28 July 2019

Emergency Exit Fail

Caltrain's new EMU train cars have an unusual configuration with two sets of doors. The lower level doors will be used at existing Caltrain stations, while the intermediate level doors (above the wheels at the ends of each car) are intended to be used at an undetermined date in the 2030s once these trains begin sharing stations with California high-speed rail, which will use high-floor trains and high platforms with boarding at about 50" above the rail. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, which Caltrain cryptically refers to as "external stakeholders," required this design feature as a condition of funding Caltrain's modernization to the tune of $750M, to maintain the option of sharing platforms at future HSR stations in San Francisco, Millbrae and San Jose.

The Original Plan

To maximize the short-term seating capacity of the new trains until the 2030s, Caltrain specified that the intermediate level should have temporary flip-up seats installed in front of the unused doors, five per door vestibule, with the seating blocking off the doors like this:
Configuration of intermediate level in A, B, C, E, and G cars
Because EMU cars are filled with electrical cabinets (labeled with yellow lightning bolts), the seating capacity of the train is reduced compared to a conventional train. This is the price you pay for not having a locomotive; all the bits that make the train go still need to find a place, which makes for a challenging packaging problem in a bi-level train. The reduced seating capacity of the train has been controversial and makes these temporary seats quite important. For each 7-car train, there are 70 of these intermediate level flip-up seats that make up a non-trivial 10% of the overall seating capacity of 667.

At some undetermined future date when the intermediate doors would be needed for compatibility with high platforms, the blue flip-up seating modules would be removed from the intermediate level.

A Regulatory Conundrum

In the design of any new train, federal safety regulations require that any passenger seating compartment be fitted with at least two emergency exit windows (for passenger egress) and two rescue access windows (for first responder ingress). The intermediate level counts as a passenger compartment because these flip-up seats are located within it. However, the intermediate level does not have what regulations consider to be a window; the only opening to the outside is through the doors. This set up a conflict with safety regulations.

In late 2017, Caltrain petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration for a waiver (docket FRA-2018-0003) by arguing that the emergency release feature of the doors would provide an equivalent level of safety, despite not meeting the letter of the regulation, allowing emergency access by climbing over the seat backs.

In June 2018, the FRA denied Caltrain's request because the flip-up seating installed longitudinally such that it blocks the doors could impede egress and access and therefore did not meet the intent of the regulation. The FRA stated that "the absence of need for these intermediate level doors to support current revenue boarding and alighting requirements does not negate the necessity for an unobstructed path in the event of an emergency." Curiously, this unobstructed path requirement applies only to doors, not to windows!

Implicitly, Solution A is to remove all seating from the intermediate level of the affected cars, which effectively sidesteps the emergency window requirement. But given that seating in Caltrain's EMUs is already quite limited, this solution seems like a non-starter as it would reduce seating capacity of a 7-car train by 9% from 667 seats to just 617 seats.
Solution A: not a passenger seating compartment
The FRA helpfully suggested some other possibilities.

Solution B: equip the intermediate level doors with a regulation-size emergency window of minimum dimensions 26" wide by 24" high. Unfortunately, that is too large for the dual-leaf design of the train doors; in other words, the window in each door leaf is too narrow to function as an emergency window.
Solution B: the minimum clear opening is too big for dual-leaf doors
Solution C: replace the intermediate level doors with a plug panel (essentially, a structural wall panel that does not function as a door) fitted with a regulation-size emergency window of minimum dimensions 26" wide by 24" high, until such time as the door-blocking seating is removed, the panel is removed, and the doors and platform bridge plates are re-installed.

Solution C: doors replaced by plug panels
Caltrain is now in the process of pursuing Solution C, plug panels. This change order is expected to cost about $4 million total up front, about $30000 per car, or $7000 per door. When intermediate-level doors are required a decade or more from now, a net sum of approximately another $10 million ($14 million future installation cost to be set aside, minus $4 million of door maintenance savings) would be needed to retrofit them. That is a LOT of money for a change that fundamentally reduces and complicates compatibility with HSR stations and platforms.

