08 April 2014

HSR Peer Review Group on Blending

The California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group was established by AB 3034 (the Proposition 1A bond law) to independently review the HSR Authority's plans, assumptions, analyses and estimates.  The Peer Review Group recently sent the legislature its comments on the Draft 2014 Business Plan, including a number of recommendations concerning the plan to "blend" HSR and Caltrain on the peninsula corridor.  The Peer Review Group comments on blending follow:
Blended System issues. Access to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal has posed a challenge to the program from the beginning. The ideal engineering outcome – a new, four track system separating HSR from Caltrain and freight service – was problematic because of its high cost and environmental impact. An alternative approach was adopted that blends the services of Caltrain and HSR on the same two track system, mostly within the existing right-of-way but with specific additions of passing tracks where needed and with the possibility of incremental increases in capacity when justified by demand. When combined with electrification of the Caltrain lines, paid half-and-half by Caltrain and HSRA, this approach should work to serve the needs of both systems at least through the first decades of the Phase I Blended system. In a number of our previous letters, the Group has supported the blended system approach; our comments below are aimed at improving its implementation.

The blended approach will require a true joint effort by Caltrain and HSRA with full participation of other parties including the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (that has the responsibility for the connection from the current Caltrain terminus at 4th and King Streets to the Transbay Terminal) and the Union Pacific Railroad (that has freight operating rights on the same lines). There are a number of issues on which the interests of the parties must be explicitly balanced if the blending is to work:
  • Currently, Caltrain uses a platform height of 8” above rail. This means that boarding/de-boarding requires stepping up/down from the floor of the train (25” above rail), which can impose delays and risks of tripping and falling, especially when the needs of disabled passengers must be accommodated. The result is longer and less reliable schedules. The low platform height is dictated by the regulations of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that require platforms to be no higher than 8” on tracks that may also carry freight trains. Unless a waiver from this regulation is granted, or expensive track work is installed, Caltrain will be limited to low platforms. At its current frequency of services, the lack of level boarding is manageable (if undesirable), but it will become much less tenable when Caltrain frequencies are increased and HSR trains are added.
  • Under current plans, the floor of HSR trains will be about 50” above the rails, which is typical practice for most of the world’s HSR systems and consistent with Amtrak’s plans in the Northeast Corridor. Caltrain is experiencing rapid demand growth, a process that will accelerate when service to the Transbay Terminal is inaugurated. Caltrain’s plans call for acquiring new bi-level, electric multiple-unit rolling stock. Since the existing Caltrain coaches have a 25” floor level, consistency would suggest a 25” floor level for the new equipment. This would mean that platforms for the two systems would be at different levels, making transfers within station more difficult to arrange. This might be manageable at many common stations where Caltrain and HSR could have separate platforms, but the platform disparity would be more serious at the Transbay Terminal because the number of platforms is limited. As a result, routing of traffic into and out of the station will be more complex, and dispatchers will not have the flexibility to send either system to all platforms when delays or operating problems would otherwise dictate. One approach, turning a number of Caltrain services at 4th and King and limiting the number of Caltrain services to the Transbay Terminal, has been suggested, but would pose restrictions for Caltrain’s access to the Transbay Terminal.
  • The basic standards of the PUC for electric catenary wire call for a clearance of 22 feet 6 inches above the rail. One the one hand, both Caltrain and HSR may want a lower catenary height in order to reduce construction cost for which the PUC will have to grant permission: on the other hand, the Union Pacific and port interests may want to protect the hypothetical possibility of future freight cars requiring even more clearance. HSR’s current electrification designs are appropriate for HSR-only operations and may not be acceptable for use in the Caltrain area. There are a number of specific locations where Caltrains’s clearance is already below 22 feet 6 inches, but there is no generally agreed height limitation.
  • Positive Train Control (PTC) is a requirement of Federal law. Facing this mandate, Caltrain developed its own system – CBOSS – that is now being implemented. CBOSS may not be appropriate for use by HSR trains. If so, HSR trains may have to deal with two signal systems. In addition, the Union Pacific Railroad will have to operate in the same territory so will have to have conforming signal systems in its locomotives. 
None of these problems is impossible to resolve, albeit at added investment and operating cost by one or more of the parties. There is nothing unique about having multiple freight and passenger operators on a single line and there is experience in the U.S. and Europe with resolving the normal issues. All parties in the blended area are aware of the issues and there has been full cooperation among them.

