09 November 2014

The Train that Shouldn't Exist

The debate over level-boarding is one that needs to happen now, before trains are purchased.  Wherever it leads, this debate must be rooted in facts.

Over the years, Caltrain staff and consultants have often opined that a high-capacity bi-level European EMU train would be incompatible with high-platform level boarding because:
  • All European off-the-shelf bilevel EMUs are designed for boarding from low platforms, and Caltrain needs something off-the-shelf.
     
  • It would be impossible to provide ADA-compliant access for the disabled
While these points may have been true in the 1990s, there are examples today that directly contradict them.  That doesn't seem to be stopping staff and consultants from advancing the same old arguments in recent discussions, perhaps in an attempt to stave off hard choices about level boarding.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the EMU they claim can't be procured already exists!




These images show Stadler's EMU for the Moscow Airport Express, built for level boarding at 51 inches above rail.  It will enter service in the coming months and proves without any doubt that such a design is viable.  You can take a look at the data sheet or check out the latest photos of this off-the-shelf European bi-level EMU train design.

So by all means, let's have this level boarding debate and consider Plan A, Plan B, or any other plan, but please, when briefing decision-makers who understandably don't know any better, let's keep it free of lies and disinformation.

05 November 2014

High Voltage Rulemaking Update

Caltrain mascot?
(photo by wwarby)

UPDATE 05 November 2014: HSR lawyers hang Caltrain out to dry by amending the scope of the rulemaking process explicitly to apply only to "25 kV electrification systems constructed in the State of California serving a high-speed rail passenger system capable of operating at speeds of 150 mph or higher, located in dedicated rights-of-way with no public highway-rail at-grade crossings and in which freight operations do not occur."  Could Caltrain possibly not have seen this coming?

ORIGINAL POST, 25 May 2014: Feathers are really starting to fly in the Public Utilities Commission proceeding to establish a regulatory framework for 25 kV railroad electrification in California, under CPUC docket number R1303009.  Electric utilities and freight railroads are putting up a big fight against the California High-Speed Rail Authority that threatens to leave Caltrain hanging out to dry.

With the impending electrification of the peninsula corridor clearly in mind, the freight railroads asserted in January comments that "it remains unclear if the proposed rules will be sufficient for high-speed train operation in shared rights-of-way” and that “[i]f the CHSRA does not amend its petition to clearly state the intended scope of the rulemaking, the Commission should order further workshops to ensure that the proposed rules are carefully vetted out for application in shared rights-of-way."

Freight railroads are concerned about a number of compatibility issues, including electromagnetic interference with their signaling systems and vertical clearance for their freight cars.  Electrification could impair vertical clearances especially under bridges.

The CHSRA's response, filed in late March, was crystal clear:
The purpose of these rules is to establish uniform safety requirements governing the design, construction, operation and maintenance of 25 kV ac (alternating current) Railroad Electrification Overhead Contact Systems (OCS) constructed in the State of California in right-of-ways dedicated solely to passenger use with no public highway-rail grade crossings and in which freight operations do not occur.

(...)

[The freight railroads] know that the proposed General Order is not ambiguous and that it will not apply to track where freight operations occur. Their continuing refusal to be satisfied on this point reveals a desire to delay and obstruct this proceeding.
The peninsula corridor, of course, meets none of these criteria.  It is not dedicated solely to passenger use.  It has numerous highway-rail grade crossings.  Freight operations occur daily.  The freight railroads are understandably worried about this issue of scope, given that the legislature has allocated more than a half-billion dollars of HSR funding to electrifying the peninsula corridor; Caltrain plans to complete the electrification project in just five years.

Where does that leave Caltrain?
  1. No regulatory framework exists for Caltrain's electrification project
  2. CHSRA is explicitly not planning to establish such a framework
  3. The freight railroads are vigorously opposed to the idea
  4. Time is running out
That leaves Caltrain with few options.

