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DAN LIEBERMAN: Do you want to start?
ALEX EISENHART: I don’t know.
LIEBERMAN: We’re back.
EISENHART: Wait, I was laughing.
LIEBERMAN: Okay, then stop laughing.
EISENHART: Okay, go. We’re back. Hey.
LIEBERMAN: Any New Year’s resolutions?
EISENHART: Continue to do the show.
LIEBERMAN: Oh, I like that. That was actually mine too. Get people to listen to our awesome podcast. Thank you for listening to Wheel Talk.
EISENHART: No other resolutions to have; just continue to push the show.
LIEBERMAN: I’m perfect in every other way, other than my podcast doesn’t have quite enough listenership. Although we still have plenty. Shout out to random dude in Anchorage, Alaska who thinks we’re cool.
EISENHART: Or dudette. We don’t really know who it is.
LIEBERMAN: I’m a Californian; I believe dude is a non-gendered term.
EISENHART: For sure Bra. I love that Bro and Bra. You can use them the same way, but one of them is an article of clothing that is usually used for women.
LIEBERMAN: According to Seinfeld, I think the Bro is too actually.
LIEBERMAN: Have you not seen that episode?
LIEBERMAN: I should let you know folks; Alex hasn’t actually seen anything that’s ever been made.
EISENHART: I know. He’s a film major but he hasn’t seen any movies or television shows.
LIEBERMAN: Not a chance.
EISENHART: But I have seen Roger Rabbit based on last month’s episode.
LIEBERMAN: That’s good. Okay, we checked that one off. Let’s scrap the episode. What’d you think about Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
EISENHART: No, but actually speaking of last month’s episode, this is part 2 of Caltrain Maintenance 101. Before we start, because there was so much to go over, let’s do a brief little recap of last month’s episode so we can jump into this month’s episode.
-Last time on Wheel Talk-
ANTHONY RUIZ: We run our fleet based of an equipment rotation.
HENRY FLORES: Our maintenance plan is scheduled a year in advance. If we have a breakdown, a strike or we hit something, throws off the whole rotation.
RUIZ: We have to work on the fly to make sure that we turn trains immediately to try to accommodate service.
EISENHART: A lot of locomotives date back to 1985. What are the challenges on the maintenance operation side that come with a fairly old fleet like that?
FLORES: I try to put it in perspective as if you had a vehicle that had 250,000 miles on it, you’re not going just be changing oil anymore. You’re going to start dealing with bigger components that are going to be going out.
RUIZ: The newer equipment is a lot, it’s far easier to troubleshoot.
FLORES: You have to hook everything up to laptops and it does a lot of the diagnostics for you. That’s the level of our technicians; they’re going to be risen here. We’re going to need a lot of extra training. Really going to invest in our technicians and make sure that everything is safe and running the way it needs to be. Our number one priority here is safety and our passengers.
-And now the continuation.-
LIEBERMAN: Welcome to Wheel Talk.
EISENHART: A show where we dive into the inner workings of Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County transportation authority. We’re your friendly neighborhood public servants and hosts, Alex Eisenhart…
LIEBERMAN: …and Dan Lieberman. Join us as we take a wonky ride through the world of transportation and the work we do to keep you moving.
EISENHART: Episode 5.
EISENHART: New episode, new year, new me. No, not really.
LIEBERMAN: Same old him.
EISENHART: Still the same, bitter old queen who’s 26. We are very excited to continue our very technical conversation about Caltrain maintenance and the future of the agency. Before we go into that with our chief operating officer, Michelle BOUCHARD, Dan, kick off the tweets.
LIEBERMAN: Here we got the tweets. Zac TS weighed in. I was today years old when I found out that ECR SamTrans bus stands for El Camino Real. My dumbass thought it was just random ass letters. Merry Christmas Eve everyone.
EISENHART: We finally got a SamTrans one.
LIEBERMAN: Hooty-Hoo. Welcome aboard.
EISENHART: Someone’s talking about…
LIEBERMAN: Someone’s talking about SamTrans besides where’s my bus. And it’s a legitimate question. But we appreciate checking in on some other stuff.
EISENHART: #operatorshortages. I have to say I love how he uses a very specific case of effective capitalization of letters. He’s not capitalizing the entire tweet it’s just I was TODAY YEARS OLD when I found out the ECR… Sometimes people don’t do it right. They’ll just capitalize the whole thing and then the magic is gone.
LIEBERMAN: Add that to your resume. The host of Wheel Talk think you’re really good at capitalization.
EISENHART: The stamp of approval from a public servant?
LIEBERMAN: Sure, two public servants.
EISENHART: Two public servants.
LIEBERMAN: That’s worth some amount. Please tweet us and let us know what it is worth when I assume you get an awesome job next.
EISENHART: ECR. I totally, if you don’t take the bus all the time, or you don’t get it, I can see how you’d be like, why do you say ECR? Why does it say ECR? A lot of people will just say El Camino.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, and the transit world also throws a lot of acronyms at people. An easy mistake to make. Congratulations on being a wiser person. You have already grown in this new year, even though this happened on Christmas Eve.
EISENHART: Those TOD’s man.
LIEBERMAN: There you go, lots of TODs
EISENHART: Unrelated entirely.
LIEBERMAN: Nothing to do with that.
EISENHART: Our next tweet comes from @solnotsoli; that’s cute.
LIEBERMAN: I like that one.
