10 December 2022

Leaping Off the Fiscal Cliff

EMU jumping off cliff
One phrase we're going to hear a lot in the next couple of years is "fiscal cliff," a sudden disequilibrium between Caltrain's revenues and expenses caused by the withdrawal of the temporary federal subsidies instituted during the pandemic. The slow recovery of ridership, which until 2019 had funded ~70% of the railroad's operating expenses, is opening a $50 million/year hole in Caltrain's budget outlook through the rest of this decade, according to a draft Short Range Transit Plan (SRTP) recently submitted to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

The SRTP is a process that every four years requires each agency to project hypothetical near-term fiscal scenarios under a standard set of assumptions. Most interesting in Caltrain's draft is that the agency threw in a bonus scenario besides the prescribed hypothetical scenarios: the "Electrified Service scenario" a.k.a. Caltrain's actual plan.

This "Electrified Service scenario" makes zero effort to tackle operating costs, hiding behind a theory that Caltrain is inherently a high-fixed-cost operation, meaning that costs are not highly variable with the level of train service provided. All efforts are instead directed towards securing "funding opportunities," an approach that could very well succeed, as transit funding effectively grows on trees in California, no matter how inefficiently expended. Here are the scary numbers:

What if we blew up some long-held assumptions and attacked this fiscal cliff from the cost side?

Ditch Diesel Now and Go 100% Electric

Since time immemorial, the peninsula corridor electrification project has been sold as only a partial step towards electrification, anticipating that only 75% of the service would become electric with 25% remaining diesel, primarily to serve the non-electrified portion of the corridor south of San Jose. Operating a mixed fleet of diesel and electric trains blows up operating and maintenance costs, since many functions have to be duplicated (training, tools, spare parts, etc.). Revenue miles per vehicle are projected to drop by 10% when electrified service starts, which is a sure sign that your fleet is too big and isn't working hard enough.

How can Caltrain possibly operate with only the 19 EMU sets that will be delivered by 2024?

One certainly can't use all 19 in revenue service. Set one aside for maintenance downtime (grade crossing collisions will continue), and keep another two in reserve for timetable protection, essentially hot spares parked at each end of the line, crewed and ready to enter service at moment's notice to plug any delays during the peaks. That leaves just 16 sets to support a peak service level of six trains per hour per direction, a firm condition of Caltrain's funding agreement with the federal government.

That sounds downright impossible.

However, if you change the goals of a timetable to maximize equipment utilization, it turns out that it can be pulled off. Good service is just a side effect. Here is a new all-electric timetable that makes those shiny EMUs really earn their keep:

All EMU 6 tphpd
Score: 123 (relative to the benchmark score of 100 for the 2011 timetable)
Fleet: 16 EMU (zero diesel)
Utilization: 87% of train-minutes in revenue service

This is admittedly a slightly sporty timetable in that it requires aggressive 10-minute turns and a European level of padding of 7%, less than Caltrain is accustomed to dawdling with. The resulting risk of delay is mitigated by "protect" trains at each end of the line. There is also margin in the long station dwells (45 seconds) and the leisurely acceleration times built into the timetable, with power capped at only 2/3rds of the EMU's nominal rating.

The new EMUs would become highly productive assets by providing about 1.9 million revenue vehicle miles per year using just 133 cars, about 1.5x better utilization of these expensive depreciating capital assets than is currently contemplated.

The savings from disposing of the entire diesel fleet would be significant, and their residual resale value would only help Caltrain's balance sheet. The newer Baby Bullet fleet will have reached 20 years of revenue service, the minimum required by the FTA for federal funding assistance, so no penalties will arise from their early disposal. although its disposal would incur a small penalty reimbursement to the FTA since the equipment will not have reached its 25-year minimum useful life (according to FTA Circular 5010-1E, page IV-26.)

Divest the Gilroy Branch

One hitch: the overhead wire doesn't extend to Gilroy.

