26 August 2015

Level Boarding: It's Official

A montage of what a Caltrain EMU might
look like, before platforms are raised.
Based on a photo by Yevgeny Gromov
Caltrain just released the final Request For Proposals for their new electric train fleet.  Train manufacturers will now prepare detailed bid packages, and in early 2016 a winner will be selected to build an initial fleet of 15  electric trains that will enter into commuter service in 2021.

Several changes were made to this document after the draft RFP was circulated for industry review.  The single most remarkable change is that level boarding and platform sharing with high-speed rail is now a firm requirement, instead of an option suggested by stakeholders.  These are the words from section
CHSRA trains will run over the same alignment and stop at some of the same stations as JPB trains. The bi-level EMU must therefore have the same interface with the infrastructure as the future High Speed Rail cars, including clearance envelope, and platform boarding height.

JPB plans to raise platform heights to approximately 50.5-50.75” ATOR (to interface with a vehicle threshold height of 51” ATOR), initially at San Francisco, Millbrae, and San Jose stations. Other station platforms on the JPB system may ultimately be raised to the same level.
This is not only an endorsement of level boarding.  It is an endorsement of complete integration with high-speed rail including not just shared tracks but also shared stations.  It is a major step forward for riders and taxpayers, because it will increase the speed, efficiency and usability of Caltrain at the same time as it makes high-speed rail more affordable.  It will help bring to California what Europeans take for granted.

The New Platform Interface

Section 3.3.3 of the RFP details Caltrain's new high platform interface:
  • Platform height: 50.5 - 50.75 inches
  • Platform side clearance: 72 inches from track center line
  • Maximum boarding gap: < 1.5 inches horizontally, < 5/8 inches vertically
Caltrain has entirely dropped the previous plan to implement level boarding at a height of 25 inches, which would not have been compatible with high-speed rail and would have created significant complications in the station infrastructure served by both systems.

Dual Height Doors

The new EMUs will have two sets of doors, not just as an option but as a non-negotiable requirement.  The RFP describes the configuration in section 12:
Each vehicle shall have eight door openings, four on each side of the vehicle, directly across from each other. One set of four shall be located just inboard of the trucks and the other four above the trucks. The set located inboard of the trucks (the low level set) shall be compatible with JPB's existing platform height and existing mini-highs. The set located above the trucks (the high level set) shall be compatible with JPB's future high level platforms.
A large number of bikes (at an 8:1 ratio of seats to bikes) will be stored on the lower level of two cars per train.  They will access the high doors using wheel ramps built into the stairs between the lower bike level and mid level vestibule of the train.

While this is a rather unique configuration, no other train operator worldwide has had to plan for a system-wide platform height transition of more than four feet of vertical change.  For such a large height transition, it makes perfect sense to use the vehicles as a tool to enable the flexible and independent reconfiguration of each individual platform, without imposing system-wide construction schedule or funding constraints.  It is an unusual but quite logical solution to an unusual problem.

The upper set of doors, which will provide level boarding at new high platforms, will feature retractable door threshold extenders, to bridge the gap between the train and the platform.  These are described in section 12.2.12 of the RFP.

Looking Ahead to a Well-Blended System

Caltrain has come a long way on the issue of level boarding and blending with high-speed rail.  A key architectural decision has now been made that will ensure the future success of the blended system.  In the 2020s, Caltrain passengers of all abilities won't give a second thought to the seamless experience of boarding a train, and will take for granted the brevity and punctuality of station stops.  Meanwhile, a few train nerds will photograph the platform interface.

In the meantime, three cheers for compatibility!

08 August 2015

Peninsula HSR, Take Two

Environmental clearance of high-speed rail in the peninsula rail corridor was initiated right after the Proposition 1A bond passed in 2008.  The development of engineering and environmental documentation for a four-track alignment connecting San Francisco to San Jose was in full swing during the years 2009 and 2010.  The Peninsula Rail Program, as it became known, was an ambitious yet awkward collaboration between the CHSRA and Caltrain, with the engineering consulting firm HNTB doing most of the heavy lifting.  The decision to concentrate HSR resources in the Central Valley, combined with fierce community opposition on the peninsula, brought the process nearly to a halt in early 2011.  By that time, thousands of pages of documents had been drafted, hundreds of stakeholder meetings held, and $45 million spent for preliminary engineering and environmental clearance.

