26 June 2010

Tunnel Sizes

Mountain View mayor Ronit Bryant argues that a deep tunnel for Mountain View ought to be considered because "most of the BART in our area is underground. If they managed it then, why can't they do it now?" Here's one big reason why:

The HSR tunnel requires large clearances around the train for aerodynamic reasons. Without those clearances, a high-speed train (going 1.5 to 2 times as fast as BART's maximum speed) will dump megawatts of power into swirling the air inside the tunnel, making it unbearably hot. In the diagram, the BART tunnel bore is 16 feet (5 meters), and the HSR tunnel bore is 26 feet (8 meters).

19 June 2010

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

The June 2nd CHSRA Operations Committee meeting audio recording included some interesting information that was neither in the agenda nor in the PowerPoint slides, regarding the relationship between Caltrain and the CHSRA.

The True Meaning of Track Sharing

The following exchange took place between Rod Diridon, board member of the CHSRA, and Tony Daniels, the program manager for the entire technical effort--a sort of godfather figure of the HSR project. They had been discussing and praising Caltrain's recently obtained FRA waiver, which allows Caltrain to operate European-style electric trains provided that certain conditions are met. Here's where the discussion went next:
Diridon: The joint track waiver that FRA is going to be giving now to Caltrain, is for them to use diesel and electric, their electric, not our vehicles, on their track.

Daniels: Right. Compliant and non-compliant is the best way to look at it.

Diridon: I understand. But to be more graphic here, it's the difference between using diesel locomotives and the lighter European or Asian type electric powered vehicles.

Daniels: Only for passengers. No freight.

Diridon: For passenger service, on the same track.

Daniels: Not freight.

Diridon: Right, and of course that assumes positive train control.

Daniels: Yeah.

Diridon: Have we thought about using their tracks for our … locomotives, or…

Daniels: We are. We are doing it…

Diridon: I meant their double-track system for our system.

Daniels: We are doing it.

Pourvahidi: Instead of our tracks, instead of having our tracks?

Diridon: No, I don't see in our alternatives any place…

Daniels: No no just, sorry, (…) it's not that we can't run on it, we can, if it was necessary, in the same way as the Caltrain trains can run on ours, our so-called tracks. It's just that there's not the capacity.

Diridon: Well I understand capacity.

Daniels: Right. But you can't work on either. We're planning to keep them separated except when you come in from Bayshore into 4th & King and ultimately Transbay, we have to mix ourselves on the track. As we go into Transbay, for example, we'll use the same track going in.

Diridon: Though we certainly wouldn't prefer it. But if we were stuck along the peninsula someplace with no more than a two-track system, … have you thought about that?

Daniels: Uhhh, it would change completely the whole plan. Right now, we're kind of…

Diridon: I'm not proposing it. Don't misunderstand me.

Daniels: We looked at it operationally, at 60,000 feet, and just… we're talking 22 trains an hour. That's not on, you can't turn around.

Diridon: You mean at maximum, there's 22 trains an hour. Not to begin with.

Daneils: No, but ultimately, when you're starting, you're going to be on the order of something like 18 trains an hour. Then you've got to turn them around at the other end. That's where the difficulty is, not running them on the tracks.

Diridon: You're talking about Caltrain now?

Daniels: Yeah. You can't turn that number of trains around at the terminal end.
The key nugget is highlighted in red. Despite Caltrain's dogged insistence to the contrary, the CHSRA does not, repeat, DOES NOT, plan to share tracks with Caltrain on the peninsula. Their plan is to have their own pair of exclusive-use tracks all the way up to Bayshore. Those HSR tracks could only be "shared" by Caltrain under rare circumstances when another track is out of service--a sort of breakdown lane, and certainly not a mixed-use corridor that would allow Caltrain to provide both frequent AND fast service.

This can and should be construed as a downright rape of Caltrain. HSR is going to be brutishly rammed up the peninsula corridor without due regard to the enormous benefits that a truly shared corridor could provide for peninsula commuters--whether they ride the train or drive.

Keep Your Hands Off My Stimulus

Another interesting exchange occurred regarding the $2.3 billion of federal stimulus funding that the FRA has awarded to California. As noted repeatedly at the operations committee meeting, the late 2011 deadline for stimulus funding is extremely tight, with environmental clearance (a.k.a "shovel readiness") of the peninsula high-speed rail project unlikely to be obtained, let alone litigated. Sensing the possibility that this time-critical federal funding could slip away to other parts of the state, the Bay Area congressional delegation is supporting Caltrain's effort to jockey for some of the HSR bacon.
Diridon: Also, when would be an appropriate time to talk about the impact of the attempt by the Caltrain system to acquire ARRA funds directly.


