (the LIRR’s average is less than that if all trains make all stops and more if there are some express trains), and the track resistance per unit of train mass is the same as for the X 2000, for which data exists on PDF-p. 64 of a thesis on tilting trains. Regenerative braking is assumed to exactly cancel out with losses in transmission. Train acceleration performance is assumed to be like that of the FLIRT, which would take about a kilometer to accelerate to line speed and have about 2 km of cruising before slowing down for the stop; the M7 has inferior performance, but this would reduce energy consumption since trains would spend more time at lower speed.
With the above assumptions, each acceleration, cruise, and deceleration cycle between stations consumes about 13 kWh, of which 10 kWh is required to accelerate the train to top speed, and the other 3 are for overcoming track resistance. See rough computations in a subthread on California HSR Blog starting with this comment, and bear in mind the initial comment made a large computational error. As for April of this year, transportation electricity costs in the state are $0.1245 per kWh, giving us about $1.60 per 4-km interstation, or $0.40 per car-km.
Overall, those three items are $0.80 per car-km. This means that going from paying train crew $1.35 per car-km to paying them $0.30 per car-km represents halving of direct marginal operating expenses: it means going from $2.15 to $1.10 per car-km. Finally, let us add management costs, which are not exactly marginal costs, but do grow as the workforce grows, since more employees require supervisors. At RENFE, we can extract 0.27 support and management employees per operations employee from the data on PDF-p. 46 of its 2010 executive summary. On the Helsinki urban rail network, the corresponding figure is 0.34 as per the factsheet referenced above. This affects train crew, cleaning, and maintenance staff, but not energy. If this means 30% extra costs, this means going from $2.675 to $1.31 per car-km – again, we see costs are halved.
The off-peak LIRR fare is 15 cents per kilometer at long distances (14 to Ronkonkoma, but much more at shorter distances, for example 21 to Hicksville). If the marginal cost of running off-peak service is $1.31 per car-km, it means a car needs to have 9 passengers without season passes on it paying 15 cents per km for the trip to break even. If it’s $2.675, it needs 18. Passengers who commute off-peak and get season passes for those commutes also contribute, but less – a monthly pass for Ronkonkoma is $377, which at 46 trips a month is 10 cents per kilometer. It is not hard to have 9 passengers even on a long train, or even 13 (at the lower rate of season passes); Ronkonkoma itself is a park-and-ride, where this is less likely, but high enough passenger volumes as far as Mineola and Hicksville and all over the Babylon Branch are quite likely. If the required minimum is 18, let alone 26, this is substantially harder.
I harp on North American mainline rail operations for a variety of antiquated practices, but the on-board overstaffing is by far the worst. While improvement in train driver productivity can occur as a natural byproduct of improvement in off-peak frequency, getting rid of conductors is not so easy. It means a fight with the unions over job losses. Some of the required layoffs can be mitigated by retraining conductors as train drivers and running more service, but this would not boost service hours by a factor of 5; on the Ronkonkoma Branch, the peakiest of the three long LIRR lines, boosting off- and reverse-peak frequency to half the peak frequency would only increase train service by a factor of about 1.8.
I am not an expert on labor relations, so I do not know if any solution barring a prolonged SEPTA-style strike could work, alone or in combination. One possibility would be to commit to reducing working hours in the next five or ten years instead of hiking pay; working hours would be gradually reduced to core Western European levels, with 35-hour workweeks and 6 weeks of paid vacation, and hourly pay would rise as scheduled while annual pay would be frozen. Another possibility is that the MTA would help laid off employees find private-sector work, as happened in the 1980s with Japan National Railways (see PDF-pp. 103-4 of a handbook on rail privatization). This possibility requires implementing the reform at a time of wage growth and low unemployment, when private-sector work is easier to find, but the US is posting strong job growth numbers nowadays and is projected to keep doing so for at least another year.
But whatever happens, the most important reform from the point of view of reducing marginal off-peak service provision costs is letting go of redundant train crew. Halving the variable operating costs is exactly what is required to convert the nearly empty off-peak trains from financial drains to an extra source of revenues, balancing low ridership with even lower expenses. This would of course compound with other operating efficiencies, limiting the losses of branch lines and turning the busier main line trains into profit centers. But nowhere else is there the possibility of cutting costs so much with one single policy change as with removing conductors and changing the fare enforcement system to proof-of-payment.
Update 7/31: first, check comments below about maintenance costs: as far as I can tell from poorly presented Empire Center data, they are about 2.5 times higher, for both trains and the infrastructure, than the maintenance costs of high-speed rail. Although the effect of reducing those costs to conventional HSR level is larger than the effect of eliminating conductors, the details of reducing maintenance costs are far more delicate than those of eliminating conductors and running trains more often so that train drivers have less downtime.
Second, there is a small error in the above calculations: the figure of $90-95 in crew salary per car-hour is based on two conflicting assumptions. To get to $771 per train-hour on the LIRR, I assumed the LIRR ran 10-car trains. To get down to the $90-95 range, I assumed 8-car trains; 10-car trains would make this $77/hour. If we redo the entire calculation with 10-car trains, still with HSR maintenance costs, then instead of a cut from $2.675/car-km to $1.31/car-km, improved labor efficiency would cut costs from $2.415/car-km to $1.21/car-km. This is based on exact LIRR salaries, whereas the original calculation assumes hybrid LIRR/Metro-North salaries, and Metro-North pays drivers better than the LIRR.
Now, trains are somewhat longer at the peak than off-peak. If off-peak service is already with 8-car trains, and the average number of conductors is constant, then the original calculation (a cut from $2.675 to $1.31) still holds. After all, the salaries of train drivers and conductors are the same no matter how long the train is. But the number of conductors is not constant – let’s say it is proportional to train length, so 8-car LIRR trains have 2 conductors instead of 2.47, just as Metro-North’s average number of conductors per train is shorter than the LIRR’s, in tandem with its shorter consists. This changes the calculation to a cut from $2.535 (reflecting fewer conductors than in the original calculation) to $1.31. Observe that no matter what assumption we use, the operating cost cut coming from removing conductors and using drivers more efficiently is about 50%, give or take 1-2%.
