13 April 2017

Core Capacity Math

With federal funding for Caltrain modernization on indefinite hold, a diverse flock of vultures have started circling the skies over the peninsula corridor--opponents of electrification, boosters of peninsula BART, opponents of high-speed rail, and detractors of rail or transit in general. Some opponents have latched on to a perceived vulnerability of the modernization project, using a legal parsing of federal regulations to allege that Caltrain's application for federal transit funding is fraudulent and illegal. This sensational claim merits closer examination.

FTA "Core Capacity"
The $647M of funding that Caltrain has pursued for several years, and came agonizingly close to obtaining, is allocated by the Federal Transit Administration and disbursed by congress under a competitive grant program known as a Capital Investment Grant or nicknamed "5309," after the section number of the United States Code under which the program is defined. One of the ways to obtain federal funding under this program is to increase the capacity of an existing transit system by at least ten percent. This is known as a "core capacity" grant, the type that Caltrain is pursuing.
The fracas is all about this ten percent, and whether Caltrain is actually meeting the criteria for eligibility.
To prevent gaming of the system, section 5309 policy guidance specifies how that ten percent increase is to be counted for a core capacity project to become eligible for funding. Importantly, the FTA makes an artificial distinction between "light rail / heavy rail" (where passengers traditionally sit and stand) and "commuter rail" (where passengers traditionally only sit) that fundamentally changes the metric used to measure capacity.
  • Light rail / heavy rail capacity is measured by "peak hour person capacity in the peak direction," a measurement that includes standees and is based on floor space.
  • Commuter rail capacity is measured by "peak hour peak direction seated load," a measurement that excludes standees and is based solely on seat count.
Under this uniquely American taxonomy, Caltrain is an odd duck: the modernization project seeks to transform it from a traditional diesel commuter train into a swift and frequent transit system whose attributes will bear a closer resemblance to a heavy rail system like BART than to a stereotypical American commuter train. Indeed, Caltrain's choice of a Swiss train design underscores the cultural disconnect with the rigid system of American train categories.

If you needed any more proof, BART is removing seats to increase capacity!

EMU seating capacity
As ordered, Caltrain's EMUs will have significantly fewer seats per train  than today's six-car diesels. EMUs are not a magical technology: they may lack a locomotive, but all the traction components that would normally be found in the locomotive still need to be accommodated elsewhere in the train. In a preliminary brochure of Caltrain's new EMUs, the traction bits show up as cabinets marked with a spark symbol. These things take up space, so a six-car EMU offers fewer seats than a traditional six-car train hauled by a diesel locomotive.

(In passing, some have blamed the lower seating capacity of the Stadler EMUs on the dual door configuration. A cursory review of proposed seating layouts can retire this fallacy.)

The seating capacity directly counted from the brochure was 573 seats per six-car EMU, although Caltrain's FTA grant application assumes only 558, averaging just 93 seats per car.

A Shifting Baseline
Ten percent, but compared to what? The baseline present-day capacity is also contentious, since Caltrain's record ridership has created the need to provide more seats today.
In Caltrain's September 2016 grant application materials and correspondence with the FTA (helpfully obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by CARRD Morris Brown), the capacity baseline is tabulated as 3403 seats per peak hour per peak direction, with a net increase of 365 seats (barely squeaking by with a 10.7% increase) to a total of 3768 after the modernization project is completed.  Detailed tabulation is provided below, as extracted from the grant application.

Detail of Existing Operations Commuter Rail
Train # Train Line Reference
(e.g. Name/Color/Number)
Departure Time Number of Cars Seats per Car Seats Per Train
1 #217 6:57 5 121 605
2 #319 7:03 6 132 792
3 #221 7:18 5 120 600
4 #323 7:45 6 131 786
5 #225 7:50 5 124 620
Total During the Peak Hour


Detail of Operations At Project Opening Commuter Rail
Train # Line Reference Departure Time Number of Cars Seats per Car Seats Per Train
1 #305 7:00 6 134 804
2 #113 7:07 6 93 558
3 #115 7:12 6 93 558
4 #307 7:29 6 122 732
5 #117 7:36 6 93 558
6 #119 7:42 6 93 558
Total During the Peak Hour


Opponents have pointed out that well before the date of the FTA grant application, train 225 was converted to a six-car Bombardier consist seating about 790 passengers, as was train 217, thus increasing today's peak hour baseline by 170 + 185 = 355 seats, and cutting the future capacity increase fully in half from 10.7% to an ineligible zero percent 5%. Caltrain may have done itself in simply by serving its customers today.

How to solve the FTA seating equation
To meet the FTA requirements without question, and to shoo those vultures away, here are some solutions Caltrain could reasonably pursue:
  • Build the train cars 3.2 meters wide with five-abreast seating on the upper deck (the lower deck would remain four-abreast with a wider aisle). A car width of 3.2 meters is within the AAR Plate F loading gauge that is cleared to operate on the peninsula corridor, and is a common width in East Coast commuter railroads (the LIRR M7, the Metro North M8, and the SEPTA Silverliner V are all 3.2 meters wide with sections of five-abreast seating). Why Caltrain hasn't already pursued this is baffling, because it is a low-cost and high-benefit change regardless of FTA rules. The Stadler KISS EMU that Caltrain ordered has previously been delivered in widths up to 3.4 meters. This design change is worth +64 seats per six-car EMU, or +256 seats/peak hour, or +7.5% core capacity.
  • Increase the size of the initial EMU order.  This is a tough sell, given how hard it has been to fund the modernization project, but the relative cost increment is minor when considered in proportion to the entire budget. The Stadler contract already includes an additional 96 cars under a fixed-price option, 32 of which (one third) could be exercised to make all 16 of the EMUs on order eight cars long.  The incremental cost would be another $130M (one third of $390M, or less than 7% of the entire value of the PCEP project), and the seating capacity would go up by +186 seats per EMU, or +744 seats/peak hour, or +21.9% core capacity.  That's right: for an extra 7% cost you can triple the capacity increase.
  • Both measures applied together would increase seating capacity by +272 seats per EMU, or +1088 seats/peak hour, or +32% core capacity (over and above the +10.7% capacity increase in Caltrain's FTA application).
The devil is of course in the details: changing the Stadler car shell is not free at this late stage of design, and lengthening trains to eight cars isn't just a financial headache but brings about awkwardness with certain platforms that are shorter than they ought to be.

Nevertheless, if it comes down to an existential issue of project eligibility, seat count nitpickers can undoubtedly be satisfied, and to everyone's benefit, by making a few basic adjustments. When a project's core capacity metric can be tripled for just 7% extra cost, it's a clear indication that it isn't an illegitimate fraud. Core capacity seat math either isn't an issue, or it can easily be resolved.