25 May 2020

The Unbearable Cost of Conductors

[Programming note: while the current pandemic may appear to make the discussion below irrelevant, consider that by 1920, there were few memories of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Jammed peninsula commutes will be back sooner than you think!]

Caltrain in 1980: crew included
engineer, fireman, brakeman
and conductor.
The way it was

Back in 1980, Caltrain's predecessor, the Southern Pacific Railroad Commuter System, operated 46 trains per weekday on the peninsula rail corridor. The SP used a minimum crew of four people: an engineer, a fireman, a conductor, and a brakeman, assigned to all trains with 3 or more cars. A second conductor was added for 4-5 car trains, and a second brakeman for 6-7 car trains. A seven-person crew was used for 8-car trains, then the longest operated by SP: engineer, fireman, two brakemen, and three conductors. Not surprisingly, labor made up more than 60% of the cost of operating the peninsula commute.
In the years since 1980, technology advanced and union agreements evolved. The previously unthinkable notion that firemen and brakemen would no longer needed to safely operate trains came to pass, and is accepted in today's agreements with unions.
The way it is
In 2020, the minimum crew for 2-6 car trains consists of one engineer, one conductor, and one assistant conductor. For 7-8 car trains (not currently operated, but contemplated for the near term) an additional assistant conductor is required under the current union agreement, increasing crew size to four. Today, conductors operate doors to ensure safe boarding and alighting, assist passengers with reduced mobility, acknowledge restrictive signal indications, announce stops, ensure all equipment is in good working order, patrol the train to ensure orderly passenger conduct, regulate bicycle boarding, and perform proof-of-payment fare enforcement.
Modern trains reduce crew workload
The state-of-the-art trains that will enter service in 2023, if everything goes well, will reduce crew workload. Stops will be announced automatically by a computer. Restrictive signal aspects will no longer require acknowledgement, with Positive Train Control computers constantly keeping watch over the engineer's handling of the train. One can also anticipate that the equipment will break down less frequently in brand new equipment, with the extensive computer diagnostics available to detect, report and resolve defects before they turn into a service-disrupting failure. The train's computers will count how many passengers board and alight at each stop. The operator's cab even features door controls and rear-view cameras to monitor passenger boarding and alighting as well as door status. In a near future where platforms and trains are retrofitted for level boarding, the need for conductors to assist persons of reduced mobility will also disappear. With so much of the work becoming automated, are four people still needed to operate a 7-car train, as would be required by current union agreements?

The cost of assistant conductors

Bottom-up calculation

As of 2019, hourly pay for an assistant conductor was about $38, based on 3% annual escalation since 2012. At 2080 paid hours per year, an assistant conductor then makes $79k/year in straight time salary. Throw in another 10% for overtime, and it's $87k/year. Add 25% of salary for fringe benefits, and it's $109k/year. Tack on 20% payroll taxes, and it's $126k/year. Don't forget another 12% of pay for FELA (railroad liability insurance), and we're now at $136k/year. Are we done? No: on top of this we need to add contract operator general and administrative overhead of about 7%, and contract operator award fee of about 5%. So, our $38/hour assistant conductor eventually accounts for $153k/year of fully burdened Caltrain operating costs.

If the typical duty is two daily round-trips, or about 200 train-miles per shift, and our assistant conductor works 250 days per year, that comes to 50,000 revenue miles per year, putting the fully burdened cost of an assistant conductor at $3 per revenue train-mile. Split shifts (with long paid breaks) and the additional vacation time that comes with seniority will lower annual revenue miles, likely making $3 a lower bound for an assistant conductor.

Caltrain operates 1.28 million revenue train-miles per year, so the cost of one assistant conductor on every train is about $4 million per year (in 2019 dollars) based on today's timetable with 94 weekday trains.

Top-down calculation

In 2019, Caltrain paid $99.5 million for contract services, the lion's share of which (about 88%) went to Transit America Services, Inc., to operate the railroad. This comes to $87 million including overheads and performance fees. Based on TASI's estimated cost structure for 2012-2017, which we will assume has not changed much in the years since, about 72% of direct costs are labor, so the fully burdened cost of labor was $63 million.