Gilroy service is a big weight on Caltrain's operational balance sheet because the ridership and revenue is minuscule compared to the high fixed cost of maintaining diesel service. Before the pandemic, ridership south of San Jose city limits (Blossom Hill) made up a negligible 0.8% of Caltrain's weekday ridership. South of Tamien was hardly better, at 1.2%. Until electrification is extended down to Blossom Hill (as it should be), it makes better sense to transfer this infrequent diesel service to an extended Capitol Corridor, with a direct cross-platform transfer to Caltrain in San Jose.

This can rid Caltrain of the entire diesel fleet, which is currently planned to remain at least 9 locomotives and 79 (!!) cars. It also frees Caltrain from another headache, having to comply with near-term diesel emissions mandates under consideration by the California Air Resources Board.

Reduce Conductor Over-staffing

Caltrain has too many assistant conductors. Assistant conductors are very expensive, costing about $15 million/year by FY25, about 1/3 of the operating deficit. Note this figure does not include conductors, only their assistants. The new EMUs relieve some of their duties, such as announcing station stops. The new fleet also has automatic passenger counters, giving precise real-time insights into passenger loads. While today's conductor staffing levels are determined by a formula from the number of cars, the formula should instead be revised to use recent passenger loads. This would ensure that all trains have a consistent staff/passenger ratio and that conductors have fair work loads.

Change the Operating Culture

With six electric trains per peak hour and at least 20-minute service at all stations, much better than is provided today, the conditions could be created for a robust recovery of ridership. Good service drives ridership, but if Caltrain is allowed to execute their mixed-fleet "Electrified Service scenario," as planned, we will barely achieve any service improvement as costs continue to spiral upwards.

Applying these cost-saving measures, Caltrain could close their operating deficit and erase any "fiscal cliff" without expending any energy to capture ever more "funding opportunities" to support entrenched and inefficient operating practices. The fleet does not need to grow, nor does the headcount. The operating culture needs to change: it's not enough to buy Swiss trains; you need to actually run them like the Swiss.


  1. What about blanket 3PTO? Too hard to work that out with the union?

  2. I like this all-electric 6tph service pattern. Local-to-Local transfers for minor station SMC-SCC trips makes makes a lot of sense. I think this works better than the 4-track RWC station "moderate growth" plan which requires Local-to-Express transfers (although that plan is 8tph so higher capacity.)

    Regarding Gilroy service. It definitely makes sense to switch that to Capitol Corridor Amtrak diesel service, even extending to Monterey as has been discussed many times. However there are some issues:

    1) How would this be funded? Amtrak will need a big subsidy to run this boondoggle. I think pre-pandemic VTA funded the cost of Gilroy service directly so Caltrain would lose this funding if Amtrak took it over.

    2) Are the UP slots that Caltrain purchased transferrable to Amtrak? If not, a new negotiation with UP would be necessary which might also cost $$$.

    1. The proposed service pattern mimics something Caltrain has long done to squeeze in the Baby Bullets in a 5 tphpd peak. There are two limited patterns that meet in RWC, one with express stops south and the other with express stops north. This "ping pong" pattern supports end-to-end times with reasonably high average speed, while still providing service to minor stops. If you're going minor-to-minor, you do need to switch trains in RWC (waiting for the following train).

      In this example, I've compressed it to increase utilization and drive down the fleet size requirement to match what will actually be on hand in 2024. The exercise shows that a relentless focus on operating efficiency, driving up employee and equipment productivity, can vaporize the fiscal cliff.

      The 4-track RWC station removes the ping-pong transfer, and you would just ride the local the whole way without transferring to the express, which incidentally would overtake at RWC.

      As for Gilroy, maybe the sudden availability of a not-too-ancient Baby Bullet fleet could sweeten the deal, and you could run them onwards to Salinas and Monterey. It's definitely kind of a boondoggle and the logistics of such a transaction are beyond me. If it really can't be done, then discontinue commuter rail service to Gilroy, and run more commuter coaches to amortize the costs already sunk into widening 101. The huge fleet of tech shuttles that ply the peninsula corridor prove beyond doubt that this model would work and that steel wheels are a "desirement" not a requirement.

