20 August 2011

CBOSS vs. Metrolink PTC

UPDATE 8/22 - There are a couple of additional points that require clarification.

(1) It is claimed that Caltrain's CBOSS budget is so high because it is a turn-key system provided entirely by the vendor, whereas Metrolink's PTC is being done partly in-house. But Metrolink's in-house PTC costs are included in the $202 million estimate (see page 7: $77M Metrolink, $90M vendor, $30M contingency). This does not make the comparison any more favorable to Caltrain.

(2) It is claimed that the standards for high-speed rail PTC are immature. Not so; the requirements are found in pages 723 to 825 of the HSR system requirements report (as of August 2010) as well as in HSR technical memoranda TM-3.3.1 ATC System Concept and others in the 3.3.x series. The kicker (as far as Caltrain is concerned) is that those documents clearly state that "the technology must already exist as part of an operating system with proven experience worldwide on at least one high speed passenger railway"... in other words, CBOSS need not apply, and ERTMS (now being installed by sensible commuter rail operators in places like Rio de Janeiro and Auckland) is most welcome.

ORIGINAL POST - The FRA's push to impose positive train control on all U.S. passenger railroads was triggered by the 2008 Chatsworth collision on Metrolink, in which 25 people died and 135 were injured. Not surprisingly, Metrolink's effort to meet the FRA's December 2015 deadline for PTC implementation is in the national spotlight. If a PTC success story was ever needed, it would surely have to be in Los Angeles.

Metrolink is very much like Caltrain, in that it operates diesel-powered double-decker commuter trains that occasionally intermingle with freight trains. Weekday ridership is similar at about 40,000 trips. Being in the same state, Metrolink's regulatory environment is the same as Caltrain's. One struggles to think of "unique local conditions" that might make Caltrain materially different from Metrolink.

According to Metrolink's funding plan for the project, the total budget for Metrolink's PTC system is $202 million, an amount now fully funded. Not to be outdone, Metrolink plans to complete the system a year before the federal deadline.

Here is a summary comparison table of Caltrain and Metrolink.

System Route Miles

Fleet Size (Locomotives + Cab Cars)
Weekday Ridership
PTC Total Budget
$202 million

$250 million
PTC Planned Completion
end 2014
end 2015
PTC Funding Status
$202M (100%)
<$100M (<40%)
PTC Interoperable with Freight

You might think that for the quarter-billion dollar price tag of CBOSS (Caltrain's PTC project), one would get something extra, like future-proof compatibility with high-speed rail. But alas, no. At a recent Friends of Caltrain meeting, deputy CEO Chuck Harvey confirmed that due to schedule pressure, CBOSS development would forge ahead without any regard to high-speed rail, and that HSR would have to "pay to play," with a possible requirement of "dual fitment," i.e. two separate PTC installations on-board each high-speed train in all of California. Never mind that the statewide HSR fleet would dwarf Caltrain's.

So, if HSR compatibility is not on the agenda, then what makes Caltrain any different than Metrolink? Why is CBOSS going to cost millions more than a PTC system for six times the route length and nearly twice the fleet size, to be delivered a year earlier? Why not realize economies of scale and pattern Caltrain's PTC project after Metrolink's, which has far more stakeholders in a successful outcome?

That is a quarter-billion dollar question.


  1. It's actually somewhat worse than that for Caltrain I think, comparison-wise, as Caltrain only has a handful of freight trains to deal with, while Metrolink deals with hundreds of freight trains, about three dozen Amtrak trains, and a legacy ATC system in places (which allows for the OC Line to be faster than Caltrain with 90mph performance already and 110 scheduled).

  2. Clem: You should make sure a copy of this gets to Rep. Anna Eschoo.

    CalTrain obviously has her ear as she is trying her hardest to funnel as many funds as possible their way.

    I doubt she wants to promote a project like this, because in the long run it is going to make her look very bad.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. How will MetroLink's PTC handle HSR? Dual equipment, or is MetroLink developing a system that is, or can be, made compatible with HSR PTC?

  5. Metrolink is on the same path of HSR incompatibility as Caltrain. They do have the excuses that (a) they interact with a LOT more freight trains than Caltrain, and (b) they are basically installing the same PTC system as the freight railroads, rather than trying to invent something new on top of that like Caltrain.

