California High-Speed Rail Authority Closer to Transforming Vision into Reality

By Micah Wilcox | 6/3/2024

2023-2024 Executive Fellow
California High-Speed Rail Authority

For the California High-Speed Rail Authority, continued milestones further bolster construction of the nation’s first 220-mph high-speed rail system.

Progress has been rewarded in recent months when in December, the Biden-Harris Administration awarded the Authority its largest ever grant, nearly $3.1 billion from the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program to advance work on the Authority’s early operating segment, a 171-mile two-track, fully electrified system between Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

Achievements in 2024 show no signs of letting up. The past few months have seen the Authority initiate a trainset procurement, release design concepts for four stations, achieve new construction milestones in the Central Valley as well as in Northern and Southern California, all while creating positive economic and sustainability impacts right now.

Progress achieved following the federal government’s endorsement of the project showcases a commitment to the goal of commencing service in the Central Valley between 2030 and 2033, and beyond that, ultimately connecting passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours.

A rendering of the plaza outside the Merced Station. The station will serve as a multimodal rail hub, acting as the Authority’s temporary northern terminus.

Part of the grant is going toward the purchase of six electric trains, design and construction of the Fresno station, final design and right-of-way acquisition for the Merced and Bakersfield extensions, and construction in the Central Valley.

At the Authority’s April Board of Directors meeting, the Board took action to acquire those trainsets, unanimously approving the release of an RFP to procure high-speed trainsets. This vote followed the January release of a shortlist that included two firms: Alstom Transportation, Inc., and Siemens Mobility, Inc.

These firms have until the fall to submit their proposals, with the hope of awarding a contract by year’s end. This contract will fund four trains for passenger operation on the initial operating segment between Merced and Bakersfield, as well as two prototype trainsets to support testing and trial running. All six trainsets will be capable of operating at 220 mph and will test at up to 242 mph.

Trainset Interior Mock-Ups, Station Renderings
A physical mock-up of preliminary interior designs. Different seating configurations are visible through the front.

As the Authority awaits Alstom Transportation and Siemens Mobility’s proposals, board members, stakeholders, and members of the public had the opportunity to tour a full-sized, white plywood mockup of the trainsets’ interior design concept, including different seating configurations and a family area geared toward young children.

The feedback received in focus groups from federal, state, and local officials, as well as community partners like students and disability rights advocates, has been incorporated into formal design requirements included in the RFP. Members of the public will also have another chance to interact with the mockups in July at the California State Fair in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, 3D models of the Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield stations were present alongside the trainset interior mockup at the Authority’s February 29 board meeting.

High-speed rail station design has also recently been showcased in the Central Valley—with community engagement and input helping lead the design process. The Authority held four open houses this spring, with residents of the future high-speed rail station communities of Bakersfield, Hanford, Fresno, and Merced offering feedback and weighing in on new renderings and design concepts.

Advancing Construction

The Authority has 119 miles of active construction and more than 25 active construction sites in the Central Valley, with 17 structures completed since 2023. In addition, work is progressing on 52 miles of advance design necessary to bring electrified high-speed rail into downtown Merced and Bakersfield.

Within the 119 miles of construction, the Authority has made significant progress.

Construction Package 4 (CP 4), a 22.5-mile stretch of southernmost active construction from the Tulare-Kern County Line to Poplar Avenue in Kern County has progressed, with civil construction, right of way, and utility design and construction substantially complete. With all that ready, the Authority is on course to advance design for track and systems work.

A worker ascends construction on the Grade Separation 26 on the Central Avenue Grade Separation project.

Construction Packages 2-3 (65 miles from Fresno to the Tulare-Kern County line) and Construction Package 1 (32 miles from Avenue 19 in Madera County to East American Avenue in Fresno County) are set to be completed in 2026.

As for the rest of the early operating segment, the Authority has completed the draft configuration footprint, or 30 percent design for the remaining 52 miles, with utility relocation design and right of way activities well underway.

Outside the Central Valley, two projects the Authority has helped fund are nearing completion. One is the electrification of 51 miles of track between San Jose and San Francisco, service for which will launch in September 2024.

The other is the Rosecrans/Marquardt Grade Separation Project in Santa Fe Springs, which aims to eliminate an at-grade railroad crossing deemed by the California Public Utilities Commission to be among the state’s most dangerous. The Rosecrans Avenue Bridge opened in 2024, with the entire project set to be finished in 2025.

With the Authority set to share the electrified Caltrain corridor and the freight and commuter rail corridor in Santa Fe Springs, the near completion of both projects represents another step towards transforming vision into reality.

Route Selection, Environmental Clearances

This summer, the Board of Directors is expected to certify the environmental documents for the 41-mile section between Palmdale and Burbank. Not only will this bring the total miles of environmentally cleared Phase 1 San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim right-of-way up to 463 (out of 494); it also means the contiguous route from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be fully environmentally cleared.

The final section of the Phase 1 Los Angeles to Anaheim line is anticipated to be cleared by the end of 2025.

Economic, Environmental Benefits

The months since the Biden-Harris Administration’s award have demonstrated the extent to which the project is already making a return on investment. In March, the Authority celebrated the creation of more than 13,000 construction jobs, with more than 70 percent of those jobs going to Central Valley residents. This announcement came on the heels of our release of economic data showing the project generated $18 billion in total economic activity to date, with $7 billion created in direct labor income earned by workers on the project.

Since the end of 2023, the Authority also recognized the 11th and 12th student cohorts who completed its Central Valley Training Center’s 12-week, pre-apprenticeship program located in the city of Selma in California’s Central Valley. To date, 192 participants have completed the program.

Sustainability is also at the core of why a high-speed, electrified rail system voted for by Californians. It is a critical component of an economically dynamic and a carbon-neutral transportation future. California high-speed trains, running on renewable energy, will massively reduce transportation emissions by offering drivers a faster alternative between California cities and strongly competing with carbon intensive short flights between the Bay Area and Southern California.

Not only will the project help California meet its emissions goals and fight climate change, eventually reducing CO2 emissions by up to 2.1 million metric tons annually, but by taking cars off freeways it will also noticeably improve air quality in disadvantaged regions including the Central Valley.

But the benefits don’t only start with operation—the Authority is also building the system sustainably.

The program has thus committed the system to be net-zero carbon, not just in operations but the construction phase as well. Policies and practices have reduced or avoided more equivalent emissions in the Central Valley than expected in the whole 119 miles currently under construction. This is possible through efficient equipment mandates, tree plantings, a more than 95 percent waste recycling rate, and habitat preservation and conservation.

2024 and Beyond

The months since the Authority received nearly $3.1 billion from the Biden-Harris Administration have been a time of rapid advancement towards the goal of operational high-speed rail service. The federal commitment of funding for the construction and advanced design necessary to complete the early operating segment serve as a strong endorsement of the Authority’s vision.

The Authority remains active and aggressive in moving the project forward while actively pursuing additional funding necessary to completing the work and the entire Phase 1 route California voters approved through Proposition 1A in 2008.

The accomplishments in 2024 so far are proof of that commitment and show the program’s intent to further close the gap between plan and implementation.