Daniels: I think that's a separate matter for the authority, I think, to try and resolve what… is Steve Schnaidt [legislative affairs consultant] here? Because he brought this up as an item that we need to try and resolve, because there is some conflict between what the peninsula wishes to do and what we're doing on the high-speed rail, and that has not been cleaned up yet, I don't think.

Diridon: Can I ask a further question there, sorry to take so much time. [Friendly banter about Diridon taking so much time.] It seems to me that the environmental clearances that the Caltrain system has, that they want to fund, are based on a Caltrain type of service.

Daniels: That's right.

Diridon: Not on a four-track system.

Daniels: Correct.

Diridon: As a consequence, if you're talking about attempting to use ARRA funds to do their electrification on a two-track system, or to do grade separations on a two-track system, it's counter-productive to our objectives. Is that not a factual statement?

Daniels: It is and it isn't. It's not a black-and-white answer. I mean you could structure it, if you could do it under the environmental, our high-speed rail environmental process, it would help ultimately the building of our piece of it. You could state it that way, but …

Diridon: I absolutely understand that we could meld their clearance into ours and modify their clearance to include a four-track system instead of a two-track system or elevated or whatever ours is going to be. But the clearance that they have now, that they're trying to rely upon in order to qualify for ARRA funds directly, is based on a two-track system--on-grade, two-track system--which may not be what comes out of our study.

Daniels: It's very unlikely it will. We will be, we know already from everything we're doing that it's a four-track system to make it work for both sets of operations, commuter and high-speed rail.

Diridon: So, at some point Mr. Chairman we need to have a conversation on this subject. Because if ARRA funds go in to build for example an undercrossing for a two-track system, we then come along at a point in the future with a four-track system, that has to be accommodated by the undercrossing, we have to rebuild the undercrossing. That's the worst kind of government. We don't want to be tearing up brand new projects in order to change something.

Daniels: Well here's the answer to that movie, Rod. The question that we raised right at the beginning of them having some guidance from the FRA about how we're going to put these ARRA funds together will include whether we can or cannot do what you've said. On first glance, I don't think you can, because the ARRA funds are supposed to be for high-speed trains, and a two-track commuter line is not a high-speed train.
Let the games begin. As a clarification, Caltrain board has not actually certified the electrification EIR just yet. That action, unexpectedly held up last April, is reportedly slated for early July.

A Compromise Solution?

One of the many strings attached by FRA to their Caltrain waiver is that positive train control must be installed, tested, and FRA-certified before Caltrain can carry even a single passenger on an electric train. That puts PTC in the critical path. Unfortunately, Caltrain's PTC plans do not jive with high-speed rail's PTC plans. That lack of jive makes it exceedingly unlikely that ARRA high-speed rail money will be allowed to fund Caltrain's PTC project. In these lean times, just where is Caltrain going to find $230 million (opening bid!) to build something that's incompatible with high-speed rail?

A far better approach would be to grant Caltrain some ARRA money to become the first installation of ERTMS in the United States, blazing the path for high-speed rail. Everybody wins: Caltrain gets a lower-risk, timely PTC solution with funding to back it up--and HSR gets the bureaucracy of importing and tailoring ERTMS taken care of early, a state-wide benefit that is far from a parochial peninsula interest. With a viable PTC program in place, it might even make sense to start thinking of funding some Caltrain electrification infrastructure--infrastructure that would be quite useless without PTC. See the Catch-22?

When you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

08 June 2010

Bi-Level or Bust

A while back, Bob Doty (Director of the Peninsula Rail Program) was asked about the incompatibility of platform heights between HSR and Caltrain. His response:
The primary issue of non-compatible equipment between Caltrain and high-speed trains is that they will not be able to share the same platform edge if level-boarding access is to be provided.
Level-boarding access refers to the platform and train floor both being the same height--similar to boarding an elevator--and is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. For an introduction to the subject, covering the various regulatory and engineering constraints, refer to an earlier discussion of platform height. In short, accessible boarding will have to be provided at every train door.

Doty's comment is predicated on two important but unstated assumptions: (1) Caltrain must operate bi-level train cars, and (2) HSR high platforms are not compatible with bi-level train cars. Let's examine those two assumptions.

