02 January 2023

Deadly Caltrain Underpasses

The recent storms demonstrate once again that Caltrain underpass flooding is a clear and present danger to the public. Deadly is no understatement: while only harrowing water rescues occurred in the 31 December 2022 atmospheric river, two people lost their lives in the flooded Hillcrest Boulevard underpass in Millbrae on 23 December 2021.

Poor "split" grade separation designs that only marginally lower the height of the tracks compared to fully elevated tracks are sure to kill again if Caltrain and surrounding communities continue to build more of them. (lookin' at you, Redwood City!)

Harbor Boulevard, Belmont
 
Ralston Avenue, Belmont (M.M. Parden photo)

42nd Ave, San Mateo (M. Sly photo)

Hillcrest Boulevard, Millbrae (December 2021)

10 December 2022

Leaping Off the Fiscal Cliff

EMU jumping off cliff
One phrase we're going to hear a lot in the next couple of years is "fiscal cliff," a sudden disequilibrium between Caltrain's revenues and expenses caused by the withdrawal of the temporary federal subsidies instituted during the pandemic. The slow recovery of ridership, which until 2019 had funded ~70% of the railroad's operating expenses, is opening a $50 million/year hole in Caltrain's budget outlook through the rest of this decade, according to a draft Short Range Transit Plan (SRTP) recently submitted to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

The SRTP is a process that every four years requires each agency to project hypothetical near-term fiscal scenarios under a standard set of assumptions. Most interesting in Caltrain's draft is that the agency threw in a bonus scenario besides the prescribed hypothetical scenarios: the "Electrified Service scenario" a.k.a. Caltrain's actual plan.

This "Electrified Service scenario" makes zero effort to tackle operating costs, hiding behind a theory that Caltrain is inherently a high-fixed-cost operation, meaning that costs are not highly variable with the level of train service provided. All efforts are instead directed towards securing "funding opportunities," an approach that could very well succeed, as transit funding effectively grows on trees in California, no matter how inefficiently expended. Here are the scary numbers:

What if we blew up some long-held assumptions and attacked this fiscal cliff from the cost side?

Ditch Diesel Now and Go 100% Electric

Since time immemorial, the peninsula corridor electrification project has been sold as only a partial step towards electrification, anticipating that only 75% of the service would become electric with 25% remaining diesel, primarily to serve the non-electrified portion of the corridor south of San Jose. Operating a mixed fleet of diesel and electric trains blows up operating and maintenance costs, since many functions have to be duplicated (training, tools, spare parts, etc.). Revenue miles per vehicle are projected to drop by 10% when electrified service starts, which is a sure sign that your fleet is too big and isn't working hard enough.

How can Caltrain possibly operate with only the 19 EMU sets that will be delivered by 2024?

One certainly can't use all 19 in revenue service. Set one aside for maintenance downtime (grade crossing collisions will continue), and keep another two in reserve for timetable protection, essentially hot spares parked at each end of the line, crewed and ready to enter service at moment's notice to plug any delays during the peaks. That leaves just 16 sets to support a peak service level of six trains per hour per direction, a firm condition of Caltrain's funding agreement with the federal government.

That sounds downright impossible.

However, if you change the goals of a timetable to maximize equipment utilization, it turns out that it can be pulled off. Good service is just a side effect. Here is a new all-electric timetable that makes those shiny EMUs really earn their keep:

All EMU 6 tphpd
Score: 123 (relative to the benchmark score of 100 for the 2011 timetable)
Fleet: 16 EMU (zero diesel)
Utilization: 87% of train-minutes in revenue service

This is admittedly a slightly sporty timetable in that it requires aggressive 10-minute turns and a European level of padding of 7%, less than Caltrain is accustomed to dawdling with. The resulting risk of delay is mitigated by "protect" trains at each end of the line. There is also margin in the long station dwells (45 seconds) and the leisurely acceleration times built into the timetable, with power capped at only 2/3rds of the EMU's nominal rating.

The new EMUs would become highly productive assets by providing about 1.9 million revenue vehicle miles per year using just 133 cars, about 1.5x better utilization of these expensive depreciating capital assets than is currently contemplated.

