Caltrain’s platforms should match high-speed rail


by LA Wad, on Flickr

Caltrain is reinventing itself, transforming from a commuter rail line into a hybrid Metro/high-speed rail. Integral to this transformation is the otherwise mundane concern of platform height. Matching it to the standard of California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) is the only option that makes sense.


There are two basic kinds of platforms: low, where passengers generally use stairs to enter the train, and high or level-boarding, where stairs are not. Today, Caltrain is a low-boarding system. Delays from conductors who need to operate lifts to get people in wheelchairs on and off the train are common. Stairs, too, make delays as people try to get in and out of the cars with bikes and large luggage.

BART uses level boarding, which is easier for everyone. There are no lifts, no delays, no conductor who needs to mind all the doors. It just works. CAHSR is going to use it, too, at a platform height of 48 inches above the track.

Level boarding seems like a no-brainer, but this is where things get tricky. The floors of various train cars are at different heights. The platform height Caltrain chooses dictates what train cars it can buy, and most bi-level cars it wants generally only work with low platforms, between 18 inches and 25 inches above the tracks.

This is lower than the 48 inches CAHSR will use, and that has caused some consternation at Caltrain. If it chooses to use a different platform height than CAHSR, the two systems won’t be able to share platforms. That means a loss of flexibility in which stations CAHSR will use and lower capacity at the Transbay Terminal.

(If this isn’t enough, Clem Tillier wrote about platform height in excruciating detail on Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog back in 2009.)


With all this in mind, Caltrain ought to adopt a 48-inch platform height and buy its cars to be compatible with that height. Despite the loss of flexibility in train car purchases, the loss of operational flexibility would be even worse. And, by sticking to this standard, Caltrain actually opens up a number of doors.

Chief among these is compatibility with the national rail network. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) operates with a 48-inch platform height, making that the de facto standard for heavy rail in the United States.

While Caltrain won’t soon run trains from DC to Baltimore, it will be able to jointly purchase trains with Amtrak and commuter railroads along the NEC. Manufacturers are able to offer discounts for large orders of identical cars, as they won’t need to retrain workers or retool machinery as often. By tagging along on NEC purchases, Caltrain will be able to purchase its new, electrified train fleet at a lower price.

Moreover, it will need a new train fleet, as its current fleet is only compatible with low platform boarding. That, however, is another opportunity. Amtrak California is extremely short on train cars, and it’s holding back service increases on the San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor. In fact, it’s so short on trains it’s refurbishing decades-old equipment from New Jersey. They’re installing stairs on what were level-boarding train cars. Caltrain, then, has a ready and willing customer to buy its existing equipment.

If Amtrak California doesn’t want the equipment, though, there are plenty of buyers around the United States that use identical trains. Chicago, for example, uses the same bi-level cars. Maryland’s MARC commuter rail uses the same locomotives as the Baby Bullet, and they are already planning to increase capacity. All this reselling will make the purchase of new equipment much easier.

All this can be accomplished while maintaining Caltrain’s capacity. There are bi-level train cars that fit the 48 inch platform standard, so there’s no loss of seating. Level boarding would also make the system much more reliable than it currently is. It would mean no more cascading delays because the train ahead has had difficulty loading passengers.

The 48-inch platform height, imposed by CAHSR, could easily be a win for Caltrain, if they have the wherewithal to seize it.

Additional reporting from David Edmondson.

Written by Ronald Kappesser

Ronald Kappesser

Ronald Kappesser is a mechanical engineer who lives and works in Concord,CA. He writes about cities in his spare time because he believes good design can make them more affordable, durable, safe and attractive.

5 comments to Caltrain’s platforms should match high-speed rail

  • […] Vibrant Bay Area Writer Makes the Case for Caltrain to Match Boarding Heights With CAHSR […]

  • I absolutely support level boarding, and I accept the argument that Caltrain and HSR should be at the same height. However, I don’t think that you or CAHSRA have made a convincing argument that 48 inches is the right height. Level boarding at a lower height will work for HSR, and could be a solution for all platforms throughout California that do not need to share with freight traffic (and over time, freight traffic can be moved away from passenger platforms). It should be obvious from looking at the travails of CAHSRA that their rail planning expertise falls short, and for Caltrain to just roll over and go along with something CAHSRA says is necessary would be a mistake, in my opinion. The new Caltrain cars will be in service long before the Peninsula sees HSR service, and this is not just an issue on the Peninsula. Nearly all stations that serve HSR will need to also share with Amtrak California and regional commuter rail. Should CAHSRA be able to demand that all other services change their fleets to match?

  • What I opposed to is the idea that Caltrain should use 48″ platform height. It is a very expensive solution (mostly to solve potential capacity constraints at Transbay), very difficult to transition from the current height (I find Clem’s idea to use trains with two sets of door to be unworkable). Secondly HSRA hasn’t set a specification yet and I don’t think Caltrain should wait and then try to re-engineer its own plans afterwards.

    If the true constraint is Transbay, I would offer an alternative solution to use adjustable height platform. There’s no reason why a platform must be fixed at one height in concrete. Airports have jet bridges that can be moved and adjusted to serve different models of aircrafts.

    NEC trainsets are not what’s in mind for Caltrain electrification. NEC trains are of old designs and FRA compliant. Caltrain has permission to use non-FRA compliant trains which is also what CAHSR wants to acquire (as supposed to buy FRA compliant Acela trains in the NEC). Also, NEC trains do not work well in Caltrain’s environment especially with seat turnovers and high volume of bikes. Anyway, Caltrain and CAHSR are likely to have different vehicle designs than the NEC. If they’re going to have a different design anyway, there’s no reason for either to cling on to the 48″ height, and even if CAHSR and Caltrain choose to go on separate paths, it is not a big deal because the Transbay issue can be dealt with locally rather than impose a capital requirement onto cities that won’t have HSR service.

  • You have it exactly backwards.

    HSR — should it ever come, and that would be 30 years from now, optimistically — should match Caltrain.

    Where by “Caltrain” one means a non-third-world, non-2013, non-crippled, useful transit system along the SF Peninsula that will be and always will be used by at least twice as many people as any High Speed Rail system with which it shares tracks and stations.

    “Low”-level (circa 450-6450mm above top of rail) level boarding is perfect for both regional (Caltrain) and for future inter-regional ()HSR() service.

    That it isn’t perfect for pre-1990 trains or for or Amtrak Acela trains is worse that irrelevant.

  • High-speed rail will never come, which is a good thing, since the project was poorly conceived and never had anywhere near enough money to build it. Recent court decisions are the beginning of the end for this boondoggle.