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.
The night before last, a Northeast Corridor Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing seven people. For some overviews of what happened, see Vox and Huffington Post. I am not going to talk directly about the accident here; it appears to be the same kind of derailment as on Metro-North a year and a half ago. Instead, I’m going to talk about the general issue of redundancy, which I saw people bring up in response to the train shutdowns that followed the crash. This is not the first time I hear about this; redundancy figures prominently into the list of benefits touted for new rail tunnels across the Hudson, allowing Amtrak to shut down the existing tunnels for repairs. Even before Amtrak proposed the Gateway project, transit activists talked about redundancy as a positive feature, for example Cap’n Transit. In this post, I am going to explain why, in public transportation and intercity rail, redundancy is in fact far less useful than other investments for the same amount of money.
First, let us list the various high-caliber rail networks of the world. In high-speed rail, the biggest networks are those of China, Japan, and France. None of them has redundancy, in the sense that there is more than one way to get between two cities on high-speed track. JR Central is building a second line from Tokyo to Osaka, but this is because the existing line is at capacity, running about 14 trains per hour into Tokyo at the peak; redundancy is a minor consideration. In regional rail, the busiest networks do have some redundancy, in the sense that if one line is shut down then people can take a parallel line, but this is because these networks are so busy that in most directions there’s enough demand to fill multiple lines. In Tokyo, which has the largest regional rail network, the parallel line is usually run by a competing company, so within each company’s network there’s little redundancy.
The reason for this non-redundant operation is simple: building new rail lines is expensive, while maintaining them adequately so that they don’t break down is cheap. Amtrak thinks that the Gateway tunnel will cost $16 billion. The program to repair the damage the preexisting tunnels suffered in Hurricane Sandy is $700 million, which assumes an accelerated construction schedule in which the tunnels will be shut down one track at a time, but conversely also includes work in the worse-damaged East River tunnels and not just the tunnels across the Hudson. This is a one-time repair after salt water intrusion, not annual ongoing maintenance. New Hudson tunnels are a necessary project for capacity reasons, but whatever benefit they have for redundancy is a fraction of their cost.
For high-speed rail, too, the cost of maintenance are far smaller than those of construction. The average maintenance costs of a single route-km of HSR are about €100,000 per year, versus €20 million for construction (see PDF-p. 9 of a study by Ginés de Rus about HSR between Stockholm and Gothenburg). With this amount of maintenance, there need not be any closures or disruptions in service.
Consider the Northeast Corridor, more concretely. To guarantee redundancy everywhere, so that train accidents do not disrupt the line, is to restore some passenger service along the former Baltimore and Ohio and tie-ins. Between Philadelphia and New York this means the West Trenton Line; between Philadelphia and Washington this means the CSX freight line. This also requires new Hudson tunnels. The cost of each of these elements is in the billions, and for the most part, with the exception of the new Hudson tunnels the transportation benefit is very low, especially south of Philadelphia, where there aren’t enough people to justify a second commuter line. Between New York and New Haven, there are no good alignments for a second route except for short bypasses; that’s what makes constructing HSR there so difficult.
Redundancy is a good feature of networks where failures are frequent and unavoidable; for such systems, redundancy is useful, as is the concept of failing gracefully. Rail transit is not such a network. It is both possible and desirable to reduce accident rates to levels approaching zero. Natural disasters remain hazardous, but are extremely infrequent, and at any rate when a deadly earthquake strikes, there are higher priorities than providing alternative passenger rail routes.
This is not to say that redundancy has no uses. Dense subway systems are redundant in the sense of providing multiple routes through the city – although, at the peak, they’re usually all very crowded. This makes it possible to shut down lines off-peak for maintenance; New York and London are both notorious for weekend service changes, and Paris shuts down short segments of lines for maintenance for a few weeks at a time (see for example here). But small subway systems manage to make do with just ordinary overnight shutdowns, and Copenhagen even runs trains 24/7, shutting down one track at a time at night and using the driverless operation to run trains on single track. It’s just more convenient to have more options, but not necessary.
The upshot is that when a subway or mainline rail network chooses where to lay additional lines, it should ignore all needs of redundancy, except possibly as tie-breakers. The benefits are there, but do not outweigh the cost of building less optimal lines. The operator should instead invest in systems, worker training, and maintenance regimes that ensure high reliability, and expand the network based on ordinary criteria of expected ridership and capacity needs. There’s no need to worry about failure, and it’s much better to design the network not to fail in the first place.
Last week, Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry system in his otherwise perfectly boilerplate State of the City speech. Ferries, as Ben Kabak notes, are a tried and failed solution in New York, with a $30 per passenger subsidy on the ferry to the Rockaways, one of the neighborhoods mentioned in de Blasio’s speech. At the same time, some ferry routes do attract large numbers of passengers, including the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus; in addition, MBTA Boat attracts fewer passengers than SeaBus, but achieves better cost recovery than the MBTA’s land transportation services. The purpose of this post is to explain which urban geographies could be well-served by ferries, and why New York could not.
Until the invention of the railroad, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation was the boat. Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible. Overland transportation was so expensive that, as noted by Andrew Odlyzko, the cost of coal would double twelve miles away from the mine (see p. 14). As a result, cities were founded on shorelines and in river estuaries, and shrank if their rivers silted.
