30 October 2011

Blended Like Oil and Water

The Caltrain-HSR blended proposal, initiated by State Senator Simitian, Congresswoman Eshoo and Assemblymember Gordon to break an impending political impasse on the peninsula rail corridor, has now been evaluated by the HSR Authority's consultants.

Their version of it, submitted in a recent report to the legislature, would cost an astonishing $5.3 billion, even more than the $4.2 billion that the entire peninsula section was estimated to cost back in 2008.  This stunning price tag could have several possible explanations:
  1. a repudiation of the blended approach, accomplished by deliberately inflating the budget.
  2. an effort to pour the largest possible amount of concrete, regardless of actual operational benefit.
  3. sheer engineering incompetence and complete disregard for the new fiscal reality.
A Closer Look At Costs

While the detailed breakdown of that project budget is not provided, it's not too hard to back it out based on what is described.  Here's how it might approximately add up, including project management and contingency costs:
  • $0.3 billion to build grade separations at 25th, 28th and 31st Avenues in San Mateo, and to expand the corridor to four tracks from the southern border of San Mateo up to the vicinity of 9th Ave (milepost 18.3), with new four-track stations built at Hillsdale and Hayward Park
  • $0.3 billion to expand the existing grade separations in Belmont and San Carlos to four tracks.  This would include new stations built at San Carlos (south of the current location) and Belmont.
  • $1.0 billion to fully grade-separate the rail corridor through Redwood City, with expansion to four tracks and an elevated station.  New grade separations would be created at six locations: Whipple, Brewster, Broadway, Maple, Main, and Chestnut.  The new four-track section would tie in to the existing four-track section at Redwood Junction.  Should the Redwood City grade separations be built below grade, costs would be even higher.
  • $0.5 billion to burrow a single-track tunnel under the Millbrae station to "save" the existing Caltrain / BART station from complete demolition.  As described in the Alternatives Analysis, the station itself would be re-arranged to accommodate a segregated HSR platform at grade and the southbound Caltrain platform underground.  The tunnel approach would require two new grade separations at Center St. and Santa Paula.
  • $1.0 billion to build a six-mile (yes, six miles!) 60-foot tall elevated viaduct from Lawrence Expressway (milepost 40.9) all the way into the upper level of a massive new elevated HSR station complex in San Jose.
  • $0.2 billion to demolish existing overpass grade separations at De La Cruz (Santa Clara) and Hedding (San Jose), to be replaced with underpasses to make way for the six-mile viaduct.
  • $1.5 billion to electrify the entire corridor, an estimate based on Caltrain's latest electrification budget but discounting the cost of Caltrain's new electric train fleet.
  • $0.3 billion for positive train control and technical integration with the HSR system's train control system, which will differ from the PTC solution adopted by Caltrain.
  • $0.2 billion for reconfigured station facilities at San Francisco and San Jose.
TOTAL:  $5.3 billion

All of these individual investments must be examined in the context of their operational utility, i.e. the value they add to creating a blended Caltrain / HSR rail corridor that is as flexible and efficient as possible and best meets the service expectation of rail passengers.  And on that basis, most of the above list falls woefully short.

Let's Do Some Value Engineering
  • The six-mile (yes, six miles!) 60-foot tall viaduct to approach San Jose adds little operational value compared to cheaper alternatives such as laying additional track at grade from CP Coast (milepost 44.6) into San Jose.  The corridor is mostly 100 feet wide in this area, so the need for a viaduct--let alone a six-mile long viaduct that requires demolishing some perfectly fine grade separations that already exist--is highly questionable.  It is almost an insult to Simitian et al., who specifically requested that aerial structures be minimized.  This viaduct is the outcome of lazy engineering, the sort that avoids inter-agency coordination issues by using megatons of concrete to build over Caltrain, ACE, Amtrak, VTA, BART, UPRR, Caltrans, and everybody else.  Bottom line: with some hard negotiations and minimal takes of a few slivers of industrial property, four tracks can be built at grade all the way into Diridon Station.  Savings: - $1.1 billion
  • A four-track mid-peninsula overtake facility is the key enabler of a blended solution. However, the bulk of the cost of this mid-line overtake is a massive Redwood City grade separation project that would eliminate one of the clusters of grade crossings on the peninsula rail corridor.  Is it truly necessary to do so right away in the first phase of the blended project?  Consider these two options:
    1. The CHSRA's proposed overtake facility: 9 miles long with 5 stations (potentially including the HSR stop at Redwood City, which does not help with overtaking)
    2. A somewhat shorter overtake facility: 6.5 miles long ending at Whipple Ave (milepost 24.8) with 4 stations.
    Option 2, while only 3/4 as long, entirely avoids the need to grade-separate an expanded four-track corridor clear through downtown Redwood City.  It also delays a fight against the city's inevitable demands to burrow the rail corridor inside an astronomically expensive tunnel.  The shorter overtake might make operations slightly less flexible and robust, but at the very worst, every Caltrain could be held or slowed for just two minutes to make up for that.  Bottom line: with minor timetable adjustments, the lion's share of the cost of the mid-line overtake can be avoided.  Savings: - $1.0 billion
  • The half-billion tunnel in Millbrae is the wrong answer to the question of how to fit four Caltrain / HSR tracks through this station.  The entire Millbrae complex, including 3000-car parking garage, cost about $100 million in today's dollars.  Portions of it can be torn down and reconfigured with four tracks at grade for far less than that sum.  Bottom line: whatever the engineering constraints, you simply don't build a $500 million tunnel to "save" a $100 million station--at worst, you tear it down and start over.  Savings: - $0.4 billion
  • The need to integrate Caltrain's CBOSS train control system with the HSR train control system will drive unnecessary costs, most likely resulting in what is known as "dual fitment" of train-borne signaling equipment.  Each high-speed train, California-wide, would need to be fitted with CBOSS hardware and software, with the appropriate interfaces to allow a seamless change-over when entering or leaving exclusive HSR tracks.  This is not a trivial expense, since safety-critical signaling computers approach the cost of aircraft avionics.  Bottom line: deploy ERTMS, not CBOSS.  Savings: - $0.2 billion
TOTAL SAVINGS: $2.7 billion