The savings from disposing of the entire diesel fleet would be significant, and their residual resale value would only help Caltrain's balance sheet. The newer Baby Bullet fleet will have reached 20 years of revenue service, the minimum required by the FTA for federal funding assistance, so no penalties will arise from their early disposal. although its disposal would incur a small penalty reimbursement to the FTA since the equipment will not have reached its 25-year minimum useful life (according to FTA Circular 5010-1E, page IV-26.)

Divest the Gilroy Branch

One hitch: the overhead wire doesn't extend to Gilroy.

Gilroy service is a big weight on Caltrain's operational balance sheet because the ridership and revenue is minuscule compared to the high fixed cost of maintaining diesel service. Before the pandemic, ridership south of San Jose city limits (Blossom Hill) made up a negligible 0.8% of Caltrain's weekday ridership. South of Tamien was hardly better, at 1.2%. Until electrification is extended down to Blossom Hill (as it should be), it makes better sense to transfer this infrequent diesel service to an extended Capitol Corridor, with a direct cross-platform transfer to Caltrain in San Jose.

This can rid Caltrain of the entire diesel fleet, which is currently planned to remain at least 9 locomotives and 79 (!!) cars. It also frees Caltrain from another headache, having to comply with near-term diesel emissions mandates under consideration by the California Air Resources Board.

Reduce Conductor Over-staffing

Caltrain has too many assistant conductors. Assistant conductors are very expensive, costing about $15 million/year by FY25, about 1/3 of the operating deficit. Note this figure does not include conductors, only their assistants. The new EMUs relieve some of their duties, such as announcing station stops. The new fleet also has automatic passenger counters, giving precise real-time insights into passenger loads. While today's conductor staffing levels are determined by a formula from the number of cars, the formula should instead be revised to use recent passenger loads. This would ensure that all trains have a consistent staff/passenger ratio and that conductors have fair work loads.

Change the Operating Culture

With six electric trains per peak hour and at least 20-minute service at all stations, much better than is provided today, the conditions could be created for a robust recovery of ridership. Good service drives ridership, but if Caltrain is allowed to execute their mixed-fleet "Electrified Service scenario," as planned, we will barely achieve any service improvement as costs continue to spiral upwards.

Applying these cost-saving measures, Caltrain could close their operating deficit and erase any "fiscal cliff" without expending any energy to capture ever more "funding opportunities" to support entrenched and inefficient operating practices. The fleet does not need to grow, nor does the headcount. The operating culture needs to change: it's not enough to buy Swiss trains; you need to actually run them like the Swiss.

28 October 2022

News Roundup, October 2022

CBOSS Dumpster Fire Update: the CBOSS case is still making its way through San Mateo County Superior Court (under case file 17CIV00786). The trial was held in April through June of this year, and closing briefs are due in December. Closing arguments are currently scheduled to be made in court on the 5th of January 2023. The latest kerfuffle is over a post-trial Caltrain/Parsons motion to seek punitive damages from Alstom for intentionally, not just negligently, lying about the status of the project based on testimony given during the trial.

Trains Without Wires: Caltrain held a VIP invitation-only unveiling of the new EMUs in San Francisco on September 24th. Four trainsets (serial production #2 - #5) have now been delivered and will collect dust (graffiti?) for a couple of years because the electrification of the corridor is far from done. The new trains were hauled to San Francisco by diesel power.

New Palo Alto downtown
grade separation

Stirring Things Up In Palo Alto: Caltrain recently briefed the city on their plan to replace the ancient bridge over the San Francisquito Creek. This is precipitating a sudden change to the city's years-long policy of kicking the can down the road on what to do about a future grade separations at downtown Palo Alto. While everybody seems to assume the bridge and grade separation projects are necessarily linked, they are not! The solution is pretty darn obvious: replace the Palo Alto Ave crossing with a new grade separation at Everett Ave, which would connect downtown to El Camino as shown in the sketch at right.

  1. Permanently close and demolish the Alma bridge over University Ave, instead connecting Alma to University via the existing cloverleaf ramps reconfigured as a signalized intersection.
  2. Build a new downtown elevated grade separation viaduct and platforms through the existing station parking lots, along the original track alignment that existed before the University Ave grade separation was opened in 1940. This viaduct would be open underneath, providing station parking, bus platforms, pick-up/drop-off areas, and other station amenities. Bonus: the new straightened track alignment removes a speed-limiting double reverse curve in the tracks.
  3. Cut over the trains to the new viaduct and elevated station. 
  4. Extend Everett Ave under the elevated tracks to the existing intersection at El Camino Real and Quarry Rd, also picking up a new connection to the convoluted and inefficient bus loop. Bonus: bus service is greatly sped up to/from El Camino, Stanford and downtown by avoiding time-consuming looping routes.
  5. Permanently close the grade crossing at Palo Alto Ave.
  6. Demolish the old University Ave rail bridge, remove the old cloverleaf ramps, and bring the University Ave / Alma intersection back up to a grade level signalized intersection.

