Posts Tagged ‘Caltrain’

Caltrain Frankentrain

The saga over incompatible platform height continues. Caltrain staff has given a preview of what the new bilevel commuter trains may look like. The design is as bad as feared:



Other blogs have already reported on problems this will cause for wheelchair and bike access, so I won’t go into that here. The really big issue that I have not seen mentioned is the dwell time.

Note how the high door would probably only be half-width. That is because having 4 wide doors reduces the structural integrity of the railcar. This will double the dwell time at the Transbay Terminal, and other busy stations. By comparison, BART’s next-generation railcars will have 3 double doors.

The constricted vestibule area also doesn’t help matters. Though if there is one silver lining, the crowded vestibule space precludes having on-board bathrooms — which is probably why staff wants to eliminate all the ADA bathrooms.

The thing is that “blending” commuter and high-speed rail isn’t exactly a new concept. It is done all over the world, and I struggle to find even one example where an agency took this approach for shared platform access. Well ok, there is one example: NJT and Acela — but that just goes to prove the point.


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Jim Hartnett

The Caltrain Board Member who wanted to ban bikes entirely from trains and presided over the Board during its most dysfunctional years is now Caltrain’s new General Manager.

Oh, my.

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CHSRA Platform Fail

As you probably know, Caltrain and the CHSRA are supposed to share infrastructure but can’t agree on a common platform height. The CHSRA train specification is for 1295mm (51″) floor height, That is much too high for Caltrain with its legacy 8″ platforms.

If you are wondering where the CHSRA came up with the 51″ number, the answer is that it was mainly a political decision. The FRA wanted California to use HSR rolling stock compatible with the NEC corridor (even though the NEC is thousands of miles away). When that idea proved impractical, the joint bid was dropped. And yet here we are, apparently stuck with the 51″ requirement.

What needs to happen now is for the CHSRA to drop the 51″ requirement from the train specification. Since Caltrain and the CHSRA will almost certainly use European “off-the-shelf” trainsets, the obvious solution is to follow the European platform standard.

In 2002, the European Commission issued a Technical Specification for Interoperability (TSI) that allows for two possible platform heights: 550mm and 760mm. If you do the metric-English conversion, you find that 550mm is 21″, and 760mm is 30″. For comparison, Caltrain’s Bombardier cars have a 25″ floor level. So trains built to either the 550mm or 760mm platform height would provide backwards-compatibility to legacy 8″ platforms while the agency works on rebuilding platforms to the new height.

Following the TSI platform standard is also in the best interests of the CHSRA, because it will ensure the largest number of vendors can bid on high-speed train procurements. In a 2009 white paper, the CHSRA planners tried to argue otherwise, saying that most HSR trains currently in operation fall within the range of a 45″-51″ height. That is certainly true, but they need to think about the state of the market in the year 2024 (when California’s system supposedly begins operation), not the year 2009. It is clear that the next-generation of HSR trains are going to be compliant with TSI accessibility standards.

In fact, most vendors have already made the switch to TSI standards. Talgo, for example, offers two HSR trains with low-floor coaches at the 760mm height:


Talgo 760mm level-platform boarding


Euroduplex 550mm entrance

The new Stadler EC250 is also low-floor. It will operate on new high-speed service between Zurich, Frankfurt, and Milan, though only with a maximum speed of 155mph.

The TGV duplex is yet another train with 550mm level-platform boarding. Even though it is the workhorse of the TGV network, the CHSRA has already ruled out the use of this train, saying it has “unappealing aesthetics”. It is incredible that the CHSRA would so blithely dismiss Europe’s most popular high-speed train.

One HSR vendor that does not offer TSI-compliant trains is Siemens. Siemens does, however, have a train manufacturing facility in Sacramento and has made grandiose promises of local jobs if it wins the contract. This leads to the suspicion that specifications were written to favor a preferred vendor — at the expense of taxpayers and transit riders.

If the CHSRA prevails on using 51″ platform boarding, the implications would be quite bad for Caltrain. There would be no good options for migrating to that platform height. Caltrain would either have to decide on segregated platforms for HSR (limiting its access to the new Transbay Terminal) or else design some goof-ball train with two sets of doors.

Sadly, it appears Caltrain is going with the latter plan. In a presentation last month to San Francisco officials, Dave Couch of Caltrain outlined a plan whereby the new electric railcars would have dual sets of doors. One upper set for stations with 51″ platforms, and a lower set of doors for the legacy 8″ platforms. This is a huge step backwards from what customers have today. At least with the current rolling stock, riders only have to make one (small) vertical transition. The new rolling stock would add yet another — inside a crowded moving train, no less, where there are also bikes and luggage to contend with. To accommodate wheelchairs, some kind of internal wheelchair lift may be needed too. And a train with dual sets of doors isn’t exactly off-the-shelf, so expensive customization would be needed.

