04 June 2023

BEMU Obsession

Barry the BEMU,
Caltrain's new mascot

"Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget—and I'll tell you what you value."

There's a new obsession gripping Caltrain: the Battery EMU, an electric train that can travel without overhead wires using electricity drawn from a large battery on board the train. The BEMU features prominently in Caltrain's recently approved two-year budget, which offers the best way to understand the agency's values. We find allocations for:

  • $80M for a single BEMU prototype train (at a $25M premium over a regular EMU)
  • $3.7M for in-house BEMU research and development
  • $2.5M for operations planning (including BEMU operations)
  • $1.1M to develop a 10-year capital improvement plan
  • $1 million to develop a roadmap for level boarding
  • $0.5 million to study future grade separations

The bottom of this list combines to roughly $5M of planning for Caltrain's entire future, a critically important activity to ensure its continued viability. The top two items in this list are almost $30M to pursue a BEMU obsession that will cost much, much more to scale up to anything resembling a viable service pattern. Going by these numbers, Caltrain values BEMUs about six times more than planning for its entire future!

Going Green by Blowing Green

Recently enacted California air quality mandates will make Caltrain's entire diesel locomotive fleet illegal to operate by 2030. This includes the nine locomotives now being refurbished at great expense and retained to operate diesel service to Gilroy (numbers 920 - 928).

If you start from the premise that rail service to Gilroy must be maintained and expanded at any and all costs (regardless of the much ballyhooed fiscal cliff) then a solution must be found to run trains beyond the end of the wires in San Jose, and soon.

Here is the range of available options, from cheapest and most reasonable to most risky and profligate:

  1. Most obviously, purchase the same diesel passenger locomotive that almost every passenger rail operator now uses in California: the Siemens Charger, used by Amtrak, ACE and Coaster. This is a modern low-emission model that will not be outlawed, requires no R&D, and costs about $8M each.
  2. Slightly more ambitious is to purchase an upcoming version of the same Charger locomotive that will have zero emission capability to operate through densely populated areas, thanks to a bank of batteries built into a permanently coupled passenger car. This is a model known as the ALC-42E and has been ordered in large quantities by Amtrak. As a bonus, it can draw power directly from overhead wires where available. This option requires no R&D and likely costs closer to $12M each.

  3. Yet another possibility, if one accepts the idea of a seamless cross-platform transfer at San Jose Diridon, is to serve the low-ridership Gilroy branch with smaller trains that do not interline onto the peninsula rail corridor. Stadler has an existing BEMU product known as the FLIRT Akku, developed for remote branch lines in Germany that have similar ridership profiles as Gilroy. This option requires little R&D (beyond overcoming American "not invented here" syndrome and shepherding the technology through FRA approval) and likely costs about $20M per train.

  4. By far the most risky and expensive option is to apply the Akku technology to the Caltrain version of the Stadler KISS, turning it into a supersized BEMU to serve Gilroy and points beyond (Salinas, anyone?) with massively oversized 650+ seat trains. This requires new research and development to add very large batteries (likely in excess of 1 MWh) that will be lugged around as giant dead weights whenever the train operates under the wire. Adding massive batteries to the KISS EMU defeats the very purpose of this vehicle: to move huge numbers of people quickly even with lots of station stops. Costing $85M for the first example and likely north of $60M for each follow-on, this BEMU can rightly be described as "the wrong tool for the job."

You'd need at least six trains to run anything resembling a reasonable service pattern, so multiply accordingly: Caltrain is contemplating the expenditure of about 1/3 billion dollars to keep the Gilroy branch steadfastly served by steel wheels on steel rails. We all love Gilroy, but at any cost?

the right tool for the job
(original by Grendelkhan)
Considering that the Gilroy branch generates very little ridership (about 1% of Caltrain's total ridership before the pandemic), a better interim solution, until the HSR project electrifies the tracks, is to transfer the Gilroy branch to a mature, affordable and environmentally friendly rubber wheel technology: the express bus. This would have the added benefit of allowing Caltrain to quickly rid itself of all of its polluting and failure-prone diesel equipment by 2025, with enormous savings in operating and maintenance costs just as the agency reaches its purported "fiscal cliff." Caltrain should go 100% electric now.

Consultant Featherbedding

The root of this insanity is understandable: Caltrain has for many years retained the services of in-house vehicle consultant LTK, tasked with supporting the highly complex procurement and regulatory approval of a new fleet of electric vehicles. Now that the Stadler contract will be winding down as this new fleet enters service, these people's jobs will be finished. They desperately need to justify their continued existence, and an open-ended research and development project to send oversized bilevel BEMUs all the way to Gilroy, Salinas and beyond is the perfectly timed green-washing opportunity.

Sadly, the BEMU is an expensive solution looking for a problem.