that second on-board employee

A reader asks:
My question relates to the relationship between frequency and capacity.  In Boston on the MBTA … for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train.  On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying.  For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations.
To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors.  Outside of the highest frequency travel times, and even possibly during those, wouldn't it be better for travelers to have service twice as often even at half the capacity?  Outside of the truly busy travel times, trains rarely run anywhere near capacity.  Especially on weekends and in the evening, trains are never full but the less frequent service does not encourage those spontaneous transit trips that are so vital to urban life.
This is not my core expertise, but my understanding is that generally this is right:  the second employee is usually a holdover from days when fare collection and monitoring of doors had to be done manually.  The job often survives because it's coded into labor contracts and sometimes also into regulations.

I am unaware of anything that non-driving on-board employees do that would be utterly impractical to automate today, the best evidence for which is that trams, streetcars, light rail, and heavy rail can be found operating with a single employee all over the world.   (Fully grade separated heavy rail, of course, can also be run with zero on-board employees, liberating the agency to operate intense frequency even late in the evening.)  Fare collection is increasingly handled by Proof of Payment systems which feature roving fare inspectors.  While these fare inspectors have a cost, their number is not directly related to the number of vehicles in service, so they are not such a direct barrier to increases in service. 

Frequency is driven by staffing requirements rather than vehicles, so the number of employees on board is the dominant variable determining how frequently any line can be run.  Only during the peak commute period is the availability of vehicles a significant element of the frequency decision.
As you would expect, however, any local debate about turning second employees into drivers of additional service will be fraught.  It is very easy for opponents (usually including the unions) to make generalized allegations about safety and security because most people feel safer and more secure if there's an employee nearby.  So it's politically hard to do.

This is one of those issues that is intensely local, and where examples of experience from other cities just have trouble penetrating a local debate.  It happens even in Europe.  See for example the peculiar fare-collector job that exists on Amsterdam trams.  A little cubicle placed at the middle of each tram contains an employee who serves as a cashier, selling tickets.  Boarding and circulation on Amsterdam trams is awkward, and effective capacity much reduced, because you're required to board only at certain doors and exit at certain others.

This second employee on Amsterdam trams is, as near as I can tell, unique in Europe; everywhere else trams run with one employee (the driver) and roving fare inspection.  Get a European transit professional going on how bizarre this Amsterdam practice is.  It's great fun over a beer.  But they can also explain, politically, why it will probably never change. 

If readers know of recent stories where second employees have been successfully removed and retrained as drivers, thus allowing more service, please post a link in the comments.

Guest Post: Richard Lenthall on the Busways of Almere, Netherlands

Richard Lenthall is the founder of Sight of the Navigator, a European travel and transit advisory website based in Amsterdam. It aims to improve tomorrow’s journey experience by bringing together transit providers and their passengers.

Transit and urban planners will no doubt be familiar with the “Bus Lane”, the concept of designating a lane or segment of road exclusively for the use of buses and other permitted vehicles.  When properly executed bus lanes can save time over the same section of a journey made with a car, and provide operators the means to keep to timetables during the rush hours, both of which can promote the use of public transit. Continue Reading →

Amsterdam: The Flying Wheel


From the pinnacle of Amsterdam Central station, as seen from my hotel room last month.  I’m guessing it’s from the Deco era, early 20th century.  There’s an exuberant optimism about European rail architecture of that era that needs to find new expressions.

Note:  I’m back in Sydney, but detritus of the just-completed round the world will probably continue showing up here for a while.

Amsterdam: Victory is Orange

Hello from a hotel room with a great view of Amsterdam’s Central railway station, and of the intricate tangle of tram loops, canals, roadways, taxi queues, bike lanes, and subway construction sites that make up Stationsplein (“station square”).  The Netherlands triumphed over Uruguay in the World Cup semifinal about fifteen minutes ago.

There aren’t many cars in Amsterdam, because the city simply doesn’t make room for them.  But every car in my field of vision, maybe 20 or so on all sides of the square, is honking.  (It is the sort of moment when you wonder why carmakers couldn’t tune all horns to an agreed set of standard pitches, so that when everyone honks at once we’d at least get a pleasing chord.)  I can also hear a lot of happy shouting, a few things that sound like brass instruments, and the occasional vuvuzela.  Continue Reading →

The March of the Centipedes: Amsterdam’s Bus Rapid Transit Line

Throughout the Thredbo conference on transit competition in Delft, Netherlands last week, the various Dutch speakers and hosts managed to keep up a continuous theme of national self-reproach. The message was something like: “We know everyone thinks we’re the closest thing to an urban transport paradise on earth, so the best service we can offer is to show you all the ways that even we can screw up.”  The conference began with a plenary presentation by Hugo Priemus of the Delft University of Technology on collusion and price-fixing in the Dutch construction industry, and wrapped up with a study tour that included the Zuidtangent Bus Rapid Transit system, giving particular emphasis to its most embarrassing feature.

Continue Reading →