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Archive for the ‘Caltrain electrification’

Caltrain and High Speed Rail announce plans to work together on level boarding, platform compatiblity

Last night, at a Friends of Caltrain forum in Mountain View City Hall, Caltrain and High Speed Rail said publicly that were working together to explore solutions for level boarding with common platform height. Level boarding will not only deliver faster, more accessible Caltrain service, but would allow Caltrain to run a smoother service pattern that can carry more riders with the same number of trains. A common platform height has the potential to help Caltrain and High Speed Rail get the most capacity from the “blended system”, where the two rail services will be sharing tracks – especially in the constrained space of the Transbay Terminal.

Ben Tripousis, Northern California Regional Director of High Speed Rail also said that to foster a compatible solution, the High Speed Rail Authority would consider including including compatibility expenses as part of the package of next phase investments. These expenses include changing platforms to a new platform height, and replacing the remaining Caltrain diesel trains (Caltrain’s current plan for electrification calls for replacing only 75% of the diesel trains). Tripousis mentioned that a High Speed Rail package for Northern California might also include funding for grade separations, which prevent traveling at faster speeds, and increase community acceptance of more frequent train service.

Dave Couch, who is leading project management for the Caltrain electrification project, said that Caltrain would refrain from sending out the request for proposals for rail car procurement in order to work with high speed rail on a compatibility solution.

In a panel discussion, Lou Thompson, chair of the High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, talked about the groups recommendation that High Speed Rail and Caltrain study compatibility options with a strong goal to achieve compatibility. Based on research of blended systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Thompson explained that there are multiple ways to solve the problem technically. While there will be no equipment that can be bought exactly “off the shelf”, and the solution might not be ideal for either, a workable solution is very likely feasible, which would deliver better service and reliability.

Brian Dykes of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority talked about how providing compatible platforms would allow more trains to serve Transbay, which could otherwise be a bottleneck for the capacity of the entire system. Gillian Gillett, Transportation Policy Director from the San Francisco Mayor’s office, talked about the city’s growth goals, which will focus new jobs and housing even more strongly around the Caltrain corridor; capacity to serve San Francisco, already Caltrain’s largest market, is essential.

Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain (your blogger) presented background information about Caltrain’s capacity challenges and ridership growth. Ridership has doubled over the last decade – if longterm demographic and land use trends continue, Caltrain will need to serve more riders than predicted in the agency’s forecast, and it will be critical to get the most capacity from the tracks shared with High Speed Rail.

Notable in the presentations and panel discussion was the absence of explanations of why compatibility would be very difficult and/or not necessary. In the past, Caltrain and High Speed Rail have provided explanations regarding the difficulty of finding suitable equipment, the fact that Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share only a few stations, and that Transbay would not present a capacity constraint on the system.

In answer from an audience member question, Gillett talked about the city’s assertive response to the efforts of developers to renege on a deal to contribute funding for the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to Transbay. The developers are now threatening to sue the city. “The first buildings are being built, and they need an occupancy permit from the city. Other buildings haven’t started construction yet, and need building permits. They can sue, but we have their permits. It would be mutually assured destruction.”

Dave Couch also talked about the regulatory hurdle required for level boarding – the PUC would need to change an obsolete rule, and Union Pacific – a tough negotiator – would need to agree.

Caltrain and High Speed Rail did not make any commitments regarding compatible platforms, but they did talk publicly and optimistically about their efforts to work together on a shared solution.

Can “Diesel Multiple Units” meet Caltrain modernization needs?

The funding to electrify Caltrain was approved this past summer, with money from the High Speed Rail project, and other state and regional sources.  The High Speed Rail funding was granted because electrifying the Caltrain tracks is a pre-requisite to running High Speed trains on the Caltrain corridor.

However, the question is frequently raised at local meetings regarding whether it is possible that alternative technologies would provide the Caltrain corridor with most of the benefits of electrification for less money.   This would be relevant in the event that the High Speed Rail project was halted before Caltrain electrification was done.