The very bottom line is this: we can get 95% of the bang for 50% of the buck.  Somebody needs to inject a little bit of sanity into the planning process if a blended solution is ever going to be feasible, if for no other reason that in these times, affordability determines feasibility.  That's why the CHSRA's proposal for the blended system is a disgrace, larded as it is with operationally dubious viaducts, tunnels, bridges and underpasses; in short, a project dreamed up by civil engineers writing their own checks.

09 October 2011

Meanwhile, in Rio...

It finally happened.

Last Thursday, Caltrain's board authorized the award of the first phase of a $138,135,673 contract to Parsons Transportation Group to design, procure and install the Caltrain-specified CBOSS train control system (see staff presentation).  This Parsons contract forms the lion's share of a total project budget variously reported as $231 million to $251 million, or a whopping $5 million per route-mile.  According to a project schedule, the final acceptance of the system is planned for February of 2016 (52 months from now), but that assumed contract award at the May board meeting (5 months ago).

Viewed in the framework of the U.S. transportation industrial complex, where public agencies such as Caltrain transfer huge sums of taxpayer dollars to large private corporations that thrive on custom-engineering, re-engineering and over-engineering everything, this contract is business as usual, and Caltrain will probably end up, years late and millions over budget, with a partially functional PTC system.  That sets the stage for more years and millions spent to make it work with high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, in Rio...

Meet SuperVia, a commuter rail operator in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  SuperVia is one busy system, even busier than BART.  Here's a quick comparison between Caltrain and SuperVia:

Caltrain SuperVia
Route Miles

Routes 15
Trains about 25 about 160
Stations31 89

Weekday Ridership ~45,000 ~540,000

Like Caltrain, SuperVia is modernizing.  Among other improvements, SuperVia is installing a sophisticated positive train control system to enforce speed limits, prevent collisions, and reduce the headways between trains.  Unlike Caltrain, SuperVia chose to adapt their requirements to what suppliers already had on the shelf, and is procuring an ERTMS Level 1 overlay system from Bombardier Transportation through a contract worth 125 million Real, or about US $70 million.  (Note that the unknown scope of this contract makes it difficult to compare directly to CBOSS; for example, Bombardier's contract is unlikely to include the train-borne components.)  ERTMS, to remind everyone, is a train control standard that is quickly catching on worldwide, except here in the protected U.S. signaling market.

ERTMS Level 1 is exactly the sort of standardized train control system that would be transparently compatible with high-speed rail, which will most likely operate on its own dedicated high-speed trackage using ERTMS Level 2, a much more sophisticated version of the standard that does away with wayside signals.

The kicker?  Bombardier promises to put this new overlay signaling system into service on SuperVia's various lines from November 2012 to July 2013.  Here's how that stacks up against Caltrain's CBOSS:

Caltrain CBOSS SuperVia ERTMS
Contract award

October 2011May 2011
Initial service entry October 2015November 2012
Final deliveryFebruary 2016July 2013
Time from award to initial service48 months18 months

Time from award to final delivery52 months26 months

It's too late now to do anything about CBOSS, but it sure will be interesting to see what PTG and Bombardier will deliver for each respective rail system.  Can PTG and Caltrain come up with an ersatz-ERTMS by 2015 for the promised sum?