Railroads inverted this equation. Even in the 1830s, trains achieved higher speeds than ferries do today: the London and Birmingham averaged 31 km/h at opening, whereas SeaBus, which uses fast catamarans, averages at most 20 km/h. They could climb grades without resorting to locks and derailed much less often than boats sank; and, with the world still in the tail end of the Little Ice Age, the railroads did not freeze in winter. In this situation, a seaside location is no longer an advantage. At coastal locations, railroads have to cross more rivers, as did roads before; the current route of the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut was not the first but the third rail connection to be built between New York and Boston, after the Long Island Railroad (with ferry connections at both ends) and the inland Hartford and New Haven Railroad route.
The 19th century was a period of fast population growth in the industrialized world, especially the US, and fast urbanization. The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network. Birmingham and Manchester were already the largest cities in the UK outside of London, but the first railroad was, not coincidentally, built precisely to give Manchester port access without relying on the Manchester Ship Canal. In the US, we can see this in action, especially in New England: Boston has always been New England’s largest city, but many other early-settled cities – Salem, Newport, Plymouth, Provincetown, Portsmouth – declined, and now New England’s second cities include not just coastal New Haven and Providence but also inland Hartford, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester.
In some areas of Long Island and New England, we can see towns with dual centers: an older coastal center, and a newer inland center, near the train station or a highway interchange. As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.
Boston’s ferries serve these coastal centers. The Greenbush Line is locally infamous for its low ridership, about 3,000 per weekday in each direction. And yet, the ferries serving Hingham are fairly well-patronized: about 3,500 weekday passengers in both directions. (Both figures are from the 2014 Blue Book.) Now, the trains still carry nearly twice as many passengers as the ferries, but, relatively speaking, the ferries are doing quite well, since that part of the South Shore was settled before the railroad came, so the ferry serves passengers better than the trains do.
The other issue is which mode of transportation offers the most direct route. On the South Shore, the ferries go in a straighter line than the trains, which have to detour to remain on land. The Staten Island Ferry goes in a straight line, whereas roads and trains take big detours, especially for passengers leaving from St. George and not from near the bridges to Brooklyn and New Jersey. SeaBus, likewise, takes a direct route.
The significant fact for the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus is that there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks, coming from the fact that those areas were settled as suburban regions connected to the center by ferry. Because constructing a road or rail link across the New York Harbor or Burrard Inlet is difficult, those ferries were never replaced by fixed links; this is in contrast with Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.
None of these histories and geographies applies to the routes proposed by de Blasio and other ferry supporters. A Rockaway ferry has to detour around all of Brooklyn to reach Manhattan. The various waterfront ferries between Manhattan and Queens don’t really serve neighborhood centers, which are located around subway stations. Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations, not because of construction difficulties but because half their walk sheds would be underwater. Even Red Hook, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and has no subway service, is not centered around the waterfront: the projects are several blocks inland, and Ikea Dock is facing the wrong way, south instead of west.
New York’s commercial centers, likewise, are inland. Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River when the easternmost subway stations in Midtown are at Lexington Avenue? Thus the high-rise towers that line First Avenue are more residential than commercial, making them poor candidates for ferry connections. Lower Manhattan is better-connected to the water, but it is served by a large number of subway lines in all directions, none of which is at capacity since Midtown is the bigger office cluster. It’s also far from the waterfront condo clusters de Blasio wants to serve with ferries.
Even service between Staten Island and Manhattan shouldn’t be a ferry. A rail tunnel would offer a large improvement in trip times: about 8 minutes or even less, compared with 25 by ferry, and one to two transfers less than today. The question is entirely whether the costs could be contained enough to be in line with a realistic demand projection. Of course this is best realized as part of a regionwide commuter rail modernization plan, but even without such a plan, a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time, which, at least last decade, was the longest of all US counties.
And this is an origin-destination pair that, given current infrastructure, is actually well-served by ferry, unlike the routes that de Blasio proposed. Ben tried to propose a better way of running ferries in New York, but with no real anchors to connect to, Ben’s proposal is a polite way of what I would phrase as “just don’t.”
Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio is not inherently hostile to public transit. However, he does not particularly care about transit, either. In this view, what he says about ferries is of limited consequence; the amounts of money in question are trivial. He’s not like Bloomberg, who directed $2 billion of city money to the 7 extension ahead of more deserving subway investments. Perhaps it’s wiser to focus on his plan to deck over Sunnyside Yards, or, more specifically, his invocation of massive projects including Stuyvesant Town, Coop City, and Starrett City – precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid.
However, there’s a good reason to focus on this, unimportant as it is. Cuomo’s failings are characteristic of an autocrat who is hostile to transit. De Blasio’s are characteristic of an autocrat who is indifferent. Although there is a long-term transit plan in New York, centered around completing Second Avenue Subway, this is not what de Blasio talked about, at all. Instead, he went for projects that can be done during his first term: off-board fare collection on a few more bus routes (“Select Bus Service,” complete with the pretense that they are bus rapid transit), and ferries. He won’t just follow an agenda set by others a long time ago: he has to remind people he exists on this issue as on his signature issues, but, as he doesn’t actually care about it, he will propose distractions that would at best do little (Select Bus Service) and at worst would be complete wastes of money (the ferries).
In a democracy, good transit advocates can push themselves into key positions at the ministry of transport, or its equivalent, such as a parliamentary committee on transportation (including the Congressional one, even). The same is true for people who care about other aspects of government spending and policy: housing, health care, education, defense, social welfare, policing. In an autocracy, such as the strong mayor system, it boils down to asking the autocrat to care and to take the right position. But the autocrat is just one person, and cannot pay equal attention to everything. Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.
Transit lines branch. Core routes have more demand than outlying ones, so naturally trains and buses run on trunk lines in the core and then branch farther out, to match frequency to demand. I gave an overview of this years ago. This is both normal across nearly all significant transit systems, and good practice. In this post, I’d like to focus on the opposite kind of branching, which I am going to call reverse branching, when one outlying line splits into two core routes. This is much less common, but exists in multiple cities, and leads to problems including restrictions on capacity and disappointing ridership. Cities should avoid building new lines that reverse branch, and in one famous existing case, London’s Northern line, the city is working on changing the situation by building a new outlying branch.