At a meeting last year at Palo Alto’s Rail Committee, representatives of Caltrain and LTK consulting delivered a presentation about relative merits of “Electric Multiple Units (EMUs), the technology that Caltrain plans to use, and “Diesel Multiple Units.”

Caltrain’s current diesel trains use one locomotive per train set to draw unpowered coaches. The train set is heavy, and acceleration is proportional to train length.  This means that if Caltrain wants to stop at many stations, the local service is very slow.  To speed up the train, Caltrain needs to cut stops.  This was the tradeoff with the Baby Bullet schedule – faster end to end service, but less service to many stations. Using its current technology, Caltrain does not benefit very much from making trains longer to handle capacity, since longer trains will accelerate even more slowly.

By contrast, “Diesel Multiple Units” provide distributed traction – each train car has its own engine. These trains are of medium weight, and provide medium acceleration.  “Electric Multiple Units” also provide distributed traction.  These trains are lightweight and provide good acceleration.

This is the key slide that Caltrain used to make the argument for EMUs.  Because Caltrain has many stations fairly close together (average 2.1 mile spacing), the extra acceleration provided by the EMU provides a major benefit in allowing more stations to be served while maintaining the same or better trip times.   DMUs would not be able to provide as good a schedule.

Other transit lines where DMUs have been chosen have different characteristics – fewer stations, spaced further apart, and/or fewer train cars – so acceleration is less important to providing good service.

EMUs have other benefits, too. They emit much less pollution (particulates and greenhouse gases) and are much less expensive to run, since electricity is cheaper than diesel fuel.

Electrification and land use vision

Whether you agree that EMUs provide substantially better service for the Peninsula Corridor depends on your ideas about land use and transportation for the corridor.  Largely because of Caltrain’s presence for over a century, the corridor has a string of small, compact downtown areas.   Given concerns about sprawl, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, which has led to California to adopt statewide policies favoring more compact development near transit, and growing preferences among younger and older people to drive less, many cities along the corridor have transit-oriented development plans near the Caltrain line.   If you like the idea of multiple mid-sized, walkable downtown areas, connected with a frequent, BART-like schedule, then electrification provides the best results.

But if you prefer the greatest concentration of development in Downtown Palo Alto, downtown Mountain View, and Redwood City, and do not want transit-oriented development in areas with currently poor service, such as Brisbane Bayshore, Hayward Park, California Avenue, San Antonio, and Lawrence, then a service plan that visits more stations is less important. And if you believe that a peak hour commute service is best for the Peninsula, and there is little value in a transit schedule like BART, then a technology that provides lower cost of operation is less important.

Is Hybrid Diesel-Electric an option?

There are also questions asked about the possibility of using hybrid diesel electric technology.  However, current technology is not close to being able to run Caltrain, according to this report from the Caltrain-High Speed Rail Compatibility Blog. There are hybrid diesel/electric trains in use in Japan. They are used for lines whose cars seat about 45 passengers (compared to 100 for Caltrain) and travel at about 45mph max (compared to 79mph for Caltrain).  Their power output is less than a Chevy Tahoe hybrid’s.  This technology would not be able to serve the Peninsula Corridor.

Plan B if HSR implodes

Since High Speed Rail requires an electrified line, the DMU technology option would be relevant only in the event that the High Speed Rail project was halted before Caltrain electrification was done.   There are ongoing legal challenges to High Speed Rail, and the project has financial risks, so there are logical questions about whether Caltrain would have a Plan B in case High Speed Rail implodes. If that happens, and there is no other funding to electrify the line, Caltrain could be upgraded to DMUs for the cost of replacing the train set ($440 million for electric trains), and save the $785 million cost of electrification.

Meanwhile, the High Speed Rail project is moving forward, and the presentation makes a good argument that electrification is the strongest choice to modernize Caltrain with cost-effective, more frequent service.