This grade separation approach is completely decoupled from whatever happens with the San Francisquito bridge.

More CEQA Lawsuits Flying: the recent certification of the HSR San Francisco to San Jose EIR precipitated several new CEQA lawsuits. Brisbane and a private developer are upset about the sprawling HSR "light" maintenance facility planned in the city, and its impact on the planned Brisbane Baylands development. Millbrae also got in on the action due to a clash between its development plans and the planned expansion of the station footprint for HSR. Unfortunately, the Sacramento Superior Court does not allow free access to case files, so details are hard to obtain.

31 August 2022

HSR Lays an Egg in Caltrain's Nest

California's high-speed rail project has finally reached a milestone 14 years after the passage of Proposition A in 2008 with the board's certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco - San Jose project section.

This voluminous document has come a long way since the early days of a four-track 125 mph rail corridor initially envisioned for our region, having been whittled down to a two-track 110 mph "blended system" project that shares tracks with Caltrain without building any new overtaking tracks. Nevertheless, the cost estimates for the project have ballooned to $5.3 billion.

How do you add four high-speed trains per hour per direction, traveling at peak times between San Francisco and San Jose in just 48 minutes (by the way, 18 minutes slower than promised in the HSR bond measure) while building no new tracks and without disrupting Caltrain service? The answer is, you can't.

Instead, the high-speed rail project plans to take over the peninsula rail corridor and become a parasite to Caltrain. Here's how.

The FEIR's Volume 2 Appendix 2-C Operations and Service Summary contains what is described as an "Illustrative Timetable" of this blended service featuring 6 Caltrain + 4 HSR per hour per direction. The assumptions for this timetable include:

  • Caltrain is operated as a skip-stop service with 3 different stopping patterns.
  • Caltrain EMUs operate at up to 110 mph, their design top speed.
  • Caltrain station dwells are 30 seconds, consistent with system-wide level boarding.
  • Caltrain operates in salvos of three closely-spaced trains every half hour, leaving large gaps for high-speed trains to travel without being delayed by Caltrain. This bunching is flatly denied on page 3.2-91 of the FEIR, inconsistent with the Illustrative Timetable.
  • Two out of three Caltrains are held for about 5 minutes at either Bayshore or Lawrence station to allow high-speed trains to overtake them.

Additionally, we can make the reasonable assumption that peninsula commuters will be priced out of high-speed rail service, meaning that HSR will not provide many trips with origin and destination between San Francisco and San Jose. Every local peninsula trip taken on a high-speed train potentially displaces a longer statewide trip with much higher fare revenue for the operator, especially at peak times. In a yield-managed fare structure, local HSR trips will therefore be priced punitively. This isn't just speculation, it's well-established practice: Amtrak's premium Acela Express can technically be used to commute from Stamford, Connecticut into New York City, but it can easily cost you over $100 per trip, compared to the $15 peak fare on Metro North. In much the same way, every local SF-SJ passenger would potentially displace a more lucrative SF-LA passenger. Punitive local ticket prices will mean zero local ridership, so we shouldn't figure any HSR services into the scoring of service quality.

Let's put this in our handy taktulator and figure a score for this timetable. Remember, Caltrain's 2011 timetable is the baseline with a score of 100.

HSR FEIR Caltrain, no DTX: Score = 135 service points -- compare that to 147 service points with regularly-spaced 8 train per hour service, as planned in Caltrain's service vision and enabled by a new overtaking station in Redwood City.

HSR FEIR Caltrain, with DTX: Score = 235 service points -- compare to 250 service points with regularly-spaced 8 train per hour service as planned by Caltrain.

