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.