A Possible California HSR Platform Standard
Amtrak will procure high-speed trains that conform to its long-established platform interface standard for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), where the platform edges are located 48 inches above the top of the rail and offset laterally by 67 inches from the center line of the track. While this "high platform" standard dates to the 1930s, it happens to be approximately consistent with the floor heights of the majority of the latest products from big names in high-speed train manufacturing such as Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Siemens, etc. For all the mockery that a joint procurement with Amtrak has triggered, it turns out that Amtrak's NEC high-platform standard is, at least dimensionally speaking, quite reasonable for California's high-speed rail system.
If Amtrak and CHSRA do end up pursuing a common fleet procurement, then the California HSR platform standard will be 48 inches above the rail and 67 inches from the track center line. Even if not, the HSR platform standard is still likely to end up around 48 inches above the rail.
The Need For A Common Platform Standard
So far, Caltrain and CHSRA have demonstrated no sign of coordination--let alone any desire for it--around a common platform interface standard. All plans so far show stations that are 100% segregated with separate-but-equal tracks and platforms for Caltrain and HSR. This leads either to elephantine station designs or, when space is at a premium, to severe under-utilization of precious infrastructure and extreme engineering solutions. In all cases, taxpayers are fleeced and passengers are impeded.
On the other hand, the blended plan envisioned for the peninsula recognizes that shared infrastructure is a worthy goal, to minimize cost and impacts on communities, and to extract the maximum utility from a given investment in new infrastructure. Taxpayers are spared and passengers better served.
As has often been argued here, Caltrain and HSR should use the same platform interface standard to enable mixed operations even within stations, such as is routinely practiced in European high-speed rail systems. This would further cut costs and community impacts, increase infrastructure utilization, and maximize operational flexibility--the resilience of the system to disturbances caused by the inevitable failures that happen now and then. If such an operating concept had a slogan, it would be "any train, any track, any platform".
A Clear and Present Opportunity
Caltrain has an immediate and pressing need to replace its aging fleet, as part of the electrification project. The majority of the existing fleet dates from 1985 and is nearing the end of its useful life, with breakdowns causing increasingly frequent service disruptions at a time of record demand. This will only get worse, and Caltrain will have to define a specification for the new trains, including platform interface dimensions, within the next year or two. While the electrification project will be completed a decade or more before HSR arrives on the peninsula, the new electric trains will be good for at least three decades of service, to about the year 2050. There is a small window of opportunity to make smart decisions about Caltrain's platform interface in the next year or two that will have far reaching consequences for several decades into the future. It all comes down to this:
Caltrain should begin a system-wide conversion to high-platform level boarding, starting now.
Converting to high platforms is a major change. All major changes bring about the fear of change itself, and unlock myriad reasons why something can't or shouldn't be done. To play devil's advocate, such objections might include the following:
- The high-platform standard is wrong for Caltrain; instead, HSR should use low platforms shared with Caltrain. While this argument has technical merit, it is highly unlikely that a small agency like Caltrain would be able to sway a larger agency like the CHSRA away from the high-floor train architecture that is prevalent in worldwide HSR systems and already built into numerous ADA and FRA regulations and CHSRA documents. Politics trumps engineering on this one, and it's better for Caltrain to follow HSR to a high-platform standard than to pursue a more technically pure approach (low-platform bi-level EMUs) at the cost of platform incompatibility.
- Bi-level EMUs are hard to design for high platforms. This also has technical merit, in that few commuter rail examples exist other than in Sydney and Paris. None of the common European-style bi-level commuter EMU products on offer from Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, or Stadler (and often seen in Caltrain electrification brochures) are compatible with high platforms. A high-platform, bi-level, ADA-accessible EMU could be a challenge to engineer and would break from an "off-the-shelf" procurement philosophy--although some innovative solutions do exist that could meet this constraint. In the end, if Caltrain asked for a solution, rail vehicle vendors would probably offer it.
- Caltrain's Bombardier diesel bullet fleet is young, should be kept around, and can't work with high platforms.
By the time the new EMUs arrive, nine locomotives and 25 Baby Bullet
train cars will have reached only about half of their useful life, still
quite young in railroad terms. Caltrain has plans to retain these
diesel sets for express service, to reduce the required
quantity and cost of the initial EMU fleet procurement. While this sort
of thrift can be expected from an agency that is continually starved of funds, the old trains have an entry floor height of 25 inches
and cannot use platforms higher than that. However, because these
trains are of a standard design, they can fetch excellent prices on the
second-hand market. Sell them!
- A transition to high platforms is nearly impossible to pull off without interrupting service. This objection assumes not only that the old fleet would be incompatible with the new platforms, but also that the new EMU fleet would be incompatible with the old platforms. If that were the case, an extended service shutdown could be required to rebuild all the existing platforms to the new standard. It doesn't need to go this way: the new EMU rolling stock can enable the transition, by providing both high and low doors during the transition period. After all the platforms are converted, the low doors would be removed and replaced with seating. Again, if Caltrain asked for a solution, rail vehicle vendors would probably offer it.
- It is much more difficult to implement level boarding at 48 inches than at 24 inches. Level boarding is not something that Caltrain can avoid forever. The operational advantages (brief and predictable station dwell times, not to mention better accessibility for all) are just too great to ignore in a blended scenario. Inescapably, every last Caltrain platform will have to be rebuilt--including dozens of new platforms built just 8 inches above the rail in recent years. Regardless of the final platform interface selection, level boarding is going to be a big construction project; whether the platform height is raised by 16 inches or by 40 inches is going to be a rounding error in the final construction budget.
- Level boarding is a huge change, on the same order as electrification; let's only do one big thing at a time. No debate there: level boarding is a big investment. At $5 million per platform and about 70 platforms, the tab comes easily to a third of a billion dollars. That's not an easy sum to scrape together; however, procuring EMU trains that can serve both high and low platforms during a multi-year transition period could spread or delay this cost. In the medium to long term, level boarding is not optional. The cost effectiveness (in minutes of travel time saved per dollar invested) is at least on a par with electrification, and the performance improvement is necessary for blending seamlessly with HSR.
- Even if Caltrain converts to high platforms, HSR will be kept on separate platforms for security reasons, so why even bother with all this compatible platform trouble? While all station facilities in the California HSR system are being planned with airport-like security, adopting a common platform standard at least allows a rational discussion of platform sharing as practiced in Europe. The terror fears are real, but entirely misplaced. The worldwide history of train terror has demonstrated two basic facts: trains are not as vulnerable as airplanes, and commuter trains are equally vulnerable as high-speed trains (Madrid 2004). Security theater should not take priority over efficient operations.
- Caltrain must be compatible with freight, and freight trains can't go past high platforms. This can be immediately dismissed as an ignorant, California-centric argument. Leaving aside for the moment the many good reasons for banishing freight trains from the peninsula rail corridor, the only obstacle to high platforms--and level boarding of any sort regardless of platform height--is regulatory, not technical. On the East Coast, freight trains can and do operate on tracks with platforms 48 inches high and 67 inches from the track center line; here is proof on YouTube.
What Caltrain Should Do Now
- Make it policy to include blended station platforms as part of the blended system
- Establish an agreement with CHSRA on a common platform interface specification
- Ask EMU vendors to propose technical solutions for high-platform EMUs and solving the platform transition issue. This can be in the form of a request for information (RFI), before the electrification EIR or any procurement activity is underway.
- Stop clinging so desperately to a remnant fleet of diesels after electrification is built. Saving a few tens of millions of dollars up front is not worth the resulting decades of operational inefficiency.