Based on TASI's itemized costs, we can estimate this $63 million breaks down as follows: 2.3% direct administrative costs, 44.3% train operations (which includes conductors), 5.2% train and yard movement control, 24.6% fleet maintenance, 16.7% fixed infrastructure maintenance, 3% station, facility and parking maintenance, and 4% budgets, finance and accounting. This places the fully-burdened cost of train operations labor at $28 million. This labor category consists of operations supervisors, engineers, conductors and assistant conductors. The share of labor costs allocated to the complement of 46 assistant conductors is about 25% of this, or $7 million (fully burdened).

Divide by the number of annual revenue train-miles, and we find that assistant conductors cost $5.50 per train-mile.

Interestingly, $7 million divided by 46 assistant conductors gives a fully burdened annual cost of $152k/year for an assistant conductor, which agrees very well with our bottom-up estimate. So why are the per-mile estimates not the same?

The discrepancy between bottom-up ($3.00) top-down ($5.50) per-mile estimates comes down to labor productivity. Some peak-hour trains are staffed with more than one assistant conductor, and the annual labor productivity of a single conductor is less than 50,000 revenue train-miles per year due to split shifts. The FTA National Transit Database shows Caltrain operates about 216,000 vehicle revenue hours of service per year, with each train having an average of 5.6 cars (7.20 million revenue vehicle-miles per year divided by 1.28 million revenue train-miles per year), so we get about 38,570 train-hours per year. TASI's workforce comprises 46 assistant conductors at 2000 hours per year = 92,000 hours (before additional on-call labor) which makes assistant conductor productivity at most 0.42 revenue-hours per hour worked, versus about 0.7 revenue-hour per hour worked if we optimistically assume 2 round-trips per 8-hour shift as in the bottom-up calculation.

Bottom line: Caltrain assistant conductors cost $7 million/year today.

Future service increases

Caltrain's business plan envisions growth scenarios where the cost structure is largely left alone. More service simply means more operating cost. Revisiting union agreements is not contemplated, and represents a sort of third rail that managers dare not mention even in hypothetical planning documents.

For the baseline electrification scenario, 114 weekday trains will operate with 7 cars each, triggering the second assistant conductor requirement per the union agreement. Because today's service already has two assistant conductors on some trains, putting them on all trains will not double the cost of assistant conductors, and may reduce the cost impact of split shifts. Let's assume that the number of assistant conductors will increase by 50% at the equivalent of today's service level to staff every train with two assistant conductors. If on top of that we increase service from 94 to 114 weekday trains, then the cost of assistant conductors rises from $7 million to almost $13 million (in 2019 dollars).
For the enhanced growth scenario in 2023, with 168 weekday trains, the cost rises from $7 million to $19 million (still in 2019 dollars). With service expansion to 8 trains per peak hour and 204 weekday trains in 2027, the cost of assistant conductors reaches $23 million per year!

These are enormous figures and it's plain to see that assistant conductors are a huge driver of current and future operating costs.

The way it should be: get rid of assistant conductors!

The crew position of assistant conductor, like brakeman and fireman before it, has outlived its usefulness in the year 2020. As modern technologies automate a significant portion of the workload traditionally performed by conductors, the time has come to modify union agreements to enable the operation of eight-car trains with a single conductor, or even no conductor at all.

Eliminating unproductive labor does not mean eliminating well-paying union jobs: even with a single conductor per train, the overall size of the conductor workforce may need to grow to accommodate increased service. The criteria used to determine minimum crew size should no longer include the number of cars. Automatic passenger counting equipment on the new fleet will provide all the statistical data to evaluate when off-peak trains could even go to zero-conductor (single person) operation.

Conductors should be supplemented and eventually replaced by roving teams of fare inspectors, not assigned to a particular train, who spot-check proof of payment and patrol particularly crowded trains. The train operator (a.k.a. engineer in old-school parlance) can take care of all aspects of train operation, as is practiced at BART. This will require a cultural shift.

Today's operating cost structure is a burden that hinders service growth. Assistant conductors must go, and the union agreements that govern train crew sizes should be revisited again, as they have been periodically in decades past.

