London Metro Rail

For London, one Crossrail isn’t enough

» There are another four years to go before Crossrail 1 opens, but consultation is advancing quickly on Crossrail 2. London is ready for more fast cross-town links.

As Paris begins construction on a massive new program of circumferential metro lines designed to serve inter-suburban travel, London has doubled down on its efforts to improve links within the center of the metropolitan area. The two approaches speak to the two regions’ perceived deficiencies: Paris with its inadequate transit system in the suburbs, London with a core that is difficult to traverse.

There’s one thing both cities deem essential, though: Much faster transit links to reduce travel times around each respective region. In London, that means growing support for additional new tunneled rail links designed to bring suburban commuters through the center city while speeding urban travelers.

Since the conclusion of the second World War, London’s Underground network has grown very slowly: The Victoria Line was added in 1968 and the Jubilee Line extended in 1979, but that’s about it. In some ways, that made sense: London region’s population peaked in 1951 at 8.1 million and declined precipitously until the 1980s. It only recouped it losses in 2011. But the region is now growing quickly, adding an estimated 100,000 or more people a year, reaching a projected 9.7 million 20 years from now. The number of commuters entering the city is expected to grow by 36% by 2031.

That growth has put incredible strain on the city’s transit network, with ridership growing by 40% in fifteen years. Through direct government grants, the support of the pseudo-public Network Rail, and the commitment of Transport for London, the local transit organizing body, the city has two major relief valves under construction. The Thameslink Programme, which will open for service in 2018, will improve the existing north-south rail link through the city by allowing for trains every two to three minutes; the Crossrail 1 project, also opening in 2018, will create a new, 21-km northwest-to-southeast subway corridor that is expected to increase overall transit capacity by 10% while significantly reducing east-west travel across the city center.

Those projects, which cost more than £21 billion ($36 billion) between them, will allow the system to accommodate new growth, but they won’t resolve London’s most significant transit bottleneck, the Victoria Line, which carries far more riders per mile than any other Underground Line. That’s where Crossrail 2 comes in.

Crossrail 2, as the following map shows, would extend from the southwest to the northeast of the city, connecting Victoria with Euston, St. Pancras, and King’s Cross Stations, roughly paralleling the alignment of the Victoria Line. The project will allow certain trains on the West Anglia Main Line to the north and the South Western Main Line to run through the city. The project was submitted to a public consultation process that ended last week that examined several options for line routings; a preferred route is expected to be selected this year, with construction beginning at the earliest in 2020 at a cost of £12 to 20 billion ($21 to 34 billion). Last year, a separate consultation for the route selected a “regional” option (allowing through-running commuter trains) over a “metro” option, which would have been an automated subway.

Like Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2 is expected to increase the transit capacity of central London by 10%, possible thanks to 10-car trains running every two minutes, allowing 45,000 passengers per hour per direction. As the following map illustrates, that capacity increase will be needed by the early 2030s if the project is not implemented. Major sections of the Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, and District Lines are all expected to be crowded at more than four passengers per square meter at rush hour, enough to make much of London Underground a truly inhospitable environment.

The opening of the the high-speed rail line HS2, which will link London to Birmingham by 2026, makes the capacity bump provided by Crossrail 2 even more important because of the influx of passengers expected at HS2’s terminal, Euston Station.

The result of the new connection will not only produce less crowding on other lines, but it will significantly reduce journey times. To Tottenham Court Road, where Crossrail 1 will will meet Crossrail 2, the latter project will reduce travel times from Kingston in the southwest from 49 to 27 minutes and from Tottenham Hale in the northeast from 27 to 16 minutes.

There is little about Crossrail 2 that has been easy thus far, and certainly there is plenty more work to be done, particularly in assembling the project’s financing. The project has been studied since the 1970s (as the “Chelsea-Hackney Line”) and was considered as a serious alternative to the initial Crossrail project in the late 2000s. In other words, its necessity isn’t exactly a new idea.

