27 October 2013

Census Driven Service Planning

The diagram at right shows where people live and work along the entire length of the rail corridor from San Francisco to Gilroy, as extracted from government census population and jobs data sets.  The diagram is also available as a PDF.

Implications for Rail Service Patterns

By simple observation of the features of the census population and job distributions along the peninsula corridor, it is possible to infer the desirable features of train service patterns that will maximize commute ridership.
  1. Transbay has more than 100,000 jobs within a half-mile radius (more than every other station in the system combined). The concentration of jobs near San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center cannot be understated. This station absolutely must be served by each and every train, and it would be highly counter-productive to terminate any train at 4th and King.
  2. Silicon Valley shows up in the jobs distribution as a broad hump, mostly homogeneous and stretching from Palo Alto to San Jose.  To serve this rich but diffuse commute market, all trains should make every stop in Santa Clara County.  There should never be any skip-stop service here, and the wider spacing of stops (relative to San Mateo County) will result in only minor trip time penalties.
  3. San Mateo County has numerous stops, spaced more closely together and with middling jobs and population density.  To enable faster service to and from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it makes the most sense in this portion of the corridor to operate skip-stop express service alongside local service.
  4. South San Jose, while south of Silicon Valley, has a massive and untapped residential market that can serve as origin to jobs further north.  Tamien currently functions as a slow and infrequent addendum to the peninsula service, but should be sped up and extended to Blossom Hill.
  5. Oakdale in San Francisco opens up a new residential market for Caltrain.  The distribution of people nearby is even denser than at 22nd Street.
  6. The Gilroy extension doesn't make much sense.  There are so few jobs and people here that Caltrain (as primarily a commuter service) should not run to this area.  Serving Morgan Hill and Gilroy is best left for a long-distance operator such as Amtrak California.
Putting all this together, what would a service pattern look like that is tailored to the census distributions, to maximize commuter ridership?  First, it would not look like today's Baby Bullet, which severely under-serves numerous stops.  It would also look very different from Caltrain's latest planning fad, the "peak-period skip-stop zone express," used as the basis for all operational simulations in the blended service analyses published to date.  It would look like this, with distances drawn to scale:

  • The Silicon Valley express links the major employment centers of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, highlighted in orange, providing a faster and better alternative to fleets of white luxury buses stuck in traffic on US 101.  It would run every 15 minutes.
  • The San Mateo local serves all the minor stops throughout San Mateo County, terminating and originating across the platform from the Silicon Valley express at Redwood City.  This provides fast and penalty-free transfers between Silicon Valley and cities all along the peninsula.  The local turns back in Redwood City, minimizing crew and fleet requirements while still providing service every 30 minutes.
  • Stops in San Francisco and San Jose that have very large residential markets are served in the peak commute direction only.
This service pattern is also well-suited to future blended HSR service: a southbound high-speed train and a closely-following Silicon Valley Express can overtake and catch up (respectively) with a San Mateo local by using a four-track mid-line overtake facility constructed from San Mateo to Redwood City.  Because the local turns back at Redwood City, it does not impede traffic in Santa Clara County.

The time has come to fundamentally rethink peninsula rail service patterns.  Caltrain's "peak-period skip-stop zone express" is almost certainly not the best solution for meeting future demand; a much wider range of options must be considered.

16 October 2013

Level Boarding Forum

A few days ago I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Friends of Caltrain on the topic of level boarding and platform compatibility with HSR.  Here are the slides I presented to stimulate the discussion, available either as a 7 MB PDF file or on Scribd:

It was a good discussion, and I came away with the following impressions.

Things that surprised me in a good way:
  • Caltrain is finally considering the possibility of level boarding, although no funding has been identified.
  • Bryan Dykes, from the Transbay project, was quite supportive of shared platforms and further pointed out that a bigger constraint on capacity comes from the excessively long platform dwell times requested by Caltrain and HSR.
  • The escalator pits on all three platforms of the Transbay Transit Center are built to accommodate any platform height.
  • Ben Tripousis of the HSR Authority stated that fare collection and security issues were not necessarily show stoppers for shared platforms, and that platforms could conceivably be shared provided they are built to HSR specifications.
Things that surprised me in a bad way:
  • Caltrain has not started the waiver process for CPUC General Order 26-D, although they have acknowledged the potential need to do so.
  • Marian Lee of Caltrain stated that Caltrain's reasons for wanting to terminate some trains at 4th and King is to serve certain markets there (presumably in reference to Giants games).  I didn't have a chance to question further, but they seem to be missing that every Transbay train would also stop (underground) at 4th and King-- it's not an either-or, it's one or both.
  • Caltrain seems eager to roll out the red carpet for any "tenant railroad" that comes calling.
  • The three agencies are clearly not communicating enough about this issue to support the important decisions that Caltrain needs to make very shortly for its new vehicle procurement.
Things that didn't surprise me:
  • HSR is going with high platforms, period.  That particular train has already left the station, and there will be no turning back from the joint procurement with Amtrak.  If platforms are to be shared with HSR, they will be high platforms.
  • HSR cites as justification for the massive station complex in San Jose that numerous tenant railroads (the "downstairs folks" such as ACE and the Capitol Corridor) plan massive expansion that will need a lot of track and platform space.
  • People in the advocacy community are not in agreement on the need for platform sharing.  Some believe that Caltrain needs low (~25") platforms more than it needs platform sharing with HSR at Transbay or anywhere else.
It all came down to this in the end: high platforms, or segregated platforms--pick your poison.  I happen to believe that high platforms will be the lesser of these two evils.  What do you all think?

27 September 2013

Beyond Level Boarding

It thankfully happened: after all these years, Caltrain has finally stated something (anything!) about level boarding.  This is an improvement that has long been neglected in favor of the more flashy electrification project.

