26 September 2020

Vote Yes on Measure RR

For all the criticism of Caltrain that you might have read on this blog over the last decade, you might think that my support for the upcoming Measure RR 1/8th cent sales tax measure in the three counties served by the peninsula rail corridor would be tepid at best, and that I’m no friend of Caltrain. True friends, however, aren’t measured by giving unconditional praise. True friends question things that are taken for granted and start conversations about uncomfortable subjects. I see enormous potential for the peninsula rail corridor, potential that can’t and won’t be realized without stable and predictable funding. That’s why I urge you to vote Yes on Measure RR.

The peninsula rail corridor is under-developed
If a ride on Caltrain takes you back to 1985, that's no coincidence. Most of the fleet is that old, well past its sell-by date. And yet, with antiquated equipment and obsolete labor practices, this diesel commuter railroad still manages to carry the equivalent of three freeway lanes, and does so while covering a greater share of its operating costs (chart credit: Juan Matute) than any other transit operator in California. This level of financial self-sufficiency is unheard of for any freeway, and yet billions are spent on the futile exercise of adding lanes to the Bay Area freeway network and enabling the rich to buy faster trips on express lanes at the expense of gridlock for everybody else. A dense corridor with large job centers distributed throughout is ideally suited for regional rail, and the latent capacity exists to grow Caltrain into the equivalent of more than an eight-lane freeway, except faster, quieter, less polluting, and conveniently serving city centers. This can't happen without more investment.

Electric regional rail is the right technology choice
Here in Silicon Valley, we hear constantly about the next big technology leap: driverless cars, autonomous electric pods, door-to-door on-demand service hailed by an app, tunneled hyperloops, and endless promises of a clean, efficient and convenient science fiction future of seamless mobility. In that environment, it sounds positively retrograde to support what futurists often deride as 19th century technology, the same steel wheel on steel rail that first turned on the corridor in 1863. That framing misses the point: what we have here isn't a technology problem; it's a geometry problem. It takes space to move people. Short of inventing teleportation, you can't solve a geometry problem with the latest Silicon Valley technology, and none of these newfangled ideas can scale to the raw transportation capacity of regional rail, especially on a linear corridor such as the peninsula. There is no technology on the horizon that can carry this many people, using this little space, this fast, using this little energy. Throughput capacity is measured in units of people per square meter per second per Joule, and none of the exciting new mobility tech can beat regional rail on this metric. Hyperloops and pod cars have laughable throughput, and a driverless electric car sitting in traffic or queuing for a tunnel is still just another car, consuming the same scarce resource of space. All this new mobility tech is best thought of as a capillary network that will connect to the aorta of the rail corridor, each one enhancing the other in unclogging the circulatory system of our peninsula.

Caltrain is heading in the right direction
This isn't the first time that Caltrain finds itself in financial distress, and the big picture remains the same as it was ten years ago. The difference now is that the agency is actively planning for a better future, with its methodical business planning efforts showing a clarity of thought and ambition that is rare for an American transit agency. A logical plan driven by quantitative metrics is exactly the framework needed to convey and to realize the potential of the peninsula rail corridor, with a 2040 growth scenario that gradually builds on the foundation of the electrification project. A sound business plan is the seed; stable and reliable funding is the water to make it grow.

Much more than just a Covid bail-out
The pandemic and the high fixed costs of operating a railroad are putting a huge financial squeeze on Caltrain right now, all the more punishing because Caltrain derives a greater share of its operating expenses from fare revenue than any other agency in California. There is little doubt that the first step if Measure RR passes will be to bond against future tax revenue to survive in the short term. But that's not the point; RR was in the works before this started, and will be needed after it ends. As the economy revitalizes and transportation demand returns, Caltrain will be packed to the rafters again. All this talk of continued work-from-home and depressed transportation demand is myopic, mistaking our current predicament for a future trend. The creativity and vitality of our region is based on co-location and face-to-face contact--if it weren't, Silicon Valley or San Francisco simply wouldn't exist. Stable funding for Caltrain will ensure that modernization and service expansion won't stall after electrification is completed, and that we won't get stuck with mediocre commuter rail, just now with pantographs on top.

The reasons above come in addition to the strong arguments in support from Seamless Bay Area, Friends of Caltrain, and Streetsblog SF.  Please vote Yes on Measure RR.

Now back to our regularly scheduled tough love.