The full presentation can be seen here:

Draft agreement puts $1.5B on the table to upgrade Caltrain by 2019

Last night, a draft Memorandum of Understanding was published that provides $1.5B of funding from High Speed Rail, federal, state and regional sources to fund the electrification of the Caltrain Corridor.

The MOU contains key protections for the Peninsula, defining the project as primarily within the Caltrain Right of Way, primarily two tracks.

This Early Investment Plan provides welcome funding for a badly-needed, long-awaited upgrade to Caltrain.  Ridership has been increasing for the last 18 months and some peak hour trains are standing room only. Electrification will provide a welcome increase in capacity, service frequency, and station access. This will provide relief for traffic congestion and rising gas prices, and reduce pollution and noise.

The agreement provides $600 Million of Proposition 1A funds (the High Speed Rail bond measure), and $106 Million
of Prop 1A connectivity funds, matched by Federal, state and regional funding.  According to the project description, if funding is finalized in 2012, the Electrification project could be complete in 2019.

If advanced by the MTC board on March 28, the High Speed Rail board will review it for approval on April 5 – along with a new draft business plan.  The language of the MOU will not be finalized until MTC’s board meeting in May, so there are still opportunities for refinement.

The high speed rail project deserves a lot of scrutiny this Spring in the legislative budget cycle but if it goes forward, this path provides major benefits to the region.

The devil is in the details. Read on for Friends of Caltrain analysis. It will be helpful to come to the MTC meeting on Wednesday, March 28, details are also below.

There is critical protection for the region built into the MOU.

1) The language of the MOU clarifies that the system “will remain substantially within the Caltrain Right of Way” and clarifies that it is “primarily a two-track system.”  Incorporating concerns of Peninsula communities, this MOU clearly rules out a continuous four-track system as envisioned by High Speed Rail initially, which was destructive and overkill in capacity.

2) The MOU clarifies that the Environmental Impact Report for Electrification needs to be recirculated to be brought up to date and “to incorporate local and regional conditions and concerns.”

3) The MOU clarifies that the project needs to support local land use and Transit Oriented Development policies (ruling out unwanted intrusions such as the large train storage and maintenance yard HSRA had intended for Brisbane).

However, there is a key area where clarification is needed.

There is a lot of confusion on the Peninsula about the relative role of MTC, Caltrain, and the High Speed Rail Authority.   It will be very helpful to clarify the respective roles to residents and local decision-makers.

* MTC assembles and disburses federal, state, and regional funding. In the current deal, MTC played a role in bringing in money from BART, bridge tolls, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and brokering the federal/state/regional funding package.

* Caltrain is the lead agency to manage the electrification project, including environmental review, design and construction. Decisions about grade separations and schedules will be made by Caltrain with the stakeholders in the cities affected by these changes.

Need future funding for Grade Separations, Downtown Extension to Transbay Terminal

The earlier drafts presented by Caltrain staff included some funding for grade separations that will be valuable for safety and traffic reduction on the Peninsula. Those funds are not present in the draft to present to the MTC board.

Once Caltrain has finished the 2-year planning process to define the electrification project, working with local communities, then Caltrain, local communities, and MTC should work together to put together funding for grade separations and other local enhancements that are needed for traffic mitigation and safety.

Important work is still needed to find the funding for a critical piece of the puzzle that is not included in this phase.  The funding does not cover Downtown Extension to Transbay (DTX).   This segment is needed to meet the requirements of Prop 1A for High Speed Rail. DTX will be very valuable for the region’s commuters since there are 10x the number of jobs in downtown San Francisco than at 4th and King.

MOU wisely stays out of local design decisions

The MOU does not record the feedback from many communities about specific local design needs, such as, for example, Burlingame’s plan for Broadway grade separation.  This silence is a good thing.  We do not want MTC documents planning, or otherwise expressing opinions about these critical local design decisions.  That work belongs in the hands of Caltrain as the lead agency on the project, working closely with local communities.

