Caltrain and High-Speed Rail Pursue Level Boarding, Compatible Platforms

California High-Speed Rail (foreground) and Caltrain (background, right) will have to share Transbay Center platforms. Image: CAHSR Authority

Correction 10/8: Caltrain and the CAHSRA haven’t agreed to create a joint specification for train cars, but will explore options for platform compatibility.

Officials representing Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently announced that they’ll work closely together over the next several months to explore what options are available from train car manufacturers to allow for level boarding, examine the potential benefits of platform compatibility, and the impacts on the operation of each transit system of doing so.

The cars would allow both systems to board trains from high-level, shared platforms at the future SF Transbay Transit Center, Millbrae, and San Jose stations. The announcement was made last Monday at a meeting hosted by transit advocacy group Friends of Caltrain in Mountain View.

“Level boarding,” so called because passengers will be able to walk directly from platforms onto trains without any steps, maximizes passenger capacity by speeding up boarding. It’s crucial that these three stations have platforms that work for both Caltrain and CAHSR, to maximize flexibility and to reduce redundancy.

Still, many transit advocates remain skeptical that the CAHSRA is sincere about pursuing shared level platforms. The agency issued a Request for Expressions of Interest on October 1 specifying single-level train cars with a floor height of 51 inches above the rails, incompatible with most of the available bi-level electric commuter trains that Caltrain is considering. CAHSR officials insist they have not ruled out alternative platform heights, but say that trains operating at speeds of 220 mph work best with a floor height of around 50 inches.

Average weekday ridership on Caltrain has doubled since 2004 to 59,900 passenger trips in June of this year, fueled by robust employment growth in both San Francisco and throughout Silicon Valley. Rush-hour crowds continue to grow, and up to one-third of passengers are unable to find a seat on the most popular trains and instead pack into aisles and vestibules.

“I’ve heard stories of standees crowding three or four into a bathroom because there are not enough seats on these trains to handle the volumes of customers we have,” stated Caltrain Modernization Project Delivery Director Dave Couch.

Development at San Francisco’s Transbay Center will add thousands of Caltrain passengers every day. Image: Transbay Transit Center

About 20 percent more seats will be available on many rush hour trains by mid-2015, after a $15 million project to lengthen trains from five to six cars, using 16 surplus train cars purchased from LA’s Metrolink.

But Caltrain’s ridership growth shows no signs of letting up, as cities located along the rail line increasingly focus commercial and residential development within walking distance of Caltrain stations along El Camino Real.

“We’re anticipating to take on 200,000 new jobs and another 94,000 units of housing by 2040, primarily along the Caltrain corridor and Market Street,” said Gillian Gillett, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director. “People want to live here, and companies want to stay here and grow here.”

Capacity on an electrified Caltrain could eventually double from today’s levels, to over 9,000 passengers per hour, if eight-car trains were run eight times an hour, according to an analysis conducted by Friends of Caltrain. But running such frequent service requires both level boarding and shared platforms, so that Caltrain could use any of the Transbay Center’s six proposed platforms even after CAHSR service starts in 2029.

“Caltrain must move towards level boarding,” said CAHSR Peer Review Group Chair Lou Thompson. “It’s not going to be possible to operate with the frequency and reliability that we are going to need as ridership goes up without level boarding.”

Passengers now must climb a small staircase when boarding Caltrain at every station, a remnant of the rail line’s 150-year history as a freight line. Faster level boarding would boost train speeds and schedule reliability — estimates are that it would boost the diesel-to-electric speed gain by another 50 percent.

Caltrain’s existing platforms would need to be reconstructed several feet higher than today to provide level boarding of its future electric trains. Image: Caltrain

“We need to operate in the best possibly way, and that’s with shared level platforms,” said Transbay Joint Powers Authority Principal Engineer Brian Dykes, who explained that many more Caltrain trains per hour could serve the Transbay Center than if dedicated platforms for each transit service at different heights end up getting built.

“There’d be nothing better than to have one common platform height across the entire system,” agreed Dave Couch, who summarized the next steps Caltrain must take in order to prepare for the electrification of its service in 2019. “The challenge is how do we get there.”

Caltrain currently lacks funds to raise its platforms to allow level boarding, and to replace its existing diesel-powered trains with electric trains, but the CAHSRA is willing to consider funding such “compatibility expenses” as part of a future set of investments, according to Ben Tripousis, the CAHSRA’s Northern California regional director.

