Weekend Links

» This week’s big news. Open thread in the comments.

Follow my Twitter account (@ttpolitic) to get news in real time. I’ll be traveling this week and next; if you’d like to meet up in New Orleans (July 29-August 1) or San Francisco (August 2-7), send me an email.

On The Transport Politic:


  • Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell announces that he’ll consider “flexing” some of his state’s highway dollars for the purposes of funding transit. Despite the fact that federal law allows almost all roads money to be used for public transportation, the instances of that being done are rare.
  • High-speed rail plans in Florida and Illinois are rapidly approaching reality. In the Sunshine State, surveying has begun despite the fact that not all cash has yet been appropriated to the project. Meanwhile, Illinois has announced that construction on the Chicago-St. Louis line (110 mph) will begin in September.
  • Two rail projects of vastly different magnitudes are beginning to have their tracks laid. In Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco, Caltrans has been installing steel along Highway 101 for the 70-mile SMART commuter train (pictured above). In China, the 820-mile Beijing-Shanghai line has had its right-of-way cleared, and similar operations are under way.


  • A Québecois leader, affirming his desire to be closer to the U.S. than the rest of Canada, suggests that high-speed rail between Montréal and New York is a top priority, but does little to advance Montréal-Toronto link, despite that being a more realistic and probably more attractive project.
  • Detroit Mayor Dave Bing argues that the U.S. Government is planning to fund the expansion of his number one goal: a light rail line from downtown to 8 Mile. The U.S. DOT has yet to demonstrate its commitment to the program outside of the initial corridor to Grand Avenue.
  • The San Francisco Bay Area’s BART commuter system, advances plan to fund the Oakland Airport Connector, in face of months of protests.


  • After one year in service, Seattle’s Central Link light rail system demonstrates steadily increasing ridership, but it may not be able to reach pre-opening projections for the end of 2010. Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile says that “commuting market share is the wrong way to judge transit,” but it would be interesting to know what percentage of people along Seattle’s transit corridor are using the new line to get to work. In the U.S. capital region, overall transit commute share increased from 17% to 21% between 2001 and 2010; that’s an exciting change.
  • Jarrett Walker argues that the Strasbourg model, which uses light rail to promote sustainable transportation between top destinations, isn’t necessarily applicable to many cities in the United States. Now that the U.S. Senate has reduced spending for high-speed rail, increased money for highways, and removed references to “livability” and a future infrastructure bank, that seems especially true. Nevertheless, the DOT continues its relentless pursuit of transit-oriented cities.

Image above: Proposed Petaluma SMART Station, from SMART

29 replies on “Weekend Links”

Montreal’s been seeking an HSR mirage for decades, ever since Toronto overtook it as Canada’s largest city. The idea is that a fast connection to New York would somehow make the city great again.

The truth is that cross-border connections are overrated. That’s why the Channel Tunnel underperforms. Even before the Channel Tunnel opened, the total size of the London-Paris air market was 4.5 million, behind Madrid-Barcelona and about twice as much as Paris-Nice. Given that London is about twelve times bigger than Nice, we’re talking about a factor of 6 underperformance. In North America, no US-Canada city pair makes even the top 100 air corridors in or from the US.

A New York-Toronto high-speed rail line might be useful, because of all the intermediate connections, and because north of Buffalo the legacy ROW is dead straight. But New York-Montreal doesn’t have that; it would require greenfield construction for a mountain-ridden 350 km stretch north of Albany, in which the largest intermediate city has a metro area population of 200,000. Put this corridor on the very long range HSR plan and concentrate on more useful intranational connections.

What is the performance between Vienna and points in Germany or between France and Geneva?

Part of the “border effect” is a language effect and part is a border effect as such … the language effect NYC / Montreal would be muted compared to London/Paris.

The performance is horrible. The intra-Germany corridors all show up in the intra-EU top 20; nothing from Germany to Austria does (link). Zurich’s top air market to the EU is London, not any of the German airports, and isn’t very big; its rail connections to Germany are poor, too. Geneva doesn’t show up anywhere, but it has good rail connections to France, so it isn’t too surprising.

On the other hand, the Copenhagen-Oslo and Stockholm-Oslo markets are decent, relative to the cities’ size. So it’s possibly not as much an issue of language as of business connections.

