15 September 2010

That Burning Smell

There's a burning smell at Caltrain headquarters, from the smoldering tensions over high-speed rail on the peninsula. Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon tries to triangulate a dicey situation with a statement to the public and a letter to his counterpart at the CHSRA. Let's review the state of play:
  • Facing a catastrophic shortfall in its operating budget for fiscal year 2012, Caltrain needs every ounce of good will it can get from peninsula communities in order to survive as a service and as a bureaucratic entity. All this talk of 80-foot wide viaducts tearing through residential neighborhoods is not helping one bit.
  • Caltrain's electrification project, cast for years as the key to future improvements in the system's operating bottom line, is being held hostage by (a) uncertainty over the proper phasing of the electrification project with respect to HSR construction, (b) threats of lawsuits over a somewhat stale EIR that tiptoes around the HSR issue, and (c) the funding package unraveling at the seams, on the widely held but mistaken expectation that HSR will pick up the tab.
  • Caltrain's $230 million reinvent-the-wheel PTC science project, mandated by the FRA as a sine qua non pre-condition to electric operation, has gone out to bid on a wing and a prayer with no clear source of funding identified other than the remote chance that the peninsula HSR project might receive the entire federal grant allocated for the statewide HSR system.
  • Caltrain's own guy, Bob "Father of the Baby Bullet" Doty, propelled into the driver's seat of the joint Caltrain - CHSRA Peninsula Rail Program, valiantly ran interference with peninsula communities, and must now be wondering if the steering wheel really is connected to the wheels of this particular bus.
The surest sign of a thorny situation is that stakeholders keep calling for the project to be "done right," the touchstone platitude that is always trotted out when people start to get hot under the collar.

Reset Button

Another recurring buzzword is "reset button." Californians for High Speed Rail wants to hit one reset button. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo wants to hit another reset button.

What about hitting a big red reset button at the Caltrain bunker in San Carlos?
  • Ditch the weak operating plan proposed as part of Caltrain 2025, and plan for smoking-hot corridor operations. A clockface timetable with a mid-line standing overtake, more than any other Caltrain improvement, promises to increase revenue while keeping operating costs under control, because it requires fewer trains and fewer crews to operate a service that will make the Baby Bullet look like a Model T.
  • Phase the quadruple tracking for HSR and start by building a modest four-track mid-line overtake facility from Redwood Junction to just south of downtown San Mateo. This avoids most of the NIMBY controversy while delivering the highest possible corridor throughput for Caltrain express service as well as the initial HSR services.
  • Ditch CBOSS and specify an off-the-shelf PTC standard that can be expanded to the statewide HSR system. Such a system already exists, and is mentioned dozens of times throughout the CHSRA's system requirements with the contractually-delicate phrasing "The CHSTP train control system will demonstrate Functional and Technical Requirements similar to ERTMS but the System Requirements are being written without specifying an ERTMS system. It is accepted that an ERTMS system may eventually be proposed and accepted." Bonus: HSR funds might pay for Caltrain's PTC.
  • Address the issue of level boarding once and for all. To make the most efficient use of San Francisco's new Transbay Transit Center, it is crucial that Caltrain and the HSR system adopt a common platform interface. The mantra ought to be "any train, any track, any platform". So far, there is not a peep from Caltrain.
While it can't be confirmed, the reset button is possibly located right under Mike Scanlon's desk.


  1. So, Clem, when do you take over planning the SF-SJ segment for Caltrain/HSR? Have you ever approached Caltrain, HSR and their contractors about their plans and how to improve them? For all the "done right arguments" yours really are "done right" as being practical and highlight what must be done for efficiency purposes and to make the project succeed.

  2. Haha this thing is never going to happen. Not in America. Not ever.

  3. CBOSS still is not dead. And Caltrain wonders why it does not have dough? Geez, $230 million pays for two-three years of operation, might as well tack on an extra year to Caltrain.

    Probably quad-tracking most of the way and leaving a few sections out in the first phase probably is the best way to start. I do however worry about costs escalating as infrastructure costs mature over time.

