30 March 2011

News Roundup

Rubber Stamp

Mike Rosenberg pens a scathing indictment of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain, calling out the board for rubber-stamping everything that is submitted to it by Caltrain staff (including, presumably, the MOU with high-speed rail). The number of Yes votes since the last dissenting vote: 1,591. With only 9 board members, that's 176 consecutive unanimous Yes votes!

One of the dangers of having staff run the show is that an organization will pursue projects for their own sake, to perpetuate its own bureaucratic existence. Case in point: Caltrain's CBOSS train control project, where a small back-and-forth transit operation runs amok with a $230 million technology research and development project that is almost certainly doomed to development failure. Speaking of train control...

ERTMS on the Peninsula?

The CHSRA staff memo for the recent board meeting happens to tally the money currently allocated for HSR in California. One of the items is $16 million of ARRA stimulus money, previously requested as an ear-mark for CBOSS, but now described as funding the "design/implementation of the first Positive Train Control/ERTMS interface implementation on the Peninsula." Say what?

(to find out what the acronyms CBOSS and ERTMS describe, please read here.)

An optimist would note this is the first time that 'ERTMS' and 'Peninsula' are mentioned in the same sentence in official agency materials, rather than just a blog. That much is encouraging.

A pessimist would note that "interface implementation" means an interface between the existing ERTMS and Caltrain's proposed CBOSS, assuming they would co-exist. This is the worst of both worlds: not only is CBOSS 100% functionally redundant with ERTMS, i.e. it will do the exact same thing that ERTMS already does, but interfaces between multiple complex safety-critical systems are astonishingly expensive to implement successfully. If CBOSS wasn't enough of a promise of years of delay and cost blowouts, then kludging ERTMS on top of CBOSS is an absolute guarantee.

The high-speed rail project has very strongly implied that ERTMS would someday be installed on the peninsula. The recent train control technical memos (see TM-3.3.x) explicitly state that the selected technology must already exist as part of an operating system with proven experience worldwide on at least one high-speed passenger railway. That leaves exactly two solutions: (1) the ERTMS standard supported by the world's biggest names in train control, being deployed in dozens of countries worldwide, and (2) the Japanese Digital-ATC product by Hitachi, deployed in Japan and Taiwan. Wanna place bets?

Show Some Teeth, For Once!

One thing the Caltrain board of directors might consider sinking its teeth into (if it has any?) is the CBOSS fiasco-in-the-making. The correct answer, for a small fiscally-vulnerable operation like Caltrain, is to use tried and true solutions whenever they are available. When the wheel already exists (ERTMS) you don't take the risk of re-inventing the wheel (CBOSS), especially when HSR has already telegraphed its intent to deploy ERTMS and might even pay for it!

At this point, a few wrong moves like CBOSS can quite literally end Caltrain's chances of survival.


  1. Could Caltrain's financial troubles be knocking some sense into its directors? If one's going to cancel all but weekday or even peak-time service because of lack of money, then CBOSS is the last thing that one should be spending one's money on.

  2. CBOSS will not be functionally redundant with ETCS. ETCS wouldn't really provide any extra capacity, because Level 2 needs some existing train detection system, which in Caltrain's case is the track circuits they already have. I believe the "communications based" part of CBOSS is supposed to have some other system of figuring out where the trains are, which can allow for higher capacity. And, it can be used to interface to ETCS too: CBOSS can determine where the trains are, ETCS can tell them how far they can go. You end up with something functionally equivalent to the not-yet-specified ETCS Level 3, instead of Level 2. Which isn't really necessary for Caltrain's operation, but that's a whole different matter.

    As for existing standards, I'd think along with D-ATC, LZB and TVM are both considerably more proven than ETCS for high speed operation. There's also ACSES of course, which I believe is based on the french KVB system.

  3. Arcady, Caltrain isn't at capacity. But if it had real capacity problems, wouldn't it be better to use the train circuit system in Switzerland, capable of 110-second headways, than to invent a one-of-a-kind system?

  4. @Arcady: functionally redundant means the functions are the same. Principally enforcement of movement authorities. The fancy moving block stuff is a non-sequitur... an ETCS Level 1 overlay would work just fine on the peninsula, and HSR would just use the same train-borne equipment to drop seamlessly from Level 2 to Level 1 when entering the peninsula.

    TVM and LZB are fine systems but they are obsolete. Their respective countries of origin are moving forcefully towards ERTMS/ETCS.

    Finally, Caltrain capacity is limited by differing train speeds. Better block length optimization also helps, but that is already underway independently of PTC.

  5. Adirondacker1280031 March, 2011 19:19

    A pessimist would note that "interface implementation" means an interface between the existing ERTMS and Caltrain's proposed CBOSS, assuming they would co-exist.

    It could mean an interface between whatever the CAHSR settles on, which seems like it will be some flavor of ERTMS and whatever the freight railroads settle on which is migrating towards a flavor of ERTMS. A last time I went and looked things up it was being called ICBS - Interoperable Communication-Based Signaling.... An unfortunate acronym.