08 September 2020

High-Speed Rail DEIR

The first thing to notice about the new high-speed rail San Francisco - San Jose Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) is that it sets up a straw-man alternative B, which is set to be dropped in favor of alternative A because it is less effective and more expensive. So we'll focus on the preferred alternative A, and ignore alternative B entirely.
Caltrain In The Hole
Caltrain's Moderate Growth Scenario, in direct
conflict with the HSR DEIR assumptions

The DEIR assumes, in direct contradiction with Caltrain's official board-adopted service vision with eight trains per peak hour per direction (tphpd), that Caltrain will only be able to operate an inadequate six tphpd during the morning and evening peaks. By sub-optimizing the Caltrain timetable to be sparse and irregular, the high-speed rail authority is able to cheap out on new infrastructure by building almost no new overtaking tracks for alternative A. Where HSR needs to overtake, Caltrain is switched into a station siding ("in the hole") to wait five minutes, at Bayshore or Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the dense, regular and fast timetable envisioned under Caltrain's service vision also requires no new passing tracks, except at a new and expanded Redwood City station. Only when HSR is added to the traffic mix does the need for numerous new passing tracks arise; every single Caltrain overtake will still take place at the Redwood City station and nowhere else.
The Caltrain timetable scores highlight the enormous service quality difference:
What scenario do we subscribe to? Do we allow HSR to displace and cripple Caltrain? Does the arrival of HSR force Caltrain to build new passing tracks to continue operating its own service efficiently? Who pays for that, and to whom does the benefit accrue? Whatever happens, it is clear that the operational plans advanced by Caltrain and HSR are in direct conflict, with each agency laying separate claim to the valuable latent capacity of the rail corridor. Whatever the DEIR might say, both operators won't fit without significant new passing track infrastructure.
Section 3.2 of the HSR DEIR incorrectly states that Impact TR#14 (Continuous Permanent Impacts on Passenger Rail Capacity) would be less than significant, with the following dubious arguments:
  • A regular interval schedule could be maintained (You call Appendix 2-C regular!?)
  • The project would not decrease the performance of passenger rail services (Wrong!)
  • Operation of the project would not conflict with adopted policies, plans or programs regarding public transit (Also wrong!)
  • Operation of the project would not decrease the performance of transit systems (On the contrary!)
The HSR DEIR does not adequately discuss the transportation impacts of permanently crippling future Caltrain service, and alternative A stands in direct conflict with Caltrain's officially adopted service vision. Appendix 2-J fails to address the policy consistency of the DEIR with Caltrain's business plan and service vision board resolution-- indeed it fails to even acknowledge the very existence of the Caltrain business plan, one of the most important policy documents relating to the peninsula rail corridor.

Section 3.11 examines numerous safety and security implications of the HSR project, but inexplicably fails to mention the safety issues of operating trains at 110 mph past platforms crowded with waiting passengers. Many Caltrain stations have narrow (15-foot wide) side platforms that are cluttered with obstacles such as shelters, wheelchair lifts, and mini-high platform blocks, leaving little clearance from the yellow safety stripe behind which passengers are expected to wait, 9 feet from the track center line. Existing conditions are already borderline unsafe, such as when a 79-mph express blasts by the packed northbound platform at Mountain View. Increasing train speeds to 110 mph will likely require the yellow safety stripe to move further than 9 feet from track center, potentially resulting in incompatible and unsafe station platform configurations. The DEIR should include mitigation measures to maintain an adequate level of safety for Caltrain passengers waiting on station platforms.
Curve Straightening
Remember the Top Ten Worst Curves post from a decade ago? The DEIR describes how many of them will be flattened to enable higher speeds. Here's how they fare, in order of impact to trip times:

 Rank Curve ID
Current Speed
 Future Speed
 #1     C123 San Bruno
 65 mph  (was 60)
 100 mph
 #2 C111 Bayshore 65 mph
 65 mph (unchanged)
 #3 C159 Palo Alto (SB)
 79 mph
 110 mph
 #4 C130 Millbrae 75 mph
 105 mph
 #5 C135 Hayward Park
 79 mph
 110 mph
 #6 C183 Lawrence 79 mph
 110 mph

The most expensive one to fix will be San Bruno, due to Caltrain's lazy and inexcusable lack of foresight when their new grade separation design baked in a 65 mph speed limit. San Bruno was the subject of much yammering on this blog, but is now cast in concrete that will have to be demolished at great additional taxpayer expense. In the DEIR, the rebuilt northbound platform is inexplicably shortened to an operationally inadequate length of 627 feet; this should be increased to a minimum of 750 feet per Caltrain standards. The wholesale reconstruction of the station probably also rates a discussion of impacts elsewhere than under curve straightening; as described it's sort of a stealth project.
The curves previously ranked #7 through #10 were already good for 110 mph, so they will not be modified. However, there are some other extraneous curves that were not in the Top Ten list that will result in speed restrictions lower than 110 mph. These are:

 Curve ID
 Location Current Speed
 Future Speed
 C117 Sierra Point
 79 mph
 85 mph
 C118-C121 South SF
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C127 Near SFO
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C132 N. San Mateo
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C133-C134 San Mateo
 79 mph
 79 mph
 C171 San Antonio
 79 mph
 90 mph

Curves C133/C134, at the north end of San Mateo station, are particularly odd and ill-placed.

