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.