London’s Northern line, as can be seen on the Underground map, has three branches to the north and two in the center, but just one to the south. The highest ridership demand is in the center, but because both branches feed into just one southern branch, there is less than full capacity on the central branches, about 20 trains per hour each, compared with 30 tph on the southern branch and 33 tph on the Victoria and Jubilee lines. As a result, Transport for London has made recurrent plans to split the line for good: one central branch (through the City of London) using the existing southern branch and two of the northern ones, and one (through Charing Cross) using one northern branch and terminating at Kennington, the junction with the southern branch. An under-construction extension of the line from Kennington to Battersea can then be tied to the Charing Cross branch. There is some NIMBY opposition from a member of Parliament representing a constituency on one of the northern branches, who would like her constituents to have one-seat rides to both branches, but most likely, Transport for London’s need for capacity will make the split inevitable once the Battersea extension opens, ending the reverse branching practice.
In New York, routes branch and recombine, and thus it is common to have trains of different colors (which only denote Manhattan trunks) running together on a branch in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. The single busiest entry point into the Manhattan core is via 53rd Street Tunnel (connecting to Queens Boulevard), technically a branch since it runs trains connecting to both the Eighth and Sixth Avenue Lines. This, again, causes capacity problems. It’s not so bad on the numbered lines, where four trunk tracks (the Manhattan express trunks, carrying the 2/3 and 4/5) recombine in a different way to four tracks in Brooklyn (pairing the 2/5), but the lettered lines’ reverse branching in Uptown Manhattan and Queens initially forced eight trunk tracks (the Sixth and Eighth Avenue services, the B/D/F and A/C/E) to converge to six branch tracks (the two Queens Boulevard express tracks via 53rd, and the four Central Park West tracks). New subway connections have replaced this situation with twelve trunk tracks (including the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R) splitting to ten, spreading the problem around but not dealing with the fundamental restriction on capacity. The under-construction Second Avenue Subway will connect to the Broadway Line and run Q trains, raising the number of lettered tracks Uptown and in Queens to twelve, but this will not be enough to disentangle the tracks and provide full capacity on each core track; see below for proposed examples.
In Delhi, the Green Line splits into short branches, to provide transfers to two different Metro trunk lines. As seen on the system map, the Green Line does not enter central Delhi, and the current setup allows passengers to travel to central Delhi via two different routes. However, the Phase 4 extension plan extends the one branch to go out of the city in a V-shaped direction (the light green Kirti Nagar-Dwarka Section 28 line on this map), and has an extension that may connect to the other branch (Inderlok-Indraprastha, colored ocher on the map) to connect it to central Delhi, which may cause a serious mismatch in demand on the outlying common segment.
Finally, in Tokyo, subway lines reverse branch in two locations. The Namboku and Mita Lines share their southernmost three stations and the tracks in between. Although most Tokyo subway lines, including Namboku and Mita, run through to commuter lines, which provide the normal kind of branching, the Mita and Namboku Lines only do so either to the north or via the shared segment, as seen on this map, constraining capacity. They run only 12 peak tph each, and have low ridership by Tokyo subway standards. The Fukutoshin and Yurakucho Lines are in a similar situation, but the Fukutoshin Line does run through to a commuter line, the Tobu Tojo Line, without going through the shared segment (it is not depicted on the map, which is a few years out of date). The Fukutoshin Line has low ridership (see last page here), but the Yurakucho Line does not.
In all examples I’ve listed so far, the two core branches serve very central areas (as in London, New York, and Tokyo), or neither of them does (as in Delhi). Tokyo is somewhat of an exception, since the Yurakucho and Mita Lines serve Central Tokyo and the Fukutoshin and Namboku Lines serve secondary centers, but those secondary centers are very dense themselves; the Mita and Namboku Lines in particular are quite close in ridership. I am more wary of proposals to split an outlying line in the core that have one branch serving the CBD and one branch avoiding it, as in Delhi, assuming I understand the proposal correctly.
Also of note, all the examples I’ve listed involve subways. This is because conventional branching, with a core trunk splitting into multiple outlying branches, is more limited on urban rail than on both buses and regional rail. Most subway lines do not have more than two branches feeding into a trunk. In New York, not counting the split in the A, which is inherited from the LIRR, there is exactly one place where three subway routes share tracks: the N, Q, and R from Manhattan to Queens. In Stockholm, with its highly branched subway network, only one line, in one direction, splits into three. This is because even a split into three branches requires limiting off-peak frequency on the branches to less than a train every ten minutes, which is undesirable in large subway systems. The result is that reverse branching can easily create a situation in which there are more tracks in the core than in the outlying areas, as it does in all four cities surveyed above, restricting capacity on each core track.
In contrast, regional rail tends to operate at lower frequency on the branches, and this permits conventional branching with more than two branches per trunk. In addition, there are often turnback facilities at through-stations, and substantial four-track segments on otherwise two-track lines. The result is that reverse branching is possible without any constraint on core track capacity. The Berlin S-Bahn is highly branched in both the conventional and reverse senses. The RER E is being extended to the west, including a takeover of an RER A branch. And the Tokyo commuter rail network has extensive reverse branching, coming from through-service between commuter lines and subway lines but also from the Shonan-Shinjuku Line’s split from the Tokaido and Tohoku commuter lines. In none of these cases is there a significant restriction on core capacity, simply because there’s enough slack in the branches that they can’t fill to track capacity unless the core has filled as well.
In the US, I am familiar with three proposals for new subway lines that involve reverse splits, in Boston, Washington, and New York.