The MOU also does not rule out a short section of passing track, which was identified as an option in Caltrain’s capacity analysis. Without passing tracks, the corridor can carry 6 Caltrains and 2 High Speed Rail trains per direction per hour at peak.  With passing track, the corridor can carry up to 4 High Speed Trains.   But, there is no
funding for the passing tracks, and the first stage of the plan does not include them.

The passing tracks will not be needed until (and unless) HSR gets to San Jose. More analysis and evidence will be needed to determine whether the passing tracks will be needed.  By comparison, on the busiest passenger rail corridor in the country, Amtrak runs one express Acela and 1-2 local trains per peak
hour per direction between New York and DC.  If in the future the trains are full, and it is much more expensive to fly or drive, the decision will look very different.

Protecting Baby Bullet service revenue

One of the ideas brought up at Burlingame City Council was to ensure that Caltrain gets revenue if riders take high speed trains as an express commute service from San Jose to San Francisco.  That topic is not discussed in the MOU (and it shouldn’t be) but it is an important topic to consider for customer service and for Caltrain’s financial
viability (how not to cannibalize baby bullet revenue).

Why now?

The Early Investment plan has come together rapidly in recent months, and the process to gather stakeholder feedback was rushed. It would have been better to have Caltrain complete the 2 year planning process to define exactly what is wanted in the electrification project, working closely with stakeholders, and then apply for funding with a clear plan.   Especially on the Peninsula, where there are 17 cities between San Francisco and San Jose, the process was particularly strained.

But High Speed Rail needs to put together a credible business plan now, this spring, in order to have a chance of gaining legislative authorization to move the project forward.  It made sense to include the “Early Investment” now because that makes for a better plan which provides value earlier.

Come to the MTC meeting on March 28

The MTC meeting to review and make a decision about approving the Memorandum of Understanding is on Wednesday, March 28 at 9:30 am.   The meeting is at MTC Headquarters at 101 8th street in Oakland.  It is a long trip from much of the corridor to MTC headquarters in Oakland, but it will be valuable for Caltrain stakeholders to attend this critical meeting. This is an important decision that will affect our region for decades if High Speed Rail goes forward this year.

Will the latest HSR plan work for Caltrain riders?

At the high speed rail board meeting held last week in San Francisco, authority staff revealed the latest proposals to fund and build a high speed rail line on the Caltrain corridor. The proposals address many of the compatibility concerns, though there are still important details to be worked out. But the proposals also suggest that Caltrain’s electrification be delayed until after a large amount of grade separation and track building is done. Electrification will be a major benefit for riders, allowing trains to be run more cheaply at a much more frequent schedule. We question whether maintaining the aging diesel trains (and their inflexible schedule) while track and crossing construction is done is the right sequence for Caltrain riders.

There are two separate but related proposals on the table. The first is the revised alternative analysis, which is a list of project alternatives that the authority staff will carry forward to complete the environmental impact report. The revised AA still envisions a complete, built-out high speed rail corridor. The second is the ARRA federal stimulus funding application, which will only fund some of the elements of a complete corridor. Although the High Speed Rail Authority does not have the funding to build a built-out corridor, the agency needs to complete an environmental review before any of the ARRA and other funding is used.

Revised Alternatives Analysis

In the revised AA, the proposal is to have Caltrain operate on the outer two tracks and the high speed rail trains operate in the inner two tracks. In that track arrangement, Caltrain can also use the two inner tracks. Overall this proposal would reduce the footprint. Earlier the authority studied an alternative where HSR trains would operate entirely on separate tracks independent from Caltrain. In some cities, HSR trains would either run either elevated or in a trench.

On the other hand, the revised AA is drawing criticisms from some Peninsula cities because it ruled out tunnels and “stacking” options — where two tracks would place on top of other two tracks, either underground and/or above ground. The staff argued that more land would be needed at transition points (where stacking tracks start and end) with the stacking options. This option would also limit Caltrain/HSR inter-operability.

