08 April 2015

Find Out Your Pole Placement

Plan showing where electrification poles
will be placed in the vicinity of the
historic El Palo Alto redwood
(see RFP Volume 3 page 1193)
Caltrain has spent over $15 million on its electrification project so far, primarily for environmental clearance and preparations for procurement.  In late February, we found out where a lot of this money went: the Request For Proposals (RFP) for the electrification project was released.

This RFP is an incredibly prescriptive document that tells prospective bidders precisely what the project should look like, down to the last bolt.  Volume 3 of the RFP (download the 2840 page, 214 MB PDF file) includes layout plans of the overhead electrification system that dictate the exact placement of every single pole foundation.  The prospective contractor is admonished that pole locations cannot be changed without first submitting a formal design variance request to Caltrain.

This procurement is being carried out as a "Design-Build" where the winning bidder will be tasked with "designing" the project, which in this case will amount to a connect-the-dots exercise to duplicate Caltrain's highly prescriptive preliminary engineering drawings into final construction-ready drawings.  What little room is left for creativity and efficiency is stifled by an onerous variance process that requires the "designer" to submit extensive paperwork to Caltrain for approval of the slightest change to the design prescribed in the contract.  One can easily imagine how the goal of Design-Build contracting, namely to reduce risk and cost by consolidating decision-making under a single entity, would be lost under the hyper-prescriptive approach that Caltrain has chosen.

The thousands of pages of the RFP highlight the cozy symbiotic relationship that exists between government agencies, their in-house consultants, and private contractors.  Without an ounce of nefarious intent on the part of any of its participants, this self-reinforcing triangle, hardly unique to Caltrain, brings together hollowed-out government agencies with rubber-stamp boards run by politicians, permanent in-house consultants whose primary motivation is to justify their existence through highly prescriptive decisions that increase scope at their whim, a profit-hungry coterie of construction companies ticking all the boxes for shareholders and labor interests, and a byzantine system of contracting regulations and reporting requirements, quite ironically intended to prevent taxpayers from being defrauded.  The results of this firmly-entrenched Transportation Industrial Complex are projects that deliver less and cost more, typically three times the going rate in other first-world countries where government agencies are centralized, smart, and employ an experienced staff of technocrats whose first interest lies in serving the public with better transit at lower cost.  What can be done about this system?  Not a whole lot.  It is the logical byproduct of our decentralized system of government and of our free markets, pursuing their respective enlightened self-interests.  These self-interests include neither low cost to the taxpayer nor excellent transit service to the user.

The recently-completed modernization of Auckland, New Zealand's commuter rail network, of quite similar technical scope, is an instructive benchmark against which to evaluate Caltrain's modernization efforts.


  1. Oh my.

    It truly is worse than anybody might have imagined.

    There's no way to fix anything, ever, is there?

  2. I suspect some of it might also have to do with the fact that each pole location was carefully environmentally reviewed for impact to Palo Alto's precious trees and any change therefore risks angry lawsuits from Palo Alto NIMBYs. Or something.

    1. Evidently not! There did not need to be two double-track cantilever poles right next to the tree on the same side of the tracks as the tree; this would be the configuration you would choose for maximal impact to the tree. This is just one example of the half-baked configuration of poles in Caltrain's plans. I guarantee this one will require one of those variance reque$t$. And I only picked a random example, there are dozen$ (hundred$?) of other$.

  3. At least they're not planning on using headspans!

  4. In the Electrification RFP, I see Caltrain specifies many things this blog wants, such as train clearance that meets CHSRA specification thus enabling Caltrain to buy Shinkansen-width trains should it chooses to. Also, Caltrain specifies conductor rails inside SF tunnels, another thing this blog wants.

    @Clem, if the entire Caltrain line is elevated and OCS poles can only places in specific places, I doubt you'll say Caltrain is over-specifying. Perhaps a Design-Build-Maintain contract would more suit to your taste?

  5. Einstein ruminating on relativity:
    "If time travelling near the speed of light is slower,
    faster is therefore slower, and slower is faster.
    If we want to go faster, we must go slower.
    And if we do NOT want to go slower, we must NOT go faster.
    I need another beer."

  6. [[ apologies for the late posting. I've typed at least 3 versions of this into a Web-browser; each one got lost, due to having to "log in", and the blog-software lost the submitted text. ]]

    Clem, what happened? Did DGSE intercept your copy of the memo saying you're *not supposed* to mention Auckland electrification/ The anti-Anglophone bigots get really fractions, when you puncture their echo-chamber with actual facts.

    That said: I'm dying, or rather too trepidatious, to actually look at the mast-placement diagrams.
    But inquiring minds want to know: just how many of the "bad" curves on the Peninsula right-of-way, are now entombed in even-stronger-than-concrete, EIR-approved, "concrete"?

    We know the liberal-arts-gratduate Caltrain staffers have already poured the San Bruno curve in concrete.
    But what about the gratuitious S-bend between Belmont and San Carlos?
    What about the curves, between Palo Alto and Mountain View, that P-B's simulations of HSR runtime, assumed were straightened out -- or that magic pixie-dust removed the speed restrictions due to the aforesaid curves
    What about the rest of your "Top Ten" curve list?

    We all know prior CalTrain staffer performance, and the outcomes which can be extrapolated.. I'm hoping against hope that the RFP is better than that. Is looking likely to be deleterious to my blood-pressure? In all honesty, I'm genuinely surprised you haven't already made a post about such issues. Do you (entirely reasonably) expect us to see the raw RFP, and weep?