EISENHART: Who says, I’ve heard use case three times now on Caltrain. STFU, burn it all down. Now, of course I’m not going to actually say what STFU stands for. If you really don’t know, look it up.
LIEBERMAN: Don’t look it up. Don’t look it up at work.
EISENHART: That was another like, BURN IT ALL DOWN in all caps. Again, the emotions; it’s effective.
LIEBERMAN: I also like BURN IT ALL DOWN in caps, but no exclamation point, because that’s just show offy.
EISENHART: Yeah, likes it too much.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, trying too hard. The exclamation point is the try hard of the punctuation world.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, I know. Ever say something and realize it’s way deeper than you thought at first?
EISENHART: Question mark.
LIEBERMAN: There you go.
EISENHART: With something like use case, I can totally understand how it’s really frustrating to hear someone talk, really talking really bad stuff over and over again. I’m like we don’t work for a tech company like…I don’t even know how to properly use the word, use case. I think it’s like, use case, I think you’re think about a customer experience, like if someone’s trying to use something for a particular…
LIEBERMAN: Customer experience is another one that just sounds kind of just oddly highfaluting. How people use the thing.
EISENHART: Yeah, exactly. I think my least favorite though is true north. What’s our true north?
LIEBERMAN: I got a middle finger going true north right now. Any kind of like corporate speak like that that get’s cliched, like paradigms was one back in the day that oh my god, we just need to shift the paradigm. It’s like I am going to beat you with anything I can find.
EISENHART: I think it took me like a year to figure out how to properly use the word stakeholder.
LIEBERMAN: Personally, I just, I say a person who holds a butcher shop maybe, the stakeholder. Checks out. A carnie setting up the tent.
EISENHART: I just couldn’t tell, is it members of the public, or is it internal, like all the stakeholders? You still haven’t answered my question.
LIEBERMAN: Most people that use the word stakeholder don’t know who their stakeholders are. Yes, the stakeholders. That guy, legal probably. The State of Arkansas. The stakeholders.
EISENHART: The stakeholders. Speaking of all the stakeholders, why don’t we get to our final stakeholder.
LIEBERMAN: All right, here we go. This was J. Briban. All the gays standing in the Caltrain platform drinking iced coffee while it rains and is 45 degree. Did I just speak to your soul on that one? He is called out.
EISENHART: You specifically told me not to read this one before you read it aloud, and I’m really, really glad that you did.
LIEBERMAN: There you go. You’re welcome.
EISENHART: There are comedic stereotypes out there. I don’t think I’ve heard of the gays and iced coffee thing. The gays in fancy things thing, yes.
LIEBERMAN: Is iced coffee still fancy?
EISENHART: I don’t know. I don’t know how to characterize this. I am a gay who occasionally drinks iced coffee. But I normally make hot coffee at home and then bring it in because I’m a government employee.
LIEBERMAN: This is where you’re gay identity and your Italian American identity may clash.
EISENHART: Oh yeah, because I don’t just do coffee. No, I do like two shots of espresso, a little milk and hot water. I’m a little over American coffee. It’s called a long black in Europe, is what they call it.
LIEBERMAN: It really is?
EISENHART: It’s really what’s it called. And we don’t need to go any further than that. That’s what they call it.
LIEBERMAN: I’m calling HR as we speak.
EISENHART: No. We’ve talked about troubles like this before though too. Not just with gays, but like the weather related strange things, like why you drinking a cold drink when it’s really cold? Why are you wearing a Patagonia puffer vest when it’s super-hot and the AC isn’t working?
LIEBERMAN: My wife is profoundly guilty of this.
EISENHART: The puffer vest or the coffee?
LIEBERMAN: The coffee. She loves a cold beverage and has never been warm in her life.
EISENHART: I will say this does extend outside of California. What we consider cold in the Bay area really isn’t cold.
LIEBERMAN: 45 degrees is still well above freezing.
EISENHART: Yeah, well above. Whereas in places like Boston, where I lived for two years, I worked at an ice-cream shop in Boston. There were still enough business to keep their doors open in the dead of winter.
LIEBERMAN: The ice of Boston is muddy and it reflects no light in day or night, and I slip on it every time. And let’s slip right into our show while we’re at it.
EISENHART: Let’s do it.
EISENHART: Following last month’s discussion of Caltrain’s day to day maintenance operations, the second half of our series offers a high level perspective on how those efforts fit into the bigger picture of the agency, and what the service will look like in the future.
LIEBERMAN: Leading the way forward is our guest and Caltrain Chief Operating Officer, Michelle Bouchard.
EISENHART: Welcome back to Wheel Talk. We continue our show with Caltrain’s Chief Operating Officer, Michelle BOUCHARD. Michelle, welcome to Wheel Talk.
BOUCHARD: Thank you. Hey guys, it’s great to be here.
EISENHART: We’re really happy to have you here. I think we want to just start because we know you a little bit, but our listeners, unless they’ve listened to a bunch of board meetings, probably don’t. Can you just start with a little bit about your background, your history? Who are you and what are you doing here?
BOUCHARD: Some days I wonder. I’d love to give you just a little bit of a rundown. I started here in 2000. My background is as a land use planner. I’ve always loved transportation. So I jumped the wall to transportation planning and I started here in the planning department and gradually worked my way up. I developed a love of rail being here and also working at the Capital Corridor just prior to coming here. I went to BART for about a year and a half to work on some projects. That was a really valuable experience I think to round out my personal experience. I was so happy to come back here and take the roll Chief Operating Officer of Rail because this day and age at Caltrain is just one of the most exciting times we’ve had given all of the development, getting to see the electrification program getting built and also finalizing our service vision. It’s really great to see us growing from an adolescent to an adult railroad.