The Short Line Option

It has been suggested that the rulemaking process would be less contentious if a smaller "short-line" freight operator were to buy the trackage rights UPRR enjoys on the peninsula corridor.  Presumably, such a short-line operator would be less adversarial in the negotiation of a mutually agreeable regulatory framework and technical solution for electrification.

This scenario unfortunately fails to take into consideration the precedent-setting nature of placing 25 kV electrification over any track where freight operations occur, regardless of ownership.  The big freight railroads, UPRR and BNSF, will be no less interested in such a proceeding at the CPUC than if their own tracks were being electrified.

The Nuclear Option

Section 8.3.c of the trackage rights agreement with UPRR specifically allows for the wholesale abandonment of freight service on the peninsula, should Caltrain "demonstrate a reasonably certain need to commence construction on all or substantially all of the length of the Joint Facilities of a transportation system that is a significant change in the method of delivery of Commuter Service which would be incompatible with Freight Service."  While 25 kV electrification over freight trains doesn't seem to be such a big deal on the East Coast or the rest of the world, the freight railroads' arguments in the latest CPUC proceedings could be construed as a belief that 25 kV electrification is fundamentally incompatible with freight operations in California.  Do we really want to go there?

Whatever option is pursued, there is little doubt that the freight railroads will have a big hand in the outcome, and that lawyers and judges will be involved.  The freight railroads have clearly demonstrated that they have:
  • Intimate familiarity with the intricacies of the CPUC rulemaking process
  • Ready access to a deep bench of experts who can testify on any technical subject
  • An army of well-paid lawyers
Caltrain will bring a knife to a gunfight if they don't get their act together soon.

19 October 2014

Level Boarding Plan B

Plan B: four doors per car.
Based on a photo by Yevgeny Gromov
What if the recent talk of platform compatibility was just a bunch of lip service, and the high-speed rail authority remained uncompromising on their requirement for platforms and train floors at a 51" (1295 mm) height above the rails?

Then we need to be prepared for Caltrain Level Boarding Plan B.

By definition, Plan B will never be as good as Plan A.  Plan A is a workable compromise solution that would enable a gradual transition to a fully compatible blended system where Caltrain and HSR can share the same station platform tracks with 100% level boarding.

Plan B is to join HSR in their choice of 51" platforms, however misguided it may be.  The transition to 51" platforms, from today's 8" platform height, seems at first a much more complicated problem.  But is it really?  What if you did this to Caltrain's new EMUs?


The train depicted here has two sets of doors, one pair for 51" platforms located on the mid level at the ends of each car, and another pair (quite similar to the Bombardier cars, with two steps up from an 8" platform) on the lower level.  This is only a minor tweak to Caltrain's plan, taking advantage of the vehicles to facilitate a gradual transition from today's 8" platforms to level boarding at 51".  During the transition to level boarding, only one set of doors opens at each stop, depending on the platform height at that stop.

Because it is a very specific solution, it's easy to shoot full of holes.  Plan B elicits a number of objections:

Extra doors take away seating space.  Additional vestibule areas will consume the space for at least 16 seats per car, or about 12% of train's overall seating capacity.  However, Caltrain already needs better standing areas to handle peak loads, and these vestibules could be a good way to comfortably accommodate standees.  The loss of seating could also be compensated by going five-abreast in extra-wide trains.

Extra doors will cause breakdowns.  While the overall reliability of a train certainly depends on how many doors it has, the failure rate of any given door is better measured in mean cycles between failures, rather than mean time between failures.  There is not a single additional door cycle since only one pair of doors opens at any given stop, so breakdowns and maintenance expenses will certainly not double.

Wheelchairs need the ability to change levels.  During the transition, when some platforms are at 8" and others at 51", wheelchairs may need to board and alight at two different heights.  A large ADA-compliant bathroom may also need to be placed in the roomy lower level.  This implies a requirement for a wheelchair lift inside at least one vehicle in the train.  It would be a packaging challenge, but is certainly not unprecedented.

