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"It's Like Costco": Why Calif. High-Speed Rail is Teaming Up with Amtrak

Friday, January 18, 2013 - 02:28 PM

Rendering of an Amtrak NextGen high-speed rail train

Amtrak and the California High Speed Rail Authority are teaming up to bulk buy rail cars for high-speed rail. "It's like Costco," Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority tells KPCC, "you get better prices."

Morales was visiting Washington, D.C. to get an early start making nice with a new key player in the world of rail megaprojects, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of California, freshly appointed as chair of the House Railroads Sub-Committee. Denham is a known critic of the California high-speed rail project to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco for a cost of $68.4 billion. According to the Fresno Bee, Denham's home town paper, the congressman was originally in favor of the Calif. high-speed rail plan, but has come to be skeptical about revenue and ridership projections.

So one way to for CaHSRA to show it is serious about cost containment is to trot out innovative new savings ideas, like bulk purchasing rail cars. KPCC:

Morales also announced California is partnering with Amtrak to shop for locomotives and passenger cars - what railroad types call "train sets." These "train sets" will be a complete set of cars, and the high-speed version will have the power to run the train embedded in each car.

The type of train California and Amtrak are shopping for will be able to run on the curvy Acela routes in the Northeast and the faster, straighter California line.

This move looks like a smart move for both Amtrak and CaHSRA, assuming there is such a car that can work well on both routes. Amtrak says it only needs trains that reach 150 m.p.h. though the national rail network has explored a top speed of 165 m.p.h along the Northeast Corridor, running test trains in September that many rail fans captured on video. CaHSR trains go much faster: 220 m.p.h.

Amtrak said in a release:

"Due to the consistently strong and record setting NEC ridership over the past 10 years, Amtrak needs new and additional HSR equipment. The Amtrak plan envisions an initial acquisition of up to 12 new HSR train sets to supplement current Acela Express service and add seating capacity in the near term. Then, Amtrak would look to replace the 20 current Acela train sets in the early 2020s. California plans a first order of 27 HSR train sets.

(...)

"In addition, the preferred train set has Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) power distribution among all cars, operates bi-directionally with a cab car on each end that allows for passenger occupancy and has a seating capacity of 400 to 600 passengers.  CHSRA is seeking a HSR train set able to operate up to 220 mph and has Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) power distribution among all cars, operates bi-directionally with a cab on each end that allows for passenger occupancy that has a seating capacity of 450 to 500 passengers per 656 feet train set."

All that is to say, they're in the market for a specific kind of train, but one that could serve them both just fine based on what each agency needs. We'll keep an eye on the Costco approach to high-speed train procurement and watch how much, if at all, partnership moves like this one can sway cost skeptics like Denham.

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