    Arcady, rebuilding the corridor for HSR means ripping almost everything out. Doesn't really matter much what Caltrain uses now.

  6. The freight railroads are not migrating towards ERTMS. CBOSS is to be based on UPRR's PTC system, which I believe goes by the name Interoperable Train Control. Basically a PTC system developed by the Class Is. It is not ICBS. Caltrain is accepting bids based a standard that hasn't even been finalized, something which provides unlimited scope for contract change orders ($$$) after CBOSS is awarded.

    From the CBOSS RFP statement of work:

    The Contractor is required to provide Caltrain PTC system fixed infrastructure that is interoperable with Caltrain’s tenant railroads’ PTC equipped trains. Caltrain’s tenant railroads are expected to utilize the PTC system established for operation on Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) territory. The Product is to have a system architecture, communications protocols, data, transmission media and modulation methods that are interoperable with tenant railroads and with the adjacent host railroad (UPRR) to support the functions necessary to conform to the federal PTC regulations and corresponding provisions of applicable PTC interoperability standards. The Contractor’s work includes coordination and design efforts that will be required to work with Caltrain, the tenant railroads and the governing PTC interoperability standards body (expected to be the Association of American Railroads) to satisfactorily develop and implement interoperability functionality for the Product described in this Request for Proposal (RFP).

    Of course, CHSRA is going to be the ultimate tenant railroad, as I described here. When asked repeatedly about this by potential bidders, Caltrain has consistently said that HSR was out of scope and that HSR compatibility was not necessary. Compatibility with UPRR, however, is their Priority Number One.

    What a clusterfudge.

  7. Adirondacker1280031 March, 2011 21:03

    I'll bite, what are the differences between ICBS and ERTMS?

  8. Thanks for posting Clem,

    The one two punch of this CBOSS/ERTMS clusterfudge and the Mercury News article made me pretty upset. I don't necessarily understand all this but it sounds like my tax dollars are going down the drain, along with the dream of good train service.

    I collected the emails of a few of the Caltrain Board members and some of the politicians who appoint those board members. I sent them my thoughts and would encourage others to do the same.

    Here are the addresses I collected, maybe we can grow the list together here.

    board@caltrain.com ; cgroom@co.sanmateo.ca.us ; dhorsley@co.sanmateo.ca.us ; atissier@co.sanmateo.ca.us ; rgibson@co.sanmateo.ca.us ; mayoredwinlee@sfgov.org ; info@smcta.com ; liz.kniss@bos.sccgov.org ; cityattorney@sfgov.org

  9. As far as I can tell, most of the problem here is that Caltrain's staff is assuming that the technical environment will not include HSR, at the same time as the Caltrain board is assuming that the future funding environment will include HSR coming and saving Caltrain with piles of cash. With that in mind, the design assumptions and rationale behind CBOSS become clearer. Namely: a) Caltrain will keep largely the same infrastructure aside from electrification, b) the Feds require some kind of PTC, and c) commuter service will increase somewhat, and freight service will remain. Both ETCS and CBOSS will fulfill the requirements of the PTC mandate. But CBOSS will be interoperable with UP's PTC system, and will provide extra capacity without having to modify the existing signal system too much. On the other hand, ETCS will not be interoperable, and will require adding more track circuits for more capacity. Of course, if HSR is coming, none of that matters and it's best to just go with whatever HSR is using, and if they're electrifying, they'll need to throw out all the track circuits anyways to replace them with electrification-compatible ones, and while they're at it, they may as well redesign the whole signal system to optimize things for the service they want to run.

    By the way, apparently the Swedish railway administation is developing a version of ERTMS called ERTMS Regional that will have a very similar system architecture to the PTC systems on North American railroads, and will likely be suitable for the same sort of uses as whatever systems UP and BNSF are developing, especially for providing PTC on lines that are currently dark territory or ABS-only single track.

  10. Here's JPB board member Arthur Lloyd's email: arthurlloyd25@yahoo.com

  11. Yes indeed this $16 million is nothing more than money down a rat hole.

    I believe that we can all blame Rep. Anna Eshoo for this; someone at CalTrain has her ear, and she has been pushing hard for for this.

    She is really totally ignorant of the issues involved here; this ignorance was so evident in her holding the meeting in Menlo Park a year ago. She really looked bad.

    I find it also a bit strange, that they didn't list the $400 million that Finestein and Polosi ran off with for the SF TBT. If you are going to do a real tally on money granted, should that also be included?

  12. I assume most folks have seen the news about the tentative short-term 'fix':


    If Clem has the time, I'd love to see his analysis of the likely 76-train schedule.

    Concurrently, SPUR has come out with a discussion paper on long-term options:


    This talks about funding, but also governance- for the latter, some thought-provoking ideas including:
    1) a new umbrella agency for BART-Caltrain
    2) expand BART to SM/SC Counties
    3) sell (!) Caltrain to the CHSRA and have them operate Caltrain (!!)

  13. The CHSRA is not and will never be a train operator. They're a planning body. That being said, if we can get better cooperation between them and CalTrain somehow it's worth exploring