Other Solutions

There are other solutions that strike a better balance of functionality and simplicity without a seven-figure cost impact.

Solution D: short of removing all the seating from the intermediate level vestibule, the regulations require only one emergency window (instead of two) if there are four or fewer seats in the compartment. Removing seats from one side only and applying for a new waiver to allow unobstructed use of one of the doors in lieu of a single emergency window could work, addressing the FRA's stated concern with door obstruction. This would reduce seating capacity of a 7-car train by just 22 seats or 3% (5 seats lost in cars A and B, and 4 seats lost in cars C, E and G).
Solution D: reduced seating with unobstructed emergency access
Solution E: reconfigure the mounting bracket for the flip-up seating so that seats flip up and out of the way of the doors when not used, allowing the unimpeded use of both doors in lieu of emergency windows. This solution requires applying for a new waiver to allow the use of doors in lieu of emergency windows, but also addresses the FRA's stated concern with door obstruction. Placing the flip up seats in this manner would reduce the clear width of the door opening by a couple of inches on each side, from 51" to about 47", with no reduction to seating capacity.
Solution E: change flip-up seating orientation to provide unobstructed door access
(flip-up seats are shown in use; they fold flush against wall when not occupied)
Solution E would require no modifications whatsoever when the intermediate level doors are needed in the future, and could be implemented at all doors throughout the train including the lower level, adding seating capacity. Seats placed in doorways may sound like a bad idea, but in a crowded train, social signaling fairly quickly communicates to occupants of these seats that it's time to stand up and make way. This is the French "strapontin" seating in common use on some of the busiest rail lines in Paris:

Flip-up seats in a doorway of a brand new Bombardier EMU on Paris RER line D.
(foreground at left) credit: Wikipedia / KiHa 52
Indeed, the photo above, taken inside the same Bombardier EMU often vaunted in front of the Caltrain board by a certain member of the public as having so much more seating than Stadler's EMU, shows one of the secrets of achieving very high seating densities: flip-up seating in all doorways. The other three secrets are five-abreast seating, not having as much space dedicated to bikes, and lower acceleration performance that requires fewer electrical cabinets, leaving more space for seats. After adjusting for these four factors, it turns out that the Bombardier EMU provides no higher seating density than the Stadler EMU.

Ultimately, it is entirely possible that Caltrain simply does not wish to interface with high-speed rail in any station as a matter of policy, because it would require sharing and collaborating with another agency, and solving a somewhat complicated ADA compliance problem. Which agency would voluntarily bring that upon itself? Caltrain already took the HSR money, and installing plugs will "erase" the clunky and unpalatable concession they made in the name of compatibility, with the further bonus of not requiring another run at the FRA for a new waiver. The complicated ADA compliance issues associated with interior lifts are kicked as far down the road as possible!

No matter how you look at it, Caltrain's chosen approach is a ~$15 million mistake that reduces and complicates compatibility with HSR stations and platforms. There are cheaper, simpler and easier ways to achieve compliance with emergency window regulations. It's not too late to change course.

05 May 2019

Thoughts on Grade Separations

The emerging Caltrain business plan is broaching the issue of grade separations, a decadal process that has been underway, well, for decades. We're already 63% of the way there today, with another dozen new grade separation projects in various stages of planning or construction. Achieving a reasonable level of grade separation for the peninsula corridor is estimated to cost $8.5 - 11.1 billion, a shockingly large sum that we'll just round to $10 billion. As we try to grasp the enormity of that figure, here are some contrarian thoughts:

1) Don't spend train money on car projects. The benefit of grade separations accrues primarily to automobile travel, with the elimination of gate down time. An intensive grade separation program can eventually unlock additional operating slots for more trains and eliminate the occasional incident, yielding benefits to train riders. Some grade separations are necessary, such as when expanding to four tracks. In the short term, however, the greatest benefit is the removal of an inconvenience to drivers, which in our car-centric society is held as a worthy goal seemingly regardless of cost. Rail dollars are a lot scarcer than road dollars, especially in this era of federal disengagement, so the last project we should spend them on is a project that facilitates car travel with little improvement for train riders. Rail funding should be used to make real and measurable improvements to train service, a standard by which most grade separations rate poorly. So you still want a grade separation? Build it with road funding.

