The Golden State's proposed 1 100 km high speed rail network would be the most expensive and ambitious public works project in California's history. If voters endorse the project in November, the initial phase could open in 2019.

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Mehdi Morshed
Executive Director, California High Speed Rail Authority

DESPITE MANY political setbacks, California is on schedule to open a high speed rail service by the end of the next decade, which will rival the best in Europe or Asia.

Planning and state-wide environmental assessments have already been completed, and concept engineering and project-specific environmental reviews of the final route alignments are now well underway. The programme is on track to develop the project in sufficient detail that it can be put to voters in November this year. That's when a referendum is scheduled to approve the bonds needed to finance about a third of the cost.

Work on the project so far has been led by a small core team at the California High Speed Rail Authority, supported by a wide range of consultants with extensive US and international experience in high speed rail development. More than 90 firms have been involved to date, with the major players listed on p152.

The vision and the plan

Chsra was established by the state legislature in 1997, with a mandate to study the potential for high speed rail and develop plans for a putative network. In the ensuing decade, the authority hired a programme management consulting team to conduct a feasibility study, steered the proposed system through the initial environmental and regulatory reviews and prepared an initial business plan. Despite changes in political control of the state and several fiscal crises, the project remained alive, with continued official support.

Today, we have a detailed proposal to develop a network stretching more than 1 100 km, serving the major metropolitan markets of San Francisco, Sacramento, the Central Valley cities, Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire and San Diego. This would be the USA's first railway capable of commercial speeds up to 355 km/h, comparable to the best high speed lines in Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The business plan envisages a mix of 172 express, semi-express, suburban express, local and regional trains each day, linking stations in 26 Californian cities.

These stations are intended to be state-of-the-art facilities, with comfortable, modern, inviting concourses and waiting areas plus 400 m long platforms providing level boarding. Both the stations and the rights-of-way will be closely co-ordinated with local and regional transit services. As with such investments around the world, we expect the high speed line to stimulate a great deal of development, generating billions of dollars of economic activity for the state and more than 450 000 new jobs.

This network is estimated to cost over $40bn to construct, which would make it the state's largest ever public works project. Chsra and its consultants forecast that high speed trains will be carrying between 86 million and 117 million passengers a year by 2030. By the same date, the completed network is expected to generate annual operating revenues between $2·6bn and $3·9bn. It would operate without public subsidy, with revenues covering all operating expenses and still yielding a surplus that could help pay down the debt used to finance construction.

The railway is not expected to be a large state bureaucracy; in fact, most of the design, financing, construction and operation will take place in the private sector. Only a third of the project would be funded by the planned state bond issue, with the rest coming from federal grants and private investors. We envisage that a consortium of private companies would be selected through an international competition to part-finance, ?design, build and operate the network.

Aside from the considerable economic stimulus, we believe that high speed rail will also generate substantial environmental benefits. According to the programme-level environmental study that has already been approved, nearly 5 000 km of additional highway lanes and five new airport runways would have to be constructed to accommodate the state's expected population and travel growth, if the high speed rail network were not built. That is the equivalent of doubling the main highway between each city served by the network, plus adding two complete international airports.

The report also found that the rail network would take more than 60 million car passengers off the roads per year, with the attendant energy and environmental benefits, not to mention the hundreds of lives saved in avoiding road accidents. It would save an estimated 22 million barrels of oil annually, contributing significantly to the state's energy security and greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Historic milestones despite delays

Whilst there has been some delay over the past decade, this has mostly been due to the sporadic funding that the authority has received, reflecting some of the often-severe fiscal crises in the Golden State. For example, the programme-level environmental assessment work had to be suspended from late 2001 until 2003 because of a funding shortage.

Despite these delays, the environmental report was completed in November 2005 after five years of conceptual engineering and study. In the same month, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Record of Decision in partnership with the Authority (a legal filing known in the USA as Environmental Impact Report/Federal Tier-1 Environmental Impact Statement), which was the first ever such decision for a US high speed rail project.

