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The Limits of Regional Rail

I recently found myself involved in a discussion about Boston regional rail that involved a proposal to do more thorough regional rail-subway integration. Normally, S-Bahn systems mix some aspects of longer-range regional rail and some aspects of urban metro systems. They provide metro-like service in the urban core – for example, Berliners use the the three trunk lines of the S-Bahn as if they were U-Bahn lines. But, unlike proper metros, they branch in the suburbs and tend to have lower frequency and lower quality of infrastructure. However, there is a limit to this integration, coming from timetabling.

The characteristics of metro-like S-Bahn

When I call some S-Bahns, or some S-Bahn trunks, “metro-like,” what I mean is how users perceive them, and not how planners do. A metro line is one that users get on without concern for the timetable. It may run on a clockface schedule, for example on a 5-minute takt in Berlin, but passengers don’t try to time themselves to get on a specific train, and if the train is 1-2 minutes behind schedule then nobody really minds. This user behavior usually comes from high frequency. However, in New York, despite extensive branching and 10-minute frequencies, I classify the subway as fully metro-like because the trains are not dispatched as a scheduled railroad and even if they were, passengers don’t ever think in terms of “my Queens-bound N train arrives at :06 every 10 minutes.”

S-Bahn lines have trunks like this, but also branches that work like regional rail. The regional rail pattern in the sense of RegionalBahn is one in which passengers definitely look at timetables and try to make them, and connecting public transit lines are planned to make timed transfers. On lines branded as RegionalBahn service comes every half hour or every hour, and usually S-Bahn tails are every 15-30 minutes (occasionally 10), but the printed schedule is paramount either way; when I rode the RER B to IHES in the last three months of 2016, I memorized the 15-minute takt and timed myself to it.

The key aspect of S-Bahns is combining these two patterns. But this leads to a key observation: they have to interline a number of different service patterns, which requires planning infrastructure and service to permit both. They can’t run on pure headway management in the core, because the branches must be scheduled. But they have to use a timetabling system that permits high core frequency nonetheless.

Finally, observe that I am not discussing the type of equipment used. A subway train that extends far into the suburbs may qualify as regional rail – the Metropolitan line in London qualifies as an example on account of its highly branched service pattern in Metro-land. In the other direction, a train built to mainline standards that runs consistent service pattern with little to no branching at a range typical of metros is not, for the purpose of this issue, regional rail – examples include the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku Lines in Tokyo, which run identical trains to those that run deeper into suburbia but have literally no (Yamanote) or almost no (Keihin-Tohoku) variation in service patterns.

The limit of interlining

A large degree of interlining tends to reduce timetable reliability. Trains have to make junctions at specific times. This is compounded by a number of different factors:

1. Trunk throughput

The busier the trunk is, the harder it is to keep everything consistent. If you run 15 trains per half-hour, that’s 15 opportunities for a 2-minute delay to mess the order in which trains arrive, which has implications further down. If you run 4 trains per half-hour, that’s 4 opportunities, and a 2-minute delay is easily recoverable anyway.

2. Trunk length

Longer and more complex trunks introduce their own problems. If many passengers treat trains as interchangeable and don’t care what order they arrive in, then this may not be good for timekeeping – a slight delay on a branch may lead to grossly uneven headways on the trunk, which compound on busy metro lines for similar reasons as on buses. Berlin’s Stadtbahn has 14 stations from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz counting both, and this may make the branches with their 20-minute frequencies a little too difficult to fit together – evidently, peak throughput is 18 trains per hour, hardly the cutting edge. The RER A has 7 trunk stations from Vincennes to La Défense inclusive, and around 27 peak trains per hour.

3. Branch infrastructure quality

In the limit, the branches have to have excellent infrastructure quality, to be resilient to 1-2 minute delays. Timed meets on a mostly single-trunk line, routine on 15-minute branches like some lines in suburban Zurich and Tokyo, become dicey on lines that feed very busy trunks. Tokyo does this on the Yokosuka Line, which is far from the busiest (it peaks around 20 trains per hour) and Zurich on the right bank of Lake Zurich, which feeds into an S-Bahn trunk with 4 stations inclusive from Stadelhofen to Oerlikon. The busiest S-Bahn lines tend to have all-doubled outer ends.

4. One vs. two ends

If the line is single-ended, then inbound trains can just run metro-style in city center without regard for the printed schedule, use the terminal for schedule recovery, and then go outbound on schedule. Non-through-running lines are by definition single-ended, and this includes what I believe is Tokyo’s busiest regional rail line, the Chuo Rapid Line. But even some through-running lines are de facto single-ended if demand is highly asymmetric, like the Stadtbahn, which has far more demand from the east than from the west, so that one branch even turns at Westkreuz. Double-ended lines do not have this opportunity for recovery, so it’s more important to stay on schedule, especially if the end is not just busy but also has extensive branching itself.

Written by James Alami

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