Anticipated gate down times,
under various scenarios in the
Caltrain business plan
2) Quit whining about gate down time. Caltrain put together a nice summary of gate down time, the number of minutes per hour that grade crossing gates block traffic during rush hours. Today the average is 11 minutes, and under future growth scenarios it could increase to 17 - 25 minutes, with a few crossings faring worse than average. If that sounds intolerable, think about a typical roadway intersection with a traffic light. If both roads are equally important, the "gate down time" of a traffic light is 30 minutes. If one road is more important, the lesser road (for example, Ravenswood Ave where it meets El Camino Real in Menlo Park) sees "gate down time" well in excess of 30 minutes, let's say 40 minutes per hour. Nobody is clamoring to grade separate the Ravenswood / El Camino road intersection. There's an obvious double standard here, and the guidelines for what qualifies as unacceptable delay should be set the same way as they are for the grade separation of a road intersection. Gate down time should only rarely, if ever, be the reason to build a new grade separation.

3) There are few economies of scale in grade separation. Doing them all as a package does not save money. The process we have, where local jurisdictions often exert tight control over every aspect of design and construction, does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all approach. Each grade separation is different. Grade separation designs do not depend on each other in the majority of cases where they are widely spaced. While a corridor-wide strategy is important to have, the execution of that strategy and the securing of funding is inherently a city and county issue. If we are going to have a corridor-wide funding approach, it must go hand-in-hand with taking away local control. Jurisdictions that insist on local control should be left to figure out the funding on their own. Palo Alto, where interminable and futile discussions of tunnels continue to this day, should not be allowed to control the design process if their project is paid for through a corridor-wide funding measure.

4) If $10 billion is an okay expense, then there are far better ways to spend it. Especially with rail money at stake, there are much better ways to spend $10 billion than by building a lot of grade separations for cars that produce zero improvement to train service. There are a lot of good investments that should be made to improve the amount and speed of train service:
  • Extend all platforms to 8-car length. If you put all the platforms that Caltrain ever built in the last 20 years end to end, they would stretch about 5 miles long. This is not an expensive project; it can be done for about $0.05 billion. It should already be underway, but inexplicably isn't.
  • Convert the entire train fleet to 8-car EMUs, starting by exercising the rest of the existing Stadler contract option of another 59 cars, increasing the fleet to 24 trains. The diesels are retired from the peninsula, which is a condition for starting any level boarding projects. This costs about $0.4 billion.
  • Convert the entire system to level boarding to speed trips and improve punctuality. Depending on how this is done (high platforms or low platforms, or some combination thereof) and over how long a period of construction, this would cost about $0.5 - 1 billion.
  • Build a new EMU maintenance and storage facility near Blossom Hill (San Jose) and extend frequent electrified service through all of San Jose. Including any extortion by UPRR, the owner of the tracks, this ought to be feasible for less than $1 billion.
  • Build a new transit center in Redwood City to enable cross-platform transfers between locals and expresses. Call it $0.5 billion, and throw in the downtown grade separations for another $0.5 billion to allow four tracks.
  • Expand the EMU fleet to enable 8 train per hour peak service. Expanding the fleet to 32 trains would require another 64 EMU cars, for about $0.5 billion.
  • Extend the platforms at highly patronized express stops to 12 cars in length, and extend expresses to 12 cars. This would require extending about half the fleet by 4 cars, or another 64 EMU cars. Including platforms this might cost about $0.8 billion.
This isn't an exhaustive list, but unlike grade separations, all of these projects have immediate and measurable positive effects on the quantity and quality of service provided to riders. This list achieves most of Caltrain's "moderate growth" scenario but without HSR. The tally for all of these projects is still less than $5 billion, so if $10 billion for grade separations sounds at all palatable, this list ought to be a no-brainer.

