09 October 2011

Meanwhile, in Rio...

It finally happened.

Last Thursday, Caltrain's board authorized the award of the first phase of a $138,135,673 contract to Parsons Transportation Group to design, procure and install the Caltrain-specified CBOSS train control system (see staff presentation).  This Parsons contract forms the lion's share of a total project budget variously reported as $231 million to $251 million, or a whopping $5 million per route-mile.  According to a project schedule, the final acceptance of the system is planned for February of 2016 (52 months from now), but that assumed contract award at the May board meeting (5 months ago).

Viewed in the framework of the U.S. transportation industrial complex, where public agencies such as Caltrain transfer huge sums of taxpayer dollars to large private corporations that thrive on custom-engineering, re-engineering and over-engineering everything, this contract is business as usual, and Caltrain will probably end up, years late and millions over budget, with a partially functional PTC system.  That sets the stage for more years and millions spent to make it work with high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, in Rio...

Meet SuperVia, a commuter rail operator in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  SuperVia is one busy system, even busier than BART.  Here's a quick comparison between Caltrain and SuperVia:

Caltrain SuperVia
Route Miles

Routes 15
Trains about 25 about 160
Stations31 89

Weekday Ridership ~45,000 ~540,000

Like Caltrain, SuperVia is modernizing.  Among other improvements, SuperVia is installing a sophisticated positive train control system to enforce speed limits, prevent collisions, and reduce the headways between trains.  Unlike Caltrain, SuperVia chose to adapt their requirements to what suppliers already had on the shelf, and is procuring an ERTMS Level 1 overlay system from Bombardier Transportation through a contract worth 125 million Real, or about US $70 million.  (Note that the unknown scope of this contract makes it difficult to compare directly to CBOSS; for example, Bombardier's contract is unlikely to include the train-borne components.)  ERTMS, to remind everyone, is a train control standard that is quickly catching on worldwide, except here in the protected U.S. signaling market.

ERTMS Level 1 is exactly the sort of standardized train control system that would be transparently compatible with high-speed rail, which will most likely operate on its own dedicated high-speed trackage using ERTMS Level 2, a much more sophisticated version of the standard that does away with wayside signals.

The kicker?  Bombardier promises to put this new overlay signaling system into service on SuperVia's various lines from November 2012 to July 2013.  Here's how that stacks up against Caltrain's CBOSS:

Caltrain CBOSS SuperVia ERTMS
Contract award

October 2011May 2011
Initial service entry October 2015November 2012
Final deliveryFebruary 2016July 2013
Time from award to initial service48 months18 months

Time from award to final delivery52 months26 months

It's too late now to do anything about CBOSS, but it sure will be interesting to see what PTG and Bombardier will deliver for each respective rail system.  Can PTG and Caltrain come up with an ersatz-ERTMS by 2015 for the promised sum?


  1. Note that an "ERTMS Level 1 Overlay" means that all the existing signalling has to stay in place, including track circuits, interlockings, and wayside signals. The ERTMS stuff only provides PTC functionality. In Caltrain's case, this would mean capacity would, at best, stay the same, and probably decrease, since the system would stop the train for accelerating when the signal aspect improves mid-block. Mind you, Caltrain has been signularly terrible at upgrading even their existing signalling: the new automatic block signals at Redwood City and north of Hillsdale have been sitting bagged up for at least a year now.

  2. Level 1 is by definition an overlay; I didn't mean to imply this would be a special flavor of Level 1. Level 1 also allows for in-fill of long signal blocks using balise, loop, or radio, to allow exactly the kind of acceleration scenario you describe. See ETCS handbook for an overview.

  3. Adirondacker1280009 October, 2011 14:36

    ERTMS, to remind everyone, is a train control standard that is quickly catching on worldwide, except here in the protected U.S. signaling market.

    Considering that we haven't installed any signaling systems since before ERTMS was a glimmer in an EU bureaucrat's eye, it isn't surprising that no one has installed it.

  4. True, but I'm worried that CBOSS will pretty well fuck everything up on the Peninsula, since it'll likely be 2030 by the time all the kinks are worked out and full (practical) functionality is reached.

    Getting it done faster, better, cheaper should demand ERTMS.