ARRA application

Last week, HSRA also submitted ARRA applications to the federal government. After the award of $2.25 billion in ARRA fund for HSR in California, the state still has $1.65 billion in HSR ARRA fund yet to be spent (the rest has been allocated to the train box at Transbay Terminal and HSR planning/engineering activities). HSRA staff has been asked to submit applications to spend the rest of the ARRA fund. The staff has come up with 4 different applications (one for SF-SJ, two for Central Valley, and one for LA-Anaheim) with each costing  $3.31 billion (half would come from ARRA and other half from HSR bond and other funding sources). HSRA staff is expecting that the one of the four applications would be chosen for the remaining fund. For each of those application, the staff is requesting funding for partial infrastructure improvements as the ARRA fund isn’t sufficient to build full HSR in any of the corridors. At the same time the proposals must provide “operational utility” — short term improvements for existing passenger rail services.

For the SF-SJ portion, the staff is planning to build a grade separated, 4 track corridor between Bayshore and Redwood City. The tracks through Burlingame and San Mateo would be elevated. The existing grade separated tracks in Belmont and San Carlos would be raised higher on an elevated structure.

That application does not include electrification. In the staff report to the board, the staff has proposed to submit electrification for the entire corridor under a separate non-ARRA funding application. That separate application would also include 4 track extension from Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale to Mountain View. The staff is not currently making any funding request to build extra tracks between Atherton and Palo Alto, nor to build a tunnel from 4th & King Station to the Transbay Terminal.

Californians for High Speed Rail is claiming victory because the plans include Caltrain electrification, the 4 track expansions and grade separations.

However, there’s no guarantee that the SF-SJ application will receive all or any of the ARRA funding (since the state has submitted three more applications for to use the same funding on different sections of the route). In addition, there’s no certainty that the federal government will actually fully fund one of the four applications (since every portion of the state wants a piece of that pie).

What does that mean to riders?

The revised AA and ARRA application indicate that Caltrain and HSR trains can at least share tracks. That means Caltrain service can be maintained if not incrementally improved as HSR infrastructure is being added, that Baby Bullet trains can still be maintained and bypass local trains, and the possibility that HSR trains can operate without a 100% four track, grade separated corridor.

On the other hand, there are concerns such as platform heights yet to be addressed. There are also issues with some of the priorities. HSRA is proposing to spend the precious, early ARRA funds to rebuild tracks in Belmont and San Carlos, which is largely unnecessary. The early part of the proposal will subject riders and the community to additional construction impacts that do not improve rider experience and add construction inconvenience.  That same ARRA funds could be used to electrify Caltrain earlier, which will vastly improve service and rider experience all along the corridor.

We have to question the notion that we cannot electrify until the 4 tracks are done. While we believe that Caltrain/HSR staff should do full diligence not to place any electric substation in areas that would be used for track expansions, much of the infrastructure could easily be relocated and reused. The plan already assumes that Caltrain service would be maintained throughout construction, which adds cost because of temporary tracks and stations. Continued service, is of course, a necessity for Caltrain commuters; there’s no viable substitute for Caltrain.

If we were to delay electrification, how should we address the operating needs, as most of the rolling stock will have to be replaced in a few years? Already Caltrain riders are suffering delays and system meltdowns because of mechanical problems. If all the funding is in-line as HSRA and Caltrain hope, electrification should be at least be done concurrently with track expansions and grade separation, rather than after.

Will Caltrain and high-speed rail work together?

Last week, at a meeting in Palo Alto City Hall, Mark Simon of Caltrain discussed riders’ concerns with potential incompatibilities between Caltrain and the High Speed Rail project that will take trains from LA to San Francisco up the Caltrain corridor. The presentation didn’t lay compatibility questions to rest, and raised more questions about how the agencies are working together.

