With a total construction cost of $2.1 billion, Sydney’s planned CBD and Eastern Suburbs Light Rail (CESLR), it is not surprising that the project has been dubbed as the world’s most expensive light rail line. As my series of articles on Australian light rail projects demonstrated, at $175 million a kilometre it will certainly be Australia’s most expensive. On the world stage however, claims that the CESLR has this dubious honour have just been well and truly demolished.
While we await confirmation from a higher authority (Guinness World Records?), the new world “champion” of expensive light rail projects is almost certain to be Boston’s Green Line extension. Before I discuss the dollars involved, a little background: while the Green Line runs underground through the city’s CBD and is referred to in Boston as part of the city’s subway system, it is actually a light rail line which runs on the surface outside the CBD, either in on-street reservations, in dedicated corridors (mainly converted heavy rail lines) or even in mixed traffic.
The underground section is North America’s oldest subsurface urban rail line. It opened in 1897 and was originally constructed to reduce streetcar (tram) congestion in Boston’s CBD. Some other US cities also constructed underground lines for similar reasons. Decades later when the mass closure of streetcar systems occurred swept across the US, Australia and other countries around the world, most of these underground sections were also abandoned or in a few cases (and as happened elsewhere in Boston) converted into heavy-rail subways.
A small number of cities like Boston and San Francisco retained key underground sections, along with some of the surface lines connected to them, as light rail and tram lines. In the case of the Green Line the extent of the underground section and the level of general traffic congestion made it difficult to replace with buses; it also avoided conversion to a full subway because the underground section has a number of tight curves and the stations are in some cases only a few hundred metres apart, factors which made it easier to continue the light rail service.
Today the system has four above-ground branches starting in the city’s west and south west which join together to form a single underground line running eastwards and then north. The line has nine underground stations including North Station at the north east edge of the CBD, where it surfaces before crossing the Charles River on a bridge. The line terminates over the river at Lechmere station, just south of the densely populated Somerville and Medford areas.
The planned extension involves 6.9 km of new track including a 5.5 km main branch with five stations within the existing Lowell Line commuter rail right-of-way, running north west from a rebuilt Lechmere Station to the Tufts University campus at Medford. A 1.4 km second branch will follow the existing Fitchburg Line commuter rail right-of-way westwards to a single station at Union Square. The light rail would run on its own track within the commuter rights-of-way as the existing heavy rail lines and services to North Station will be preserved (a more detailed map is available here).
Towards the end of 2014 (around the time the $2.1 billion estimate for Sydney’s light rail was released) it was announced that the Green Line project is to be jointly funded by the Federal Government with a grant of US$996 million and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which will provide the balance of the project’s total US$2.29 billion cost. In Australian terms this translates to a rather mind-boggling AU$2.99 billion, or nearly $900 million more than the CESLR.
I have not been able to track down an economic analysis for the line but even if the estimated ridership on the extension of around 37,900 a day (roughly 18 million annually) is correct, it is hard to see that a project this expensive would have a great cost-benefit ratio. In the context of Boston’s rather convoluted transport and environmental politics, however, it does make some sense.
To cut a very long story short, although commuter rail corridors run through Somerville and Medford, only the periphery of the area is now served by rail (ironically there once were several stations on the commuter lines in this area but these are now closed). To settle a lawsuit brought by an environmental law group seeking the implementation of measures to mitigate the environmental impacts resulting from The Big Dig (an ambitious program of motorway tunnel construction in inner Boston), the Massachusetts government agreed to extend the Green Line north into Somerville and Medford. Thus the rationale for the line is legal and political as much as it is environmental and economic.
Neither this nor inclusions such as stabling facilities and 24 new light rail vehicles (LRVs) explain why the project will cost a staggering A$433 million per kilometre to build. This is despite it being constructed in existing commuter rail corridors, which means that there will be minimal land acquisitions. This compares to a relatively modest $175 million per kilometre to build Sydney’s 12 km CESLR project which also includes stabling facilities and 30 LRVs (and which also has minimal land acquisition costs).
In other words, Boston’s Green Line extension will cost almost two-and-a-half times more per kilometre than Sydney ‘s CESLR. It will also carry fewer passengers than the CESLR, though to be fair the level of utilisation on a per-kilometre basis is likely to be similar, given the Green Line extension’s shorter length.
The anticipated high levels of usage on both systems will also test other public transport infrastructure and connecting services in their respective cities. In the case of Boston the extension will feed into the busy CBD section of the Green Line (which is the busiest light rail system in the US), while in Sydney the line will have interchanges for buses at its eastern termini, with yet another bus interchange to be located on the edge of the CBD at Rawson Place where inner west bus passengers will be transferred to already-crowded trams (I will have more say on international patronage comparisons in a future post).
To an Australian observer the first thought on seeing the Green Line extension plans is that it would be much simpler and cheaper to convert part or all of the existing diesel commuter line to electric suburban operation and construct extra stations through the Medford-Somerville area. Part of the reason this approach wasn’t adopted may be that electrified suburban rail services are a comparative rarity in the States. Many cities have high-frequency subways servicing the CBD and inner suburbs but few have electric suburban and inter-urban services (New York’s Long Island Railroad is a notable exception).
Most US commuter rail systems are like Boston’s – diesel loco-hauled, low-frequency services which are geared largely to the morning and evening commute. Many cities don’t have any commuter rail services at all. This contrasts with Australia where most mainland state capitals have reasonably frequent and relatively modern electric suburban services (on the other side of the ledger, no Australian city at present has a dedicated subway/metro).
A more practical objection to electrification of the Fitchburg and Lowell commuter lines is that passengers would still have to change at Boston’s North Station to access subway services to travel further into the CBD, a situation not unlike that in Sydney were passengers have to change from interurban trains at Central Station. Nonetheless electrification would appear to the outside observer to be much more cost-effective than the light rail extension and the money saved could be used to electrify additional commuter lines and provide extra stations throughout the network. Alternatively any spare funds could go towards providing the missing direct rail connection between Boston’s North and South Stations, ideally with an intermediate underground station which electrified commuter trains could use.
Of course there are other options that could be considered for Medford and Somerville such as using tram-trains on the commuter lines or even constructing a heavy-rail subway line, but as an outsider it is probably unwise to attempt to provide detailed advice on overseas urban transport plans unless one knows the cities very well. It is equally unwise to make superficial comparisons between cities as these often mask major differences.
It is probably fair to say however that while Boston’s Green Line extension and Sydney’s new light rail line are both good projects that will bring rail access to some middle and inner-ring suburbs with high population densities currently reliant on crowded buses and congested roads, they are approaching the limits of light rail both in terms of cost and passenger capacity. While both projects are now underway and I believe they should be supported, the future assessment of similar light rail proposals at these limits should include consideration of whether extra investment in heavy rail or metro/subway infrastructure would be more appropriate, especially in terms of catering for future growth in demand.