  4. With all of Caltrain's current problems, I'm starting to wonder if just flat out discontinuing service while the SF-SJ segment is being built is the best option. Caltrain seems to be wasting money on stupid projects (CBOSS) and potentially sabotaging the utility of the corridor by not agreeing to a common platform height. Halting service would put a lot of cars on the road for several years, but that would be better than building a permanently crippled system.

    Flame away.

  5. @ Peak VT

    I've previously argued that shutting down Caltrain during construction would be a "good" solution to platform height and other problems related to the transition to electrification.

    As you stated, it would increase the number of cars on the road for a number of years. In addition, I know a number of people who take the train to work not because they don't want to drive, but because they cannot drive (no car, medical reason, etc). Those people would quite literally be screwed by a shutdown for years.

  6. @ Peter: Bus service could be implemented for some of those people. Caltrain/CHSRA could offer express buses that go directly from stations to downtown SF, and local buses that stop at every station for anyone who travels only part of the line. The extra costs of those services might even be offset by a reduction in construction costs. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I image that not having to dodge trains - except a few freights at night - would make the work a lot easier.

  7. Shutting down the system: just what can't-do third-rate engineers love.

    All the costs, all the contractor profits, all the agency budget, none of the inconvenience of running trains. And if the passengers don't come back in the end or if the huge mess we build is of no practical use for the sideline or running passenger trains or attracting passengers ... well shit happens. Who could have predicted? We don't need no stinking Monday morning quarterbacks, armchair engineers, foamers and Concerned Citizens to tell us how to do this, because it's A Very Complicated Problem and You're Just Not Aware Of The Issues and We Have Many Unique Local Circumstances to deal with here and We Have The Best People Working On It.

    So by all means let's go all the way and reduce Bay Area transportation to its pure essence: a cash conduit from your pocket directly to ours. Cut out the middleman of pretending there's some reason for pouring the concrete: just pour, baby, pour!

    Caltrain's engineers have had this mindset for decades already ("CTX"), of course. But imagine ... dare to dream ... reach for ths stars ... years and years without passengers! Bliss!

    In the mean time, in the real world, real rail engineering professionals elsewhere all around the world manage, in their sleep, with two hands behind their backs, while wearing a straitjacket underwater in a barrel encased in locked chains, to accomplish with limited service disruption the sort of incremental upgrades that Caltrain/CHSRA pretend is unprecedented! unique! world-class! heroic! never before attempted!

  8. @ Peak VT

    It would also decrease the amount of temporary construction easements required.

    Please note that I'm not advocating this, just discussing the benefits and pitfalls.

  9. Shorter Richard: In a perfect world, everything would be perfectly engineered.

    Meanwhile, back in reality, there's a good chance that the Peninsula corridor could be done very badly due to Caltrain. If the organization doesn't yield then it needs to be shut down or otherwise moved out of the way.

  10. Discontinuing Caltrain service will have long term implications for ridership as it will shift commuting patterns and shift the already-limited local final-mile transit services that connect to it. The point at which mass transit on the 10-100 mile scale like Caltrain becomes viable is when it links well with frequent final-mile transit options and becomes an enabler of privately-owned transit-oriented development.

    Additionally, it will encourage those of us without cars to purchase cars after which the cost of Caltrain monthly passes will instead be spent on car payments. Also, for those that would consider buying condos near public transit specifically to avoid driving, it is hard to take a system like Caltrain seriously if it up and vanishes whenever conditions are tough.

    CAHSR will be just a piece of infrastructure for politicians to show off. If they were really concerned about viable transportation that solves real problems they would concentrate on the final mile and urban planning.

    It is depressing how in a country where we spend $100+ billion dollars on the military, we can't even keep a system with a reasonable fare recovery ratio like Caltrain afloat.

  11. It's real easy to discuss cutting someone else's train service, isn't it? Hi. I'm "some of those people". And I'd strongly prefer that my Caltrain service still be around, or else Caltrain will likely permanently lose me as a customer (and the Bay Area as a resident and source of tax revenue).