(By the way, in the above link, note that all data is given in terms of airport pairs. This understates some of London’s air markets, which are dominated by low-cost carriers using multiple secondary airports instead of Heathrow. London-Dublin is a huge market, coming from the fact that there’s no serious alternative to flying.)

“The performance is horrible. The intra-Germany corridors all show up in the intra-EU top 20; nothing from Germany to Austria does (link).”

The fact that its not between 20th and 10th like the intra-German routes only tells us that its less than ~1.3m … it does nothing to indicate whether its, eg, 60% or 6% of what would be expected between cities of similar size within Germany.

no US-Canada city pair makes even the top 100 air corridors in or from the US.

That’s because most Canadians live so close to the border that they drive. There’s signs for Montreal in Albany. The highway blaze signs for Autoroute 15 begin to appear near here in Lake George. When they aren’t driving they are on the bus, platoons of them zooming by at 75. The government should have reasonable accurate numbers on it, everyone has to go through customs in Rouse Point or nearby.

it would require greenfield construction for a mountain-ridden 350 km stretch north of Albany,

Lots of it already owned by the state. It’s mostly parkland between Glens Falls and Plattsburgh. Where it’s not parkland it’s low value farm or forestland. Biggest obstacle is going to amending the state constitution to allow a railroad to be built. If I remember correctly, the intermodal study done by the state determined that existing ROW is good enough between Albany and Glens Falls area and good enough between Plattsburgh and Montreal. 5 billion was the estimate for an electrified line, I don’t remember if that included re-electrifying Metro North’s Hudson line or not. ,,, 4 hours from Gare Central to Penn Station, less if they get Albany to NYC under 1:45.

No, it’s not that people drive. Look at the top 100 list. There are tons of corridors at shorter distance than NY-Montreal and NY-Toronto. NY-DC and NY-Boston each have about twice NY-Toronto’s air traffic, despite all the trains and low-cost buses.

The problem between Glens Falls and Plattsburgh isn’t ROW ownership. It’s the mountains. Heavy tunneling is required for high speed; for the purpose of this discussion, 110 mph is not high speed. An alternative Burlington route requires somewhat less tunneling, but is entirely greenfield.

People who drive don’t show up in air traffic statistics. People who take the bus because airfares are outrageous don’t either.

Go and compare airfares between NY and DC or Boston and NY and Montreal or Montreal and Boston. If you want to see some breathtaking expensive fares try things like Albany to Montreal or Hartford to Montreal, Syracuse to Boston or NYC or…. People are driving because it’s faster and cheaper than flying. Low low fares between NY and DC or Boston are the exception not the rule.

Okay, if you want to spin the existence of low-cost buses and fast freeway connections between NY and DC as a reason why the air market would be larger than NY-Montreal, be my guest.

I want to spin the $695 airfare between Hartford and Montreal as the reason why most people drive. Or the $484 takes-longer-than-driving flight between Albany and Montreal or the $337 change in Phildelphia flight from LaGuardia or the $358 flight from JFK or $341 flight from Newark as the reason why people drive to Montreal… before taxes, airport fees and TSA charges.

Also ignores that New York airports are hub airports and lots of the people flying between NY and DC or NY and Boston are just in NY to make a connection.

Albany-Montreal isn’t the largest-population city pair in the world, now. The main traffic generator is NY-Montreal, and there the flights are reasonably priced and faster than driving.

The flights aren’t reasonably priced, they are twice to three times as expensive as NY-DC, as expensive or more expensive than transcontinental flights.

I realize this may come a shock but there are flights to European and Asian destinations from both Boston and Montreal. People in those places would be likely to use the non stop to Heathrow before the change planes at JFK or EWR.

There aren’t a lot of flights to European and Asian destinations from Boston and Montreal. Boston has some connections to London and Montreal to Paris, but neither is the international gateway that New York is.

And sure, the flights from NY to Montreal are more expensive than from NY to DC. The buses are even more expensive (and much slower), the trains run once a day (and are expensive), and driving takes forever (and there’s no cell coverage on parts of I-87, it’s so remote and unimportant). Relative to the alternatives, the flights aren’t that bad.