In both cases, the HSR timetable improves over the 2011 timetable (score = 100) by only 75 - 90% as much as the planned Caltrain timetable. Despite the higher train speeds, the bunched-up and irregular skip-stop service pattern with long overtaking dwells makes numerous Caltrain trips less convenient. On the plus side, this blended service can be operated with a fleet of 6 fewer trains than Caltrain's more frequent 8 tph service pattern. On the minus side, those trains will be more crowded. Note our taktulator tool measures service quality only from the standpoint of one typical user (weighted by origin and destination population and jobs density), without quantifying overall ridership demand or the resulting level of crowding.

Confronted by numerous stakeholders with the seeming contradiction between Caltrain's plans and its own blended service planning, the HSR authority offers Standard Response FJ-Response-GEN-4: Consideration of 2040 CaltrainService Vision and Caltrain Business Plan, with key points summarized below:

  • Caltrain's Service Vision is aspirational and isn't an approved or funded project.
  • The Service Vision is insufficiently defined to be analyzed in the EIR and is not "reasonably foreseeable" under CEQA.
  • The impact on Caltrain service wouldn't rise up to the level of a "significant impact" anyway.
  • The illustrative timetable is only used as a reasonable basis for analysis and there may exist better timetables.
  • It will be Caltrain's job to environmentally clear (and fund) future improvements associated with the Service Vision, such as additional passing tracks to support HSR service in the corridor.

In the HSR project's view, Caltrain will be fully on the hook for upgrading its own facilities to continue hosting HSR even as it becomes more difficult to do so. This sets up unhealthy incentives where capital projects that actually improve Caltrain service, and might create inconvenient "facts on the ground" for HSR, are quite likely to be delayed and de-funded to ensure the corridor stays clear for the future hatching of the giant egg that HSR just laid with this EIR.

31 May 2022

Capital Spending for Better Service

Wouldn't it be great if you could quantify the service benefit of capital improvements, to compare and prioritize them by how much better train service results?  We can, and using our handy Taktulator, we will. This service pattern evaluation tool was formulated around time-based service quality metrics. We use it to explore future improvements to the peninsula rail corridor.

Today's 2022 Timetable: 94 service points -- The current peak schedule with four diesel trains per hour features very generous padding and SF - SJ trip times ranging from 66 minutes (express) to 99 minutes (local). The less-than-100 score indicates that service quality has dropped since 2011 when there were five trains per peak hour. The Taktulator score is calibrated such that the 2011 Caltrain timetable scores exactly 100 points.

Caltrain's 2040 service vision foresees eight trains per peak hour per direction (not counting HSR). Let's start with a service frequency of 8 trains per hour-- except for the sake of exploring and quantifying the value of capital improvements, we'll start from a hypothetical case that will never happen: eight trains per hour of today's diesel service, making all local stops.

Hypothetical diesel all-stops local, 8 tph: Score = 109 service points (+16%) -- The doubling of hourly frequency improves the service score by 16%, despite each train being slower. The extra time riding an all-stops trains is more than offset by the much shorter wait time at the station. For example, maximum wait times in Belmont plummet from one hour to just 7.5 minutes. Unfortunately, this service pattern would take an unrealistic 32 trains to operate, because each train takes 94 minutes to go between SF and SJ. The hypothetical scenario still illustrates the magnitude of the effect of doubling frequency.

Add electrification: Score = 121 service points (+11%) -- Electrification is worth another +12 points relative to diesel, thanks to the shorter trip times that come from the higher acceleration capability of EMUs. Those savings accrue to a full ten minutes between SF and SJ for an all-stops local. Station dwell times are still booked at 45 seconds, a longer duration that reflects the lack of level boarding. Thanks to the faster trip times, the fleet requirement has dropped from 32 trains to 28 trains. Service speed saves money, not just on fleet size but also by increasing the hourly productivity of train crews (in terms of passenger-miles served).

Add Redwood City hub station: Score = 131 service points (+8%) -- If trains cannot pass each other, there is no room in such a frequent timetable for express service. A new four-track station at Redwood City, where express trains can overtake locals on opposite sides of the same station platform (so that passengers may transfer seamlessly between local and express) gives the best of both worlds: frequent service AND express service. For now, we'll assume this station has only two-track approaches, requiring trains to arrive and depart serially. In practice, this means every local must wait more than 5 minutes or the equivalent of two signal headways to let the express catch up before RWC and then pull ahead after RWC. The stopping patterns start to look like Caltrain's 2040 service vision.

