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.

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.

24 January 2020

Electric Timetable Contest

The coveted Takt Cup
Timetable planning has long been a staple of this blog, with the support of rapid prototyping tools like Richard Mlynarik's excellent Taktulator, a calculator for "Taktverkehr," the German term for clockface timetabling. While it may take a few minutes to learn how to use the tool, you can easily punch in a stopping pattern into the Taktulator to get an instant score, based on well-researched quality metrics and train performance calculations described here almost a decade ago. The service quality score is normalized so that the 2011 timetable, not much different from today's, earns 100 points.

Working back from its long term service vision, Caltrain has started planning for the near term timetable change that will occur with the start of electric service. Through a process of elimination, Caltrain has settled on two candidate service patterns, each with six trains per peak hour per direction, linked below in the Taktulator. You can verify that the resulting string line diagrams match extremely closely with the last couple of slides in Caltrain's presentation.

Two Zone with Express
Score: 123.3
Fleet: 13 EMU + 7 diesel

Distributed Skip Stop
Score: 124.1
Fleet: 13 EMU + 7 diesel
This timetable has a bit of a "can't get there from here" problem.

Can YOU beat those scores with a better concept?

Of course, scores depend on the assumptions you make. If you assume that the downtown extension is built into San Francisco Transbay, that all the diesels are replaced by EMUs, that dwell times are shortened by system-wide level boarding, that operating practices are reformed to allow better punctuality with less padding of the timetable, that terminal turn times are shortened to match foreign practice, and that a cross-platform transfer station is built in Redwood City with a short four-track section from just north of San Carlos into Redwood City (most of these contemplated in Caltrain's long-term planning), then you can set a sky-high score. In fact, using the Taktulator, you can even quantify the service benefit of each separate improvement. If we're allowed to dream, surely this is one of the most efficient:

Richard's Finest
Score: 230.2
Fleet: 16 EMU

Unfortunately, for the start of electric service in 2023, we'll have to settle for a bit less. There is no service to San Francisco Transbay, there is a fleet of 19 EMUs available of which you probably don't want to operate more than 17 at any given time, dwell times are still long (for simplicity, assume 45 seconds everywhere), timetable padding is ample (assume 10%), terminal turns are slow (assume 15 minutes), and there are no expanded stations or passing tracks. So, with those assumptions input into the Taktulator, can you beat Caltrain's score and win the coveted Takt Cup?

Please post your suggested Taktulator timetables and scores (and your supporting rationale) below in the comments. In your comment, use a clickable hyperlink, in the format <a href="your-taktulator-link">your timetable title<\a>, for brevity and clarity.

Here's my first entry for this contest, to kick things off:

Silicon Valley All Stop
Score: 126.9
Fleet: 17 EMU + 4 diesel

This improves on Caltrain's concept by admitting what census data and Caltrain's presentation tells us: all of Silicon Valley has enormous ridership potential, and running skip-stop express service south of Menlo Park is harmful to overall service quality. In short, the Baby Bullet is bad. This timetable also makes better use of the EMU fleet, as was intended when additional trains were ordered, by running 5 EMU + 1 diesel per hour per direction, instead of 4 EMU + 2 diesel.

Can you beat my score subject to the assumptions above?

01 December 2019

Three Next Steps

Caltrain's exhaustive business plan effort has resulted in a long range service vision for how to grow the railroad to the year 2040, recently adopted by the board as official policy. This is the mountain we wish to climb. How do we climb it? One step at a time. In fact, with electrified service now unlikely to begin before 2023, there is extra time to plan and execute three next steps.

Step One: Extend Platforms

The biggest short-term constraint to growing Caltrain capacity is  limited platform length. The new EMUs will be 685 feet long when extended to eight cars, too long for many existing platforms. The existing platform lengths are shown in the graphic at right (source), with the required extensions to 700 feet highlighted in orange. The diagram shows the year of construction of each platform, proving that Caltrain is a champion of platform construction, having poured about five linear miles of new platforms over the last two decades. The amount missing is about 3500 linear feet, or a bit over two years' worth of average platform production. There are a couple of tight spots boxed in by grade crossings, most notably Burlingame (767 feet between pedestrian crossings), but most locations have plenty of space.

Longer platforms enable the operation of 7-car diesel express trains, each with about 950 seats. While diesel trains don't feature prominently in future plans, they can still fill an important interim role once they become freed up by the arrival of the EMU fleet. The diesels can easily handle longer trains. It may not look good to continue belching diesel fumes, but it gets the job done at far lower emissions per passenger-mile than by forcing unmet demand to drive instead.

At the recent going rate of 7 to 10 thousand dollars per linear foot of platform, including all capital project overheads, the entire job should cost in the range of $25 - $35 million. For perspective, that's a percent or two of the modernization budget. This project is within reach of Caltrain's existing resources and is now official policy under section (1).E.ii of the service vision. There is no plausible excuse for not undertaking it immediately, to finish by 2023 concurrently with the start of electrified revenue service.

Step Two: Add 8th Car to EMU Fleet

The EMU order currently stands at 19 seven-car trains. The seventh car was ordered in a recent exercise of an option on the original contract, at an average price of $4.7 million per car. Assuming 10% price escalation, another 19 cars to extend this fleet to 8 cars would cost about $100M. This is a large sum, but one that could be scraped together over the next year or so if some high-speed rail funding gets re-allocated to interconnected "book end" projects.