Separate Platforms Forever
Sadly, the DEIR enshrines the plan for separate station platforms for Caltrain and HSR, with not the slightest attempt to make the two systems operationally compatible. Neither agency seems inclined to solve the thorny technical and regulatory problems: Caltrain has gone so far as to procure dual boarding height trains, but then shrank back from the plan after metal had been cut, abandoning in-vehicle lifts that would allow boarding and alighting at different platform heights. This is not an easy problem to solve, but it is well worth the effort to create the operational flexibility that is taken for granted in other busy rail corridors around the world.

Ultimately, the whole high-speed rail EIR process feels like theater: by the time the funding materializes to make it worth expanding the system to the peninsula rail corridor, the proposed project will have been overcome by events. The environment of the project is a moving target, and right out of the gate, the draft EIR is already oblivious to its changed context.

02 August 2020

PCEP: Farce Majeure

This post serves as a place to track monthly status updates of the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Program, peeling back the rosy pronouncements put forth by the managers of this deeply troubled project. Let's start off with our handy foundation & pole progress tracker, updated monthly

Monthly updates will be added here as they occur.
For a northbound cab view of the corridor construction as it stood on July 18th, 2020, see this video by YouTube user Flat Train.
Notes from the August 2020 PCEP progress report
Another month, another slip. Electrification substantial completion is delayed by a month to 3/26/22, for a nine-month slip over the last 18 months. That's just a milestone, and the tasks leading up to it are even more dramatically delayed, with Segment 2 OCS slipping by a whopping seven months! All the electrification tasks are now jammed up against the extremely compressed segment testing, itself slipping and pushing out integrating testing and pre-revenue service by a month. To prevent electrification from exploding onto the primary critical path, heroic schedulers have cut down phased revenue service by a month. The real story here is the secondary critical path, which runs through delayed signaling installation, testing and cut-over activities... and yet these bars are colored a soothing shade of green. Look for these to blow up very soon, with a 3-month slip having just occurred in Segment 4, the one furthest along.

Foundation production continues to flounder at 49 for the month versus 161 promised. The laughable end-of-year completion milestone has slipped by 3 months, allowing the absurdly high future production rates to drop to the merely never-achieved value of 168/month. Six foundations appear to have been "unbuilt" since last month, with completed totals dropping in Segment 2 Work Areas 4 and 5. This may be a bookkeeping error, so the graph shows 1940 completed versus 1934 in the report. Overall, foundation installation is still trending towards completion in late 2021.
Notes from the July 2020 PCEP progress report
This month, as expected, a mere 40 foundations were installed versus a promise of 186. The promised numbers keep going up to maintain the pretense of finishing before year's end, with 299 foundations/month promised in October and November, over seven times the actual July rate. Detailed accounting is slightly complicated by the fresh inclusion this month of 86 foundations previously constructed outside PCEP scope for the South San Francisco and Hillsdale projects. Since the report doesn't state when these were completed, we spread them out over Jan-Jun 2020. Extrapolating at the current 3-month trailing average production rate, foundations will be completed in November 2021, almost a year behind the advertised schedule. The long-promised acceleration of foundation production is not reflected in monthly actual totals for 2020, which casts doubt on whether such an acceleration will ever materialize.

Budget burn rates for the various contracts are also consistent with a one-year delay, and that is before any pandemic impacts. The dashboards show an overall deceleration of spending, with the past 3 month average burn rate trailing the past 12 month average. Burn rate would now have to double to finish on time, which is plain to see just won't happen.

In the Appendix C schedule, there is a 7-month slip for traction power in Segment 1, and smaller slips in all the other segments. These slips remove all the slack that remained before electrification becomes the critical path. It's now a horse race (or snail race?) between Stadler and BBII.

Expect your first EMU ride in mid-2023.

Notes from the June 2020 PCEP progress report

The pandemic and the words "force majeure" are starting to make a more prominent appearance in the report, providing useful cover for Balfour Beatty's woeful schedule performance. A pandemic-related day-for-day slip at Stadler continues to provide cover, under the theory that the schedule critical path still runs through EMU production-- a condition that remains true on paper only because the secondary critical path has been slashed to the bone by unreasonably compressing key testing and integration tasks at the very end of the program.

The dashboards in section 2.1 don't lie: to finish on time, Balfour would have to triple their burn rate from $5.7 million/month to $17.2 million/month. Overall, project spending is about $700 million behind plan, indicative of severe schedule under-performance. At current burn rates, PCEP will finish no earlier than mid-2023, close to a year behind the dates currently being promised.

