Rail Transit

Why Are US Rail Projects So Expensive?

We’ve known for a long time that the US pays more than most other wealthy countries to build rapid transit lines, and especially for tunneling.  If the incoming Biden administration wants to invest more in transit construction, then it’s time to get a handle on this.

The transit researcher Alon Levy has been working on this issue for many years, has generated a helpful trove of articles is here.  Alon’s work triggered a New York Times exposé in 2017, focus on the extreme costs (over $1 billion/mile) of recent subway construction there.

But while the New York situation is the most extreme, rapid transit construction costs are persistently higher than in comparable countries in Europe, where they are tunneling through equally complex urban environments.

Now, Eno Foundation has dug into this, building a database of case studies to help define the problem.  Their top level findings:

  • Yes, US appears to spend more to build rail transit lines than comparable overseas peers.
  • This difference is mostly about the cost of tunneling, not surface lines.  The US pays far more to tunnel 1 km than Europeans do, even in cities like Rome where archaeology is a major issue.
  • Needless to say, the type of rail doesn’t matter much.  Once you leave the surface, either onto viaducts or into tunnels, any cost difference between light rail and heavy rail is swamped by the cost of those structures.  (This is true of bus viaducts and tunnels too, of course)
  • Remarkably, stations don’t seem to explain the difference in rail construction costs.  European subways with stations closer together still come out cheaper than US subways with fewer stations.

Most of us have known this for a long time — though I admit to being surprised by the last point.  But it’s good to see a respected institute like Eno building out a database to make the facts unavoidable.  If you want more rail transit in the US, it simply has to be cheaper.

San Francisco: A Forbidden Fantasy Comes True

Around 1989, when I lived in San Francisco, I spent too much time in little rooms with transit advocates (and some transit professionals who could not be named) complaining about Muni Metro, the combined surface-subway light rail system.  It looked like this and still does, except that the T line was added more recently.  Note the r0ute letter names in the lower left.

The segment with 3-5 lines on it, from Embarcadero to West Portal, is the underground segment, which carries the heaviest loads through the densest part of the city.

It had always been wildly unreliable.  The five lines that ran through it (J, K, L, M, and N) always came in sequences of pure arithmetic randomness: N, J, M, K, J, N, N, K, K, M, N, J, L.  (Finally, my “L”!  But of course, after such a long gap, it’s crush-loaded and I can’t get on.)

Four decades after the subway opened, lots of things have been fixed: longer and better trains, better signaling, an extension downtown that helped trains turn back more efficiently.  But none of this touched the true problem:  The core Metro subway carries five lines, all of which deserve to be very frequent.  But they can’t all be frequent enough because they all have to squeeze into one two-track subway.  The other part of the problem is that they all have surface segments at the outer end, where they encounter more sources of delay, causing them to enter the subway at unpredictable times, and in an unpredictable order.

In those small rooms in the 1980s, we all knew that there was only one mathematically coherent solution.  Some us drew the map of this solution on napkins, but we really didn’t need to.  The map was burned into our minds from our relentless, powerless mental fondling of it.  Of course it was politically impossible, so impossible that if you valued your career you would wad up that napkin at once, burn it probably, and certainly not mention it outside your most trusted circle.

At most you might let out the pressure as a joke: “You know, we *could* turn the J, K, and L into feeders, and just run the M and N downtown. And then we’d have room for a line that just stayed in the subway, so it was never affected by surface delays.”  Everyone would titter at hearing this actually said, as though in some alternate universe such a change could be possible.

Now, the impossible is happening.  Without fear or shame, I can finally share the content of that forbidden napkin, because it looks like San Francisco is actually going to do it.

 

The two busiest western lines (M, N) will still go downtown, the others (J, K, L) will terminate when they reach a station but you have to transfer to continue downtown.  M trains will flow through as T.  Finally, a shuttle (S) will provide additional frequency in the subway, immune to surface delays.  As always, asking people to transfer makes possible a simpler, more frequent, and more reliable system.