Around here, level boarding has been discussed several times already, so here are a few oldies but goodies from the archives:
  1. Platform height: background and compatibility issues
  2. How platform incompatibility results in oversize stations
  3. Platform sharing issues between Caltrain and HSR
  4. How platform incompatibility is making a mess at SF Transbay
  5. Platform height: the full collection of articles from this blog.  Read it and weep.
There is also a nice APTA overview presentation that goes into some detail about the conflicts between level boarding and freight trains.

Caltrain's presentation sums up the main advantage of level boarding in one bullet point, "Operating efficiencies," without clearly stating why it's so important.
  • Level boarding reduces trip times.  Without steps, passengers can board and alight far more quickly and the train can save about 15 seconds of dwell time at every station stop.  For an all-stops local, this starts adding up, and saves about half again as much as much time as saved by switching from diesel to electric!
  • Level boarding reduces delays.  Wheelchairs, bikes, strollers, hordes of drunk Giants fans, airport travelers with suitcases, everybody can get on and off far more quickly and easily.  As any rider will tell you, station dwell times suffer from a statistical "long tail" of agonizingly long station dwells due to a variety of these factors, a sort of station dwell Russian Roulette.  The only way to run this railroad is to add plenty of timetable padding to absorb these anomalies without making a mess of cascading delays.  Fast forward to 2030: under a blended scenario where hourly traffic is doubled on largely the same tracks, this is no longer acceptable.  Station dwell times must be predictable and reliable to avoid making a mess of the morning rush, and level boarding isn't just a nice-to-have; it is a must-have.
Caltrain's tentative plan is to study the possibility of converting all station platforms to 25 inches above rail (up from today's 8 inches) by some unspecified time in the future, and to let high-speed rail have its own set of separate platforms, most likely at 48 inches above rail.

Beyond Level Boarding: Platform Sharing

Level boarding as envisioned by Caltrain is not a trivial undertaking.  It will be expensive, because dozens of platforms will have to be entirely rebuilt.  It will be politically difficult, not in the least because state regulations will need to be overhauled over the strenuous objections of freight railroads.  It will be time consuming, because so many platforms can't be rebuilt overnight.  It will be logistically complicated, because the system will have to continue operating during the transition with a mix of platform heights.

Why not go a tiny bit further to achieve far greater benefits, at far lower cost?

Platform sharing is the next step beyond level boarding, where Caltrain and HSR can share the same platforms at San Francisco, Millbrae and San Jose.  Platform sharing has distinct advantages that have been discussed at length on this blog.  Platform sharing between conventional trains and high-speed trains is already practiced everywhere in the world, except in those countries where track gauge precludes it.
  • San Francisco Transbay is where all the action will be.  There are more jobs within a half mile of Transbay than there are within a half mile of each and every Caltrain stop, combined!  Service into and out of this tiny six-track terminal station will be inherently inefficient but crucially important for both Caltrain and HSR.  Platform sharing would increase Transbay capacity for decades into the future.
  • Millbrae is where the HSR consultants once expressed interest in building a $1.9 billion dollar tunnel to shoehorn new platforms between a handful of residential properties and the existing BART station, which incidentally cost only about $0.1 billion to build.  Never mind the sheer fiscal insanity of it: platform sharing would allow the station to serve both Caltrain and HSR within its existing footprint.
  • The mid-peninsula HSR stop would be nothing more than another platform where a high-speed train happens to stop, should that be deemed advantageous.
  • San Jose is where the HSR plans get truly loopy: they want to build a massive station up in the sky over the existing station, hovering on a forest of concrete straddle bents, with a six-mile approach viaduct to the north and an "iconic bridge" (Bay Bridge east span, anyone?) to the south.  Platform sharing would enable both HSR's and Caltrain's needs to be met on a single level, at grade, within the existing footprint of the station.  This would save billions of taxpayer funds that the HSR authority seems to be rather short of.
Why are the respective agencies here not talking about platform sharing?  There is bureaucratic inertia and a general unwillingness to coordinate, sometimes verging on outright hostility.

How To Pull It Off
  1. Get HSR to back off from the airport-like notion of separate, dedicated platforms.  Building a TSA security perimeter around the HSR system while leaving Caltrain open won't prevent mass carnage, any more than locking the doors on only one side of your car will prevent theft of your belongings.  HSR can be built far more cheaply with platform sharing.  Of course, none of these measures would be favored by the for-profit Transportation Industrial Complex.
  2. Get Caltrain to back off from the idea of 25 inch platforms.  Not all bilevel EMUs must have low doors; some of the latest models work with high platforms, and there are smart ways to facilitate a height transition by adding additional doors to the EMU fleet.  Or try another way: get HSR to adopt a 25 inch standard; good luck with that.  And please, don't myopically plan everything around the Bombardier fleet staying until 2030.
  3. Get the Transbay JPA and San Francisco to understand the economic advantages of platform sharing: a busier, more efficient and more commercially successful terminal, and the opportunity to reclaim much of the under-utilized train parking at 4th and King for redevelopment.
None of these challenges are technical.  They are institutional and political.

20 July 2013

2013 Q2 Corridor Roundup

original photo by afagen
There's been no shortage of developments in recent months on the peninsula rail corridor.

The Caltrain/HSR Blended Service Plan/Operations Considerations Analysis was published on the Caltrain website.  This document aims to flesh out the 2012 Caltrain/HSR Blended Operations Analysis with more detail requested by stakeholders.  While the comment period for this document is now closed, it has a number of weaknesses that should be addressed.
  1. Strange assumptions about service to San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center.  For some obscure reason (agency turf?) all of Caltrain's simulations (see string charts in appendix, starting at page 29) send just two out of six trains per hour into Transbay, where essentially all the ridership will be.  Most Caltrain traffic is assumed to terminate outside the financial district, at 4th and King.  The string charts do not show any conflicts that would prevent sending at least four (if not all six) trains per hour to Transbay, making full use of the triple tracks in the downtown extension tunnels.

