Featured Project: California High Speed Rail Program

The California High-Speed Rail Program has been in the news lately, garnering attention from both proponents and critics of the forthcoming project. At Eiffel Trading, this project has definitely piqued our interest, and we wanted to learn more, so we reached out to Scott Jarvis, Chief Engineer at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, to get the inside scoop. Mr. Jarvis has worked with the Authority for over three years. Prior to that, he spent over 26 years with the California Department of Transportation working in several project delivery functions with an emphasis on construction and project management. He was kind enough to answer some interview questions we had regarding this project. The interview can be found below.

1. Can you give us a brief overview of this project’s major players, the project duration, and project value?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) is a state agency responsible for planning, designing, building and operating the first high-speed rail in the nation. Phase 1 of the high-speed rail program, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, is expected to be complete by 2029, with the first passenger service from the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley operational by 2025. The capital cost estimate for Phase 1 is $64.2 billion, according to the Authority’s 2016 Business plan.[i]

2. How would you describe where you are in the process of starting construction on the high-speed rail?

Construction on high-speed rail in California is happening. Right now, a massive design-build program, valued at approximately $3 billion, is underway in California’s Central Valley to build a portion of the civil infrastructure necessary to deliver a high-speed rail line connecting the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley. With multiple active construction sites and approximately 119 miles under construction, the nation’s first high-speed rail system is being built.[ii]

3. What’s the soonest you believe people could begin using the rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles?

Initial passenger service from the Silicon Valley (San Jose) to the Central Valley (just north of Bakersfield) is expected to be operational in 2025. The Authority’s goal is to start service on the full, Phase 1 system (which will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim) in 2029.

4. Which machines, equipment, and materials will be necessary to make this project possible?

To complete the civil works of the system, there will be a need for a wide variety of machines and equipment. From simple hand tools, air compressors, backhoes, and cranes to the tunnel boring machines that will help construct the many miles of tunneling.

Many different types of materials will be needed as well that include: embankment materials; the sand, cement and reinforcing steel to construct the viaducts; the glass and structural steel for the stations such as at Artic and Transbay; the steel for the track and the rock for the ballast; lighting for signals and at grade crossings; and the miles of overhead power wire.

5. What do you think makes this project innovative in comparison to other projects of its kind? It’s the first high-speed rail project in the U.S., but what distinguishes it from similar projects in countries like Japan?

Our system is different from other existing systems, such as Japanese high-speed rail, because in addition to constructing a first-of-its-kind system in the country, the way that it is being built is also unique. Most state contracts in California are design-bid-build, whereas the high-speed rail contracts for civil infrastructure are design-build. By taking this new approach, critical tasks – including environmental permitting, right-of-way acquisition, design and construction – can be performed concurrently, so that the overall project can be delivered much sooner. In addition, design-build contracts bring in outside industry experts, so they naturally encourage new and innovative ideas as designers and builders compete for the job.

6. Do you think the success of this project will influence similar projects in other parts of the country?

Yes. Although there are several other high-speed rail programs currently underway in the U.S., they do not match the scope of our program. Bringing high-speed rail to California is truly a transformative investment in the future of the state. High-speed rail will result in a dramatic change in how people travel throughout the state, create new access and connections and will shape and revitalize cities and communities. As the first project of its kind in the U.S., it will set the bar for the rest of the country when it comes to high-speed rail development and operations.

7. What is the biggest challenge to overcome with this project? Do you anticipate any unforeseen challenges, access issues, or aggressive scheduling issues?

