The California High Speed Rail project will begin operations in the Central Valley by 2028, joining Merced to Bakersfield. Credit: Ferrovial.
The California High Speed Rail project will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours at a speed of about 350km/h (220mph) by 2033. Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority / WikiCommons.
The high-speed rail network will cover a total distance of 1,287km with up to 24 stations. Credit: Shannon1 / WikiCommons.

The US has looked enviously at the development of high-speed rail routes elsewhere in the world, particularly Japan. The country has one of the highest rates of private car ownership and some of the busiest roads in the world and it came to realise, perhaps late, that alternative forms of transport would be needed to cope with the continued demand for fast and efficient long-distance and short-distance journeys.

In April 2009, the US Federal Government, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009), committed $8bn as an initial investment and $1bn a year for five years to develop high-speed rail projects across ten major corridors.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is the governing body overlooking the project. It broke ground for the California high-speed rail project in Fresno in January 2015. The first 273.6km-long segment in the Central Valley is expected to become operational by 2028.

The project will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours at a speed of about 350km/h (220mph) by 2033. Further, the network will be extended to Sacramento and San Diego, covering a total distance of 1,287km with up to 24 stations.

The California high-speed train project

The government had to upgrade its transport system considering the population growth estimates for California. There were three options: increasing airport capacity, constructing new roads or introducing high-speed train services between major cities. A detailed study showed that high-speed lines are economically, environmentally and socially profitable, and one was therefore proposed in 2000.

The California high-speed train project is the first high-speed train system to be implemented in the US. After more than a decade, the project received the state voters’ approval in November 2008 through Proposition 1A for Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act that authorises $9.95bn in bonds to establish a clean and efficient high-speed train service linking Southern California, Sacramento San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The act also procures $950m to finance capital improvements to commuter and intercity rail and local transit lines to serve the high-speed train system. An implementation plan approved in August 2005 estimated that it would take eight to 11 years.

The decision to start the project was made in 2011, after detailed environmental studies and public opinion gathering, despite project proposal was made in way back in 2000. An initial funding bill for construction of a 209km stretch of the project was signed in July 2012.

In September 2012, an 104.6km section the project was approved by the US Federal Railroad Administration. The work has been divided into a number of smaller projects.

The 1,287km high-speed train system is estimated to cost $68bn. Only partial state and federal financing have been approved for the project, which includes $2.6bn in state bonds. Federal government is to provide 25% to 33% of construction costs ($10bn to $12bn). Another $4.5bn to $7bn will be generated through P3 (public-private partnership) funding.

California High Speed Rail Authority

The state government of one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, California, decided in 1993 to establish an Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission to develop a framework for the implementation of a high-speed rail network in the state. The group focused on potential for intercity travel; journeys ranging between 161km and 805km, at speeds of more than 200mph (320km/h).

Under the authority which created it, the commission’s first objective was to develop a system connecting the San Francisco Bay area with Los Angeles, and then consider extensions to San Diego and Sacramento.

The authority is building a high-speed rail system in an environmentally responsible method. It has agreed to recycle 100% of all usable concrete and steel, resulting from the destruction of buildings and structures.

California high-speed network engineering study and evaluation

The authority has carried out five evaluations, which comprised a preliminary engineering study of the line between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, the corridor and environmental constraints, a ridership demand and market analysis study, modal cost comparisons and possible economic impact, and financing options.

Three public inquiries were held, and the findings handed over to the High Speed Rail Authority, which is capable of implementing the work needed for the project.

The ability of the state’s highway and airline network to continue to cope with future growth was questioned, and the commission concluded that, while the extreme ends of the proposed route were well-served, intermediate markets such as the cities of Bakersfield and Fresno had less frequent and less competitively priced public transport.

In addition to lowering accident rates, the high-speed rail will reduce the congestion costs that approximate $20bn a year. The rail system is also projected to save $12.7m barrels of oil a year by 2030.

The main project under planning is the San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed line, which could connect the two cities in just two hours and 30 minutes. This express service is expected to average about 170mph during the approximately 724km trip, making it the second-fastest average speed run train in the world after the 174mph TGV-Est Paris to Champagne Express.

The forecast expects 117 million passengers annually by 2030, with a relatively low passenger cost a mile, with a one-way fare of $55.

After the completion of the authority’s June 2000 Business Plan, it hired the consulting firms of national railways from three countries, namely SNCF (French), DE Consult (German) and JARTS (Japan) for peer review.

Integrating California’s transport infrastructure

Residents of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas are also too conscious of other possible major factors that affect existing modes of transport, but from which rail travel is less likely to suffer. The region is prone to dense fog, making travel on the already congested roads even more hazardous.

The area is a well-known earthquake zone, and the promoters of the scheme are keen to point out that it would offer an alternative means of transport in the event of such a natural disaster. Supporters of the campaign to build the high-speed line have said that without it, California could need up to 4,828km of new highway, 60 new airline gates and five more runways at the projected population growth.

The new high-speed rail line would have trains capable of speeds up to 322km/h (200mph). The trains would carry up to 115,000 passengers a day along the 1,287km route.