In Boston, the proposal actually involves commuter rail rather than the subway: the Worcester Line would use the Grand Junction Railroad to go through Cambridge to reach North Station, bypassing South Station. See map on page 38 of the statewide transportation capital budget proposal. This would not reduce capacity, since the Worcester Line is nowhere near exhausting the capacity of a two-track railroad, and moreover, the Grand Junction line would terminate at West Station within Boston proper, where there’s a railyard. However, this is still bad transit, for other reasons. West Station serves a residential neighborhood, without enough density to justify a fork toward both North Station and South Station. On top of that, since North Station lies outside the Boston CBD, the proposal is essentially a mixture of a radial and a circumferential line, with all the problems that would bring – and despite running as a circumferential line through Cambridge, there is no transfer planned with the Red Line, although the Grand Junction passes close to the Kendall/MIT station.
It would be better to bag all plans to use the Grand Junction until such time that the state builds the North-South Rail Link, connecting North Station with South Station. Then, the Grand Junction would make an almost perfect alignment for a circular line, with its eastern leg connecting North and South Stations and its western end going through Cambridge, making several stops, including a transfer to Kendall/MIT. This would require high investment – besides being a single-track at-grade line, the Grand Junction would require a new junction to connect to the Worcester Line to go east toward South Station, whereas today it only connects to the west, toward Allston and Brighton – but still a fraction of the cost of the North-South Rail Link, which is getting some serious political support, including from former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld.
In Washington, there already is some reverse branching: the Yellow and Blue Lines share tracks in Virginia, but run on two different trunk lines in Washington proper, each shared with other lines, so four central tracks become four tracks in Virginia. But now with the opening of the Silver Line, raising the number of Virginia tracks to six, WMATA would like to separate the Blue Line from the Orange Line, which it shares tracks with in Washington, in order to provide six tracks across the District as well. This can only lead to awkward service patterns and wasted core capacity, as Matt Johnson demonstrates on Greater Greater Washington: because the Orange and Silver Line will keep interlining under any plan, reckoned from their split east there are only four tracks in Virginia and not six. Moreover, the Yellow Line interlines with the Green Line in the District, which means that even if it’s separated from the Blue Line, it could not run at full capacity.
Washington built itself into a corner with its Metro route decisions. There’s no corridor in the city that really needs a subway line; unlike New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Washington has no corridor with so much bus ridership that it should be a subway line. A fourth subway line would be useful for service to Georgetown, but that’s about it. So decisions about a fourth line in the District should be based on the capacity needs of the branches, not those of the core. On a list of possible changes that WMATA looked at, Greater Greater Washington included a separated Silver Line, including separation up to the junction with the Orange Line so that they share no tracks. I’ll add that if WMATA wants to go down that route, then it should give the Orange Line its own route through the District and keep the Silver and Blue Lines together; this is because the Orange Line is the busiest of the three, so that it should be the least branched, in this case not branched at all whereas the other two do branch.
Finally, New York. Second Avenue Subway is going to change the nature of the reverse branching used by the lettered lines, for the better. Because the plan for Phases 1 and 2 is to run only the Q train, the city will finally have matching numbers of lettered tracks in and north and east of the Manhattan core: twelve tracks in the core, and twelve in Uptown Manhattan and Queens. Unfortunately, it is impossible to match service, because that would sever too many connections. Second Avenue Subway only connects to the Broadway express line, so to match service there couldn’t be any other service using the Broadway express.
Recall the London NIMBYism mentioned at the beginning of this post: that was about a service change that would give commuters a
cross-platform (see comment with diagram) transfer between their branch of the Northern Line and the central segment of the other branch. In New York, the transfers in western Queens involve a lot of walking between platforms, if they even exist. Then all the Broadway locals (the N/R) would go to Queens through 60th Street Tunnel, and thence to the Astoria Line, severing the connection to the Queens Boulevard Line. The Queens Boulevard Line has two ways into Manhattan: 53rd Street, which connects to both Eighth and Sixth Avenues, and 63rd Street, which connects only to Sixth Avenue. Moreover, either all F trains (through 63rd) have to run express in Queens and all E trains local, or the reverse; mixing and matching would produce at-grade conflict at the junction, as seen on the Queens 1 track map on nycsubway.org. The transfer between the E and F would be located at 74th Street in Queens, several kilometers east of the split, which is located just to the east of the westernmost express/local station, Queens Plaza. Neither the E nor the F would have a transfer to the N/R near their respective intersection points. The Q would not have a transfer to the E (it would have one to the F, though). This puts many commuters in an impossible situation and the capacity gains from it are frankly not enough to be worth it.
Instead, the capacity gains would be limited to running some more express trains on the Broadway Line. Before the service cuts in 2010, the N ran express on the Broadway Line, the Q terminated at 57th Street at the north end of Midtown, and a fourth Broadway route, the W, ran local and served the Astoria Line. Once the Q is extended up Second Avenue, the restored W could beef up Broadway Line service. Second Avenue would only get a branch despite its high ridership, but it’s still only a segment of a line.
Then there are Phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway, serving Midtown and the Lower East Side, where the Q runs on Broadway. The official plan introduces another reverse branching: a new route, the T, is planned to run the entire length of Second Avenue: see map here. When both phases are complete, there will be fourteen lettered tracks in Midtown but only twelve Uptown and in Queens.
To resolve this, the MTA should activate a connection that is included in the Second Avenue Subway plan as a non-revenue connection: a connection from Second Avenue south of the Q/T split at 63rd Street to 63rd Street Tunnel; currently, 63rd Street is the least used connection from Manhattan to Queens, since the reverse branching limits capacity and 63rd Street is the least useful connection since it enters Manhattan north of Midtown. This implies there should be a Queens Boulevard-Second Avenue service, which I will call the U, one letter next to the T. The Queens Boulevard express tracks are filled to capacity and the local ones are not, so the T should run local, cutting the frequencies on the existing local R and M trains a bit to make room. It would still leave New York with twelve Uptown and Queens tracks diverging to fourteen Midtown tracks, but it would distribute the load better, in the same way the present system distributes the load better than the 1930s-era reverse branching from six to eight tracks did.