Bicyclists need to navigate interior steps.  The large contiguous areas required for efficient bicycle storage (sorting bicycles by destination as is currently the practice) would most likely be located on the lower level.  When boarding and alighting at a 51" platform, bicyclists would need to negotiate 3 steps inside the train, possibly while it is moving.  This is certainly a challenge, but must be considered in the context of today's situation, where bicyclists have to maneuver inside a moving train to access a 40-bike storage area through a single 3-foot narrow entrance after climbing up four steep steps and turning the corner around a pole--sometimes in the middle of a Giants game crowd.  Providing stair gutters in the bicycle car steps (which, by the way, would be longitudinal steps that could be built far less steep than those transverse gallery car steps) could make interior navigation far easier than it is today.

Extra doors will make the trains more expensive.  There is no question that this extra complication will lead to extra expense, but the key question is how much?  The extra pair of doors will be responsible for perhaps an extra 5% capital cost.  On a half-billion-dollar fleet purchase, this amounts to $25 million, an amount that sounds enormous to anyone with a mortgage.  But $25 million is a pittance in the context of the thousands of millions (billions!) required to build separate station infrastructure for Caltrain and HSR.  The extra cost is a rounding error, and a good case can be made for HSR picking up the compatibility tab.

Trains are difficult to build with that many doors.  Structurally speaking, each door opening compromises the strength of the car body structure, reducing its ability to withstand the enormous loads during a train wreck.  The crashworthiness of rail cars is highly regulated by the FRA, and achieving compliance for a four-door car could be quite an engineering challenge.  This is a question best left for car builders to answer.

So yes, admittedly, Plan B is sub-optimal for a number of reasons as described above.  It is quite controversial even among Caltrain advocates, many of whom harbor a visceral dislike of 51" platforms.  This dislike goes so far as to lead them to a very strange advocacy position: that Caltrain and HSR should have separate platforms!

As we have often discussed, separate platforms are an operational disaster waiting to happen at San Francisco Transbay, since every inbound Caltrain movement will conflict with every outbound HSR movement.  This constraint will  limit the capacity and future growth of the blended system.  And it's not just a Transbay issue: separate HSR stations at Millbrae, the mid-peninsula, and San Jose will require billions of additional infrastructure spending that would not otherwise be necessary.  Is that a better outcome than Plan B?

The Best of the Rest

Supposing Plan A fails and HSR insists on 51" platforms, then Plan B is the best of the rest.  It is a simple plan, and a reasonable solution for not precluding common platforms in the future.  Anyone who takes issue with it owes a detailed description of their own specific plan to make Caltrain and HSR more compatible.

04 October 2014

The Top Ten Problems Facing Caltrain

Caltrain is searching for a new General Manager.  This person will need a briefing on the key issues now facing Caltrain.  Here is a list of the top ten problems that are clouding the "blended" vision of Caltrain and high-speed rail:

PROBLEM #10: Bloated Staffing.  There are well over 100 Caltrain conductors, among an operating staff of close to 500.  The traditional job description of a conductor (ensuring safe movement of the train, acknowledging signal aspects called out by the engineer, announcing stops, operating doors and lifts, checking fares, giving out information, etc.) is slowly being made obsolete by technology.  The new signal system will ensure safe train movements.  Modern trains will automatically announce the correct station stops, and allow remote door operation from the driving cab.  Smart phones give everyone up-to-the-minute information.  We are quickly reaching a point where union-mandated crew size is no longer justifiable, and an employee-to-locomotive ratio of 20 is an unsustainable excess.  Solutions:
  • Do more with less.  Make modernization pay off by taking a hard look at staffing levels
PROBLEM #9: An Overcomplicated Timetable.  Caltrain's timetable is impossible to memorize and confusing to figure out unless you ride the same train every day.  There are large and irregular gaps between trains.  Irregular stopping patterns make it impossible to plan timely and reliable connections to buses and employee shuttles.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #8: Too Much Deference to "Tenant" Railroads.  In a "blended" system, Caltrain's interaction with high-speed rail will be far more intense (as measured in train-miles) than with other "tenant" railroads that use Caltrain tracks, such as Amtrak, ACE or Union Pacific.  And yet, Caltrain's efforts on interoperability are focused on a handful of trains that use only a fraction of the corridor, whether in the planning of the new CBOSS signaling system or the discussions about platform height.  There is even serious talk of allowing Amtrak to revive the Coast Daylight service into San Francisco.  While interoperability is a worthy goal, this is the wrong kind of interoperability.  What matters most is interoperability with high-speed rail.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #7: Skipping the Wrong Stops.  When the Baby Bullet was launched in 2004, fast service and shiny red trains stole the headlines.  The under-reported back story is that speed came at the price of cutting service to a number of previously healthy station stops.  Caltrain is primarily a commuter service, and it should stop where people and jobs are located.  Throughout jobs-rich Silicon Valley (Palo Alto southwards), almost every stop has a similar density of nearby jobs.  Stops like California Ave, San Antonio, Lawrence and Santa Clara are severely under-served.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #6: Russian Roulette Station Dwell Times.  Caltrain is inherently unable to stay on time, but not for lack of trying.  Without level boarding, the occasional wheelchair customer can randomly inject an unanticipated delay of three to five minutes.  The unpredictable nature of these delays forces Caltrain to build a very conservative timetable with generous padding to absorb whatever might happen on any particular day.  This conservatism, which translates directly into lower utilization of the tracks, reduces the amount of traffic the rail corridor can reliably carry.  It also prevents Caltrain from operating reliable timed transfers or overtakes.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #5: Slow Average Train Speeds.  Caltrain's electrification project will help in this regard, but it will not sufficiently increase average train speeds to blend successfully with high-speed rail.  While electrification improves end-to-end run times by up to 12 minutes for an all-stops local, the excessively long station dwell times (on average 45 seconds) blunt the benefits of modernization.  The greater the average speed difference between high-speed rail and Caltrain, the fewer trains the line can carry.  To preserve enough slots in the timetable for Caltrain to grow, run times must be reduced beyond the basic step of electrification.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #4: Limited Corridor Capacity.  Under any "blended" scenario, high-speed rail will consume a large share of the traffic capacity of the peninsula rail corridor, leaving a limited number of rush hour slots for commuter service and severely constraining Caltrain's future growth.  In today's rush hour, 5 trains per hour per direction x 650 seats = 3250 seats/hour/direction are often standing room only.  Ridership is sure to zoom again when service to Transbay is inaugurated.  Unfortunately, the "blended" system will limit Caltrain to no more than six trains per hour per direction unless the corridor is widened to four tracks.  Solutions:
  • Pack 'em in with comfort, using five-abreast seating in extra-wide trains 
  • Buy the new EMUs at least 8 cars long, not just 6 as currently planned
PROBLEM #3: Traffic Jams into SF Transbay.  Despite marketing as a "Grand Central of the West," just six platform tracks for both HSR and Caltrain will require a tightly choreographed ballet of arriving and departing trains that will degenerate into cascading delays at the slightest disturbance.  As it stands, Caltrain is shut out of 2/3rds of the platforms in a station that could generate nearly 50% of its future ridership.  The solution to this problem is most assuredly not to terminate trains at 4th and King (see Problem #2).  Solutions:
  • Adopt a common platform height so any arriving train can be assigned to any platform, giving much-needed flexibility to relieve congestion in the station's approach tracks and to recover from a service disturbance
  • Optimize the track layout of the station approach for routing flexibility and higher throughput
PROBLEM #2: Incomplete Service to SF Transbay.  Today, the Transbay location has more jobs within a half-mile radius than exist within a half-mile radius of all the other Caltrain stops from 4th and King to Gilroy combined, and the intense development around the site will push its potential even further into the stratosphere.  Meanwhile, every preliminary or conceptual timetable published by Caltrain planners in the last five years shows the majority of rush hour trains terminating at the existing 4th and King terminal.  When asked about this, Caltrain invokes baseball game service and completely misses the point.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #1: An Agency Culture That Doesn't Put Service First.  At Caltrain, infrastructure projects are dreamed up over a timeline of many years, planned by layers of consultants until a funding package is cobbled together, and then pursued doggedly and almost for their own sake.  Caltrain is still an agency that thinks of itself as running a railroad, rather than providing a transportation service to its customers.  The capital projects that result aren't the outcome of a focused planning process that puts service first--case in point, the San Bruno grade separation, a $155 million piece of infrastructure that has achieved exactly nothing for the average Caltrain rider.  Solutions:
  • Use a capital planning approach driven by service quality metrics
  • Make the timetable, and its future possibilities, the focal point of all capital planning
  • Consider waiting time and first-mile / last-mile connections in all planning decisions
  • Live and breathe the mantra: service drives planning drives infrastructure
The Baseline of Mediocrity