Extensive support from business groups, including London First, however, is new. The organization has proposed funding the project, in part, with £3 billion in fare increases on all transit services, £2.4 billion in revenue from allowing denser development along the corridor, and £1.8 billion from expanded business taxes. In addition, the line — like Crossrail 1 — is expected to be operationally profitable and therefore able to raise some its capital funding by bonding on the back of future fares to the tune of an additional £3 billion.

If these seem like huge sums, they are. But London transit proponents have successfully been able to make the case not only that the city’s residents rely on its transit system, but also that investing in a better transit system produces overwhelmingly positive benefits to the economy as a whole. Crossrail 2’s advocates note that, even with a £16 billion price, the project’s benefits to cost ratio is 4.1 to 1 when wider economic benefits, such as agglomeration, are considered. This is a message that American transit promoters, who are unable to effectively make the argument for new lines, should practice making, because while London’s a great town, there’s nothing particular about the benefits of fast transit there versus anywhere else.

Image at top: Crossrail station at Canary Wharf, almost complete, from Flickr user George Rex (cc); Crossrail 2 map from Transport for London; Crowding map from London First.

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail United Kingdom

UK Ramps Up Intercity Rail Investments

» Continued investment in the U.K.’s rail network comes at a considerable cost, but spending on existing services will complement planned high-speed rail route and further recent ridership increases.

Opposition to the United Kingdom’s second high-speed rail line, the £17 33 billion* connection between London and Birmingham called HS2, has been stewing for years. Critics of the line — much like opponents to rail programs in the U.S. — suggest that the project’s benefits do not justify its enormous cost (both monetarily and in terms of its effects on the rural landscapes trains will pass through) and that other investments on existing lines would be more effective.

While the U.K.’s Conservative-led coalition government, itself teetering and facing a double-dip recession, continues to maintain its support for the HS2 program, it has not limited its public investments just to that line, and this week it announced a £9.4 billion ($14.6 billion) scheme to electrify a number of routes throughout the country between 2014 and 2019. Certain of these projects were announced in 2009 under the then-Labour government. The improvements will provide for a significant expansion in capacity on existing lines, decrease operating costs, and allow the introduction of faster, more agile electric trains — in addition to clearing the way for more space for freight trains.

The spending, which will electrify routes from London to Cardiff, Manchester to Liverpool and York, and the Midland Main Line, is part of a £16 billion total investment in the National Rail route network planned for the five-year period, whose hallmark projects include the construction or improvement of two cross-London lines, Crossrail and Thameslink. It comes after fifteen years of £35 billion of concentrated investments in the U.K.’s rail system — spending in tracks, signals, stations and trains that has radically improved service and dramatically increased passenger counts.

A diesel East Midlands train running north from London on a line scheduled for electrification. From Flickr user Ingy the Wingy (cc)

Unlike HS2, the planned line electrifications are unlikely to see much opposition, in part because the investments made in the country’s rail network thus far have proven so popular despite their high cost. Though there is quite a bit criticism of the operations regime used in the U.K., in which private operators bid for routes (indeed, Labour is “flirting” with re-nationalisation), the publicly owned infrastructure has been improved to such an extent that the nation now boasts the second-most heavily used rail network in Europe, after Germany. Last year, 1.35 billion riders took to the rails, an increase of 50% over the past decade. Though Amtrak’s recent passenger growth has been impressive, its roughly 30 million annual passengers pale in comparison.** So there is cross-party support for projects that improve the U.K.’s railways.

This raises questions about the right approach for investment in rail systems in the United States. The only true high-speed rail project with any reasonable chance of even partial implementation in the U.S. currently is the California High-Speed Rail system, but that effort will require a significant infusion of future federal funds to move beyond an initial operating segment. On the other hand, there are major improvements being sponsored in states such as North Carolina and Illinois that will speed up existing passenger routes, improve freight operations, and expand the number of daily services. In many ways, those latter programs are much more like the British approach than the true high-speed investment proposed for California, and as the evidence has demonstrated, a serious effort to improve existing lines is likely to attract many more passengers.