Foundation production for June was promised 71 / actual 105, a rare over-performance. Now do July, when an unprecedented 186 foundations were promised. As of this report, the foundations are 56% installed, and poles are 44% installed.

As of this writing in August, 2020, none of the quarterly FTA PMOC oversight reports for 2020 have been posted by Caltrain. These usually provide an unsparing look at the internal challenges of the program, but with election season approaching there is surely a rising incentive to keep them out of the public eye.

Notes from the May 2020 PCEP progress report

Foundation production, despite the insistent promises of past months, has crashed back to the dismal level of 44/month. Undeterred, project managers project ever higher and unachievable future rates (nearly 300 foundations are planned for November) in order to finish within the current calendar year.

For the EMUs, a new change order was approved to defer the installation of interior wheelchair lifts, the final nail in the coffin of the high/low boarding solution. Platform interface-wise, the EMUs will now be configured exactly the same way as the existing Bombardier cars. While recent photos from Salt Lake City show the upper doors installed, these will soon be removed and replaced by plug panels.

In a bit of good news, the regulatory compliance documentation for EMU crashworthiness has been approved by FRA, which is no small feat. One hopes sufficient spares of fiberglass front cladding have been ordered to withstand the usual grade crossing carnage.

The pandemic has delayed testing of the first trainset in Salt Lake City, such that its trip to Pueblo, Colorado for dynamic testing is delayed to November and slipping day for day.

The milestone schedule has slipped again, with electrification substantial completion delayed to 2/26/2022, a slip of 8 months since late 2018. Revenue service has slipped 2.5 months to late July 2022, all but eliminating the margin against FTA's deadline of August 2022. The pandemic will surely be invoked to delay the deadline.

Stadler is still claimed to be on the critical path, now with a convenient day-for-day pandemic slip that provides a welcome fig leaf to the Balfour Beatty electrification work.

The Appendix C schedule finally shows signal construction work. Notably, this work has pushed out the testing of segments 1, 2 and 3 by up to 8 months, with compressed testing tasks taking place at the end of 2021. The testing of the entire electrification system has been compressed from ~6 months to less than 3 months. Pre-revenue testing has been further curtailed to six weeks. There is no discussion or justification of this extremely sporty schedule compression, other than it maintains the illusion that the critical path runs through Stadler.

In the risk list, three new risks have appeared to justify what is surely the consequence of Buy America procurement for the EMUs: quality issues, failed factory tests, and poor integration and control of new U.S. suppliers. These seem to be clear and present issues, rather than risks.

Notes from the April 2020 PCEP progress report

Foundation installation recovered a bit, and an explicit (if likely unachievable) plan was published for how many foundations would have to be completed in each of the remaining months of 2020 in order to finish within the year.

Shipping the first train to Colorado (for high-speed testing) continues to be delayed. This is an important "schedule hold point" where contingency budgets are re-evaluated, and we are now 14 months into a 19-month gap that has opened in the sequence of schedule hold points.

Speaking of contingency, $32 million of it was used this month alone, of which $25 million was shoveled over to PG&E for interconnection work. Why was the contingency budget not replenished by the amount not paid to the party formerly on the hook to perform the work?

New risks: #321 if PG&E makes trouble about the single-phase loading of their substations, then the system cannot be energized. #322 if substations aren't completed on time to get powered up, then testing will be delayed. And then the kicker: #323 "FRA concerns require redesign".... don't leave us hanging, be specific!

Finally, it's the beginning of June and none of the FTA PMOC reports for 2020 have yet showed up. Who is slow-walking these important oversight documents, the FTA or Caltrain?

Notes from the March 2020 PCEP progress report

Foundation installation continues to fall hopelessly behind. The average total for the entire first quarter of 2020 was eight foundations per month (that's right, you can count them on two hands!) and if that rate is sustained, all foundations should be complete by the year 2036. Of course, the report promises a significant acceleration, but the stated goal of completing another 1544 foundations within nine months to support the end-of-year foundation completion milestone has gone from ridiculous to downright laughable. The board and public should be insulted by such a dishonest status report, insisting that everything is on schedule. It's okay to be late, but it's not okay to be so nakedly dishonest about it.

Notes from the February 2020 PCEP progress report

1) Foundation production for February is again ZERO, despite repeated affirmations throughout the report that there is a schedule to finish everything by the end of this year. The required average production rate to reach this goal is 157/month (excluding foundations that are part of SSF and 25th Ave projects); this is higher than the all-time record of 151 set in November 2019. The likelihood of missing the end-of-year target is darn near one hundred percent.

