California and Amtrak cancel joint bids for high-speed trains

The Fresno BeeJune 20, 2014 

An artist's rendition of California's high-speed rail.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SW PARRA — The Fresno Bee

The California High-Speed Rail Authority and Amtrak have canceled a joint bidding process that both agencies hoped would reduce the cost to buy dozens of new trains over the next decade.

The cancellation comes because the specifications of the trains needed for each agency were "just too different" for manufacturers to accommodate under a single contract, said Frank Vacca, chief program manager for the California rail program.

When Amtrak and California issued their request for bids in January, after a year of discussion between the two agencies, "we were hoping that would be possible to leverage joint procurement and establish a national standard for high-speed trains for the U.S.," Vacca said Friday.

But over the course of discussions with nine potential manufacturers in recent weeks, Vacca added, "what came out was the fact that they really were not able to provide a common platform or common train that met both of our needs."

Both Amtrak and California want streamlined, electric-powered trains for their high-speed passenger-rail corridors. But for manufacturers, the devil was in the differences.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority wants passenger trains capable of operating at 220 mph for its proposed statewide rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Amtrak is looking for trains with peak speeds of about 160 mph to operate in its Northeast Corridor, which runs between Boston and Washington, D.C.

While California anticipates building hundreds of miles of new, dedicated rails with a combination of long straightaways and wide-arced curves to accommodate higher speeds, Amtrak is confined to a corridor largely designed and built in the late 19th and early 20th century that includes tighter curves, Vacca said, "and to meet their trip times and optimize the corridor, they required a tilting train."

Amtrak's existing Acela trains now travel up to 150 mph on a short stretch in New England, but the average speed for a 319-mile trip between Philadelphia and Boston, including stops, is about 64 mph.

Amtrak and California each hoped that joining forces on an order of at least 42 trains -- and possibly as many as 50 to 60 trains over the next decade -- would be attractive enough for international manufacturers of high-speed rail equipment to commit to building trains in the U.S. as required by the federal government's Buy America laws. Amtrak and the California rail agency also wanted to leverage an economy of scale that might create a lower price tag for each train set.

However, there are no American companies in the business of building high-speed trains. While high-speed rail lines are in operation in Europe and Asia and are being planned and built in other parts of the world, America currently has no dedicated high-speed rail lines in operation other than the Amtrak Acela service.

High-speed train manufacturers, however, had expressed doubts about the feasibility of building a common train that could be modified to meet the needs of both California and Amtrak. "It became clear to us that we would get sub-optimal solutions as these compromises took place," said Mark Yackmetz, Amtrak's chief of strategic fleet rail initiatives, citing the potential for "serious risks as to schedule and costs."

Amtrak will now seek bids next month from manufacturers for up to 28 new Acela train sets that can begin to roll into service between Boston and Washington by late 2018, Yachmetz said Friday.

Vacca said he expects the California rail agency to re-issue its own request for proposals from manufacturers in October for an initial order of 15 train sets. Depending on ridership demand, the order could expand to as many as 70 trains over the next 15 years, he added.

California wants its trains to be about 660 feet long and able to carry 450 to 500 passengers. Each train set would have a control cab at either end with passenger cars in the middle; two train sets could be linked nose-to-tail to create a quarter-mile-long double train capable of hauling 900 to 1,000 passengers in periods of peak demand.

Vacca said the high-speed rail authority may seek a Federal Railroad Administration waiver from the Buy America rules for two prototype train sets to be assembled overseas to allow for testing while the winning bidder establishes a plant on American soil. Amtrak and the California agency had each submitted waiver requests earlier this year for the joint-purchasing effort.

Until bids come in on a new proposal for California, there's no way of knowing how much the trains will cost, but the first prototypes from any initial order likely wouldn't arrive until about 2018, when initial construction of the new high-speed rail line in the San Joaquin Valley is supposed to be completed. The authority hopes to begin construction this summer on a 29-mile section in Madera and Fresno counties, with later segments reaching south toward Bakersfield.

International experience indicates that such trains aren't going to be cheap. Consultants for the U.S. Office of the Inspector General reported in 2011 that prices of high-speed trains for European lines ranged from $30 million to $70 million apiece. A 2012 report to the British parliament on England's HS2 project estimated the cost of a high-speed train set at about $42 million.

In its 2012 business, plan, the California rail agency anticipated that it would spend about $871 million for trains to launch service between Merced into the San Fernando Valley -- or about $43.5 million per train.

Vacca said he doesn't consider the cancellation of the joint bidding with Amtrak as a setback, and could actually become an advantage. Because of the two agencies' different needs, California "had to make some compromises" in specifications on the project.

"Now we're going to have something much closer to off-the-shelf train sets from manufacturers," he said. "There will be fewer modifications needed to the designs out there today that are operating at 220 mph. The more we can keep it off-the-shelf, the better it is for cost."

The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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