14 June 2015


Caltrain recently published their Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) Request for Proposals (RFP) in draft form, to obtain feedback from potential proposers prior to the formal issue of this document in August 2015.  Here are some initial impressions:

What's Pleasantly Surprising:
  • Level boarding is a serious consideration throughout the RFP.  Caltrain appears to recognize the importance of this issue: it's the Next Big Thing after electrification, and cannot wait until the next round of vehicle replacement in the 2050s.  The RFP shows that Caltrain is starting to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
  • Platform sharing and full blending with high-speed rail is firmly on the agenda with "Option B," a dual boarding height train that enables an eventual transition to level boarding at 48 - 51" height.  This solution has been described and advocated on this blog as the best one available given the constraints of the problem.  Most people who reject this solution ultimately take issue with one of the constraints, but once you accept these constraints, "Option B" starts to make more sense.  Proposers are asked in the draft RFP to further evaluate its feasibility and cost impact.
  • In section 3.3.3, future capability for level boarding is described as ADA-compliant with a 3-inch maximum horizontal gap and a 5/8-inch maximum height mismatch.  Section 4.2.3 specifies a pneumatic leveling suspension to meet the vertical tolerance. It looks like Caltrain  is going the extra inch after all, which is commendable.
  • The vehicle static envelope in Appendix C is a full 3.4 meters wide, enabling the use of extra-wide trains, wider than the conventional AAR plates.  While Caltrain doesn't seem keen on 3+2 seating (something about the "middle seat" situation), extra width that takes full advantage of the static envelope is good for all uses besides seating.  Let's hope the proposers aren't timid about this.
  • While it isn't immediately obvious from looking at the raw numbers, the run times required in section are fairly aggressive and will require some sporty power-to-weight ratios.  This high level of acceleration and braking performance is good for the blended system and will ensure that the most can be made of shared tracks.
  • In section, door controls are required to be installed in the driving cab, offering the possibility of consolidating and automating a task currently performed by conductors.
  • In section 14.4, an automatic station announcement system is specified to automate a task currently performed by conductors.  This isn't exactly surprising for a modern train, but Caltrain and its labor practices sometimes seem stuck back in the 20th century.
  • In section 14.9, the trains are required to be pre-wired (if not yet equipped) for passenger Wi-Fi.  For a rail system that serves Silicon Valley, that's overdue by easily a decade.
  • No trap doors!  That always seemed like a horrible way to achieve level boarding.
What's Disappointing:
  • The RFP is highly prescriptive.  The cost of preparing such a voluminous requirements specification, and then to formally verify such a large number of requirements, will easily run into the millions of dollars.  So much for off-the-shelf procurement.
  • In section 2, no allowance is made for articulated trains (e.g. Bombardier Omneo) or for trains with mixed bi-level and single level arrangements (e.g. Siemens Desiro HC).  The desired EMU is prescribed as a set of traditional bilevel cars each about 85 feet long.  A better approach would be to define a minimum passenger capacity per unit length, leaving more room for creative and unconventional interior layouts.
  • Still no detailed thought appears to have gone into how to transition to level boarding under "Option A".  The height of 24 or 25 inches is intended to match Caltrain's existing Bombardier bilevel cars, which is a bit mystifying since there is no feasible transition to level boarding using these cars.  Section 3.3.3 basically asks for proposers to figure it out for Caltrain: "Heights below 24 inches will be considered for future level boarding if the Contractor can demonstrate conclusively that the height is advantageous for JPB’s envisioned service and compatible during the transition to that envisioned service."
  • Section 12 requires all doors of the train to open at every stop, as they do today.  To reduce wear and tear on the door mechanisms, modern vehicles often come equipped with interior and exterior push buttons for passengers to initiate door opening.  Instead of opening the doors by default, the crew-operated door control station should de-inhibit the doors to be opened only as requested by passengers at each individual door.
  • Section 2 envisions that trains would be lengthened from 6 cars (~150 m) to 8 cars (~200 m) at some future date.  This is far too timid a capacity expansion.  A more flexible and future-proof approach would be to order more 150 m trains and double them up-- after the necessary platform extensions are constructed at stations with the highest ridership.
What's Weird:
  • Section 2 requires shorter 6-car trains to have their performance de-rated (by software) to the same performance as a longer 8-car train.
  • Section 23.2.2 requires the delivery of 200 (two hundred!) 1/50th scale models of each car type for "internal and external distribution"... That's some serious schwag!
What's Missing:
  • "Option B" with dual boarding levels requires level boarding at 48 to 51 inches ATOR but fails to describe the basic platform interface dimensions, including height above rail, offset from track center, and tolerances thereon.  Proposers are unlikely to be able to design against such a critical interface when it hasn't even been defined.  This data should be agreed upon with the California HSR Authority, after some technical decision making that may have to occur sooner than they would like.
  • In section 3.3.3, Caltrain requires that "the entire platform interface system must also be usable during the transition from the current platform height to the level boarding platform height," a stealth requirement that makes "Option A" trains at least as mechanically complex as the "Option B" trains, by requiring boarding capability at two different heights (8-inch legacy and 25 inches with ADA-compliant level boarding).  A requirement of such great importance and design impact ought to be made more explicit, saying what it actually means and using the word "shall".
  • The door control system (section 12) envisions 100% manual operation of the doors by train crews.  This may not properly address the challenge of operating during a platform height transition, when each individual platform may need to be raised in successive construction phases to avoid closing the station or doubling the construction footprint for temporary platforms.  With manual door operation, the risk of human error resulting in opening a door at the wrong platform height will likely be unacceptable, particularly to regulators such as the CPUC.  It may be warranted, at the cost of some additional complexity, to require a platform sensing system that automatically inhibits door opening when the incorrect height is sensed, preventing crew errors and potential passenger injury.
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