The biggest challenge of the project is its size. This is the largest infrastructure project in the United States with a lot of moving parts. In addition, similar to many other major infrastructure programs in California and the U.S., the high-speed rail program has also been seen as somewhat controversial among certain political or special interest groups. The Authority is confident the program can and will be completed within the time frame and cost estimates laid out in the 2016 Business Plan.[iii]

8. What notable safety procedures will be in place once the project begins?

Positive Train Control (PTC), an Early Earthquake Detection System (EEDS), grade separation, quad gates and intrusion barriers.[iv]

9. What are the economic impacts you expect this project to have in California?

For the first time, all of California’s population and economic centers will be tied together with a modern, clean and efficient transportation system. California’s high-speed rail system will spur economic development, enhance environmental and energy goals, create near and long-term employment, improve mobility and save money over the coming decades. Californians began to see these benefits in 2014, when initial construction began and provided a much needed economic boost to the Central Valley. It is estimated that this project will generate more than 3,500 permanent jobs around the state as high-speed rail opens and expands service from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles Basin.  Additionally, when the system is operational, goods will move more freely from our ports to vital markets as freight rail traffic is alleviated. California’s workers, who waste too much time and money in cars and at airports, will spend their time more productively.[v]

10. Once the rail is completed, how many people do you forecast will use it to travel between LA and San Francisco?

Phase 1, which will operate between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is expected to be fully operational in 2029.[vi]

11. What would you like to share with critics of the project? How do you think it will exceed people’s expectations?

The major thing we would like to share about the program to our critics is that it’s happening. There are currently more than 119 miles of construction underway in the Central Valley. The Authority has made a fundamental transition from being a planning organization to a program-delivery organization. We are now positioned to deliver the program in a logical and practical way. We remain focused on three fundamental objectives:

  • Initiate high-speed rail passenger service as soon as possible
  • Make strategic, concurrent investments throughout the system that will be linked together over time; and
  • Position ourselves to construct additional segments as funding becomes available.
High-Speed Rail will transform California’s economy, improve mobility and advance sustainability. An integrated high‐speed and intercity passenger rail network with local transportation options will increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

Transportation is vitally important to the quality of people’s lives. It is an activity that is easy for us to take advantage of, but does not occur in an effective manner unless a lot of planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations work goes into the endeavor.  With limited resources, such as funding, land availability, skilled labor and construction materials, and with an ever-increasing population, it is important for our nation to be continually looking forward to plan for transportation improvements that balance those limited resources while finding progressive solutions so that people can travel in a safe, reliable and efficient manner.  Our quality of life and future economy depend upon it.

12. Anything else you’d like to share?

This is a really exciting time for us. Construction is underway on more than 119 miles in the Central Valley, with more than $3 billion in construction contracts executed.

  • We are advancing construction on the backbone of the system in the Central Valley
  • We are employing over 260 certified small businesses and putting Californians to work
  • We expect to have all project sections – from San Francisco to LA – environmentally cleared by the end of 2017.
  • We have also started ramping up our station planning efforts across the state with many of our regional partners. We currently have seven (7) station planning agreements in place (Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, Gilroy, Palmdale, Burbank and San Jose), with more cities expected to come on board in the future. The Authority provides station-area funds to help partner cities initiate planning efforts for high-speed rail stations in their communities. Each station planning agreement allows both parties to study ways to promote economic development, encourage station area development and enhance multimodal connections between the station and the City.
Thanks to Scott Jarvis for participating in this Project Spotlight interview. We’re interested to see how this project progresses in the coming years.
[i] For more information, see History of High-Speed Rail (page 4) and the Executive Summary (pages 9-14), here: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/about/business_plans/2016_BusinessPlan.pdf; additional background on the Authority can be found on our website, here: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/About/index.html.
[ii] For the latest information on construction, visit www.BuildHSR.ca.gov.
[iii] You can find a list of potential project risks identified in the Business Plan, as well as the measures being taken by the Authority to mitigate those risks, in Section 9: Risk Management (beginning on Page 101).
[iv] You can find additional details about safety here: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/newsroom/fact%20sheets/cahsr_safety_2016.pdf.
[v] For more information on the jobs created by this project, take a look at our latest Small Business and Jobs Report, here: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/Newsroom/reports/2015/2Q_SB_Jobs_Report_FINAL_050715.pdf.
[vi] You can find ridership projections in Section 7: Forecasts and Estimates of the 2016 Business Plan (beginning on Page 81).