It's been a while since the last post, but fear not this blog is still alive.
Caltrain's First Major Accident: on Thursday 10 March 2022, a southbound train was unable to stop before ramming into at least two rail-going flatbed crane trucks being used by an electrification construction crew. 13 people were injured with five requiring hospital treatment; thankfully there was no loss of life. With the new positive train control (PTC) system in place, this collision should never have happened. The fact that it did has drawn scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched an investigation team to the site of the accident in San Bruno. The causes of such accidents are often multiple, subtle, and complex, and it will take more than a year to assemble the evidence, identify root causes, and draw out lessons learned. NTSB staff reported some preliminary points at a press conference on March 11th:
- The impact occurred at approximately 60 mph and the train came to a stop over a distance of over 500 feet.
- The PTC system is designed to prevent train incursions into established work zones.
- The PTC system was on and active on the accident train.
While we should be wary of speculation, it is possible to discuss additional relevant points:
- Train 506 was due to depart Millbrae at 10:34 AM. If as stated the accident occurred just before 10:40 AM, then the train was several minutes behind schedule.
- The head end of the train stopped at milepost 11.9, so impact occurred at about milepost 11.8.
- Milepost 11.8 is adjacent to a staging area on the west side of the tracks that is used by the electrification contractor.
- The location is less than a mile south of San Bruno curve, one of the sharpest curves on the entire peninsula rail corridor. The train would have traversed this curve no faster than the PTC-enforced maximum speed of 65 mph before accelerating again towards 79 mph after the curve.
- The humped vertical profile of the San Bruno grade separation would have obstructed the train crew's view of the work crew's trucks until about milepost 11.1, at San Bruno Avenue.
- At an average of 65 mph, the 0.7 miles from the point of initial visibility to the point of impact would have gone by in just under 40 seconds.
- The 1.25% downhill grade towards the impact point would not have helped the train's emergency braking performance.
Unanswered questions include why were the construction vehicles and the train on the same track, why did the PTC system not prevent the collision, and whether there have ever been other near misses over the past several years of electrification construction. The NTSB report will tell.
May everyone hurt by this accident make a full recovery.
More Electrification Delays: while pole foundations are done, everything else is behind and slipping even from the new delayed schedule. The monthly reports for the project have been significantly abbreviated. The long pole in the tent is the grade crossing warning system, and it just so happens that the new program manager at Caltrain previously managed Denver's electrification project and has direct and personal experience with overcoming the great Denver grade crossing fiasco. From the December report to January, overhead contact system completion has slipped by 4 months. Oddly, after years of study and paying a nine-figure amount to PG&E for substation upgrades, the project is still embroiled in back-and-forth with the utility over how the large single-phase loads of accelerating and braking electric trains might throw the electric grid out of balance. One thing is clear, PG&E knows just how hard to squeeze Caltrain.
Electric Train Modifications: feature by feature, the EMUs are being downgraded to act like an old Bombardier bilevel train. The first EMU trainsets, numbers 3 and 4, are due in California
sometime in April March 19th. They will sport two noteworthy changes not seen in any official photos or renderings. The upper set of doors have been sealed off (likely permanently) with window plug panels, and the automatic couplers have been downgraded to old-school AAR knuckle couplers.
Governance Politics: the three-county custody fight over Caltrain rages unabated, sucking all the oxygen away from critical planning for what comes after electrification. Momentum for the business plan effort seems to have stalled entirely. The two key upgrades yet to come are level boarding and a four-track elevated grade separation throughout downtown Redwood City, neither of which are being sufficiently attended to while the board's attention is fixated on questions of power and influence.
CBOSS Dumpster Fire Update: speaking of fires and PTC, the CBOSS case is still making its way through San Mateo County Superior Court (under case file 17CIV00786). Last year, Caltrain and Parsons (the CBOSS prime contractor) agreed to stop fighting each other and ganged up against Alstom (formerly GE Transportation Systems), the supplier of the flawed CBOSS software. Ten years after contract award, six years after breach of contract, and five years after lawsuits started flying, the case is coming close enough to trial that the parties have each prepared a trial brief that very nicely summarizes the making of this fiasco from their respective viewpoints. Here are hot-off-the-press direct links to the Caltrain & Parsons Trial Brief and the Alstom Trail Brief.
Update 3/19 - Board Workshop on Caltrain Finances: the slide deck for the upcoming board workshop to discuss what to do about the railroad's new fiscal reality (high fixed costs and only ~1/3 of the usual farebox revenue) is now posted. What is most remarkable is what is not in the slides, which are basically a giant shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the face of the deficit forecasts shown in slide 46. If this is truly an existential fiscal emergency, one wonders why the cost of assistant conductors is not on the budget negotiating table. In 2019, the cost of assistant conductors was $7 million/year, and has since grown proportionally with more train service and annual pay raises, likely to about $8.5 million/year for 2022. With a further service increase to 116 trains/day when electrification begins, the cost of assistant conductors will exceed $10 million/year in 2025. While Caltrain is vulnerable to its labor unions and reluctant to raise such a sensitive matter, the time has come for the second conductor to follow the fate of other redundant and obsolete train crew positions such as fireman and brakeman.
Battery EMUs: from the "are you insane?" department comes a minor bullet point on slide 59 of the same packet, where an area of focus for FY23 is to "Advance sustainability through completion of PCEP and further exploration of potential for battery EMUs." Please don't. The whole point of PCEP and EMUs is to not be seduced by world-unique technical solutions and to not haul around many tons of battery dead weight. The only area that needs focus is to further explore the provenance of this shockingly idiotic idea.