09 May 2020

Pandemic Open Thread

These are challenging times. We can ponder ideas that are significantly outside the mainstream, taking an existing concept and extrapolating it, Black Mirror style, to its extreme conclusion. Here are some controversial conversation starters:

Southbound BART Purple Line train arrives at Palo Alto
Merge Caltrain Into BART.  The long-standing push to get the operation of Caltrain a dedicated source of funding (via November ballot measure) looks shaky at best, with the economy heading down the toilet. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties see this tax measure as a way to push Caltrain off their books, but for residents it supplements one tax with another. Why not blow it all up, and merge the two counties into the BART district?
  • Secures dedicated operating funding, via BART half-cent tax to join district.
  • Removes a warring tribe from the balkanized landscape of Bay Area transit.
  • Retires the awkward and unwieldy Joint Powers Agreement between the peninsula counties.
  • "Rings the Bay" in 2023 with a new BART Purple Line, using state of the art HSR-compatible technology.
  • Ends decades of silly talk about closing a perceived "missing link" between Millbrae and Santa Clara by using wide-gauge technology, as most recently encouraged by VTA (!)
  • Replaces the passive-aggressive operational antagonism that is routinely on display at Millbrae with coordinated, centrally-planned, seamless connections.
  • Puts in charge managers who actually understand from direct experience the value of short dwell times and level boarding.
  • Raises the bar for mega-project delivery, which has been set so low by Caltrain's spiraling trouble in managing delays to the electrification project (and the large budget blow-outs that are 100% certain to follow) that we might as well just let BART take over.
  • Removes the pretext for VTA's ridiculous plan to duplicate the Purple Line with an expensive BART tunnel from San Jose to Santa Clara, with BART instead establishing coordinated, centrally-planned, seamless connections at a modernized San Jose Diridon station.
  • Frees BART and VTA to plan for a far more logical extension along Stevens Creek Boulevard to serve the sprawling automobile-captive transit deserts of Santa Clara County.
  • Keeps the really good people at Caltrain employed. They can work for BART.
  • Just makes categorical sense. Caltrain's trajectory of modernization, described extensively in its business planning effort, takes it out of the old-fashioned category of "commuter rail" and into the category of "rapid transit," right here in the Bay Area. You could then describe it as Bay Area Rapid Transit, or perhaps just BART for short. If it walks like a BART and quacks like a BART, then it surely must be BART!
Kill the DTX project.  The San Francisco Downtown Extension (DTX) is one of those projects that is so important that everyone got tunnel vision and let costs explode as we forgot why we were doing it in the first place. A quarter century of planning later and at six billion dollars and rising, the benefit is no longer worth the cost. Why not blow it all up, and merge DTX with the Second Transbay Rail Crossing?
  • Solves the problem once, not twice, something taxpayers and riders will all appreciate. DTX and Transbay Tube II both connect a mega-region by creating high-speed, high-capacity arteries to supply the economic heart of the Bay Area. Both projects solve a geometry problem that no amount of additional freeway lanes or autonomous vehicle technology can possibly address. They should be one project, and the distinction between them is not only operationally counter-productive but astronomically costly for taxpayers.
  • Defuses an emerging and highly toxic competitive dynamic between two competing mega-projects, which threatens to delay both.
  • Makes the Salesforce Transit Center a through-station, which is enormously more efficient to operate and enables far higher throughput capacity (trains and passengers) within the existing station footprint. Yes, this requires dismantling a couple of medium-sized high rises whose foundations stand in the way on the northeast end of the train box; this is the cost of progress.
  • Enables seamless high-speed electric through service from the East Bay / Sacramento to the Peninsula and Silicon valley, just like the Paris RER or London Crossrail.
  • Stores the EMU fleet on the Oakland side of Transbay Tube II, presumably somewhere inside the dystopian freeway mess of the Maze, thus removing the anachronistic need for a train yard in the heart of San Francisco.
  • Allows a large-diameter tunnel boring machine (big enough to allow for 2 wide-gauge tracks stacked on top of 2 standard-gauge tracks for the Transbay segment) to start from a more accessible construction site on the Oakland side. The TBM would land in San Francisco near Howard Street, providing the start for a Geary BART subway.
Yes, crayon plans like this do not factor in important things like Environmental Impact Reports and shovel-readiness, or the entrenched politics of established bureaucracies, or the deeply carved flows of monies from various federal, state, regional and local sources into the pockets of the private Transit Industrial Complex. But sometimes, difficult times call for big changes. Changes that put riders and taxpayers, who are all suffering to various degrees through this pandemic, in a stronger position at a table of stakeholders that rarely has much room for them.