26 November 2010

Future EMU

The newest automobiles are shown in Paris, Tokyo and Detroit. The latest aircraft are shown at Farnborough and Le Bourget. What about the newest passenger trains? That show, in Berlin, is known as Innotrans and provides a window on the latest evolution in the type of EMU (electric multiple unit) trains that Caltrain is pursuing. One of the future train concepts shown at the recently-concluded Innotrans 2010 is Bombardier's Omneo product platform, ordered in large quantities by French regional transportation authorities and due to enter service in mid-2013. That order is in itself noteworthy, because Bombardier beat French firm Alstom, the incumbent provider of the previous generation of double-deck regional trains, on its home turf.

Tailored slightly for U.S. dimensions, a possible Caltrain Omneo concept is shown in the sketch above. The following key features set it apart from the 1990s-vintage EMUs that feature in Caltrain's electrification plans--the very EMUs that the Omneo is set to replace:
  • Articulated design. The wheels are placed between, rather than under each train car, leading to a smoother ride. Gangways between cars, traditionally cramped, dark, loud, shaky and unwelcoming places, are transformed into full-width, seamless passages that turn the train into one continuous space. Vehicle systems (traction equipment, air conditioning, etc. shown in dark gray in the figure) are moved entirely out of passenger spaces, below the floor and above the ceiling. With inter-car gangways and systems cabinets gone, open sight lines promote a sense of space and safety inside the train.

  • A usable amount of high-floor space. Bi-level EMU cars are always a configuration challenge, since passenger spaces must fit around numerous vehicle systems while still providing full ADA accessibility. Accessibility means that wheelchair spaces, bike spaces and accessible toilets must all be provided on the door entry level. Traditional bi-level cars do not provide sufficient room for all these amenities in the high-floor vestibule areas over the wheels, and thus typically board on the lower level where more contiguous space is available. Articulation gets rid of this design constraint.

  • High-level boarding. While the traditional bi-level EMU architecture tends to allow boarding only on the lower floor, this concept features a 1220 mm (48 inch) boarding height that would be compatible with high-speed rail platforms. The Omneo is offered in 550 mm, 760 mm and 920 mm boarding heights, but additional vertical clearance available in the U.S. makes a 1220 mm floor height feasible. A shared platform interface between Caltrain and HSR presents enormous operational advantages by allowing any train to access any platform, especially at San Francisco Transbay.

  • Dual, High-Low Doors. To allow a gradual transition from today's 8-inch platforms to 48-inch HSR-compatible platforms, each vestibule features two doors, one for each height. While this temporarily restricts door capacity during the transition period, the modular door assemblies provide for easy reconfiguration to 100% high platforms once the transition is complete. Dual height doors are not unprecedented.

  • Extra wide interiors. The articulated design shortens car bodies from the traditional 26 m (85 feet) to just 10 or 15 meters. Shorter cars, for a given loading gauge, can be made wider than longer cars. A U.S. spec Omneo car body could be 3.1 m (122 inches) wide in the 15-meter double deck section, and 3.15 m (124 inches) wide in the 10-meter single deck section, all within AAR Plate F. That's 4 and 6 inches wider, respectively, than today's Bombardier bi-level cars used in Baby Bullet service. Such wide interiors might enable comfortable 5-abreast seating.
Bombardier vs. Bombardier

It's instructive to compare the Omneo EMU concept to another product in Bombardier's portfolio, the bi-level commuter cars that Caltrain operates for its Baby Bullet service. The diagram at right shows a direct comparison of a Caltrain car to a pair of Omneo cars of roughly equivalent length.

At three seats abreast, an 11-unit Omneo train measuring 145 m (475 ft, a bit shorter than a 493 ft Baby Bullet train) accommodates 695 seats and 48 bikes, compared to 674 seats and 48 bikes for a Baby Bullet. With a two-abreast seating plan making use of the extra width for aisles and standees, the Omneo would still accommodate 590 seats (not counting 48 flip-down seats.) Using a metric that Caltrain is fond of, seats per unit length of train, here's how it stacks up:
  • Baby Bullet: 1.37 seats/ft or 4.5 seats/m (including locomotive)
  • Omneo 3+2 seating: 1.46 seats/ft or 4.8 seats/m
  • Omneo 2+2 seating: 1.24 seats/ft or 4.1 seats/m
These figures show that an Omneo-like EMU would achieve rough parity with the Baby Bullet in terms of seating density. Of course, as we've discussed before, it's not all about seats... standees are passengers too, if you give them somewhere comfortable to stand.

Innovative Design Enables Platform Height Compatibility

This article is not intended as an endorsement of Bombardier's products; their Omneo train merely serves as an illustrative example. Other manufacturers (Alstom, Siemens and Stadler) aren't standing still, and are also increasingly focused on articulated EMU designs with innovative and flexible interior packaging. In light of these new technological developments, Caltrain's relentless pursuit of 20-year-old double-deck EMU designs locked into a low-platform architecture seems downright archaic.

Cutting-edge European vehicle designs will not compromise the basis of Caltrain's FRA waiver, and might help achieve one of the key tenets of compatibility: a common platform interface for HSR and Caltrain, without billions of dollars and years of platform reconstruction up front. The trains can come now, as part of the electrification project, and the rest can follow later as time and money allows. What is required is a little bit of forward thinking to future-proof the system and enable any train to use any track to access any platform.

18 November 2010

Still No Compatibility In Sight

The high-speed rail authority's program management team, of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, recently published an Operations & Maintenance Concept for peer review by the many foreign HSR operators with which the California High-Speed Rail Authority has signed collaboration agreements.