Are the city pairs on the list end-to-end destinations or flight segments? The chart doesn’t specify, and that could make a big difference for the type of comparison you are making.

Flight segments: connecting passengers are included. This matters not one bit, however, since people from Montreal and Boston are about equally likely to want to fly to New York to connect to Europe.

Maybe for Boston. Very unlikely for Montreal – in all the years I lived there I don’t recall hearing anyone talk about connecting in NYC. American customs officials to deal with, for one thing. Needing US dollars if you just want to get a drink or snack while waiting for your onward flight, for another. And rarely cheaper – though I have flown via miserable old Detroit airport a few times as that was the cheapest option for London–Montreal. (Though it was galling to be passing right over Mtl and knowing you had another hour in the air, a few hours in a bus station of an airport and then finally a flight home.)

Most people would just fly direct, or change in Toronto if they had to. Plenty of direct flights from Mtl to London and continental destinations, notably Paris.

You’re right on Montreal-Paris – it’s a large market, considering the sizes of the cities involved. But on other markets, I’m not as sold. For flights from Montreal to US destinations, New York is one of the main choices of hub, though perhaps not as large as Toronto. This is actually less true of NY-Boston and NY-DC, as JetBlue and American both maintain secondary hubs at Logan and United maintains a hub at Dulles.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have talked about New York in the context of Montreal-Europe. (For one, it probably declined as a Canada-Europe hub after the Maher Arar scandal.) But Montreal-Europe isn’t a large market. Intercontinental flights are a premium market for the airlines, but they don’t carry that many passengers.

Sorry, that wasn’t very clear. I should have said “I don’t recall hearing anyone talk about connecting in NYC for flights to Europe.”

For markets besides Paris, it’s large enough for general demand – there are daily flights to many European hubs – but as you noted, the trans-Atlantic sector is relatively small, and thus not very significant in the context of Mtl-NYC HSR.

The more I think about this, the more I convince myself that a New York-Montreal route via Albany won’t work. The water route from NYC to Albany is certainly going to be limited to 90 mph south of Croton-Harmon, perhaps south of Poughkeepsie, and 125 mph north of it. The NEPA process is likely to be very contentious for a new line through the park; amending the State constitution is hard. East of the lake, it’s going to be very hard to run straight given that the route lies between the mountains and the lake.

But, if the southern segment of the NEC (New York-Washington) is upgraded to true HSR and new Hudson River tunnels bored, dedicated to HSR, then it might make sense to build a New York-Canada HSR route off the NEC at Harrison, along the old Erie-Lackawanna Main Line RoW (now the NJT Main Line) up to, say, Ramsay, then along the I-86 corridor to Binghamton, then up the I-81 corridor through Syracuse to the St Lawrence valley, cross the St. Lawrence (an opportunity for a signature bridge), and finally run along the St. Lawrence into Montreal with a spur off it into Ottawa. This would incidentally provide Canada with an Ottawa-Montreal HSR line (not as direct as one might like, but certainly workable) which Canada could, at its leisure, extend to Toronto. Syracuse is roughly at the mid-point of the proposed Albany-Buffalo 110 mph line, which would act as a feeder.

Most trains along this line would run between Montreal or Ottawa and New York, but some might bypass New York connecting Washington and Philadelphia with the Canadian cities. Line-haul times between Montreal and New York should be not much above 2.5 hours, Montreal-Washington on the order of four hours.

This would have to be presented as a prestige project, symbolic of US-Canadian cooperation, rather than the HSR project that makes most economic sense, of course.

There is no political chance that a line running from Mtl to NYC via Ontario will happen before a Toronto-Montreal line is in place.

Having a line via Syracuse does make some sense in the long run, providing a north-south route between the two countries’ capitals. But it would likely (at least initially) run from Syracuse to Montreal via Ottawa, assuming the first corridor line was Toronto-Kingston-Ottawa-Montreal. And where would it cross the St Lawrence? Wolfe Island, and so connecting right in to Kingston? Or parallel to I-81? The former is flat farmland but surrounded by wider expanses of water, the latter rather hilly iirc.

The whole thing would be an awfully big detour, regardless – around 33% longer if via Syracuse and then along the St Lawrence (almost 50% further if via Ottawa instead) compared to straighter routes via Albany.

