Posts Tagged ‘SMART’

SMART labor un-productivity

The “SMART” commuter railroad plans to go back to voters for more money to increase the anemic service levels. One reason they cannot afford to run a proper schedule is the dismal labor productivity. For example, running trains with both a train driver and conductor:

With the dearth of engineers, SMART will also seek to hire conductors to take the place of a second engineer on the trains. The move creates a bigger candidate pool to ensure that two staff persons are on the train at all times. A conductor is certified to assist with certain train movements, but aren’t qualified to operate the train. They would be paired with an engineer. Because the conductor job class is lower in pay than the engineer, there would be savings to the agency. Conductors would earn a maximum of $34 an hour or $70,720 annually.

Train conductors are an anachronism; modern 21st-century DMU operations don’t have them anymore. The only task for a conductor these days is punching tickets — a job that is better done with occasional POP inspection.

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SMART’s modern 21st century railcars

It is a clean-sheet railcar design, and yet it never occurred to the designers that passengers might want to move between cars? *Facepalm*

While the standard pairs allow passengers to travel directly between each car, riders on the three-car trains cannot leave the extra car until the train is stopped. The third car has a restroom but no snack bar, since the cars are designed to include only one of those.

“Anybody that wants to buy a cup of coffee and is in that car that doesn’t allow them to walk all the way through is going to have to leave the car at one station and race over to the other one,” said Steve Birdlebough of the group Friends of SMART. “It’s kind of a nuisance.”

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Nobody could have predicted

The Press Democrat has an interview with SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. Here is Mansourian defending the agency’s screw-ups:

Mansourian, who has earned praise and criticism for his full-steam ahead managerial approach, did not appear chastened as he reflected back on the events of 2016 that prompted the service delay.

He made the case that SMART could not have foreseen having to replace the engines on each of the 14 rail cars because of a design flaw, nor the challenges getting warning signals at crossings to work properly or the difficulty attracting staff to the high-cost North Bay.

“If there was anything that was in our control and we could have worked harder, and we had a crystal ball, then we would probably feel awful,” he said. “But there were three things that led to this — not a single one of them was in our control.”

In fact, no crystal ball was required. All of these mistakes were entirely predictable and preventable. SMART could have ordered a reliable, off-the-shelf trainset. Instead, they spec’ed out a custom model, which would inevitably have bugs. SMART also designed a signal system around track circuits instead of axle counters. Axle counters are the industry-standard approach because they are 5 times more reliable.

SMART blames its staffing problems on the high-cost of living. In fact, there is an absurd amount of featherbedding. Trains will have both an engineer and conductor, when only an engineer is needed. And there will be eight vehicle technicians, for a fleet of just 14 railcars.

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Back in 2009, SMART came up with a bonehead plan to use custom-design rolling stock — a decision heavily criticized in this blog. And here we are six years later, and they are still struggling to get something working:

On September 7, 2016, SMART was notified by SCOA [Sumitomo Corporation of America] that the failure was due to an underlying design flaw in the engine’s crankshaft. Responding to this news, SMART’s Vehicle Maintenance Superintendent, supported by LTK vehicle engineers, travelled to the Cummins Engine facility in Seymour, Indiana, and on September 14 met with Cummins, carbuilder Nippon Sharyo and SCOA. At the meeting it was agreed that the engines would be rebuilt with a new crankshaft designed for the life of the engine, as soon as possible.

So now all the engines will need to be scrapped, and the train design re-tested. The SMART staff is now (very optimistically I think) saying the line won’t open until at least Spring 2017. The previous opening date was supposed to be the end 2016 (which had already been pushed back 2 years due to other issues).

Remember: the whole rationale for using custom FRA-compliant rolling stock was that it would take “too long” to get regulatory approval for off-the-shelf European DMUs.

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Sticker Shock over SMART fares

The SMART Board has decided on a fare structure, and voters are having sticker shock over the high ticket prices:

Critics say the fares are too expensive and won’t entice the North Bay commuters who drive solo — SMART’s primary targeted customer base. Some also argue the charges are an affront to the financial sacrifices taxpayers in the two counties have made, and will continue to make, through the quarter-cent sales tax that supports the rail line through at least 2029.

We failed miserably,” said SMART director Shirlee Zane, who joined fellow Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt in voting against the approved fares. “What we’ve done, in effect — and I want to be clear, I didn’t vote for this — by approving these very high fares, the public has said, ‘We’ve been paying for this train for eight years. It’s public transportation, and now you’re going to turn around and charge us these really outrageous fares?’ ”

SMART director Zane should know better. She was on the Board when it approved the purchase of FRA-compliant DMU’s. These heavy DMU’s are more expensive to operate compared to light-weight DMU’s. The SMART Board had even done a study which quantified the extra expense. It was inevitable that the inefficient DMU’s would require higher fares. Even worse, though, is that they can only afford to run trains during commute hours. There will be just a single midday run, and no weekend service only 6 weekend round-trips.

There is virtually no other transit operation using heavy DMU’s, which really tells you something. California’s two other DMU systems, eBART and the San Diego Sprinter, both use lightweight European DMU’s.  Indeed, it is instructive to compare performance metrics of SMART vs. NCTD Sprinter:


(Click chart to enlarge)

One note about the data: Whereas NCTD provides extensive budget and operations data, it is difficult to obtain any numbers from SMART. Some metrics were calculated based on newspaper reports, so any clarifications/corrections are welcome.

