Posts Tagged ‘CPUC’

How many engineers does it take to change the brakes on a train?

The next step is for us along with our contractors, Veolia and Bombardier, to determine the proper procedure for the installation of the new 100g split disc rotors. Together we will take all safety factors into consideration. Once all parties approve this process, we will begin the installation of the new rotors onto the Sprinter test vehicle. FRA and CPUC officials will observe the installation. We have invited representatives from Siemens (the Sprinter manufacturer) and certified California engineers to observe the installation and the testing and to review the data.

This really gives an idea of how over-regulated passenger rail has become. Representatives from two government agencies are supervising, plus the various contractors and other “invited” guests.

And here is a photo of the test-run. Note how they are paying a flagman to stand around holding a Stop sign — in addition to the perfectly operating crossing gates. Can’t be too careful!

Sprinter Flagman

And this testing is expected go on for months:

Sunday’s test, in which one train ran between Escondido and San Marcos, was the first in what’s expected to be a weeks- or months-long overall evaluation period. “Everything went great” Sunday, transit district spokeswoman Frances Schnall said Monday. “Everyone was really pleased with how things went.”

The train reached speeds of up to 50 mph, she said. State law imposes a 55 mph speed limit on the train.

Yep, 55 mph speed limit. Can’t be too careful!

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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.

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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

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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.

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