    If you accept that Caltrain isn't trying to spite its customers or diminish its own fare revenue, it's hard to imagine why any train would still terminate at 4th and King when it doesn't absolutely have to.
  2. Strange assumptions about Caltrain station dwell times.  While the station dwell times of today's Caltrain service have been studied in excruciating detail, the way the dwell time statistics were incorporated into the simulation model may leave something to be desired.  Dwell times are the only randomized input to the model, and the specific random distribution used to calculate them can have enormous impact on the results.

    Because of Caltrain's 8-inch platforms and inefficient passenger flows, dwell times can occasionally exceed two minutes, for example if a wheelchair user needs to board a train.  The resulting dwell time random distribution has a long tail that reflects the "Russian Roulette" nature of today's operations.  These occasional outliers can easily ruin a tight timetable by setting off a domino effect of delays to other trains, resulting in poor on-time performance.  This is especially important because on-time performance (measured in minutes of delay), the figure of merit used to evaluate different operating scenarios, becomes sensitively dependent on the choice of dwell time random distribution.

    Consider level boarding, an improvement that Caltrain hasn't yet discovered how badly it needs.  The lack of steps and abundance of doors makes dwell times shorter and, more importantly, far more predictable.  The dwell time random distribution for level boarding does not have the long tail used in Caltrain's simulations, and we can finally stop playing Russian Roulette.  Look no further than BART to get representative dwell time data.

    What is the effect of the long tail in the dwell time random distribution?  Would level boarding be a better investment than building more passing tracks?  We'll never know, unless the model is re-run with a different dwell distribution that simulates level boarding.
  3. Strange assumptions about the "hold out" rule.  This operational rule mandates that when a train stops at an old, narrow center-boarding platform, no other train may enter the station until the first train has departed (otherwise bad things can happen).  The practical effect of this rule is that trains operating on separate tracks can delay each other.  The hold-out rule is slowly turning into an exception as stations are modernized, and today applies at only three stations: South San Francisco, Broadway in Burlingame, and Atherton.

    In a cute computational flourish, the hold-out rule was accounted for in all operational simulations in the Caltrain report, but nobody bothered to ask if it would make any sense to invest billions (with a 'B') in the peninsula corridor to build HSR passing tracks, all the while not spending a few million (with an 'M') to rebuild the three remaining platforms to retire the hold-out rule forever.  Worse, Caltrain's analysis made no attempt to tease out the effect of the hold-out rule on minutes of delay, to quantify its effect relative to other sources of delay.

    This shortcoming could easily be remedied by re-running the model with and without the hold-out rule.
Finally, the document reveals a stunning discovery in its analysis of Dumbarton service:
It is important to note that the feasibility of operating Dumbarton Rail Corridor service on the Caltrain corridor in addition to the Caltrain and HSR blended system does not equate to having the capacity to add another Caltrain or HSR train during the peak hour. DRC service fits because it uses only portions of the corridor and does not require an end-to-end corridor operating slot.
This is the exact same reason why all HSR service should enter the corridor at Redwood City from Altamont Pass, rather than gumming up the entire length of the peninsula corridor.  The blended system would be easier to plan, cheaper to build, and provide far better service to passengers.
The Caltrain/HSR Blended Grade Crossing Traffic Analysis was published on the Caltrain website and concluded the following:
Additional analysis is necessary. However, before doing so, speculation should be minimized. A better understanding of the schedule and decision on passing tracks should be advanced before further traffic analysis is conducted.
That's a fancy way of saying that grade crossing conditions will depend heavily on what the eventual timetable will be, so that a timetable needs to be developed first.  Perhaps Caltrain will some day see that everything revolves around timetable planning.  The timetable is where it starts from, to determine infrastructure needs and grade crossing impacts, and also where it all ends up, to quantify service quality improvements for each community along the peninsula corridor.  Timetable planning is precisely where Caltrain is not spending a lot of effort, because they think they already know the answer, in the form of a general class of "peak period skip stop zone express" timetables described in the 2012 Caltrain/HSR Blended Operations Analysis (see page 34).  There's a lot of work left to be done in this area, starting with undoing Caltrain's mistaken fixation on "peak period skip stop zone express" timetables.  As far as this grade crossing traffic analysis is concerned, Caltrain put the cart before the horse.

The CBOSS train control project chugged along, with a couple of recent puff pieces in the local newspapers. This project is where the lion's share of Caltrain's capital budget is going these days:
Design work is about 50 percent complete, said Karen Antion, who is essentially the boss of CBOSS and a highly-experienced and highly-paid consultant. [...] The design of CBOSS should be complete by September, Antion said.
Is this the same design work that leads up to the Critical Design Reviews that were supposed to have been completed last March?  If so, CBOSS is now a year behind the original plan, and that's before the really hard task of integrating and testing a system that is so proudly proclaimed to be "unique to Caltrain."  It sure is comforting to hear that we've got such a wide spectrum of on-call consultants to get us out of any trouble.

Meanwhile, staff has already softened up the board for the impending Option 2 (Phase 3) contract, to be rubber-stamped at the August board meeting.  The status of key milestones in the scope of Option 1 (Phase 2) is artfully avoided.  This $86.5 million contract is the "final" increment of funding for CBOSS, before the need for an Option 3 (Phase 4) makes itself known, most likely in late 2014.

Remember SuperVia, of Rio de Janeiro?  They are already well into testing.  Their consultants must be absolutely stellar.