Consideration is already being given to how the new high-speed line would fit in with other transport systems. Most of the line is expected to be built alongside existing roads and railways and the two-track line will have 20 times the capacity of the neighbouring road, with 20 trains an hour in each direction.

A ruling gradient of 3% is envisaged, which will allow for a comfortable high-speed journey. At certain locations the high-speed line is expected to use viaducts and tunnels, in a similar manner to other high-speed rail projects worldwide.

The electric-powered, high-speed train system would draw electric power from overhead wires connected to the commercial power grid. In braking, it would regenerate electricity back to the grid, conserving power and reducing costs.

California high-speed rolling stock

Even though the final funding was not in place for the project, consideration was given to the types of train that could be developed for the new high-speed line.

Technology will be based on already proven high-speed trains from similar systems in Japan, Germany and France. Each train will be up to 1,300ft-long and capable of carrying 1,300 passengers. A variety of different cars will be included in the formation, such as quiet cars, play areas for younger families, café and bar cars, and possibly even a conference facility. It is expected that 150 intercity trains will operate through the line each day.

The high-speed train will reflect the design of the new Series 500 and 700 Shinkansen trains that operate with a maximum speed of approximately 187mph in Japan and French TGV and AGV (Automotrice Grande Vitesse). Steel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology has been preferred to maglev (magnetic levitation systems) technology.

Signalling and communications

High-speed train traffic control and communications systems are centrally regulated and managed during all hours of operation. These systems monitor and limit the train’s speed, schedule, routing and headway.

A sophisticated signalling and communication system is in the early planning stages. One proposal is to install intrusion alarms on the fencing, which would be linked to a central control system capable of detecting foreign objects on the tracks. In-cab signalling will be capable of automatically stopping trains if necessary.


On 15 November 2007, the authority issued a recommendation that the high-speed rail follow the Pacheco Pass route, rather than the Altamont route as the preferred high-speed train alignment between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. Similarly, the route via Palmdale is selected between the Central Valley and Los Angeles for the rail network.

Contractors involved

A $71.86m contract for providing design and construction oversight for Construction Package 2-3 was awarded to ARCADIS US in August 2014. Construction Package 2-3 involves the widening of more than 96.5km through the Fresno-Tulare-Kern County line.

Chaudhary & Associates, Hernandez, Kroone & Associates, Mark Thomas and Company, O’Dell Engineering and Quad Knopf, were awarded right-of-way engineering and surveying contract.

In 2013, the Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons joint venture (JV) was awarded the $1bn design-build contract for the first 46.6km section between Madera and Fresno. The second 96.5km section was contracted to the Dragados/Flatiron/Shimmick JV in January 2015.

PGH Wong Engineering and Harris & Associates were awarded the project and construction management (PCM) contract for a 48km stretch between Madera and Fresno in January 2013.

Parsons Brinckerhoff consortium was awarded a $700m contract to provide integration, programme delivery, operations and management services. Consortium partners include Network Rail Consulting and LeighFisher.

Jacobs Engineering won a $1.2bn contract to provide design services for the second 96.5km section of the project.

STV was chosen to prepare environmental and engineering documents for the sections between Burbank and Los Angeles as well as Los Angeles and Anaheim. Sener Engineering and SYS Inc, HNTB Corporation, and T Y Lin International are the other regional consultants for the project.

In March 2016, Ferrovial Agroman received a $442m contract from California High-Speed Rail Authority for Construction Package 4 to design and build a section of California high-speed railway in the Central Valley. The contract value also includes $107m for relocation of gas, power and communications networks.

WSP is the rail delivery partner (RDP) for the project being implemented by the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The future

The 209km-long stretch in Central Valley will extend the initial construction to one of the two proposed routes to build an initial operating section (IOS), which initiates operation of the high-speed rail.

Work is underway on two routes, namely Merced to San Fernando Valley and San Jose to Bakersfield, which require estimated investment of $27.2bn and $24.7bn respectively.

The Bay area and the Los Angeles Basin will be connected and metro link in Southern California will be integrated with Caltrain in Bay area. This work will be carried out between 2021 and 2027 at an estimated cost of $20bn.

Existing rail systems will be electrified to make operations flexible for high-speed rails. The project cost is estimated to be $23.9bn.

Two options are proposed in the fifth subdivision; the construction of phase two extensions towards Sacramento and San Diego, or the completion of the full phase one between Downtown San Francisco and Anaheim through Los Angeles.

Construction of the central valley section is expected to create 100,000 jobs over five years. Phase one is expected to create 65,000 direct and indirect jobs on an average.

The High Speed Rail Authority has the job of directing the development and implementation of the system, including funding. Funding will be generated through state bond revenues, federal government funds, and public, private and local funds.

The project will reduce carbon dioxide emission by three million tonnes, divert more than a third of the air travel journeys and about 6% of road journeys. Once built, the system would not require operating subsidies and will generate more than $1bn in annual profits.

Comparatively, the Shinkansen in Japan has approximately 75% of the market in air transportation for trips about 2.5 hours long. In Europe, high-speed rail occupies 50% of traffic of rail journeys under 4.5 hours. If travel time is under two hours, this rises to 90% of the market share.