Add Redwood City quadruple approach tracks: Score = 138 service points (+5%) -- If quadruple tracks are added approaching Redwood City from the north and south, then local and express trains can make parallel moves into and out of the hub station, removing the requirement for every local to wait there for five wasteful minutes. To unlock this benefit, the quadruple track overtake section needs to extend to one station on either side of RWC, so every local train can make productive use of those five minutes. In the Taktulator, we simulate this by having every local train stop at San Carlos and Atherton, which (despite its closure) stands in for a new Fair Oaks infill station at 5th Avenue. This suggests a hub station is about 1.7x more effective if it forms the center of a three-station quadruple track section. Having fully half your trains save five minutes is a huge service improvement!

Add level boarding: Score = 147 service points (+7%) -- Where electrification saved time in motion, level boarding saves time at rest by shaving 15 seconds of dwell time at each station, as step-free access smooths passenger boarding and alighting. Level boarding gives not only short dwell times but predictable dwell times (for example, wheelchairs don't take longer to board) so we can also tighten up the padding margin in the timetable, cut in this example from 12% to 7%. Interestingly, the end-to-end corridor times fall below a threshold that allows turning a train sooner, reducing fleet requirement from 28 to 24 trains. This isn't necessarily an effect of level boarding itself, and only illustrates that a series of small improvements can result in a discontinuous benefit when a certain threshold is reached.

Add SF Downtown Extension: Score = 250 service points (+70%) -- There are more jobs (over 100,000) located within a half mile of the Transbay Transit Center than there are jobs within a half mile of every other Caltrain station combined. This makes downtown SF a dominant node if added to the system, a fact that is reflected in our census-based weighting of available trips. No other improvement comes close.

Here is how these service improvements stack up against each other, plotted as the logarithm of the ratio of after/before scores, which gives you their relative impact. They can be constructed in a different order than imagined above, but the relative proportion of each improvement should remain approximately similar:

Bar graph of the relative service quality improvement of Caltrain capital projects

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Grade separation projects do not improve train service. Exceedingly rarely, they do prevent a train delay, something that is not captured in this analysis. On the basis of the time metrics of a typical trip, however, the service improvement of grade separations is ZERO. This should factor strongly into how many billions we are collectively willing to spend on them relative to the other capital improvements discussed here.
     
  2. The benefits of electrification alone (without other improvements) are mediocre at best. On the basis of our time metrics, service quality is only improved by about 11% relative to an equivalent diesel scenario. Caltrain can't just finish the electrification project and call it good enough.
     
  3. The Redwood City hub station now in the planning stages is surprisingly beneficial to service quality. While packaged and sold as a grade separation with a bonus of expanding the train station, it is hard to overstate the service quality benefit of the new hub station. Even as planned by Caltrain (with two-track approaches from the north and south) the new station produces nearly as much service improvement as the entire electrification project.
     
  4. The Redwood City hub station as planned by Caltrain with two-track approaches is operationally ineffective. It can be juiced up to 1.7x more benefit to service quality by making it the center of a four-track overtake facility spanning just three stations: San Carlos, Redwood City and a new Fair Oaks infill station at 5th Ave. The southern portion of this four-track facility already exists today. Together with 4-track approaches, the Redwood City hub improves service quality by a greater proportion than the entire electrification project! That's why it is critical that planning for the Redwood City grade separations allow for four tracks throughout.
     
  5. Level boarding provides over half the service quality improvement of electrification, and is likely to be a much cheaper capital investment. However, it makes sense to do it after the hub station.
     
  6. The downtown extension in San Francisco will be a game changer for service quality. The transportation industrial complex knows this and will make us pay dearly for the DTX project. However, the additional billions for the PAX (Pennsylvania Avenue Extension, a city-desired grade separation) add absolutely nothing to service quality, and should never be allowed to be bundled with the DTX project. Every capital dollar should improve service quality.
     
  7. The Redwood City hub station (with four tracks, not two!) is worth one fourth of the service benefit of the DTX. That means we should (a) not be shy about spending capital dollars to build it and (b) stop selling it as a grade separation, because that isn't the story here-- it should be about a new infill station, seamless transfers, and better service quality system-wide.

As always, the analysis provided here can be quibbled with and improved upon, and you are encouraged to "do your own research" by trying out your own service patterns in the Taktulator.