11 January 2015

Second Thoughts in Palo Alto

The Caltrain board of directors recently certified the Final Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project, the last environmental clearance necessary to move ahead with construction.  As part of this certification, a list of unavoidable impacts (which cannot be reasonably mitigated) is issued along with a statement of "overriding considerations," basically a justification for why no mitigation is feasible.

This doesn't sit well for the Palo Alto Weekly, which already wrote about the lack of mitigation for the expected worsening of local traffic around several already-jammed intersections in the city.  The Weekly ran an editorial ("Caltrain's electrification project is pushed forward with impunity", a title later toned down to "Caltrain's Bad Judgment") that calls out Caltrain for a number of supposed failures.  Read in the context of the long-running debate over high-speed rail, however, this editorial is off the mark.

Most glaringly, the editorial blames Caltrain for a failure to study grade separations together with the electrification project: "it's long past time for Caltrain to include planning and engineering costs for the least expensive method of eliminating grade crossings: raised berms and lowered roadway undercrossings."  This demand is more than a bit disingenuous, since just five years ago Palo Alto residents were vehemently opposed to raised berms (see Palo Alto Weekly article from April 2009), which were then described by the more alarmist members of the community as a "Berlin Wall".  The heavy-handed public outreach process carried out by the CHSRA five years ago thoroughly poisoned the well, and discussions of above-grade solutions still elicit raw emotions.  Case in point: a recent grade separation study commissioned by the City from tunneling firm Hatch Mott MacDonald studied only the most expensive below-grade options while pointedly excluding a raised berm solution from its scope.  Considering this context, the Weekly would do better to call for the City of Palo Alto to study those controversial raised berms.

Rather than complain, the Palo Alto Weekly should start covering what it really takes to get grade separations built:
  • Calling on the City of Palo Alto to perform a complete study of grade separations, one that does not side-step or ignore affordable above-grade solutions
  • Building strong community support for grade separations, by educating the community not just about technical possibilities but also about costs and available funding sources
  • Prodding the BART-obsessed VTA to start paying attention to the funding needs of northern Santa Clara County
  • Scraping together a local funding contribution as Berkeley once did for their preferred BART configuration
  • Working through the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that regulates all grade crossings and grade separations in California, to obtain Federal and State funding contributions
  • Applying to get Palo Alto crossings onto the CPUC's grade separation priority list
  • Undoing years of misinformation and community resentment lingering from the controversial HSR process
Grade separation of the peninsula corridor is a decadal undertaking that will eventually run its course.  The Palo Alto Weekly editorial board can either help or hinder this necessary progress, and blaming Caltrain doesn't help.

01 December 2014

Metrolink Scorns Electrification

Just like the peninsula corridor, the other end of California's planned high-speed rail network, in the Los Angeles basin, could also benefit from European-style "blended" service where electrified commuter trains and high-speed trains share tracks and stations.  Many of the solutions being developed by Caltrain for the peninsula corridor could also prove useful in the LA region, something that is not lost on rail supporters.  Paul Dyson, president of the advocacy group RailPac, recently wrote a letter to the relevant authorities expressing support for the idea of electrifying portions of the Metrolink commuter rail network to better integrate with high-speed rail.  His proposal is aptly named "Electrolink".

While the high-speed rail Authority seems all for it, the response (page 1, page 2) from Larry McCallon, Chair of the Metrolink Board of Directors, pours scorn on electrification in general and on Caltrain's project in particular.  Some highlights:

Cost.  Chair McCallon: "Caltrain's 51-mile electrification modernization project is currently projected to be between $1.45 and $1.5 billion (infrastructure and equipment).  Metrolink operates on over 500 miles of track which would make this option very cost-prohibitive."

Zing!  He does have a strong point, in that Caltrain's electrification project is probably the world's most expensive electrification program, per route-mile.  Caltrain can evidently afford pre-construction cost blowouts that Metrolink can't.

Schedule.  Chair McCallon: "Caltrain's experience shows them to be behind schedule in their 24th year of planning the electrification of their 51 mile segment between San Francisco and San Jose."

Double Zing!  He is of course referring to old studies of Caltrain electrification dating all the way back to the early 1990s, and pointing out that Caltrain's planning process is just now coming to fruition.  In Caltrain's favor, this is largely due to a lack of money and political will, and not to any technical obstacles.

Shared Corridors.  Chair McCallon: "Caltrain, even with very limited freight service on the San Jose to San Francisco line is struggling with electrification compatibility with freight trains.  Metrolink, on the other hand, operates on shared corridors with much more frequent Amtrak passenger and freight trains that carry some double stack cars.  The electrification vs. freight issues would only be compounded in these rail corridors.  Between Los Angeles and Fullerton our trains also operate on BNSF Railway owned lines."

This point is spot on.  The freight railroads are adamantly opposed to electrifying any tracks where they operate, even if they are not the owners of such track.  The last time that Caltrain tried to kick off a CPUC rule-making process to cover 25 kV electrification, in 2007 under CPUC docket P0706028, the process was promptly shut down by the freight railroads.  The CHSRA's effort to clear HSR electrification ran into similar opposition, and survives only because it explicitly sidesteps the issue of electrification over tracks used by freight trains.  While the contracting process for Caltrain electrification is well underway, on the regulatory front, we have... crickets.

Electrification versus freight is going to be a messy fight, one in which Caltrain appears to have no friends, least of all Metrolink.

Chair McCallon's lack of vision should be taken with a grain of salt: Metrolink is a struggling organization with sagging ridership, dodgy finances and a governance structure that makes Caltrain look like a well-run corporation.  Nevertheless, the underlying issue of compatibility with high-speed rail is at least as important down south as it is here on the peninsula.  Let us hope that Caltrain's blended system will blaze a good path for Electrolink to follow.

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.