You may detect, at San Francisco’s tiny scale, a case of the universal “edge vs core” problem.  Like many, many US rail transit systems, Muni Metro had been designed to take care of the edge, people who lived on one of the branch lines, rather than the core, people traveling along the subway in the dense inner city.  The new system finally fixes the core. But the edge folks benefit from a reliable subway too.  What’s more, in the future it may be possible to run the surface segments of J, K, and L more frequently, because their capacity will no longer be capped by the need to fit down the subway with four other lines.

All that in return for having to transfer to go downtown if you’re on the J, K, or L.

Let me not make this sound easy.  These transfer points, West Portal and Duboce Portal, are a little awkward, because they were never designed for this purpose.  You have to walk from one platform to another, crossing at least one street.  There are valid concerns from people with mobility limitations, which will have to be addressed with better street and intersection design.  Plenty of people won’t like it.

But the transit backbone of a major city will finally function.  And for those of us who’ve known San Francisco for decades, that’s a forbidden fantasy come true.

 

 

The Fishing Pier Problem in Public Transit Equity

Photo: Heditor6, Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard people say: “They got that transit improvement in their neighborhood!  We deserve to have one in our neighborhood!”

But does this demand always makes sense?

Imagine a city on a lake or ocean, where neighborhoods near the water tend to be wealthier than those inland.  Suppose the city has a plan to build several fishing piers, but all the proposed piers are in the wealthy neighborhoods on the waterfront.  Isn’t that unfair?

No, I think you’d say, because fishing piers only work if they’re on the water.  If you were concerned with equity, maybe you’d propose a program that helps inland people get to the waterfront fishing piers quickly.  But you wouldn’t support an inland city councilor’s battle to get a fishing pier on dry land in their neighborhood, because it wouldn’t be useful for fishing.

In short, the point isn’t to equitably distribute fishing piers.  It’s to equitably distribute the ability to fish.

In the transit business, when a cool new thing is created somewhere, you always hear the rest of the city say: when do we get that cool thing?  You’ll hear this about everything, from subway lines to light rail to little vans that come to your door.   Enormous amounts of money get spent trying to act on this principle.

The typical pattern goes like this:

  • Cool new transit thing x is introduced, and deployed in one or two places in the city where it makes sense.  (Let’s build a fishing pier on the waterfront!)
  • Other neighborhoods demand the same thing, often claiming it’s unjust or inequitable that they don’t have it.  (Why don’t our inland neighborhoods have fishing piers?)
  • Often the cool new thing is actually built in those other neighborhoods that demand it, but it doesn’t work well there, because the geography is wrong for it.  (A fishing pier is actually built inland, extending across a patch of grass, but nobody uses it.)

The marketing of cool new transit things can make this problem worse.  The more you put out the message that light rail or BRT or microtransit or “Metro Rapid” is cool and different and better than “ordinary” buses, the more mad people will be if their neighborhood just gets ordinary buses.  That leads to political pressure to bring the cool new thing to a place where it just doesn’t work very well, which in turn leads to the cool new thing failing, just as an inland fishing pier will fail.

You’ll get the best transit mobility if we use the tool that works with your geography, even if it’s different from what works in other places.

So perhaps it makes no sense to equitably distribute any cool transit thing.  It makes sense to equitably distribute the ability to go lots of places quickly on transit.

How would our transit debates be different if we did this?

 

 

One Less Barrier to Expanding US Urban Rail Transit

 

Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose is one of many urban “commuter rail” lines that really need to be high frequency rapid transit lines. Now that’s a little more likely. Photo: Lucius Kwok.

Here’s some good news for people who want more rapid transit service in US cities, and soon.

In the US, all passenger rail services that could potentially mix with freight are governed by the regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). This applies not just to Amtrak but also, critically, to “commuter” rail lines, crucial rail transit services that run on freight railways.

If cities wanted to rapidly upgrade their rail transit systems, the cheapest way is often using upgraded commuter rail rather than building new lines.  Many major cities have large networks of radial commuter rail lines [typically originally freight lines] which, if upgraded to run every 15 minutes or better all day, would effectively become metro lines, on the cheap.  You’ll find this level of service in many major metro areas overseas. Toronto’s Smart Track plan is exactly this idea.

