Amtrak and the California High Speed Rail Authority are joining forces this coming week to begin the process of ordering up to 62 sets of high-speed trains for use in both the Northeast Corridor and in the Golden State. Thirty-two of the train sets would be earmarked for the NEC, for use at speeds up to 160 mph, and the others for California.
As of now, the plan is to announce on Thursday, January 17, a request for information (RFI) to get input from builders of such trains, almost all of them headquartered in Europe and Asia. Amtrak President Joe Boardman said earlier this week that Amtrak expects to put the project up for bids by the end of this year.
The surprise in all this is the partnership between Amtrak and CHSRA. The common denominator between the two organizations is Frank Vacca, who left as Amtrak’s chief engineer last October to become the California organization’s chief program manager, effectively managing the build out of the new bullet train line between the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. With his ties to Amtrak's Boardman, Vacca is believed to be instrumental in getting Amtrak and CHSRA together to make a combined purchase.
Obviously, the two organizations hope to achieve economies of scale by combining their orders. Amtrak’s new train sets would be limited to 160 mph because of safety factors, including intermingling with far slower freight and commuter trains, and the loss of capacity created by overtakes of slower trains at speeds above 160. But the equipment can possibly be configured to run at higher speeds. California has said its trains would operate at up to 220 mph. Amtrak currently limits its Acela Express trains to 135 mph except for two 150 mph sections in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where modern, constant-tension catenary is in place. A major rebuilding of a 24-mile segment between New Brunswick and Trenton, N.J., is expected to permit 160 mph speeds by 2017.
A drawback of the existing 20 Acela train sets, delivered more than a dozen years ago by Bombardier and Alstom is that they weigh significantly more than high-speed trains in other countries, due to Federal Railroad Administration rules aimed at making them more crashworthy. In fact, some experts question whether it is possible to achieve 220 mph speeds given the weight of this equipment. Amtrak has not formally requested that FRA modify its rules, and it is not likely that FRA will do so before the bidding process begins.
The request for information process is a preliminary step to actually ordering equipment. Amtrak and CHSRA will invite builders to talk with them, explain the state of the art for such train sets, define critical engineering issues, and discuss the possible cost. This week, Amtrak had this to say about the RFI: “In considering options for this equipment, Amtrak will be assessing how high-speed equipment technology has evolved since present Acela equipment was built, how modern equipment can provide an equivalent or better level of safety while also meeting business needs, and opportunities to use this equipment acquisition to serve as a catalyst to encourage expanded domestic manufacturing of high value modern technology.”
The Acela equipment has proven a powerful revenue source for Amtrak in recent years. In fiscal 2012, which ended last September 30, Acela service generated $510 million in sales, or almost one-fourth of all Amtrak revenues. Moreover, after deducting fully allocated costs, they contributed $179 million toward Northeast Corridor capital improvements. Therefore, either expanding their size or ordering new-generation train sets became a top priority in 2012. When it was discovered that the plan to add two coaches to each of the existing train sets would be prohibitively expensive—imagine trying to replicate a 1999 model automobile—Amtrak moved up its plan to order new train sets and increase the number of those train sets from 22 to 32. The present Acela train sets would continue in service until approximately 2025, according to Amtrak planning documents. The new train sets would allow Amtrak to begin half-hour instead of hourly headways between New York and Washington.
For the California High Speed Rail Authority, the equipment-buying process being initiated is the most visible sign yet that the controversial project will actually come into being. Last summer the California legislature approved financing for the first 130 miles, between Madera and Bakersfield in the Central Valley, along with funds to electrify the Caltrains commuter territory between San Francisco and San Jose and make improvements on Metrolink rights of way it will use in the Los Angeles area. Construction in the valley could begin this summer. The political perils of this undertaking became easier in 2012 when the authority “rescoped” the project and knocked out $30 billion in estimated costs.—Fred W. Frailey