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BART Orders Stadler DMU

For its new eBART extension, BART has ordered Stadler DMU railcars:

SAN Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has awarded a contract worth $US 58m to Stadler to supply eight two-car DMUs for use on the 16km East Contra Costa Bart extension project, which is currently under construction. Dubbed eBart, the new line will utilise standard-gauge rather than 1676mm-gauge infrastructure used by conventional Bart lines and is due to enter service in 2015. Bart officials say the $US 462m project is around 60% cheaper than conventional electric Bart services.

The Stadler cars will not be FRA-compliant, nor will they be purchased under Buy-America rules. Stadler will produce the vehicles from its plant in Switzerland.

It is worth comparing the BART DMU order with the one done by SMART. SMART, as you may recall, selected heavy FRA-compliant DMU’s over the more popular non-compliant varieties. SMART even paid for a “study” to show this would give the public a less expensive railcar. Well, now we can conclude that SMART study was bogus: the BART DMU’s are comparable in price to the SMART DMU (when accounting for inflation and LTK consultant fees).

Stadler was the only vendor that bid on the BART project. Other foreign vendors were no doubt discouraged from participating in a US project, given the convoluted regulations. As a result, BART still paid a lot more than it should have. But at least BART will get a model that has been fully debugged and burns less fuel.


Stadler DMU used for Austin's Capital Metro

Stadler DMU used for Austin’s Capital Metro


SMART's klunky DMU

SMART’s klunky DMU

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Here is another example of two government agencies working at cross-purposes.

SMART, the commuter-rail agency, is developing a new service along the highway-101 corridor. Meanwhile, the Marin Transportation Authority (TAM) is expanding highway capacity in the same location. One transportation agency trying to shift mode-share to trains, and the other transportation agency encouraging car travel.

The latest highway project from TAM is the Greenbrae interchange project — where Highway 101, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal meet (the Ferry Terminal, by the way, is to be the terminus for the SMART rail line). The interchange will get giant new flyovers, and screw up cycling for years to come:

The plan also could impact the bike and pedestrian traffic in the area, making it more dangerous for those groups, said Andy Peri, advocacy director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. He noted the pedestrian and bike overcrossing over Highway 101 will be taken down as part of the project.

That will force those users to use car-busy Wornum Drive.

“People will not be comfortable having to use Wornum,” said Peri, adding that a new overcrossing should be built as part of the project. “There is a lot of traffic activity there. We want encourage bicyclists and pedestrians, not discourage them.”

The Greenbrae interchange project comes at a time when SMART still faces major financial shortfalls. As a result, SMART has done everything from stealing bike/ped funds, to blasting the MTC for not providing sufficient financial support.

And aside from the competing rail project, it should be noted that urban interchange projects rarely make sense. They are insanely disruptive and expensive ($143 million in this case), and provide hardly any traffic relief:


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Train Robbery

Once again, SMART rail planners try to raid bike/ped funds:

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials are seeking $6.6 million in federal funds to buy more train cars, money that otherwise would be used for local pedestrian and bicycle paths.

“SMART is committed to go to Cloverdale and to Larkspur and as you go farther, you need more vehicles,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

SMART’s request is drawing fire from bicycle advocates because the rail agency would be taking the lion’s share of $9.9 million that Sonoma County is getting for such projects as bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, traffic lights, Safe Routes to Schools programs and even construction of SMART’s own pedestrian and bicycle path.

“It would mean that most jurisdictions would have to put off implementing most of their bike-pedestrian plans for five years, at least,” said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The coalition has been a staunch supporter of SMART but is strongly opposing this bid. “We don’t understand how it makes sense for one train set to take two-thirds of the funding for the entire network,” Lupien said.

This problem all stems from a very ill-advised decision by SMART to custom-design FRA-compliant railcars. Compared to the global price, the SMART DMU’s will be nearly twice as expensive. And the decision to run under FRA rules adds huge cost; for example: the $12 million spent on the quiet zones. It would be one thing if SMART needed the $6.6 million to cover legitimate shortfalls. But in this case, it is to pay for self-inflicted problems.

And here again, we see the downsides to Buy-America rules on railcars. $6.6 million taxdollars could be used to hire local Sonoma contractors to build bike-paths for local Sonoma bike riders. SMART instead would send that money to subsidize jobs out in Illinois, which does nothing for the local California economy.


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The Price of Silence

When “SMART” stupidly decided to operate under Federal FRA-compliant regulations, it created a whole bunch of unnecessary costs:

The board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District this week unanimously agreed to spend at least $12 million on safety measures associated with establishment of “quiet zones.”

Federal regulations require that train horns blow a quarter-mile before a crossing and continue to sound until the train passes into the intersection. They must sound at a minimum of 96 decibels, which is equal to the volume of a backyard power mower.

Actually, 96 decibels is equivalent to a jackhammer from 50′ away. If they had decided to operate the line as a transit operation, then FRA rules would not apply and the $12 million quiet zones wouldn’t be necessary.

$12 million is not a trivial amount of money, especially given SMART’s budget problems. For example, $12 million is enough to buy two or three DMU trainsets.

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San Rafael has put together one of those Gawd-awful design-by-committees to do a station area plan for its downtown. This is for when the new ‘SMART’ rail line reaches the downtown.

Here some of their recommendations:

  1. Additional traffic lanes on Hetherton St.
  2. 3rd St. crosswalk elimination
  3. 1:1 parking requirement
  4. Potential public garage
  5. Potential future transit parking

It is amazing how so many of these transit station area-plans morph into autocentric parking plans.

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