The San Carlos Transit Village project is inexorably nearing approval later this month despite strong (and legitimate) NIMBY opposition.  Apparently piqued by claims that SamTrans is sabotaging the modernization of the peninsula rail corridor by selling off land that will be needed for new passing tracks, both SamTrans and Caltrain have issued letters disavowing any ill effect to the rail corridor or to the adjacent Old County Road, essentially by claiming that nothing has been decided yet:
The blended system is undefined at this time and we cannot predict its impact
This is a strange claim to make, given that all the analysis reports commissioned by Caltrain in the last couple of years point towards additional passing tracks (the "midline overtake") being built right through San Carlos and the new Transit Village.

The San Bruno grade separation opened to train traffic, even if the project is far from complete.  Trains now use the tracks built atop a mechanically stabilized earth embankment (basically walls held together by the weight of the dirt fill in between) that could be representative of future grade separations elsewhere on the corridor.

20 June 2013

The Thruth About Tejon

A quick programming note...

There's an explanation for the long silence in these pages.  I've been busy writing about an issue that is outside the scope of HSR and Caltrain on the peninsula.  See my post about the southern California mountain crossing, over on the California High-Speed Rail Blog.

Regular programming will return soon.

13 April 2013

High Voltage Rule Making

25,000-volt alternating current overhead electrification, the worldwide standard for powering modern passenger trains as now planned for Caltrain and the statewide high-speed rail system, currently does not exist anywhere in California. Nor do any regulations exist to ensure its safe and reliable implementation. That's why the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its consultants have successfully petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission for a new regulatory framework to enable the use of 25 kV technology in California.

In concert with the CPUC, a committee of HSR technocrats has developed a proposed General Order to regulate important topics such as:
  • Performance requirements
  • Clearances and protection against electric shock
  • Grounding and bonding
  • Strength requirements
  • Safe working practices
  • Incident reporting
The rule-making proceeding can be found under CPUC docket number R1303009.  The proposed draft regulatory document (2.3 MB PDF, known as a "General Order" or GO) can be found under CPUC petition docket number P1210011.  A close reading of this proposed GO reveals two fundamental flaws that seem to have entirely escaped the authors:
  1. The draft GO proposes to regulate 25 kV overhead electrification specifically for the operation of high speed trains.  The authors commit a fundamental category error by treating 25 kV electrification as a technology that is unique to 200+ mph high-speed rail, which is flat out wrong.  25 kV electrification is a world-wide standard technology used for powering any type of train, from commuter to freight to intercity to high-speed rail.  Examples abound, even within the United States, and could someday find their way to California--let's say for example, the San Francisco peninsula.  California regulations should not preclude any of these other applications just because they were authored by and for the HSR project.  The GO should regulate 25 kV AC electrification as a general category for powering electric railroads, and treat the specific application to high-speed rail as a sub-category.  The draft document should be entirely re-structured, with HSR relegated to a chapter that covers only those special regulations that pertain solely to high-speed operations.
  2. The draft document does not read like a concise regulatory document, and instead includes numerous pages of technical guidelines and best practices quoted nearly verbatim from the CHSRA's own technical specifications.  Much of the draft is descriptive material that speaks of the HSR system in the future tense.  The authors seem to have made no effort to separate descriptive material and run-of-the-mill engineering requirements from the key regulatory (safety) requirements, and the result is an unorganized mess of a kitchen sink that reads as if a committee of technocrats had authored it.  Which they apparently did.
You might think that someone close to the matter would say something about these obvious flaws, but all that Caltrain could muster as a response (under P12100011) is this:
Based on our prior coordination with the CHSRA and discussions with California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) staff, the following is our understanding:
  • The CHSRA Petition and proposed GO broadly describes the statewide high-speed rail system to include "shared use corridors"; 
  • The reference to "shared use corridors" would include the Caltrain corridor, which is in the SF to SJ segment of the CHSRA blended statewide system; 
  • The GO would potentially be applicable to the Caltrain electrification project, to be led by the PCJPB; and 
  • The Caltrain electrification project will require specific regulatory consideration of the effect of 25 kV ac power lines upon signal predictors for at-grade crossings, which may require JPB to seek its own GO or to request an amendment to the GO being proposed by CHSRA. 
In other words, Caltrain politely requests to be considered as part of the HSR system so that whatever (really, whatever!) regulations of 25 kV electrification, as drafted by the CHSRA and its consultants, can "potentially" become applicable to Caltrain's own electrification project.  They couldn't get any more passive than this.

It is becoming clear that our rail agencies and state regulators are falling all over themselves in their incompetence to craft a logical regulatory framework around a mature world-standard technology.

06 March 2013

Lynn Schenk Is Right

Lynn Schenk, vice chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, caused a stir today when her refusal to vote for the latest Caltrain / HSR memorandum of understanding left plans for the "blended" system stuck in neutral--at least until she is outvoted at the next board meeting.

She contends that the blended system isn't high-speed rail and shouldn't be paid for using HSR bond funds.  And she's right: nowhere else in the world does anyone seriously propose "blending" a new high-speed rail system with commuter rail over such a long distance as the 50 miles between San Francisco and San Jose.  That's a recipe for limited speeds, bunched commuter trains, and cascading delays.  It could rightly be considered a diversion of HSR funds from their intended purpose.

If you want SF to LA in 2 hours and 40 minutes, the simple truth is that blending should be kept to a strict minimum, like this:

28 February 2013

The Virtues of Width

The Swiss rail vehicle manufacturer Stadler was recently awarded a contract for 112 bilevel EMU cars to be delivered by 2016 for the Moscow airport express, based on their modular KISS vehicle concept.  A rendering is shown at right, complete with retro-Soviet hood ornament.  (UPDATE 6/2013: datasheet now available).  These EMUs are noteworthy because they take full advantage of the generous Russian loading gauge (the available height and width clearances), resulting in two spacious levels of passenger seating, and also because they use high platforms.  This is a European EMU on steroids, and Caltrain should take notice.