We are concerned, however, that near-term decisions could be made by the parties acting separately that would ultimately compromise the performance of the system. For example, a decision by Caltrain not to plan for at least 25” platforms, which would provide an essential approach to level boarding, would lead to increased delays and uncertainty that could become unmanageable when Caltrain frequencies increase to meet the rapidly growing demand, especially that caused by the opening of the Transbay Terminal. This problem would get worse when four HSR trains per hour are added to the blended system in 2026. Caltrain will definitely need an expanded fleet, and bi-level cars are an efficient way to meet the need. That said, a decision to buy 25” floor level, bi-level coaches would mean that Caltrain and HSR would be committed to operating on incompatible platforms, which would add rigidity to a system that will be challenged for capacity. This problem could be alleviated if Caltrain ordered coaches that can serve both platform levels or if it adopted a uniform 50” platform, but either solution would clearly add investment costs above those planned. In all cases, the design of the electrification for Caltrain will need PUC approval and will need to consider the interests of all of the operators on the line.

This is a complex issue involving technology, investment, system performance and sequencing including the interests of a number of parties. Clearly there is no perfect answer and it is actually a problem resulting from success in attracting more passengers. We recommend that the Legislature request periodic joint reports from Caltrain, HSR and the Union Pacific Railroad that will use the tools available, including line capacity simulators, to assess the impact of alternative approaches to coach floor and platform height on capital and operating cost, capacity and reliability of both systems. This would include the impact on Caltrain if it has to construct 25” or 50” platforms. This study should also include the investment and operating cost impact of the alternative approaches to catenary height and platform clearance and should outline the decisions that the PUC will be asked to make.

Blended operations also pose the issue of accidents at grade crossings. Even at its existing speeds and frequencies, Caltrain experiences about 20 grade crossing and intruder deaths per year and generates delays on the local streets as autos and trucks wait for passing trains. This will get worse as train frequency and road traffic both increase over time. It would be difficult to overstate the risks of more frequent, faster and quieter Caltrain service combined with 110 mph HSR trains interacting with growing road traffic in the middle of California’s increasingly busy cities. We recommend that the Legislature ask Caltrain, HSR and the communities involved to develop a joint report assessing the likely future risks of increasing train traffic and speeds on the grade crossings in the areas impacted and identifying possible approaches to resolving the issue over time.
The Peer Review Group's comments are a wake-up call to start breaking out of the silo mentality that is prevalent in our transportation agencies, where "staying the course" is too often the overriding consideration.  The blend can only succeed if all stakeholders adjust their plans and projects to achieve better coordination and system-level integration.  The Peer Review Group understands that we are at a juncture where this opportunity must not be squandered.

05 April 2014

Saving Some Trees

One of the most controversial elements of the Caltrain electrification DEIR is the need for tree pruning or removal to establish adequate clearance between vegetation and the live parts of the overhead contact system, energized at 25,000 volts or more.  While the exact regulatory details governing 25 kV electrification are still being hammered out at the CPUC, vegetation clearances are likely to be governed by General Order 95, Rule 35, Appendix E, which states:
The radial clearances shown below are recommended minimum clearances that should be established, at time of trimming, between the vegetation and the energized conductors and associated live parts where practicable. Reasonable vegetation management practices may make it advantageous for the purposes of public safety or service reliability to obtain greater clearances than those listed below to ensure compliance until the next scheduled maintenance. Each utility may determine and apply additional appropriate clearances beyond clearances listed below, which take into consideration various factors, including: line operating voltage, length of span, line sag, planned maintenance cycles, location of vegetation within the span, species type, experience with particular species, vegetation growth rate and characteristics, vegetation management standards and best practices, local climate, elevation, fire risk, and vegetation trimming requirements that are applicable to State Responsibility Area lands pursuant to Public Resource Code Sections 4102 and 4293.
10-foot tree clearances, from DEIR
The CPUC rule establishes minimum clearance of 4 feet at the time of trimming, and gives Caltrain discretion to increase the clearance as needed.  Caltrain has added another 3 feet of allowance for wind sway, and another 3 feet on top of that for vegetation growth between trimmings.  This brings the overall clearance carried in Caltrain's DEIR to 10 feet, as shown in the diagram at right.