    If we're going to have a "dual fitment" situation when HSR visits Caltrain and Metrolink territory, wouldn't it be nice if it could be the same PTC system on both ends? All these "multiple-fitment" signaling integration exercises are invariably expensive fiascos.

  6. the statewide HSR fleet would dwarf Caltrain's
    I'm not so sure about that. Given some reasonable assumptions about Caltrain service, they'd need about 20 trainsets plus spares. Given HSR travel times, they'd have a 5 hour cycle for the express (2:38 end to end) trains and a 7 hour cycle for the local (3:30 end to end) trains. 2 tph of each means 24 trains needed for service, plus spares. So, hardly what I'd call "dwarfing". And given that Caltrain will likely buy MUs with intermediate cab cars so that they can shorten off peak trains, Caltrain may well end up with more cab cars than HSR, possibly by a factor of 2 or 3.

  7. It was just reported that the top technical guy for CalTrain on the project has just left the organization.


  8. Re Metrolink, HSR "compatibility", freight compaibility, etc.

    Caltrain. Two issues to understand.

    (1) The first and most damning is that there is no need for Caltrain PTC to have any freight compatibility. The decision, based upon nothing more than the fantasy that it would be "a fun project to work with freight" was freely entered into by "CBOSS Bob" Doty, sometime Caltrain "Director of Rail Transformation", now a revolving door consultant for HNTB and doubtless soon to reappear.

    Caltrain already has a waiver for time separation of its operations from freight.

    (2) Caltrain had (and at greater do-over cost, still has), the ability to segregate its trains and operation from all non-Caltrain (San Jose-Santa Clara) by very simple track reconfiguration. Instead Caltrain, in a project approved by CBOSS Bob, is wasting $26 million of your tax dollars to rebuild tracks with zero throughput increase, zero HSR compatibility, zero freight/Caltrain separation. Inconceivably stupid and bad.

    The FRA allows separation of passenger PTC/non-PTC tracks protected by physical means -- which can mean derails and crossovers that keep the two kingdoms separate.

    These two facts -- time separation of FRA operations on Caltrain track,; and physical separation of Caltrain PTC tracks from others -- combined mean there was zero justification for not adopting a PTC system that already exists, is already widely tested, and it already widely available, is available from multiple vendors, whose HSR compatibility is guaranteed, and which is installed at about a fifth the price of the CBOSS scam. Let alone inventing a new one.

    Heads should roll. This is simple outright fraudulent stealing of public funds by agency staffers and consultants, to the tune of a couple hundred million dollars. It's a grotesque, titanic failure of technical and executive management.


    Metrolink, in nearly all cases on its network, doesn't have the possibility for easy freight separation that Caltrain has. It has no real alternative but to do what the freight operators (the 800lb gorillas) are doing.

    As for Metrolink/HSR compatibility, there's a very simple and straightforward answer there, and it's exactly the same as at Caltrain.

    Once there is HSR Bakersfield-(Sylmar,Burbank,or whereever)-LA Union Station, and perhaps LA Union Station-Anaheim, all trains and all equipment operating there do so using ETCS/ERTMS PTC, and serve common, compatible platforms. In other words, Metrolink owns and operates a captive EMU fleet that operates on this line. The trains could be identical to those operated by Caltrain! There is no need for any FRA/non-FRA ETCS/non-ETCS compatibility. (Footnote: except perhaps, perhaps, for a "switchable" mile of track through a ROW "narrows" through Anaheim. As with Caltrain, physical barriers can allow this to be implemented, should it really be necessary.)


    * There is no freight, Amtrak, ACE, or Steam Train Museum compatibility requirement for PTC on Caltrain line. Caltrain was completely free to adopt ETCS/ERTMS, but CBOSS Bob explicitly chose a route with highest costs, astronomical contractor payola and a guarantee of technical failure.

    * Caltrain/HSR compatibility in signalling could have been, quite literally, a non-issue, being built in and guaranteed from the start.

    * Metrolink/freight compatibility is following a feasible course, given much larger FRA-land Not Invented Here.

    * Metrolink/HSR compatibility has a simple answer (separation of one HSR-compatible ETCS-compatible line from the rest of the network), and fortuitously this answer is the same as the Caltrain answer.

    In contrast, CBOSS Bob and allies have engineered the worst of all possible outcomes. There is simply no possible excuse for this massive failure of fiducial and technical responsibility to the public.