  5. No, but American commuter agencies are scrambling to install signaling now with the PTC mandate. (Except the LIRR and Metro-North, which are seeking a waiver). Those are invariably freight-compatible rather than passenger rail-oriented, even in agencies that run on passenger-primary lines.

  6. Adirondacker1280010 October, 2011 11:23

    Meh. Finding technical details about the single PTC standard the Class Is are settling on isn't easy. What's so awful about it? If it's plugging North American narrowband radios into ECTS equipment instead of GSM-R radios into it, it's ERTMS-North America. How much commonality is there between ACSES, ASES, ETMS and ERTMS in it's mulitude of variants? Who cares if Kansas City Southern decides to call it Super Duper Fixed Guideway Automation?
    From what little I've read about the MTA and PTC, they aren't seeking a waiver, They are seeking a ruling that their existing systems are PTC. They are. The train automatically slows if it's going too fast and it stops if it passes a red signal.

  7. "Positive Train Control": just what the world needed, another incompatible system with its own special acronym. The FRA requirement doeesn't say anything about technical implementation. It's a list of requirements, which boil down to what other English-speaking countries call "Automatic Train Protection": if a train passes a signal at red, the train automatically stops down. If the train is going too fast the train will automatically brake. (Check the Wikipedia page). (The FRA also mentions protecting work crews, but as far as I can see, ACES meets that spec by defining speed-restricted areas which encompass scheduled work crews).

    What the Class 1 railroads are settling on is no secret: it's one or other flavor of Wabtec's technology. Which is _not_ anything like ECTS-with-CDMA-replacing-GSM/R. That'd still require lots and lots of balises, and the cost of those balises was too much for the long-route, relatively low-density freight lines which dominate US rails.

    US PTC, as being adopted by the US Class 1 railroads, boils down to centralized radio track-warrants for movement authority, and differential GPS to determine train position. Differential GPS requies a GPS receiver in the loco, and relatively sparse differential-GPS ground stations (GPS repeaters at very-well-surveyed, known, locations)

  8. @Anon: that's not quite correct, PTC prevents a train from passing a red signal by stopping it before the signal. That's a bit more sophisticated than ATP/ATS and requires a real-time anticipation of the train's braking distance based on its position and speed.

    @everyone, it sometimes takes me more than a few hours to get around to expunging inflammatory and offensive comments that get past the blog's spam filters. Those of you who saw such a comment today will know what I am talking about. Sorry for the delay in cleaning it up.

  9. I'm not sure what was inflammatory and offensive about it. All they did was incorrectly point out that you are a NIMBY when in fact you are pro-HSR.

  10. Adirondacker1280012 October, 2011 20:33

    If there are no lineside signals how can it stop before it passes one?

  11. Who insinuated there would be no lineside signals?

  12. Adirondacker1280012 October, 2011 21:57

    If you are displaying them in the cab why do you need lineside signals?

  13. CBOSS is about maximizing cost, maximizing agency employee man-hours and tenure, and maximizing contractor profits.

    CBOSS is about reinventing the wheel. The square wheel. A aquare wheel on a broken axle. An axle that costs a hundred million dollars, whose replacements come pre-broken, and can only be bought from one source.

    CBOSS is about never doing anything once that can be done three in three different wrong ways and at quintuple the cost.

    Fact: lineside signals cost money to install and maintain. Money is good. Also: lineside signals are Real Railroading. Just like Casey Jones!

    Therefore CBOSS will luxuriate in lineside signals. Gantries-r-us! No question. Doe the Pope shit in the woods?

  14. @clem: I beleive you are incorrect, though I'm willing to learn otherwise. I trust you did notice the "... other English-speaking countries" part?

    Wikipedia's article on Automatic Train Protection says:

    "This system uses a target speed indication and audible warnings to warn the train driver if they are likely to exceed a speed profile that will cause the train to pass a red (danger) signal or exceed a speed restriction. The system will apply the brakes if the driver fails to respond to these warnings. The system takes into account the speed and position of the train relative to the end of its 'movement authority' in issuing the warnings and applying the brakes."

    Similarly in the online source at .
    Or in hardcopy, in "Railway Operation And Control", 2nd Ed. Joehrn Pachl, Chapter 3 Sec 4.
    (the material in the online source and Pachl's book look suspiciously similar).