Despite the interruptions, the total cost of the initial phase was just $20m, which was 25% lower than our 2000 estimate. The high quality of work was such that not a single legal challenge was filed against the project, despite its state-wide impact and unprecedented technical complexity.

In 2005 Chsra also prepared and released the system implementation plan, a blueprint for building the high speed rail network. This lays out the overall strategy for design, construction and operation, including organisation development, the contracting methods and processes, selection of the train technology, project phasing and even the staging of construction work.

The business plan for building and operating the service was also developed during 2005, providing a multi-year schedule for all necessary activities. This included a financing plan, identifying annual expenditures without committing to any particular sources of funding, although it was determined that state budget appropriations would be a legitimate source. The funding scheme currently envisages that roughly a third of the estimated $40bn would come from the federal government sources, a third from state funds and the remainder from private investors.

Last year we identified a preferred alignment linking the Bay Area and the Central Valley, undertaking the required additional environmental study and public consultation process. We hope that a Record of Decision can reached this spring.

With sufficient funding identified, we anticipate that the project will be ready to proceed to design-and-build contracts in about two years' time.

Next steps

In order to get any major infrastructure project built, there needs to be a broad consensus among the general public, special interest groups and various public and private agencies. That consensus building will continue in earnest this year, as the authority develops its financial plan. This is needed to authorise a $10bn bond issue that would provide much of the state's share of the total funding package.

There are many fundamental issues over which it will be essential to reach agreement. The regional preliminary engineering environmental study process is one of our major tools in dealing with these challenges. Progress to date has been encouraging; there is an overall consensus that a high speed network should be built and also on the general alignment. The next step in the development process will be to refine the planning and environmental assessments for a more specific alignment for each segment of the route. We envisage that the legal processes to safeguard the rights-of-way will begin early in 2008

In addition, we will be working closely with various safety regulators, as this will be the fastest train service ever contemplated in North America. Working with the industry and the regulators, we need to develop a technical approach that takes advantage of international experience while adapting it to US operating conditions and regulations. Regional transit authorities and freight operators must be involved where there will be shared use of corridors. And all of this must culminate in state and federal regulatory approval before the project can proceed to construction.

Essential to the success of this phase is the support of political and civic leaders, and thus far the record has been encouraging. For the past nine years California had two governors who initially opposed the project, but became supporters following further investigation and involvement. Similarly, lukewarm legislative support for high-speed rail in California has steadily improved during the past decade. Today, there is the broadest support for the project ever.

While many challenges to California's and America's first world-class high-speed rail service have been met, there are many more hurdles yet to overcome. Yet the prospect for the California High Speed Rail Project becoming a reality has never been brighter, and the economic and environmental case never better.

  • CAPTION: Computer image of a typical station, showing the 400 m long platforms to provide level boarding directly onto the train. The stations will be designed to accommodate local and regional rail services as well as high speed trains.
  • CAPTION: The California High Speed Rail network would comprise more than 1 100 route-km, linking all of the state's major metropolitan areas.
  • CAPTION: At present the only inter-city rail service between northern and southern California is provided by Amtrak's daily Seattle - Los Angeles Coast Starlight, seen here at Santa Barbara on February 9.
  • CAPTION: Chsra identified the Pacheco Pass alignment as its preferred link between central and northern California, because it avoids congested metropolitan and environmentally-sensitive areas.

Key members of consultant team

Programme management: PB Americas (lead), Systra, Cordoba
Financial plan: IMG, Lehman Brothers
Ridership Forecasting: Cambridge Systematics
Visual Simulations: NC3D
Preliminary Design and Environmental Assessment:
Sacramento - Fresno: DMJM + Harris (lead)
Fresno - Palmdale: URS (lead)/Hatch Mott MacDonald/Arup (joint venture)
Palmdale - Los Angeles: Hatch Mott MacDonald (lead)/URS/Arup (joint venture)
Los Angeles - Anaheim: STV (lead)
Los Angeles - San Diego: HNTB (lead)
Bay Area to Central Valley: yet to be assigned
Programme management oversight: Jacobs-Carter-Burgess