There is no political chance that a line running from Mtl to NYC via Ontario will happen before a Toronto-Montreal line is in place.

That’s probably good. There’s no hurry. Turn left for Toronto, right for Montreal, probably helps the economics. I doubt the US has any particular interest in preferring one destination to another. An HSR which connected the NEC cities to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal would probably be the US’s preference. Which suggests that right now State and FRA should be working towards interoperability standards with their Canadian counterparts.

The whole thing would be an awfully big detour, regardless – around 33% longer if via Syracuse and then along the St Lawrence (almost 50% further if via Ottawa instead) compared to straighter routes via Albany.

About 20% by my measurement. 460 miles vs. 380. But the 460 miles would be covered quicker than the 380. And be cheaper to build.

Possibly muddying the waters…

Only time for a quick search, and didn’t find any airport-airport data, but these are the total transborder numbers (enplaned & deplaned) for Canada’s five busiest airports in 2009.

Toronto 8.1 million
Vancouver 3.8 million*
Montréal 2.9 million
Calgary 2.4 million
Edmonton 1.0 million (even if that was all for one destination, the resulting Edmonton-[city] pair still wouldn’t make the top 100)

*surprisingly, no spike for the Olympics

My last two international flights; Chicago-Toronto $1200, Chicago-London $250. A huge difference (these were back when flying was still “cheap” too..). Same goes for flying to Vancouver (people even fly to Seattle and drive the three hours its so expensive). A fast train from Chicago to Detroit and on to Toronto and Montreal would be great, since it’s a long drive, lots of people do it since it’s so expensive to fly. Wouldn’t high speed rail to Montreal also make it faster to get to both Toronto and Ottawa as well?

Last time I flew to Edmonton we had to go Chicago-Detroit/Minneapolis-Calgary-Edmonton (thought that’s bit of a long haul for rail).

The flight costs you’re citing are very unusual. US-Canada flights tend to be more expensive than comparable intra-US flights, but they’re not that expensive. On Expedia, NY-Toronto and Chicago-Toronto are both about $300; Chicago-London is $900, and NY-London is $700.

Now, a Chicago-Toronto HSR would probably do well, and so would a New York-Toronto HSR, but not because of the end-to-end markets. In both cases, there are reasonable intermediate markets both in the US and in Canada, and a lot of international economic activity at the border crossings to bridge the gaps. Once there is HSR between Chicago and Detroit, or New York and Buffalo, it’s technically straightforward to extend it to Toronto. This is not true for Albany-Montreal.

I would think it would be quicker to get high speed rail in place between NYC and Toronto, since there is relatively busy rail between Ontario and Quebec. It wouldn’t surprise me if some push for rail in Montreal is to steal economic growth from Toronto. Granted, the distance would be much longer…

Yeah, they were unusual, but it’s my experience that convenient (I’m not checking expedia, since it’ll make me want to go somewhere) flights to Canada are very pricey.

Albany to Buffalo is ever so slightly farther than Albany to Montreal. NYC to Toronto via Albany is roughly, very roughly, the same distance between Ottawa and NYC via Montreal and Albany.

The total NY-Montreal distance is actually less than the NY-Toronto distance. But NY-Montreal has the Adirondacks or Vermont in the middle, whereas NY-Toronto is flat enough it could probably be done tunnel-free.

Furthermore, there are actually cities between Albany and Toronto, and would be used by trains coming from Chicago. Whereas there is almost no population center but a few Universities between Albany & Montreal. That is less so the case going through Boston or Springfield on the old Pennsylvania Montrealer/Washingtonian route.

A couple of Yonah’s recent tweets really put things in perspective.

…Amtrak’s overall train ridership in North Carolina is climbing. For the period of October through June, ridership overall jumped 26 percent, with 65,956 people riding the rails so far this year… (Triangle Business Journal)

China’s first high-speed (HS) rail line, the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity High-Speed Rail, has carried 40.96 million passengers since it began operating two years ago… [and] …is capable of transporting up to 125,000 passengers per day… (Xinhua News Agency)

That’s several orders of magnitude. NC’s roughly 130,000 riders per annum only just beats that Chinese HSR line’s daily capacity (which is roughly 2.5 times more than its average daily ridership). Wow.

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