Grade separations are nice, but their cost and benefit should be weighed very carefully on a case-by-case basis. The cost should be borne by who benefits. The business plan process will hopefully create the framework to have the difficult conversations about what not to pay for with rail funding. Grade separations should be built with highway funding unless there is a clear and measurable benefit to rail service.

24 April 2019

Foundation Progress Tracker

One way to measure the progress of a large and complex construction program like the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Program is to count how many foundations have been completed. This is a revealing metric, since foundation construction is currently the top risk on the program due to surprises when digging holes along the right of way. It's also a metric that is readily measurable and reported monthly.

In round numbers, the electrification project encompasses ~2500 poles and ~3100 concrete foundations. The number of foundations is greater than the number of poles because there are foundations for guy wires and sometimes multiple foundations for portal poles.

The progress chart below will be updated monthly.


At the December 2018 meeting of the Caltrain board of directors, the program manager stated (starting at 01:03:00 in video) that he needed to maintain a pace of 156 pole foundations per month (six per night) to meet the schedule milestone of "electrification substantial completion," which was then set for June 2021. You can see how things went since then.

02 April 2019

Eyes on Bikes

The configuration of the new EMU bike cars is controversial because seating and bikes are not currently planned to be located together on the same level, which prevents riders from keeping an eye on their bikes and increases the risk of theft. A workshop is planned to resolve this eyes-on-bikes controversy.

Bike Capacity Shenanigans

Clouding the issue of eyes-on-bikes theft deterrence is another hot-button issue with the bikes-on-board crowd, bike capacity. In 2015, under sustained pressure from bike advocates, the Caltrain board of directors made the unusual decision to override the staff-recommended seat:bike ratio of 9:1, imposing instead a ratio of 8:1 to be written into the Request for Proposals (see meeting minutes, pp 6-15.) The initial six-car EMU order was procured under this requirement, resulting in a configuration with 567 seats and 72 bike spaces. Fast forward to 2018, and an option order placed to stretch the EMU fleet to seven cars did not include additional bike space. The result is a train configuration with 667 seats and the same 72 bike spaces, resulting in a ratio of 9.3:1. While the 2015 board directive concerned only the wording of the RFP and only implicitly established a bike capacity policy, bike advocates are upset about a perceived bait-and-switch, despite the increase in peak-hour frequency from five to six trains per hour per direction.

To have any chance of resolving these two issues, the bike community needs to attack them separately. Tying the reconfiguration of the bike cars for better theft deterrence to a bike capacity increase is a losing proposition, given the increased resistance to more bikes-on-board from staff and the new board. With increasing crowding, it may make less sense to allow passengers to bring bikes on the train.

For now, let's set aside more bikes and deal with theft deterrence first.

Dimensions and Rules
  1. All bike spaces will be located on the lower deck of the bi-level EMU cars.
  2. All cars have an interior width of 2.80 m and must have an ADA-compliant 32" aisle.
  3. The D and F cars (longer unpowered cars) have an available lower deck length of 10.03 m.
  4. The C and G cars (shorter powered cars) have an available lower deck length of 8.37 m.
  5. Eyes on bikes: where possible, seating shall face towards the bikes.
  6. Bike pens (capacity 4 bikes) are sized 2 m long by ~1 m wide.
  7. Double bike pens (capacity 8 bikes, without a divider) are sized 3.85 m long by ~1 m wide. They provide the same interior room compared to two single pens placed end to end.
  8. Bike pens, or at least bike partitions, are required for crashworthiness, if seats are going to be facing towards the bikes for "eyes on bikes." This prevents a pile of bikes from ending up in someone's lap in the event of an emergency stop or collision.
  9. Same-direction seat pitch is 32.5" or 82.5 cm.
  10. Facing seats with a table require 66.9" or 170 cm (note the table uses less than 2 extra inches!)
  11. Back-to-back seats require an additional 6" or 15 cm of clearance to accommodate the slight recline of the two seat backs.
  12. Two wheelchair spaces must be provided in each car.
  13. One wheelchair space may overlap with a bike pen (dual purpose space, priority to the wheelchair user) per precedent in the existing layout.
  14. It is preferable to minimize the number of different car configurations.
With these rules in place, one can go about re-configuring the bike cars.