2) The Appendix C schedule shows continuing month-for-month slips in the OCS and traction power tasks, with the selective exception of the segment 1 OCS task-- which if delayed would push the BBII work onto the critical path of the project. To avoid this, the task duration was shortened, using a well-known scheduling trick.

3) delivery of trainsets 2 and 3 is delayed nine months and six months, respectively. That sure is a long time to retrofit flip-up seats. Is there something else we aren't being told?

Notes from the January 2020 PCEP progress report

1) foundation production is at ZERO for the month, with the rate required to complete by the end of the year having increased from 131/month to 143/month. The stated reason for zero foundations is because the contractor "did not have the rebar cages", of which enormous stacks can plainly be observed rusting away at Burlingame, Redwood Junction, and possibly other locations. Something big has come up and Caltrain isn't being transparent about it.

2) Schedule milestones are said not to have budged, despite the latest FTA PMOC report (December 2019) stating that the contractor's schedule shows a substantial completion date of January 2024. That's right, twenty-twenty-FOUR.

3) The flip-up seats that will be added to the bike cars are the subject of a change order that costs $1.96 million, to buy 4 flip-up seats x 2 bike cars x 19 trainsets = $12,900 per flip-up seat. No word on what material these are made of, but solid gold is not out of the question.

4) The signal modifications and grade crossing Constant Warning Time tasks that underlie the contractor's major schedule slips still do not appear on Caltrain's tracking schedule. It's harder to track the progress of a task when it isn't even on your schedule.

5) The appendix C schedule shows a wave breaking in EMU deliveries, with early deliveries delayed by ~3 months and later-produced trainsets being delivered before the earlier-produced trainsets. Must be those flip up seats and door plug retrofits.

Notes from the December 2019 PCEP progress report

1) foundation production has faltered again. The goal posts stayed put this month, but the production rate required to complete by the end of this year has increased from 124/month to 131/month. This month: just 44.

2) appendix C schedule shows a large slip in SCADA (six months!) leaving just 1 month of slack before pre-revenue testing begins. This is shaping up to be yet another secondary critical path. Meanwhile, the completion of traction power construction in segments 1, 2 and 3 is in a month-for-month slip even after the large schedule slips recorded in last month's update. The tsunami buildup continues.

On the good news front: production photos posted on calmod.com appear to show that the door to the EMU cab compartment will have a railfan window affording a view into the cab and out the front of the train. Train nerds rejoice!

Notes from the November 2019 PCEP progress report

1) foundation production has accelerated to a record monthly total of 151, but the goalpost for target monthly average has moved again from 8/31/2020 out to 12/31/2020 (four months). For the old target of 8/31/2020, the required monthly productivity would have been 179 foundations/month. With the newly relaxed milestone it is 124 foundations/month.

2) Appendix C schedule continues to show "tsunami buildup" where a wave of delayed tasks compresses against an artificially held RSD milestone. Most notably, electrification system testing (schedule line 41) has compressed from 222 days to 183 days (18% shorter) and phased revenue service (schedule line 83) has compressed from 90 days to 69 days (23% shorter).

3) The date when you will be able to board an EMU as a passenger for the first time (i.e. the beginning of phased revenue service) has slipped by a month to February 1st, 2022.

4) While the critical path is still stated to go through vehicle manufacturing, ten EMUs will have been delivered by the start of phased revenue service. Is ten enough to begin phased revenue service? If so, EMU manufacturing isn't your critical path.

As observed with last month's notes, Caltrain is making increasingly desperate schedule modifications to maintain the appearance that electrification is not on the primary critical path. With reality biting, it is doubtful they will be able to keep this up for more than a couple of months longer. Expect fireworks by March or April 2020 board meeting.

Speaking of fireworks, Happy New Year 2020 to transit nerds everywhere!

Notes from the October 2019 PCEP progress report

1) Figure 2-5 (foundation production) shows a monthly target for the production rate required to meet the schedule. This monthly target has been stuck at 174 since they started publishing this metric, which is an error in whatever spreadsheet they are using to make this chart. The correctly calculated numbers for the last 5 months (foundations-to-go divided by months left) are: 174, 178, 191, 198, 221. In this latest report they moved the goalpost from 6/30/2020 to 8/31/2020, which bought them an extra two months but used up the schedule slack. By that metric, we're back to 1766 to go divided by 10 months = 177. Hopefully this error will be corrected in future reports.

2) The contractor has never reached 177 foundations/month. To date the record is November 2019, reportedly at 151. (Interestingly, even this record would further bump up the rate to complete from 177 to 179.) This figure of 179 would have to be sustained without interruption until completion. Given that on average, the more difficult foundations (where conflicts are found with existing utilities such as Caltrain's very own PTC fiber optic cables) are being delayed and left to be addressed later than the low hanging fruit, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain rate 179.

