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The Works

New Starts: Spain’s Dirt-Cheap High-Speed Rail, Upgrading Toronto Commuter Rail, NYC Elevator Woes

Spain is the world’s most efficient high-speed rail builder, Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory announced his plan for relieving Canada’s busiest subway line, and New York City struggles with a diagonal elevator for its newest subway station.

A high-speed AVE train at the Barcelona station in Spain (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

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Spain Is the World’s Cheapest High-Speed Rail Builder
When it comes to cheap subway tunneling, Spain is the world’s leader, rivaled in the developed world only by Italy and South Korea.

And so it goes, it turns out, with high-speed rail. Ranging from 6 million euros per kilometer (for the Madrid-Seville line, opened in 1992) to nearly 19 million euros (for the Madrid-Valladolid one), nobody builds a kilometer of high-speed rail at a lower cost than Spain, a report by the state-owned infrastructure manager ADIF found.

Elsewhere, construction costs surpass 20 million euros per kilometer (one exception: France’s Atlantique high-speed line). Germany’s high-speed railway between Frankfurt and Cologne set them back 33 million euros a kilometer, whereas the per-kilometer cost of Italian high-speed rail surpassed 44 million euros. In Japan, lines generally cost between 35 million and 45 million euros per kilometer to build.

The U.K. has the highest high-speed rail construction costs, the study found, with the Channel Tunnel clocking in at 70 million euros a kilometer.

(Amtrak, however, is hoping to top that. They want to spend $151 billion to upgrade the Northeast Corridor to true high-speed rail standards. That works out to a third of a billion dollars per mile, or just over 150 million euros per kilometer. Jerry Brown looks thrifty in comparison, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority wanting to spend a mere $100 million a mile.)

And Spain isn’t just the cheapest in the developed world — it bests even poor countries when it comes to low high-speed rail construction costs. The 1,318-kilometer high-speed line from Beijing to Shanghai set the government back 23.5 billion euros, or nearly 18 million a kilometer — at the high end of Spain’s cost range, despite the dramatically lower wages paid to workers in the Middle Kingdom.

Toronto Mayoral Candidate’s Cheap Subway Substitute
When Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory spoke about his number one campaign priority — providing relief for the busiest two subway tracks in North America — most people assumed he meant the so-called Downtown Relief Line, a completely new subway that many in Toronto have been dreaming of.

But his plan, revealed last week, took many by surprise: Rather than build the DRL, as it’s been dubbed, he wants to upgrade four existing GO Transit commuter rail lines, fashioning them into two separate rapid transit lines (one along Lake Ontario, the other farther inland).

For now, the rails handle only “commuter rail” service, but with some relatively minor upgrades (minor compared to digging an entirely new subway tunnel), the candidate estimates it can handle up to 200,000 riders each day. His campaign pegs the cost at $8 billion — less than what the DRL would cost.

Elevator Troubles at Hudson Yards
In Washington, D.C., dysfunctional station escalators have become something of a city joke, but New York has been spared, given that much of its system is old and shallow, accessible by stairs. That will soon change as the next set of transit projects — the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side, the Long Island Rail Road’s new terminal deep below Grand Central, and the 7 train extension to Hudson Yards on the far west side — open.

All are much too deep underground for normal staircases (though they will of course have them, in the case of emergencies and — as D.C.‘s experience suggests — elevator and escalator outages), and so will rely on escalators and elevators to ferry passengers 10 or so stories below ground and then back up again.

And about half a year before the 7 train station at Hudson Yards is set to open, the MTA has hit its first snag. Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times reports:

After six years of construction, the No. 7 train extension to the Far West Side of Manhattan was to open before the end of 2013, in time for the departing mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, whose administration paid for the project, to take a ceremonial ride.

But there was a problem: A custom-designed, diagonal elevator for the new No. 7 train station at 34th Street and 11th Avenue had unexpectedly failed its factory test at the manufacturer’s headquarters in the province of Como.

Transit officials peppered the company, Maspero Elevatori, with questions. Could the issues be resolved quickly? Would they have to adjust the station’s opening date? Answers were elusive.

“It failed in July,” said Michael Horodniceanu, the president of capital construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “What happens in August in Europe? They said, ‘O.K., we’ll see you after vacation.’ ”

(The jab at the Italians seems like a bit of a cheap shot, given that they have far surpassed New York City in transit-building expertise and efficiency in the modern era. Somehow taking summers off hasn’t impeded that.)

The MTA claims that the design was chosen to save money. That savings, however, was obviously not enough to keep the line from being the second-most expensive subway ever built on a per-mile basis, and for going so far over its budget that one of the two stations planned (the one at 10th Avenue and 41st Street, in Hell’s Kitchen) had to be canceled.

In any case, the issue raises a serious question: Why is the MTA — which is unable to handle even standard transit tasks like next-gen fare payment technology — ordering custom parts, untested in heavy transit usage, which are naturally more prone to breakdowns?

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

Tags: public transportationreal estatetransit agenciesthe workstoronto

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