New York is in a somewhat special case, in that its subway system is based on heavy branching and reverse branching, and moreover it’s historically based on three different systems, with poor transfers between them. Fully untangling the lines after Second Avenue Subway’s Phases 1 and 2 are built is not possible because there are no transfers between the lines that would result, and the station placement is such that any new transfers would involve long walks between platforms.
Other cities, especially cities planning new systems from scratch, should not emulate this feature, and should instead design all lines to either not branch at all or only branch conventionally. A system designed from the ground up could have cross-platform transfers between lines, and even make sure they’re timed, reducing the cost to passengers of having to transfer in lieu of using a reverse branch. It could be coherent, in the sense of making it easy for an unfamiliar passenger to understand how to get from each station to each other station. And it could be built for maximum capacity in the most crowded segments, where it matters the most.
On Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a new signature initiative: a $450 million AirTrain to LaGuardia, connecting to the Mets’ stadium on both the 7 train and the LIRR. The proposal has practically no merit even as an airport connector: Ben Kabak and Yonah Freemark both note, with helpful graphics, that the connection is so circuitous it’d be slower than the existing bus-subway options to nearly every destination, including everywhere in Manhattan. Capital New York notes that in general, transit activist reactions to the plan were cold, precisely because it’s such bad transit.
The interesting aspect of this is about the counter-criticism, and the discussion it led to. (In contrast, Cuomo’s general hostility to transit and intercity rail is not news, and it’s unlikely someone with such a history could come up with cost-effective transit plans.) The main reaction to the criticism is not “where would you spend $450 million instead?”. That question has a few answers, all of which are boring: the general MTA capital plan, or, if the money is to go to expansion, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, the next item on the city’s transit agenda now that Phase 1 is nearing completion.
Instead, the main reaction is “how would you connect to LaGuardia instead?”. That question, too, has a definite answer, which Ben talked about in his post, and which I pointed out in my post about airport connectors last year: an extension of the N to the east, with several stops (for example, at Steinway and Hazen) to serve more of Astoria and not just airport riders. The N takes a direct route to Manhattan, passing through or next to the top areas for LaGuardia passengers, as seen in the second map here. But even that is the wrong question. There are probably more cost-effective subway extensions in New York, having nothing to do with LaGuardia; I have to say probably, since at no point has the MTA proposed large enough a slate of possible extensions that we can compare projected costs per rider and say “this is the best.” There might even be better ways to extend the N eastward than to LaGuardia: an elevated line over Ditmars, a short segment of the Grand Central Parkway, and Astoria Boulevard would serve East Elmhurst, a dense, transit-deprived section of Queens, and would probably produce higher ridership than a swerve from the GCP to the airport.
Such is the power of a governor who’s accountable to nobody: he proposes a scheme, and even the criticism is on the governor’s own terms of providing service to LaGuardia. Yonah compares travel times to various destinations on various alignments for connecting LaGuardia to the subway. Nate Silver’s response has an infographic with travel times from the airport to city hall in various American cities – an infographic that is of little use to New York, where the main destination is far north of city hall, but is well within the general topic of LaGuardia’s airport connections. Even I, cognizant of this agenda-setting power, have to at least mention an alternative LaGuardia connector, knowing readers will want a plan.
The cheeky response to this is that in a democracy, this wouldn’t happen. Now, the US is a democracy. Cuomo has to stand for election every four years. The worst infrastructure disasters tend to be in countries that are authoritarian through and through: Russia’s elevated winter Olympics costs in Sochi and Qatar’s human rights abuses in the World Cup preparations are the two biggest recent examples. But democracies with insufficient checks on political power are susceptible to this as well. This is common in the third world, where corruption is more common – hence the abuses of the World Cup last summer, in a solidly democratic country – but can also happen in developed countries with democratic deficits.
Usually, the phrase democratic deficit refers to the EU, and by analogy other supranational organizations. But in the US, it’s a useful framework for thinking of local and state governments. Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich needed nobody’s approval to reject federal funding for intercity rail. Chris Christie did not need anyone’s approval to cancel ARC, or to cause traffic jams in retribution against a mayor who refused to endorse him; in a recent article in New York YIMBY, defending the cancellation of ARC as originally proposed, I made sure to take multiple barbs at Christie, just to avoid playing into the agenda of canceling ARC to posture about government waste while diverting rail money to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Cuomo’s power is if anything even greater: the New York state government works by a three men in a room model, in which the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly (just indicted for corruption), and the majority leader in the State Senate (currently relatively powerless and dependent on Cuomo) wield all practical power. In such a system, Cuomo does not have the power to shoot protesters, thankfully, but does have the power to propose megaprojects that glorify him, without a broad discussion with stakeholders, in which the MTA’s long-term expansion plans and cost-benefit ratios would come into play.
Last year, in writing about elite infrastructure projects that are not about meeting a service need, I noted that talking about such projects in terms of cost-effectiveness is moot, because they were never intended to be about benefiting the wider public. We could discuss where to spend money on transit in New York in the way that would benefit the largest number of riders. We could even discuss what the optimal way of connecting to LaGuardia is, before comparing the best connection with non-airport projects to see where it should lie on the list of future expansions. But it would be pointless, because Cuomo is not interested in spending money on benefiting the largest number of riders; he frankly does not care about transit riders. When the time came to support transit riders, for example in signing a lockbox bill guaranteeing that money the state government had promised the MTA would indeed go to the MTA, he vetoed the bill instead.
In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.”