3) In the Appendix C schedule, OCS completion has just slipped by one month for three out of the four segments. OCS completion in segment 1 (San Francisco) is now on a secondary critical path, followed immediately by segment testing and system testing. The only reason this didn't become the primary critical path this month is that they compressed system testing by one month, holding the end of system testing at 12/31/21. Compression of testing periods is a red flag.

4) In the Appendix C schedule, the logic is constructed such that it is necessary to have 14 EMUs on hand by the end of "phased revenue testing" which means service is operated with a mix of diesels and EMUs. This is what makes the critical path go through EMU production. In reality, what is most important is the *beginning* of phased revenue testing, which is when you will be able to board an EMU for the first time. Right now this milestone is at 1/3/2022 and has zero slack (i.e. it is on the critical path).

5) The latest PMOC report (September 2019) reveals that the contractor's working schedule (so far rejected by Caltrain for various reasons) predicts substantial completion of electrification on 7/4/2022, six months later than carried in the Appendix C schedule or 12/31/2021.

I expect Caltrain to make increasingly desperate modifications to the program schedule, including further compression of the system test period, to maintain for as long as possible the appearance that electrification is not on the primary critical path. Let's see how long they can obfuscate before finally fessing up.

25 May 2020

The Unbearable Cost of Conductors

[Programming note: while the current pandemic may appear to make the discussion below irrelevant, consider that by 1920, there were few memories of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Jammed peninsula commutes will be back sooner than you think!]

Caltrain in 1980: crew included
engineer, fireman, brakeman
and conductor.
The way it was

Back in 1980, Caltrain's predecessor, the Southern Pacific Railroad Commuter System, operated 46 trains per weekday on the peninsula rail corridor. The SP used a minimum crew of four people: an engineer, a fireman, a conductor, and a brakeman, assigned to all trains with 3 or more cars. A second conductor was added for 4-5 car trains, and a second brakeman for 6-7 car trains. A seven-person crew was used for 8-car trains, then the longest operated by SP: engineer, fireman, two brakemen, and three conductors. Not surprisingly, labor made up more than 60% of the cost of operating the peninsula commute.
In the years since 1980, technology advanced and union agreements evolved. The previously unthinkable notion that firemen and brakemen would no longer needed to safely operate trains came to pass, and is accepted in today's agreements with unions.
The way it is
In 2020, the minimum crew for 2-6 car trains consists of one engineer, one conductor, and one assistant conductor. For 7-8 car trains (not currently operated, but contemplated for the near term) an additional assistant conductor is required under the current union agreement, increasing crew size to four. Today, conductors operate doors to ensure safe boarding and alighting, assist passengers with reduced mobility, acknowledge restrictive signal indications, announce stops, ensure all equipment is in good working order, patrol the train to ensure orderly passenger conduct, regulate bicycle boarding, and perform proof-of-payment fare enforcement.
Modern trains reduce crew workload
The state-of-the-art trains that will enter service in 2023, if everything goes well, will reduce crew workload. Stops will be announced automatically by a computer. Restrictive signal aspects will no longer require acknowledgement, with Positive Train Control computers constantly keeping watch over the engineer's handling of the train. One can also anticipate that the equipment will break down less frequently in brand new equipment, with the extensive computer diagnostics available to detect, report and resolve defects before they turn into a service-disrupting failure. The train's computers will count how many passengers board and alight at each stop. The operator's cab even features door controls and rear-view cameras to monitor passenger boarding and alighting as well as door status. In a near future where platforms and trains are retrofitted for level boarding, the need for conductors to assist persons of reduced mobility will also disappear. With so much of the work becoming automated, are four people still needed to operate a 7-car train, as would be required by current union agreements?

The cost of assistant conductors

Bottom-up calculation

As of 2019, hourly pay for an assistant conductor was about $38, based on 3% annual escalation since 2012. At 2080 paid hours per year, an assistant conductor then makes $79k/year in straight time salary. Throw in another 10% for overtime, and it's $87k/year. Add 25% of salary for fringe benefits, and it's $109k/year. Tack on 20% payroll taxes, and it's $126k/year. Don't forget another 12% of pay for FELA (railroad liability insurance), and we're now at $136k/year. Are we done? No: on top of this we need to add contract operator general and administrative overhead of about 7%, and contract operator award fee of about 5%. So, our $38/hour assistant conductor eventually accounts for $153k/year of fully burdened Caltrain operating costs.

If the typical duty is two daily round-trips, or about 200 train-miles per shift, and our assistant conductor works 250 days per year, that comes to 50,000 revenue miles per year, putting the fully burdened cost of an assistant conductor at $3 per revenue train-mile. Split shifts (with long paid breaks) and the additional vacation time that comes with seniority will lower annual revenue miles, likely making $3 a lower bound for an assistant conductor.