EISENHART: You spent some time in the east coast if I’m correct, right?
BOUCHARD: I did. I’m from the east coast. I did some land use planning there. Just on a lark I decided to quit my job and move out west. I was going to move to Seattle and it was bad weather there in February and it was sunny here in San Francisco, and so I’ve lived here ever since 1996.
EISENHART: For someone from the east coast, if you say it’s bad weather in Seattle, then I believe you. February on the east coast is nothing compared to February in Seattle.
BOUCHARD: Nothing against Seattle. Some of my best friends are from Seattle.
EISENHART: Actually I was just a little bit curious, being a rail transportation professional and living on both coasts, what are some big differences that you’ve noticed or identified between the two different coasts?
BOUCHARD: Absolutely. I think it’s important to understand that on the west coast we’ve got a bunch of rail startups, and all of them are sort of in the circa early to mid-90s. The key difference with the east coast is they’ve just got such a mature rail infrastructure, and rail really is a relevant way that people get around because they need to use it. It’s very much congested there. It’s a necessity. I think Caltrain certainly is becoming much more of a necessity on the peninsula and it’s great to see that.
I think the other thing that’s real important about the east coast, is rail is very much regionalized across state boundaries. Again, I’d really like to see that happening here in California. Regionalizing the rail is going to be so important not only to the environment, but just how we get people from A to B very efficiently. It’s going to drive the economy here and continue to drive it.
EISENHART: Actually that’s a really good time because another thing that I know about you is that you have in your role a philosophy about; which if find really fascinating, about creating the perfect commute. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BOUCHARD: I can. I tend to be a fairly effusive person, and this is one respect in which I think I like to understate it. Here’s the thing. I think that your commute should be the least remarkable time of your day. It should be the time where it’s completely seamless. It’s so seamless that you don’t even remember it’s happening, and you’re able to live the rest of your life; you’re able to read a book; you’re able to answer emails; you’re able to do anything without thinking about a delay, without being overly bothered by people that you’re standing up against. So I think what I really want to do is figure out how we can continue to have a completely unremarkable commute where you get on the train, it shows up exactly when it’s supposed to show up; it takes to where you want to be exactly when you want to get there; and then you move along.
Part of I think the challenge for us, and I think challenge in a very, very good way, is, as we continue to develop the rail, what we need to look at is not just the journey on the trunk line that is Caltrain; we need to look at the journey from when you step out of your door at home to when you walk into the door at work. How we make that entire journey seamless?
EISENHART: Not taking away at all from your description, but I think it’s hilarious that as you’re talking about a seamless commute, there’s a firetruck blaring outside, messing with other people’s driving commutes for a brief time. I just think that’s really great. Let’s go into Caltrain. You are pre-tied in with the history of this place. Can you talk a little bit about the formation of Caltrain?
BOUCHARD: Sure, I absolutely can. I mentioned that a lot of the railroads on the west coast were formed during this critical period during the early to mid-90s. Just to go back, what’s really great about our corridor here is while we are modernizing the railroad, we also have the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating commuter railroad west of the Mississippi. This rail line was established back in the days of Lincoln. In some ways, there’s the phrase TOD, Transit Oriented Development. I like to think that the peninsula corridor is the original transit oriented development.
We have the rail line that basically cuts through all of the communities on the peninsula, and those communities grew up around the rail stations. As time went on, the rail was owned by the Southern Pacific, so freight carrier who was continuing to operate passenger rail. As Southern Pacific was wanting to get out of the passenger business, the state came in and said, hey, we think passenger service is so important on this corridor, the state came in and supported the service. Right around then there was an exploratory committee. So let’s say that was in the early 90s. Exploratory committee came in that was formed by what would become the Joint Powers Board, to say hey, how can we take back local control over this service and develop it for the communities in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco Counties? That exploratory committee ended up bringing revenue service to the peninsula under the Caltrain or JPB in 1992.
EISENHART: There was a brief time where our trains had the Caltrans logo on them.
BOUCHARD: Absolutely. In fact, some of that rolling stock got a nice new paint job. But some of that rolling stock is still operating here. We’ll probably talk about it a little more later. Most of our rolling stock is a nice 1985 vintage.
EISENHART: Actually before we do get into fleet later in the episode, I did want to ask about what bureaucratic or administrative funding sources were put in place with the formation of the JPB. I think that’s really relevant in this conversation about maintenance and operations moving forward.
BOUCHARD: Sure, it absolutely is. I think there’s been a lot of talk about Caltrain and not having a dedicated funding source. I really so much admire the forethought of the folks that put this service together. They formed a joint powers agency that is governed by a joint powers agreement that requires each of the three counties to come together and kick in funding annually for both operations and capital. While I think that’s an example of just a committed partnership, because that’s really what it is, we have managed as an organization to continue to put out really reliable safe service for so many years.
I like to use the analogy of the duck. On the top of the surface it looks like things are moving along, but underneath paddling furiously. I think really that’s the analogy I would use for the annual process that we go through to get the budget together. That process is codified in this joint powers agreement that led to the formation of the agency that operates the service. Amazingly, in 2019, we’ve managed to cobble together both capital and operating funds I think very successfully for – someone needs to do the math for me, for a long time. The lifetime of most millennials.