    Anyway, if there's to be a reset of the planning process, I suggest making sure that there is exactly one agency responsible for planning future infrastructure on the Caltrain ROW, regardless of whether that's Caltrain or HSRA. Then at least we'd have some coherent planning going on. And while Caltrain's capital planning has been less than impressive, HSRA has managed to so antagonize the communities along the Peninsula that there's a risk of nothing getting built at all.

  12. CalTrain for sometime now has started to regret having invited the Authority to use their ROW. That single decision has backfired on them in spades.

    They have alienated a host of cities on the peninsula and that was their base of support for being there in the first place.

    The real answer for then is to kick the Authority off their ROW. They claim their MOU can be canceled within 30 days, but political reality is they really can't.

    All this talk here, about shutting down the service for say 6 years just so HSR can be built along the peninsula makes no sense. It has been a given the service will continue, so give it up. Do you guys have any sense of how dependent Palo Alto and Stanford are on that service continuing?

    If the Authority doesn't take its train elsewhere, they are facing years maybe decades before they will be able to start construction here. Lawsuits against the newly certified program level EIR ae brewing in many cities and just wait until they certify the project level EIR, another round of lawsuits, most likely headed by the UPRR.

    Clem noted sometime back, that he felt the current funding would certainly not come to the Bay area, but that there would be many more rounds of funding to come.

    That may happen, but with what I see happening in Washington DC in this November's election, I think new rounds of funding are many many years away.

    If Whitman gets elected, the Authority is dead meat.

  13. @ arcady

    I don't think that Peak VT was arguing to shut it down. I know that I wasn't.

    My wife uses Caltrain to get to work, too She just got off the train in Menlo Park, actually. I'm not being insensitive, just discussing possibilities.

  14. On the legal front, Atherton council voted 5 - 0 to further litigate against the Authority.

    This will take two fronts.

    First will be an action to convince the court that the amended EIR did not satisfy what the court wanted corrected and therefore they will object to the retrun of the writ of mandate, when it is filed.

    Also then start a new lawsuit on the new EIR with much more information that has been obtained since the original EIR was first certified.

  15. @ Morris

    And this is news why? Of course they were going to sue the Authority again, because they didn't get their way.

  16. Late last evening 9-20-2010, the Palo Alto council, after a closed session, reported out that Palo Alto would join in a lawsuit against the Authority.

    A bit earlier in the session, they passed sending a strong letter to the FRA and others, expressing no confidence in the Authority and recommending that the FRA, and that the FRA not fund the HSR project.

    This action passed 9-0. But the key bullet point added to the letter, which asked for the no funding was passed only by a 5-4 vote.

  17. Here is some press coverage of the Palo Alto meeting.


    Mayor Pat Burt in that meeting noted that van Ark had been very clear that he had $43 billion to build the project and that aerials would be used and that underground would not.

    Van Ark was further was asked about northern California getting underground, and he stated they won't get it either.

  18. In an important article in the Wall Street journal



    High Speed Rail Stalls

    we see furious opposition by the freight lines to having HSR passenger service on their tracks and ROW.

  19. @ Morris brown

    I'm still curious what you're going to argue once the Authority strikes a deal with UPRR.

  20. I just returned from several weeks on business to Belgium and the Netherlands, and traveled everywhere using a variety of train services (some high-speed trains, some not).

    Coming from abroad, this fight about grade separations is completely petty and absurd.

    It is really unfortunate that cities are litigating against the entire project because of disagreement about how trains will cross a handful of street intersections.

    There has to be a more positive way to handle this particular aspect of the project.

  21. This is two months old, but still counters Morris' argument that UPRR will never work with HSR: Union Pacific, Illinois Agree on High-Speed Passenger Rail Plan

  22. It'll be interesting to see Palo Alto and Atherton waste taxpayer money on futile, groundless lawsuits. I wonder if the CHSRA will manage to get them penalized for frivolous lawsuit filing, as this seems to be coming pretty close to it.

  23. Menlo Park just agreed to join in the lawsuit.

    Yet to hear from Belmont, Burlingame and others.

  24. @Morris, thanks for the updates. It was not unexpected that there would be more CEQA lawsuits, which are the self-enforcing mechanism of this statute. I had anticipated this more than a year ago and it is not the least bit surprising or disturbing.

