19 October 2014

Level Boarding Plan B

Plan B: four doors per car.
Based on a photo by Yevgeny Gromov
What if the recent talk of platform compatibility was just a bunch of lip service, and the high-speed rail authority remained uncompromising on their requirement for platforms and train floors at a 51" (1295 mm) height above the rails?

Then we need to be prepared for Caltrain Level Boarding Plan B.

By definition, Plan B will never be as good as Plan A.  Plan A is a workable compromise solution that would enable a gradual transition to a fully compatible blended system where Caltrain and HSR can share the same station platform tracks with 100% level boarding.

Plan B is to join HSR in their choice of 51" platforms, however misguided it may be.  The transition to 51" platforms, from today's 8" platform height, seems at first a much more complicated problem.  But is it really?  What if you did this to Caltrain's new EMUs?

The train depicted here has two sets of doors, one pair for 51" platforms located on the mid level at the ends of each car, and another pair (quite similar to the Bombardier cars, with two steps up from an 8" platform) on the lower level.  This is only a minor tweak to Caltrain's plan, taking advantage of the vehicles to facilitate a gradual transition from today's 8" platforms to level boarding at 51".  During the transition to level boarding, only one set of doors opens at each stop, depending on the platform height at that stop.

Because it is a very specific solution, it's easy to shoot full of holes.  Plan B elicits a number of objections:

Extra doors take away seating space.  Additional vestibule areas will consume the space for at least 16 seats per car, or about 12% of train's overall seating capacity.  However, Caltrain already needs better standing areas to handle peak loads, and these vestibules could be a good way to comfortably accommodate standees.  The loss of seating could also be compensated by going five-abreast in extra-wide trains.

Extra doors will cause breakdowns.  While the overall reliability of a train certainly depends on how many doors it has, the failure rate of any given door is better measured in mean cycles between failures, rather than mean time between failures.  There is not a single additional door cycle since only one pair of doors opens at any given stop, so breakdowns and maintenance expenses will certainly not double.

Wheelchairs need the ability to change levels.  During the transition, when some platforms are at 8" and others at 51", wheelchairs may need to board and alight at two different heights.  A large ADA-compliant bathroom may also need to be placed in the roomy lower level.  This implies a requirement for a wheelchair lift inside at least one vehicle in the train.  It would be a packaging challenge, but is certainly not unprecedented.

Bicyclists need to navigate interior steps.  The large contiguous areas required for efficient bicycle storage (sorting bicycles by destination as is currently the practice) would most likely be located on the lower level.  When boarding and alighting at a 51" platform, bicyclists would need to negotiate 3 steps inside the train, possibly while it is moving.  This is certainly a challenge, but must be considered in the context of today's situation, where bicyclists have to maneuver inside a moving train to access a 40-bike storage area through a single 3-foot narrow entrance after climbing up four steep steps and turning the corner around a pole--sometimes in the middle of a Giants game crowd.  Providing stair gutters in the bicycle car steps (which, by the way, would be longitudinal steps that could be built far less steep than those transverse gallery car steps) could make interior navigation far easier than it is today.

Extra doors will make the trains more expensive.  There is no question that this extra complication will lead to extra expense, but the key question is how much?  The extra pair of doors will be responsible for perhaps an extra 5% capital cost.  On a half-billion-dollar fleet purchase, this amounts to $25 million, an amount that sounds enormous to anyone with a mortgage.  But $25 million is a pittance in the context of the thousands of millions (billions!) required to build separate station infrastructure for Caltrain and HSR.  The extra cost is a rounding error, and a good case can be made for HSR picking up the compatibility tab.

Trains are difficult to build with that many doors.  Structurally speaking, each door opening compromises the strength of the car body structure, reducing its ability to withstand the enormous loads during a train wreck.  The crashworthiness of rail cars is highly regulated by the FRA, and achieving compliance for a four-door car could be quite an engineering challenge.  This is a question best left for car builders to answer.

So yes, admittedly, Plan B is sub-optimal for a number of reasons as described above.  It is quite controversial even among Caltrain advocates, many of whom harbor a visceral dislike of 51" platforms.  This dislike goes so far as to lead them to a very strange advocacy position: that Caltrain and HSR should have separate platforms!