EISENHART: I was going to say I was born in ’93.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, don’t even get me started. If we’re going to be talking about maintenance, I think we need to be talking about the men and women who actually do that work and who are employees not of Caltrain, but of TASI Could you explain a little bit more about TASI’s role and why we do outsource that sort of labor?
EISENHART: What does TASI stand for?
LIEBERMAN: I still don’t know.
BOUCHARD: TASI stands for Transit America Services Inc.
LIEBERMAN: Somebody write that down.
BOUCHARD: I think I’ll just dial back a little bit for context. There are a bunch of ways to deliver rail service. I think the most traditional organizational construct is, a company is formed and they hire all of the men and women who are actually out doing the work. But we don’t deliver it that way. There are several other railroads that also deliver it the way we deliver it, which is through a large operations and maintenance contract. Honestly what that does, is it allows for us to actually continue to support – the way we deliver the service is supported by the way we fund the service. As an example, if we were to hire the 500 men and women that it takes to actually operate and maintain the service, that is an ongoing economic responsibility that for an agency that’s funded on a year to year basis really should not be taken on. It was determined that the way to really dip our toe in the pool of rail service way back when, was to contract for it.
I think it’s worth saying that initially we contracted with Amtrak and Amtrak provided that service for many years up until we awarded this contract to TASI in 2011. Amtrak, known as the nation’s railroad; so as an organization that was a bus company, it was a way to contract for real rail expertise without having to grow it internally. We found that that works very well for us. In fact, many of the employees that operate and maintain the service here on the peninsula, they’ve been with Caltrain for 20-25 years. So the process of going from Amtrak to TASI was simply changing employers. What’s so great about having dedicated men and women who regardless of employer, they identify themselves as Caltrain. That’s the kind of the advertising that you just can’t buy.
LIEBERMAN: Some of these people pre-date Caltrain. Back before we were running it, like they were still on these trains.
EISENHART: With those 500 some odd men and women, I did want to also ask; you addressed this a little bit, but getting more specific into maintenance operations. The contract operator who shifted over time; can you talk about the history of maintenance operations pre and post formation of the JPB?
BOUCHARD: Sure. Maybe I should mention, so when we talk about maintenance, I think we want to really focus on vehicle maintenance. The TASI forces are responsible for maintaining every element of our right-of-way, including track, signals, stations, and the vehicles. I think one of the major investments that we’ve been able to bring online over the course of the last, let’s call it, I think it came online in 2008, was our CEMOF, Central Equipment Maintenance and Operating Facility, that’s located down in San Jose. Prior to bringing that facility onboard, and that facility really does allow us to do a lot of things that we traditionally hadn’t been able to do before. With these large overhead cranes, we could change out wheel sets, we could true wheels, which means to take the flat spots off the them. We could also change out large components like HVAC. It really gave us an equipment maintenance capability that we hadn’t had before.
The way we would do those things previously was we would have to ship our equipment off property to go to another facility, and/or components to go to another facility. What that means is you risk the possibility of not being able to have enough trains to put your service out. In some cases you’ll see we operate the daily service today with 22 locomotives. We actually have 29 locomotives on property because we’ve had to have what’s called a large spare ratio because previously, we were taking locomotives out of service for extended periods of time for maintenance. I will say I think one of the things that bringing the CEMOF facility on also did is it really dramatically increased the quality of life for the folks that were maintaining those pieces of equipment.
Prior to that we had a shed down in San Jose right in the terminal there that was our outside, I like to say, open air alfresco locomotive maintenance facility. The cars were maintained just outside up in San Francisco. Still I believe it’s on the west side of the facility you’ll see some tracks on the side there. Basically whether it was summer or winter, we’d have employees that would have to roll on the ground to get underneath the cars whether there was puddles on the ground or mud or whatever. Really that’s not the way that your workforce should be working. Frankly it’s not the way your fleet should be maintained. As the vehicles age, the real benefit of having CEMOF in place is to really provide for excellent equipment and space to be able to maintain that fleet much better. Which again, leads to customer experience and a reliable service.
EISENHART: Right. Speaking of that equipment, let’s jump back into the fleet for a moment. Much of our fleet is from circa 1985. Can you talk a little bit about the long-term developments of that fleet maybe from 1985 onward and some of the newer trains we have?
BOUCHARD: Absolutely. I’ll say some of the folks who are Caltrain enthusiasts that come to our board meeting and who we hear from all the time probably have a much better grip on how the fleet has evolved. We did inherit much of the fleet from the state. We basically have two types of equipment right now, un-electrified equipment. One is what’s called the Gallery cars. Most of those cars; there’s 73 of them that are circa 1985. Then we have the locomotives from 1985, which are the F40s.
What really helped us evolve the fleet was we got a grant from the state, about $127 million to invest in what we called our Baby Bullet Service. That allowed us to purchase the Bombardier equipment. I think a lot of people call it the Baby Bullet fleet, which is a bi-level car that we initially purchased 16 of them to support the Baby Bullet service. We were also at that time able to purchase six additional locomotives. So that was next big investment in the fleet in 2000. Then gradually we have added on to that fleet simply because we have acknowledged and we’ve experienced this explosive ridership growth. I want to say it was in the 2012-2013 timeframe, we talked to our friends down at Metrolink in LA. They had a bunch of gallery cars that were out to pasture so to speak. So we were able to get 16 more cars.
