04 June 2023

BEMU Obsession

Barry the BEMU,
Caltrain's new mascot

"Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget—and I'll tell you what you value."

There's a new obsession gripping Caltrain: the Battery EMU, an electric train that can travel without overhead wires using electricity drawn from a large battery on board the train. The BEMU features prominently in Caltrain's recently approved two-year budget, which offers the best way to understand the agency's values. We find allocations for:

  • $80M for a single BEMU prototype train (at a $25M premium over a regular EMU)
  • $3.7M for in-house BEMU research and development
  • $2.5M for operations planning (including BEMU operations)
  • $1.1M to develop a 10-year capital improvement plan
  • $1 million to develop a roadmap for level boarding
  • $0.5 million to study future grade separations

The bottom of this list combines to roughly $5M of planning for Caltrain's entire future, a critically important activity to ensure its continued viability. The top two items in this list are almost $30M to pursue a BEMU obsession that will cost much, much more to scale up to anything resembling a viable service pattern. Going by these numbers, Caltrain values BEMUs about six times more than planning for its entire future!

Going Green by Blowing Green

Recently enacted California air quality mandates will make Caltrain's entire diesel locomotive fleet illegal to operate by 2030. This includes the nine locomotives now being refurbished at great expense and retained to operate diesel service to Gilroy (numbers 920 - 928).

If you start from the premise that rail service to Gilroy must be maintained and expanded at any and all costs (regardless of the much ballyhooed fiscal cliff) then a solution must be found to run trains beyond the end of the wires in San Jose, and soon.

Here is the range of available options, from cheapest and most reasonable to most risky and profligate:

  1. Most obviously, purchase the same diesel passenger locomotive that almost every passenger rail operator now uses in California: the Siemens Charger, used by Amtrak, ACE and Coaster. This is a modern low-emission model that will not be outlawed, requires no R&D, and costs about $8M each.
  2. Slightly more ambitious is to purchase an upcoming version of the same Charger locomotive that will have zero emission capability to operate through densely populated areas, thanks to a bank of batteries built into a permanently coupled passenger car. This is a model known as the ALC-42E and has been ordered in large quantities by Amtrak. As a bonus, it can draw power directly from overhead wires where available. This option requires no R&D and likely costs closer to $12M each.

  3. Yet another possibility, if one accepts the idea of a seamless cross-platform transfer at San Jose Diridon, is to serve the low-ridership Gilroy branch with smaller trains that do not interline onto the peninsula rail corridor. Stadler has an existing BEMU product known as the FLIRT Akku, developed for remote branch lines in Germany that have similar ridership profiles as Gilroy. This option requires little R&D (beyond overcoming American "not invented here" syndrome and shepherding the technology through FRA approval) and likely costs about $20M per train.

  4. By far the most risky and expensive option is to apply the Akku technology to the Caltrain version of the Stadler KISS, turning it into a supersized BEMU to serve Gilroy and points beyond (Salinas, anyone?) with massively oversized 650+ seat trains. This requires new research and development to add very large batteries (likely in excess of 1 MWh) that will be lugged around as giant dead weights whenever the train operates under the wire. Adding massive batteries to the KISS EMU defeats the very purpose of this vehicle: to move huge numbers of people quickly even with lots of station stops. Costing $85M for the first example and likely north of $60M for each follow-on, this BEMU can rightly be described as "the wrong tool for the job."

You'd need at least six trains to run anything resembling a reasonable service pattern, so multiply accordingly: Caltrain is contemplating the expenditure of about 1/3 billion dollars to keep the Gilroy branch steadfastly served by steel wheels on steel rails. We all love Gilroy, but at any cost?

the right tool for the job
(original by Grendelkhan)
Considering that the Gilroy branch generates very little ridership (about 1% of Caltrain's total ridership before the pandemic), a better interim solution, until the HSR project electrifies the tracks, is to transfer the Gilroy branch to a mature, affordable and environmentally friendly rubber wheel technology: the express bus. This would have the added benefit of allowing Caltrain to quickly rid itself of all of its polluting and failure-prone diesel equipment by 2025, with enormous savings in operating and maintenance costs just as the agency reaches its purported "fiscal cliff." Caltrain should go 100% electric now.

Consultant Featherbedding

The root of this insanity is understandable: Caltrain has for many years retained the services of in-house vehicle consultant LTK, tasked with supporting the highly complex procurement and regulatory approval of a new fleet of electric vehicles. Now that the Stadler contract will be winding down as this new fleet enters service, these people's jobs will be finished. They desperately need to justify their continued existence, and an open-ended research and development project to send oversized bilevel BEMUs all the way to Gilroy, Salinas and beyond is the perfectly timed green-washing opportunity.

Sadly, the BEMU is an expensive solution looking for a problem.

05 March 2023

The False Choice of Link21

Link21, the nascent megaproject to beef up the Bay Area's passenger rail network, features at its core a new underground transbay passenger rail crossing between Oakland and San Francisco. One of the major dilemmas facing this program is what kind of rail service to put in that new tunnel. The choice is posed between BART (understood as wide-gauge single-level rolling stock) and regional rail (understood as standard gauge FRA-compatible rolling stock). One or the other, but not both.

This is a false choice!

Yes, we can have both. They can share the same tunnels and tracks, if we can just get past the mental block of rigidly associating BART with broad gauge. It may seem mind-blowing, and require crayon colors that nobody has seen before, but BART can have a new standard gauge line. It's nothing unusual for transit systems to operate rolling stock with incompatible track gauges or structure gauges. Besides, BART already is our regional rail, despite any semantic distinctions we Americans reflexively attach to various sub-types of rail, real or imagined.

Where would this new standard gauge BART line go? From Oakland, it would continue south via existing and under-utilized standard gauge rail corridors to serve the (re-gauged) Dublin / Pleasanton branch, which could be further extended to serve the Altamont Pass (hello, Valley Link) and points beyond. Long-distance trains, provided they have a pantograph, could run through from the Central Valley straight into downtown San Francisco.

Link21 planners should stop promoting this specious choice between BART and regional rail. They don't need separate tunnels, and the dogmatic belief that they do will inevitably result in terrible planning decisions.

Small print regarding the graphic: the single tunnel bore (of two) is drawn rigorously to scale. The BART broad gauge version is 250 inches (almost 21 feet) in external diameter, taken from a VTA drawing. The regional rail version is 8 meters (a bit over 26 feet) to accommodate taller bi-level trains. The overhead conductor rail, of the same design used by Caltrain in its San Francisco tunnels, is 18 feet above the rail. The BART standard gauge train is a Stadler KISS with the same dimensions as Caltrain's, but a different color of paint as previously seen in this post.

Note an alternate configuration is also possible with a 40-foot external diameter single bore tunnel.

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.