Yet opponents have cried foul repeatedly in the U.S. Aaron Renn, whose view replicates that of many conservatives, wrote last week that Illinois’ investment in improving the corridor between Chicago and St. Louis represented little more than the implementation of “Toonerville Trolleys” because of the proposed trains’ relatively low 110 mph maximum speeds. He then bemoaned the high cost of the California plan and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor project, while at the same time arguing that “high speed rail could play an important role in US transportation.” He suggests that supporters of high-speed rail will support every project with that name attached to it, but he himself does not seem willing to endorse any project of the type once it reaches the planning phase. Perhaps American supporters of rail are too enthusiastic, but half of that excitement is simply a reaction to the overwhelming, mind-numbing skepticism of opponents.

The fact is that there are reasonable quibbles to be articulated against most infrastructure projects, and it is possible that significant improvements to the U.S.’ existing rail system could be made at a lower cost. In addition, as Alon Levy has noted, improved cooperation between agencies is necessary; it is no surprise that the U.K.’s single rail infrastructure owner is better able to handle upgrades than America’s balkanized pattern of public and private track control. But it seems evident that working through problems where they exist and devoting money to improvements where possible will lead to increasing use of the country’s trains — as has been the case in the U.K.

Nevertheless, difficulties remain in Britain as well. Transport Secretary Justine Greening noted that the private passenger rail companies in the U.K. were operating with “waste and inefficiency” but that there was nothing to do in the immediate term. Meanwhile, because of inadequacies in government funding, passengers would have to take the fall for much of the cost of new spending, resulting in planned increases in fares equal to annual inflation plus 3%. That increase is probably worth it to riders, who will be getting better service as a result, but it will still take a toll on peoples’ finances and potentially limit future ridership increases. At the same time, a similar approach is nearly impossible in the U.S. because of the tiny number of existing passengers.

The U.K. has been a train-riding country for more than a century and it never abandoned its passenger services, unlike the U.S. So it has been easier — both politically and cost-wise — for it to build up passenger counts in recent years through systematic investment. Can the U.S. repeat its successes, despite the lack of existing riders (and related political will), the high construction costs necessary to improve services, and the lack of national control over rail infrastructure?

* The £33 billion cost quote includes links north from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.

** Though this figure does not include commuter rail services, of which many are included in the British number. However, even with commuter rail added to Amtrak, total intercity rail ridership in the U.S. is about 500 million a year — in a country five times as large as the U.K.

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail London United Kingdom

Defying Criticism, Government Finalizes Plans for U.K. High-Speed Rail

» A new route from London to Birmingham to be opened by 2026, with further extensions planned into 2030s. Project continues to face healthy skepticism.

Whatever the recession’s effects on government budgets, infrastructure development in Europe continues to advance at a steady pace. The United Kingdom government affirmed last week that it would move forward with the construction of a £18.8 billion ($29 billion) high-speed link between London and Birmingham, due for opening in 2026. This in spite of draconian cuts across all sorts of public services, both in Britain and across the continent.

The U.K.’s high-speed effort — it will effectively produce the nation’s first domestic truly high-speed line — follows almost two decades of travel to and from Paris and Brussels via Eurostar trains that operate under the English Chanel. Though those services have only recently met opening-year ridership expectations, Eurostar holds the large majority of the air-rail market share to these continental capitals, especially since following improvements completed in 2007 London finds itself within about two hours of its mainland peers. The popularity of that service surely had something to do with the government’s decision to move forward on a second line.

HS2 will bring measurable benefits: London to Birmingham in just 45 minutes, compared to 1h20 today, and eventually an hour off of trips to Manchester or Leeds, once extensions north to those cities are opened in 2032 at a cumulative cost of £36 billion. Direct trips between northern cities and Heathrow Airport and even the continent via the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be put into place. London’s aging Euston terminal will be significantly spruced up. The biggest improvement, perhaps, will be the practical doubling of capacity between the capital and the Midlands by providing a release valve for the West Coast Main Line, which recently went through its own upgrading project but which is predicted to reach capacity with a dozen years. (It already handles more than 40% of the country’s freight and 75 million annual passenger journeys.)