    2. What I meant was with this plan if you are travelling between a minor station and an express station across the Atherton boundary (e.g Lawrence to SF) you don't need to transfer. With the "moderate growth" plan you would need to transfer at RWC (or stay on the local and take 10 minutes longer). Not a big deal unless you have a bike.

  3. Looks like a great plan. It’s disappointing that they don’t seem to have even tried to get creative about finding ways to ditch the diesels. I guess it’s more appealing to ask for more funding than to confront these entrenched ops practices.

    One question about your timetable: Is it typical to run EMUs at 2/3 of their nominal acceleration, or did you do that only as a source of additional margin?

    1. 2/3 power, not 2/3 accel... but pushing pedal to the metal is only worth a few seconds per stop. When we originally put together the Taktulator tool, we figured that the full power would only be used to reach higher top speeds like 100 - 110 mph, where it really does make a difference. Under 79 mph, it is marginal so we assumed a more mellow driving style. Nice reminder that the Taktulator tool is backed by a full set of numerical train performance calculator results, including vertical and horizontal profile effects.

    2. Makes sense, thank you for clarifying!

  4. The current three Gilroy trains arrive northbound at San Jose at 6:45, 7:10, and 7:36. The morning Capitols departing from San Jose leave at 6:18 and 8:48. With these existing schedules, all three Gilroy trains fall into slots between the Capitols. Nothing meshes up nicely at all.

    I think it is time for a survey of who is on the Gilroy service today, and who could be attracted to later trains. Does it make sense to "reimagine" Santa Clara County's investment in service to Gilroy as an all day connection, with a morning, midday, and evening trips (as subsidized extensions of the Capitols) replacing three closely-spaced, early peak period trips?

    The morning trip could be an approximation of the middle Gilroy train, arriving San Jose at 7:18, slotting in a new Capitol between the 6:18 and 8:48 departure.

    I think the question of 3 peak hour one-way trains vs 3 daily roundtrips is one that needs to be asked.

    1. Neither the Gilroy nor the Capitol Corridor schedules are cast in stone, adjustments could be made. The real problem is that Amtrak does not have a crew and maintenance facility at Gilroy or San Jose (as far as I know). Where are the trains/crews for the (current) Gilroy 5:55a, 6:18a, 6:52a departures and 5:20p, 6:56p 7:19p arrivals going to be based, Oakland? How much is it going to cost for the crews and trains to deadhead to/from Gilroy every morning and evening? ACE is another possibility, but they are based in Stockton. I'm not seeing any solution short of building a new crew and diesel maintenance facility in San Jose, Gilroy, or Salinas, which would seem to eliminate any savings that might be had by taking the diesel trains away from Caltrain.

      If Caltrain were to continue to provide service to Gilroy, those trains should stop at Diridon with a cross platform transfer to the EMUs. That would allow future Caltrain to provide equivalent Gilroy service with perhaps 3 or 4 modern DMU train sets.

    2. The Capitols schedule have a train that ends service in San Jose each night at 8:16 and one that leaves at 6:18 each morning. That train either deadheads back and forth to Oakland, or sits at Diridon overnight. I assume it sits at Diridon, like similar state Amtrak trains do at some stations. There is no need for a maintenance facility, just a secure track to park the train. There are three fenced tracks in Gilroy for the three Caltrain sets that overnight there. There is no Bakersfield maintenance facility for San Joaquins, just sidings at the station. Same with Goleta and San Luis Obispo for Surfliners. Those trains aren't deadheading back to anyplace.

      As for crews, whatever situation exists for the three Caltrain crews that begin and end service in Gilroy could be used for single Capitols crew that would replace them.

      The swap of Caltrain for Capitols does not require a huge capital investment.

    3. If it doesn't run all day, why does it run at all? Once the costs to run a service once per day have been paid, the cost to run it more is surprisingly little, until frequency goes high enough to need multiple vehicles and crews. And on the other side of the issue, a service level of three per day per direction is almost useless for commuting. (It's entirely appropriate for travel of the kind where, basically, the passenger considers the trip to be that day's goal -- going home for Thanksgiving, or to a tropical holiday, or to a major business meeting -- but not for daily commuting.)