I have to say that was a real smart decision. We initially had budget to paint them, but that budget was used on other more critical maintenance tasks. It may not be the prettiest fleet, but at least we’re providing additional six-car trains so we can accommodate more butts and seats. Really that’s what we’ll provide again, a higher customer experience. Right now I’ll say this. One of the reasons why it’s so critical to get the electrification program finished is, number one, we’ve got those circa 1985 cars and locomotives that really do need to be retired. The second thing is, we really need to bring the additional fleet and be able to provide the additional frequency that will expand capacity. I do have to say, having worked with the car manufacturer, Stadler, before at BART, and having visited their facilities and their customers, they are just building a fantastic car for us that will really take the customer experience to a whole different level.
I think I’ve talked to you guys about this before. The experience of Caltrain really has two touch points. One is the station. The second and most critical is the vehicle and the inside riding environment. So we talk about electrification as being environmentally friendly and it will enhance the capacity through the ability to start and stop more quickly. One of the greatest advantages I see is it’s taking the customer experience to the next level.
LIEBERMAN: Getting back to the great amount of growth the Caltrain system has gone through in recent years…
EISENHART: Can you ask that again?
LIEBERMAN: Getting back for a minute to… Getting back to a minute to the growth of the system and how many more people are using Caltrain than they used to, what’s gone into the decisions we’ve made for how to adjust the fleet and how to grow along with that growing ridership?
BOUCHARD: Sure. I think there are a few things. I’m one of the people who was here and can remember down in 2004 when we had 25,000 riders. We’re carrying 65,000 today. That’s growth that is really over the course of time has sustained itself, even through the great recession of 2008. I like to say when we talk about the expansion of the diesel fleet, it’s a matter of having at least, staying ahead of what we think the demand is going to be by three or four years. We do that through fleet management planning. The FTA, the Federal Transit Administration, requires us to have a fleet management plan. It’s what you need to do to stay out in front of the need to satisfy demand. I have to say, it’s difficult for an organization like us for the following reason.
Again, we talked about how we’re funded. If we need to expand our fleet, there’s no federal dollars available for that. We’ve got to rely on member contributions or other grant funds as we can find them. As we talked about, sometimes the most expedient path in terms of time, but also expedient path in terms of dollars is to go out and look for used vehicles that are suitable for the purpose. That’s what we did with the Metrolink deal. As far as the new Baby Bullet fleet that we bought in 2000; that was a result of a three or four year planning process that was in close collaboration with state legislatures who did a great job of securing that funding.
I do want to talk for a second about the decision to go to electric multiple units. That was again, the result of many, many years of planning and analysis. What we knew for ourselves; you develop the future based on the sins of the past, or understanding really what it’s going to take to get the railroad to the next level. What we knew we needed was we needed high capacity, high frequency, high reliability. We also knew through the Baby Bullet program that what resonated with our customers was a certain travel time that was below a certain threshold that would be highly competitive with 101 and 280. You guys know, those highways are so much more crowded now than they were then. In terms of deciding for electric multiple units, we did a lot of studies around, okay, do we stick with amped up high horse-powered diesel? Of course the answer is no. Because electrification was the goal on the peninsula since the late 90s. The Caltrain board said you will do this for all the right and good reasons.
Then we looked at electric haul locomotive, which is another way to do it, that does enhance performance and capacity. But what it does is it retains the single point failure. Right now if a diesel locomotive breaks down, the entire train breaks down. The same would be true for the electric locomotive because you’ve got one single place where the power is being driven. Also that didn’t preform as well from a travel time perspective as electric multiple units, which have distributed power. So if you have an issue where you’ve got a failure, at least you’re still able to move the train because power is derived from multiple places and it’s being driven and distributed throughout the entire train. That formed the basis of how we would electrify. It’s really great to see that coming to fruition now.
LIEBERMAN: Another piece that you mentioned was that Caltrain doesn’t have a dedicated revenue source. How is that limited funding affected the growth system?
BOUCHARD: I’ll say this, we have struggled mightily. What we know to be some of the driving factors for our ridership and the growth of the system, is we travel through some of the largest companies. We’ve got large educational institutions. I think we’re very lucky in terms of how the economy is driving the growth of the train service. However, because we struggle on an everyday basis to continue to fund the service, we have been…let me put it this way. We were supposed to electrify in 2014, by 2014. It’s taken us this long to really get to where we need get to in terms of the project. That is very much all about our funding situation. It’s also the case that we’ve not been able to purchase the number of vehicles that we need to. That’s why we’re experiencing crunches out here in terms of capacity.
A lot of what we see in terms of things we would prefer to mitigate, we can’t do that because of the limited funding. The other thing I will add, and this goes back to the maintenance piece of it, what drives demand is reliable service. We have definitely had to double-down on what’s called our state of good repair program to continue to invest in the fleet. It’s just like your car. You don’t just go out and buy a car and never change the oil, and then 15 years later expect it to be operating properly.
LIEBERMAN: That explains why my car is giving me problems.
BOUCHARD: It’s not about the capital investment. It’s about a steady stream of every year operational investment to make sure that we can keep those assets out on the street. The way we really do try and make sure that we get enough funding in, is we have had to go the fare box frequently. You’ll noticed that we have a very high, what’s called, fare box recovery ratio. The everyday operating and maintenance costs of this railroad is 75% paid for by fares. Typically when you look at a commuter rail, you’re looking at somewhere between 40 and 50%. While you could say, wow, that’s astounding that Caltrain is sustaining itself that way, I think you’d find the opposite side of that coin, is we’d probably rather not charge so much for the service. That’s also something that I think is affecting demand. It costs a lot to take the train. We like to think we provide a really good product. But we’d like to be able to serve a wider array of peninsula residents. Just by necessity of having to bring money in through the fare box, we’re probably not able to do that.