The Peninsula Cities Coalition is hosting a meeting this Friday, July 23, in Belmont. This meeting provides an important opportunity for riders to speak up about how critical it is for Caltrain and High Speed Rail to work together to serve riders. Details about the meeting are below.

Compatibility issues

In summary, the three main potential problems for the systems working together are track sharing, platform heights, and signal systems

Track sharing. California High Speed Rail Authority is assuming a separated corridor along the Caltrain right of way, according to the Alternatives Analysis. To visualize this, imagine two HSR tracks and two Caltrain tracks running side by side but there would be limited access from one system to another. This means it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Baby Bullet Caltrain trains to pass local trains or trains on either system to pass disabled trains. With the split corridor, station facilities would also be separate.

Platform heights Another potential difficulty in sharing stations is that Caltrain is planning on using equipment with a different door height than the HSR equipment. This means even if the tracks and stations were shared, the platforms could not accommodate both Caltrain and HSR since the platforms will be at different heights. While this will create rider inconvenience along the peninsula, the Transbay Terminal is affected the most by this discrepancy. Currently, Caltrain terminates at 4th and King streets in San Francisco which is about 1 mile from the job rich financial district. In multiple studies, local governments have concluded that a downtown Transbay Terminal terminus for Caltrain is essential to grow Caltrain ridership. Despite the $4 billion cost of the Transbay Terminal, platform compatibility issues mean half of all Caltrain trains will continue to terminate at 4th and King.

At the meeting, Mark Simon danced around the issue of sharing tracks and stations, saying that he hopes for a phased implementation plan, with Caltrain electrification first, and working out the track sharing later.

Signal systems. The two agencies are planning on using different signal systems. Caltrain is planning to build a custom-developed system, which is still on the drawing board. Simon assured the audience at the meeting that Caltrain’s new system will be built to be compatible with the HSR system, and if there are incompatibilities, it will be easy to retrofit. It’s hard to evaluate the claim, since the new system is still being designed and does not have published specifications, or whether the custom system will be able to be modified cheaply.

The California for High Speed Rail Blog provides an in-depth analysis of the technical compatibility issues. Readers interested in more detail are highly encouraged to read this analysis.

Challenges working together. Simon talked openly about tensions between the agencies so far. Discussing differences in approach, Simon observed that “Caltrain isn’t giving up and owns the right of way – we still have the trump card,” though he expressed hope that new management at the High Speed Rail Authority would be more collaborative. This language indicates that the combination of Caltrain and High Speed Rail is seen as a zero sum game. But if the agencies are competing with each other, riders and taxpayers lose. Riders don’t care who wins the arguments, we want to have a system that works together smoothly.

Solving the compatibility problems
An alternative to the shared but separate corridor currently proposed by the High Speed Rail Authority and a submissive Caltrain is a true shared corridor. Caltrain would order new electrified trains that are compatible with high speed trains so platforms can be shared. The signaling system would be shared. With compatible platform heights, Caltrain could preserve express and local service with cross-platform transfers between the two. Everyone wins in this scenario.

There are many technical details that need to be worked out for interoperability. The California High Speed Rail Blog offers one detailed proposal for how this interoperability might occur. For riders and taxpayers, the important thing is that the two systems work well together, so riders can have schedule choices and convenient trips. And so taxpayer money won’t be wasted ripping up and rebuilding systems that weren’t built to work together the first time.

Californians on the Peninsula will need to live and work with this train system for decades. There is no excuse for territorial squabbling resulting in a system that doesn’t work well for riders.

Tell Caltrain and High Speed Rail to work together
The Peninsula Cities Coalition is hosting a meeting this coming Friday, focusing on interoperability between Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Californians for High Speed Rail will present their analysis of the issues. The meeting is expected to have representatives from Caltrain and the High Speed Rail Authority.

Please come to the Friday meeting and tell Caltrain and HSR that they need to cooperate to make the trains work together for riders.

Friday, July 23, 8:15am
One Twin Pines Lane, Belmont

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