The problem, as always, is frequency, which in turn is a problem of operating cost.  Most US commuter rail systems are far too infrequent to be useful for anything but 9-5 commuting, even though many of them run through dense urban fabric where the demand is there for all-day frequent service.

The Obama FRA, responding to several freight rail disasters, had proposed a rule mandating two-person crews, and had quietly inserted language extending this to passenger rail, even though passenger and freight rail present very different safety issues.   Those requirements would have made commuter rail service too expensive to run frequently enough for it to be useful, and would have persisted regardless of whether technological developments improved the safety outcomes of one-person crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just announced that it will stop requiring two-person crews and preempt state requirements to do so.  If this were a genuine safety issues, I’d be alarmed, but it really isn’t. The new FRA position liberates transit agencies and other local governments to negotiate the right solution with their unions in the context of what’s technologically possible.

Yes, removing this requirement is a “conservative” idea that would be unlikely to come from a Democratic administration.  But it removes a significant barrier to providing more useful urban public transit, which leads to all kinds of benefits for equity, prosperity, and the environment.

Visualizing Transit Reliability

Reliability is one of those essential features of transit that you can’t take a picture of.  It’s an overwhelming issue in the lives of transit customers but can seem abstract to others who make transit policy.  And it’s a major issue in many transit systems.

Poor reliability of buses has many causes, mostly having to do with the traffic congestion and other causes of random delay to which they’re exposed.  But when a rail line runs in an exclusive right of way, never interacting with traffic, there aren’t a lot of excuses.

The Miami organization Transit Alliance has done a nice visualization of transit reliability on that city’s rail transit system.  It looks at the system right now and shows how many trains are running late.  It’s important to note here that late does not mean behind schedule.  It means that the maximum wait time is longer than scheduled, by a given number of minutes.  (That’s the only rational way to talk about reliability in high-frequency services.)

Some insitute really needs to create a database of reliability info across many agencies, searchable many ways — and always based on this headway reliability rather than on-time performance.  Most transit agencies now have real time vehicle location feeds, and they are already released in standard formats for use by apps.  Yet we see remarkably few of these kinds of analytics that could help people understand the severity of the reliability problem — even on services like grade-separated heavy rail that have few external causes of delay.

 

 

The Pleasure of Track Maps

If you’ve never seen a subway track map, I suggest you look at this one, for New York, by “radical cartographer” Andrew Lynch. Most track diagrams are not to scale, and look like they’re meant to make to make sense only to insiders.  But this one is beautiful.
nyc track map b

 

 

What’s more, it’s accurate in geographic scale, though of course the separation of tracks can’t be on the same scale as the network.  Still, New York’s subway is both huge and full of details, so this is no mean feat.  Only 22 insets were required, to zoom in on tricky segments.

Gazing at a good track map can give you an appreciation for the heroics involved in moving trains around in this limited infrastructure. Switches and extra tracks are very expensive underground, which is why they are never where you need them to handle a particular incident.  This, for example, is why a track closure at one station may continue through several stations nearby.

Gaze at this piece of the Bronx, and marvel at what a train would have to do to get from Jerome Yard to a station on the Orange (B+D) line.  I presume they don’t have to do this very often, but in a pinch, they can.

nyc track map a

I spent a delighted hour with it.

Portland: Frequent Bus Performance Approaching Light Rail’s

Here's an interesting chart:

Tri Met Ops Cost per Ride

This is a year's trend comparing bus and light rail (MAX) service in Portland's transit agency, TriMet, from the performance dashboard at the TriMet Transparency and Accountability Center webpage.  

The metric here is operating cost per boarding ride.  This is a good overall measure of how effectively a transit agency is liberating and moving people, where down means good.  (I prefer this ratio upside down: ridership per unit cost or "bang for buck," so that up means good. but this is obviously a chart by finance people who always want cost on top.)  This is a "macro" metric.  Practically everything a transit agency does affects it, so it's lousy diagnosis but not bad if you only have bandwidth to convey one measure.