This 10-foot clearance drives the number of trees impacted by the project: 2,200 are due for removal and another 3,600 for pruning according to the DEIR.

Outside Poles

The standard configuration of the overhead contact system places poles on the outside of the tracks, near vegetation.  The clearances look like this:
This configuration tends to have the worst impact on vegetation, mostly because the 50 kV feeder wires attached to the tops of the poles are near vegetation all along the right-of-way, even in the long open spaces between poles (right-hand diagram).  This is the main reason why 2,200 trees face the chain saw.

Inside Poles

To keep high-voltage components away from vegetation, it is possible to locate the poles between the tracks in the middle of the right-of-way.  This requires slightly more space between the tracks; the regulatory minimum is approximately 18 feet (2x 8'3" minimum from track center line to pole face, plus the width of the pole itself, plus some error margin).  The diagram below shows 19-foot spacing, with taller poles to carry both feeders with adequate clearance from each other:
While this configuration spreads the tracks apart by four feet, the resulting impact to vegetation is less, especially between pole locations, because the feeders are kept away from vegetation.  The down side is that tracks need to be moved apart; this is not very difficult except where cross-overs are located.


Portal gantries are basically the same as side poles, with a cross-bar across the top.  Like center poles, the portal arrangement allows the 50 kV feeders to be located in the middle away from vegetation.  Unlike center poles, portals do not require the tracks to be further apart than 15 feet:
The portal configuration has the least impact on vegetation between poles (right-hand diagram) but isn't particularly beautiful (left-hand diagram).

Most of the 2,200 trees threatened by electrification probably aren't worth saving.  They are typically not "heritage" trees, and consist mostly of unremarkable species that have grown haphazardly into the right-of-way.  But there are surely certain trees worth saving, and for those, the support arrangement of the overhead contact system can be engineered to keep high-voltage feeders away from vegetation, over the tracks.

04 March 2014

CalMod Gains Momentum

CalMod is the corny abbreviation for the Caltrain Modernization program, which encompasses the CBOSS train control system and the peninsula corridor electrification project (PCEP, if you really want to sound like you're in the know).  CalMod is kicking into high gear this week, with the following major developments:
  • Release of the revised DEIR, a major step to clear the electrification project under CEQA.  Compared to the last edition of this document from 2009 (itself warmed over from 2004 and used to garner FTA approval of the project under NEPA), this update is a much stronger and more thorough document that clearly reflects the higher degree of public awareness of the project.  The JPB plans to certify the final EIR this fall.
  • At the next board meeting, award of a six-year $4.3 million contract to the new Director of Project Delivery, Dave Couch.  This is a name we'll see much more of in coming years, as Mr. Couch will take charge of orchestrating the day-to-day management of the army of consultants, staff and contractors that will expend $1.5 billion to deliver the modernization project.  It appears that he will report to Marian Lee (CalMod executive officer).
  • Also at the next board meeting, award of a six-year, $24.2 million contract to LTK Engineering Services to carry out the procurement and supervise the design, manufacture, delivery, testing, and entry into service of Caltrain's new fleet of Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains.  LTK has a long history of providing Caltrain's in-house vehicle expertise, and this contract expands their role.  At typical overhead burden rates, the budget looks like it will pay for about 8 to 10 full-time positions for the duration of the project.
It's full steam ahead, even if there remain significant obstacles.
  1. HSR bond funds.  The elephant in the room is the ongoing legal wrangling over the high-speed rail bond funding that makes up about half of the CalMod budget.  CalMod executive officer Marian Lee recently gave a surprisingly candid statement to a Daily News reporter:
    Asked if there's any danger of Caltrain not receiving the state money if the high-speed rail project is killed in the courts, Lee offered a pragmatic response.
    "We have to hurry up and spend the money, because if they disappear, they disappear with the money," she said. "Then we are half short."
    The question seems to be whether they will get any money at all, never mind spending it quickly.  This could be the number one show-stopper as lawyers prepare to debate the minutiae of trip times and compliance with the bond act.  If the HSR project folds, things may quickly become interesting.
  2. Piece-mealing challenge.  The DEIR is likely to draw a lawsuit that challenges the boundaries between the electrification project and the high-speed rail blended project, claiming that electrification is the camel's nose under the tent for HSR.  CEQA prohibits a practice known as "piece-mealing," whereby projects are analyzed incrementally by parts to make the environmental impacts appear smaller.  Caltrain would have to make the case in court, as it already does in the DEIR, that the electrification project stands separately on its own merits regardless of the source of funding.  CEQA is a self-enforcing statute, so lawsuits of one kind or another are expected.
  3. Regulatory teething issues.  A big question mark is the CPUC rule-making process for 25 kV electrification, which despite the world-wide ubiquity of this technology is nevertheless a first within the borders of California.  The CHSRA consultants have run away with the process by tailoring it far too narrowly to high-speed rail, which may create a problematic regulatory gap for Caltrain and delay the electrification project.
As is customary in 21st-century California, the process will be far more expensive, slow and litigious than in other first-world countries.  Par for the course.