In a blended HSR + Caltrain system, slowly transitioning to full grade separation over a time scale of decades, several constraints exist that will impede Caltrain's ability to add capacity to meet increasing ridership demand:
  • More trains per hour won't work.  Because there are only two shared tracks, the capacity of the corridor (as measured in trains per hour) is limited.  It's going to be a stretch for Caltrain to operate six trains per hour per direction with HSR in the mix, so adding more is clearly out of the question until the much-dreaded additional tracks are built.
  • Longer trains won't work.  Train length is limited at stations such as Burlingame and Menlo Park, where grade crossings are found at both ends of the station platforms.  Until these locations are grade-separated and new longer platforms are built, adding more cars to make longer trains is not feasible.  In any case, most Caltrain platforms limit train lengths to 600 feet (or 7 standard-length cars), at least until they are rebuilt.
  • Taller trains won't work.  Today's bi-level trains already take good advantage of the available height, so there is no seating capacity to be gained by growing trains any taller.
Loading gauge comparison,
Russia / USA / Europe
If more, longer, or taller trains can't satisfy increasing ridership, why not give wider trains a try?  The Russian 1-T loading gauge, shown at right in comparison to the loading gauges of western Europe and Caltrain, allows trains that are almost six inches wider than ours.  Going even a few inches wider than the Russian limit, with a 134-inch wide car shell, would enable five-abreast seating at the same level of comfort offered in Caltrain's existing Bombardier cars.

The Advantages of Extra-Wide EMUs

The diagram below shows a cross section of three double-deck trains: a traditional European EMU of the sort coveted by Caltrain; a Caltrain Baby Bullet car; and a hypothetical extra-wide EMU with comfortable five abreast seating, a few inches wider than the Russian model described above.
Such an extra-wide EMU has several advantages.
  • More passengers per train.  With five abreast seating, 15 to 20% more seating can be provided without increasing train length or train frequency.  Even in those areas without seats, more floor space is available for standees.
  • More usable space.  Extra width makes for more spacious and comfortable vestibules, stairs, and passageways between cars.  High-traffic areas near doors, bicycle racks, restrooms, and luggage racks do not impede the flow of passengers.
  • Lower crew costs.  The number of conductors required on a train is dependent on the number of cars in the train.  Under the present labor agreement, there is a strong incentive to keep train lengths to six cars and to maximize passenger capacity per car.  Five-abreast seating reduces the crew cost (and other operating costs) per available seat.
  • Future-proof HSR compatibility.  Because the CHSRA has already settled on a single-level train architecture for its high-speed trains, it is likely that similar capacity limitations will drive the future California trains to be extra-wide, like the Japanese Shinkansen or the Russian Velaro.  Converting Caltrain to a wider standard helps achieve future platform interface compatibility with HSR, which is not just a matter of height but also of width.
  • Easier conversion to high platforms.  Wider trains can be fitted with both high and low doors to accommodate a platform transition period, without cutting as badly into the seat count as for a normal size train.  (The Russian example is built exclusively for high platforms, but more doors could be added on the lower level.)  What's more, with high platforms built further away from the tracks, those annoying freight trains get a little bit more clearance.
  • Easier vehicle packaging.  From an engineering standpoint, modern EMUs are like a jigsaw puzzle where every vehicle component must find its place under multiple constraints.  More width gives vehicle designers more flexibility to make everything fit, making trains more comfortable and maintainable.
There is very little downside to going wide.  Caltrain's EMUs would be a captive fleet on the peninsula rail corridor, such that expanding a few inches outside the AAR Plate F loading gauge would require only minimal infrastructure modification and would not impede interoperability.  Stadler has once again demonstrated that the car body shells of a modular vehicle can be tailored to any desired size, using different extruded aluminum shapes.

Caltrain should make full use of the generous clearances available on the peninsula corridor.  In a blended future where HSR limits the number of peak-hour commuter trains, extra-wide EMUs with five-abreast seating are an attractive solution for giving Caltrain more rush-hour capacity.

[Update 08/2014: this Swedish academic paper analyzes the numerous advantages of extra-wide trains in far more detail, going into cost elasticities etc.]

17 February 2013

The Blend, HSR Style

The California High-Speed Rail Authority recently published a memo (requested by Kathy Hamilton and CARRD) justifying the oft-questioned claim that the Phase 1 "blended system" presented in the 2012 Business Plan is consistent with the trip-time requirements built into section 2704.09 of Proposition 1A, the HSR bond.  The trip times are in the bond language to prevent funds from being disbursed for projects that are not high-speed rail.

The memo states that the blended system will enable 30 minute non-stop trip times between San Francisco and San Jose.  In support of this claim, the memo provides the speed graph below, to which blue annotations have been added for clarification.  The annotations are necessary because the memo authors evidently did not go out of their way to explain the graph to non-engineers.
San Francisco to San Jose (southbound) speed versus distance graph, annotated.
Notches in the speed profile represent curve speed restrictions.

An independent calculation of the speed profile (using the output of a Train Performance Calculator that numerically integrates the differential equations of motion of the train, taking into account traction, braking, and drag forces) shows that an AGV train limited to 110 mph can travel from San Francisco 4th & King to San Jose in 33 minutes, under a slightly different set of assumptions where the train is slowed by a curve at Palo Alto, uses the existing 45 mph San Jose station approach, and makes an actual stop in San Jose.  After the differing assumptions are reconciled, the math does check out and the calculations are correct.