    Indeed Sec 3.4 of Pachl's book states specifically that even an intermittent ATP may have 3 functions: automatic warning; raking curve supervision; and train stop. ECTS Level 1 is listed as an example of an advanced intermittent ATP system, and ECTS Level 2 is one of two examples of a continuous ATP system (LZB being the other).

  15. oops: the link got lost it was:

  16. Indeed (just checked my Pachl) my comment applied only to ATS, not ATP. Thanks for the correction.

  17. Is there any way to contact Caltrain's board members and ask them WTF is wrong with them?

    Nobody would blink at an ERTMS/ETCS system. Few would blink at installing a clone of the freight PTC system (as Metra in Chicago and Metrolink in LA are doing). Few would mind if they simply copied Amtrak's ACSES -- or even Amtrak's ITCS. I don't even think people would complain too much if they applied one of the "transit" systems in current use.

    Caltrain has somehow convinced itself that it is much better to design something unique at *much greater cost*. What the hell?

  18. Do note that PTG's proposed CBOSS implementation is based on GE's ITCS product, although I'm sure there will be all sorts of new software to meet Caltrain's Unique Local Conditions (ULC) with associated integration nightmares.

  19. "Is there any way to contact Caltrain's board members and ask them WTF is wrong with them?"

    Richard has said he gave up on the civil approach of contacting representatives and submitting public comments because it just didn't work.

    I usually think he's full of it, but I have heard similar things about the Bay Area. That's just the way they do business up there. Perhaps there is more elitism and the powers that be think they always know better.

    Perhaps we have gotten lucky, but the advocacy group I belong to has been very receptive to what we have to say. I have been told a letter of mine, along with many others, helped save some rail service down here in Southern California. The head of a certain rail agency is also looking at changing some aspects of how they operate in order to make the service more efficient, and it was based on our ideas.

    It should be noted that these processes are slow moving and don't always come to fruition. But we feel we make some progress down here with officials.

  20. "Is there any way to contact Caltrain's board members and ask them WTF is wrong with them?"

    The Caltrain website would be a good place to start to find the board members' contact information.

  21. "Is there any way to contact Caltrain's board members"


    "and ask them [any meaningful question of any type]?"


  22. (the Pachl-readhng anonymous, again)


    you ask, how can a train pass a signal? This is an area where North American (and Russian) main-line practice differs from European (and thus ECTS).

    European systems employ an "overlap": a signal cannot indicate "proceed" unless the block ahead, _and the braking distance beyond the signal at the end of that block_, are clear.

    See Pachl, Sec 3.3.1, and Sec. 4.6.
    Also, compare Fig. 4.42 and 4.43 (why, oh why weren't those set facing each other?)

    Does ECTS actually force one to use overlaps? I dunno.... but almost all metros and subways, use overlaps, world-wide.

  23. @clem: did GE _ever_ get ITCS to work well enough for the FRA to approve 110mi/hr speeds?

    Hah. IClem, you say CBOSS is based on ITCS? GE was a development partner in "CBS", now called "ICBS". And CBS is architecturally so close to ITCS, that Petit's 2009 report says that a "message translator" allowed GE's ITCS system to interoperate with ICBS.

    CBS, CBOSS, are so similar, could it be that one of the 'technical' people in Samtrans HQ worked on CBS? Is that too paranoid?

  24. @ Anon @ 00:19

    From the FRA's website on PTC, section on ITCS:

    "In revenue service for Amtrak since January 2002, the maximum train speed for passenger train operations in ITCS territory is currently 95 mph. ITCS has completed the necessary system upgrades to support operations up to 110 mph after final review and approval of the system validation and verification."

    So, no it hasn't been certified for 110 mph, but it appears the ball is now in the FRA's court, and they're either sitting on it right now or just taking their sweet time with it (as usual).

  25. The other fun fact about ITCS is that it is being used in China as well, and the wireless communications interface is none other than (get this!) GSM-R.

    The corresponding task of getting ERTMS to work with the emerging 220 MHz PTC band here in the U.S. must be equally easy.

    It's just a bunch of datagrams with clean protocol interfaces.