One key consideration is that it is not possible to re-distribute 72 bike spaces between three cars, while also providing 72 seats that are in view of the bikes. If one desires enough seating capacity on the lower deck to allow 100% eyes-on-bikes, the only way to proceed is to have four bike cars, including the recently-ordered 7th car. Like this:
Suggested EMU lower deck layout to achieve 100% eyes-on-bikes.
Bonus: an extra two seats. (click to enlarge)
The bike car reconfiguration represents an opportunity for Caltrain. On one hand, it allows Caltrain to claim they are responsive to stakeholder input, and on the other hand, it gives a legitimate pretext to add a bit of delay to the EMU order, thus opening up some breathing room in the program schedule for electrification construction, which is falling badly behind.

Towards a Compromise Bike Ratio

It has always been the intent, as funding allows, to extend the trains to 8 cars. Should the bike ratio continue to be controversial, the eighth car could be configured exactly as the D and F cars in the diagram above, providing another 20 bike spaces for a total of 92 per train. The seating capacity of the entire train would be 778, yielding a compromise ratio of 8.5:1, halfway between the preference of Caltrain staff (9:1) and the preference of bike advocates (8:1). The best compromise is one with which everybody is equally unhappy.

09 March 2019

1 Bike Less = 1 Car Less

A packed bike car
(photo: Steve Wilhelm)
Bikes Onboard, an advocacy group for Caltrain's globally-unique system of carrying thousands of bicycles on board crowded rush hour trains, is lobbying for more bicycle storage space on Caltrain's new EMUs. The argument goes that creating more space for bikes encourages people to leave their car at home, resulting in a fast, convenient, low-carbon commute. They even have a tidy equation for it:
1 bike less = 1 car more
There's a slight problem with this equation. Storage for one bike takes up about the same space as one seat, so each biker occupies two spaces on board the train. Everything works out when there is spare capacity, but when a train gets full, the equation starts to break down.

The bikers argue that no regular passenger ever gets "bumped" off the train the way bikers do when the bike car is full, so the worst outcome of bringing a bike on a crowded rush hour train is that somebody else will need to stand rather than sit. How bad can that be?

Standing is uncomfortable, which invites the invisible hand of supply and demand. When the train ride at rush hour becomes uncomfortably crowded, passengers will sometimes stop riding. The level of peak crowding is self-regulating; there is an equilibrium level of unpleasantness where each new rider is balanced by another fed-up rider who quits due to crowding. This invisible hand works without a single passenger ever being "bumped" at boarding; the "bumping" in this case is happening at home when a person is deciding whether or not to ride the train that day. Unlike bicycle "bumps," you can't measure how much crowding discourages riders, and you can't count the number of people who won't ride out of concern for not being able to sit. That doesn't mean it's not happening.

In this case, a biker who no longer takes the train (and drives instead, let's say) will free up two spaces on the train (for former drivers, let's say). The correct equation for standing-room-only conditions is then:
1 bike less = 1 car less
This is why Caltrain should limit how much bike space is available on board the trains during rush hours. Any additional train cars ordered to increase the passenger carrying capacity of the new EMU fleet should be packed with seats and not a single additional bike space beyond the ones already provided. Peak hour bike commutes should be encouraged by improving station bike parking facilities, as is done in other countries where bike mode share is far higher than the Bay Area.