Caltrain operates 1.28 million revenue train-miles per year, so the cost of one assistant conductor on every train is about $4 million per year (in 2019 dollars) based on today's timetable with 94 weekday trains.

Top-down calculation

In 2019, Caltrain paid $99.5 million for contract services, the lion's share of which (about 88%) went to Transit America Services, Inc., to operate the railroad. This comes to $87 million including overheads and performance fees. Based on TASI's estimated cost structure for 2012-2017, which we will assume has not changed much in the years since, about 72% of direct costs are labor, so the fully burdened cost of labor was $63 million.

Based on TASI's itemized costs, we can estimate this $63 million breaks down as follows: 2.3% direct administrative costs, 44.3% train operations (which includes conductors), 5.2% train and yard movement control, 24.6% fleet maintenance, 16.7% fixed infrastructure maintenance, 3% station, facility and parking maintenance, and 4% budgets, finance and accounting. This places the fully-burdened cost of train operations labor at $28 million. This labor category consists of operations supervisors, engineers, conductors and assistant conductors. The share of labor costs allocated to the complement of 46 assistant conductors is about 25% of this, or $7 million (fully burdened).

Divide by the number of annual revenue train-miles, and we find that assistant conductors cost $5.50 per train-mile.

Interestingly, $7 million divided by 46 assistant conductors gives a fully burdened annual cost of $152k/year for an assistant conductor, which agrees very well with our bottom-up estimate. So why are the per-mile estimates not the same?

The discrepancy between bottom-up ($3.00) top-down ($5.50) per-mile estimates comes down to labor productivity. Some peak-hour trains are staffed with more than one assistant conductor, and the annual labor productivity of a single conductor is less than 50,000 revenue train-miles per year due to split shifts. The FTA National Transit Database shows Caltrain operates about 216,000 vehicle revenue hours of service per year, with each train having an average of 5.6 cars (7.20 million revenue vehicle-miles per year divided by 1.28 million revenue train-miles per year), so we get about 38,570 train-hours per year. TASI's workforce comprises 46 assistant conductors at 2000 hours per year = 92,000 hours (before additional on-call labor) which makes assistant conductor productivity at most 0.42 revenue-hours per hour worked, versus about 0.7 revenue-hour per hour worked if we optimistically assume 2 round-trips per 8-hour shift as in the bottom-up calculation.

Bottom line: Caltrain assistant conductors cost $7 million/year today.

Future service increases

Caltrain's business plan envisions growth scenarios where the cost structure is largely left alone. More service simply means more operating cost. Revisiting union agreements is not contemplated, and represents a sort of third rail that managers dare not mention even in hypothetical planning documents.

For the baseline electrification scenario, 114 weekday trains will operate with 7 cars each, triggering the second assistant conductor requirement per the union agreement. Because today's service already has two assistant conductors on some trains, putting them on all trains will not double the cost of assistant conductors, and may reduce the cost impact of split shifts. Let's assume that the number of assistant conductors will increase by 50% at the equivalent of today's service level to staff every train with two assistant conductors. If on top of that we increase service from 94 to 114 weekday trains, then the cost of assistant conductors rises from $7 million to almost $13 million (in 2019 dollars).
For the enhanced growth scenario in 2023, with 168 weekday trains, the cost rises from $7 million to $19 million (still in 2019 dollars). With service expansion to 8 trains per peak hour and 204 weekday trains in 2027, the cost of assistant conductors reaches $23 million per year!

These are enormous figures and it's plain to see that assistant conductors are a huge driver of current and future operating costs.

The way it should be: get rid of assistant conductors!

The crew position of assistant conductor, like brakeman and fireman before it, has outlived its usefulness in the year 2020. As modern technologies automate a significant portion of the workload traditionally performed by conductors, the time has come to modify union agreements to enable the operation of eight-car trains with a single conductor, or even no conductor at all.

Eliminating unproductive labor does not mean eliminating well-paying union jobs: even with a single conductor per train, the overall size of the conductor workforce may need to grow to accommodate increased service. The criteria used to determine minimum crew size should no longer include the number of cars. Automatic passenger counting equipment on the new fleet will provide all the statistical data to evaluate when off-peak trains could even go to zero-conductor (single person) operation.

Conductors should be supplemented and eventually replaced by roving teams of fare inspectors, not assigned to a particular train, who spot-check proof of payment and patrol particularly crowded trains. The train operator (a.k.a. engineer in old-school parlance) can take care of all aspects of train operation, as is practiced at BART. This will require a cultural shift.