This proposal is so ridiculous, it is hard to believe it is being taken seriously. Let’s hope it leads to a re-evaluation of the CHSRA platform decisions.

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As part of the “blended” plan, Caltrain and CHSR will be sharing the same tracks and stations. It would be a no-brainer for trains to have compatible platforms, right? Indeed, staff from both agencies announced (just days ago) that they would be doing precisely that.

And yet someone at the CHSRA didn’t get that memo. In a spec published just yesterday, the HSR trains are to have a floor height of 1295 mm (51 inches). This spec will serve as the basis for a train procurement process that has now begun.

1295mm is incompatible with Caltrain requirements. It really makes no sense — other than being compatible with the NEC. Why are they trying to maintain backwards compatibility with a rail line thousands of miles away?

Besides the platform height, there are other problems with the HSR train spec. These “off-the-shelf” trains are supposed to comply with both Buy-America and Buy-California rules — even though there are no high-speed manufacturers in California or the rest of the country.

The spec also has a requirement for 220mph operating speeds. As noted by the Peer Review Group, 220mph is not needed until the entire SF-LA line is in service:

It may not be optimized to have all trains running at 350 Km/h, particularly those trains with several intermediate stops. Very high speed is only needed on a long distance range and/or when high-speed rail is competing with air.

The 2014 Business Plan optimistically predicts LA-SF route will not be in service until at least 2028. Realistically, it will be decades before LA-SF is in service. Until then, the CHSRA would be running a strictly regional service — and regional services do not require extremely expensive HSR trainsets.

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Bikes or Bathrooms?

Caltrain is spec’ing its new electric railcars. The agency will have to decide what is more important: bikes or bathrooms:



In the bad old days of Caltrain service, a passenger might have to wait as long as two hours just to board a train. With electrification, Caltrain will offer much faster service, operating at BART-level frequency (we hope). There is no reason to continue with the on-board bathrooms — let alone 5 per train. There are better uses for that space.

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Dumb question….but why is Caltrain adding more signals?

In December 2012, Caltrain started construction of the second phase of the Signal Optimization Project to place into service additional signals in the cities of San Mateo and Redwood City.

Lead Agency: Caltrain

Contractors: Transit Constructors LP

Project Limits: San Mateo to Menlo Park

Construction Cost: $549,000

Began Construction: December 2012

Completed Construction: May 2013

Caltrain is already spending one-quarter of a billion dollars on a new PTC system. PTC cab signalling largely eliminates the need for trackside signals. Not having to spend money on maintaining trackside signals was supposed to be one of the benefits of the PTC system.

And no, this isn’t because of some stupid FRA rule. The FRA has signed off on signal removal by other railroads with PTC.

Contractors installing new signal

Contractors installing new signal. Note the giant signal house to contain the “complex” electronics.


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Make Room

Getting “bumped” has been a well-known problem for cyclists using Caltrain. But it happens to regular passengers as well:

Q. I took Caltrain to an event near the Giants baseball park on a recent Saturday evening, planning to return on the 10:15 p.m. departure. I chose Caltrain so I wouldn’t have to worry about parking near the stadium on game day nor driving after drinking. I tagged my Clipper card at 10:12 p.m., which should have been plenty of time to get on the train, but as I was about to go though the doors the gate agent shut the doors and stopped about 10 of us from boarding.

The agent said the train was full and we would have to wait until midnight for the next train. I am sure there was room to stand SOMEWHERE (in an aisle, on a bike car).

A Christine the Caltrain spokeswoman had this to say:

“Caltrain has a seated capacity of 650 passengers and is designed to carry several hundred standing passengers. In our effort to carry as many passengers as possible on these special event days, many trains are operating with more than 1,000 riders. People are standing in the aisles as well as in the vestibules by the doorways. The conductor is responsible for the safe operation of the train. It is up to his or her discretion to determine when the train is full.

While we would like to offer additional service, our ability to provide more service is limited by equipment and crew availability. Caltrain is exploring the possibility of purchasing or leasing additional passenger cars. Unfortunately, up to this point, we have not been to locate any available equipment.”

The problem isn’t just a lack of equipment, but also too many seats. Removing some seats (possibly converting to flip-up seats) is a quick and inexpensive solution. During off-peak times, it would permit more bikes to board. And it would accommodate the large crowds after ballgames.

Caltrain customers have been suggesting this for decades. So why doesn’t Caltrain investigate this solution? Because staff has been extremely stubborn about it, and continues to believe that maximizing the number of seats is the best way to run the service. Even though removing seats would increase capacity — and farebox revenue.


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