The eighth car represents a significant step up in capacity: since it has no traction equipment cabinets, bike spaces or bathrooms, it has room for a whopping 132 seats, bringing seated capacity per EMU from 667 to 799, a 20% increase. So, for an extra 5% of the modernization budget, you buy an extra 20% capacity. This should be undertaken as soon as possible.

From an emissions point of view, ordering the eighth car is far preferable to ordering additional 7-car EMU formations to displace the diesel fleet sooner. Growing the fleet before fully replacing it provides a short-term peak-hour capacity boost that will remove traffic from roads and alleviate congestion, easily offsetting the emissions of the small remaining diesel-hauled fleet. Going all-electric sooner sounds "green" if you look at Caltrain in isolation, but keeping some diesels in the short term is greener when considering the overall transportation system of which Caltrain is a part, which is what ultimately matters for the air we breathe. Seven-car diesels can be used exclusively in express service, where fewer stops and starts (which are dreadfully slow with diesel) pose less of a time penalty.

There is the small wrinkle of where to park these longer trains when they are not in service. CEMOF, the maintenance facility in San Jose, currently stores two trains end-to-end on four 1200-foot sidings where two longer trains (EMU-8 at 685 ft, or diesel+7 at 664 ft) won't fit. This means at least four trains will need to be stored somewhere else, presumably at San Francisco or San Jose, as was the practice before CEMOF was built. In a real pinch, trains can be stored during the off-peak in the controlled sidings south of Redwood Junction, with certain shoulder-of-peak trains originating and terminating at Redwood City to avoid long deadhead moves.

Step Three: Accelerate Planning for Level Boarding

Level boarding (discussed extensively on this blog) decreases trip times, improves punctuality, increases crew productivity per hour of labor, and increases the frequency of service that can be provided by a train fleet of a given size. While Caltrain's embrace of the concept has been hesitant, it is now policy under the same section (1).E.ii of the service vision adopted by the board. The next step is to get serious about planning how to actually do it, because it is a far more complicated problem than it first appears.

Caltrain staff have decided to forgo boarding using the high-level doors, and recently issued a change order to have the EMU fleet delivered with these doors replaced by plug panels. Level boarding will happen with European-style 550 mm platforms, which can't be a bad thing, although accessibility requirements are more difficult to meet in the United States. The trick is then how to get there, and how to end up with a level boarding solution that doesn't require crew assistance whenever a person of reduced mobility needs to board or alight, in the current inefficient fashion of Northeastern railroads.

The trains will require a boarding step arrangement that deploys to serve either 8-inch legacy platforms (using a drop step mechanism) or to close the gap to newly raised 550 mm platforms, during an extended transition period where some stations may have been modified before others. Due to a lack of foresight on Caltrain's part, this capability is not available on the new EMUs as procured. The EMUs will need to be retrofitted with new three-position step modules (presumably engineered by Stadler's step supplier, Bode / Schaltbau) roughly like this:

The primary engineering challenge is to meet the ADA horizontal gap requirement in Position 2, which is 3 inches maximum (in current law) and is planned to be reduced to 2 inches. The step mechanism must also deploy to the correct height without crew intervention.

The platforms will need to be raised by a bit less than 14 inches, preferably without demolishing and starting over. One intriguing way to do this cheaply and with minimal service disruption would be to re-use the existing platforms as a slab foundation, with drainage, electrical grounding and bonding, and utilities staying as they are. The platforms would first be fitted with prefabricated adjustable edge modules. An adjustable platform edge that can be jacked to the correct height at initial installation and periodically adjusted during maintenance (e.g. after track tamping) is an unavoidable requirement of meeting the demanding ADA gap specifications for unassisted level boarding.

View of a single six-foot-long 550-mm platform edge module installed on a legacy 8” platform
After suitable modifications to platform amenities, the remaining area of the platform would be raised using lightweight expanded polystyrene fill (Geofoam) and modular pavers. The pavers cover the temporary boarding step that is integral to each edge module, which is no longer needed. The resiliency of the resulting platform structure enables periodic adjustment of the platform edge jackscrews to maintain compliance with the ADA gap criteria.

The modular construction technique with edge modules and pavers lends itself to rapid “blitz” construction schedules, since no platform concrete curing is necessary. After each night's construction, the platform can be left in a usable state for the next day's service, avoiding the logistical complications of closing entire platforms during construction.

Regardless of the technical solution ultimately adopted, level boarding starts with a robust planning process to define the problem and consider all the engineering approaches. This planning process is not expensive, and it needs to be funded and staffed now that level boarding is policy.

State of Good Design

Railroad operating departments work hard to achieve and maintain what is known in industry lingo as a state of good repair (SOGR). If that's all that Caltrain is going to do in the next decade, electrification will fall flat, like a sort of MBTA with pantographs on top. We have a chance to move beyond the narrow commuter-rail SOGR mindset, striving for something far bigger: a state of good design. The three next steps described here are a small way to get started right now on the way to the visionary service improvements described in Caltrain's business plan.