December 15, 2017

California high-speed edges closer to reality

Written by  Anitra Green
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The first high-speed railway in California and the United States is starting to take shape following ground breaking on the first section two years ago. Anitra Green reports from the headquarters of the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHRSA) in Sacramento on how the project is progressing.

SINCE the ground breaking ceremony for the first high-speed railway (HSR) in the United States two years ago, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has made considerable progress, with construction underway on the first section, despite opposition from a car-loving population. San Francisco - Los Angeles by train in less than three hours looks likely to become reality just 12 years from now.

 

Route 99Under current conditions, it can take between six and 10 hours to drive the 610km from San Francisco to Los Angeles by car, and this is slated to get even longer as California’s population rises from the current 39.5 million to an estimated 50 million by 2050.

By comparison, Amtrak’s daily Coast Starlight takes 12h 10min to complete the 747km trip from Oakland (across the Bay from San Francisco) to Los Angeles following the scenic but sinuous coastal route. Amtrak does offer other services with shorter journey times which combine bus and rail. For example, travelling by train from Oakland to Bakersfield following the corridor of the new high-speed line, and then by bus to Los Angeles takes 8h 40min.

The aim of the new high-speed line is to reduce the journey time between the two centres to 2h 40min non-stop, making it competitive with the 1h 35min flight time. To achieve this, the trains will have a maximum speed of 350km/h and be capable of running at 320km/h for extended periods. Clearly, not all trains will operate non-stop. Initial proposals call for 24 stations along the route, serving all the main centres, but the actual number of stations, and where they will be located, has yet to be finally decided.

The central section linking San Jose in Silicon Valley with the Central Valley line to the north of Bakersfield, is due to open in 2025 at a cost of $US 20.7bn. Priority will then be given to extending the line north to Merced and San Francisco and south to Bakersfield, followed by investment in the Bakersfield - Burbank - Los Angeles - Anaheim section.

Construction is already underway at 15 sites along around 191km of the Central Valley section at a cost of around $US 3bn. At Fresno, the Tuolumne Street flyover is already in use and major work is underway at Golden State Boulevard and the Fresno Trench. One of the biggest projects on the entire line is the 1.5km San Joaquin River Viaduct north of Fresno, where state highway 99 is being re-aligned to pass over the existing Union Pacific tracks and the new high-speed line on a huge pergola structure (pictured). This three-year project is due for completion in summer 2019.

The targeted launch date for the bulk of the network between San Francisco and Merced and Los Angeles and Anaheim is 2029, at an estimated total cost of $US 64.2bn. An opening date has not yet been set for the second phase, when the railway will be extended north from Merced to Sacramento and from Los Angeles to San Diego to create a 1290km network. So far, a total of $US 2.5bn has been invested in the project.

Capital funding for the project comes from federal, state, local and private sources, as well as through the 2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is being made available depending on how quickly different parts of the project develop. CHSRA confirmed on October 2 that it has met the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requirements by fully investing more than $US 2.55bn granted to the state since 2009.

In providing more convenient transport links in this populous state - California is ranked as the sixth largest economy in the world - CHRSA is also looking to create new opportunities for business collaboration and to stimulate job growth, initially in construction and later on with maintenance. Investment in the high-speed railway has already created jobs and generated economic activity in many ways, with contractors hiring workers throughout the state and stimulating other local industries.

A parallel aim is to set a new, greener standard for infrastructure, for example by using 100% renewable energy and recycling of all steel and concrete from demolition and construction, in a bid to support the state’s sustainability policies.

As far as operating the new railway is concerned, the emphasis is on private operation, not state subsidies, as Mr Paul Neal, CHSRA’s commercial director, points out: “We have always had private operators in view, not state-owned. So they have to be able to make a profit.”

In order to prepare for future operation, covering track and infrastructure, stations, maintenance facilities, the high-speed train fleet, and operations, including ticketing and dispatch, DB Engineering and Consulting has been selected as early train operator in an international tender, though the decision still has to be confirmed by CHSRA.

One of the early operator’s tasks will be to determine an optimal timetable covering station stopping patterns and train frequency. “We started without a timetable on purpose; we’re learning as we go, and we want to get it right from the word go,” says Neal. “We will also invest $US 2bn in feeder services and integration with existing systems.”

There are also environmental issues to be considered, he says, so the routing may not be optimal. “There has already been talk of circumventing a national forest (how that will be done is not yet clear, though a tunnel has been mentioned), and there is also the risk of earthquakes to consider.”

High-speed trains will share the same tracks with Caltrain commuter services between San Jose and San Francisco. “Using the Caltrain line will require a lot of adjustment/realignment, but constructing our own viaducts would be hideously expensive,” explains Neal.

As a result, the line is currently being upgraded and electrified. A contract was signed with Balfour Beatty for the electrification of the line in July 2016, but the project only became definitive when financing of $US 647m was finally secured earlier this year.

CHSRA is currently working on its 2018 business plan to follow the current one dating from 2016. A draft has to be published in February 2018 to allow for a 60-day public consultation period before it is submitted to the state legislature by May 1 2018.

The new plan will summarise progress made, including construction underway in the Central Valley, progress on Bookend and Connectivity projects in South and North California and other activities associated with the implementation of the high-speed rail project. It will also present updated forecasts and estimates for ridership, revenue, capital and operating costs, as well as providing updates and refinements to the CHRSA business model for delivering and operating the network.

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