    4. As with ACE or Amtrak California or any service that runs over UP-owned track, every Caltrain Gilroy run “slot” needs to negotiated and agreed to by UP. Sometimes approval is conditioned on costly track, siding or signal upgrades made at public expense.

    5. If VTA is no longer paying for trains to Gilroy, it can reinvest that in more service on the 568 rapid bus between Gilroy and San Jose.

  5. Caltrain can weep, wail, and gnash its teeth and get more money from higher authorities without having to do anything differently. There is no accountability. So why bother?

    1. It's a strange thing to live in the richest corner of the richest state of the richest country in the world, where money grows on trees.

  6. Meanwhile, UP seeks to remove conductors from its trains … just like in Europe.

    They’ve even produced a YouTube video showing how it benefits everyone.

  7. Thanks to Adrian Brandt for the correction on minimum useful life of rail rolling stock. If we read the FTA document correctly, it is 25 years, not 20 years as I had written, so a small penalty would likely be due if disposed early. Then again, it's a crisis, there's a fiscal cliff, and the FTA might let them off that particular hook.

    Also, Richard Mlynarik suggests an even more back-to-basics approach: a simple BART-like service pattern. All local stops on 15-minute headways. Even with ample 45-second dwells, 15-minute turns, and 15% padding, his timetable requires only 15 trains and scores 114 points in the taktulator.

    1. Does the Bart-like 4tph service pattern meet the requirements of the federal grant for electrification? I thought they were required to run 6tph after electrification is complete, at least some of the day,

    2. Yes, 6tph is the requirement, but if there is truly a fiscal emergency triggered by the pandemic, it's hard to imagine the FTA forcing Caltrain to run more empty trains or pay up. So why not? The service quality score still beats anything Caltrain has ever put out there, and does so with fewer trains and plenty of operating margin.

    3. A couple things re 4tph all-day all-local service:

      First I don't believe in this, exactly, but I was gaming the Taktulator score, which I've never fully believed in. (Yes, I coded up the scoring system as best I could from discussions with Clem, but no I don't fully believe in the outcome.) In particular, making all trains stop at Broadway and Hayward Park -- stations that (along with Atherton and College Park there is no question whatsoever should be permanently closed, being sited within sight of adjacent stations in the same small cities -- ups the Taktulator score from (4tph all-stops sans Broadway, Hayward Park = score 105, 14 train fleet, 85.4% utilization, 15% padding, 45s dwell, 14min turnbacks to 114. This is just not reasonable -- consider that running that same schedule at 30 minute headways only drops the score to 93 (cheap sustainable fleet size of 7!) ... are a tiny handful of riders daily at two dead stations who could easily redistribute themselves to another station a stone's throw away really going to make service 9% "better" (score 105 to 114) while doubling service frequency from barely-worth-it 2tph to definitely-useable 4tph only gooses the score by 13% (93 to 105)?

      In short, that 4tph all-stops is playing for maximum Taktulator score, but I don't believe it in detail.

      Second, the only timetable even worth thinking about is of course this.

      Caltrain should undertake no capital project which is not directly in support of that timetable. That means
      * level boarding;
      * four tracks Belmont—Redwood City;
      * four-track central-island San Carlos station;
      * four-track two-island 420m-platform Redwood City turnback station;
      and one person train operation (enabled by level boarding.)

      Nothing else should even be on the table, anywhere along the line.

      And of course, Caltrain "plans" are to piss away billions of dollars on everything aside from this, on crap that will only make service worse, forever.

    4. Re 4tph vs 6tph: Clem is correct. All they have to do is bleat "9/11". Or "Coronavirus", or whatever. "State of good repair!"? Sure. It doesn't matter. Just bleat. It works every time.

      Also, FTA whatabout! FTA grant whatabout! Whatabout whatabout whatabout the electrification project being hundreds of millions of dollars over "budget"? Whatabout the train cost alone being porked up to 150% of what anybody else in the world pays? Where did that cash disappear, huh? Whatabout the electrificaiton project coming in decade late, if it ever does? Whatabout a cool third of a billion tax dollars disappearing without a trace into the ambiguous outright fraud that was CBOSS, with nobody -- including Caltrain's past and present executive staff and perma-temp contractors -- being held account for anything? Mistakes were made! Good excuse to continue to make them, right?