This is evident in his response to criticism among transit activists. After listing the many pundits and activists who oppose the plan, Capital New York included a response from the governor’s office, which said, in so many words, “our plan is better because it doesn’t go through populated neighborhoods, where there would be NIMBYs.” What those of us who want good transit view as a feature – connecting to underserved neighborhoods and not just to the airport – Cuomo regards as a bug. A plan that included additional stops in Astoria might well attract community support, while still offering much faster trip times to Manhattan because of the direct route, but would rely on non-airport ridership, which Cuomo doesn’t care about, to keep the cost per rider reasonable.
Because of this disconnect between what would work for transit users and what would work for Cuomo, the only reasonable answer to the plan is a simple no, which should be said as sharply as possible. No working with the proposal: it’s terrible, a true stone soup. No tweaks: Cuomo wouldn’t want any ingredients that would improve the soup, and would insist on keeping the stone in anyway. (He doesn’t have to eat it, he doesn’t use transit either way.) And, within the parameters of a transit conversation in which people are desperate to see expansions, no discussion that validates Cuomo’s original plan.
Update 7/28: in a joint announcement with Joe Biden, Cuomo has just announced $4 billion in airport improvements at LaGuardia, bundling the rail connector into the larger projects. I have nothing to add that I didn’t already cover in this post and in my older post about elite infrastructure investments.
I’ve had an argument in comments with the author of Purple City about who commuter rail should serve. He’s argued before that cities should make sure outer suburbanites can get to the center via express commuter rail, and I will add that American cities do do that, and orient commuter rail too much around the needs of peak-hour outer suburbanites. Insofar as I think cities should have commuter rail there’s no disagreement, but what I think they do wrong is focusing too much on the peak. The two practices in contention are the low off-peak frequency (for example, Metra’s Union Pacific-North Line, which has no freight to speak of, has worse than hourly off-peak service), and the stop distribution, which has trains making few or no stops in the city proper.
The common thread of these two practices is that they optimize one variable: peak travel time for a suburban commuter to the CBD. This neglects other sources of ridership on commuter rail, which are suppressed in the US but significant in countries with more modern operating practices. I will contrast the peak-focused approach with a rapid transit approach, using examples that I believe will show that the latter is bound to get far more ridership, even in the suburbs.
First, let us imagine a contrasting system, one in which North American commuter rail looks more like an RER, an S-Bahn, or a Japanese commuter rail network. Such a system will have the following features:
1. Relatively consistent stopping pattern. The busier lines may have local and express trains, but the express trains will stop at the same major stops. Local trains will make all local stops over a fairly wide stretch.
2. Low ratio of peak to off-peak frequency, in the vicinity of 2:1 or even less. In a major city like Chicago or New York, a line that can’t support half-hourly service all day, at a bare minimum, will likely have no service at all; the only exceptions I can think of are services at range so long they’re practically intercity, like New York-Hamptons or New York-Allentown.
3. An urban stopping pattern that’s not too express. If there’s a parallel subway then it’s okay to have a somewhat wider stop spacing than in the inner suburbs beyond the subway’s range, but still closer to the 2-3 km range than the 4-5 km range of Metra.
If it’s possible to do so technologically, then the commuter line may be interlined with a subway line, even. This is usually hypothetical, since subways and commuter trains, where both exist, are almost always technologically incompatible; Tokyo and Seoul are the two major exceptions, with London a borderline case. However, it’s useful to consider such hypothetical cases, to examine what would happen to train service. I will consider two such cases: having Vancouver’s Evergreen Line take over West Coast Express (the original argument), and having Boston’s Red Line take over Old Colony Lines. Neither situation is technologically possible, even ignoring FRA and Transport Canada regulations, as both Boston and Vancouver build subway tunnels for much smaller trains than run on the mainline, but this discussion may be useful in cases where a takeover is feasible, such as when the commuter line is an isolated branch. I prefer to discuss the hypotheticals since the two examples in question are purer examples of priorities: outer-suburban peak service, or rapid transit-style service.
Vancouver’s rail service consists of the SkyTrain network, which gets about 400,000 weekday riders, and the West Coast Express, a peak-only commuter rail network running 5 trains per day per direction, with 11,000 weekday riders. SkyTrain’s under-construction Evergreen Line will intersect the West Coast Express at Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then serve more stations in Coquitlam off the mainline, while the WCE continues much farther to the east, into the Vancouver exurbs. The WCE connects Port Moody to Waterfront in 25 minutes and Coquitlam in 30 minutes; the Evergreen Line is projected to take 33 and 38 minutes respectively, with a transfer at Broadway/Commercial. Despite the slower service, the much higher frequency, all-day service, and connections to more of the Vancouver metro area win: the projected ridership for the Evergreen Line is about 23 million a year (see Table 2 on PDF-p. 4 here), which corresponds to about 75,000 per weekday.
Now, what’s in contention is whether it would be wise to have the same treatment at WCE stations farther east. The potential ridership at those stations is lower since they’re in less built-up areas, so it is likely cost-ineffective to build an Evergreen Line branch along the Canadian Pacific mainline and have it replace the WCE, but if such a line were built, it would most likely have the same effect on travel times: people would have to transfer at Broadway/Commercial, and not including the transfer time take 8 minutes more to get to Waterfront. The eastern end of the line, Mission, has 75-minute service now, and this would change to 83-minute service plus a transfer.
I claim that Mission residents would still take the train more often if it were 8 minutes lower. The reason is simple: as a proportion of overall travel time, the 8 minutes are more important to a 25-minute Port Moody commuter than to a 75-minute Mission commuter. Mission commuters live farther out, so they’re somewhat less likely to care about service to various neighborhoods along the way, but they’re even less likely to care about 8 minutes. They also are less likely to care about very high frequency, since their trips are longer, but they do care about service availability all day, even if they’d be okay with half-hourly service. Moreover, the Evergreen Line will connect to secondary nodes like Metrotown better than the WCE does, and eventually have direct service to Central Broadway and UBC, both of which draw commuters from the entire region.