Then came a long pause during which two major developments took place.  First, as a result of a political compromise, the idea of a four-track high-speed railroad was dropped in favor of a "blended system" where Caltrain and HSR would share the peninsula corridor primarily on two tracks, with less impact to surrounding communities.  Second, the Caltrain electrification project came closer to being realized, passing key milestones of environmental clearance, funding, and procurement.  Throughout this pause, plans for peninsula HSR became somewhat nebulous, both in their scope and timing.  The media spotlight turned away.

Fast forward to the August 2015 meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (YouTube video).  As reported by the Fresno Bee (and without a peep from the Bay Area press) we have the first hints of what lies ahead, in the form of a Request For Qualifications issued by the CHSRA to re-start the environmental clearance process for the peninsula.  This RFQ lays out a new timeline and a $36 million budget allocated over a term of three years, shared between two sections: San Francisco to San Jose, and San Jose across Pacheco Pass to the Central Valley wye.  The following schedule milestones are envisioned:
  • Consultant contract award - November 2015
  • Project scoping - March 2016
  • Preliminary design for project definition - May 2016
  • Technical reports - June 2016
  • Administrative draft EIR/EIS - August 2016
  • Draft EIR/EIS release - November 2016
  • Preliminary design of preferred alternative - April 2017
  • Final EIR/EIS certification - November/December 2017
The timeline for actual construction is not specified, but it rarely begins immediately after EIR certification, since final design and the inevitable CEQA lawsuits take time.

Highlights from the RFQ

The RFQ deliberately does not reveal the scope or exact nature of the alternatives to be studied, but it does contain some interesting nuggets:
  1. Work for restarting the peninsula HSR process has already started, as noted on PDF page 24: "Work on some of the tasks listed in Exhibit A of Attachment C has commenced and is currently being performed by Authority and Rail Delivery Partner staff."  What the blended system will look like is already being hammered out.
  2. The RFQ emphasizes that the proposed EIR is separate from Caltrain's electrification EIR, on PDF page 28: "On January 8, 2015, the JPB certified the PCEP Final EIR and is currently in the process of procuring a design/build contract to implement the project. While the PCEP will not include all infrastructure necessary to implement HSR service in the SF-CVY Corridor (such as HSR maintenance facilities, station platform improvements, track straightening, or passing tracks), the electrification infrastructure (such as overhead wire systems), along with additional infrastructure improvements, will accommodate future coordinated service and will not preclude HSR."  This point is the subject of a CEQA lawsuit against Caltrain, claiming that electrification is an inseparable component of the HSR project.
  3. Phased implementation is described on PDF page 57: "The Consultant shall develop an incremental plan as directed by the Authority to construct the project over a phased implementation schedule, dependent on funding. The Consultant shall recommend appropriate construction elements for each increment of implementation. This plan shall identify operable project segments or elements of the HSR infrastructure (such as grade separations) that could be constructed early and bring near-term project benefits to existing freight rail and conventional passenger rail services, as well as other increments of construction to build out the full set of improvements over a phased implementation plan."  The peninsula corridor is uniquely suited to a number of construction packages to be built independently from each other.
  4. San Jose is no longer an artificial boundary between two project sections.  This has been a weakness in the past, with insufficient coordination to optimize the configuration of the station and its approaches because each end was being handled by a different consultant.  With the same consultant handling both ends of San Jose, sanity may finally prevail with a shared at-grade solution.
  5. Level boarding planned for Caltrain, on PDF page 60: "Platform design for level boarding at all Caltrain stations will be required."  Even if not at the same height as selected for HSR, level boarding is a prerequisite for the blended system, to improve the average speed and punctuality of Caltrain.
  6. A temporary San Francisco terminal is planned at 4th and King.  The mere idea of it illustrates the frosty relationship between the CHSRA and San Francisco's TJPA, but also helps to satisfy the requirement for a 30-minute trip from San Francisco to San Jose, a threshold of great legal significance that is embedded in the Proposition 1A bond act.  Starting from 4th and King, rather than from the Transbay Transit Center, running at no more than 110 mph, and counting only pure run time (with no timetable margin), the 30-minute run becomes feasible.
EIR Cost Magnitudes

