Archive for March, 2013

Perhaps ANSI should add “getting punched in the face by the police” to their bike helmet testing methodology:

A video showing a Vancouver man being hit in the face by a Vancouver police officer is now being reviewed by the department’s professional standards section.

The alleged incident happened Tuesday as Andi Shae Akhavan rode his bike, without a helmet, through downtown Vancouver.

Akhavan says he was stopped by two plainclothes officers and as they began ticketing him, he inquired if they had “something better to do.”

According to Akhavan, that’s when he was handcuffed and punched in the mouth, driving one of his teeth through his lip.

Read Full Post »

Anderson Cooper Is Right

Once again, the Amtrak foamers are in an uproar over a CNN report criticizing the Administrations’ high-speed rail program:

“There’s a network of people who really do believe, deep down — they’re rail enthusiasts — they believe in the idea of bringing the Japanese or the European style trains here to the U.S.,” Griffin told Cooper. And he went on, patronizingly: “But as we have explained to them, even after we got email bombed, ‘Look, you’re not getting high-speed rail,’ and they will admit it. They will admit that this administration is not investing in the actual bullet trains like the ones that they believe will bring us into future of transportation. It’s not what we’re getting, Anderson.”

The inconvenient truth is that the CNN report is absolutely correct. The Obama Administration did spend 4 years and well over $12 billion and with nothing to show for it. To put in perspective: the US just spent the equivalent of three new TGV-Est lines.

Most of that $12 billion got thrown down the Amtrak money hole of antiquated rail lines. There has been not one single mile of true high-speed rail built anywhere. Not even California’s flagship project, which will for the foreseeable future function as a diesel-powered Amtrak line.

And all these foamers who are email bombing CNN are part of the problem. As long as Amtrak has their vocal army of defenders, nothing will ever improve.

Read Full Post »

CPUC Crazy Platform Regulations

Speaking of CPUC meddling, it is worth discussing the design of the Sprinter platforms. Here is a picture of the problem:


Now you are wondering, what is the deal with the lift gate? The explanation is found in California PUC General Order 26-D. A relic of the Steam Era, it stipulates unusual platform clearances. For a standard 4′ high platform, the clearance has to be a 7′ 6″. That is too wide for passenger boarding — unless some kind of lift gate is built into the platform.

So the NCTD built these lift gates into the platform — at huge expense. The lift gates comes down when the Sprinter is running, it goes up when the freight train is running.

The only other alternative for NCTD was an 8″ platform, which permits the more standard 4′ 8″ side clearanace. Now even though most other rail services in California have used the 8″ height, it isn’t a good solution. That is because an 8″ height is too low for level-platform boarding. Indeed, most other jurisdictions prohibit such a low platform height, because it encourages passengers to wander onto the tracks.

So thanks to the CPUC, California is stuck with a 1948 regulation that specifies nonsensical platform clearances for 21st century trains. And until the regulation gets fixed, we are stuck with expensive and/or dangerous platforms.

Read Full Post »

More information has come to light regarding the Sprinter shutdown. It confirms suspicions that the shutdown was the direct result of CPUC meddling in the design of the braking system:

Before service began in March 2008, SPRINTER-manufacturer Siemens added additional brakes on the vehicles to make them compliant with the California Public Utilities Commission’s standards for light rail vehicle brake rates. These specially-made brakes are unique to California and are not found on any of the approximately 600 other similar models running in Europe. Once mechanics and engineers saw the “unusual wear pattern” on the discs about a year after the SPRINTER began service, they started planning for their eventual replacement — “when the time came,” according to Berk’s email on March 10, 2013.

The “Sprinter” train is widely used all over Europe, where it has had an excellent record. So it is quite extraordinary that California’s PUC, which has no expertise in this area, ordered changes to a proven design.

Richard Berk, the agency’s rail maintenance engineer, seems to have been made into the fall-guy for the fiasco. He inherited the CPUC insane design, and spent 3 years trying to find a suitable replacement wheel disc to meet the spec. What follows is his resignation letter:

Dear colleagues,

This is to disseminate some background information and more technical detail to the rail vehicle design and maintenance community about the situation at North County Transit District that prompted suspension of service on the SPRINTER DMU operated rail transit operation in San Diego County and my decision to resign as Rail Mechanical Officer.

CPUC “discovered” an unusual wear pattern on the non-powered wheel plate mounted brake discs with hollowing that exceeds the manufacturer’s recommendation. The finding escalated to a troubling decision to suspend SPRINTER service.

Rapid wear on the non-powered wheel discs is the result of the extraordinary high brake rates for this weight vehicle that was required by CPUC for operation in California. The problem is compounded by the fact that the inboard discs are trapped on the axle by the mounted wheel and can’t be replaced as part of routine maintenance. Also the design is unique to the 32 NCTD vehicles and not found on any of the other 600 (or so) Siemens Desiro Classic vehicles running in Europe.

Bombardier, under contract to provide SPRINTER vehicle maintenance services, had formally requested a proposal from Faiveley, the foundation brake OEM, about 3 years ago for split discs that would enable maintenance replacement of the discs when the time came. Faiveley, apparently absorbed with acquiring Ellcon National and Graham-White was non-responsive until last summer when we received an unrealistic proposal for development of a new product with 44 week lead time and an $11,000 per disc cost!

Since then, Bombardier has worked to develop a realistic supply source but the timing missed by probably 90-120 days.

I am quite confident that the present condition, although not comfortable, does not pose any unmanageable risk that can’t be handled like any other much more catastrophic crisis developments in our field – the MetroNorth wheel burn off and hollow axle scare comes to mind. The situation should be managed with stepped up inspections and testing that would allow a rational assessment of the risk and enable a prudent reaction period if an obvious problem becomes apparent before replacement split discs can be delivered an installed.