Those Pesky Assumptions

As for any computer simulation, the results are predicated on a set of input assumptions.  As the saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out"--bad assumptions will lead to bad results.  While the CHSRA's time of 30:22 is reasonable under the particular assumptions they made, the assumptions themselves are questionable.  They include:
  1. The train starts from San Francisco 4th & King, not Transbay.  Starting from Transbay, with its notoriously slow approach, would add about another 3 minutes.
  2. No Caltrain service is allowed for, or in their words, "Caltrain train service will allow for high-speed express train to run unimpeded between SF and SJ".  In Caltrain's blended operations analysis, all HSR services during rush hour make a two-minute stop at Millbrae, which has the effect of reducing the speed differential between HSR and Caltrain.  If HSR were to attempt a 30-minute run during rush hour, it is likely that Caltrain would be impacted by reduced rush hour track capacity, from six Caltrains per hour per direction to four or five.  The stop at Millbrae adds 3.5 minutes to the SF-SJ run.  Such is the nature of compromise.
  3. No padding is included.  In the real world, timetables include a small amount of padding (5 to 7 percent) to allow for the occasional unplanned delay.  Over a half-hour SF - SJ run, a real-world timetable would add at least 1.5 minutes.
  4. The train does not stop in San Jose, so no penalty is taken for the time lost as it slows down.  This alone is worth at least half a minute from 75 mph.
  5. The train uses the least energy-efficient, pedal-to-the-metal driving style.  Brakes are applied fully and at the last moment, and acceleration is at full throttle.  In the real world, where energy and maintenance do cost money, a smoother and more energy-efficient traction and braking profile would add about 1 minute.
  6. No speed restriction is present at Palo Alto, where a double reverse curve limits train speeds to 90 mph.  Slowing from 110 mph would add about 20 seconds.
  7. The train approaches San Jose on an elevated viaduct leading into the proposed upper level at San Jose Diridon, maintaining a speed of 75 mph (as opposed to the slower 45 mph limit practiced on the existing alignment).
  8. Timetables show departure times.  Departure from San Jose would be two minutes after arrival.
In the real world, all those assumptions add up.  In a blended scenario at rush hour, if a passenger picks up the HSR timetable, entries for SF Transbay and San Jose will be no less than 42 minutes apart (30.5 minutes express run time + 3.5 minutes Millbrae stop + 3 minutes Transbay + 1.5 minutes padding + 1 minute energy efficiency + 0.5 minutes slowing for San Jose + 2 minutes dwell at San Jose.)

While a special one-time midnight Cannonball Express run could be achieved in 30 minutes and 22 seconds without violating any speed limits or laws of physics, this figure is not operationally feasible in everyday service and boils down to nothing more than a stunt.  Under the same stunt assumptions, a decrepit old Caltrain diesel could rush from SF to SJ in just 39 minutes.

As the HSR project is litigated, the distinction between a one-time high-speed stunt and a robust every-day train timetable will be important to keep in mind.

10 February 2013

Keep Out the Coast Daylight

The Coast Daylight pulling into
Palo Alto in 1942.  Image from
Caltrans recently published an administrative draft of its California State Rail Plan. This document assembles hundreds of pages of assorted kitchen-sink gobbledygook, fails to mention important topics such as level boarding even once, and reveals a strange fixation with Amtrak's plans to start a new Coast Daylight train linking San Francisco with Los Angeles.

The Coast Daylight, as any old railroader will tell you, was one of the Southern Pacific's most prestigious services back in the golden age of steam trains. The red, black and orange livery of the massive GS-class locomotives (shown in the opening photo pulling into Palo Alto in 1942) is sufficient to throw even the most staid rail buff into convulsions of nostalgia, which seems the likeliest explanation for the sudden urge to resurrect this long-forgotten train.

Why should we care about this anachronism? As it turns out, this latter-day Coast Daylight would terminate at Fourth and King in San Francisco, causing a number of complications and constraints for modernizing the peninsula rail corridor.

Chronic Lateness.  The Coast Daylight's counterpart, the Coast Starlight, has the well-earned nickname "Coast Starlate."  Because the Daylight would also use hundreds of miles of track owned by freight railroads and subject to all sorts of delays, the northbound Daylight would be exceedingly unlikely to arrive reliably on time, causing it to miss its assigned timetable slot on the peninsula rail corridor and delaying everybody else.  With track capacity in the blended Caltrain / HSR system a scarce and valuable commodity, one must ask, should all passengers (especially those who value their time and use high-speed rail) have to pay for Amtrak's inability to keep to a timetable?

Diesels Forever.  The Coast Daylight would be a diesel train, and as the State Rail Plan notes, it could not use San Francisco's new underground Transbay Transit Center station where diesel exhaust is not allowed for.  This would strand it on the surface at the 4th and King station, which is increasingly becoming the object of San Francisco's desire for urban redevelopment.  Plans for Amtrak trains to San Francisco clearly clash with San Francisco's plans for the surface rail yard, a clash that wouldn't arise with 100% below-ground electric trains.

Yet Another Platform Interface.  The Coast Daylight would presumably use the same equipment as other Amtrak long-distance trains, with an entry floor height of 17.5 inches.  No matter what floor height Caltrain ultimately selects for the necessary upgrade to level boarding, Caltrain platforms will end up higher than this.  Because steps down from the platform into a train aren't allowed under ADA and FRA regulations, the result would be separate platform tracks entirely dedicated to the Coast Daylight at San Francisco, Millbrae and Redwood City--or no level boarding for Caltrain.  That hardly seems like optimal use of expensive station facilities.

Negative Return on Investment.  Thanks to speedy and frequent service, the lucrative San Francisco - Los Angeles travel market will go mostly to HSR, with only marginal ridership left to the Coast Daylight to pick up in coastal communities in between.  The Coast Daylight will join many other Amtrak long-distance trains with subsidies per passenger well above the price of a ticket.  The opportunity cost of every dollar spent on reviving the Coast Daylight means that rail service will languish in areas with far greater potential.