Yet the enormous cost of the link up to Birmingham has been put in question repeatedly not only by those who worry about increasing public debt but also those who question the need for the new rail link — especially along the chosen alignment.

The questions vary, depending on the critique: Is it worth spending this much money, primarily to reduce travel times by half an hour on trips between London and northern cities? Is the West Coast Main Line actually at capacity, or can it easily be expanded? Will UK travel patterns change to a significant enough extent to justify more transportation connections?

Much of the criticism of the project has focused on the line’s segment through the Cotswolds northwest of London, a pristine section of Britain that also happens to hold the residences of some of the nation’s most wealthy. But project planners seem to be unable to find an alternative to that alignment; it has remained the same even after the political transition between Labour and the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. That opposition, however, comes across as nimbyism, especially since its prime backers call from the affected area.

But the complaint that there is not enough of an economic rationale for the project is more compelling. The government’s own study of the project suggests that the first section would have a shaky benefits-cost ratio of just 1.6. This means that each pound of investment in the project would lead to £1.6 in economic benefits (in today’s discounted currency). Public works projects should be considered in comparison with one another to prioritize investments, and this rating is low.* The government’s own study of the 51M alternative, produced by project opponents as a suggestion to expand capacity on the West Coast Main Line, suggested a benefits-cost ratio of five or six for that less costly scheme.

Up in the air is the issue of whether the system will ever be extended north of Birmingham, to Manchester and Leeds as suggested by current planning, and then further north to Scotland. Of course, the financing to make those expansions possible is lacking, despite the fact that they would improve the benefits-cost ratio of the program to between 1.8 and 2.5, a far better result.

Meanwhile, the delayed completion of the line (it will not enter the construction stage until 2018) forces us to ask whether governmental action today is “final.” The justification of the wait has been that the government wants to first complete the equally huge Crossrail urban rail project for London. But who knows what priorities the government of 2018 will have. Will the high-speed rail project by then have lost political support?

A low cost-benefit ratio, however, does not necessarily mean the project shouldn’t be built.** The 51M scheme would be fine, but according to the government, it would fail to provide the capacity expansions to the rail network the country necessitates. It would force increasing freight shipments onto congested roadways. As the U.K. plans for its future, it has a choice: Allow its existing infrastructure to become paralyzed by disinvestment and a lack of capacity, or invest to expand it. The latter choice will allow for expanded travel and trade, the former will not.

These issues plague the development of many similar infrastructure investment projects. The California High-Speed Rail project, which continues to attract significant criticism from across the country and which lacks the national commitment devoted to Britain’s program, nonetheless represents a fundamental choice about the future of that state. Will it invest in its mobility systems to guarantee that its future inhabitants have access to travel options? Or will it overwhelm its existing infrastructure with the pains of growth? It’s an expensive choice.

* The government’s insistence that the project will create a large number of jobs (and therefore that it is good) improves the benefits-cost ratio only to the extent that external (non-construction) employment growth occurs because of the rail project and wouldn’t otherwise. After all, construction jobs, if that were the priority, could come cheaper: We could pay people to dig holes.

** As long as the ratio is over 1. Otherwise, the project would then produce more costs than benefits…

Image above: Rendering of British High-Speed Rail, from HS2

High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

U.K. Government Confirms High-Speed Plans

» Country’s second high-speed rail line would speed commuters from London to Birmingham in 49 minutes; extensions to Manchester and Leeds are planned.

After seven months in power, the United Kingdom’s Conservative-led government has endorsed the previous Labour Government’s plans for a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, a connection that will reduce running times between the country’s two largest metropolitan areas from 1h20 to less than fifty minutes. In addition, the Department for Transport, led by Phillip Hammond, has recommended the eventual extension of the route northeast towards Leeds and northwest towards Manchester in a 335-mile Y-shaped corridor to cost upwards of £30 billion ($46 billion) to construct.

The Conservative Government’s endorsement of this HS2 route confirms practically universal political support for the high-speed project in Britain and indicates that construction will get underway in 2016. Upon entering power, the Conservatives sent mixed messages about their interest in devoting a huge percentage of the country’s budget to this project; this week’s news demonstrates significant political support from the right-wing for the program.