The top ten problems and solutions, by contrast, give us a detailed picture of the most mediocre outcome that Caltrain could achieve by 2030:
  • Infrastructure first, planning optional, service an afterthought
  • Sub-optimized service where ridership already is, not where jobs and people really are
  • Rush hour trains that don't serve San Francisco Transbay
  • Caltrain squeezed into 2 Transbay platform tracks due to incompatible HSR platforms
  • A slow and inefficient train traffic jam in the tunnel approach to Transbay
  • Narrow European-size EMUs that don't take full advantage of the available clearances
  • EMUs that are just as short as today's diesel consists, limiting passenger capacity
  • Russian-roulette dwell times, with wasteful timetable padding to absorb them
  • Unreliable timed transfers and delay-prone overtakes
  • No level boarding, resulting in only modest improvements in trip times
  • Fast acceleration, but not enough giddy-up to blend efficiently with HSR traffic
  • Overstaffed train crews that increase cost and drag down fare box ratio
Caltrain has always had a lot of potential.  With such juicy ridership demand as this corridor enjoys, it will be hard to call Caltrain's "modernization" a failure, but so far it doesn't promise anything more than this baseline of mediocrity.  To be sure, electrification is a huge step forward compared to most other commuter rail systems in the U.S.  But that's the wrong frame of reference.  This is San Francisco, this is Silicon Valley, where we never stop short of making things better, where "good enough" is quickly left behind, where innovation is prized, and where ambition fuels a relentless drive to change people's lives for the better.  There is no other place like it in America.

Will Caltrain's new General Manager have the vision it will take?

10 September 2014

Compatibility, Done Backwards

Steps from an 8-inch platform
into a Bombardier bilevel car
with a 25-inch floor.  The first
step is 10", the second 7"

Caltrain justifies its desire to procure a new EMU fleet with 25" floor height thus:
With a 25” floor threshold, the new fleet will still be compatible with the existing fleet and platforms and could transition to level boarding over time.
"Existing fleet" in this context means the Bombardier bi-level cars, known to the layperson as the red Baby Bullet cars.  Caltrain plans to keep these cars for a few years after the new EMUs arrive.  The Bombardiers already have a floor height of 25" above the rail, although  existing 8" platforms currently require two steps up, as seen in the photo at right.

The statement above sounds like a genuine interest in compatibility, and at first reading seem to make sense.  But let's analyze Caltrain's ideas about compatibility more closely.

Compatibility with Existing Fleet

Suppose for a moment that we planned to "transition to level boarding over time" at 25 inches, because we think it's smart to match the floor level of the Bombardier cars so that we can keep using them after the conversion to level boarding.  Is that even a feasible scenario?

