The California High-Speed Rail Authority wants to see which global firms want to bid for the job of building dozens of ultra-fast train sets and developing four maintenance plants for its proposed statewide rail line — including a coveted heavy-maintenance facility that would bring hundreds of permanent jobs to the San Joaquin Valley.
The agency on Thursday issued a request for expressions of interest from manufacturers, in advance of seeking formal bids for a contract to build the all-electric trains. The request comes several months after the agency abandoned efforts to team with Amtrak on buying trains for high-speed passenger lines in California and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Acela route between Boston and Washington, D.C.
In its specifications, the California rail agency says it is looking for trains that are based on high-speed technology that has been proven in at least five years of commercial service at speeds up to 186 mph. The authority wants its trains to be able to carry passengers at up to 220 mph and move them between San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley, in under three hours for a nonstop ride. Each complete train set — a single unit with passenger compartments and control/power cars at each end — would have at least 450 seats and be up to 672 feet long, or longer than two football fields.
“This is a big moment for our program,” said Jeff Morales, the rail authority’s CEO. “The manufacturing of our train sets and the establishing of maintenance facilities will mean more jobs, increased economic benefits and allow for the possible development of a whole new high-speed rail industry here in California.”
The state hopes to hear from interested firms by Oct. 22. If the rail authority’s board gives the go-ahead in November or December, the agency could move forward with soliciting bids by the end of this year or early in 2015. “We anticipate awarding the contract by the end of 2015,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the authority.
Earlier this summer, rail authority chief engineer Frank Vacca said he anticipated the state’s initial order would include 15 train sets. Depending on ridership demand, he added, the order could be expanded. In a statement Thursday, the agency said options could include production of up to 95 train sets in the coming years.
How much will the trains cost? Until manufacturers submit formal bids, that will remain a mystery. No American companies currently build high-speed trains because there are no high-speed rail lines in the U.S. “As part of (this request), we will hear from train set manufacturers on what they think costs might be,” Alley said. “This process allows us to better define a price tag.”
International experience shows the trains won’t be cheap. In 2011, consultants to the U.S. government reported that high-speed trains built for European systems ranged in price from $30 million to $70 million each.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2014 Business Plan estimates a cost of $45 million per train set, based on a presumed purchase of 70 units. The plan anticipates the first order of 15 train sets would enter service by 2022; an additional 35 trains would be added to the fleet by 2027 at a rate of seven each year, by which time the agency hopes to have established service between the Bay Area and the San Fernando Valley. By 2033, when service is projected to take riders between downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles, the agency forecasts having a fleet of 72 train sets at a total cost of about $3.3 billion.
The plan predicts each train would be replaced after 30 years of service, with replacement of the fleet of trains spread out over five-year periods.
While no U.S. firms now build bullet trains, any international firm will have to comply with strict “Buy America” laws that require the trains and nearly all of their components to be manufactured in this country. Among the key global players in the high-speed rail industry are Germany’s Siemens; France’s Alstom; Canada’s Bombardier; Spain’s Talgo; Italy’s AnsaldoBreda; Japan’s Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo, and Korea’s Hyundai Rotem. Chinese train builders also have declared their intention to compete for California’s contract once the rail authority begins seeking bids. Thursday’s request to manufacturers also asks them to detail how they would comply not only with Buy America laws, but also with the state’s “Buy California” provisions.
“Our Buy California rule is going to be strongly encouraged so these trains are, at a bare minimum, going to have to be assembled here in California,” Vacca said this summer. “Those that don’t have plants here, we’re going to very strongly suggest that they build a manufacturing plant here in California.”
Earlier this year, Amtrak and the California rail authority applied to the Federal Railroad Administration for waivers from Buy America regulations to allow each agency to acquire their first two prototype train sets from overseas manufacturers. Those requests, however, appear to be moot now that the two train agencies are going their separate ways on bids. Alley said the state has not determined if it will need to seek a waiver from the FRA for prototypes under this purchase process.
The request for information issued Thursday covers more than just the sleek, streamlined train sets. The agency also wants manufacturers to float their ideas for developing a heavy-maintenance facility and three light-maintenance stations for the trains in the state. Routine washing, cleaning and storage of the train sets would happen at the light-maintenance facilities, but the heavy-maintenance site — which the rail authority has said will be developed somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley — would be where trains would be outfitted and commissioned before entering service and undergo major overhauls.
The heavy-maintenance station has been widely eyed by Valley communities as a potential economic golden goose because of the prospect for at least 1,500 permanent jobs, plus hopes for the station to serve as a magnet for other industries geared toward servicing and supplying the high-speed rail system. Fresno, Madera, Merced and Kern counties each have made pitches to the state in hopes of landing the station.
Alley said the agency anticipates finalizing a site for the heavy-maintenance facility within the next two years.