24 February 2018

The End of CBOSS

The rosy view, from 2011
Caltrain's troubled positive train control solution, known as CBOSS, has now been completely abandoned, to be replaced by the de-facto standard freight PTC technology known as I-ETMS. That's mostly good news, since Caltrain will no longer be stranded with a globally unique PTC system. I-ETMS is being deployed by numerous other commuter rail operators in the U.S., allowing some economies of scale and standardization.

Notwithstanding, CBOSS easily rates as the most spectacular contract failure and biggest lawsuit in Caltrain's entire history, since the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board was formed in 1985.

Project expenditure history, by fiscal quarter. Fluctuations in
recent quarters are unexplained, presumably related
to termination of the Parsons contract in 2017 Q2.
Gap reflects two missing quarterly reports.
The sums expended are staggering, especially when considering that just 52 route-miles are to be fitted with PTC. To date, according to the latest quarterly capital projects report, Caltrain has expended $201 million out of $240 million budgeted for the project.

The March 2018 board packet includes a new item awarding a $49.5 million contract to Wabtec to deploy I-ETMS on the peninsula rail corridor, presumably re-using some of the hardware and communications infrastructure already installed under the CBOSS contract. The "owner's cost," borne by Caltrain to cover program management and testing, has averaged $1.2 million/month over the past five years, and should stretch well into 2019 until PTC is fully deployed and activated. (Note the December 2018 statutory deadline only requires a "revenue service demonstration" over a limited portion of the corridor). Caltrain staff estimates that owner's costs will grow the I-ETMS deployment to $59.5 million, pushing the PTC project total to at least $261 million. The board packet hints at additional future program costs, beyond the $59.5 million "switching cost" from CBOSS to I-ETMS.

How much money did Caltrain waste on CBOSS?

To estimate how much money Caltrain wasted on CBOSS, we can examine the PTC project finances of other commuter rail systems deploying I-ETMS, but without the wasteful detour into research and development of globally unique alternative solutions. These PTC-related expenses are variously reported to each operator's board of directors, in press releases, or to the FRA.

OperatorCityRoute Miles EquippedVehicles EquippedPTC Cost
MetrolinkLos Angeles249112$216M
CoasterSan Diego6017$87M
ACESan Jose06$10M

A linear regression analysis on three variables (cost per route mile, cost per vehicle, and a fixed cost allowance for control facilities) for these five commuter rail I-ETMS installations reveals that equipping one route mile of track costs on average $0.36M, equipping one locomotive or cab car costs $1.0M, and the fixed cost is $21M. These are simplistic approximations, but they do give a reasonable ballpark estimate for the underlying cost of a commuter rail I-ETMS deployment.

We then apply these estimated regression factors to Caltrain. With 52 route miles and 67 vehicles, the cost of I-ETMS deployment for Caltrain, had this solution been pursued from the beginning, would have been approximately 52 x 0.36 + 67 x 1 + 21 = $107M. This tells us two things.

First, we can infer from the $59.5M switching cost to I-ETMS that 107 - 60 = approximately $50M or just one quarter of the CBOSS sunk cost (including the fiber communications backbone and a subset of the control facilities and wayside/vehicle hardware) is salvageable for I-ETMS.

Second, since the total cost of Caltrain's PTC project is expected to reach at least $261M, we can infer that Caltrain wasted 261 - 107 = approximately $150 million on the egregious failure that was CBOSS.

$150 million flushed down the toilet. Heckuva job, Caltrain!