But the real challenge to achieving a fully-compatible system is procuring train cars for both systems with the same floor height, likely requiring custom-designed train cars rather than an “off the shelf” product — increasing up-front and long-term maintenance costs.

Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhof is one of many train stations worldwide where local commuter trains (right) share platforms with high-speed trains (left). Photo: Mundus Gregorius via Flickr

“Under current plans, the floor of HSR trains will be about 50 inches above the rails, which is typical practice for most of the world’s HSR systems,” wrote the four-member CAHSR Peer Review Group in an April comment letter on HSR’s 2014 Business Plan. “Since the existing Caltrain coaches have a 25-inch floor level, consistency would suggest a 25-inch floor level for the new equipment.”

“[Caltrain] is buying rolling stock that’s certainly going to be out there 30 years from now,” said Thompson. “Decisions made now could foreclose all kinds of options for the future.”

Caltrain plans to issue a request for proposals from electric train builders, and award a contract for their construction by the end of 2015. That’s when the agency will need to specify a train floor height compatible with HSR. Caltrain is also now collecting feedback from the public on how much space should be provided for bicycles, luggage, and restrooms on its future electric trains via an online survey, which will remain open until October 17.

  • Andy Chow

    Although I support compatibility as a concept, I think there are number of technical and cost issues can make this not worthwhile. And if it is the case then this could be a distraction against other Caltrain priorities.

    If the story is, as some folks have suggested, that Caltrain should adopt East Coast platform height to be compatible with HSR, then I don’t think that common platform height would be a good idea. The cost to put high level platform is high, the visual impacts to communities would be more significant. Bi-level train sets would need to have doors located on the ends of the cars on top of the trucks, which results in poorer disabled and bike access (essentially bike riders would have to go through the steps to stow their bikes on the lower level since space is constrained on the mid level.)

    If high speed trains could have a lower floor level, that’s great. If there’s a compromise height somewhere in between, it should not be much higher than today’s Bombardier cars to permit direct boarding to the bottom level for better disabled and bike access, and allow efficient non-level boarding until the day that all or most of the platforms are retrofitted.

    If somehow CAHSRA doesn’t believe that their trains can go low floor for whatever reason, Caltrain shouldn’t bend backwards to follow HSRA. Realistically there are only 3 shared stations (less than 10% of all stations) and two of them have spaces for dedicated HSR platforms. Only one location where shared platform would be desirable. If that’s the case, should alternative solutions (including operational changes) be considered?

  • Clem Tillier

    In my opinion shared platforms at Transbay are non-negotiable for Caltrain’s future growth.

    The ridership potential of Transbay is enormous, and calling the shared
    stations “less than 10% of all stations” is totally missing the point where ridership is concerned. Recall that today, census data shows that there are more jobs within 1/2 mile of Transbay than within 1/2 mile of every single stop from 4th & King to Gilroy COMBINED. The cluster of skyscrapers now going up is only going to increase this disparity. Caltrain must rise to the challenge of serving this massive demand, and terminating trains at 4th & King (because of lacking platform space at Transbay) is a self-defeating solution.

    Meanwhile, in Millbrae, shared platforms would eliminate a proposed tunnel worth about $1 billion to squeeze four platform tracks into the station without displacing BART. This cost is ~10x what it cost to build the entire Millbrae complex in the first place.

    Finally, in San Jose, shared platforms would completely eliminate the need to build a massive double-decker station for HSR with miles of aerial approach viaducts, again at savings easily reaching $1 billion.

    If Caltrain ends up with 51″ floors as a cost of entry, then so be it! I acknowledge the minor operational disadvantages, but they pale in comparison to the disastrous sub-optimality of separate station infrastructure for Caltrain and HSR. There are hundreds of high-platform commuter rail operations around the world, some of them even running high-capacity bi-level EMUs (Paris, Sydney, Moscow) and they are none the worse for it. Caltrain is a tiny little fish in a very big pond.

    Of course, 30″ is still the best compromise height for both HSR and
    Caltrain, but so far HSR doesn’t appear open to that idea. They are fixated on procuring train designs from 15 years in the past to fill a need they won’t have before another 15 years in the future…

  • If high speed trains could have a lower floor level, that’s great. If there’s a compromise height somewhere in between, it should not be much higher than today’s Bombardier cars to permit direct boarding to the bottom level for better disabled and bike access, and allow efficient non-level boarding until the day that all or most of the platforms are retrofitted.