The route is to be designed to allow trains to travel at speeds up to 250 mph and significantly relieve the West Coast Main Line, which carries 75 million passengers a year and which is expected to reach capacity by 2024, despite having been recently reconstructed at a cost of £13 billion. The new line will include a link to the existing HS1, which connects London to the Channel Tunnel. At completion, HS2 will allow 3h30 travel times between London and Glasgow or Edinburgh in Scotland and 3h00 trips between Paris and Birmingham.

Up to 15 trains per hour will terminate at a 10-track station added to the existing London Euston, carrying up to 16,500 passengers per direction per rush hour. A spur to Heathrow Airport is planned.

Though the primary purpose of the new rail link will be to reduce travel times throughout Great Britain, the Department for Transport has argued that it would also allow commuters to live in places like Coventry and Milton Keynes and work in London. Those cities are respectively 100 and 50 miles from the capital. It is worth questioning whether it makes sense to encourage such long-distance commuting, no matter how quickly it can be done. Indeed, though one of the stated goals of the high-speed train project is to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of automobile and airplane trips, long-distance work commutes are energy intensive no matter the mode used.

HS2 is also likely to see mounting criticism from communities along the line that will be affected by the construction of the project and the operation of the trains. The expansion of Euston Station will force several hundred families to move away from their homes in London; meanwhile, as the trains travel across the Chilterns and Warwickshire, they are likely to produce an uncomfortable increase in noise for up to 50,000 people. Though Mr. Hammond has reworked half of the route in response to citizen concerns and argued that the project will be attractively designed when built, he may face mounting criticism from within his own party if the project moves ahead as planned.

Nonetheless, the British high-speed rail project is likely to be a successful enterprise. HS1, which was completed in late 2007, has far fewer riders than HS2 is expected to carry but the services that use it (Eurostar and Southeastern High-Speed) are operationally profitable. Its huge £5 billion construction cost (including the £800 million renovation of London St. Pancras Station) has been partially paid off through the £2.1 billion 30-year concession announced last month — and new development expected around the London terminus, Stratford International, and other stations will add to the benefits. Similar or better results can be expected for the new line.

The government’s assertion of the importance of a link between HS1 and HS2 will add to value of both lines. By allowing direct service between central England and Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, or other continental cities, this connection — to be tunneled under north London — will encourage more air travelers from outside of London to switch to the train.

Moving tens of thousands of daily travelers to the new line will allow the West Coast Main Line to be freed for local, regional, and freight services. The creation of new terminals in London, Birmingham, and the other cities served will encourage more downtown development. The government recognizes the economic benefits of increased spending on mobility infrastructure.

To put the United Kingdom’s project in perspective, the government is planning to spend more than $40 billion on a rail line that will connect four metropolitan areas — London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds — whose collective population amounts to about 22 million. California’s similarly priced fast train will in its first phase link five metropolitan areas — Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Bakersfield, and Fresno — whose inhabitants number about 21 million. Future phases to Stockton, Sacramento, Riverside, and San Diego will add another 10 million to the service area.

If a Conservative government in the United Kingdom is willing to fund its project, in spite of massive cuts to the rest of the public budget, it’s hard to understand why bipartisan agreement in favor of investment in U.S. infrastructure in the form of high-speed rail cannot be assembled.

Image above: Trains at London’s Euston Station, from Flickr user Matt Buck (cc)

Finance Infrastructure London Paris

An Alternative to Congestion Pricing: Roadway Traffic Restraint

» Comparing the approaches taken by Paris and London suggests that to ease traffic U.S. cities can attempt other, more politically palatable solutions than pricing.

When it comes to transportation economists, there’s pretty much one answer to every problem: Equate pricing of all modes with their greater societal impacts. In general, this means that we (in the U.S.) ought to be charging drivers more to make up for the negative effects they have on the environment and the roadway infrastructure, and that we ought to be increasing subsidies to encourage people to take transit.

