October 14, 2003

Bus or Train - which is best?

Patrick Crozier | Inter-modal Competition

For some time now I have made the assumption that for densely-populated cities, in terms of capacity and speed rail is the best means of moving people from the outskirts to the centre.

Old hat?
I have made that assumption for a couple of reasons. First of all, because the only study I have ever heard of (the Smeed report of the 1960s) says so. Secondly, because all the world's successful high density cities eg. New York, Tokyo, London and Paris, have extensive rail networks.

That was until Gabriel Roth, in a comment to a recent post, put a spanner in the works:

A basic problem of rail transport, (as mentioned by John Redwood in his September article in "The Times") is the low carrying capacity of systems using steel wheels on steel rails: Trains cannot stop easily and each needs miles of empty track in front of it. On the other hand, the dedicated "busway" leading into New York's bus terminal has carried over 500 buses in one hour, which could seat 25,000 people in comfort.

I am very surprised at this. Mainly, I am surprised that it should be controversial at all. Surely, there are studies out there which prove that the one is better than the other? The Smeed report may be 40 years old but it is difficult to see how much has changed in the intervening period. It strikes me (he says tempting fate) that neither train nor bus technology has advanced much since.

The future?
I also don't want it to be true. I don't like buses. I often don't like trains much more either but I would far prefer to travel on them. Why? Because, they're smoother, you can read on them and they're faster. They also seem somehow airier and more spacious. Standing on a platform seems somehow so much more civilised than standing at a bus stop.

Of course, this prejudice is based on what we have now. Buses have the enormous problem that they have to run along government-run streets with all the congestion (even in dedicated bus lanes) that that implies. But what if they were able to run on dedicated, higher-speed routes? What if they were able to offer a higher-quality, smoother alternative? The only objection I could think of then would be pollution. Possibly the width of the lanes (rail tracks are narrower) would be a factor.

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Comments

The reason that train stations seem more civilised than bus stops is because there are far fewer of them so more resources are put into the ones that are there. Many bus stops consist of nothing more that a sign, not even a shelter which, in a rainy country like this I think is ridiculous.

Posted by Gordon on October 15, 2003

Gabriel has e-mailed to suggest the following publication: "Busway vs. Rail Capacity" by Peter Samuel and published by the Reason Public Policy Institute.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on October 15, 2003

I think buses and trains are not really direct competitors in many places, because they're optimal for different markets.

Trains are better for longer distances or busy corridors, such as inter-city travel and commuting into the centres of larger towns and cities. Buses are better for shorter journeys or routes where the volume of traffic isn't sufficient to support a rail line, such as local journeys within suburban areas, or sparsely-populated rural areas.

Train and bus networks can be strongly complimentary; see the transport networks in Switzerland for an example.

Posted by Tim Hall on October 15, 2003

Do the figures stack up?
500 buses per hour equals 9 buses every minute into one bus station. One must assume the bus stops there to let its 50 passengers out (25,000 people in 500 buses), say a dwell time of 5 mins max, gives one hell of a big bus station!
How many into people into Waterloo on a morning? It has to be more efficient!

Posted by David B on October 15, 2003

When comparing buses and trains, should one not compare like with like? Rail trains have their own dedicated right-of-way and do not stop on it to take on or put down passengers. They stop at "off-line" stations. Should not buses be assumed to do the same?

Since my earlier post, I came across Peter Samuel's 2002 comparison "Busway vs rail capacity" on http://www.rppi.org/pu16.pdf Peter quotes Prof. Vulcan Vucik (well-known as a rail advocate) to the effect that buses on their own right-of-way can operate safely at six second headways, i.e. 600 an hour. Peter also reports that 730 buses an hour have been counted in New York Lincoln Tunnel's dedicated bus lane.

Buses seem to have the following advantages over fixed rail systems:

They can travel far from the busway, to collect or set down passengers, and so reduce the need to change at terminals;

Their frequency is generally higher than can be provided by a rail service;

There can be competition between different bus and minibus providers;

Costs are lower because the right-of way can be used by other vehicles when not used by buses. [See the Poole/Orski proposal "HOT Networks: A New Plan for Congestion Relief and Better Transit", Reason Public Policy Institute http://www.rppi.org/ps305.pdf ].

Most of us like to travel by train - when we can get a seat - but too few passengers in the UK seem prepared to pay what it costs.

Posted by Gabriel on October 15, 2003

My response, just posted, failed to deal with David's objection that a huge station would be required to disembark 25,000 passengers in one hour. Although the New York Bus Terminal is a huge station, in most cases buses would disperse after leaving the busway, dropping passengers closer to their destinations.

In transport jargon, if busways were available, the same vehicles could be used for collection, line-haul and distribution.

Posted by Gabriel on October 15, 2003

Curitiba, Brazil and here in Ottawa, Canada have demonstrated that capacity should be no object in selection of a rapid transit technology. Our busway can carry over 10,000 peak directional passengers per hour, in its current configuration. Curitiba is reportedly carrying near subway (metro) type passenger volumes.
In my experience, the decision to go with rail over bus technology for medium sized cities tends to be political rather than technical.
In a completely free transportation/land use market (dream on), I can imagine busways having a big advantage over rail in that they are much more flexible(buses can enter / exit the system to serve surface streets and neighborhoods, routes can be shifted to better match dynamic urban form).
Politicians will always be lured by the siren song of rail, however, regardless of how impractical it is for North-American levels of urban density.

Posted by Jay on October 15, 2003

I'd have to give the buses the technical advantage in just about every comparative metric. They don't have the 'gee-whiz' factor that I personally associate with trains, but they do have many operational advantages. I'm actually rather surprised that 6-seconds was given for headway, as I'd think it could be a little smaller. Dedicated busways would also be easier to retrofit into existing cities. The comparative width of the two modes is not an issue, as the clear space is probably more for the trains, increasing with speed. I'd imagine that at any speed buses are going to travel, the busway would only require a 12 foot lane, with another 3 feet for something like a double sided concrete traffic barrier (aka Jersey Barrier). The biggest impediment to throughput I see would be traffic lights. But then we're back to a non-equal comparison.

BTW, for those trying to look up works, the correct spelling is Vukan Vuchic. I remember after having to pay $75 dollars for his book in college.

Posted by Highway on October 16, 2003

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