LIEBERMAN: All right. It’s 2019 currently for just a little while longer. We’re still three years out from electrified fleet. What’s the state of the rails today? Where is our fleet standing? What kind of shape is it in? What can riders expect to be dealing with for the next few years?
BOUCHARD: I think I want to give a shout-out to the mechanical team from TASI for sure. What we’ve done in the last four or five years is really doubled-down on figuring out how to focus on the program areas that will lead to a lack of reliability either with respect to locomotive breakdowns or even wheelchair lift breakdowns. When it comes to Caltrain and how we prioritize our operating and capital budget, we know if those trains don’t roll, we don’t have customers that are satisfied. Generally when we’re looking at an annual budget, we’re really focusing on how do we continue to fund the everyday heavy maintenance of those locomotives and cars.
Typically you’ll say that a locomotive or a car will have a 25-30 year service life. Again, another math problem. I think those cars and those locomotives are going to be well past that service life. I think it was 2015 where we reached 30 years. The challenges really are on an everyday basis, is paying attention to a proper inspection and maintenance regime just to make sure that we can put the service out on the street. We get requests all the time for additional service. That’s where we also say electrification just can’t come soon enough because with the fleet as it is now, we pretty much have to stay with what I think is, I like to call it, well, I don’t like to call it, it is called the status quo. That’s just as a result of not having anymore cars to put out there, and also understanding that we don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we’re putting more service out there and we’re putting ourselves at risk for catastrophic failures on the right-of-way.
EISENHART: If I connect some of the early decisions to today, obviously funding has always been limited. Limited to the scope of different options that we have to expand and improve the service. Are there any key decisions from the 90s, early 2000s that you can point to as things that have really gone well or things that have led to some challenges we’re now having to address? You talked about the Baby Bullet service with the new Bombardiers from Metrolink. That’s definitely gone well with the increase of Bullet service. Are there other sort of long-term investments that maybe did or didn’t pan out as well as we hoped?
BOUCHARD: I want to start with the good stories. I definitely think the Baby Bullet is the thing that really brought Caltrain into sort of the position that is today, which is a super viable really important rail service, not only for the peninsula but for the region. It’s hard to believe that that was back in 2004. Because it really does seem like a very few years ago. I will say prior to that, Caltrain was operated like any other traditional commute system, which is a lot of service pushing up into San Francisco, very little service coming out of San Francisco, so a highly inefficient operation. Prior to that, it didn’t really acknowledge the growth of Silicon Valley and this robust reserve commute that just wasn’t being served.
Really it was a somewhat big chance that the board took, thankfully so, to completely just rip up the way we had been delivering service for the last 50 years and just say hey, we’re going to acknowledge that if we provide bi-directional service at the same frequency, we can really better serve the customer and really grow the service. That turned out really well. I think that’s absolutely one of the huge ones. I’ll say going back to the early decision to electrify; these types of mega projects take years and years and years to grow. Had the board not taken that decision then, who knows if we’d be electrifying today. I’ll say the more recent victory or great decision was to embark on the business plan. We’ve not talked about that yet. But really, having satisfied the strategic vision of electrification, Caltrain needed to understand what was the next strategic vision that was going to grow the service into the future. Very recently, that’s been just a fantastic outcome so far with so much support for that.
I’ll say on the maybe not working out so great side, is I can’t enough emphasis the fact that not having a dedicated funding source, that really has hampered Caltrain’s ability to really grow into what it needs to be. What’s not working very well, as I understand it, also is we as a trunk line service, it’s important that we integrate with the local connecting services. When we think about how we can better work to get a seamless connection at Millbrae, that’s always been a tough nut to crack. In part because our service tends to be a little bit irregular, and so meshing up particularly in the peak period with BART, it gets very difficult. We haven’t quite cracked that one. Again, it’s figuring out how do we integrate with the bus services on the peninsula. That’s really something we’ve got to, I think, pay much more attention to in the future.
EISENHART: That’s especially tough because it’s just one bus agency, it’s three.
EISENHART: Plus light rail.
LIEBERMAN: That’s also in there it’s getting more trafficky so that bus service is becoming less reliable just because traffic both from 101 and then spilling over onto side streets.
BOUCHARD: We also have a robust connecting shuttle program. Speaking of local congestion, our last mile shuttle program we’ve had for years, and it was definitely the right solution when we first implemented it and for several years after. I think it’s really important to take a look at that now in the context of local congestion, as well as honestly some well-documented operator shortages up and down the peninsula. The question is are we reliably providing that service both from a travel time perspective and whether it’s still sort of meeting the direct connect with the trains that it was previously, and also are we operating the trips that we are scheduled to operate? Well documented that the answer to that is no. I think one of the future tasks that we really got to take a look at, is how are those first last mile connections being made?
In many cases, it might not be a shuttle. We are really taking a look at micro-mobility and bike share and all sorts of other means that maybe put passengers more in control of their connection and maybe they’re not involved in the local traffic grid as much as traveling on safe bikeways. That’s something that we, I think, really need to ramp up our efforts and really collaborate with the local transit agencies in the three counties.