Environmental Impact Reports are extremely complex and voluminous documents designed to clear a project under the California Environmental Quality Act, ensuring that impacts are properly disclosed and mitigated.  It takes a large team of engineers, environmental specialists, writers and lawyers to concurrently design a project and pull together an EIR that can pass legal muster without incurring years of litigation.  To understand exactly where the process currently stands for peninsula HSR, it helps to remember that the published record for the San Francisco to San Jose project section forms only the tip of the iceberg.  The vast majority of the material assembled by HNTB in 2009 and 2010 remains unpublished, to be continued by this new contract.

How much EIR preparation did the $45 million spent so far buy?  We can establish an extremely crude metric for the cost of one EIR page by taking the ratio of the cumulative cost incurred for the preliminary design and environmental clearance of a project, as of the time of EIR certification, divided by the total number of pages in the resulting EIR.  Here are some examples:

Project Certification Cost Incurred Page Count Cost Per EIR Page
Merced - Fresno HSR May 2012 $45M 13,000 $3500
Fresno - Bakersfield HSR May 2014 $120M 20,000 $6000
Caltrain Electrification Jan 2015 $14M 5,400 $2600
Peninsula HSR SF - SJ Dec 2017 $65M* 13,000** $5000***

*cost basis $45M expended to date + $20M of the new $36M contract
**estimated based on cost per page
***estimated based on past history and biased high for scope change from full build to blended

Given that the new consultant won't be starting from scratch, it's conceivable that there will be sufficient budget in the new contract to produce a full EIR for the blended system on the compressed two-year timeline envisioned in the RFQ.

What the Blended System Might Look Like

The CHSRA and Caltrain take great pains to remind everyone that we won't know what the blended system for the 50+ mile peninsula corridor will look like, nor what the blended service plan will be, that is, until the Alternatives Analysis is released next year.  The specific discussions regarding the scope of the blended system are underway behind closed doors.  Taking into account the phased and incremental nature of the project, one can engage in some informed (wishful?) speculation, listed from north to south:
  • 4th and King shared station modifications.
  • Brisbane HSR maintenance facility.
  • Millbrae shared station modifications, hopefully with an affordable shared at-grade solution.
  • San Mateo County grade separation Phase II at Linden Ave in San Bruno, Center St in Millbrae, Broadway in Burlingame, and 25th / 28th / 31st in San Mateo.  The latter are likely to happen sooner than the other projects to enable the mid-line overtake.
  • Grade separation through highly constrained downtown San Mateo.
  • Four-track 110 mph mid-line overtake facility (from San Mateo 9th St, through Belmont and San Carlos, initially to Whipple in Redwood City).
  • Redwood City grade separation Phase IV, extending the four-track mid-line overtake through downtown, possibly with a new HSR station replacing the Sequoia Shopping Center, if the city and CHSRA agree to add this to the project scope.
  • PAMPA (Palo Alto Menlo Park Atherton) grade separations, likely to happen later than the other projects.
  • Santa Clara County grade separation Phase III at Charleston and Meadow in Palo Alto, Rengstorff and Castro in Mountain View, Mary and Sunnyvale Ave in Sunnyvale, creating a continuous 14-mile stretch of grade-separated track good for 110 mph from Palo Alto to San Jose.
  • San Jose approach realignment and a shared ground-level station.
  • A three-track at-grade alignment through San Jose's Gardiner neighborhood, along the existing right-of-way, avoiding a slow and expensive viaduct above the 87/280 interchange.
  • Curve flattening throughout the peninsula, except (unfortunately) in San Bruno
  • Level boarding across the entire Caltrain system, a key blending ingredient that ensures commuter trains can clear the shared tracks quickly and reliably in front of high-speed trains.
The next formal step in the process will be a new Notice of Preparation (NOP) to be published by the FRA in the Federal Register, an action that could come in the coming months.  Then we'll party like it's 2009.