    Thanks but no thanks — at high speeds you want a nice thick buffer zone between yourself and the stationary ground below. Safety requirements at 200 MPH are no joke.

  • Andy Chow

    High Speed Rail at this point is still at a early planning stage, and unless there’s a strong long term political commitment, the project could be canceled or significantly altered. I can tell you that it will need more commitment than what Jerry Brown can provide for the next four years. If by that time the political climate results in a Republican governor, then all bets are off.

    That said, it would be a dumb move for Caltrain to use East Coast height platform. Until all the platforms are retrofitted, trains would have 4 or more steps like the present gallery cars do and would provide zero interim benefits for the disabled and cyclists. If somehow the High Speed Rail project changes or got cancelled, then Caltrain will get stuck with a legacy standard for a purpose that is no longer needed.

    What if Caltrain doesn’t have the funding for high platforms, or somehow couldn’t get around the CPUC regulations? Caltrain will get stuck with cars that boards like the gallery cars. I take their comment about willingness to financially Caltrain to make the system more compatible with a grain of salt.

    You keep pointing out the Millbrae tunnel and San Jose, but remember that there are alternative solutions to provide dedicated platforms at those locations without tunneling or building overhead. There may be other reasons that having dedicated platforms would be operationally beneficial. The benefits of having the ability to share platforms at those stations are marginal at best.

    Looking back, it was a foolish move for Muni Metro to transition to high platforms. The rationale for transitioning to high platforms for Muni was the same as Caltrain, except that low floor vehicles wasn’t an option until 20 years later after construction. Muni might have thought that someday all the stations would have high platforms, but that was never the case, either because of lack of funding or community oppositions, so now it is buying a 3rd generation of high floor vehicles for low and high floor boardings. Systems that were built with low platforms have a more graceful and complete transition (both from cost, riding experience, and accessibility) to at or near level boardings with low floor vehicles than systems that chose to convert from low to high platforms.

    So I think the question should be reversed. Shouldn’t high speed rail be using a low floor height to be compatible with Caltrain, and figure out alternative solutions (including getting waiver from ADA laws) for platforms at Transbay to be usable by both, in the event that HSR can’t use vehicles with lower floor. Caltrain should never be in a position to bend backwards. Caltrain should first pick a height that would provide the best and the most graceful transition for level boarding. If HSR can join Caltrain, then that’s great.

  • Andy Chow

    I will let the rail designers and engineers say whether that can be done or not. Rather than some activists think it is not but suggesting that Caltrain can just transition to the East Coast platform height in a snap.

  • Nothing about this project is a “snap.” For interoperability, CalTrain is getting an all new fleet of electric trains and all of the rail will need to be replaced. Adjusting platform height isn’t a big deal when you consider that most of the stations will need to be renovated or replaced to support the new track configuration.

    I’d also like to suggest that redesigning HSR train standards is really the last thing the project needs at this point.

  • Andy Chow

    All the rail will need to be replaced??? Where do you get that idea. No one is suggesting building a complete 4 track corridor. Because of the current train operation and CPUC requirements, any platform that Caltrain will built in a forseeable future due to grade separation and such will be limited to 8 inches.

    Any change in height is a big deal. When VTA had to increase platform height by a few inches, they had to create a special design in downtown San Jose to maintain pedestrian flow and cross platform transfers with the buses. The downtown businesses thought it as a big deal even if the construction only takes a few months.

  • All the rail will need to be replaced??? Where do you get that idea.

    This was the plan since day one. The combined HSR/CalTrain goal has always been to share rails. In no way is the circa 2000 era CalTrain “Baby Bullet” infrastructure sufficient to deliver HSR. The few remaining freight lines are also being retired as a result of HSR.

  • aslevin

    With what evidence do you say that freight is being retired on the Peninsula corridor. That would be easier for passenger rail, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this, the freight customers say they want to keep running.

  • The plan has always been to rebuild the CalTrain route as passenger-only as part of CA HSR, not some half-assed “high speed” route like Accela. What evidence do you have that this plan has been changed?

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t disagree about the importance of Transbay, but there’s still a lot more planning that is needed before suggesting Caltrain to use East Coast height, if HSR chooses to use East Coast height. No one at this point has done a operational analysis with the same rigor as developing the timetable for the next schedule change. All the “train schedules” that you see in the planning documents are meaningless.

