How Much Do Rail Transit Projects Cost to Build and Operate?

train traveling on elevated rails of Taipei Metro System


AaronChenPs / Getty Images

Let us look at how much it costs to construct rail lines, which varies widely. The cost of operating rail lines also varies widely and ranges from being about the same as the cost of operating bus service in New York City to three times more costly in Los Angeles.

Factors That Affect the Operating Cost of Rail Transit

Since labor costs make up 70% of bus operating costs, it makes sense that they would also affect the operating cost of rail transit. Many legacy systems require two employees per train—the driver and a guard who opens and closes the door from a position usually around the sixth car of a subway train. As technological advances now allow the doors to be opened and closed safely by the driver, absent union rules, we should start to see more trains operated with one employee. In addition, at some transit agencies, rail operators may be paid more than bus operators.

The cost of electricity also affects the operating cost of rail transit as 99% of all rail transit projects use electricity. For example, as electricity is twice as expensive in California as it is in Washington, we would expect that, on this basis alone, it would be more expensive to operate a light rail line in Los Angeles than it would be in Seattle.

In addition to costing more to build, underground sections tend to be more expensive to maintain. Subway stations require heating, cooling, and station attendants that may not be necessary at surface stations.

Factors That Affect the Capital Cost of Rail Transit Projects

By far the biggest factor that affects the cost of rail transit projects is whether the alignment will be at grade, elevated, or underground—with underground projects costing much more than elevated, which costs more than at grade. In addition, the fact that community and political demands dictate that almost all subways be built with deep bore as opposed to cut-and-cover techniques adds even more to the cost. Subway costs can be further increased depending on the conditions of the soil and the amount of pre-existing underground infrastructure that the subway needs to avoid.

The number of stations also adds to the cost of rail transit projects, particularly for underground sections where a station can easily cost $100–150 million. In an attempt to engage in value engineering, some projects will save money by removing stations even if it leaves too much of the line's corridor without being able to access it.

Any ancillary infrastructure that needs to be built will also add to the cost. For example, brand new lines and significant extensions of existing ones will need a maintenance facility, while shorter extensions of existing systems may be able to use the existing yards. Park and ride lots and bus transfer loops are other examples of non-rail-related projects that add to the final bill.

Now that we have an idea of the kind of costs that make up a rail project, let us look at the cost of some recent North American projects. Note that these cost figures are for capital and not operating costs.

Recent Streetcar Project Costs

Streetcar lines are distinguished from light rail lines primarily in the fact that they stop as often as buses—every 1/8 of a mile or so—and cover much shorter distances. In the United States, the cost of recent projects has ranged from $20 million per mile for a one-track extension of the existing St. Louis rail system to $50 million per mile for streetcars in the First Hill area of Seattle and connecting downtown Tucson to the University of Arizona campus.

Recent Light Rail Project Costs

The cost of recent surface light rail lines has ranged from a low of $43 million per mile in Norfolk, VA to a high of $204 million per mile for the new Milwaukie line in Portland. Los Angeles's Crenshaw Line, which includes short subway sections, clocks in at $165 million per mile. In Toronto, the Eglinton LRT line, which consists of almost a 50/50 split between surface and subway operation, is estimated to cost C$403 million per mile, which, as of May 2012, was about equal to US$400 million per mile. In contrast, the Canada Line in Vancouver, which is about 70% underground with most of the rest being elevated, only cost C$177 million per mile—a low amount attributed to its cut-and-cover construction and very short station platforms (at 50m they can only accommodate two-car train sets).

Recent Heavy Rail Project Costs

Due to its requirement for complete grade separation, heavy rail is significantly more expensive to build than any other rail line. Recent costs range from an estimate of $251 million per mile for the BART San Jose extension to a staggering $2.1 BILLION per mile for the Second Avenue Subway in New York—a number also reached by the East Side Access project to allow the Long Island Railroad to enter Grand Central Station. Long stretches of surface running and few stations probably help to explain the relative bargain of the BART extension and the Washington Metro extension to Dulles Airport ($268 million per mile), while the sheer number of existing subway tunnels (and perhaps a bit of New York City corruption left over from the Tammany Hall days) accounts for the astronomical cost in New York.

Recent Commuter Rail Project Costs

Because commuter rail lines generally use existing tracks and rights-of-way, they generally are much cheaper to build than other rail lines. Unfortunately, freight railroad tracks rarely go anywhere commuters need to go. Recent commuter rail startup costs have ranged from $1.3 million per mile for Nashville's Music City Star (a line which is mostly single-tracked) to a high of $26 million per mile for the Seattle Sounder.

The Cost of Rail Projects on Other Continents

Much has been made of how much cheaper it is to build rail projects on other continents, especially in Madrid, Spain. Direct comparison with the United States and Canada is difficult because other countries may require a much less stringent planning and review process as well as have lower labor and safety standards.