Most American transit data just compares bus and rail, and inevitably shows bus performing worse.  You'll see that here too if you just look at the wide solid lines.  From this we get endless ignorant journalism lamenting the poor performance of the city bus, as though all city buses are basically alike.

What if we separated out highly useful and liberating bus service as a separate category?  That isn't exactly the distinction made here but it's close.  TriMet's Frequent Service network (still being restored, but mostly now back in existence) is the network of all services that are almost always coming soon.  

This chart says two remarkable things:

  • Frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance.   
  • The spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The lesson is pretty clear:  The "city bus" is a misleading category, and the much-fetishized difference between bus and rail may matter less than whether the services are designed to be useful.  And when it comes to usefulness, no one variable capture that more than frequency.  

mitigating construction impacts through placemaking in St Paul (video)

Any large transportation infrastructure project involves the temporary inconvenience of construction. While a new rail line or viaduct might be a lasting asset for a city, and one that continues to be useful for decades to come, short term impacts can prove disastrous for people involved in commercial activity around the construction zone, and disruptive to neighborhood residents. In some cases, business owners have even been driven to legal action by this issue. Part of the problem is that for the duration of construction, inconvience, noise, and rubble can come to define perception of the corridor where work is being done. 

5VDEYtLHowever, disruption can also be an opportunity. In St. Paul, a local nonprofit called Springboard for the Arts led an initiative ("Irrigate") to try to respond to the construction of the Central Corridor Green Line and support local businesses and neighborhoods through a placemaking approach. Irrigate provided hundreds of artists with training and funding to do small projects in neighborhoods along the corridor in collaboration with business owners and neighborhood groups. This grant-funded program was specifically oriented towards improving business and neighborhood viability.

Here's their video:

 

A program like this can help to mitigate construction impacts through direct financial stimulus to artists, indirect support for businesses through those artists' projects, and a high level of media visibility that can change the conversation or perception about a place. Irrigate's goal was for the story of the Central Corridor to be about arts, thriving businesses, and healthy neighborhoods, not the inconvenience of being in a construction zone. 

As a City of St. Paul policy director puts it in an independent audit of the program:

While the City of Saint Paul tried feverishly to garner positive coverage for the benefits of transit that the Central Corridor would bring to the community, their positive message was consistently diluted in the media by negative stories about the impact of construction. As Irrigate projects began popping up along the Corridor in unexpected ways, the disruption of the many small projects quickly had a surprising impact. The magic of art started a different conversation, something that couldn’t have been predicted  but was such a blessing. Irrigate’s public process engaging artists from the community to support local  businesses provided a nimble and creative way to influence the narrative and change community  perceptions of the value of community development. Irrigate’s approach taught the public sector that  sometimes it’s alright to let go of the bureaucratic process to allow for a more organic process of  community engagement.

Here, "placemaking" doesn't mean a bench or a mural; those are tactics. With Irrigate, placemaking was sustained investment in this corridor over a period of years, supporting hundreds of projects. 

Apparently, Irrigate has been successful enough for Springboard to create a toolkit to duplicate the progam elsewhere; according to one piece, it's already in use in Cleveland and Mesa, Arizona. Transit agencies could learn a lot from this example when laying the groundwork for their projects. While the work that Springboard did here is probably outside of the capabilities of most if not all agencies, building connections to foster this type of action prior to a big project could prove to be a prudent investment.

Image: Springboard for the Arts

quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”

 

Trains would be just one layer of a comprehensive, multi-modal network that greatly enhances both neighborhood and regional accessibility for people all across the [Los Angeles] region. …

A singular focus on rail would divide the region into two: neighborhoods with rail and neighborhoods without. Such a future would perpetuate income inequality as housing costs rise near stations and station areas would be choked with traffic congestion. …

Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.

Juan Matute, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies
from a discussion called "Trains are Not the Silver Bullet"
 at ZocaloPublicSquare

This is from a collection of commentary about the the role of rail in the larger context of transit investment strategies.  Read the whole thing!