Yet Another Tenant Railroad.  Caltrain's plans for modernized train control (known as CBOSS) make a big deal of accommodating so-called "tenant railroads" that travel over Caltrain-owned tracks.  While the Coast Daylight has indeed been accounted for by the Diesel Brain Trust, the very real possibility that CBOSS might fail and get replaced with the HSR train control system could make integration of the blended system unnecessarily difficult.

Blending different services on shared and limited rail corridor infrastructure is a good idea in principle, but blending can go too far.  Amtrak is the spice that will make this blend go sour.  The Coast Daylight should terminate in San Jose or Emeryville, and even nostalgic rail buffs must accept that Amtrak should keep out of the peninsula rail corridor.

02 February 2013

Caltrain Should Use High Platforms

Incompatible platform,
by tracktwentynine
The recent news that CHSRA is considering a joint train procurement with Amtrak could settle an open question about high-speed rail in California, with important ramifications for the peninsula: the selection of a platform interface standard.

A Possible California HSR Platform Standard

Amtrak will procure high-speed trains that conform to its long-established platform interface standard for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), where the platform edges are located 48 inches above the top of the rail and offset laterally by 67 inches from the center line of the track.  While this "high platform" standard dates to the 1930s, it happens to be approximately consistent with the floor heights of the majority of the latest products from big names in high-speed train manufacturing such as Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Siemens, etc.  For all the mockery that a joint procurement with Amtrak has triggered, it turns out that Amtrak's NEC high-platform standard is, at least dimensionally speaking, quite reasonable for California's high-speed rail system.

If Amtrak and CHSRA do end up pursuing a common fleet procurement, then the California HSR platform standard will be 48 inches above the rail and 67 inches from the track center line.  Even if not, the HSR platform standard is still likely to end up around 48 inches above the rail.

The Need For A Common Platform Standard

So far, Caltrain and CHSRA have demonstrated no sign of coordination--let alone any desire for it--around a common platform interface standard.  All plans so far show stations that are 100% segregated with separate-but-equal tracks and platforms for Caltrain and HSR.  This leads either to elephantine station designs or, when space is at a premium, to severe under-utilization of precious infrastructure and extreme engineering solutions.  In all cases, taxpayers are fleeced and passengers are impeded.

On the other hand, the blended plan envisioned for the peninsula recognizes that shared infrastructure is a worthy goal, to minimize cost and impacts on communities, and to extract the maximum utility from a given investment in new infrastructure.  Taxpayers are spared and passengers better served.

As has often been argued here, Caltrain and HSR should use the same platform interface standard to enable mixed operations even within stations, such as is routinely practiced in European high-speed rail systems.  This would further cut costs and community impacts, increase infrastructure utilization, and maximize operational flexibility--the resilience of the system to disturbances caused by the inevitable failures that happen now and then.  If such an operating concept had a slogan, it would be "any train, any track, any platform".

A Clear and Present Opportunity

Caltrain has an immediate and pressing need to replace its aging fleet, as part of the electrification project.  The majority of the existing fleet dates from 1985 and is nearing the end of its useful life, with breakdowns causing increasingly frequent service disruptions at a time of record demand.  This will only get worse, and Caltrain will have to define a specification for the new trains, including platform interface dimensions, within the next year or two.  While the electrification project will be completed a decade or more before HSR arrives on the peninsula, the new electric trains will be good for at least three decades of service, to about the year 2050.  There is a small window of opportunity to make smart decisions about Caltrain's platform interface in the next year or two that will have far reaching consequences for several decades into the future.  It all comes down to this:

Caltrain should begin a system-wide conversion to high-platform level boarding, starting now.