Today's operating cost structure is a burden that hinders service growth. Assistant conductors must go, and the union agreements that govern train crew sizes should be revisited again, as they have been periodically in decades past.

09 May 2020

Pandemic Open Thread

These are challenging times. We can ponder ideas that are significantly outside the mainstream, taking an existing concept and extrapolating it, Black Mirror style, to its extreme conclusion. Here are some controversial conversation starters:

Southbound BART Purple Line train arrives at Palo Alto
Merge Caltrain Into BART.  The long-standing push to get the operation of Caltrain a dedicated source of funding (via November ballot measure) looks shaky at best, with the economy heading down the toilet. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties see this tax measure as a way to push Caltrain off their books, but for residents it supplements one tax with another. Why not blow it all up, and merge the two counties into the BART district?
  • Secures dedicated operating funding, via BART half-cent tax to join district.
  • Removes a warring tribe from the balkanized landscape of Bay Area transit.
  • Retires the awkward and unwieldy Joint Powers Agreement between the peninsula counties.
  • "Rings the Bay" in 2023 with a new BART Purple Line, using state of the art HSR-compatible technology.
  • Ends decades of silly talk about closing a perceived "missing link" between Millbrae and Santa Clara by using wide-gauge technology, as most recently encouraged by VTA (!)
  • Replaces the passive-aggressive operational antagonism that is routinely on display at Millbrae with coordinated, centrally-planned, seamless connections.
  • Puts in charge managers who actually understand from direct experience the value of short dwell times and level boarding.
  • Raises the bar for mega-project delivery, which has been set so low by Caltrain's spiraling trouble in managing delays to the electrification project (and the large budget blow-outs that are 100% certain to follow) that we might as well just let BART take over.
  • Removes the pretext for VTA's ridiculous plan to duplicate the Purple Line with an expensive BART tunnel from San Jose to Santa Clara, with BART instead establishing coordinated, centrally-planned, seamless connections at a modernized San Jose Diridon station.
  • Frees BART and VTA to plan for a far more logical extension along Stevens Creek Boulevard to serve the sprawling automobile-captive transit deserts of Santa Clara County.
  • Keeps the really good people at Caltrain employed. They can work for BART.
  • Just makes categorical sense. Caltrain's trajectory of modernization, described extensively in its business planning effort, takes it out of the old-fashioned category of "commuter rail" and into the category of "rapid transit," right here in the Bay Area. You could then describe it as Bay Area Rapid Transit, or perhaps just BART for short. If it walks like a BART and quacks like a BART, then it surely must be BART!
Kill the DTX project.  The San Francisco Downtown Extension (DTX) is one of those projects that is so important that everyone got tunnel vision and let costs explode as we forgot why we were doing it in the first place. A quarter century of planning later and at six billion dollars and rising, the benefit is no longer worth the cost. Why not blow it all up, and merge DTX with the Second Transbay Rail Crossing?
  • Solves the problem once, not twice, something taxpayers and riders will all appreciate. DTX and Transbay Tube II both connect a mega-region by creating high-speed, high-capacity arteries to supply the economic heart of the Bay Area. Both projects solve a geometry problem that no amount of additional freeway lanes or autonomous vehicle technology can possibly address. They should be one project, and the distinction between them is not only operationally counter-productive but astronomically costly for taxpayers.
  • Defuses an emerging and highly toxic competitive dynamic between two competing mega-projects, which threatens to delay both.
  • Makes the Salesforce Transit Center a through-station, which is enormously more efficient to operate and enables far higher throughput capacity (trains and passengers) within the existing station footprint. Yes, this requires dismantling a couple of medium-sized high rises whose foundations stand in the way on the northeast end of the train box; this is the cost of progress.
  • Enables seamless high-speed electric through service from the East Bay / Sacramento to the Peninsula and Silicon valley, just like the Paris RER or London Crossrail.
  • Stores the EMU fleet on the Oakland side of Transbay Tube II, presumably somewhere inside the dystopian freeway mess of the Maze, thus removing the anachronistic need for a train yard in the heart of San Francisco.
  • Allows a large-diameter tunnel boring machine (big enough to allow for 2 wide-gauge tracks stacked on top of 2 standard-gauge tracks for the Transbay segment) to start from a more accessible construction site on the Oakland side. The TBM would land in San Francisco near Howard Street, providing the start for a Geary BART subway.
Yes, crayon plans like this do not factor in important things like Environmental Impact Reports and shovel-readiness, or the entrenched politics of established bureaucracies, or the deeply carved flows of monies from various federal, state, regional and local sources into the pockets of the private Transit Industrial Complex. But sometimes, difficult times call for big changes. Changes that put riders and taxpayers, who are all suffering to various degrees through this pandemic, in a stronger position at a table of stakeholders that rarely has much room for them.