In the present, the WCE works as a placeholder – it’s possible to reduce staffing and improve turnaround times to allow off-peak service, but there’s too little population east of Coquitlam to justify a SkyTrain extension, and so far population growth is fastest in inner-suburban Port Moody and Surrey (see here and here) and not east of Coquitlam. In the future, if those areas grow then it will make sense to replace the WCE with SkyTrain. WCE upgrades are unlikely – adding infill stations is practically impossible, as the line hugs an active port, with no good station sites. While SkyTrain’s driverless configuration keeps operating expenses down, it makes it impossible to extend branches to the suburbs cheaply by running them at-grade and in mixed traffic with freight.
Several of Boston’s subway branches are parallel to extant or closed commuter lines. The Orange Line runs alongside the Northeast Corridor to Forest Hills, the Blue Line took over parts of the narrow-gauge Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, the Green Line D Branch took over a commuter rail loop used by the Boston and Albany, and the Red Line took over a New Haven Railroad branch line to Ashmont and runs alongside the Old Colony Lines to Braintree. At the time the Braintree extension opened the Old Colony Lines were closed for passenger service, but they have been since reopened, running from Braintree to South Station with just one stop in between, either JFK-UMass or Quincy Center (never both, except on trains that skip Braintree); off-peak frequency is about every two hours on each of two lines, and with some off-peak trains skipping Braintree, service to Braintree is worse than hourly. The Red Line takes 26-27 minutes to go from Braintree to South Station, the Old Colony Lines take 19-21 minutes.
As is projected in Vancouver, ridership on the Red Line is much higher: according to the 2014 Blue Book, on PDF-pp. 14 and 74, the busiest MBTA commuter rail station, Providence, gets 2,325 riders per weekday and the busiest Old Colony station, Bridgewater, gets only 1,036, while the Braintree extension’s five stops get 6,975, 4,624, 8,655 (Quincy Center), 4,785, and 5,122 (Braintree). Those five stops get 30,000 riders between them, meaning 60,000 since it’s unlikely people ride internally on the extension; this is nearly half the entire MBTA commuter rail ridership, and three times the ridership on the Old Colony Lines (counting Greenbush, which diverges at Quincy, as a third line).
As in Vancouver, I claim that a Red Line extension taking over the Old Colony Lines would have much higher ridership. Of course the frequency per line, already middling since the Braintree extension is a branch, would not be very good; but at the range of the suburbs served by these lines, half the current frequency of the Red Line, giving about 20 minutes at the peak and 30 off-peak, is enough, and is a massive improvement over multi-hour headways. The extra 5-8 minutes of travel times matter less as one moves farther out, again; travel time to South Station from the first Old Colony stations past Braintree, South Weymouth and Holbrook/Randolph, is 28 minutes, about the same as from Braintree on the Red Line, and those two stations have a bit more than 500 weekday riders each.
Moreover, the Red Line has something the commuter trains don’t: service to multiple centers within the inner Boston region. Downtown Crossing is closer to most jobs than South Station, saving people the walk. Cambridge is a major job center in its own right (it has more jobs than any New England city except Boston, ahead of Providence, Worcester, and Hartford). Back Bay is a bit more accessible via the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing or the Green Line at Park Street than via commuter rail at South Station.
Like SkyTrain, the Red Line can’t run on mainline rail tracks, and there is not enough population to justify an extension, nor enough population growth in New England for such an extension to ever pencil out. However, it’s possible to modernize commuter rail, as I have written before. This would not provide direct service to Downtown Crossing or Cambridge, but could provide cross-platform transfers to Back Bay, decent frequency all day, and, since regional EMUs can have very good performance characteristics, much higher average speeds than with today’s slow diesel locomotives even if trains make more stops.
The examples of Boston and Vancouver’s ridership patterns suggest that it’s okay to sacrifice speed to provide coherent service. It’s worth noting here that the bulk of present-day ridership on North American commuter rail would not benefit too much from such sacrifice. North American commuter rail provides awful service in the off-peak or to non-CBD destinations: even the Newark CBD, relatively well-served by New Jersey Transit, has a 26% mode share as a job center as of 2000, as per an Alan Voorhees Transportation Center report called Informed Intuition (PDF-p. 13). There’s a huge amount of latent ridership on North American commuter rail, which is why rapid transit gets so much more ridership than peak-focused commuter rail.
This doesn’t change much at different ranges of distance from the center. The few minutes saved by expressing through the city to the CBD matter a great deal to the suburbs right beyond city limits, but those innermost suburbs are precisely the ones that could make the most use of service to multiple city nodes. Farther out, where commuters to the city tend to be more likely to be working at the CBD, since it is more specialized than most secondary nodes, frequency and service to everywhere matter less, but the extra few minutes matter even less.
However, since present-day riders are precisely the narrow slice of potential users who are okay with the current setup, they have the potential to engage in NIMBY protests against any attempt at modernization. Why change what works for them? This is why Long Island representatives oppose such modernization attempts as letting Metro-North access Penn Station; it’s entirely a turf war. Even reforms that do not degrade trip times to the CBD are unlikely in this political situation, for example mode-neutral fares: the people paying premium fare to ride the LIRR or (to some extent) Metra are the ones who are okay with paying this fare, and who may object to increased train crowding coming from lower fares.
Judging by the ridership multiple between the Evergreen Line and WCE, there are likely to be a few million weekday rides coming out of Eastern Queens and Long Island if the LIRR is modernized, but those are not the Manhattan-bound commuters who dominate the discussion today. Instead, they are people who have gotten used to unusable commuter rail, and drive to work, or take long bus-subway commutes to avoid paying higher fares. They do not seem like a significant source of regional rail ridership because they are not current riders (or they ride local transit instead), but they are precisely what makes the difference between the low ridership of every North American commuter rail system and the higher ridership of many European systems.