An S-Bahn is an Inner Zone Train with Separate Branding

Alon wrote a response, which can be found here. They clarify their views in such a way that addresses my main objections in this post, while avoiding the worst America-punching. I’ll claim this as a victory, not for me, but for the immortal dialectic. -Emil

Alon Levy’s latest post is a criticism of zonal operations or zone scheduling – the concept of scheduling a regional or commuter line by zones. Under zone scheduling, trains make most or all stops within a zone they primarily serve, and express through other zones. Levy identifies the person to whom they attribute the invention of zonal operations, and proceeds to castigate him as personally responsible for the failure of American mainline rail decades later. The alternative, according to Levy, is the S-Bahn model of scheduling all trains as all-stop locals. Levy has always made unfavorable comparisons between North American rail and peer systems in Europe and Asia. Their broad comparative knowledge can provide useful benchmarks for external advocates and internal reformers who know their local systems better than comparable systems abroad. Unfortunately, Levy has become confident to a fault and increasingly combined those comparisons with melodramatic declarations about the irredeemable incompetence of North American rail planners, and a highly prescriptive solutioneering without regard to local conditions. In this case, their simple comparison between Metro-North and the Munich S-Bahn begins with a general theory of North American railroad mediocrity, and ends with Levy failing to recognize that Metro-North already does what they recommend. This can be demonstrated without recourse to any specialized technical knowledge: you just need to look at a few maps and a schedule.

The Munich S-Bahn is comprised of regional lines that previously terminated in either Hauptbahnhof or Ostbahnhof, which were connected under the city by a tunnel. Crucially, however, this does not reflect all the trains that come into Hauptbahnhof or Ostbahnof, which still act as conventional terminals for longer-distance trains, including what in North America would be called commuter trains. Only trains that do not travel very far outside the core run through the tunnel and back out to equally proximate outer terminals on the other side. This network, which the term S-Bahn narrowly refers to, does not extend out very far. A convenient list on Wikipedia demonstrates that the most distant is a branch line that is 30 miles (48 km) from Hauptbahnhof, and most are about 25. The S-Bahn network that Levy unfavorably compares Metro-North to looks like this:

A map of the Munich S-Bahn, with green lines radiating out from the center of the city. The farthest are 30 miles from the core.

However, of Metro North’s seven East of Hudson terminals, only one is within this 30-mile distance. The outermost terminals are about three times as distant from the center as Munich’s typical S-Bahn terminals are. Along their respective alignments, New Haven and Pougkeepsie are both 73 miles (117 km) from Grand Central, and Wassaic is 82 miles (132 km). In other words, the S-Bahn covers just over the inner third of the territory Metro-North covers. A comparable view of the Munich region would stretch at least to Ingolstadt (50 mi or 81 km), and probably as far as Regensburg (86 mi or 138 km):

A more comprehensive rail map of the area around Munich, of which the S-Bahn network (depicted by thin, pink lines and surrounded by a black box roughly corresponding to its service area) is a central core. The S-Bahn parallels or branches from from intercity and regional lines that continue farther.

On the Metro-North, only trains originating and terminating at North White Plains are directly comparable to a Munich S-Bahn. Every Metro-North train to or from Stamford, New Haven, Southeast, Wassaic, Croton-Harmon, or Poughkeepsie would, under the convention followed in Munich, not be called an S-Bahn. And what do the only S-Bahn comparable trains on Metro-North do? They do exactly what an S-Bahn does: make every stop on their way to and from the city. They even do it with a clockface pattern through most of the day, as in the Germanophone Takt practice Levy recommends. For clarity, these trains are highlighted in green on this [ed: COVID-era] Harlem Line timetable:

[Ed: The bare-bones COVID service makes the core of the network clear. Restoration of more comprehensive service adds trains that skip the first four stops and enter revenue service in Crestwood (but then proceed as all-stop locals as an S-Bahn would), as well as a handful of peak express trains, highlighted yellow. Even with the restored service, most Harlem Line trains that originate within comparable distances to a Munich S-Bahn are scheduled like one. Thanks to @bklyngap for pointing me towards the updated timetable.]

Metro-North has already acceded to Levy’s demand to reverse decades of incompetent North American railroad planning. It similarly mirrors European practice for the outer zones. Just as most trains originating at Southeast do not make every stop between North White Plains and Harlem, trains originating from beyond the Munich S-Bahn’s outlying terminals do not follow Levy’s recommendation to make every stop inbound of S-Bahn territory. Such trains – zone express is the incompetent North American term for them – express through the inner zone served by the S-Bahn, stopping only at a few transfer stations. The only difference is in branding: they are referred to as Regionalbahn or Regional-Express rather than S-Bahn, whereas on Metro-North they are branded by line rather than by stopping pattern. Levy knows the difference between S-Bahn and RB – they have written blog posts about this distinction in the past (and there is a similar distinction in Paris, between the RER and the Transilien), but has somehow overlooked it in their haste to find fault in North American practice. They seem to have landed on a worldview that if a European railroad does something, a comparable North American railroad must necessarily not do that thing. It is true that North American commuter rail dramatically underperforms European systems like the Munich S-Bahn in modal share, but Metro-North is farther ahead than most in the process of modernization, in part because it runs a relatively standardized zonal system with two or three large zones. Other features of the S-Bahn model – a frequent network serving inner terminals, a fare structure that eliminates premiums parallel to local rail transit, and a tunnel connecting the major legacy terminals – are what the railroad lacks. It is not the fault of a long-dead planner at the Penn Central that it lacks them.

-Emil

3 Comments

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3 responses to “An S-Bahn is an Inner Zone Train with Separate Branding

  1. Matthew A da Silva

    Alon was criticizing pre-COVID peak hour Metro-North operation in [their -ed] blog post which uses many more much smaller zones, not off-peak. [Their -ed] only criticism of Metro-North’s off-peak pattern, besides frequency, was the lack of any express stops at all in the local zone (i.e. New Haven expresses don’t make extra stops at New Rochelle).

    • mayorseidel

      Alon’s follow-up post was, I thought, quite fair – they accepted my main point about scale while articulating other differences which I find easier to agree with when divorced from the unnecessary America-punching that was in the OP. Synthesis achieved.

  2. Pingback: Commuter Rail Express Service Best Practices | Pedestrian Observations

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