  25. And those will also be thrown out just as yours has.

  26. Do any of these lawsuits advocate "any platform, any train?"

    I mean, if I were suing, I'd sue over that.

  27. Re "Reset buttons": note what happened when the very finest engineering professionals in the entire universe (who happen to be employed or have consulting contracts with Caltrain, CHSRA and the Transbay JPA) got together and resolved the Transbay Terminal rail issues once and for all:

    * An "emergency crossover" was added for Caltrain.

    * And the single, incompatible Caltrain platform was further shortened.

    Did the egregiously awful and blindingly obvious rail passenger pedestrian circulation issues at the terminal get addressed? Pas de tout!

    Did the mind-bogglingly idiotic cast in concrete dedication of the majority of platforms to HSR with no possibility whatsoever of Caltrain use get reconsidered? That's a good one!

    Did the sub-cretinous station throat configuration that guarantees minimum possible throughput, maximum numbers of traffic conflicts, slowest platform reoccupancy time, and maximal construction cost and maximal amounts of excavation get addressed? Hell no!

    Did the appalling, unnecessary, expense-increasing, circulation-impeding, lowest-possible architectural merit full-plate underground mezzanine get eviscerated? Surely you jest!

    Did the cost- and excavation-maximizing and utterly, completely, obviously totally useless third track between Transbay and Mission Bay get value engineered away? Hah!

    Did the Mission Bay station get configured for maximum operational flexibility and throughput (meaning island platforms, flexibly throat configurations on both ends, turnback capability, or even the possibility of HS trains stopping at the platforms)? Pull the other one!

    Did the insane, utterly redundant, completely unnecessary, multi-hundred-million dollar cost, actively passenger hostile dual surface terminal insanity at Mission Bay get detonated and those responsible for the concept terminated and sued for gross professional malfeasance? On the contrary!

    My prediction for a peninsula Caltrain "reset": some sort of profitable change order will be generated for Caltrain's very very very very very very special CBOSS expert consultants, and maybe some dedicated tunnels will be required for the valuable, intense and highly profitable freight traffic, and a third incompatible platform level will be required, because there's no way "HSR", "Caltrain" and "Baby Bullet" could ever be expected to stop at the same places.

    The only sort of "reset" that makes any sense is one involving mass unemployment for those responsible.

    But that's just not going to happen: history isn't at all encouraging on that front; and failure is always rewarded in the Bay Area Transportation Wonderworld. The bigger the failure, the bigger the reward, and the Peninsula Rail Program has engineered a bigger failure than anybody could even have conceived of just a few short years ago. World Class!

  28. Clem, I applaud your suggestion to begin converting the Peninsula railway into a grade crossing separated 125 mph four track standard by starting with a section midway between the San Francisco and San Jose terminals. A local-express overtake section on a mostly single track per direction line is most effective when placed in the middle of a line segment where the greatest speed disparity between local and express trains exists. The 4.1 mile four stop San Carlos to Hayward Park section has the afore mentioned attributes and is mostly grade separated today. This approach would accommodate a material improvement in Caltrain rush-hour service even if the CHSR project or even electrification is never completed. Using present Caltrain equipment and operating practices a local-express overtake maneuver along this San Carlos to Hayward section expanded to four tracks with 0.8 mile over-runs could be designed to maximize local-express separation along the entire SF to SJ route and not produce further delay if either the local or express train is not over five minutes late.
    We should consider the enormous opportunity to enhance Caltrain service the CHSR peninsula route scheme presents; a grade-separated-limited access 4-track 125 mph electrified railway. Isolated from track level interference it would be practical to develop a train control system that would not require a paid employee on board every train. A moving Block position detection system constrained by an extended version of BART’s separation safety standards would permit way capacities (non-stop track segments) up to 72 trains per hour with 1320 foot trains at 125 mph and 35 to 47 second station close-up times for 700 foot to 1320 foot trains. (A 1.5 miles/hour/sec2 safety braking rate standard for the way capacity estimate and a 3 mile/ sec2 acceleration rate and a 2 mile/hour/ sec2 safety braking rate standard is assumed for this close-up time calculation.) Platform edge screens and time and number-limited turnstiles, activated when the following train is waiting for the dwelling train to leave, could enforce 37 second average dwell times at the most heavily used stations. Under these conditions a one-way single track station could accommodate up to 50 (fifty) 700 foot trains per hour. En-route split trains would be practical with automatic coupling EMUs to relieve congestion at main terminal areas. (Muni, the Oakland Key Lines, and four individual Chicago EMU systems have all used this traffic mitigation and cost reduction approach.)