As we have often discussed, separate platforms are an operational disaster waiting to happen at San Francisco Transbay, since every inbound Caltrain movement will conflict with every outbound HSR movement.  This constraint will  limit the capacity and future growth of the blended system.  And it's not just a Transbay issue: separate HSR stations at Millbrae, the mid-peninsula, and San Jose will require billions of additional infrastructure spending that would not otherwise be necessary.  Is that a better outcome than Plan B?

The Best of the Rest

Supposing Plan A fails and HSR insists on 51" platforms, then Plan B is the best of the rest.  It is a simple plan, and a reasonable solution for not precluding common platforms in the future.  Anyone who takes issue with it owes a detailed description of their own specific plan to make Caltrain and HSR more compatible.

04 October 2014

The Top Ten Problems Facing Caltrain

Caltrain is searching for a new General Manager.  This person will need a briefing on the key issues now facing Caltrain.  Here is a list of the top ten problems that are clouding the "blended" vision of Caltrain and high-speed rail:

PROBLEM #10: Bloated Staffing.  There are well over 100 Caltrain conductors, among an operating staff of close to 500.  The traditional job description of a conductor (ensuring safe movement of the train, acknowledging signal aspects called out by the engineer, announcing stops, operating doors and lifts, checking fares, giving out information, etc.) is slowly being made obsolete by technology.  The new signal system will ensure safe train movements.  Modern trains will automatically announce the correct station stops, and allow remote door operation from the driving cab.  Smart phones give everyone up-to-the-minute information.  We are quickly reaching a point where union-mandated crew size is no longer justifiable, and an employee-to-locomotive ratio of 20 is an unsustainable excess.  Solutions:
  • Do more with less.  Make modernization pay off by taking a hard look at staffing levels
PROBLEM #9: An Overcomplicated Timetable.  Caltrain's timetable is impossible to memorize and confusing to figure out unless you ride the same train every day.  There are large and irregular gaps between trains.  Irregular stopping patterns make it impossible to plan timely and reliable connections to buses and employee shuttles.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #8: Too Much Deference to "Tenant" Railroads.  In a "blended" system, Caltrain's interaction with high-speed rail will be far more intense (as measured in train-miles) than with other "tenant" railroads that use Caltrain tracks, such as Amtrak, ACE or Union Pacific.  And yet, Caltrain's efforts on interoperability are focused on a handful of trains that use only a fraction of the corridor, whether in the planning of the new CBOSS signaling system or the discussions about platform height.  There is even serious talk of allowing Amtrak to revive the Coast Daylight service into San Francisco.  While interoperability is a worthy goal, this is the wrong kind of interoperability.  What matters most is interoperability with high-speed rail.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #7: Skipping the Wrong Stops.  When the Baby Bullet was launched in 2004, fast service and shiny red trains stole the headlines.  The under-reported back story is that speed came at the price of cutting service to a number of previously healthy station stops.  Caltrain is primarily a commuter service, and it should stop where people and jobs are located.  Throughout jobs-rich Silicon Valley (Palo Alto southwards), almost every stop has a similar density of nearby jobs.  Stops like California Ave, San Antonio, Lawrence and Santa Clara are severely under-served.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #6: Russian Roulette Station Dwell Times.  Caltrain is inherently unable to stay on time, but not for lack of trying.  Without level boarding, the occasional wheelchair customer can randomly inject an unanticipated delay of three to five minutes.  The unpredictable nature of these delays forces Caltrain to build a very conservative timetable with generous padding to absorb whatever might happen on any particular day.  This conservatism, which translates directly into lower utilization of the tracks, reduces the amount of traffic the rail corridor can reliably carry.  It also prevents Caltrain from operating reliable timed transfers or overtakes.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #5: Slow Average Train Speeds.  Caltrain's electrification project will help in this regard, but it will not sufficiently increase average train speeds to blend successfully with high-speed rail.  While electrification improves end-to-end run times by up to 12 minutes for an all-stops local, the excessively long station dwell times (on average 45 seconds) blunt the benefits of modernization.  The greater the average speed difference between high-speed rail and Caltrain, the fewer trains the line can carry.  To preserve enough slots in the timetable for Caltrain to grow, run times must be reduced beyond the basic step of electrification.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #4: Limited Corridor Capacity.  Under any "blended" scenario, high-speed rail will consume a large share of the traffic capacity of the peninsula rail corridor, leaving a limited number of rush hour slots for commuter service and severely constraining Caltrain's future growth.  In today's rush hour, 5 trains per hour per direction x 650 seats = 3250 seats/hour/direction are often standing room only.  Ridership is sure to zoom again when service to Transbay is inaugurated.  Unfortunately, the "blended" system will limit Caltrain to no more than six trains per hour per direction unless the corridor is widened to four tracks.  Solutions:
  • Pack 'em in with comfort, using five-abreast seating in extra-wide trains 
  • Buy the new EMUs at least 8 cars long, not just 6 as currently planned
PROBLEM #3: Traffic Jams into SF Transbay.  Despite marketing as a "Grand Central of the West," just six platform tracks for both HSR and Caltrain will require a tightly choreographed ballet of arriving and departing trains that will degenerate into cascading delays at the slightest disturbance.  As it stands, Caltrain is shut out of 2/3rds of the platforms in a station that could generate nearly 50% of its future ridership.  The solution to this problem is most assuredly not to terminate trains at 4th and King (see Problem #2).  Solutions:
  • Adopt a common platform height so any arriving train can be assigned to any platform, giving much-needed flexibility to relieve congestion in the station's approach tracks and to recover from a service disturbance
  • Optimize the track layout of the station approach for routing flexibility and higher throughput
PROBLEM #2: Incomplete Service to SF Transbay.  Today, the Transbay location has more jobs within a half-mile radius than exist within a half-mile radius of all the other Caltrain stops from 4th and King to Gilroy combined, and the intense development around the site will push its potential even further into the stratosphere.  Meanwhile, every preliminary or conceptual timetable published by Caltrain planners in the last five years shows the majority of rush hour trains terminating at the existing 4th and King terminal.  When asked about this, Caltrain invokes baseball game service and completely misses the point.  Solutions:
PROBLEM #1: An Agency Culture That Doesn't Put Service First.  At Caltrain, infrastructure projects are dreamed up over a timeline of many years, planned by layers of consultants until a funding package is cobbled together, and then pursued doggedly and almost for their own sake.  Caltrain is still an agency that thinks of itself as running a railroad, rather than providing a transportation service to its customers.  The capital projects that result aren't the outcome of a focused planning process that puts service first--case in point, the San Bruno grade separation, a $155 million piece of infrastructure that has achieved exactly nothing for the average Caltrain rider.  Solutions:
  • Use a capital planning approach driven by service quality metrics
  • Make the timetable, and its future possibilities, the focal point of all capital planning
  • Consider waiting time and first-mile / last-mile connections in all planning decisions
  • Live and breathe the mantra: service drives planning drives infrastructure
The Baseline of Mediocrity