11 February 2014

Draft Business Plan Impressions

The high-speed rail draft 2014 Business Plan is out, with some interesting implications for the peninsula corridor.

Example service plan, from the 2014
draft business plan supporting documents
New Emphasis on Regional Markets

The ridership model has been (somewhat) updated, although much more is supposed to come, and it's clear that there is now more emphasis on serving local markets.  This theoretically places the high-speed rail system in direct competition with Caltrain.

An example service plan, buried in the supporting documents, is shown at right.  The majority of early-morning trains are local commuter milk runs, including 4 trains per hour serving peninsula stops as well as 4 trains per hour from Palmdale to Los Angeles.

That's all well and good for starting up service in the morning, but one wonders how these customers are catered to during the evening rush (especially to Palmdale) when these commuter milk runs will have to co-mingle with long-distance express trains long before the midnight shut-down, unlike in the early morning when the milk runs coincide with the 6 AM startup.  Here on the peninsula, the speed differential between HSR and Caltrain will be far less, so this problem isn't as acute.

Realistic Peninsula Corridor Trip Times

The trip times embedded in the business plan and the underlying ridership calculations now appear consistent with what can be achieved in a Caltrain - HSR blended service pattern on the peninsula corridor.  These trip times are significantly longer than the 30-minute theoretical SF to SJ minimum that could be achieved under ideal conditions as demanded by the HSR bond measure.  While this shortfall is sure to be the subject of further litigation, it should not detract from the far more egregious loss of trip time due to poor routing choices in the southern part of the state.

The trip between San Francisco Transbay and San Jose is conservatively timetabled at 47 to 49 minutes including a two-minute stop in Millbrae, which is consistent with Caltrain's analysis of blended Caltrain / HSR operations assuming a maximum speed limit of 79 mph for all trains (the same as today).  This isn't too far off from today's Baby Bullet timetable, which includes three more stops than assumed for HSR and therefore takes an additional 9 minutes.

Unrealistically Low Peninsula Fares

The fare model used to estimate ridership and revenue within the SF Bay region is based on an extremely simplistic MTC model that sets the fare to $14.97 plus $0.1283 per mile (in 2013 dollars).  This results in one-way fares of $22 from SF to SJ or $22 from Gilroy to Redwood City.  Such intra-regional trips displace higher yielding long-distance trips, since each seat sold for SF-SJ is a seat that cannot be sold for SF-Los Angeles.  Under any realistic scenario, the HSR operator will manage yields and set a fare structure that discourages low-yield, short-distance trips.  Look no further than the Northeast Corridor for an illustrative example: for a trip from Stamford, CT to New York City (roughly similar in time and distance as SF to SJ), a seat on Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express typically costs well over $100 one way vs. $14.50 on Metro North commuter rail.

Using these ridiculously low fares, the ridership and revenue model for the year 2040 predicts 2.5 million annual HSR riders within the SF to Gilroy corridor, worth $51 million / year in revenue.  That's approximately one-sixth of Caltrain's ridership today, but about two-thirds of the fare revenue.  The model essentially predicts that HSR will poach a large portion of Caltrain's highest-yielding passengers.  Caltrain need not fear for their revenue, however, since the simplistic MTC fare model that underlies this result is not likely to be used by a real-world, for-profit HSR operator.