Personally, I decided to resign, abruptly, from NCTD Friday a week ago after the CPUC triggered “crisis” situation developed. The decision was prompted entirely by our CEO’s unconstrained rage and focus on pinning blame rather than learning about the problem and ways to resolve it.


Dick Berk

Read Full Post »

Boat To Nowhere

Here is some shock news. After nine months in service, still nobody is riding the Oakland-SSF ferry service:

The much-heralded ferry service between Oakland and South San Francisco – launched just nine months ago at a cost to taxpayers of more than $42 million – is taking on water fast.

The service, which operates seven trips each weekday, carried an average of just 131 total riders a day in the last week of February. That’s less than a third of what officials were counting on during the ferries’ first year on the bay. The service operates with a $2.3 million annual subsidy from bridge tolls, but in its first seven months, it took in a mere $145,300 in fares.

The South San Francisco line was never expected to be a moneymaker, or even to break even. Even with the ferry authority’s optimistic projections of 100,000 riders a year, the line would still need to be publicly subsidized to the tune of $47 a ride. But given the current ridership, the public cost of a single ride comes in at more than $100.

The South SF ferry terminal is in the middle of fucking nowhere. And there is already frequent BART train service between Oakland and SSF (not to mention two toll bridges). There is no way this ferry service will ever be useful.

Read Full Post »

This week marks the 5th year anniversary of the NCTD (San Diego) “Sprinter” rail service. But instead of celebrating, the service was abruptly suspended after the Calif. PUC discovered premature wear in the brake rotors.

Embarrassed NCTD officials don’t even know when the service will resume. The outage could be as long as four months. Bus bridges are being run as an interim measure.

Media reporting has generally described this as a management snafu. NCTD subcontracts maintenance to Bombardier and Veolia. Their work was overseen by the district’s rail mechanical engineer. He knew about the problem, but apparently did not act on it. He has since resigned.

However, this does not explain why the rotors wore out so fast in the first place. This Sprinter model is used all over Europe, and I am not aware of any reported issues with premature brake wear.

One possible explanation might be that San Diego’s Sprinters are not quite off-the-shelf models. You see, the CPUC decided it knew better than the vehicle’s designers and spec’ed out their own braking system for the train:

“They’re big brakes, better than (in) Germany,” said Husemann, noting the train’s stopping power.

Bullock said the brawny brakes were installed to satisfy a California Public Utilities Commission requirement.

The cars are diesel-powered multiple units, which are new to California and rare in North America. The commission had specific requests for the brakes, requiring Siemens to engineer them specially for NCTD cars.

Read Full Post »

US transit planners have a poor record with integrated transit planning, and designing accessible stations. So will California HSR learn from those past mistakes? It seems unlikely, to judge from a recent workshop moderated by Jeff Morales of the CHSRA.

I note in particular the presentation by Stan Feinsod (of the “National High-Speed Rail Connectivity Center”). His talk on station access not once mentioned bikes or pedestrians. And it is curious that the panel included an aviation security expert (though thankfully he didn’t go full TSA).

On a positive note, Armin Kick of Siemens gave a good talk on interoperability (skip to the 29 minute mark in the video). By using real-world examples from German HSR lines, he shows how regional and commuter services can exploit the new HSR infrastructure. To do that, they all must use the same platform height, and the same signalling standard (hint: not CBOSS).

Read Full Post »

I thought the GOP opposed tax increases? Apparently, they make an exception for environmentalists:

Representative Ed Orcutt (R – Kalama) does not think bicycling is environmentally friendly because the activity causes cyclists to have “an increased heart rate and respiration.”

This is according to comments he made in an email to a constituent who questioned the wisdom of a new bike tax the legislature is considering as part of a large transportation package.

We spoke with Rep. Orcutt to confirm the email’s authenticity and to get further clarification.

“You would be giving off more CO2 if you are riding a bike than driving in a car,” he said. However, he said he had not “done any analysis” of the difference in CO2 from a person on a bike compared to the engine of a car.

Read Full Post »

Each year there are tens of thousands of fatalities on the nation’s highways. A disproportionate of those are non-motorized users — bicyclists and pedestrians. Given that the NTSB has made over 13,000 safety recommendations, you might think at least some of those would relate to the dismal state of our bicycle infrastructure, right?

A search of the NTSB online database finds hardly any mention of bike safety. I could find just a single report, which simply gives general guidance that the use of bicycles should be encouraged by the DOT and Dept. of Health. It was issued in 1972 — during the Nixon Administration.

I spent over an hour trying different keywords, but could find nothing else on bikes. On the other hand, I had no trouble at all finding reports on airplanes, trains, and automobiles.

It is ironic because the NTSB was specifically created by Congress to give outside, independent advice to highway planners. State and Federal transportation agencies have been so clueless about bike planning, you would think this would have been the one area where the NTSB outside “experts” provided guidance.

So for anyone at the NTSB who might be reading this, here are a few suggestion topics:

  1. Incorporating Dutch cycle guidelines into highway design manuals
  2. Design of car doors to reduce/eliminate bicycle “dooring” (perhaps an interlock system in the door latch that flashes the rear hazard lights for at least 3 seconds before opening the door).
  3. Improve visibility from truck cabs, so as to reduce bikes/ped collisions.
  4. Designing car bonnets to reduce pedestrian injury/fatality in a collision.

I am sure NTSB staff can think of some others — if they aren’t too busy worrying about airline baby seats.

Read Full Post »