EISENHART: Are there maintenance challenges aside from the aging fleet that are worth addressing like maybe from a big picture standpoint?
BOUCHARD: Absolutely. I think one of the areas that we don’t pay too much attention to, meaning from when we talk about a maintenance challenge, but we’ve got 28 stations up and down the peninsula and all of them have different… Number one, we’ve got several historic stations. They require a special maintenance. They’re overseen by historic covenants. They tend to be a lot more expensive. There’s a lot more process. I will say the station area is one of the things, again, when I talked about two touch points. One was the station area and the other one was the vehicle. The station area, when you talk about buildings, you’re talking about all different things like shelters, signage. All of this really needs to be paid attention to. That’s an area in which our funding really, really has been deficient. We’re paying attention there. We’re paying attention to fixing things that break, making sure there’s no unsafe conditions. You’ve got roofs that we’ve got to replace up in San Francisco, we have dilapidated facilities there. It’s not to say that it’s horrible, but we really got to stay out in front of these things.
The San Francisco station building, we’ve got a structural assessment on that because we are seeing we’re getting some corrosion because of the humidity up there. We’ve had to delay that a couple of years. That really is a maintenance challenge. When you think about the increasing ridership, stations take a beating the more people are getting on the train there and the more people that use them.
EISENHART: And the older they get.
BOUCHARD: Yeah, absolutely.
LIEBERMAN: And particularly for some of those historical buildings; it’s not like they have historical amenities. There’s not historical wi-fi set up in there. They are limited in terms of what they can do. We’re limited in terms of it is difficult to modernize something that is protected by a historical covenant and is supposed to stay exactly the way it is.
BOUCHARD: Yeah, absolutely. That definitely has been a challenge, and will continue to be a challenge. It’s this issue also of if you have a brand new service that everything is built at the same time, you have a standard that you go out and you buy your widget A, and widget A can be used for every single one of your stations. That’s not the case here. Every single one of these is kind of built to fit the community. We do have standards in terms of public information, ticket vending machine, etc., but other than that, you’ve got your fiesta taco bell shelters up in Burlingame. Then you’ve got the historical stuff in Menlo Park. There’s a lot of variably in how to maintain that. It’s like of like there’s no one size fits all on this that would lead to some efficient maintenance not only from a staffing perspective, but also from a dollars perspective.
EISENHART: I think another thing that we have to talk about on this is very specifically, we’ve touched on it, but breakdowns. We’ve talked with the guys over at TASI about this quite bit. Can you talk a little bit about what the organization has done from a high level to address the unfortunately high number of breakdowns that have happened over the years on an aging fleet, and maybe some of the shifting that has happened over time with that?
BOUCHARD: Yeah, absolutely. Again, this is related to two things. It’s related to the age of the fleet and the ability to invest in state of good repair. It’s also related to the maintenance program. I’m pretty proud to say that over the course of the last five years, we have been able to cut our minutes due to mechanical failure, those delay minutes, in half. I think we’re seeing great progress there. I think this is the reason why both the Caltrain team on the management side, as well as the TASI team, has really doubled-down on paying attention to certain key performance indicators identifying what components absolutely need to be changed out before failure. Then really paying attention to the things and prioritizing funding to the things that will actually cause a catastrophic breakdown.
If you’re in the car and you see the rug is a little dingy and maybe the seats aren’t looking great, you’re looking at a decision, a management decision that’s been made to defer maintenance on those things, which are very, very important. If it’s between that or changing out a turbo charger, we’re going to do that. I have to say this, unfortunately things are going to happen. One of the things we’ve done also is we’ve got a great operating department that really focuses on get the people off the train onto another train or another mode of transit. I think our response time has just really improved much.
Jim Hartnet, our general manager when I first started here, we did have a rash of major breakdowns. He said this is one of his number one priorities, so it was my number one priority. When there’s attention paid to things like that from the highest level in the organization, it really spurs on improvement. Funny how that happens. I think I have to give real commendation to two things. It’s focusing and prioritizing on what needs to be changed. The second thing is really looking at from the operating perspective, how do we clear these things up and take care of the customers as soon as possible.
EISENHART: We’ve talked about what service changes are coming as a result of electrification and expansion of the fleet. What big Caltrain maintenance operations changes are coming?
BOUCHARD: The implementation of the electrified fleet, it really gives us an opportunity to step back and really understand how we maintain our fleet. Right now we have a preventative maintenance cycle that takes a whole train set out of service for about a week. Again, it’s helpful to have a high spare ratio. When we talk about the electric multiple unit trains, it gives us the opportunity to completely change the way we maintain. Instead of taking an entire train out of service, these things allow for you to swap components.
If you have an issue with an HVAC, instead of taking the whole train out of service working on the HVAC on the train, it’s okay, let’s bring the train in, pull the HVAC out, put the HVAC back in, and away you go. That helps in a couple of perspectives. The first is it helps your capital cost to be lower so you don’t have to buy as many as train sets.
EISENHART: You just buy more components.
BOUCHARD: Absolutely. It absolutely helps for you to keep most of your fleet out and delivering service as possible. This kind of a change is a huge cultural change. It’s got to happen over the course of time obviously. I think the other thing that’s really great about these particular vehicles is they are wi-fi enabled. We do have a wi-fi project that’s just kicking off, so we’re super excited about that. How that relates to the maintenance of the vehicles is, we can actually do things remotely, which is to understand the state of health of the vehicle as it’s traveling down the right-of-way. The vehicles can actually be programmed to communicate to the wayside to say, hey, I have a fault over here, which allows the maintenance, number one, the troubleshooting process to be much more streamlined. Number two is, if we an figure out how to get there, we can actually have the component that needs to be changed out ready when the train comes into the shop. Much more streamlined in terms of touch time by the mechanics on the EMUs.
