Some benefits of underground railway infrastructures

(picture above: Malmö by orf3us via wikipedia)
By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
30/01/2022 –
(Version en français)
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Railway tunnels have always been expensive infrastructure. Not only do they cross natural obstacles, such as mountains, but they also provide a means of crossing the city and serving the inner city. There are currently debates about whether such infrastructure should be built, while some people think that urban transport could suffice.

Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart, Madrid or London. What these five cities have in common is that they are building or duplicating an existing railway tunnel. These major underground infrastructure projects obviously come at a price and raise questions about the appropriateness of such expenditure. This debate also relates to the question of whether it is not more useful to build light rail on the surface rather than an underground metro. But in order to understand the arguments of all sides, we have to look at what lies behind them.

Intermodality has often been an politician’s dream but rarely a traveller’s dream. Switching from one mode of transport to another requires good synchronisation, which is completely out of the passenger’s hands, since he does not « control » himself the journey from start to finish but must relies on several operators.

There are three major disadvantages to transhipments:

  • the obligation to get a local ticket in addition to that of the train;
  • in theory, juggling several transport modes in the city should be a piece of cake, but experience has shown that disruptions in one can wipe out all the benefits of using public transport in others;
  • anyone who has experienced crossing Paris or London with large suitcases to get from one station to another does not generally speak of a good experience.

It has already been widely proven that the number of transhipments are main factors affecting the choice of mode of transport.

Of course, heavy infrastructure is not built only to eliminate transhipments. In many cases, it is also a question of improving traffic flow. A dead-end station forces trains to turn around, which takes much longer than having the same train stay on the platform for a minute or two and then continues its journey.

Operators prefer, especially where there are many people, to run their trains « through ». Without this, a city like Copenhagen would not be able to operate his commuter services every 2.5 minutes or so, although the Danish S-Tog does not use a tunnel, but the main station.

A city for who?
Underground infrastructures have also the advantage of burying the technique and not damaging the neighbourhoods they pass through, as was the case in Brussels with the North-South railway junction. Paradoxically, opposition to underground infrastructures has become particularly acute in recent years with the rise of the ‘rejection of concrete’ (accused of being a tool of civil work capitalism), and to re-qualify cities as ‘sweet’ places to live for their inhabitants rather than places of business, shops and consumption.

But is the city, when it is a national or regional capital, a place that belongs only to its inhabitants? The presence of numerous national and local administrations, universities and hospitals suggests that it belongs to everyone. It must therefore be made accessible to all.

The limits of the light rail
Depending on the attractiveness of a city, the surface network is sometimes not able to absorb the large flows coming from outside, especially at peak times. This assertion can today be requalified with the generalisation of houseworking, but we cannot predict how the future will behave, with or without a pandemic.

In the TramTrain champion city of Karlsruhe, the original idea was to have all TramTrain lines converge via a main shopping street. It was so successful that at peak times up to 144 tramways from six different lines converged to the famous shopping street Kaiserstraße. The latter complains that at certain times of the day there is only a wall of trams. The worse was that the AVG regulations do not allow drivers to open the doors when there is a tram jam or a broken-down tram that blocks everything. Passengers have to wait on board until they reach the stops, while onlookers stroll happily by…

As a result, the city decided in 2003 to dig an underground light rail line to free the city centre from all forms of traffic.

Price and delays
Of course, there is the price of things. Many large projects have shown that the final costs were much higher than initially planned and that deadlines were never met. But has anyone thought about how many decades these infrastructures will be used? A delay of 2-3 years seems a pittance when you consider that almost four generations will benefit from an underground infrastructure.

Anyone who does not look at these projects over the very long term – in this case several decades – develops a biased view of reality.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a metro in Brussels was criticised because « the city is too small for this technology ». Can we do without the metro in Brussels (1.3 million inhabitants) today? The North-South railway junction may have left lasting scars on the culture of Brussels, but the concentration of jobs in the capital of Europe suggests that today it seems illusory to do without the intercity trains that drop you off less than 400m from the Grand Place and 600m from Parliament…

Brussels Central station: Intercity to Luxemburg (photo Mediarail.be)

London has also spent billions on its Crossrail project, called Elisabeth Line. This project has a delay of 3 years but promises to connect, with a train every 3 minutes, Heathrow airport to the districts of Canary Warf, passing through the City, one of the largest financial centers in the world.

The complete 90-degree rotation of Stuttgart station into a through station is a construction site associated with a large-scale project that extends the S-Bahn to places where it did not yet exist. This project, which was poorly defined in financial terms, was amended and unfortunately became a counter-example to all the opponents of concrete. This does not mean that example such as Stuttgart, a regional capital with 630 000 inhabitants, is an ideal model for other cities with the same importance.

In Munich, the construction of a second S-Bahn line at a depth of 40m, which in fact duplicates the existing line, started around 2017.  The project is expected to cost more than €3billion – not including re-planning. This may seem like a huge cost for such a city, but this infrastructure, like that of London and Stuttgart, will be in place for 100 years.

In Madrid, there is no one to miss the Recoletos tunnel. This infrastructure, which came into service in the 1960s between Chamartin and Atocha stations, accommodates around 470 trains and 200,000 passengers on two tracks. The traffic was so heavy that a second two-track tunnel had to be dug, which was inaugurated in 2008 after four years of work. As this did not seem to be enough, a third tunnel for high-speed trains only is currently being tested. This tunnel has the particularity of being equipped with the standard UIC gauge of 1,435mm. Three tunnels, 6 tracks, Madrid joins Brussels with cities with large railway underground passages.

Impact for real estate
Another debate concerns property prices. Improvements in local transport infrastructure are generally seen as a good thing, both for the economic prosperity of an area and property prices. Proximity to tube or train stations boosts property values.

In 2016, Transport for London commissioned research to look at whether major public transport investment projects had resulted in a significant uplift in surrounding land values. The research attributed an average uplift of residential values of more than 50 per cent as a result of the Jubilee line extension, while Property prices around the 41 stations on the Elizabeth line (Crossrail 1) are projected to increase by 25 per cent more than the average price in central London, with a 20 per cent increase in the suburbs.

This phenomenon can be seen in every city in Europe. This poses problems for those who are concerned about the gentrification of certain parts of cities. This would be tantamount to saying that major rail or metro infrastructure would only benefit a wealthier public. But it is not clear that this is the case everywhere.

In conclusion, large underground infrastructures are certainly expensive, but this price must be spread over the long term. Some large cities need underground railway lines, while others can make do with a surface network due to their size.

Some urban parts of these underground rail crossings are also used by the urban dwellers themselves. A city cannot live by its inhabitants alone. External flows are necessary to animate the city, whether in terms of shops, culture or health. The key is to do this in a sustainable way.

But if these investments are to be beneficial for the climate and the ‘calming city’, then local authorities must close the streets to cars. A tram network alone with car flows will never make a large city sustainable and peaceful. Thank to pedestrian streets and underground trains, everyone is guaranteed direct access to a sustainable city.

A test train runs on the Elizabeth line as new systems are introduced across the network. (photo: Crossrail Ltd)

30/01/2022 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
Suscribe my blog

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