Design of High-Speed Trains Threatens to Diminish Caltrain Capacity

When High Speed Rail begins operating in 2029, passengers will access Caltrain via the upper set of doors (blue) at stations shared with high speed trains, and via the lower set of doors (yellow) at all other stations. Image: Clem Tillier
When High Speed Rail begins operating in 2029, passengers will access Caltrain via the upper set of doors (yellow) at stations shared with high speed trains, and via the lower set of doors (blue) at all other stations. Image: Clem Tillier

The insistence of California High Speed Rail officials on running trains with floors 50 inches above the tracks threatens to reduce the capacity of Caltrain and hamper the benefits of level boarding for the commuter rail agency.

Last Tuesday, Caltrain officials gave an update on the electric trains the agency plans to purchase next year, which will begin operating in 2021 [PDF]. To enable level boarding for Caltrain passengers before and after CAHSR raises platforms to be compatible with its 50-inch floor trains, the new design has two sets of doors at different heights. This way, both Caltrain and high-speed trains will have level boarding at every station.

High Speed Rail Authority officials insist on the high-speed train industry standard floor height of 50 inches above the tracks. Building trains compatible with this specification, however, will diminish both the speed of Caltrain service and its capacity, though the scale of these effects has yet to be determined.

In order to achieve level boarding fully compatible with High Speed Rail, Caltrain will need to allow passengers to board at the 50-inch height. But a lower 25-inch floor height above the tracks is needed for the main section of each car in order for the trains to have both a lower and upper level, like today’s newer Bombardier models, without being too tall to operate.

This will require passengers to navigate sets of internal stairs on the lower level. This will increase the length of time people spend boarding and alighting, especially people carrying bicycles or luggage. Mechanical lifts will also be needed for passengers in wheelchairs to get between the 25-inch and 50-inch levels. The overall effect will be to lengthen the amount of time trains spend at each station (the “dwell time”) compared to trains with a single lower-level floor height.

That delay hasn’t yet been estimated by either agency, but it will affect Caltrain’s schedules. “The reason to go to level boarding for Caltrain is dwell time,” said Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin. “So the question of how much the internal stairs extend dwell time is a very important question about the benefits of level boarding.”

In addition, two sets of doors at both floor heights will be needed, which will consume valuable space that could have been devoted to seats or bicycles. An estimated 78 to 188 seats will be lost per six-car train. Agency officials have clarified that this need not occur until the High Speed Rail stations are actually built, because trains could be built without the upper set of doors, initially, in order to temporarily preserve space for seating.

“The key part of the rail car is where people in wheelchairs and bicyclists are going to be sitting in,” said Bay Rail Alliance Board President Andy Chow. “In any of the high platform scenarios, there isn’t enough space in the high floor portions [of the train] to have seating for wheelchair users and bicyclists.”

To avoid these drawbacks, high-speed trains with a lower floor height than 50 inches would be needed, such as the Talgo AVRIL under development in Europe. But so far, High Speed Rail officials haven’t been willing to consider such “low-floor” high-speed trains, choosing the industry standard 50-inch height despite the operational drawbacks for Caltrain.

“Ridership growth trends are expected to continue, and both Caltrain and all the transit services that connect to it will need to maximize opportunities that boost passenger capacity to keep up,” said Levin. “Caltrain and High Speed Rail should bring in global experts who work on blended systems to give them advice including relating to High Speed Rail’s concerns about the viability of low-floor high-speed trains.”

The issue is expected be discussed tomorrow by both the agency’s Board of Directors and Citizen’s Advisory Committee, as well as how much space to allocate for seats, bicycles, and bathrooms aboard Caltrain’s future electric trains.

  • aslevin

    “All about Transbay” – here is the list of reasons for platform compatibility, with the shared stations as one of the reasons.

    Transbay is a particularly important one because it is expected to be the highest ridership station on the Caltrain line. So full service to Transbay helps Caltrain Caltrain riders overall, including people who live elsewhere and work in downtown SF, and people who live in SF/EastBay and work on the Peninsula.

    Advantages of Common Level Boarding
    • Improved operations at common stations (TTC, Millbrae, Diridon)
    • Improved passenger circulation
    • Improved safety
    • Improved Reliability and Recovery Capabilities
    • Significantly reduced infrastructure costs
    • Improved system operations
    • Accelerated schedule for Level Boarding at all stations

  • Andy Chow

    The key part of the common level boarding discussion that should always be present is what that height should be?

    This is kind of like a sales person talking about the benefits of a product and want you to sign a contract but will not disclose the price and other terms of the contract. Sure I may agree with the benefits but you always need to put into context to what you’re willing to pay. The price we’re talking about is not just a monetary price.

    Clem’s thought is that height is not an issue, but I strongly disagree. Height matters when it comes to accessibility for disabled and cyclists, community acceptance, and transition process. I don’t think the benefits of a common height is worth the price if such height doesn’t work well with Caltrain.

    If height really isn’t an issue, then why SFMTA still doesn’t have a path toward accessible boardings at 100% of its Muni Metro stops?

