California, Amtrak team up for electric train bids

The Fresno BeeSeptember 14, 2013 

Two different models of Renfe AVE high-speed trains built by Alstom, a French company, await passengers at the Santa Justa station in Seville, Spain, in November 2011. Alstom is one of the leading manufacturers of high-speed trains worldwide. But there are no manufacturers in North America.


California and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor hope to leverage economy of scale by teaming up to seek bids from manufacturers to build dozens of new sets of high-speed trains.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority and Amtrak have been in talks since January to team up on their purchase of electric trains that will be capable of carrying passengers at more than 200 mph. Last week in Sacramento, the California agency formally authorized CEO Jeff Morales to sign an agreement with Amtrak to ask for bids.

California's proposed high-speed train system, which has been mired by controversy and opposition, would eventually link San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the central San Joaquin Valley.

Initial operations are planned to begin by 2022 between Merced and the San Fernando Valley, and construction on the first segment between Madera and Fresno could begin this year.

Earlier this year, Amtrak announced plans to upgrade tracks on its Northeast Corridor connecting Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, and to buy new high-speed train sets for the route's Acela Express (a train set is a locomotive and accompanying passenger cars). The Acela is currently the fastest train in the U.S., with a top speed of about 150 mph and an average of about 70 mph.

"There are significant benefits to the joint procurement," said Frank Vacca, chief program manager for the California rail agency. Combining orders for more trains "gives us a very competitive cost benefit."

The state is not spending any money now to buy trains. Paying for any orders will depend on a funding plan for the complete Merced-San Fernando Valley operating section, according to a report to the rail board.

Vacca said he anticipates issuing the joint request for proposals from train manufacturers sometime this fall, with bids due in February. Once a winning bidder is chosen, the first orders could be placed by next summer, Vacca told the board.

Vacca said the state's initial request would include about 20 trains needed for the Merced-Los Angeles operating segment. Amtrak leaders said earlier this year that they want 12 trains to increase their Acela Express service, plus 20 more to replace existing Acela equipment in the 2020s.

The state rail agency's 2012 business plan anticipated spending about $871 million for train sets on the Merced-San Fernando Valley segment. For 20 trains, that works out to about $43.5 million apiece. Earlier this year, the authority said it's looking for train sets capable of carrying 450 to 500 passengers on each 656-foot-long train.

Unlike conventional freight or passenger trains that use locomotives to push or pull a string of unpowered cars, California and Amtrak are looking for "electric multiple unit" train sets configured with power/control cabs at each end and distributed power to the passenger cars to move the trains. EMU systems are common on high-speed rail lines around the world.

Because there are no true high-speed rail systems in America, "there are no North American manufacturers of high-speed rail equipment," Vacca said. "The market for these train sets is in the European and Asian markets."

Combining California's and Amtrak's orders, Vacca added, will help make it worthwhile for manufacturers who must comply with federal "Buy America" requirements for high-speed rail equipment. "It will require a technology transfer to the U.S., and it will take a period of time for the successful manufacturer to do that technology transfer."

Vacca estimated that it would likely take about 18 months for the winning bidder to design and prepare to build the train sets. Prototype trains could be delivered by December 2018, followed by a year of testing. He added that Amtrak would likely receive the first delivery of trains for commercial service, followed by the state.

Yet to be determined is whether the California agency and Amtrak would buy the train sets outright or enter some sort of lease arrangement that would provide for guaranteed availability of trains plus maintenance.

The cost of a high-speed train set can vary wildly, depending on the requirements and configuration. A 2011 report by consultants for the U.S. Office of the Inspector General reported that the price of high-speed trains on European lines ranged from $30 million to $70 million each. A 2012 report to the British parliament on England's HS2 project estimated the cost of a high-speed train set at the equivalent of about $42 million.


High-speed trains around the world

Among the companies that manufacture high-speed trains (185 mph or faster) around the world, none are in the United States. Companies, their home country and nations where their high-speed trains are in use include:

Alstom (France): France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom

AnsaldoBreda (Italy): Italy, Belgium, Netherlands

Bombardier Transportation (Germany): Germany, Italy, Spain

CNR (China): China

CSR (China): China

Hitachi (Japan): China, Taiwan, Japan

Hyundai Rotem (South Korea): South Korea

Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan): China, Taiwan, Japan

Kinki Sharyo (Japan): Japan

Nippon Sharyo (Japan): China, Taiwan, Japan

Siemens AG (Germany): Germany, China, Netherlands, Spain

Talgo (Spain): Spain, Saudi Arabia.

Source: UIC — International Union of Railways


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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