The "before" and "after" cases are straightforward.  Before transition is just the way things are today.  After transition is complete, the entry steps are easily modified to match the interior floor height, achieving gap-free level boarding just like this photo of Utah FrontRunner Bombardier cars docked at 25-inch platforms.


It's the "during" case where things fall apart: because the step modification involves a one-time visit to the shop, there is no way for a Bombardier train (or any other train in Caltrain's existing fleet!) to serve an evolving mix of high and low platforms in daily service during the "transition to level boarding over time".  There would be a 7-inch deep, foot-wide trough between the platform and the car floor that would qualify as a serious tripping hazard even for an able-bodied passenger.  This configuration would be illegal under a number of federal regulations.  The Bombardier fleet would have reduced utility for the duration of the transition to level boarding, likely to be several years.  So let's say it again:

Bombardier cars cannot serve an evolving mix of 8" and 25" platforms during a transition to level boarding over time.

Once the transition to level boarding is complete, maybe in the mid-2030s, the Bombardier cars will be at the end of their useful life.  Given the limited remaining lifetime of the Bombardier cars, their inflexibility during transition, and their dwindling residual value, there is little value in matching the new level boarding platform height to the Bombardier cars.  There may even be negative value in doing so.

Compatibility with Existing Platforms

Mini-high platform built on top of
8-inch platform.  The top of the
mini-high is at 22 inches ATOR.
This is primarily an issue of wheelchair boarding.  Matching the new EMUs to the 25-inch floor height of Bombardier cars allows Caltrain to procure EMUs without vehicle-borne wheelchair lifts, which are expensive to purchase and maintain.  Instead, the EMUs would re-use the existing mini-high platforms to perform wheelchair boarding, using a bridge plate to span the large gap between the mini-high platform and the train.  (Recall this ~3-foot gap is present in the first place because of a California PUC regulation on side clearances for freight trains).

To ensure that a wheelchair user can safely navigate across the bridge plate, its maximum slope is set by ADA law under 49 CFR 38.95 as follows:
  • 1-in-4 for a height change of less than 3 inches from platform to train
  • 1-in-6 for a height change between 3 and 6 inches
  • 1-in-8 for a height change between 6 and 9 inches
  • 1-in-12 (similar to building wheelchair ramps) for a height change greater than 9 inches
Suppose for a moment that we planned to buy EMUs that have to make use of the existing mini-high platforms, which are built 22 inches above the rail and set back 8 feet from the track center line.  What we have is a geometry problem: the ADA slope regulations constrain the vehicle floor height that is reachable from the existing mini-high platforms.  The maximum reachable height is about 27 inches, which (after accounting for a bit of margin) may explain Caltrain's fixation on 25 inches.

But then consider also: each mini-high platform is worth (generously) about $150k to replace.  On a system with 27 stations, 54 mini-high platforms will cost about $8 million to replace.  While that sounds like a lot of money ("Eight Million Dollars!") this sum is a pittance on the scale of the investments being contemplated.  Eight million dollars is two percent of the cost of the new EMU fleet, and less than a percent of the cost of the electrification project.  Put simply, the mini-high platforms have insignificant value and are a trifle to replace.  Designing Caltrain's future around them is certainly penny wise, but quite possibly pound foolish.

Thinking Inside the Box

While Caltrain is no doubt very attached to its growing collection of mini-high platforms and its expanding Bombardier fleet, neither of these items should drive the design of the future platform interface for level boarding.  25 inches is a fine platform height, but selecting it on the basis of these two perceived "constraints" could prove very unwise in the long run.

Caltrain appears to have an uncomfortable relationship with the level boarding issue: it's a distraction from their current big project to electrify the railroad, it's logistically far more challenging to plan for than just stringing up some wire, it involves fighting clearance regulations that are dear to the freight railroads, it isn't funded, and they'd rather not think about it right now because the issue gives them a headache.

But what sort of modernization is this if level boarding becomes a careless afterthought?