      If the FTA wanted to investigate egregious fraudulent criminal misapporopriation of federal pork, there are better things to go after than a promise to operate a crap timetable ("6tph" at peaks, maybe, and 1tph -- or worse, guaranteed -- except at weekday peaks) that serves nobody well.

    5. How is 4 tracks through San Carlos ever going to happen, when the transit-oriented development was built where shoo-fly tracks would go? Also, Clem's plan for a 4-track, central-island San Carlos station has catenary masts and supports where the TOD now is. Are you proposing elevated tracks and platforms over Old County Road?

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

    7. Yeah, and where I wrote "east out of the way" and "east of the existing berm" I of course meant "west". Towards the sunset. Anyway, look at the relevant middle of PDF file of the alignment sketch rather than deal with my incoherent furious attempts at words.

    8. Text below from Richard, who is annoyingly making me cut out some of his words.


      "How is 4 tracks through San Carlos ever going to happen, when the transit-oriented development was built ..."

      Zoom in on the San Carlos-y bit in the middle of the alignment outline at http://www.pobox.com/users/mly/caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/RWC2019/RWC2019.pdf

      (I can place this as a Google Earth overlay to make it clearer, if I could just recall the steps from years ago when I last had the energy to update this stuff years ago, but anyway it should be clear enough if you're looking at map or know the area in person.)

      (Ignore the four-tracking through Belmont (phase two!) and everything south of Main Street in Redwood City (phase 3+!) -- what matters, all that matters is San Carlos station through Redwood City Station, inclusive.)

      It tiurns out there's (barely!) room for everything to work, even despite active sabotage.

      [portion deleted]. https://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2010/01/development-oriented-transit.html

      That aside, it turns out that it's barely possible to do what's needed anyway, despite the [portion deleted] actively sabotaging public transportation in every way, at every step, every single time, over decades. Barely.


      * The insane (literally insane) TOD apartment stuff north of San Carlos Avenue stays. The berm for tracks is widened entirely within the existing ROW to accommodate four tracks, arranged Fast-Slow-Slow-Fast as God (or anybody with one single functioning brain cell) intended.

      * The bullshit pair of two-story "TOD" bullshit nonsense buildings just south of San Carlos Avenue are demolished -- send the bill to the estates of the SMCTA criminals responsible -- but whatever, it's a single digit million of dollars, who cares. This is where the new station has to go.

      * The "historic" stone San Carlos stone station building is lifted and shifted (this is stuff competent people do every day of the year) a bit east out of the way. Doesn't matter where, really. Again, peanuts expenditures, by the standards that we incinertate money hereabouts.

      * Because of the insane (literally insane) TOD apartment stuff north of San Carlos Avenue, it's not feasible to place the new and better station's platforms at the current San Carlos Avenue-stradding location (the literally insane TOD constricts the ROW so much it's not feasible to flare approach tracks out around an island platform there), but they must move south about 100m, extending south from San Carlos Avenue, centred acrosss Cherry Street. (This is actually more aligned with the actual commerical and pedestrian centre of downtown San Carlos than today.)

      The new northbound slow (platform-adjacent) track lies almost exactly where the existing northbound track does. A new northbound fast track is built on a widened track berm where the existing northbound platform is misplaced. A pair of new southbound tracks are built east of the existing berm, through the mis-sited existing commercial TOD bullshit two-story building-ette, through the pre-relocated site of the "historic" station building, through the glorious SMTCA commuter parking lots, and off we go to Redwood City.

      (Hope this comes out, there's no longer a "Preview comment" feature on blogspot.com, click "Publish" and pray.)

    9. Agreed that San Carlos needs quadruplication (a key piece of efficiently operating the Redwood City standing overtake), but there is no need to go to all the trouble you describe to move the station. Why terraform when you can just build in the spacious empty parking lot at Arroyo? Take it from a local resident of San Carlos, it would work just fine if relocated down there.