Must Caltrain operate bi-level train cars?

Since the late 1950s, the peninsula commute has traditionally used railroad cars that have two levels, upstairs and downstairs. Bi-level cars are such a familiar fixture on the peninsula that one might forget to even question how or why they came to be that way. Even future Caltrain vehicles are systematically depicted as bi-levels. The reasons to use bi-level cars include:
  • Bi-levels maximize passenger count per train, to provide a given transportation capacity using the fewest trains and crews.
  • Bi-levels maximize linear density, or how many passengers can sit within a given train length. This can be useful when platform length can't be extended, such as in Menlo Park or Burlingame, where the platforms are boxed in by grade crossings.
  • Bi-levels provide a seat for every passenger, with no standees. The average Caltrain trip length is 23 miles or roughly half an hour, longer than most people would be willing to stand. Because of this, by the way, Caltrain's capacity is defined not in terms of passengers per hour, but seats per hour.
  • Bi-levels minimize the mass per seat of the train to reduce energy consumption under intensive start-and-stop usage. (Note, mass per seat can be a misleading metric if a train is designed to provide significant amounts of standing room.)
  • Bi-levels take advantage of the generous vertical clearances available on the peninsula corridor.
  • Bi-levels have been used on the peninsula as far back as most people can remember.
  • Bi-levels differentiate Caltrain's brand image from BART.
Now consider these counterpoints:
  • Providing a seat for every passenger results in Caltrain operating at an average capacity of just 39 percent. The numbers don't lie, Caltrain actually hauls around significantly more empty seats than passengers! A few peak-hour express trains do operate near 100% of seating capacity, but conversely, many off-peak trains operate nearly empty. Specifying a new vehicle fleet in terms of peak seating capacity (as opposed to passenger capacity) will perpetuate this extremely low and wasteful average load factor.
  • Shorter trip times, thanks to fast-accelerating, short-dwell EMUs, may reduce the need for seating if there's a comfortable place to stand. Most of Caltrain's current fleet doesn't have anywhere to stand at all; if you do, you will quickly be shooed to a seat by a conductor. The need for a seat for every passenger is a self-fulfilling truth: everyone needs a seat because there's nowhere to stand!
  • Speeding up service, and especially the turnaround times at each end of the line, allows more trains to be operated using the same number of vehicles and crews. More frequent trains can meet a given level of passenger demand using fewer seats per train.
  • 100% grade separation for HSR means that stations will no longer be boxed in by grade crossings and the length of platforms can be increased (within reason, of course.) Extending platforms across grade-separated streets has the additional benefit of providing direct platform access from both sidewalks of those streets, making stations more accessible to pedestrians.
  • Caltrain plans to increase peak rush-hour track capacity from today's 5 trains per hour per direction; a conceptual schedule shows as many as 10 trains per hour per direction. Once again, moving more trains per hour can meet a given level of passenger demand with smaller-capacity trains.
Perhaps the need for double-deckers isn't as pressing as it once was.

One could argue that growing ridership would eventually require bi-level cars anyway--similar to this gargantuan commuter train in New Jersey--an argument that isn't entirely without merit, since rail vehicles typically last for one-third of a century. But this argument would need to be based on a serious, quantitative ridership study.

So, must Caltrain use bi-levels? The answer is not as obvious as one might first expect.

It's even less obvious that Caltrain should provide an actual seat for every customer. Providing convenient and comfortable places to stand, and a more flexible floor plan for standees and bicycles, would increase the average load factor and make more efficient and profitable use of the new vehicle fleet. Rush-hour crush loads could still be met by increasing train length (something that is inherently easy to do with EMUs) and by increasing train frequencies.

Are high platforms compatible with bi-level train cars?

The most important implication of this question is how to pull off the transition from the existing low platforms to the high platforms typically used for high-speed rail, without interrupting Caltrain service during construction. One possible solution to this transition conundrum has already been described.

Assuming such a transition were feasible, would it preclude the use of bi-level train cars?