  • jonobate

    I regularly use both BART and Caltrain, usually with my bike. BART is by far the easiest to use with a bike because you don’t have to deal with a large number of other cyclists piling their bikes on top of yours and trying to get in and out of the same car; there will generally be between 0 and 2 other cyclists using the same bike space as you, so it requires minimal coordination with other cyclists. BART is also easier because of level boarding. The station access is a minor inconvenience and in any case is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

    I don’t anticipate cyclists carrying bikes on their shoulders inside Caltrain, if they were to be stored on the lower level. I imagine they would install wheel gutters next to the 2 or 3 steps that cyclists would need to navigate. If you’re fit enough to ride a bike you can push a bike up a wheel gutter for 2 or 3 steps.

    There is no reason why there should be a hard limit on bikes, and no reason why train crews should enforce such a limit. BART recently allowed bikes on all trains at all times, and minimal problems were reported with bicycles overloading the train and blocking the aisles. They achieved this through a public information campaign promoting courteous use of the transit system rather than enforcement by conductors. (I’m aware that there aren’t as many bikes on BART as on Caltrain, but even so, there’s no reason why Caltrain couldn’t take a similar approach.)

    If bikes and wheelchairs are both stored at the mid-level, you can differentiate the two areas simply by marking one with a bike symbol and another with a wheelchair symbol. If you ask bike riders not to leave bikes in the wheelchair area, there’s no reason to assume they won’t comply.

  • Andy Chow

    Personally I don’t like having to haul bikes up and down the stairs. At BART you must seat next to your bike and hold it to make sure it doesn’t move or fall. With Caltrain once you place your bike correctly you can seat somewhere else and get comfortable.

    I don’t think there’s anything that can mitigate the safety risk of having bikes go up or down while train is moving, and I don’t think there’s anything that can mitigate the dwell time impact of having more distance and steps between the doors and the bikes, especially if there’s a policy of not having bikes move up or down the steps when train is moving.

    It is FRA that is requiring racks for bikes, and BART is not under FRA’s jurisdiction.

    As it is, some bike cars are overloaded on certain trains, unless the conductor is on the bike car keeping counts. So you can’t expect the cyclists to self regulate. BART style accommodation of bikes for Caltrain is going to result in conflict, if not more blocked aisles.

    BART’s bike ridership hasn’t reach anywhere close on a per train basis. I think service level is a factor, as well as the necessity of having to move bikes up and down the steps at stations, which might deter some potential riders, as supposed to park their bikes at the station.

  • Harvey Kahler

    One thing I hadn’t considered initially is that terminal dwell time under the scenario that was described may be taken to clean trains at Transbay for the next run and getting crew and equipment on and off the platform. Transbay (wherever it is) is a costly facility to be used for the purpose of train servicing in addition to moving people.

    The alternative is moving trains in and out for servicing at a remote location (4th & Townsend?). One track each might be used for CHSR and Caltrain departures and another track respectively for arrivals at separate platforms. That separates passenger flows and allows up to four arrivals and departures in an hour; but that would not be adequate for Caltrain.

    Caltrain may choose to get more capacity in the peaks by turning trains at Transbay without servicing other than a cursory picking up of papers, cups, and wrappers left behind and flipping seatbacks. This would entail wider platforms for some two-way, peak and reverse-peak passenger flows and affect cost as well.

    With such intense use, waiting lounges with quick access to platforms (from a mezzanine above?) would be needed for ticketed passengers. They could queue comfortably for their respective local or express train boarding without hindering passengers boarding or alighting other trains.

    Other complications are that schedules don’t always match up and service is subject to delays in route for efficient terminal use. A 5th relief track may be desired for either Caltrain or CHSR irregular arrivals or fleeting of express and local trains if boarding is compatible rather than holding delayed trains out of the terminal.

    In any event, the line approaching the terminal and simple throat have greater than the terminal.

  • William W Lu

    The whole premise of level-boarding at the same height as CAHSR is based upon these points:

    1) Caltrain platforms will need to be rebuilt within the next 10 years regardless of what CAHSR do, whether it is to support 8 car trains, level-boarding, new bypass tracks, grade separation, or not.

    2) Level-boarding makes station stop time predictable, especially in cases of wheelchair and bicycle boarding. It is also the ADA requirement, that Caltrain were able to get away this today only due to its trains and platforms were ordered and built before this become mandatory. Any new trains ordered by Caltrain will need to meet this either using wheel-chair lifts or level-boarding.

    Only when one accept these two points and that Caltrain will not and cannot stay the same as today, discussions on level-boarding at what height and CAHSR compatibility have some meaning.

  • Tran Carl

    Caltrain decided to buy non-FRA EMU because of (1) lower procurement cost compared and (2) lower operating cost.
    Is there commercially available EMU with 50 inch floor height? Most of EMU in the world have 25~46 inches. If 50 inch is special for Caltrain, cost of procurement become quite expensive.