We’ve done a lot of work in terms of going to visit other shops where these types of EMUs are operated, largely in Switzerland and places not in the US. These are the type of mechanical programs that they have. We’re really going to try to emulate that. As part of that, we are going to be bringing Stadler in to really help us focus on what training is required to have our mechanics maintain this fleet in that way. But the second thing is, it’s going to be a little bit of an interesting twist, because we’re still going to have 25% of our diesel fleet still to be maintained. We’re still going to have all of the knowledge and expertise to maintain both the diesel fleet and the electric fleet at the same time. That’s going to be a challenge.
EISENHART: To clarify that, diesel fleet is because not the entire corridor is going to be electrified, correct?
BOUCHARD: Yes, in part. We still need to provide service to Gilroy. So the diesel fleet will be required there. That’s also a funding decision honestly. The remainder of the fleet will be from 2000. We’ve got to run that fleet for 30 years before we can get replacement funds for that. That’s another reason why the fleet will continue to be in service. If more money fell from the sky and we could buy more EMUs, technically we could retire more of that fleet and just keep the bare minimum that would be required for Gilroy service.
LIEBERMAN: Any of you old school rail fans who really love the old diesel fleet, you’ll still have a piece of it left to play with.
BOUCHARD: You may see some on eBay soon too.
LIEBERMAN: I’m sure there’s people checking every day. Could we talk about the cost of maintenance after we electrify versus where it is today?
BOUCHARD: We sure can. Again, I just want to – I’m going to qualify this answer because we’re still trying to figure it out. We’re working through budgeting exercises and we’re trying to figure out what that cost could be.
LIEBERMAN: Gaze into your crystal ball and tell us what you see.
BOUCHARD: We did not electrify the right-of-way and we didn’t choose this car to save money. We did it to provide a more reliable fleet with a higher level of customer service. That’s my way of trying to slip the answer in that says, this is likely to be more expensive to maintain. Part of that is because of this traction power that’s distributed along the train. From a federal inspection perspective, any time you’ve got a powered axle, they treat that like a locomotive, which is a lot more expensive to maintain. I think again, because these trains are going to be much more higher performing, I think what we’ll see is in terms of even though there’s a higher level of maintenance dollars that are required, the benefit of these vehicles is going to increase over the existing diesel fleet. We have to put those qualitative and tangibles and factor them in when we think about costs and benefits.
EISENHART: It’s a business reality. You’re getting what you’re paying for.
BOUCHARD: It is, absolutely.
EISENHART: You mentioned the addition of wi-fi. Can you talk, maybe not too deep, but a little bit more technically about why we’re able to put wi-fi into the system now with electrification and kind of what that system’s going to look like?
LIEBERMAN: Because we’ve notice some of you folks online have mentioned this once or twice.
EISENHART: Once or twice.
BOUCHARD: I can’t even remember the first time, the first request for wi-fi came in. We’ve been doing pilots for years and years and years.
LIEBERMAN: Probably five minutes after wi-fi was invented.
BOUCHARD: Probably. The answer to your question of why now is a couple of things. Number one, these trains come pre-wired. They allow for that sort of out of the box kind of thing. The second answer, which is really the answer, is that we were the beneficiary of a grant from the state that gave us the seed money to really start working on this project in a real way. We’ve had so many vendors come to us and say, hey, we’ll give you wi-fi for free. The issue around wi-fi, and just to talk about this a little from the railroad perspective, wi-fi facing the customer is a huge customer benefit. Being able to communicate to the train remotely is a huge operational benefit.
The program that we’re looking at is not only slapping a router on so you can watch Netflix. We see this as a much more strategic investment in the corridor that would allow us to remotely tap into cameras to see what crowd control could be. It would allow us to again, diagnose the health of the vehicles over the right-of-way. I think this will allow us a tool to think more expansively about how we can be more efficient with our maintenance and operating environment. We see this as, again, it’s just a foundational investment. Happens to have a really great passenger amenity that’s been asked for for a long time. In terms of the timing of that, we just issued an RFP for design services for that. Through that, we’ll be establishing a concrete scope for that work, in addition to budget and schedule.
EISENHART: Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about on the maintenance side of the past, today or the future?
BOUCHARD: You know what, I thank you so much for allowing me to babble about one of the things I love the most for sure. I don’t think, there’s not much that I could add to this. Certainly, if certain other topics come up and want to talk about them, I’m happy to come back and chat with folks.
EISENHART: Awesome. Michelle, thank you so much for being on our show.
BOUCHARD: Thanks guys.
LIEBERMAN: If you have a question about train maintenance that didn’t get answered in these two episode, I don’t know how to help you.
EISENHART: I do. Send us a tweet @caltrain with a #wheeltalk. If there’s something you want to learn about Caltrain, SamTrans, or the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, ask us.
LIEBERMAN: If you just want to talk about how good-looking we sound; you can tell us that too.
EISENHART: Good-looking we sound? I feel that implies that we have a face for radio.
LIEBERMAN: This is how I thirst trap; leave me alone.
EISENHART: Thanks everybody for listening. See you next month on Wheel Talk. Toodles.
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