Objections Abound

Converting to high platforms is a major change.  All major changes bring about the fear of change itself, and unlock myriad reasons why something can't or shouldn't be done.  To play devil's advocate, such objections might include the following:
  • The high-platform standard is wrong for Caltrain; instead, HSR should use low platforms shared with Caltrain.  While this argument has technical merit, it is highly unlikely that a small agency like Caltrain would be able to sway a larger agency like the CHSRA away from the high-floor train architecture that is prevalent in worldwide HSR systems and already built into numerous ADA and FRA regulations and CHSRA documents.  Politics trumps engineering on this one, and it's better for Caltrain to follow HSR to a high-platform standard than to pursue a more technically pure approach (low-platform bi-level EMUs) at the cost of platform incompatibility.
  • Bi-level EMUs are hard to design for high platforms.  This also has technical merit, in that few commuter rail examples exist other than in Sydney and Paris.  None of the common European-style bi-level commuter EMU products on offer from Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, or Stadler (and often seen in Caltrain electrification brochures) are compatible with high platforms.  A high-platform, bi-level, ADA-accessible EMU could be a challenge to engineer and would break from an "off-the-shelf" procurement philosophy--although some innovative solutions do exist that could meet this constraint.  In the end, if Caltrain asked for a solution, rail vehicle vendors would probably offer it.
  • Caltrain's Bombardier diesel bullet fleet is young, should be kept around, and can't work with high platforms By the time the new EMUs arrive, nine locomotives and 25 Baby Bullet train cars will have reached only about half of their useful life, still quite young in railroad terms.  Caltrain has plans to retain these diesel sets for express service, to reduce the required quantity and cost of the initial EMU fleet procurement.  While this sort of thrift can be expected from an agency that is continually starved of funds, the old trains have an entry floor height of 25 inches and cannot use platforms higher than that.  However, because these trains are of a standard design, they can fetch excellent prices on the second-hand market.  Sell them!
  • A transition to high platforms is nearly impossible to pull off without interrupting service.  This objection assumes not only that the old fleet would be incompatible with the new platforms, but also that the new EMU fleet would be incompatible with the old platforms.  If that were the case, an extended service shutdown could be required to rebuild all the existing platforms to the new standard.  It doesn't need to go this way: the new EMU rolling stock can enable the transition, by providing both high and low doors during the transition period.  After all the platforms are converted, the low doors would be removed and replaced with seating.  Again, if Caltrain asked for a solution, rail vehicle vendors would probably offer it.
  • It is much more difficult to implement level boarding at 48 inches than at 24 inches.  Level boarding is not something that Caltrain can avoid forever.  The operational advantages (brief and predictable station dwell times, not to mention better accessibility for all) are just too great to ignore in a blended scenario.  Inescapably, every last Caltrain platform will have to be rebuilt--including dozens of new platforms built just 8 inches above the rail in recent years.  Regardless of the final platform interface selection, level boarding is going to be a big construction project; whether the platform height is raised by 16 inches or by 40 inches is going to be a rounding error in the final construction budget.
  • Level boarding is a huge change, on the same order as electrification; let's only do one big thing at a time.  No debate there: level boarding is a big investment.  At $5 million per platform and about 70 platforms, the tab comes easily to a third of a billion dollars.  That's not an easy sum to scrape together; however, procuring EMU trains that can serve both high and low platforms during a multi-year transition period could spread or delay this cost.  In the medium to long term, level boarding is not optional.  The cost effectiveness (in minutes of travel time saved per dollar invested) is at least on a par with electrification, and the performance improvement is necessary for blending seamlessly with HSR.
  • Even if Caltrain converts to high platforms, HSR will be kept on separate platforms for security reasons, so why even bother with all this compatible platform trouble?  While all station facilities in the California HSR system are being planned with airport-like security, adopting a common platform standard at least allows a rational discussion of platform sharing as practiced in Europe.  The terror fears are real, but entirely misplaced.  The worldwide history of train terror has demonstrated two basic facts: trains are not as vulnerable as airplanes, and commuter trains are equally vulnerable as high-speed trains (Madrid 2004).  Security theater should not take priority over efficient operations.
  • Caltrain must be compatible with freight, and freight trains can't go past high platforms.  This can be immediately dismissed as an ignorant, California-centric argument. Leaving aside for the moment the many good reasons for banishing freight trains from the peninsula rail corridor, the only obstacle to high platforms--and level boarding of any sort regardless of platform height--is regulatory, not technical.  On the East Coast, freight trains can and do operate on tracks with platforms 48 inches high and 67 inches from the track center line; here is proof on YouTube.
These numerous counter-arguments all have varying degrees of merit, if considered in isolation.  But they cannot be considered in isolation.  Each one of them, if followed to its logical conclusion, leads to a world where Caltrain and HSR must use separate platforms, blending like oil and water.  Now is the time to exercise a little bit of vision to make the idea of a blended system actually work in practice, and shared platforms are a key part of that.

What Caltrain Should Do Now
  • Make it policy to include blended station platforms as part of the blended system
  • Establish an agreement with CHSRA on a common platform interface specification
  • Ask EMU vendors to propose technical solutions for high-platform EMUs and solving the platform transition issue.  This can be in the form of a request for information (RFI), before the electrification EIR or any procurement activity is underway.
  • Stop clinging so desperately to a remnant fleet of diesels after electrification is built.  Saving a few tens of millions of dollars up front is not worth the resulting decades of operational inefficiency.

01 January 2013

CBOSS Falls Behind

In October 2011, the Caltrain board of directors approved the first increment of a contract with Parsons Transportation Group to deploy the CBOSS train control system on the peninsula rail corridor.  The contract scope presented then was as follows:
  • $16.3M for the base contract, up through critical design (a government contracting buzzword with a very specific definition)
  • $35.3M for Option 1, for final design, factory acceptance testing, and the fiber communications backbone installation
  • $86.5M for Option 2, including procurement, installation, testing, training, certification, commissioning, final acceptance, and a one-year warranty.
The agenda for the January 3rd board of directors meeting shows that the goal posts have already been moved, and the criteria for whether to exercise Option 1 are as fuzzy as ever, namely "staff now deems it appropriate to exercise Option 1."

The work accomplished for $16.3 million includes:
  • Completed Project Execution Planning (PEP).
  • Obtained approval of Project PEP.
  • Obtained approval of Project Baseline Schedule.
  • Completed Project Contract Deliverable Requirements List.
  • Completed co-location of PTG project personnel at SF Caltrain Field Office.
  • Completed Project Preliminary Design & Approval.
  • Submitted Project PTC Development Plan to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
  • Commenced Back-up Central Control Facility Real Estate search.
  • Developed Caltrain Interoperability Coordination Plan for FRA and other railroads’ review and comments. Met with Union Pacific Railroad and other tenant railroads for establishing Interoperability coordination plan process and working groups.
  • Conducted monthly project reviews with California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA)-designated consultant.
  • Submitted deliverable packages as required by the JPB’s agreement with CHSRA. Met with FRA/CHSRA to discuss project status and addressed FRA comments in September 2012.
  • Commenced system and subsystem critical design.
The last item in this laundry list is the big one.  It was supposed to have been completed in September 2012 under the base contract, and "commenced" doesn't sound very done.  Passing a Critical Design Review is the milestone traditionally associated with completing critical design, and doing so successfully is certainly no picnic.  The latest project status briefing (2 months ago) shows this milestone in March of 2013, six months later than was planned just 14 months ago.

CBOSS is already late and over-budget.  Will anybody on the Caltrain board of directors notice as they vote unanimously to exercise Option 1?