    HSR right now is a blank sheet system, with no legacy standard (there’s no mandate to use same height as East Coast) or a group of users with strong political influence (cyclists). The story should be about how HSR can be more compatible with Caltrain, rather than putting the burden on Caltrain and communities that are served by Caltrain and not HSR. The ball is on HSR’s court, should they go East Coast height, then forget about compatibility. Not that other issues like Transbay capacity cannot be resolved, but that will require alternative solutions that Clem quickly dismissed.

  • Andy Chow

    Seriously i’ve followed HSR issues before Prop 1A and I don’t understand “the plan” that you talked about. Seriously have you been to any meetings or talked to any planners? I don’t come to my conclusion because I don’t have any grand vision, but because I know that it is politically hard to get anything done these days, and that the best path to level boarding is through a graceful transition like some of the light rail systems have done (VTA light rail, etc), rather than through what Muni has done. An East Coast height pretty much ensures a Muni type transition which may never be completed (see Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and commuter rail like SEPTA, NJ Transit).

  • vcs

    The original plan was to have completely separated HSR tracks from San Jose to San Francisco.

    The current “blended plan” shares tracks between HSR & CalTrain and (assuming I understand correctly) will accommodate freight at night when no passenger trains are in the vicinity.

  • Nathanael Johnson

    Wow. Nice to have someone who knows what they are talking about. Can we just elect Clem to be in charge?

  • Andy Chow

    The original plan was to have a 4 track grade separated corridor. The level of “blending” between Caltrain and HSR was never fully defined. Some scenarios allow either system to use any track and some scenarios result in essentially two parallel but separate systems. The project level EIR for the 4 track project was killed in favor of the current “blended plan” to limit the number of 4 track sections and having HSR to basically use Caltrain tracks.

    There are two reasons for the current blended plan. The first is to address the concerns and oppositions in communities. They do not like things such as grade separation to be imposed by the state, but are willing to work with local agencies like Caltrain. The second is that the 4 track scenario is cost prohibitive. At that time when the blended plan was suggested, the project got a new cost estimate that went way beyond the available funding in Prop 1A. Also at that time Jerry Brown came on board and took control of HSRA to salvage the project. Some of the board members who are strongly in favor of the 4 track scenario (including Quentin Kopp) were replaced.

  • Andy Chow

    Neither HSRA nor Caltrain has officially suggested to remove freight trains on the corridor. It is only suggested by activists to try to reduce cost, cut the size of the grade separation structure, and implement level boarding.

  • crazyvag

    TGV Duplex which is a bi-level trainset that was introduced in 1995. if CAHSRA would pick that design, the floor height would be made similar to whatever bi-level EMU Caltrain selects.

    The only issue is that these trains run only up to 200mph, but CAHSRA wants 220mph. However, I’m sure some effort could be made to increase the speed to 220mph by the time the line in California goes into service.

  • jonobate

    In the long term, it absolutely does not matter whether HSR and Caltrain use low floor or high floor trains. It only matters that they both agree on the same floor height. There is absolutely no difference to passengers when boarding a high floor train vs. boarding a low floor train, if the platform is at the height of the train floor. BART is high floor and high platform, and boarding a BART train is a very smooth process.

    It is a little better to use low floor trains rather than high floor trains if the platforms are not level with the train floor, because passengers only have to climb up one or two steps rather than three or four. This is why Muni should use low-floor trains, as they will never be able to construct train level platforms at all of their flag stops on surface streets.

    But for Caltrain, this is a relatively unimportant issue as climbing up and down steps will be a temporary measure until all the Caltrain platforms are rebuilt level with the train floor. And they *should* all be rebuilt, because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to achieve considerable speed and reliability benefits.

    The transition process will be the same regardless of whether the train floor is low or high – either way there will need to be movable/deployable steps for the platforms that have not yet been rebuilt, similar to how Muni Metro operates.

    So no more of this “high floor trains are terrible” nonsense. Any train floor height that will work for both agencies will do fine. I don’t have a strong opinion on what it should be, but I’m sure if Caltrain and HSR both put out RFIs that requested that manufacturers specify the train floor heights they could provide, it would be possible to pick out suitable trains for both agencies with a shared train floor height.

  • Andy Chow

    There’s a reasonable limitation for Caltrain on a desirable floor height. Otherwise there will be operational implications and additional costs. Everybody has been accepting Clem Tillier’s idea that common platform height (actually 51″ platform for Caltrain) is so damn important above everything else, and I am the only one who is willing to challenge this.