The top ten problems and solutions, by contrast, give us a detailed picture of the most mediocre outcome that Caltrain could achieve by 2030:
  • Infrastructure first, planning optional, service an afterthought
  • Sub-optimized service where ridership already is, not where jobs and people really are
  • Rush hour trains that don't serve San Francisco Transbay
  • Caltrain squeezed into 2 Transbay platform tracks due to incompatible HSR platforms
  • A slow and inefficient train traffic jam in the tunnel approach to Transbay
  • Narrow European-size EMUs that don't take full advantage of the available clearances
  • EMUs that are just as short as today's diesel consists, limiting passenger capacity
  • Russian-roulette dwell times, with wasteful timetable padding to absorb them
  • Unreliable timed transfers and delay-prone overtakes
  • No level boarding, resulting in only modest improvements in trip times
  • Fast acceleration, but not enough giddy-up to blend efficiently with HSR traffic
  • Overstaffed train crews that increase cost and drag down fare box ratio
Caltrain has always had a lot of potential.  With such juicy ridership demand as this corridor enjoys, it will be hard to call Caltrain's "modernization" a failure, but so far it doesn't promise anything more than this baseline of mediocrity.  To be sure, electrification is a huge step forward compared to most other commuter rail systems in the U.S.  But that's the wrong frame of reference.  This is San Francisco, this is Silicon Valley, where we never stop short of making things better, where "good enough" is quickly left behind, where innovation is prized, and where ambition fuels a relentless drive to change people's lives for the better.  There is no other place like it in America.

Will Caltrain's new General Manager have the vision it will take?