  • Tran Carl

    Sharing platform between Caltrain and HSR need to have same fare policy, either fare gate or proof of payment. Does Caltrain want to install fare-gare system if HSR decided?
    Or, will HSR accept Proof-of Payment system? Then, how can they enforce passenger between SF-Milbrae or SF-Redwood City without HSR ticket?

  • William

    CAHSR will use fare-gate with free/paid areas. Some people is advocating for POP for Caltrain compatibility, but I think fare-gate + tag-on/tag-off is more doable.

  • William

    50” will be common with CAHSR; Most common kinds of world commuter rolling-stock is single-level EMU which has floor height within 1~2 inches of 50” to allow for suspension sag and wheel wear. Only dual-levels used in Europe has borading height less than 50”.

  • Tran Carl

    50″ is common for HSR trainset. How about commuter EMU with 50″?

  • Tran Carl

    I also think so. So, sharing platform between Caltrain and HSR does not make sense unless Caltrain introduce same fare-gate.

  • Tran Carl

    Does Caltrain need same thing if they raise platform from 8″ to 25″?

  • Tran Carl

    Is there any Metrolink station narrow enough to share the platform?

  • William

    I am advocating for this: “Some” fare-gates at high-through stations such as SF Transbay, HSR-shared station such as Millbrae and San Jose, with smart-card tag-on/tag-off at train doors for all other station.

  • Andy Chow

    Yes, but a 25″ height is going to be an easier sell to communities. Also, if there’s either not enough funding or community opposition, those stations can remain at 8″ with a retractable step (technology which has been in use for decades), or 25″ for a short part of the platform just for ADA, with gentle ramps to the rest of the platform. Everyone will use the same set of doors, and with no additional risk associated with interior step or lift.

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain doesn’t service trains during the peak hours. They already have a scheduled turnaround time with the same train crew as short as 19 minutes even with the brake tests.

    Servicing is done in SF after peak hours, in Gilroy, or in the yard in San Jose. It is not done when trains get turnaround in San Jose or Tamien.

  • jonobate

    I don’t for a minute believe that peninsula communities would accept a 25″ platform but not a 50″ platform. This isn’t Muni Metro; the platforms are not directly outside people’s houses.

  • jonobate

    You can mix faregates and open stations on the same system. This is standard practice in the UK, where major stations have faregates and minor stations are open platform. At major stations commuter and long-distance services share the same paid area, and a conductor checks your ticket on the train to make sure your ticket is valid for the service you are traveling on.

    CAHSR’s requirement for faregates is not a roadblock to sharing platforms, although it does mean that Caltrain would need to modernize their tickets to ones that are accepted by faregates. They could use RFID similar to the Muni Metro single ride tickets, or use magnetic strips similar to the ones used in the UK. They would need to have the origin and destination stations printed on them as well as being faregate readable so conductors could check them manually if required.

  • Tran Carl

    I still don’t understand why cities in peninsula may 50″ platform height if it combined with full level boarding. What is a concern for city council?

  • Tran Carl

    Many of Caltrain schedule turns around much longer than 19 minutes. Caltrain could increase the peak capacity by adding more train from reducing turnaround time, not by longer train.
    Turn around time can be even shorter than 19 minutes if another exchange train crews are waiting SF or SJ terminal at the time of arrival.

  • AndreL

    UK has a standard platform height of 905mm, Netherlands use 840mm.

    In any case, it is always much easier to increase platform floor for some height than lower it.

  • AndreL

    That is still way too long, heavy trains in Europe routinely turn around in as little as 8 minutes.

  • tommy t

    Let’s remind ourselves of the fact that six 6-car limited-stop trains per hr will not be nearly enough to meet demand in 2040, especially since HSR will have no station in Palo Alto (or MV or Sunnyvale). Caltrain’s short-term ridership “estimates” have been outrageously low recently, and they will be for the long-term too, in their current state.

  • Rick

    No, this is a good thing. As Clem over on caltrain-hsr.blogspot puts it, level boarding allows the best connectivity between Caltrain and HSR. And as it stands, all off-the-shelf (re: cheap) HSR transets require high platforms.

    So either Caltrain has to redo all their stations, or CHRA has to order a custom trainset. Or Caltrain can just get trainsets with two tiers of doors and redo all their stations at their own pace.

    It’s not ideal. I’ll admit that, but it’s the best of a bad situation.

  • Rick

    It would take a lot of time to do so, and introduces more avenues for NIMBYs to stall it. Mind you as William above notes Caltrain will raise all platforms over time, but doing so within the next five years during their modernization isn’t feasible especially when Caltrain will electrify, grade separate more portions of track, and double up to four tracks in some places.

  • Rick

    If California can’t even build a railway from SF to LA they’re not going to be able to build a giant vacuum pipe (aka, a hyperloop) either especially when the technology would be completely untested and 100% custom built.

    I strongly suggest you actually look at what CHRA plans to do, you might be surprised to find that it’s hardly a “boondoggle” especially compared to a white elephant that would be a hyperloop. Phase I means better CV connectivity to the bay area and LA, Phase II brings better ACE and San Jaoquin service. Both these projects leverage the existing rail system rather than building a completely new type of system.


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