15 March 2015

News Roundup, March 2015

Regulations for 25 kV electrification.  After two years in the making, CPUC proceeding R1303009 appears to have produced the new rule book for stringing up high-voltage rail electrification in California, although the final document is still to be formally adopted by the Public Utilities Commission.  The final draft hammered out after numerous meetings by the high-speed rail consultants, freight railroads, utility companies and other interested parties thankfully bears little resemblance to the original draft proposed by the high-speed rail consultant, which was a mess.  While the new rules apply only to dedicated high-speed rail corridors without grade crossings or freight trains, the language is flexible and there appears to be room allowed for parties such as Caltrain and UPRR to agree on those particular items on a case-by-case basis, without resorting to an entire new CPUC rulemaking process for the peninsula rail corridor.  Most importantly, the new rules provide a clear framework that allows detailed engineering design of Caltrain's electrification project to proceed with a very low risk of future regulatory surprises.

Grade separations.   An unfortunate series of accidents and suicides have re-ignited the debate over grade separations in PAMPA (Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton).  This portion of the corridor abuts some of the most expensive real estate on the peninsula and is home to the most contentious and litigious environment for local decision-making (or lack thereof, as the case may be), and it is gradually dawning on these communities that Something Must Be Done.  Grade separation is often misunderstood as an all-or-nothing proposition, when in reality it is a process that has been underway for decades.  The peninsula rail corridor is already 62% grade-separated today.  Communities up and down the peninsula are starting to talk more about finishing the remaining 38% of the job.

Quiet zones. Palo Alto recently conducted a study session on quiet zones, which would stop routine horn-blowing at grade crossings.  Curiously, the systematic use of train horns before every protected grade crossing is an American practice not usually seen in other countries, where crossing gates combined with visual and audible warnings are considered to provide a sufficient level of public safety.  But then again, those other countries don't have lawyers like ours.  The staff report contains a nice overview of the process for establishing a quiet zone; the main impediment seems to be the local community's assumption of legal liability for grade crossing collisions.

Peninsula HSR reboot.  After spending $45 million on environmental clearance and design of the original and much-reviled four-tracks-all-the-way peninsula HSR project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority shelved the plans with nothing delivered.  The Authority recently submitted a Project Update Report to the legislature, stating that a new environmental clearance for the peninsula segment is scheduled for completion in 2017, with construction complete in 2028.  [UDPATE 3/21]  Furthermore, an obscure Ridership Technical Advisory Panel Review of the California High-Speed Rail Ridership and Revenue Forecasting Process dated December 2014 includes the map graphic at right, and states that the Authority "has requested a stand-alone analysis of two individual segments of the overall system, to assess the viability of each segment operating independently for a handful of years prior to the completion of the system. (...) The Bay Area segment would require improvements to existing rail infrastructure. HSR service would be blended with existing Caltrain commuter rail."  The peninsula schedule may be pulling to the left.  To clear an EIR that fast, for a project so much more controversial than mere electrification, the process would have to be re-started very soon.  This may or may not be related to the choice of...

New Caltrain CEO.  Jim Hartnett was selected as Caltrain's new chief.  He is a consummate local political insider with no background as a transportation agency executive, other than chairing the Caltrain board of directors and vice-chairing the board of the CHSRA.  While he will no doubt be well equipped to navigate the choppy waters of inter- and extra-agency politics, he is less likely to shake up the Caltrain organization or to bring fresh outside-the-box thinking to the development of the "blended system."  While Caltrain has plenty of political and organizational problems to work on, the technical aspects of blending will determine the success of the rail corridor for decades to come.  Will Hartnett do anything about the top ten problems facing Caltrain, or will he just hold the current course?

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.