The quick answer is no. You don't have to go further than Chicago or the Northeast Corridor to see plenty of bi-level trains that board using high platforms--to say nothing about numerous examples abroad. The slightly longer answer is that high platforms don't jive with Caltrain's plans to acquire European bi-level EMUs. The European products that Caltrain is evaluating (bi-level EMUs from Bombardier, Siemens or Alstom... and by now, hopefully also Stadler, which just recently entered this market) all feature doors on the lower level. Low-floor boarding has undeniable advantages:
  • It's what the builders already provide off-the-shelf.
  • It allows doors to be optimally spaced out along the length of the train, providing good passenger circulation and reducing station dwell times.
  • It makes for a much easier transition from today's 8-inch platforms to the ADA-mandated level-boarding without interruption in Caltrain service.
  • It allows Caltrain to retain its relatively young Bombardier sub-fleet, if the platform height is established at 25 inches (the floor height of a Bombardier car). One can of course question the wisdom of making a fundamental corridor architecture decision, such as platform height, on the basis of a sub-fleet of 25 standard-issue commuter cars that would fetch excellent prices on the second-hand market.
All that being said, European bi-level 25 kV EMUs with high-level boarding do actually exist, although not in a form that would be directly applicable here on the peninsula. Without belittling the intrinsic packaging complexity of such vehicles, it is conceivable that one could be procured from within the broad product families of the major manufacturers, which typically feature a modular approach that provides some flexibility in car shell design.

High-level boarding would definitely introduce a big wrinkle in Caltrain's existing plans, but those plans ought to be carefully re-examined in the context of a shared corridor with HSR.

Incompatible Caltrain and HSR platforms would have several crippling drawbacks for the peninsula corridor. The operational benefits of "any train, any track, any platform" are too great to ignore--perhaps even great enough to smash the bi-level paradigm and the low-boarding paradigm. Beware of unvalidated assumptions!

05 June 2010

News Roundup

Another all-stops local round up of relevant peninsula rail news.

SJ - Merced Alternatives Analysis

The California High Speed Rail Authority releases its preliminary alternatives analysis for the San Jose to Merced segment (see board presentation and full report), including the section through San Jose. The result is a balanced trade-off between maximizing construction pork and placating residential neighbors, with transportation utility clearly taking a back seat. The resulting twisty aerial viaduct is already being hailed as a potential "iconic" structure for San Jose, never mind that it will permanently restrict train speeds to a disfunctional 50 mph. That's right, the curve radius will be even tighter than the existing railroad alignment, in another fine example of high-speed rail à la Californienne.

The key take-away phrase, for our dear communities on the peninsula:
After considerable study (...), it is concluded that all underground options are not practicable due to unsafe mining conditions (poor soils combined with high groundwater), construction schedule, potential for settlement, extensive surface disruption and very high construction cost and should be eliminated from further evaluation.

Caltrain Fiscal Emergency

Caltrain declares another fiscal emergency, despite being the second-most "profitable" transit operator in the Bay Area, with a fare box recovery ratio of 43%, not far behind BART. Board member Omar Ahmad makes the shocking but astute suggestion that a wind-down plan may be needed to pull the plug on Caltrain in 2012. Maybe the specter of fighting traffic with another 18,000 cars on the road will jolt the system into providing Caltrain with a much-needed dedicated source of funding.

Bets are open for how long it will take the California High Speed Rail Authority to shed another crocodile tear about the impending bankruptcy of the owner of a 700-acre piece of prime railroad real estate.

Bring Home That Bacon

The Bay Area congressional delegation, likely realizing that the CHSRA will never meet the federal stimulus deadlines and lose the entire $2.3 billion California HSR allocation to other parts of the state, fires off a letter to transportation secretary Ray LaHood asking for some of that largesse to be showered upon shovel-ready Caltrain capital projects.

Now if only Caltrain could get some operating funding... This is like adding a new bedroom when you can't even pay the heating bill. Operating funds create jobs too!

Californians for HSR Letter

The grassroots group Californians for High Speed Rail writes an excellent letter to Caltrain, laying out many of the same compatibility concerns that have long been the central topic of this blog. Hats off to them, and here's hoping that the letter will have more impact than one guy on his internet soapbox (right here.)

01 June 2010

Staking Out CBOSS Territory

All railroads that will be deploying Positive Train Control (PTC, read all about it here) before the mandated deadline of 2015 were required by federal law (49 CFR Part 236 Subpart I) to submit a PTC Implementation Plan by April 16th, 2010. This plan, subject to FRA approval, is where each railroad explains how it plans to deploy PTC.

Caltrain's PTC Implementation Plan (4.5 MB PDF) was submitted in late March, and is available to the public under docket FRA-2010-0051.