To Redwood City or Not to Redwood City

Most of the business plan assumes only three peninsula corridor stops for HSR: San Jose, Millbrae and San Francisco Transbay.  The ridership and revenue memorandum, however, includes Redwood City in a fare table.  Furthermore, some of the peninsula trip times in the service planning memorandum are timetabled at 49 minutes (see example service plan, page 8, making sure to account for arrival vs. departure times), which is consistent with an additional stop at Redwood City.  The 33-minute trip time indicated between SJ and Millbrae is very conservative and could easily be timetabled at 29 minutes (departure to arrival) with a 79 mph speed limit and including two minutes of timetable padding.  The extra stop in Redwood City would bring it up to 33 minutes.  Coincidence?

13 January 2014

The Dual Mode Locomotive, Elephant of the Rails

Caltrain's revised DEIR for the electrification project is about to be released for public comment.  Meanwhile, California's high-speed rail project has suffered legal setbacks that may end up threatening a $600 million contribution of Proposition 1A HSR funds promised for Caltrain electrification  (the so-called "book-end" funding).  These events have awakened a small but vocal and persistent minority of peninsula residents who believe Caltrain should not electrify, and should seek alternate short-term solutions.

We've seen this pattern before: there was a lot of misinformation circulating about hybrid DMU trains, which were seen as an alternative to electrification when in fact they do not exist and are not capable of meeting Caltrain's requirement for high-capacity, high-acceleration rolling stock.

ALP45-DP locomotive
The new idea now going around at least has the merit of being demonstrated in the real world.  The idea is to replace Caltrain's locomotive fleet with a new type of locomotive known as a dual-mode locomotive.  You can think of it as two locomotives in one, combining a conventional diesel power train with the ability to operate on electricity where 25 kV overhead electrification is available.  To pull off this feat, the locomotive needs to carry not only a diesel power plant and an electric generator, but also a big transformer to bring the 25,000 volt electric supply down to usable voltages.

There is an off-the-shelf example: Bombardier's ALP-45DP, shown in the photo at right.  A small fleet of these beasts operates for commuter agencies in New Jersey and MontrĂ©al, Canada, where certain lines are only partially electrified.  Rather than inconveniencing passengers with a change of trains where the wire ends, these locomotives fire up a pair of 2,000 horsepower V-12 engines and continue their trip beyond electrified territory.

These make absolutely no sense for Caltrain.
  • They are expensive.  Two locomotives in one cost almost as much as two locomotives.  New Jersey Transit paid $8 million for each one in 2010.  Caltrain would require a fleet of about 25.  There goes $200 million, nearly half the amount allocated to the new fleet purchase under the electrification project, and none of Caltrain's aging passenger coaches would be replaced.
  • They are heavy.  These locomotives have the heaviest axle load of any passenger locomotive in the world, at nearly 33 metric tons.  Heavy beats up the track and increases maintenance costs.
  • They are slow in diesel mode.  Even with two 2,000 hp V-12 engines pulling as hard as they can, the million-pound weight of a Caltrain commuter train will hold the train back and limit the trip-time savings of an all-stops peninsula local to just one minute, all else being equal.
  • They are slow in electric mode.  Imagine that some day the funding finally comes together to string up electric wire along the entire length of the peninsula.  The laws of physics being what they are, the power-to-weight ratio and the weight on drivers of a train powered by a dual-mode locomotive does not allow it to accelerate quickly, even if its rated top speed is 100 mph.  In stop-and-go service on a local train, an ALP-45DP running in 100% electric mode would only save four minutes on its entire run between San Francisco and San Jose, compared to today's timetable.
The trip time savings simply aren't worth the high cost of dual-mode locomotives.  Level boarding by itself (even with diesel locomotives) would save more time.  The lightweight and powerful EMU trains that Caltrain plans to purchase would save far more time, and are unbeatable when combined with level boarding.  See chart at left.

The only remote opportunity that dual-mode locomotives might present is the ability to serve the Transbay Transit Center, which is not designed for diesel trains, prior to the full electrification of the peninsula corridor.  The San Francisco downtown extension tunnel, however, won't be completed for at least another decade and will cost two to three times more than Caltrain electrification.  That's an awfully long time to realize the meager benefits of dual-mode locomotives, on a shaky premise that funding won't be available for Caltrain electrification even after the DTX is paid for in full.

For the peninsula rail corridor, dual-mode locomotives are clearly a proven solution looking for a problem.  The better problem to solve is how to fund the electrification project even if the high-speed rail funding is denied.