This approach could be implemented in a variety of ways depending on location, but one model that has been particularly appealing to planners interested in reducing the perceived negative economic and social effects of traffic has been that of London, which in 2003 implemented a congestion charge on drivers entering its central business district. Revenues from the program went to increasing transit service. The method, unsurprisingly, has been a major success in terms of reducing traffic: Between 2002 and 2007, overall car movements in the district decreased by 39%. Meanwhile, travel on public transportation increased correspondingly over the same time period: By 24% on commuter railways, 16% on the Underground, and 18% on buses.

These are excellent results and the effects have been overwhelmingly positive for commuters and residents of London’s central areas.

But what if congestion charging is just too much of a hot topic for even progressive American cities to handle? The effort to instate a similar system in New York City in 2008 was so thoroughly brought to its feet that it is hard to imagine wanting to repeat the fight.

Yet there’s an alternative, and it may prove just as productive if the goal is to reduce traffic: Paris’ systematic engagement to make it harder to drive in the city. The French capital has proceeded in a manner far different from that of London, choosing to avoid paid penalties on drivers in order to prevent the further development of the already-existing sense that the City of Paris is attempting to isolate itself from its suburbs, which are already cut off by a ring road. 40% of drivers within the city’s borders are inhabitants of the surrounding areas.

As a result, the administration of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has since 2001 prioritized the creation of bicycle, bus, and tramway infrastructure along with the reduction of vehicle lanes along both major boulevards and side streets. Huge sections of the city have been designated 30 km/h zones and biking is now allowed in both directions on most streets, even those that are one-way for automobiles. Free parking has been mostly eliminated. This spring, the city reinforced its efforts to commit far more street space to biking and expand that mode’s travel share.

Streetsblog’s Ben Fried provided an excellent overview of the city’s program in April 2008.

Looking back, the results have been astonishing: Even with no direct financial reason to abandon driving, the city saw a 17% decrease in driving between 2002 and 2007, a trend that is continuing (according to the most recent information, it may now be 24%). In the same time period, travel on the regional rail network increased by 16%, by 8% on the Metro, and by 2% on buses in the city. Weekend traffic has seen the most significant gains. This has reduced further the already extremely low share of overall commutes made by car or motorcycle in the city: Just 16.3% in 2008. In the near suburbs, the equivalent statistic is 40.2%, though those areas are soon to be better connected by a system of tramways and bus-only routes (and eventually by a massive circumferential metro).

Paris’ accomplishment, though not as large in percentage change as London’s, was arguably more significant since it affected the entire city of 41 square miles, versus the original eight square miles of the London congestion zone (later roughly doubled).

Moreover, these statistics fly in the face of the commonly-cited idea that “congestion pricing is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce traffic congestion,” to quote transportation policy experts David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup. For cities truly concerned about finding ways to limit the number of cars traveling down the street, whatever the purpose, this example demonstrates that a concerted effort to get cars off the street by limiting the space available to them can be an effective technique.

There are, of course, dissenters who make the argument that the Parisian approach limits economic productivity and results in a “decrease in mobility” because car drivers no longer are able to move as easily as they once were. That interpretation, however, is based on the fact that overall passenger-kilometers have decreased; yet that statistic favors trip distance thereby discounting the value of, say, walking to the neighborhood store — an essential trip for people living in an urban place. Also, economic discussions focused on “mobility” fail to reflect the fact that inhabitants of neighborhoods with fewer cars benefit significantly in terms of quality of life.

Arguments that suggest that bus ridership has not gained enough passengers to reflect the decrease in car traffic do have some merit, though there is no doubt that certain interventions, such as the installation of a new tramway along the southern edge of the city limits, have significantly increased public transport use.

The major failing of Paris’ approach is that it does not guarantee a new revenue source for the public transportation system. Whereas London was able to use its congestion charge to reinforce spending on its local bus system, Paris has had to continue relying on other funds to ensure the increase in services provided on increasingly packed buses and trains. Even so, that may be a compromise worth considering for other cities wanting fewer cars without the political nightmare that is congestion pricing.

Image above: A bus in Paris with policemen on bikes, from Flickr user Daniel Lobo (cc)