  29. Without on-train operating personnel a basic service with one local and two express trains every ten minutes all day and evening using mostly one or two cars each during off peak periods would likely to be affordable. This approach would be especially cost-effective because of the likely strong demand to board high average speed express trains. Driven by twice BART’s power to weight ratio and 125 mph peak speeds express trains could attain a remarkably high performance level. For example compared to today’s fastest Caltrain schedule a level boarding EMU could attain a 70% commercial speed increase between San Jose Diridon and 22nd Street. Center-platform stations would contain operating costs because one station operator could be physically close to all fare paying and door closing issues for both directions at one station. Passengers could be encouraged to position themselves along the most easily boarded sections of the arriving train by information screens indicating which cars on the arriving train had the most space. (Car suspension system air pressures are automatically adjusted in order to maintain a constant car floor distance above the track. Suspension air pressure could reasonably be interpreted as passenger concentration indications. This information could be transmitted to the arrival station passenger information displays and to passenger flow control points.) Establishing narrow constant width stations as a standard would permit quick future station location or platform- length adjustments. For most stations center platform widths should be no more than three feet wider than a single track loading gauge. Surplus trains could be stored between stations on storage tracks centered between the local tracks and stations. Then a substitute train could be rolling toward gap filling duties a fraction of a second after a need to cover a service delay becomes clear

  30. John, I challenge you to name a single railroad in the world that runs 50 trains per hour. I know two that run 30, and one subway that runs 40, but nothing more.

  31. Adirondacker1280026 September, 2010 08:28

    ...30 an hour... 40 an hour...

    And those services are low speed. Safe stopping distances increase with speed. And even if cars are banned the Peninsula is never going to have enough population to need 70 trains an hour.

  32. There's also a difference, sometimes a pretty big one, between signal design capacity and what can actually be operated, for lots of reasons ranging from how close to the limits the driver (or automatic train operation software) can drive the train and how consistent dwell times at stations are. John Bacon is talking about signal capacity here.

    And, on the whole, John Bacon sounds like he's designing an ideal railroad for ideal passengers and none of what he says bears much relation to real railroad operation, in this country or any other. Just imagine what a trainload or three of drunk giants fans would do to a highly precise operation that requires dwell times of exactly 37 seconds.

  33. No, not even signal capacity can support 50 tph. The minimum headway equals safe stopping distance plus dwell plus station clearing time. Plug in typical subway values and you get a minimum headway of 80-90 seconds. Plug in typical commuter train values and you get 110-120 seconds.

    The dwell and clearing times are the dominant factor. If the train ahead is skipping the next station that the train behind will stop at, then the distance between the trains can be much lower. That's how HSR operators schedule local trains to leave 3 minutes behind express trains on lines with a carrying capacity of about 14 tph.

  34. Alon: I was assuming the headway with minimal dwell times and spherical passengers in a vacuum who never hold doors. I don't know what the proper term for that headway is, but I empirically determine it by timing how long it takes from the time a train starts from a station until the starting signal is green again. If you live in NYC, you can easily do this at any subway station, and you'll probably find that that headway is much lower than the service actually run to account for dwell time at the most congested station and to leave a margin for recovery in case of delays. What I really meant by my comment is that 50 tph might well be possible with ideal passengers and nearly no dwell or recovery time, and even then probably not at 80 mph, though that also depends on the braking rate you assume.

  35. @PeakVT

    Telling poor people to shove it and take the bus is...well, its indicative of someone who probably has a car as a backup.

    you try taking the bus up and down the peninsula between SF and the South Bay.