Not surprisingly, the centerpiece of Caltrain's PTCIP is the Communications-Based Overlay Signal System (CBOSS), a new PTC system that Caltrain is developing. CBOSS, described in a Caltrain fact sheet, is about to go out for bid. The importance of this system cannot be overstated, since the additional safety it confers on Caltrain's operations are a prerequisite for the transition to a new fleet of electric trains as well as the extensive reconstruction of the peninsula corridor to accommodate high-speed rail. PTC is a necessary step on the path to reinventing the peninsula corridor, and lies squarely in the schedule's critical path--never mind any federal deadlines. There remains a significant amount of doubt about whether Caltrain can actually pull it off.

Planning For Interoperability

By law, a PTCIP is supposed to describe in some detail how the proposed PTC system will provide interoperability between the "host railroad" and all "tenant railroads" that use the host railroad's tracks. Accordingly, Caltrain lists the following tenant railroads: Union Pacific Railroad, which operates a few freight trains on the peninsula; Amtrak, which operates the Coast Starlight along 6.7 miles of Caltrain's tracks through San Jose and Santa Clara; the Capitol Corridor JPA, which operates Amtrak California trains along 2.6 miles of Caltrain's tracks; and the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which operates the Altamont Commuter Express trains along 2.6 miles of Caltrain's tracks. According to the PTCIP, the entire volume of traffic from all tenant railroads is currently 24 trains per day.

The stunning omission from Caltrain's PTCIP is any mention of high-speed rail. HSR is not mentioned even a single time anywhere in this 123-page document.

While HSR will not be anywhere near entering service by the PTC deadline of December 31st, 2015, the technical interoperability issues with high-speed rail are of paramount importance. HSR is the ultimate "tenant railroad" since it plans to operate on the order of 200 trains per day along the entire length of the peninsula, as opposed to 24 trains per day, most for only 2.6 miles between San Jose and Santa Clara, for all other tenant railroads combined. The ratio of train-miles operated on Caltrain territory for HSR vs. all other tenant railroads will be nearly two orders of magnitude as shown in the chart at left!

Looking at the chart might elicit an important question: with which "tenant railroad" will it be most important to interoperate? The Caltrain PTCIP provides the answer, point blank: the Union Pacific Railroad (see section 5.2), shown in yellow on the chart. That's right, because of an assumption that UPRR cannot be bothered to fit additional PTC equipment on the handful of its locomotives that operate on the peninsula, or an assumption that HSR may never come to fruition, CBOSS must be designed to be 100% compatible with whatever technology UPRR comes up with by 2015. There are two possible outcomes to this approach:
  1. The entire statewide fleet of high-speed trains will need to be fitted and certified with a separate set of CBOSS train-borne equipment for operation on Caltrain's tracks because the HSR PTC system will be inoperable in "CBOSS Territory", or

  2. The peninsula corridor will be segregated into technically incompatible HSR tracks and Caltrain + freight tracks, each with its own PTC system.
Neither of these outcomes is good for state or federal taxpayers, and the latter is a disaster for the train riding public. Both outcomes are quite profitable for the companies that will design, build, deploy, test, certify and operate the respective PTC systems on the taxpayer's dime.

One would think that enough time has passed since November 2008, when the high-speed rail bond was approved by California voters, to develop at least an inkling of a plan for how HSR will mesh with Caltrain in the area of PTC. One would further expect that Caltrain's insistence that the peninsula corridor will be a fully-shared four-track system would cause it to pay special attention to questions of future interoperability with HSR. One would even further expect that the California High-Speed Rail Authority's apparent plan to use ERTMS (an existing European PTC standard that has similar functionality, but is different from CBOSS) would at least be acknowledged in Caltrain's PTCIP.

Is this a lack of attention to detail? Evidently not: Caltrain's PTCIP goes into considerable detail on how individual PTC hardware components will be mounted on its locomotive fleet, as evidenced by the photo at right. The photo, included in an Appendix of the PTCIP, shows an early prototype of a CBOSS Central Display Unit (at the same stage of development as the CBOSS software) being fitted to the cab of a Caltrain locomotive. What is most visible in this photo is attention to the wrong details, details that are trivial, while other enormously important issues are seemingly entirely overlooked.

If one requirement of a PTCIP is to describe how a PTC system will provide interoperability of the system between the "host railroad" (Caltrain) and the ultimate "tenant railroad" in the form of high-speed rail, Caltrain's PTCIP has fallen woefully short.

What is the plan?