Across Europe and Asia, more than 1,300 trains routinely carry passengers at speeds of 186 mph or faster, and about 400 more are on order.
But none of those trains run on tracks anywhere in the United States, and none of them are being built here, either. Around the world, the high-speed rail industry is dominated by corporate players in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, China, Japan, South Korea and Canada.
So next spring, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority hopes to start the long process of buying rolling stock for its statewide rail system, it might just touch off a bidding frenzy as firms jockey for a contract to build dozens of the sleek, all-electric vehicles. An initial order could be 15 to 20 trains, and the contract could potentially call for as many as 95 trains over the next decade. A hint of the enthusiasm surfaced in late October, when nine manufacturers responded to the rail agency’s request for expressions of interest in building its trains and initial specifications.
Those companies include France’s Alstom; Italy’s AnsaldoBreda; Canada’s Bombardier; China’s CSR Corporation Ltd. and SunGroup/CNR Tangshan; South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem; Japan’s Kawasaki; Germany’s Siemens; and Spain’s Talgo. They — and perhaps others — have their eyes on a lucrative prize.
In its 2014 business plan, the rail authority estimated that it will need to spend $889 million to buy the vehicles it requires for its “initial operating segment” from Merced to Burbank, now planned to start carrying passengers by 2022. By 2028, when the entire Phase 1 of the statewide system is expected to be built out from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles and Anaheim, capital spending for vehicles is anticipated to balloon to about $3.3 billion (in 2013 dollars unadjusted for inflation).
The trains are expected to have a service life of 30 years before they need to be replaced.
Federal law requires that the trains and all of their components be American-made. That means that the company that ultimately wins the contract must establish a manufacturing plant in the U.S., as well as an American parts-supply chain. California also has its own “Buy California” legislation on the books requiring the state rail authority to “make every effort to purchase high-speed train rolling stock and related equipment that are manufactured in California.”
California wants electric train technology that’s been proven with at least five years of commercial service at operating speeds of at least 186 mph. It wants trains that can carry passengers at 220 mph to ultimately make a nonstop trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes. It wants train sets — a single unit of several passenger coaches with control/power cars at each end — with at least 450 seats and up to 672 feet long, or longer than two football fields.
CNR-Tangshan, which is teaming up with SunGroup USA, is likely to market a version of its CRH 380BL trains for the California project. The CRH 380BL, which entered service in 2011, has a top speed of 236 mph. It closely resembles the Velaro high-speed trains built by Siemens, which collaborated with CNR on an earlier generation of train sets for China’s high-speed rail lines.
The two Chinese manufacturers, CNR and CSR, have applied to the Chinese government for approval to merge, according to published reports — potentially providing a combined company to have greater leverage to seek international rail contracts.