    His transition strategy for Caltrain (2 high floor doors and 2 low floor doors) would likely result in additional cost on rail cars because of additional doors and lifts, and an unsafe situation for bike riders as they may have to haul their bikes up and down interior steps. His strategy will not result in full 51″ platform everywhere on the Caltrain system (since there’s no reason to increase the platform height above the height of the lowest door).

    And what is the everyday benefits of common platform heights? Yes there are operational benefits, but if they’re most confined in a situation where trains are severely delayed or in an emergency, the 51″ height is quite a high cost imposed on Caltrain. Is the Transbay terminal that small that trains and platform usage must always be random? Can additional capacity be added by changing some designs and operational procedures including layover time?

    I support both agencies to study the issue and to see whether there’s any opportunities to compromise. There are opportunities for HSR to consider lower floor height since technology is evolving and that HSR is not an operating railroad. But I think it is reasonable for Caltrain to walk away in the event that there’s no acceptable solution for Caltrain.

    You might think that all platforms should be rebuilt, and that it will be the same regardless of height. I don’t with that. There’s visual impact and difference in construction method between a platform slightly higher than the one that’s significantly higher, and things like that do matter in smaller cities. Even in Muni, placement of a mini-high is a big deal in the neighborhood (with associated impacts on traffic and driveway access) even though it is smaller than a full length high platform. Also, most systems that transition from low platform height to high height tend to have an incomplete transition (including Muni) because of cost and community issues, and that systems that use low platform tend to have a more graceful transition. Is it wise to create another Muni Metro situation?

  • Clem Tillier

    For the record, I would like to state that I am not advocating for 51″ platforms for Caltrain. I favor a compromise solution at 30″ that you can read about here, which enables the simplest transition to level boarding for Caltrain. This is Plan A.

    In the event that HSR insists on 51″ platforms, there has to be a Plan B, which will unfortunately be slightly sub-optimal for Caltrain. Where Andy and I have a difference of opinion is on which poison to pick: I favor sub-optimality by having Caltrain transition to 51″ platforms, while he favors sub-optimality by under-serving San Francisco Transbay and building separate station infrastructure for HSR.

    There is no perfect solution, but I think that Andy’s objections to my Plan B are trivial when compared to the fundamental strategic error of failing to provide a very high capacity link to downtown San Francisco, with room to grow for the next several generations. The time to exercise a little bit of generational foresight is now, before Caltrain buys the wrong trains and locks in the wrong platform interface.

  • Andy Chow

    My plan B is to do everything else to make the terminal as compatible and an operating plan that would maximize throughout. You really haven’t state how it would increase capacity other than complaining that a mock up train schedule (which is something not created with the same rigor as an actual schedule) shows limited number of trains going to Transbay. If BART can turn around 8 trains an hour from two lines at a station with two platforms, why can’t Transbay handle 10 trains an hour at a station with 6 platforms?

    I don’t think your two high, two low door arrangement is a realistic solution. I don’t think the bike access issue (and have bikes be hauled up and down the interior steps while the train is moving is anything trivial. At best this solution will result in a Muni Metro situation in which if we knew that low floor LRT is possible 40 years ago we wouldn’t have chosen high platforms and movable steps.

    I think that it is okay for both agencies to agree to disagree after evaluating different options, but will work together on other strategies to make Transbay as compatible and flexible as they can and maximize throughput.

  • Clem Tillier

    That’s a lot of hand-waving about “maximizing throughput” with very few specifics, Andy. With the way things are planned now, every inbound Caltrain will conflict with every outbound HSR, two permanently crossed streams of traffic. This not only cannot work reliably, but also can’t scale up to higher levels of traffic. Saying that it’s OK because it will handle the blended system in 15 years is just as short-sighted as saying that no computer will ever need more than 640 kB of RAM.

  • Andy Chow

    I could say the same thing regarding the conversion process, your 2 low, 2 high door solution, etc.

    If you’re willing to go way out of your way to advocate a full height platform at every Caltrain station that is not wanted, you might as well challenge every operating assumption that you said is limiting capacity (but somehow same level height would resolve, while neglecting other aspects of operation that HSR and Caltrain may want dedicated platforms). That has to be done regardless whether there will be a common platform height or whether there will be dedicated platforms.

    I think there are opportunities to plan for a Transbay terminal that has very high capacity and a very compatible terminal (even if there’s no agreement on platform height).

    What is not a solution is something that would inflict unnecessary problems on peninsula communities. Keep the solutions for Transbay at Transbay.


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