Besides regurgitating much of the same information already available in the various EIRs and technical memoranda, the peer review document states a number of operational assumptions that have far-reaching implications for the peninsula rail corridor. The first one on the list:
1. The HST system is assumed to operate on dedicated tracks, independent of any other passenger or freight rail services, except in the following locations:

a. Peninsula Corridor – approach tracks leading to the two terminals at Transbay and 4th and King Streets (shared between CHST and Caltrain commuter trains)
Note the added emphasis, that only the approach tracks would be shared, namely north of Brisbane. And then, this:
8. (...) Train operations at the San Francisco end of the network will be complex, linking the two terminal stations, each with mixed HST and commuter traffic, with the San Francisco‐area storage and maintenance yard, as well as the four‐track main line that has high‐speed trains on two dedicated tracks and commuter trains on the other two tracks.
While the document does briefly entertain the alien notion of shared platforms, as well as a "proof-of-payment" fare system where POP must be provided in the paid area of the station (talk about not getting the concept!), what is abundantly clear here is that high-speed rail is being planned on the peninsula without regard to integrating operations with Caltrain--in flagrant disregard of the MOU with Caltrain, and of many successful shared corridors around the world, including even in New Jersey. In this vision, Caltrain is confined to two tracks, and relegated to the role of an operational nuisance on the approach into San Francisco. Any synergy that might arise from Caltrain express trains sharing tracks with high-speed trains is wasted.

Change The Assumptions, Before It's Too Late!

These operating assumptions have dire implications for local commuter rail service on the peninsula.

Caltrain has so far demonstrated a total lack of ambition on the operations front, and has utterly failed, ever since Proposition 1A passed in 2008, to think outside of the two-track box known as Caltrain 2025. There are ways to provide better service with fewer trains, provided that integrated planning is performed up-front by the Peninsula Rail Program, pursuant to the memorandum of understanding (which the above operating assumptions directly contradict).

The high-speed rail program management team is also uninterested, in the first place because their charter is to provide high-speed long-distance service, not commuter service, and secondly, because the same firm built BART. While this can only be alleged, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas likely has zero interest in improving Caltrain, and every financial interest in receiving another several billion dollars of taxpayer's money to complete BART's manifest destiny to ring the Bay.

Foreign peer reviewers will have little interest in questioning the operational assumptions, since doing so might rock the boat and compromise their future ability to obtain contracts to build and operate California's system.

So just who does that leave to do the right thing, hopefully before any concrete is poured?

Residents and city governments should push hard for Caltrain to integrate its operations with the high-speed rail system, going for maximum flexibility, striking the appropriate balance between local and long-distance services, and enabling the optimal allocation of scarce resources, (such as track capacity at rush hour, platform space at terminal stations, station area footprints in developed areas, etc.) in response to actual demand patterns as they develop. For planning purposes, that means any train should be able to use any track, and stop at any platform.

If peninsula communities are going to bear the considerable disruption of HSR construction and operation, they should have every interest in getting at least a little bit of trickle-down service benefits in return. Otherwise, they may become the rail equivalent of fly-over country.

(thanks to CARRD for obtaining the O&M peer review document)

01 November 2010

News Roundup, World Series Edition

Supplemental AA Supplement: The CHSRA posts the latest round of tweaks to the peninsula alternatives analysis. The updated report is due in November. (Note: this briefing was abridged by the CHSRA, shortly after being posted. The link is to the original slides that were removed from the CHSRA website.)

The Money Goes Poof: since the Feds have specifically ear-marked $715 million in HSIPR funding for the Central Valley, the winner-take-all, four-way horse race between Merced - Fresno, Fresno - Bakersfield, Los Angeles - Anaheim, and San Francisco - San Jose is for all intents and purposes decided before the CHSRA board even gets to vote. Bottom line: SF - SJ is out of the running and will not receive any of the $2.25 billion in ARRA stimulus funds. That has huge implications on process: the rush to beat a 2012 shovels-in-the-dirt deadline is gone.

Ray Writes Anna: the Secretary of Transportation writes a letter to assure Congresswoman Eshoo and concerned peninsula residents that "no final decision has been made regarding the design of this segment, and DOT must approve any final alternative in order for it to receive Federal funds. As long as this process is underway, we cannot prejudge the final outcome." In short, he claims there is adult supervision and the mad rush (now moot--see above) for early federal funding will not preempt due environmental process.

Anna Writes Ray: the Congresswoman
replies, profusely thanking the Feds for their oversight and the few crumbs thrown our way (a paltry $16 million, nominally ear-marked for re-arranging the platforms at San Francisco's 4th & King station) ...

... and asks for CBOSS Pork: Eshoo asks that the $16 million be re-allocated to the CBOSS project. She pointedly states "We can assure you that the PTC project is not a "throwaway" that would benefit only Caltrain and require replacement or costly upgrade when HSR is built."

If only that were true.

If only the secretary could hear from people who didn't drink the CBOSS Kool-Aid... for example, by reading Caltrain's own crystal-clear statements that the design of CBOSS will not take HSR into account. Or simply typing "CBOSS Caltrain" into Google. Recall that CBOSS is (a) an overlay system (that's what the 'O' stands for) that cannot function on its own as a stand-alone HSR-capable signaling system, (b) is designed primarily for freight trains, not HSR, and (c) is currently vaporware. For the $230 million they are trying to marshall for this science project (a massive sum with an elastic upper bound, to be exercised via contractual engineering change orders) they could simply install ERTMS, the emerging worldwide HSR standard, at very little cost or schedule risk.

Message to LaHood and Eshoo: now that wouldn't be a throwaway.